This article is part of a series of articles entitled The Triple Consciousness of Black Womanhood: A History and Analysis of Black Feminism, The Importance of Intersectionality, & The Trials of Black Girlhood. For the announcement post and (upcoming) list of works cited throughout the article series, click here.
The black unicorn is restless
the black unicorn is unrelenting
the black unicorn is not
– Audre Lorde
I would be remiss if I did not include a note at the beginning of this piece, as it is not in my nature to present a piece of art or thought-processing without any context. I am a black woman, and I find that it would be insincere and disingenuous to write about black womanhood, black feminism, and black girlhood using “they” and “their,” and therefore separating myself from the very group of people I have and will always be a part of. We are often taught in settings of academia that, when writing an essay or long paper, to use the third person, for it is seen as more professional and gives a certain sense of credibility over the use of the first-person. How can I, however, look down on and ignore the use of the first person when writing about black women as I live and breathe as a black woman? It is because of this that this collection of writing will have the use of the first person when talking in regards to black women, and black people as a whole.
I. W.E.B. DuBois, the Issue of the Double Consciousness, and Respectability Politics
In his acclaimed work The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois coins the term “double consciousness” as a way of explaining the difficulties of existing as both black and a citizen within the United States. DuBois explains the double consciousness as “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” and attempts to give voice to the unique perspective of black citizens having to see ourselves as our country does: black first, and then American citizens second (DuBois, 5). He then goes on to explain that:
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is sort of a 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 through 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 [black person] ever feels his twoness, —an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body…to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face (DuBois, 5).
For a black person in this society, being just a person is not possible. The construct of race, more specifically the way in which our society engages with the construct of race and wields whiteness as a weapon, forces those of non-European descent to look at ourselves from the outside in. Because of the pervasiveness of racism on daily, personal, and professional levels, black people are usually overly aware of how our blackness is being perceived in predominantly white spaces. A society that has a history where the mere presence of black bodies can incite both white terror and white violence forces black citizens to constantly evaluate how our presence, appearance, and mannerisms are being perceived by the white majority. It is this type of existence that DuBois is referencing in his explanation of the black double consciousness. Additionally, to claim American patriotism can be seen as denying one’s blackness, and to claim and have pride for one’s blackness outwardly and publicly is seen as denying the Western ideal of putting oneself in close proximity to whiteness and thus, removing oneself from any proximity to blackness. Double consciousness brings this dichotomy to light, and it forces those who operate within it, and also those who uphold the societal structures that make it necessary, to re-evaluate the presence of white dominance in society.
Given the historical context of the time in which Dubois was writing, it is easy to imagine how the idea of a double consciousness was born. The idea of a multi-consciousness was, and possibly still is, necessary for black Americans to operate and survive in a society dominated by whiteness and white supremacy. Double-consciousness, as DuBois explains it, is not an action, but rather a lens, and it is from this lens, that black people may or may not adjust their behavior. Double-consciousness helps black people adjust to our white surroundings; it allows us to survey they environment and act in a manner that is not threatening to white people and also allows us to maximize our opportunities. While using one’s double-conscious may seem to produce positive results, it must be analyzed as to why it is needed and what its seeming necessity teaches black people. A real life instance of double-consciousness at work would be a black student attending a predominantly white institution. As this black student sits in class, already one of very few black students present, the class topic leads to a discussion about a piece of text or media by a prominent black individual. The black student has thoughts on this piece of text or media, and thinks about how, in this predominantly white space, his opinions might be taken as speaking for all black folks or how his comments, in lieu of his skin-tone, might be perceived by his white professor and white classmates. Upon speaking his thoughts, the black student tempers his emotions and polices the language he uses, as to not seem too emotional or angry, therefore invalidating his point, and to not sound ‘too black’ or not educated enough, so that his opinions can be seen as worthy and useful to the class discussion. In the library, the black student shares a joke with a friend, overly aware of how loud he is being and how much attention he is drawing to his black body in a white space. Around campus, the black student is aware of how it may seem to white security officers and fellow classmates if it appears that he is loitering; he worries about whether or not his lack of purpose at the moment, his simply being present, will seem suspicious and cause him to be perceived as an outsider. In every aspect of his existence in this white dominated space, the black student is aware of his blackness and it how may be perceived, and this influences his decisions and actions.
This is the double-consciousness at work. Its presence not only gives white society power to influence the actions and behaviors of black people, but it leads to the presence and prevalence of respectability politics within the black community. Respectability politics is when those of a marginalized group try to police the behavior of other members of their group because of a belief that ‘good’ behavior (as determined by the oppressor) will gain them respect from the oppressive group. Specifically, black people engaging in respectability politics believe that the only way for black people to gain respect and be safe from the dangers of white supremacy — and in turn, white violence — is to act and speak in a manner that is respectable, as deemed by white society’s standards. Respectability politics is the product of both white society gatekeeping what is considered correct and proper behavior of black people and black people’s socialized double-consciousness. This does not mean that double-consciousness, in and off itself, is harmful; it aids in black people’s survival and understanding of a world dominated by white supremacy. It becomes problematic, however, when used to invoke and justify respectability politics. No matter how much a white supremacist society would like to perpetuate the narrative of good behavior equating good treatment, respectability politics will and did never work. Furthermore, if it did, that would still not justify the use of respectability politics. For black people, respectability politics and the perceived need for it is contingent upon the idea that a white supremacist society will respect a black person as long as said black person follows a certain set of mannerisms and behaviors that align themselves with whiteness. This contingency is weak and ill-fated; if a society requires a black person to adhere to certain respectable standards in order to possibly be respected, protected, and not mistreated, then said society never respected that black person to begin with. The danger of respectability politics, also, is that at any moment, white society can change what is deemed as respectable behavior, leaving those who operate within it to be at the mercy of a white supremacist society, even more so than black people who do not abide by respectability politics. There is no winning with respectability politics, only surviving at the moment, and just surviving is not living life at full capacity. While double-consciousness is perhaps still necessary and integral to black people’s survival and lives, respectability politics is not, and this distinction is necessary.
While DuBois’ desires to explore the complexities of being a black American, his analysis falls short because of his lack of exploration into the sexism and (when mixed with racism) the misogynoir, that black women face. This possibly unintentional ignorance is a frequent occurrence within movements for equal rights. Whether it be the Civil Rights Movement for black people or the Women’s Movement for women’s rights and the rise of feminism, one thing remains to be true: black women are usually cast aside because we are neither men nor white. What DuBois’ theory of double consciousness for black Americans (and black people of other nationalities) fails to explore is the way in which race and gender intersect in a way that is specifically unique to only black women. Building upon DuBois’ idea of multiple consciousness and factoring in the added aspect of gender inequality, it must be acknowledged that black women develop, at the bare minimum, a triple consciousness. This triple consciousness is always present, as the intersection of personhood, blackness, and womanhood are never-ending. It must be acknowledged before proceeding, however, that for many black women and femme-presenting people, our existence is more complex than a mere triple consciousness, specifically for queer, trans, disabled, and economically disadvantaged black women, as these are all identities that intersect and intermingle with one another.
To Be Continued…
Parts 2 & 3 of this article series, entitled White Feminism’s War With Intersectionality, can be read here!