Du Bois begins The Souls of Black Folk by declaring that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line." In his first chapter, he shifts the word "problem" so that it applies to himself; he describes how whites will often ask him some variation of the question "How does it feel to be a problem?" Describe what Du Bois means by each instance of "problem," and note the difference between the two uses of the word.

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In the first instance, Du Bois uses "problem" to describe a generic, abstract, widespread issue: the issue of the divide between blacks and whites (what he calls the color-line) caused by racism. Race, as an abstract concept children learn, causes white people to believe themselves superior to black people. It...

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In the first instance, Du Bois uses "problem" to describe a generic, abstract, widespread issue: the issue of the divide between blacks and whites (what he calls the color-line) caused by racism. Race, as an abstract concept children learn, causes white people to believe themselves superior to black people. It also causes black people to internalize the cultural perception of inferiority in such a way that they display two faces to the world: the servile face they turn to whites and the reality of their own experience, understood only by other black people. This first instance is "problem" used in a very broad way.

In the second instance, Du Bois takes the broad concept of a "color-line" problem and makes it individual and specific. On the big, generic level, this "problem" is nothing more than a false construct: in reality, there should be no "color-line" because black and white people have equal ability, but the imposition of racism has created a false reality. Nevertheless, this false construct has very real consequences when it becomes a "problem" faced by a living, individual black person like Du Bois, who is held in contempt and treated as lesser—and ultimately has many fewer opportunities—based on a larger, more abstract perception of a "problem."

Ideology, in other words, matters. If white people believe black people are problem, then they become a problem.

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