Revisiting Du Bois and the Concept of Double-Consciousness

“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.”

–W.E.B. Du Bois
The Souls of Black Folks

I cannot identify the moment I realized that others saw me as different. I was virtually born into an environment that would hide this realization from me. For me, there was no sense of a “double-consciousness” for the “eyes of others” were the only eyes I possessed. Their vision was my vision, and it is only today that I’ve begun to see how others have seen and continue to see me.

As a child, my ethnic identity was never in question. Although my father was a triqueño from Puerto Rico, it was my mother, a white woman from western Pennsylvania, who raised me. They had divorced before I was five years of age, and my earliest memories aren’t of Puerto Rico, but of living in a small town in Wisconsin. From what I can remember, all the kids in school were white. And despite the Christmas cards my sister and I received from our father in Spanish, we were white too.

But the summer before I entered the third grade, we moved to the city of Erie, Pennsylvania, and my experience, or lack of experience, with ethnicity began to change. My mother began calling me and my sister “spics” as if it were a term of endearment. (The irony that the slur derives from American colonizers who were told by Puerto Ricans that they were able to “spigotty the inglés” was lost on my mother.) As an adult, I was told that we were called that so we wouldn’t be offended if someone else directed the word toward us. I suppose it worked because I never suspected that the term was offensive and openly shared it with my best friend at the time.

On the first day of school during my fifth-grade year, I entered the classroom and was approached by an African American boy who asked me if I was “white or black.” I responded in an offended tone and said “white!” I had apparently not only absorbed the idea that I was white, but also the idea that being called black was an insult. That kid ended up picking on me for the rest of the school year. I can’t blame him.

Throughout the year, my white friends and I would draw swastikas during class without any idea what the symbol stood for. (In this case, the irony of a Puerto Rican drawing swastikas escaped me.) We would tell Polish jokes, even though one friend was Polish. And that Polish friend would always say to me: “Hey José, let’s go steal hubcaps today.” I never knew why that was supposed to be funny, and I doubt if he did either.

That summer, I went with a friend to that boy’s house to swim in his pool. His father looked at us, and then took his son aside to tell him something. When our friend came back, he told us that I wasn’t allowed to swim in the pool, but my white friend could stay.

I would like to say that was the moment I realized that I was seen differently. It would fit the story. But even though I sensed that we both somehow knew what had happened, we just walked home without a word. And I never spoke of it again until I was in my thirties.

But most of my experiences of being “othered” are not so dramatic. And I don’t believe I’ve developed a double-consciousness. Instead, I’ve been given glimpses of myself from the dominant culture’s point of view. Those glimpses aren’t always clear, and oftentimes, I am simply left wondering about purposes and motivations. It is indeed a “peculiar sensation” to be casually reminded that you are a stereotype, or not enough of one. That your actions are not yours, but are predetermined by your ethnicity. That your reactions to others should be limited to the expectations of the dominant society.

And though it’s been over 100 years since the publication of The Souls of Black Folks, I wonder how much of our society still looks upon minorities with “amused contempt and pity.” Pat Buchanan was continuously granted television air time to suggest that Sonia Sotomayor could barely read in English and was essentially given her degree from Princeton (where she graduated at the top of her class). It is assumed and stated openly that Colin Powell, despite his long list of credentials and accomplishments, only supports Obama because he’s black (a question never asked or assumed of white leaders). And when a pizza shop owner picks up the President of the United States as if he were a child, no one bats an eye. (And what would people have said if President Obama had acted offended?)

No one would deny that progress has been made in this country, but there is still work to be done. And that work involves more than pointing fingers at others. It involves carefully examining our own privileges and recognizing when we’ve been given power for simply being white, or male, or heterosexual, or able-bodied, etcetera. It involves standing against those who would defend their privileges and deny power to those born without them. And it involves a refusal to exercise the privilege of silence when the attack is not directed at us.

It is only then, that the “color-line” or any other line will no longer be the problem of the twenty-first century.

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