August 26, 2015
Striving Against Double Consciousness in 2015

In 1903, the esteemed sociologist and thought leader W.E.B. Du Bois posed a question that still lingers with black and brown people of America today,. In his book, The Souls of Black Folks, he posed the question “How does it feel to be a problem?”. This question appealed to the senses of a burgeoning African American citizenship who faced the reality that to be American and Negro were in direct contrast to each other. To be American, demanded an adherence to White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) values and to be Negro was to hide oneself, abandon one’s culture, and go along to get along. Constantly flailing for self-identity and full acceptance into society hardly matches up with our ideas of an American citizenship, but fast forward 112 years and the American value system that fueled this self-consciousness or “double consciousness” as Du Bois coined it, is alive, well, and now reaches beyond Black Americans to people of color nationwide.

If we consider a fraction of the mental and emotional violence that is visited upon people of color in this nation, it becomes clear how the trauma of a white supremacist value system continues to infect our nation and belittle valuable citizens of this country. Recent comments made by presidential hopeful Donald Trump bring to the forefront discrimination against Mexican Americans while the overwhelming amount of Islamophobia that dominates our airwaves alienates our Muslim brothers and sisters. The devastation that visits Native American reservations and the myth of the “Model Minority” that seeks to isolate Asian Americans from other people of color are just a few examples of the active campaign against non-White people in the U.S. who are constantly being framed as the enemies of an American way of life. Are there ways to reconcile the differences between “American-ness” and non-white people without compromising one’s ancestral heritage? The general consensus is that a knowledge of self enables people to maintain the dignity of their heritage in spite of the dominant culture’s opposition.

The mental fortitude and wealth of support that it takes to stand against a cadre of institutionalized systems of oppression have energized communities of color to create culturally affirming spaces that celebrate the richness of their collective experiences. For example, the Santa Fe Indian School of Santa Fe, New Mexico is a haven for indigenous youths to explore their roots, celebrate their heritage and feast on the confidence endowed by a such an institution. This school operates from a Native-based curriculum that celebrates tradition while simultaneously developing students into young professionals. The Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, Alaska does similar work. To preserve the dignity and uniqueness of their indigenous cultures youth are provided a safe space to express themselves, practice ancestral knowledge, and find companionship with other indigenous people. Institutions such as these recognize that a full knowledge of one’s history contributes greatly to a person’s self-esteem and informs the way that they approach the world. This move towards cultural preservation and reclamation pushes back against the question of being a problem, to being a solution.

When Du Bois posed this question in 1903, the problem he was really pointing towards was America’s unwillingness to expand the definition of what it means to be American. If we move beyond the media’s stereotypes and dominant narrative, we are emboldened to embrace all that we are in full capsulation of our heritage and American citizenship. There is a way to bind this double consciousness into a single identity and and it comes by way of knowing and understanding that the odds are not immediately stacked in our favor, however we have other values and narratives to glean from. As we gather our future leaders together this year, it is with a full understanding and appreciation of one another’s cultural differences and the appreciation of to insert this into our personal definitions of what it means to be an American.

Taylor Webber-Fields is part of Frontline’s 2015 HPJ Fellowship. She is a North Carolina native with family in Fayetteville, NC. She is a graduate of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill class of 2015 with a Bachelor’s of Arts in African, African American and Diaspora Studies. With aspirations of being an educator and motivational speaker, her main interests include race, gender, and class based social justice issues as well as community service and outreach.