“After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,–a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself though the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
~W.E.B. Du Bois (1903)
I think it is very important to deeply consider what we perceive as the standard by which we begin to measure our conceptions and perceptions from. On the one hand, Du Bois is identifying that the so-called ‘white-standard’ which has been arbitrarily set as the objective and thus, has been normalized as what and who the ‘true American’ is, is very problematic for people who do not identify as cisgendered-white-wealthy men. If that is the standard from which we measure from, then people who look and identify as we do will always feel left wanting and inadequate. It is my belief that it is because this standard has been internalized that Black people and other PoC tend not to perceive ourselves and other PoC and Black folks as valuable as we actually are.
This so-called standard is a false standard. In fact it is no standard at all. The cis-gendered-white-wealthy-man is an anomaly and is in reality nothing more than a fabricated ideal of what is presented as the norm. Wealth is not nearly distributed widely enough even among white males to be reckoned as norm even within said group. Furthermore, White people in general are in the minority worldwide, and are quickly becoming the minority in the United States, so by that reckoning they are not the norm either. However, and this was especially true at the time that Du Bois wrote this, that what made the ‘white standard’ the touchstone was the power structure that was in place.
Still true to this day, white men control much of the politics, business, and media which shape our world and our perceptions of it. For example, the ‘scary black male predator,’ which Hillary Clinton is noted for exploiting in speeches is a prime example of this touchstone being put to use. The concept of the scary dark ‘other’ is old and I have traced it back to Ancient Greece and the term ‘barbarian’ which, was used to disparage the Persian people. I have also encountered it studying explorers and colonists when they employed the term ‘savages,’ to describe native indigenous populations. The same meanings those words carried, is carried by the word ‘nigger,’ and are carried by the terms ‘thug’ and ‘criminal.’ The meanings associated with these terms are uncouth, untamed, uncivilized, illiterate, unteachable, lascivious, sexually promiscuous, weak, and feminine, but also hyper-masculine. After mass media emerged within our society, and following the Civil Rights Era the terms ‘thug’ and ‘criminal’ were made synonymous with Black by very clever politicians and during the 80s with the War on Drugs under the Reagan administration, the ‘scary black man trope’ was exploited with a new veracity. The result was the villainization of an entire generation of black men that was so effective that by the end of the 90s and epidemic resulting from the shortage of black men was declared. Most were incarcerated in the rapidly developing Prison Industrial Complex ushered along by the Clinton administration’s 1994 Crime Bill.
During the 80s and 90s, gangsta rap also emerges and becomes a highly profitable venture. One of the clearest, most distinguishable images from gangsta rap is the ‘scary black male predator’ who shatters all the social conventions of American society and makes his own way by feeding his own people poison, killing all who get in his way, is hyper-sexual and masculine, uneducated, and acquiring riches until they end up dead or in prison. However, this is neither how Hip Hop began, nor is it what comprises the vast majority of the artists who wield the skill and participate in the craft. Again, we see something that has been normalized that by no means forms the majority and the questions are how and why?
Dr. Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar, the author of “Hip-Hop Revolution,” equated gangsta rappers with being “modern day minstrels.” A minstrel is the fictitious rendition of a Black person that accentuates and exacerbates the most stereotypical features attributed to Black people for the purposes of humor that began in the 1830s. Essentially what is being done is that the “perception” of Black people is being compared to the ‘standard’ in a very demeaning and dehumanizing manner. This has also been called “Black Face.” Ogbar argues, correctly I think, that when Black males fulfill the role of a gansta rapper that they are in effect putting on Black Face for a primarily white consumer population. To some extent, those acting out these roles like Ice Cube or Master P, are expressing the internalization of the standard. However, much like the earlier minstrels who also were black, it was a means to an end to gain financial security. Whatever the reason, the result has been the perpetuation of the ‘white standard’ and its foil the ‘scary black male predator,’ the ‘criminal,’ and the ‘thug.’
In part, Du Bois was seeking to inform the Black population of this dynamic of the United States culture and to re-empower and re-imbue those most affected with the truth; the ‘white standard’ is a farce, but the power and the impact of it is very real.
Which brings us to what Du Bois is revealing about the “double consciousness,” namely, that because of this standard and the internalization of it we (our people) tend to perceive ourselves from the perspective of the progenitors of the so-called ‘standard.’ Any Black person who has had to seek employment with a white-male owned business, with white-male managers has probably walked into their offices knowing exactly what their worth is and what they are capable of while simultaneously also knowing what their worth and capabilities are perceived as. This contradiction often leads to what has been termed “Code Switching,” i.e., shifting, augmenting, or otherwise concealing the features that are most stereotypically ‘Black.’ For example, the usage of ‘proper English’ in place of the stigmatized although, just as grammatical, African American Vernacular English. This is done to appear closer to the ‘white standard,’ not necessarily to be perceived as more white, per se. Other characteristics may also be augmented such as, dress and body language. The further away from the ‘scary black man trope’ we can get the better; at least, that is how the game is played.
This is merely one example, but the phenomenon can be witnessed throughout the society of the United States. It can also be observed between other groups, such as, between men and women, wherein there are wage-gaps and glass-ceilings. The more masculine a woman can present herself, the more likely she is to be respected in a male dominated world. To complicate matters more, if the woman is Black that is a triple consciousness, and if the Black woman is also Trans that is a quadruple consciousness, and if the Black Trans woman is also poor that is a quintuplet consciousness. The intersectionality of these oppressions and systems of power dynamics are pervasive. The point is that there is no sector of this society, the buses, schools, friendships, stores, traffic, anywhere that is free of this phenomenon. Anywhere and everywhere that a Black person can be in this society where there are also white people the “double-consciousness” also exists.
The importance of Du Bois’s observation is the realization that once the phenomenon is identified and the truth is revealed to people they can then begin to unpack the social fabric of this so-called ‘white standard.’ Today we are in a much different position than in 1903 and we have access to much more information, historical or otherwise that reveals our people did not begin as an enslaved people, and that cis-gendered white males do not comprise the majority of our society, let alone the world. It helps us to begin the process of undoing the internalization of this ‘standard’ by allowing us to see that we can form our own standards. It further helps us to see the folly and the harm of the standards we hold other people to, unjustly. We may even begin to see that some standards need to altogether be laid to rest because of how harmful standards can be in some regards. Having a standard that killing is wrong is probably a good general standard to have. However, having a standard of beauty can be very problematic and hurtful. The difference I believe lies in the attribution of value to people based upon a standard, especially since they have tended to be set at a level or on something that is almost impossible to achieve and is anything but the norm; anything but standard.
A phenomenon that seems to be such a pillar to so many of the harms the people in our society suffer, it begs the question, if a culture shift is what we need to heal so many of these harms, should this not be one of the places we begin our work?