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advocacy or appropriation?

advocacy or appropriation?

Written by Chelsea Henderson
February 06, 2013

“…[An African American is] born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. 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 town asunder” -W.E.B DuBois

This past Friday in my current teaching internship in a 10th grade special admission high school English class, the teacher, J, had the students read the above quote out loud. They were then given 10 minutes to think about what the quote meant in their small groups or individually.

The class came back together and shared their initial thoughts. J eventually asked, “Do you think he’s talking to all dark-skinned people or just African Americans”? J then said, “I think that all of us have several different double consciousnesses. Draw a picture of all of your different double consciousnesses”. This led to an activity for the students to discuss their double consciousness. Students talked about their multiple identities and their different sides, including their “normal side”/angry side (mostly the boys), what your parents want you to be/what you want to be side, Christian/Jewish side, good/bad side, “dumb blonde”/academic side.

I was initially incredibly impressed with this particular curriculum introducing their tenth grade students to topics I did not come across until college. Reflecting on the class later, however, I kept coming back to the teacher’s question and prompt for all students to share their double consciousness. To be clear, not all students in this particular class were identified as African American. Is double consciousness a theory only accesible to African Americans? As critical educators dedicated to working to end the white supremacy within U.S. public education and committed to introducing students to texts by people of color, have we slipped from advocacy to appropriation?

As I watched this white male teacher lead a class discussion on this quote from Du Bois’ foundational work, The Souls of Black Folk, I wondered, as a white teacher working towards being an antiracist educator, how does one teach texts by and/or about people of color without repeating cycles of historical white supremacist violence by taking on the message of the text in appropriative ways? On the other hand, are we white educators further isolating our students of color by designating their texts to be for their knowledge and/or for specialized times of the year, especially as Black History/28 days of “why is there no white history month” Month approaches, or curriculum sections like “world lit”?

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