Double Consciousness

“To the real question, how does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.”[1] Of course, everyone has problems, but Du Bois’ question “how does it feel to be a problem” is the root from which the phenomena of double consciousness stems. In W.E.B. Du Bois’ book, The Souls of Black Folk, he articulates the identity of African Americans through the lens of his coined term, “double consciousness.” Du Bois describes double consciousness as causing an internal conflict. Additionally, he describes this internal conflict as deriving from African Americans having an identity crisis based on the notion that they view themselves from the perspective of a white world. In addition to these descriptions, double consciousness is also survival technique. It causes an external conflict that could circumstantially become an internal conflict, but not solely due to the view of oneself through a white lens. This is proven through the overwhelming themes of man vs. society and man vs. nature seen in` Henri Tajfel’s social identity theory code switching, and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask.”

 The occurrence of double consciousness is not only due to viewing oneself through a white lens but is also due to the nature of the social identity theory. Henri Tajfel was a Polish social psychologist best known for his theories on social identity. He proposed the social identity theory in 1979 that is defined as “a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership(s).” Double consciousness and the social identity theory have the same ideas suggesting that there is an outside influence on the perception of oneself. The difference is Du Bois’ term double consciousness is more relevant to his time period because it is all in relation to whiteness. The identity given to African Americans in accordance to double consciousness is the idea that one is oneself because they are not white. The identity given to African Americans in accordance to the social identity theory is that one is oneself because they are black. This theory coming decades later proposes that it is a “normal cognitive process to group things together” or to stereotype. Tajfel’s social identity theory then proves that double consciousness causes an external conflict under man vs. nature. African Americans are not only undergoing a conflict of identities as Du Bois suggests, but also a conflict with the natural tendency for humans to categorize and stereotype. 

To continue, double consciousness is defined as “a term describing the internal conflict experienced by subordinated groups in an oppressive society.”[2] However, double consciousness is also an external conflict because it produces encounters with society and nature. An example is Du Bois’ opening question, “how does it feel to be a problem?”.[3] Du Bois feels this is the question white people are inadvertently asking him because he is a black man. The question in itself is an internal conflict because he is looking at himself through a white lens and assuming this is the question, they want to ask. He emphasizes this through a personal anecdote describing his first racial experience in which Du Bois explains his first recognition of himself as a problem. In the schoolhouse, it was a practice to exchange visiting cards. Du Bois vividly remembers a girl who refused his card with a rude glance. This is an internal conflict because now Du Bois evaluates himself as a problem and proposes solutions as to how he will survive as a problem. Additionally, it is internal because this experience kills Du Bois’ desire to tear down the veil that metaphorically prevents white people from seeing black people and fuels his desire to live above it. However, this is also an external conflict with the girl’s human nature. Therefore, in this situation Du Bois is being grouped with a race and stereotyped, something that is natural for humans to do according to Tajfel’s theory. 

Additionally, Du Bois writes, “One ever feels his twoness,  — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”[4]Dubois specifically defines double consciousness as an internal conflict within the African American due to the perception of oneself from a white perspective, however perceiving oneself from a white perspective does not always cause an internal conflict and can cause an external conflict. One example of double consciousness in the context of an external conflict is shown through the survival mechanism of code switching. “Code switching is the process of shifting from one linguistic code to another depending on social context of conversational setting.” It is a conscious, sometimes unconscious, decision that African Americans make in accordance to their surroundings. Therefore, if the decision to code switch is conscious, there is no identity crisis, but rather the using of double consciousness to combat the grouping and stereotyping received from a white world, making it an external conflict with society. 

Another example of double consciousness as an external conflict is seen through Paul Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask.” One could say that double consciousness is described as an internal conflict by Du Bois because it was more applicable to the time period for blacks to be viewing themselves from a white perspective resulting in an identity crisis. However, “We Wear the Mask” is written in 1913, only seven years after the publication of The Souls of Black Folk and still points to double consciousness as causing an external conflict. Dunbar’s is supposed to be describing the identity crisis that Du Bois’ says occurs within African Americans as a result of double consciousness. However, “We Wear the Mask” does not suggest an identity crisis or internal conflict at all. Identity crisis is defined as “a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society.” According to Paul Dunbar’s poem, it is a conscious decision to wear the mask and it is a conscious decision to “only let them see us while we wear the mask” insinuating that the mask comes off and one is recognizable without it. Therefore, those who wear the mask, African Americans, are cognizant of their individual and collective identities but utilize awareness of double consciousness as a survival tactic knowing that concealing part of their identity works in their favor in a white world. This becomes an external conflict with society because double consciousness is being used as a weapon for African Americans to survive in a white world rather than an internal conflict in which they are struggling to find identity. 

In conclusion, double consciousness which can cause an internal conflict based on viewing oneself from the lens of a whiteness also overwhelmingly causes external conflict. Yes, there are times when double consciousness is an internal conflict that creates an identity crisis for African Americans because of the apparent struggle of being black in a white world. However, “We Wear the Mask” written by Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1913 and the emergence of the social identity theory in the 1970s both prove that double consciousness also causes an external conflict with society and nature. 


[2]Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York, Avenel, NJ: Gramercy Books; 1994




Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York, Avenel, NJ: Gramercy Books; 1994


Mcleod, Saul. “Social Identity Theory.” Social Identity Theory | Simply Psychology, January 1, 1970.

Morrison, Carlos D. “Code-Switching.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., May 30, 2017.

One thought on “Double Consciousness”

  1. Dani, I thought your blog post on double consciousness was very interesting. It was especially intriguing how you say that double consciousness is not only due to the viewing of oneself from a white lens, but a black lens as well. I can understand what you are saying especially the point about code switching because black people do not always code switch to fit into a white space. I agree that code switching could be seen as a way for black people to fit into what society has shaped blackness to be.

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