Lee: A feeling of 'two-ness'


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I entered an expensive watch store on Michigan Avenue. Even though I was with my parents, that didn’t stop us from receiving stares from the store clerks. In their eyes, we were a problem.

Recently, a few major department stores — Macy’s and Barneys — have been accused of racial profiling and discrimination after two black males and a black female were wrongly accused of shoplifting.

It’s an unfortunate truth that our culture tends to associate skin color with economic status. Therefore, for African Americans, being closely watched by an employee in a high-end department store isn’t much of a surprise.

There comes a time in people’s lives when they become acutely aware of their position in society. This sort of self-realization is commonly identified by members of culturally marginalized groups. It is the moment when the significance of our social standing fully registers, and we are no longer naïve. From then on, our status is reinforced by the dominant culture.

Just as Sarah discovered that she was to adhere to traditional gender roles, I learned from a very young age a person who looks like me is not accepted in popular culture. From our discoveries, we are no longer ignorant. We learn to work within the system.

Our culture upholds the belief all Americans are equal. But if we were to be honest with ourselves, we would see that in practice, it is a bold-faced lie. I recognize my “place” as a black woman even though I choose to reject it.

Black people are bound to know what white people think of us. Even as we try to create our own identity, it clashes with the stereotypes and caricatures assigned to us by the majority group.

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois called this state of being double-consciousness — “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others … his two-ness — an American, a Negro.”

The societal oppression and disadvantages people of color are subject to — such as racial profiling and stop-and-frisk — are considerably different from the comparatively infrequent and individualized racism white people face.

Of course, racism is wrong, no matter who the aggressor is. A black person may bully a white person and use racial slurs. A white person may go to a predominantly black school, be mistreated, and feel out of place. In this case, the African Americans are in power and whites are taken advantage of. But it is only temporary.

Whites may “check in” to a space where they are in fact the minority and a target of racism, only to eventually “check out” and live in a country that upholds their privilege. Because racism is a combination of prejudice and power, disadvantaged minority groups cannot be racist the same way those in power are racist.

Whites do not experience the racism people of color experience because society does not actively work against them. Not only are whites the numerical majority, they are also the cultural majority. They are not oppressed. Oppression requires more than one person and institutions working together to subjugate a particular group. It is more than “One time, this black girl was mean to me.”

African Americans experience institutionalized racism — everyday practices and social arrangements that are assumed to be fair and correct, but systematically reproduce racial inequality. A white person may experience individual racism and extreme discomfort, but once they leave that situation, they re-enter a world in which cultural processes work to their advantage. It is not the same.

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