W.E.B. DuBois and Dual Consciousness For Teachers of Color

Jose Vilson Education, Featured, Jose

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois posits:

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. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

DuBois left nuggets for decades on end, many of them still consumable to present-day. Conversations around codeswitching and multiculturalism come full circle for people of color in this country. In order to survive the schooling system in this country, they must work tirelessly to hold onto their home cultures and snap back into what the schooling process requires. In college, we’re asked to let our guards down, but the seduction of looser schedules and the ivory tower aesthetic only serve to remind so many of us that we have no stake in the institutions we hope will recognize our credentials.

What’s more, a handful of us are then allowed to become the teachers charged with carrying this discordant ideology forward, usually to students who look like us and share similar cultures, a generation removed.

People often ask, “What, to America, is a teacher of color?” There have been plenty of studies in the last few years suggesting a level of desire for recruiting teachers of color. So far, I have respected the efforts of local and national organizations to attend to diversity and inclusion. I am all for students seeing intelligent, hard-working adults across the racial, gender, and class spectra. The more opportunities to bring in different experiences that align with the socioemotional and intellectual uplift of all students, the better we are as a country for it.

How do we square this vision with the stagnant policies that continue to plague that vaunted ideal of innovation?

The complications abound. Teachers of color can and have often sound solidarity on major issues that affect the general workforce. Low pay. Lack of support. Administrative disagreements (and often, incompetence). But to the degree where we can all agree that this affects us often breaks down across racial lines.

In theory, every competent teacher should go wherever they wish. In reality, teachers only get to go where society can see them going. What good is a job fair for a teacher of color when they line up for well-resourced schools only to be told they’d “fit” better in a low-income school? What good is a school with a majority of students of color when superintendents enforce a Eurocentric curriculum and pedagogy across the school? What good is meeting after meeting with adults when we stray from talking to students about academics?

What good is it for teachers to return to their places of schooling if the space hasn’t changed for the better since they attended? Or if the only spaces where we can get hired remind us of the spaces where the trauma happened?

That dual-consciousness is knowing that there’s a plethora of language to use about the art and science of teaching, but on a deeper level, we are not neutral beings. Every teacher has decisions to make about their identities when they become teachers for longer than a couple of years. For teachers of color, they must either assimilate so as to appear safe or they must become activated so they don’t feel like a lie. But none of that matters because it’s equal parts how they enter into a room and how the room enters and consumes them.

What, then, is professionalism to those whose culture has been ostracized by professionals?

As with all blogs, this is but a draft. As a teacher, I too am a draft working on these peaces. We need to do school reform from the belly of the spaces where we’ve become unconscious to our students’ plight. For those of us with a critical conscience, we must wake these people up. Now is better.