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Understanding Double-Consciousness to Combat Imposter Syndrome in Black College Students

February 19, 2021  |  Jason Chatman, Instructor of Sociology

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Jason Chatman, Instructor of Sociology

As a sociology instructor, my job is to educate my students on the science of understanding society and social forces that affect them. Every day, students encounter (either personally or observationally) events and phenomena that demand inquiry and explanation. Other events and phenomena have been key to shaping their identities and experiences throughout their lives. This affects all students, all people. In my sociology courses at Waubonsee Community College, my students and I carefully dissect and examine these phenomena while taking care to understand and link their personal experiences and perceptions to broader social forces that are acting upon them.  Students who learn and understand sociology are better prepared to navigate their day-to-day lives and have an edge in job interviews and the workplace. Using sociology to understand one’s identity and how to best interact with others based on their identity, is a powerful skill.

Dramaturgical theory in sociology suggests that a person's identity is not a stable and independent psychological entity, but rather constantly remade as the person interacts with others. For instance, the way people behave at work is different than the way they behave at home; you are not the same “you” all the time. But safely and effectively navigating society is different for different groups of people. For some, very little thought has to be put into how one carries themselves and interacts with others outside of the standard norms that society dictates. For others, an actively managed and flexible persona is required for even the most routine situations. This is particularly true of Black Americans and Black students. 

Black Americans operate within multiple social spaces, as do all. One thing that differentiates Black Americans from their White peers is that Black Americans alter their language, cadence, body language, and other aspects of their personal presentation based on whether they are around other Black people or around mostly White people. White people generally alter their performances based on setting, not on the racial makeup of their audience. Black people generally describe being most comfortable while around other Black people. A metaphorical “letting of the hair down” of their personality and presentation of themselves.

To understand this experience, one must start with an understanding of the sociological concept of “Double Consciousness”, as coined by W.E.B. Du Bois, an early father of sociology and a Black man. Published in an 1897 issue of The Atlantic, Du Bois’ essay, “Strivings of the Negro People”, was the first to describe and define what he referred to as the “double consciousness” of Black Americans, that Black Americans uniquely have two “selves.” 

From Du Bois: “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 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.”

And through this lens, as a Black student looks through the eyes of society unto themselves, what is it that they see? How does society collectively describe and define Blackness and Black people? Despite mild to moderate gains throughout the last couple generations, society’s view of Blackness is generally negative. Less intelligent as exemplified by the structural racism of underfunded schools and racial red-lining. Violent as exemplified by the structural racism of the mass incarceration of Black people. Less likely to succeed as exemplified by the lack of Black faces in the halls of academia and among business leaders. It is through this lens that Black people, including Black students, see themselves. They are simultaneously an American, with all of the qualities and benefits that are provided with such a designation, and a Black person in America, with all of the constructed inequities that are imposed upon them. 

For many, due to the inculcation of this archetype of Blackness through the media, their peers and authority figures, and other socialization agents in their lives, these harmful definitions of Blackness become internalized and taken as natural instead of recognizing the socially constructed nature of the maintenance and origins of these damaging labels. Black students are more likely to experience impostor syndrome, the thinking about one’s self that they do not belong in college.  Thinking that someone, somewhere, must have made a mistake and approved their application by accident. That they don’t really have what it takes to be a college student, much less a college graduate. 

This leaves Black college students not only dealing with the stresses of the everyday requirements of a college student, but compounds upon those stresses, the expectations (or lack thereof) of society. They are trying to listen and learn while simultaneously combating the stereotype threat externally, and the internal struggles of their double consciousness. One need only look at the median GPAs and retention numbers of our Black students, especially Black male students, to see the real-world effects of these burdens. 

Which brings about another burden. One that falls on faculty and administrators alike. Understanding, recognizing, and where possible, mitigating conditions that are adverse to learning. Healthy learning environments are nothing new for faculty and administrators. We readily accommodate students with alternate learning needs, access issues, and other barriers to learning to deliver learning environments and lessons that meet students where they are. This requires an understanding of the struggles that our students face. In the case of our Black students, they too face all of the issues that any other college students might, or not, but universally deal with the societal and psychological barrier to learning that is double-consciousness. Lacking the privilege of simply being college students, they are Black college students whom society expects to fail. In pursuit of equity, our burden as shepherds of their higher education is to also understand, recognize, and where possible, mitigate this specific issue. 

I would argue the most important step is understanding the existence and effects of double-consciousness. To better understand our students, their lives, their challenges and dreams, allows us to better teach them to understand not only the lessons, but themselves. Higher education spaces should be spaces where all students can simply focus on learning, establishing social and cultural capital, and developing as adults. Faculty can further this goal by incorporating materials and lessons from Black academics which shines a light on the contributions of Black people to global knowledge. When Black students see themselves reflected in the materials that they study, this contradicts the societal message that they do not belong. When all other students are exposed to these materials, it helps to combat the lack of education of Black Americans’ contributions to society that is missing from most high school curriculums. Administrators can further this goal by purposefully and deliberately recruiting and retaining Black faculty across the college. There are numerous reasons why our faculty should be representative of our communities. When students see and are taught by faculty who look like they do, this too helps to combat the impostor syndrome that many of them feel. The added benefit of Black faculty for our Black students is that they intimately understand the double-consciousness that they experience. 

Higher education alone cannot solve generations-long social problems such as this one, but we can be part of the solution.  Equity is achieved when people have their unique needs met to overcome obstacles. Justice is achieved when the obstacles themselves are eliminated. On our journey towards justice, understanding and addressing the unique needs of all of our students, in this case our Black students, is a moral imperative. 

 

Du Bois, W. E. Burghardt. “Strivings of the Negro People.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 24 June 2020, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1897/08/strivings-of-the-negro-people/305446/