The history of African Americans and their relationship with American society has long a difficult and often times dangerous one. There had to be a balancing act between maintaining a distinct African American culture, while at the same attempting to adjust to and thrive in mainstream American society, whether it is in employment, education, or day-to-day life. In order to do this, they have to maintain a bicultural identity. The implications of how successful or possible this bicultural existence is can be very serious or even life and death.
African Americans can be as diverse a group as any and there truly is no monolithic African American culture. What we know now as African American culture came out the trauma of slavery. With enslaved people coming from various African tribes from different areas and speaking different languages, a cultural fusion happened in which all of these different African cultures gradually coalesced into a distinct African American culture. The fact that this happened as a result of slavery should not take away from the benefit of the development of a new culture. With the development of a new came issue with maintaining this culture while succeeding in various areas of mainstream American society. The process of trying to integrate oneself into American society begins during childhood when child first begin to be aware of race. Parents have the additional task of preparing their children for mainstream society while at the same time giving the cultural knowledge to have a positive view of themselves and their racial/ethnic background in a society that seeks to demean and devalue them.
There is a bit of irony in the fact that while African Americans are devalued and demeaned by much of mainstream American society, much of American culture has benefited from contributions of African Americans. It says something when such contributions have been made but those who have made them are either ignored and or ridiculed. A risk of African Americans bicultural existence lies with issues of cultural appropriation. Whether it is the areas of music, language, or fashion, various contributions of African Americans have been simultaneously mocked and appropriated. It is as if cultural customs and practices of African Americans are ridiculed and devalued until someone who is not African American takes those customs. The bicultural experience of African American is often unfair and unequal, with them being burdened with the expectation of conforming to mainstream American society with the cost of giving up their cultural norms while at the same seeing those same cultural norms being appropriated with no recognition of their origins.
In the realm of the education system, African American students have to acclimate to the school setting, a process that may prove to be difficult considering that the cultural norms of African Americans are often not reflected in many aspects of the educational context. Behaviors of African American students are often misconstrued as disruptive and unruly by teachers. There is also much harsher punishment. African American students are more likely to be punished and more harshly punished than their White counterparts for the same behaviors (Schott, 2010). Also, historic contributions of people of color are often left out classroom curricula, leaving African American students with few, if any, reflections of themselves within the school context. These unfair practices and other incidents lead African Americans to be distrustful of the education system and other mainstream institutions. African American students may feel as though education may not be sufficient for success (Ogbu & Simons, 1998). For those who do feel that education is worthwhile and wish to succeed, their bicultural experience is difficult as well. Aside from trying to adjust to the culture of the school context and dealing with discriminatory actions from teachers and administrators, they may also face backlash from their Black peers’ who believe that succeeding academically is “acting white” (Caldwell-Colbert, Henderson-Daniel, & Dudley-Grant, 2003). This creates a situation in which someone can feel as though they are rejected by both cultures and this causes a feeling of alienation for the person. Whether or not a person can successfully maintain a bicultural existence in this realm has significant implications for their academic success as well as future success later in life.
The workplace is another area in which African Americans have to maintain a bicultural existence. There is a level of conformity that African Americans have to meet in the workplace, particularly in the case of physical appearance. With any work environment, there are certain rules for appropriate work attire and permitted hairstyles. Although there are not as many issues with clothes being worn to work, one issue for African Americans attempting to acclimate to work environment is their hairstyles. Women may be forced to straighten their hair because their employer may not allow natural hairstyles such as afros. Men may be forced to cut off their braids or dreadlocks because of the same issues. If work environments have no restrictions on hairstyles, some African Americans may still feel the need to do these things in order to be accepted and taken seriously. This could be due to the fact that African Americans already think that they would be treated the same as their White peers and they believe that do not want to have another strike against them by wearing a cultural hairstyle. In order to integrate themselves into this particular culture, African Americans once again may have to give up certain aspects of their own culture.
The implications of understanding the bicultural experience of African Americans are of the utmost importance. How well African Americans can maintain this kind of “double-consciousness” not only has an impact on their educational or occupational success, it could also be a matter of life or death. Many African American parents in rearing their children give them strategies with dealing with mainstream society, some of them involving law enforcement and the legal system. Because the legal system and law enforcement disproportionately target and punish African Americans, these strategies are vital. Unfortunately, however helpful these strategies may be, they may not always protect someone. Instances of excessive force and police brutality all too often illustrate the possible dangers of this bicultural experience for African Americans. The issues are more problematic when while African Americans are targeted and disproportionately punished, those who perpetrate crimes against them are not usually treated in such a manner. Whether it is Sean Bell or Rodney King, providing strategies for interacting with police officers is definitely a matter of life and death and that point cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, given the recent tragedies with Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and too many others, these strategies seem now to have importance for just day-to-day interactions with others who may view African Americans as a threat. Given these recent examples and other instances from the past, the question has to be posed: is a bicultural existence for African Americans possible or even desirable?
The feasibility of a bicultural experience is an issue that has to be addressed. Some assume that being bicultural is always positive, but is it? There are many instances in which African Americans have had to compromise or give their own cultural customs in order to be a part of American society. There are other examples in which cultural customs and contributions are taken by the dominant society and white-washed with no credit or recognition given to where those customs originally came from. African Americans’ attempt at integrating into the larger society has at times had dangerous consequences. It is important to not only consider what African Americans’ bicultural existence looks like, but also to consider the very serious implication and all this kind of existence entails.