Op-Ed

The Forgotten Black Theory: Du Bois and the Existence of the Double Consciousness

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Photo courtesy of The Inclusion Solution


Published 07/17/2020 | Reading Time 5 min 56 secs 

By Benjamin Fields, a Ph.D. student in sociology and demography at the University of California, Berkeley

Today, there is a civil rights movement that is possibly the largest in history. It started with protesting police brutality and systematic violence towards Blacks in America but has shifted towards their broader treatment.

One of the leading issues this movement is fighting is the historical marginalization of Black academic voices. 

For example, only 3% of Black professors (combined with Hispanic Americans) in the American collegiate system are Black, and the percentage of professional figureheads in primary and secondary education is low — Black principals represent only 7% in their field. While not comprehensive examples, these are indicating the lack of our placement in positions of power in this so-called integrated American education system.

We also are not represented in the collegiate education complex, having an exceptionally-low college graduation rate with only 12% of graduate students are Black. 

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To be taken as a serious academic and have the legitimacy to speak on educational policy, you must have access and then earn a degree from higher education. 

Historically, one of the most prominent voices in the social sciences was from W.E.B. Du Bois, a Black sociologist. He wrote a popular book, The Souls of Black Folk, which I recently read once again. One thing that stuck out to me from this book was his idea of the double consciousness: Essentially, it’s the idea that African Americans have a two-ness that they experience in everyday life as a byproduct of being in such an oppressive racialized setting. 

As a student who has attended predominantly White schools my entire life, this theory has always been my reality. Whether it was people mocking the foods that people in my ethnic group eat at home or making fun of the way I enunciate certain words, it has existed as a significant piece of my lived-experiences as a Black man. 

As an undergraduate at Cornell University, I recall when I spoke to my professor about this issue. He was very understanding of my ambitions to want to prove Du Bois’ theory empirically. So he offered me the opportunity to do an independent research project on the subject. 

At first, I was just focused on microaggressions and how they impacted Black students’ ability to navigate campus.

My Black peers and I noticed people would cross the street when they saw us, would not sit by us on a full bus, and that it was sometimes hard to find partners in classes.

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These racial encounters drastically affected our college experiences as we did not feel comfortable pursuing some extracurriculars, enrolling in specific courses, or attending many university events.

As I noticed these events happening but recognized that I had methodical mechanisms to circumnavigate this type of racialized environment, I made changes to questions in my thesis; they became more centered around the double consciousness. This involved creating four distinct question-groups: microaggressions, self-initiated engagement, willingness to use resources and intimidation while using resources. This was an attempt to sniff out whether or not Black students were truly facing discriminatory experiences at higher rates and if they affected our engagement or propensity for engagement.

Shockingly to non-Black people, I found that Black students noticed much higher-rates of microaggressions. For example, Black students were 10x more likely to not wear culturally related garments and accessories compared to White students. 

Conversely, for the other questioned-groups, there was no difference on average in percentages between Black or White students. This may seem like an odd finding, but it is evidence of the double consciousness that I predicted.

Consider this. Over time, we have discovered that we cannot be ourselves, or that is, be ‘Black’ in white spaces and succeed. To be clear, this idea of what it is to be ‘Black’ encompasses many things and is quite diverse. 

In my research, I discovered that Black students alter their behavioral changes to fit in, so much so that to the extent it has become a full-blown double consciousness and state of being. This may seem like a stretch, but all of us Black people can relate to as we created a word for it: code-switching. 

We have to perfect our fake laugh for those jokes we don’t find funny, or not being able to wear a silk bonnet or durag in public for fear of being considered ghetto, or not

feel comfortable speaking like we do in our own community for fear of being considered ignorant. 

These characterizations of us based on how we react to things as “Black people” — which is, of course, diverse and not easily able to be stereotyped as having one main behavior trait — have controlled us for so long that we recognized it as a resilient group of people and created an alternate consciousness to navigate it.

Before people crack this idea, I can find equivalents for other groups that are easily understandable: people assuming that all Asian-American students like Math, or that students who appear to be Latinx can’t speak English well, or that all feminine men, or those who don’t fit into western society’s historically-institutionalized ideas of masculinity, are automatically gay or bisexual. Of course, these do not come uncontested as all of these groups of people have to find a way to interact in this racialized American environment without impeding their ability for success.

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For those reading who are not Black, and cannot envision the types of experiences I am contemplating, employ this thought experiment: imagine flying on a plane to a foreign country where the language is different, everyone’s clothing is different, people are staring at you, saying bad things about you, treating you differently; this is what it feels like to be a Black American every day.

Previously, the article has focused on education or academic-related topics; this phenomenon extends to all aspects of life – jobs, shopping, traveling, and more. It is pronounced more in some areas at a minimum and deadly in others. I remember while traveling in a different region of the world, customs agents would treat me horribly as if I was poor and a criminal until I showed an American passport in a luxury passport holder. I bought it at the airport strictly to play into respectability politics, so I wouldn’t miss a flight or be flagged by custom agents as I had countless times before. 

The bad effects of these microaggressive events like people locking cars when you walk by or assuming you can’t actually afford something in the store have negative effects. Think low self-esteem, not being able to feel happy – we can contrast this with the cultural genocide of the indigenous populations in the U.S. and Canada. These people are having their kids sent to acculturation schools to strip them of language, customs, religion, and more; the same thing is happening to Black Americans in an inadvertent way: through social coercion cultural peer pressure.

My grim prediction is that things will not change tangibly for Black Americans. America is a majority White country, and no matter how diverse this nation becomes, it will always be a majority non-Black country, The demographics have changed but not in our favor – other minority groups’ populations have economically risen while ours has stayed relatively consistent over the past century and a half, due in part to racial terror lynchings, mass incarceration, voter suppression, redlining, purposely miseducating Black students, employment discrimination and other sinister tactics. With various racial groups come different priorities, needs and wants; America is technically a democracy, and the minority vote always loses.

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The best we can do for ourselves is to rebuild our own communities and spaces that we can come back to that are completely comfortable. These include social-civic organizations such as the greatness displayed during Black Wall Street golden era. 

With social change coming from our increased advocacy efforts, we will gain schools, libraries, parks, and more to add to our list. 

Not to spoil the solution above, but there are things we can work on within the Black social space to eliminate the amount of trauma that some of brothers and sisters face, critically around the areas of gender and sexual orientation. 

Regardless of how we came to believe in the past how we should treat women or our LGBTQ+ siblings, we have to do some critical reflection as to what they deserve, how they have been mistreated, and how we can move past these as issues. Once this happens, we will be a model to the world on how to build a community!

While we do have to live in a racialized environment and crisscross between our alternative consciousness, there is plenty of space, especially after the upcoming reforms, for us to build a strong community at home and in our neighborhoods that is comfortable and healthy for all Black lives.


Benjamin FieldsBenjaminFields is a Ph.D. student in sociology and demography at the University of California, Berkeley. Currently, his research focuses on health disparities and inequalities in African American and African populations as well as on social-psychological states of mind in education and health. In his free time, he runs mentoring programs for high school and college students who are trying to reach the next level of education. Post-PhD, he plans on becoming a tenured track faculty member and engaging in health and educational consulting as well as continuing his mentoring programs.

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