Why are you acting white?
This may be a phrase commonly heard by someone who is African American or biracial, to express that the immediate behavior is not the common norm associated with their skin color or ‘race’. ‘Not only does race still objectively suppress African American life chances, but most African Americans still instrumentally use it to build ethnic communities of purpose, meaning solidarity, and group aims.’ (Gregory,1998; Gwaltney, 1993). This statement gives example and justification of just how impactful and prevalent racial identity is even in the present day. For Black people, there is a constant divide between being American and being Black. This duality is what creates the premise for the idea of double consciousness. W.E.B. Du Bois defined double consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk as someone who always has to view themselves through the eyes of others, others being mainstream society. This person will forever feel a sense of ‘twoness’; ‘two souls, two thoughts, two un-reconciled strivings, two warring ideals…’ (p.3). Black people have to have a constant double identity at play because they cannot simply turn off or leave at home a part of who they are. These two sides unfortunately often conflict with one another and this constant disunity within can take a toll on a person, but the tension is further increased by the unreasonable expectation for the divided persons to ‘pick a side.
Society in America is set up in a way that makes ethnicity, skin color, race, and culture a vital and central part of life. Although some may like to believe we live in a post-race society a majority of us know that is certainly not the case. Although it may not be as obvious as it once was racism is certainly still alive and well. Racism is one of the main reasons People of Color have this sense of duality between being American and being Black. The phrase used at the beginning of the paper is an example of how it can be difficult to mix the two sides because Black people are perceived to behave, speak, and even believe a certain way and if you dare to fall outside of the thin lines those presumptions have drawn you are ‘not black enough or ‘trying to act white’ either way you are in the wrong according to social norms. Although this is a difficult balance to maintain it is done every day all day by African Americans because they cannot escape who they are. To have to live life through a double-sided lens constantly monitoring and correcting yourself to match the expectations of the outside world is an exhausting task. It’s more than simply changing the manner in which you speak depending on your audience, it goes deeper, into body language, clothing, the way interaction is perceived, what topics of discussion are off the table, and which morals or values override that of the other side? Because I am Black, I can’t avoid it, and because I am American, I must confront it.’ (Bodnar,1996; Baker &O’Neal, 2001.p.5.) There is little to no place in the daily life of a Black person that is not affected by double consciousness.
For most people in America, it is difficult enough to get your point across correctly in any given circumstance, but this would become even more so difficult if you didn’t know what side you were on. This is the issue with dual identity because although a Black person can be born in America and feel pride or protectiveness or other types of patriotism or solidarity of some sort with this country, they will still always feel the resentment, the bitterness, or the anger towards this country as well for the way they have been and continue to be treated. For some people, this can be an issue that arises at work or any formal setting really where it may seem as though a situation or an action is offensive or triggering and the person has to decide whether or not to speak on it or take action against it. They must consider all the variables; am I overreacting? Did they mean to say it that way? Will this affect my position? Etc.… Sometimes it is a traumatizing experience to have to hold your tongue on an injustice or even to have to be the one to speak out on it. You must always be aware of your position in the room, in the conversation, in the building and act accordingly to maintain your well-being, but then also in a way that does not let down or betray your other half. ‘Identity is often fractured by numerous social identities and social roles within one being but also that these social identities and roles can sometimes be at odds with one another.’ (Lewis, 1993. p.8)
Unfortunately, American society seems to be obsessed with picking sides and in this instance, it is a painful and impossible choice to make. A person’s behaviors or words can be dissected and used against them to force them into choosing aside. To accidentally lean too much in one way or another is to unknowingly state that you are deciding to establish yourself as only that part of who you are. Many times, other Black people will accuse someone of try to assimilate into the white culture if they start to exhibit certain mannerisms or characteristics or speak on a topic that goes against the general culture’s opinion. On the other hand if one leans too far into their Black side, then they are stereotyped and labeled as if to be black means to be against being American. In some communities or social groups, people must pick sides. People who are biracial ae often polarized and the side is often assumed for them based on their physical characteristics and whether or not they look more ‘black’. In some cases, you are not ‘enough’ of either side to blend in or assimilate easily with the communities of either race. Therefore, in this position, one can be left in limbo or forced to prove themselves to be only one side or the other to win the trust of their community and to belong in a sense.
In-class readings such as Kindred by Octavia Butler, I found an abundance of connections between this topic of duality in this story although I thought it to be unlikely. It brings to light that the struggle of double consciousness started long before it was given a name in more recent times. When the main character Dana is continuously sent back into the times of slavery and plantations, she develops a bond with her ancestor Rufus. It seems unthinkable honestly that a Black person from any time period would have a soft spot for a slave owner. ‘I could recall walking along the narrow dirt road that ran past the Weylin house and seeing the house, shadowy in the twilight, boxy and familiar . . . I could recall feeling relief at seeing the house, feeling that I had come home. And having to stop and correct me, remind myself that I was in an alien, dangerous place’ (p.190). Oddly enough she states on more than one occasion that the plantation feels like home. Some might say this is because of all the time she is spending there, but I think it is like a form of Stockholm syndrome that developed in times of slavery but has been passed down for generations.
It could be argued that this is where the double consciousness stems from, since Black people have been in this country, they have had to develop two sides of themselves. One side that is tame and understanding to be able to play along with the white man’s agenda and make it in his world. The other side is angry, but can see clearly through the falsities to remind themselves that no matter what small niceties that maybe given this is not really home. Even in the present-day Black Americans, of course, feel as though this is their home because it is, but despite that ‘at home’ feeling they must always remind themselves that it is not an entirely free environment. They must check to see how many other black people are at the party, what is the noise level of the group of white males in the bar, and what is the diversity rate of the people in the place they plan to visit. Fellow members of the black community provide in their way a certain reality check to those who stray too far to the side of assimilation. Although this is not an enjoyable experience usually and it often causes conflict in the community it does serve a purpose. Although we fight for unity and equality, it is not yet achieved and to think otherwise and act as if it is can be dangerous to a Black American.
The idea that double consciousness stems from the past is also theorized in Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. In the story, the main character has a hyper-empathy syndrome which causes her to be able to feel another person’s pain. This disease is similar in ways to how double-consciousness works. For as long as history can go back dominant cultures project their anger and fear onto the minority culture and they suffer for the pain others are feeling. ‘But if everyone could feel everyone else’s pain, who would torture? Who would cause anyone unnecessary pain?’ (p.115). If white people in America could live a life in the skin of a minority even for a few days it would change the way they see the world. It would put a crack in that lens of white privilege that they cannot seem to look past. The fear of being powerless or less than is an intense feeling, that most people in the dominant culture, who inflict or ignore the pain put on People of Color in this country, have. They think that somehow their insecurities will dissipate or their problems will suddenly relieve themselves if they just put it all on those too oppressed to fight back.
In conclusion, double consciousness is a very real and difficult concept that People of Color have to endure on top of the various other struggles that already come with the color of their skin in our society. This is a condition that has been created by oppression, passed down for generations, and still carries on strong due to the consistent racism, prejudice, and bigotry from the dominant culture. So, if you are a person who believes we live in a post-race society, maybe take into account how many times you’ve witnessed or been involved in a microaggression in the workplace and the Black person in the scenario had to turn the other cheek. Or perhaps ask yourself if race doesn’t matter then why is it that the Black lives matter group exists in the present day? Why would people create a counter group, ‘All Lives Matter to discredit or take away from the severity of the other group if, in fact, we are all equal? These are the tiniest fragments of the true racially oppressive culture Black people must navigate through. Maybe on the surface, we as a country are growing to be more progressive, but the racism still lies beneath. That racism creates a need for the duality in identity for Black people and that is just yet another burden that is put upon them by this society.