Outward appearance is not a way to gauge our character but, unfortunately, we tend to judge people at face value. This is a reality that many black people are hyper-aware of. Since black bodies are often the minority in most spaces, much of what people know about us is made up entirely from white imagination and assumption.
This is a form of prejudice described by W.E.B. Du Bois as “double consciousness” in his book, “The Souls of Black Folk.” He describes double consciousness as a perpetual sense of twoness in which you are conflicted between the realities of what you are and how people perceive and treat you because of who you are.
Throughout my life, my mother has been diligent in reminding me of the nuances around my own identity. She told me the same things her mother had told her, the things that have been shared with black children for decades. She was very strict about me staying out of trouble; she warned me that in the event that I got into trouble, I would likely be punished more severely than other non-black kids. When I decided to wear my natural hair, she warned me that it may make people view me as unprofessional and hinder my opportunities. While she knew that my hair was not an actual indicator of my professionalism, her own experiences being asked to change her hair informed her that the truth didn’t matter as much as how you were perceived.
When I first entered as a politics major at USF, I put pressure on myself to prove that there was a place for people like me in politics. There weren’t many black students in the program and only one black faculty member. (According to the department’s website, this is still the case for faculty.)
I felt out of place among my classmates who had attended private school or had parents who worked in politics. I didn’t look like them and I was in the room for personal reasons along with the simply educational.
Learning about politics was more than simply a means to get into a law school. Understanding politics was also a journey of self-discovery. It was the education I needed to be able to understand what it means to be a low-income black woman with immigrant parents in a country like ours.
I used to feel nervous to bring up the black narrative in my class because, despite it being important, I felt people wouldn’t empathize with it or they would get tired of hearing me bring it up. Furthermore, due to past experiences with teachers who found the black narrative to be unnecessary or discomforting, I didn’t want to be a teacher in a setting where I was a student. I love my department and I have amazing professors, but I had to overcome a lot of self-doubt to be able to be in the space with the confidence I have now as a senior in the program.
As I approach graduation, I am dealing with those feelings of insecurity around the way I am perceived. While looking for jobs, I often find myself wondering about how interviewers will perceive me. I worry that my hair or my name or my skin will stand in between me and what I am working towards.
However, I am still on the journey towards diminishing my self-doubt. I know what I am capable of and I know what kind of person I am and I comfort myself knowing that any place that would disregard me for who I am is not a place I should work anyway. I have learned to use my double consciousness, as it not only allows me to be aware of what others may perceive of me, but it also helps me to never lose sight of who I truly am.