Double Consciousness: Duality of Identity Addressed

Double Consciousness: Duality of Identity Addressed

11.23.10

The concept of double consciousness originally arose for W.E.B. Du Bois as he sought to understand and express the African American experience of identification around the turn of the 20th century. He argued that the African American identity is something simultaneously internal and presented by oneself, and external and perceived by others. Double consciousness is therefore characterized as an awareness of the discrepancy that can exist between the internality and externality of such an identity. Because it relies fundamentally on this self-awareness and awareness of others’ awareness- regardless of specific identities being connected to and expressed- double consciousness can be applied to forms and classifications of identity other than just the African American identity. Du Bois’ notion of double consciousness is therefore not only valuable, but necessary in thinking about the performances of J Finley in terms of gender, racial and sexual identity, Omar Ricks in terms of gender and racial identity, and Couple in the Cage in terms of gender, racial, and class identity.

Double consciousness is useful when thinking about the performance of Omar Ricks because it sheds light on the conflicts between his internal identity and the external perception of his identity. In his piece, Omar presented his internal identity: an African American man who is a scholar at UC Berkeley getting his PhD. The way he was treated around the UC Berkeley campus, however, suggests that he was perceived as an outsider and as a threat – a reality that was revealed in the Crossroads dining hall experience highlighted during his performance. Omar’s experiences apply Du Bois’ double consciousness to awareness of gender identity in how he was targeted by UC Berkeley Dining Hall staff because he was a male; males are perceived by society as more threatening than females. He also has an awareness of racial identity in how much he stood out to authorities by being an African American surrounded by Caucasians and Asians. Because Omar identifies as, presented as, and was perceived as an African American man, no discrepancy exists between the internal and external for those two elements of his identity. The assumption that he was a threat because of those characteristics and the pre-existing prejudices people have about what they entail is therefore completely because of the external world, and thus completely outside Omar’s control.

Omar’s awareness of how the Crossroads manager was perceiving him and the fact that the outside world assumes he is a threat gave him the insight to show his Cal I.D. card.- a manifestation of double consciousness in and of itself. His presence in a university setting surrounded by fellow students and scholars was not enough to override the stereotypes the Crossroads manager believed based on his appearance, so Omar used his Cal I.D. card to present the other elements of his identity. These elements are less apparent physically but more relevant to his presence in the dining hall- the fact that in addition to being African American and male, he too is a UC Berkeley student. Although the presentation of Omar Ricks’ internal identity as an African American male student at Cal was intact, the perception of this identity was plagued by the bias, stereotypes, and preconceived judgments of the outside world that, like with the case of Du Bois, led to the development of and influence on his commentary and work.

Du Bois’ double consciousness can also be applied to the identities presented in J Finley’s auto-ethnography. J’s piece about her struggle with weight loss expressed an awareness of her gender identity with having to defy the stereotype and expectation of being a voluptuous, curvaceous woman. She also articulated an awareness of her racial and sexual identities: J felt conspicuous as an African American in an environment of predominantly Caucasians, and as a queer woman, her presence in a female-only shower elicited reactions from other bathers that contributed to the discomfort she experienced going to the gym. In going to the gym and trying to lose weight, J hoped to change an element of how her identity is perceived: the fact that she is an overweight queer African American woman. Being overweight was what brought her to the gym and made her uncomfortable there initially, but the other components of her identity continued her discomfort because they, too, made her stand out. J articulated her double consciousness by commenting on how she noticed people noticing her in the gym. She was not only aware of her own understanding of her identity, but also of how her identity was being perceived by others- how severely it was being perceived because her identity differed so much from the others present in the environment she was in.

Both Omar and J were very in tune with their internal identities. Because of how their identities were being perceived by the outside world, however, they both felt the need to represent their identities in ways that made them less threatening to others. Omar used is Cal I.D. card to present himself as belonging to the student population at large, emphasizing his academic identity over his racial and gender identity. Likewise, J used the opportunity of losing weight to present herself as active and in shape, altering her identity in order to fit in better with the skinny Caucasian body types at the gym. Despite an intact internal identity, J also felt pressured to censor her sexuality in the shower by de-emphasizing the fact that she is queer. Both Omar Ricks and J Finley have very well developed and accurately represented internal identities, yet outsiders perceived both as belonging to the group of “other”. Both stood out in the environments they were in, and both experienced discomfort because of the external stereotypes influencing the outside world’s perception of them. The discomfort Omar felt in being thought of as threatening pressured him to alter the presentation of his identity by using his I.D. card. The discomfort J felt in being thought of as out of place in the gym pressured her to alter the presentation of her identity as well: she physically worked to change her appearance and censor herself in the presence of others. These acts of altering the presentation of one’s identity are directly informed by double consciousness as discussed by Du Bois: if it were not for the duality of identity experienced by Finley and Ricks, and their awareness of this very duality, they would have never felt pain as a result of others’ perceptions of them and would have had no reason to alleviate this discrepancy in the hope of easing the discomfort it caused.

Fusco and Gomez- Pena’s work Couple in the Cage can also be looked at through the lens of Du Bois’ double consciousness. These artists played on typical westernized gender stereotypes during their depiction of Amerindian domestic interactions (Fusco, Course Reader, p. 260), expressing an awareness of gender identity. They also articulated an awareness of racial and class identities by enforcing stereotypes surrounding non-Western cultures and the role of the “Noble Savage” by surprising audiences with their civility. (Fusco, Course Reader, p. 247).  This performance is an example of how internal identity can differ greatly from external identity: the internal identities of the performance artists consist of educated, Westernized, and artistic intentions. However, the external identity was defined by the audience’s perception that Fusco and Gomez-Pena were really non-Western uncivilized savages with a culture differing from their own. In this case, the artists had an innate awareness of the double consciousness that exists not only within themselves but within the members of their audiences. Instead of trying to eradicate the discrepancy between the internality and externality of their identities, Fusco and Gomez-Pena decided to use their performance as an opportunity to enhance and exploit that discrepancy. They did so by making the external extremely external and exaggerating the differences between their inward identities and outward presentation of these identities.

This amplification of the differences between internal and external identity empowered these artists in the face of struggling with double consciousness. Like Omar Ricks did with presenting his Cal I.D. card and J did with losing weight, Fusco and Gomez Pena used the awareness of the duality of identity that results from double consciousness as an opportunity to manipulate how they were being perceived. Ricks and Finley sought to bring the inside and outside closer together, making the internal and external part of a larger whole. They felt discomfort in how they were being perceived and worked to change that perception of identity by the outside through altering the presentation of identity from the inside. Fusco and Gomez-Pena took their experiences in a completely opposite direction by manipulating the outside’s perception to prove a point and insure they would come out on top.

 Exaggerating the discrepancy between one’s identity and how one’s identity is perceived in this way gave audiences the chance to indulge the stereotypes they had about the “others” they saw in the cage. The “otherness” that Fusco and Gomez-Pena established for themselves by utilizing metal bars, exaggerated stereotypes, and the audience’s ignorance allowed them to manipulate perception of their identity without having to change their internal identity. While Du Bois would argue that such a discrepancy would cause discomfort for the beholder of the internal, the artists of Couple in the Cage embraced that discomfort and projected it onto those audience members insightful enough to behold the truth about the artists’ internal identities despite the external presentation. This message- that one’s internal identity should remain intact despite its warped presentation and biased perceptions of it by the outside world- not only enhances Du Bois’ work on double consciousness, but is apparent in the works of the artists studied in class- many of whom were inspired by Du Bois himself.

As these performances reveal, the discrepancy between internality and externality of identity is best understood upon its presentation- or misrepresentation; in addition to one’s identity and the perception of one’s identity argued by double consciousness, there is a third element of presentation of identity that lies between the internal and external. This presentation can express identity in a way that is both truthful to one’s self image and easily received by others, thus uniting the internal and external. Misrepresentation, however, can separate the internal and external by inaccurately depicting identity or doing so in a way that enforces stereotypes, causing the power struggles that plagued Du Bois and other artists whose work we studied. The performances of Ricks, Finley, Fusco, and Gomez-Pena are precisely these such presentations- or presentations about presentation- that comment on internal identity, the perception of identity by the outside world, and the discrepancy that exists between the two: commentary that would not exist if it weren’t for the artists’ awareness of these contrasting elements in and around themselves during their lived experiences.