Blog: Double Consciousness and Social Empathy
Updated: Apr 20
DOUBLE CONSCIOUSNESS AND SOCIAL EMPATHY
One of the main architects of the Harlem Renaissance, W.E.B. DuBois described “double consciousness” in his study, The Souls of Black Folks (1903): “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.”
Prior to starting the program, I was a trainer in social justice (the first of its kind) dedicated to developing a training manual on inequity, history, law, and criminal justice. The mission was to influence other lawyers to exercise empathy, prosecutorial discretion, and divert cases to develop a “social empathy” for the neighborhoods of publics the office served.
THE EQUITY CALCULATION
As someone whose title was that of an executive in “Social Justice” I followed the calculation that was at the time widely considered sufficient to change the culture of an office.
The theory was - when a person increases their knowledge on the history of race, inequity, and bias by learning about the imbalanced U.S. systems of law, healthcare, economics, and housing as well as those systems’ impact on people of color, then that person will became “woke”, or, conscious enough, to make the “right choice.”
However, it became apparent that no amount of historical-consciousness (“wokeness”), on race, gender, and class disparity could empower an individual enough to make a split second decision without having a design to leverage – such as perspective-shifting.
If race, poverty, and access marked some people as “other” in the daily interactions of society, what W.E.B. DuBois a century earlier called, the binary of “double consciousness” – seeing oneself through a white gaze – the flipside of that coin is that “empathy” alone cannot undo the helix of double consciousness. Indeed, it can be seen as “baked into the system.”
BIAS CAN BE BAKED IN
Bias Can Be Baked Into Systems and Forms of Organizations
Consider a board of a University, or a law firm’s executive board of managing partners.
This Board would like to send out a survey to staff to understand how diversity, equity and inclusion in the culture of the law firm works – and how that culture could improve.
However, the managing partners (likely white, and male) writing the survey, have a particular perspective whether intentional or unintentional.
This can mean that the survey immediately frames Equity a certain way – i.e., the “design.”
Our training has baked-in leverage points for inclusiveness, systemic context, and making the invisible visible. Anti-systemic inequity requires complexity both in terms the design of our program and the built-in self-reflection.