In the article, Striving of Negro People written by sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B Dubois, details the black American experience in the 19th and 20th century. He discusses the psychological and sociological impact of trauma and race relations on the black American’s sense of self. It is here that he coins the famous concept, “double consciousness”, which explains that black Americans’ identity is split into several parts and is made up of other people’s perceptions (Bois 1897).
In this paper, I will discuss the meaning of double consciousness, its perpetuation through the media in contemporary society, as well as its attribution to my double consciousness as a black individual.
DuBois defines double consciousness as “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 feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings…” (Bois 1897).
This state of being causes an individual to identify themselves as belonging to one group while simultaneously existing outside of it; therefore, black identifying individuals subconsciously have 2 perspectives–their own self-image coupled with that of the outside world. This creates a conflict within the black American to reconcile both perceptions into a stable self-consciousness, possibly leading to a flawed self-image shaped by the perceptions and treatment of others. This can directly impact actions, behaviors, and life for black individuals who either conform or assimilate the stereotypes, prototypes, and perspectives of mainstream culture and media into their self-schemas.
In a study done on the “Perceived Realism of African-American Portrayals on Television”, Punyanunt-Carter (2008) asked students about their perceptions of African-American television portrayals in relation to occupational roles, negative personality traits, and low achieving status. It was found that television viewers perceived that service or blue-collar occupational roles and negative personality characteristics (i.e. stupid, dishonest, disrespectful, violent, etc.) that African Americans portray on television as true in every day life (Punyanunt-Carter 2008). Overall, the results suggest that television portrayals of African Americans influence viewers and their perceptions of them (Punyanunt-Carter 2008).
This study demonstrates that the media does in fact influence the way that black individuals are viewed. The black individual’s double consciousness comes into effect when one has to be aware of the perceptions of others–as described in the television portrayals–while also understanding that the television portrayals inform them of who they should be. For example, using the study above, seeing black people portrayed as “stupid” or “violent” (Punyanunt-Carter 2008) causes African-Americans to internalize and understand that this is how they are viewed by other ‘Americans’. However, at the same time, also knowing that these characteristics aren’t necessarily real or true of all people within their race. Hence, the double consciousness as black people view themselves from outside (television portrayals) and from within (understanding of self).
As a black woman, I grew up seeing “…the way the media help construct the prototypical Black person…He or she is an entertainer, sports figure, or object of discrimination” (Entman and Rojecki 2007:64).While seeing these images, I believed at a young age that was predominately what black people did for careers. As I got older, I understood that that wasn’t entirely true in everyday life, but it was true for the media. Therefore, I became consciously aware of how black people were viewed as a whole, even though I knew within myself that black people are not all “entertainer (s), sports figure(s), or object(s) of discrimination” (Entman and Rojecki 2007:64). Though, I knew there were people who believed that to be true. From there, I made efforts to ensure that my actions didn’t perpetuate the ideals or preconceived notions that I had seen in the media. I developed this double consciousness at a young age and I am constantly aware of how I am viewed by others, even though I am very much aware of myself.
Overall, the idea of double consciousness–introduced by W.E.B Dubois–has been said to cause two different inner identities for the Black American. This concept has been perpetuated in mainstream culture and television for a very long time and continues to impact black individuals sociologically and psychologically. In this paper, I have discussed the meaning of double consciousness, its perpetuation through television and mainstream media, and its impact on me as a black individual.