[African Americans are] born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world – a world which yields [them] no true self-consciousness, but only lets [them] see [themselves] 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.
– W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
For DuBois, this “veil” concept can be taken three ways. First, it suggests the literal darker skin of black people, a physical delineation of separation from whiteness.Secondly, the veil suggests white people’s deficiency or inability in seeing African Americans as “true” Americans. And lastly, the veil refers to black peoples’ difficulty under a racist system to see themselves apart from how white people in the United States define and characterize them.
The veil hanging over African Americans, though, operates like a one-way mirror. They can easily see outward onto white America, and in this way, they develop a “double consciousness.” Though not in the truest sense of “bicultural,” African Americans do acquire a realization of “otherness.” For emotional and often physical survival, they must learn how to operate in two societies, one black and one white. White people have no such veil wrapped around them, and the mirror makes it difficult for them to perceive the realities of African Americans.
This relative inability of white people to see through the veil was reflected in a Pew Research Study of 1000 people conducted between August 14 through 17. It found profound racial divisions between African Americans and white people on attitudes surrounding the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teen in Ferguson, Missouri this summer on August 9th.
Among the study’s finding, 80 percent of African Americans compared to 39 percent of white people stated that the fatal shooting “raises important issues about race.” Conversely, 47 percent of white people versus 18 percent of African Americans believe that “race is getting more attention than it deserves.” In addition, 65 percent of African Americans and only 33 percent of white people believe the police response went “too far” in the aftermath of the incident.
American sociologist, Bob Blauner wrote earlier of a United States in which there exists “two languages of race,” one spoken by black people (and by implication, other people of color), the other by white people. By “language,” he refers to a system of meaning attached to social reality, in this instance a “racial language” reflecting a view of the world. This echoes the conclusions of the Kerner Commission report released in 1968 in its study of urban unrest. It stated, in part, that the United States was moving toward two separate societies: one white and one black (though the report left it uncertain where other communities of color fit into this equation).
Many black people and other peoples of color see “race” and racism as salient and central to their reality. Many white people – excluding members of the more race-conscious extremists groups – consider “race” as a peripheral issue, and may even consider racism as a thing of the past, or as aberrations in contemporary U.S. society. Since the 1960s, many people of color have embraced and expanded the definition of “racism” to reflect contemporary realities, while many white people have not.
Although most white people are aware of what Valerie Batts, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Visions Inc., terms “old fashioned racism” (taking such forms as enslavement, lynchings, cross burnings, definition of people of color as inferior to whites, legal segregation between the “races,” and others), many white people, asserts Batts, are either unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge the many manifestations of “modern forms of racism” by whites. Batts lists these forms as dysfunctional rescuing, blaming the victim, avoidance of contact, denial of cultural differences, and denial of the political significance of differences.
Can we as a society cut through this veil and begin to know and understand those different from ourselves, to have the ability to walk in the shoes of another, to break down these “us” versus “them” notions that separate? First, we must abolish the denial systems that prevent many of us grasping our social privileges.
Depending on our many social identities, we are simultaneously granted certain societal privileges and socially marginalized based solely on these identities. Based on Peggy McIntosh’s pioneering investigations of white and male privilege, we can understand dominant group privilege as constituting a seemingly invisible, unearned, and largely unacknowledged array of benefits accorded to members of dominant groups, with which they often unconsciously walk through life as if effortlessly carrying a knapsack tossed over their shoulders.
This system of benefits confers dominance on certain social identity groups, for example in a U.S. context, males, white people, heterosexuals, Christians, upper socioeconomic classes, temporarily able bodied people, people of a certain age range (young adults through the middle years), and U.S. born, while subordinating and denying these privileges to other groups, for example, females and intersex people, racial minorities, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people, those who do not hold Christian beliefs, working class and poor people, people with disabilities, young and old people, and non-U.S. born. These systemic inequities are pervasive throughout the society. They are encoded into the individual’s consciousness and woven into the very fabric of our social institutions, resulting in a stratified social order privileging dominant groups while restricting and disempowering subordinated group members.
Another strategy in demolishing the veil is to embrace the notion of critical multiculturalism in our schools and larger society. We must go beyond simply teaching and learning the “feel good” concepts of multiculturalism such as the heroes, the holidays, the food, and the festivals of other cultures. For example, white youth increasingly embrace rap music and hip-hop culture. If it ends here, however, they develop a one-dimensional perspective of the African American experience.
A foundational element in critical multiculturalism includes education for social justice in which the educator’s role is to help prepare future citizens to reconstruct society to better serve the interests of all groups of people, and to transform society toward greater equity for all. The goal is to prepare students in critical skills to analyze institutional and societal inequalities in their own life circumstances and in the lives of others, and to develop skills in taking actions to transform society.
Though the concept of “social justice” has been defined a number of ways, I define it as: “The concept that local, national, and global communities functionwhere everyone has equal access to and equitable distribution of the rights, benefits, privileges, and resources, and where everyone can live freely unencumbered by social constructions of hierarchical positions of domination and subordinationbased onsocial identities.”
I base my university courses on a number of key concepts and assumptions, including how issues of power, privilege, and domination within the United States center around inequitable social divisions in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, assigned sex at birth, gender identity and expression, sexual identity, religion, nationality, linguistic background, physical and mental ability/disability, and age. I address how issues around social identities impact, generally, life outcomes, and specifically on educational outcomes, and how social inequities are often reproduced in schools. I also emphasize that having a grounding in history and critical social justice theory are essential in helping to answer some of the questions regarding how these inequities developed and have been maintained up to the present time, as well as help us to correct and balance these inequities.
The critical multicultural educational process is not always comfortable and not always neat, but it provides a space for everyone to be heard, to reflect, to engage in critical dialogue, and to enter into a space of understanding, though not always in agreement of views and cultures different from one’s own.
Sonia Nieto, a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst, likens critical multiculturalism to a great tapestry:
“A tapestry is a hand-woven textile. When examined from the back, it may simply appear to be a motley group of threads. But when reversed, the threads work together to depict a picture of structure and beauty. A tapestry also symbolizes, through its knots, broken threads and seeming jumble of colors and patterns on the back, the tensions, conflicts, and dilemmas that a society needs to work out.”
Maybe one day, we white people may escape from our self-imposed hermetically sealed worlds that cut us off from the realities of our neighbors of color, a day when we become fluent in the multiple languages of “race.”