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'Being torn asunder': A woman of colour navigates British academia

This post explores Du Bois’ concept of “double consciousness” and applies his powerful metaphor for racial alienation to my own experience as a BAME woman in academia.

Du Bois’ developed the term “double consciousness” in his magisterial work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903) where he explored the psychological trauma of being both included and excluded from a Western identity. Specifically, Du Bois wrote of the need for resilience in trying to overcome the threat to a single identity from racism:

“One ever feels his twoness, - 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.”

While Du Bois’ experience of a traumatic split in identity is powerful, he was only referring to “double consciousness” within male identity. For black and minority ethnic women, our identities are even more complex and unstable. We have to strive to maintain our sanity in a world from which our “dark bodies” are generally excluded.

At the university where I work, I am frequently the only woman in the room, and nearly always the only non-white woman in the room. The only exception is where I am attending a meeting of our university’s Race Equality Charter working group. Indeed, black women academics are so rare at my institution, that if I happen to see one walking in my general direction, I can safely assume that this other BAME woman is also heading to the working group.

For most of my working day, I am surrounded by people whose experiences are substantially different from mine, and, indeed, from most of our students. The percentage of BAME staff at our institution is fewer than 6%, while the percentage of BAME students is over 25%. BAME students are unlikely to have a lecturer who is of the same racial identity. The problem of “double consciousness” is particularly problematic when it comes to standing in front of a room of students: for some of them, I will be their first non-white teacher. This makes me nervous and self-conscious, keenly aware that I do not fit the picture of the typical academic, i.e. white and male.

Du Bois went on to describe the solidarity between black Americans, black Africans and those from across the colonized world; those who had “a common history, have suffered a common disaster, and have one long memory; …the kinship..of discrimination and insult.”

While there is kinship in other BAME people who have shared experiences of racism, I have also found kinship in those who are organising resistance to racism.

My active participation in groups such as the Decolonizing Alliance has allowed me overcome the “twoness” I experience on a daily basis, and has helped me to develop a more stable and less defensive identity. The Decolonizing Alliance is a group of academic activists that was set up following the Critical Management Studies conference in 2017; we strive to make a practical difference for students and staff working in higher education. Our group is working on exciting projects to decolonize the curriculum, to build an anti-racism platform with students, to set up non-racist reading lists as well as writing and researching in the field of decolonization and ant-racism. The women in this group have been an inspirational source of friendship, professional support, and practical methods of dealing with racism.

My confidence has been restored by working with other people with a common history of discrimination within the largely white, male world of academia. My horizons have been opened up by women and men who have allied to further an anti-racist agenda. I can only urge those who also feel their isolation in a hostile academic environment to connect with others.

I therefore extend an invitation to those seeking to connect with other BAME women in academia: I have organised an event at the University of Keele on February 23rd 2018 at 10am which celebrates the duality inherent in being a black woman academic. Six black women academics will be talking about their experience of “double consciousness” in working as black women in a white male world. Their ability to reconcile these twin identities will be explored and celebrated. Registration is free and lunch is provided. Click here for the eventbrite page for booking and further details.

Du Bois recognised that double consciousness is not always problematic. Our dual perspective brings advantages by giving us a richer understanding of discrimination. As BAME women, we can relate our experiences of discrimination to all those suffering racism and sexism. We can therefore unite in the common cause of anti-racism and anti-sexism, and work in solidarity to secure an equitable working environment for all.