E I T H E R / O R &
Either/or and the binary shows up as:
Antidotes or suggestions for how to show up in more connecting and healing ways include:
Another way we see how dominant Western Christianity influences and shapes white supremacy is in the dualism of Christian moral binaries. Paul Kivel describes these as: Christian/non-Christian other, good/evil, saved/sinner, God/devil, heaven/hell, male/female, spirit/flesh, and mind/body. This dualistic perspective has dominated Western thought, constraining our thinking about gender, race, religion, ability, and national identity. Even our secular language has come to assume an inside and righteous place in which we (the good folks) stand and a range of Others are considered outsiders - inferior, exploitable, and ultimately expendable.
Kivel goes on to talk about how dualism shapes all aspects of our thinking, including behavior, weather, and the kind of day we're having. He writes: The weather is not good or bad, it just is. Rain might be inconvenient, disappointing, uncomfortable for some and welcome, needed or comforting for others. He notes how our continuous and unthinking assignment of good and bad to weather or how a child is behaving or the kind of day we're having gives these experiences a moral status, which extends to us.
He writes: ... people are not good or bad. We are each complex, not easily summarized or dismissed by a judgment. We may do things that are illegal, immoral, unhealthy or thoughtless, but that doesn't make us bad people. And we know good people are sometimes not what they seem. We may even internalize judgment and believe that we are a good or bad person.
This is important because the binary sets up a competition, a striving for a perfectionism that we often have no say in constructing and which is never possible anyway. So, for example, we can compete to be the most "woke" white person, engage in finger pointing and calling out to prove that we know best how to be anti-racist. On a recent podcast, where the host attempted to describe me as an exceptional white person, I told her I didn't want any part of that description because it puts too much pressure on me to live up to something I haven't defined and even if I had, would be arbitrary and lacking the complexity that I embody, as we all do. I make mistakes, I am still learning, and while I might have experience working with my racist conditioning, this means ... I have experience working with my conditioning. I am not good as a result of perfecting my anti-racism practice and bad when I falter, which I do frequently. I am an essentially good person who makes mistakes, causes harm, and tries to take responsibility for myself. I am not saying we are unable or incapable of aspiring to learn and grow and become a better version of ourselves; I am saying it is not a competition against others and it is helpful to distinguish my conditioning (into racism, sexism, ageism, classism, and ... ) from my essential nature, which is beautiful.
Kivel talks about how dualism links to another characteristic, fear, making us afraid because, in his words: anything pure, clean or innocent can become contaminated. Constant vigilance is therefore called for, which not only necessitates constant anxiety, it can lead to pre-emptive attack to prevent contagion. ... Fear can lead people to take an absolutist "you're either with me or against me" stance. ... Dualism makes it difficult to stay in relationship with people in their complexity - loving and caring for them, yet still holding them accountable for their actions.
As a whole, we have a tendency to escalate rather than de-escalate conflict. In our (rightful) desire to ensure that harm is not minimized or ignored, we use inflammatory language, binary concepts of right and wrong, and oversimplified narratives that more often than not increase tension and heighten rage and shame. We do not ask the questions that are central to transformative justice: Why has harm occurred? Who is responsible (beyond the individual perpetrator-as in, how is community implicated)? How can this harm be prevented in the future?
There are distinctions to be made between punishment, justice, and healing. Punishment is a gratifying process of enacting revenge that also perpetuates cycles of violence. Justice is a slow process of naming and transforming violence into growth and repair; it is also frustrating and elusive - and rarely ends in good feelings. Healing is the process of restoration for those who have been hurt, and although justice can aid this process, my own experience is that healing is an individual journey that is almost entirely separate from those who have caused me harm. No apology, or amount of money or punishment, can give me back the person I was, the body and spirit I possessed, before I was violated. Only I can do that.
Kai Cheng Thom
More than with any other personality trait in my life, all-or-nothing thinking has caused me to make huge mistakes and bad judgments, hurt people and myself, withhold love, and misinterpret situations. And this pattern of dualistic thinking is deeply entrenched in most Western people, despite its severe limitations. Binary thinking ... is completely inadequate for the major questions and dilemmas of life. (p. 32)
A binary system of either/or choices ... produced the scientific and industrial revolutions that have served us so well in many areas. But these have begun to show their severe limitations, and this mind can take us only so far; it cannot access eternal things. It is not the tree of life, but only the tree of “this or that.” (p. 106)
When you are concerned with either attacking or defending, manipulating or resisting, pushing or pulling, you cannot be contemplative. When you are preoccupied with enemies, you are always dualistic. (p. 110)
People who have never loved or never suffered will normally try to control everything with an either-or attitude, or all-or-nothing thinking. This closed system is all they are prepared for. The mentality that divides the world into “deserving and undeserving” has never been let go of by any experience of grace or undeserved mercy. This absence leaves them judgmental, demanding, unforgiving, and weak in empathy and sympathy. They remain inside of the prison of meritocracy, where all has to be deserved. Remember, however, to be patient with such people, even if you are the target of their judgment, because on some level that is how they treat themselves as well. (p. 126)
When we come from a dualistic mind, we can conceive of anything, including nondualism, only dualistically. (p. 129)
Good leaders know there is no perfect solution. That is the lie and false promise of the dualistic mind, polarity, and all-or-nothing thinking. ... Good leaders know that every one-sided solution is doomed ahead of time to failure. It is never a final solution but only a postponement of the problem. (p. 157)
Art by Tema Okun
"What am I doing here? How am I supposed to help?"
I am on my feet, shifting my weight from one to the other, spine swaying slightly, in a circle of 16 people. We are all of us standing in front of folding chairs also set in a circle, chairs which have held us securely for two and half days in this large sunny meeting room on the outskirts of Atlanta. I am one of three facilitators invited by a social justice non-profit to lead them through a dismantling racism curriculum, a curriculum that I helped develop and revise and refine over the past 30 years with a diverse and brilliant group of colleagues.
On this particular afternoon, my collaborators E and J stand to my left. The three of us claim our space as the physically solid and confident women we are. E’s black skin is clothed in wide-legged pants and loosely fitting shirt topped with an African multi-color scarf. Her ears are decorated with cowry shells, her strong features uncharacteristically still in a face that is often laughing wide mouthed and hearty. J is the slightest of the three of us, her white athletic body arrayed in her characteristic outfit of close-fitting pants and pullover shirt, her straight hair framing a face with delicately strong features which appear serious until she breaks into a smile. I fill out the trio, older than the other two by at least twenty years in a white body that is short and sturdy, with my grey hair growing longer over a broad face that becomes close to beautiful when I laugh. We are working together, the three of us, because E and J invited me to bring my three decades of experience to a facilitation that they are in the process of learning. I accepted their invitation because I wanted to work with these two thoughtful, wise, and thoroughly engaging women, knowing I would learn as much from them as they possibly could from me.
Closing the circle on either side of us are the participants in this workshop, all of whom are staff or board or members of an organization working to coordinate the efforts of social justice groups that serve the city. Standing to my right are two African-American men, both in their twenties. The rest of the circle holds three African-American women, also young and the rest white - young, older, and in between. They include Nellie, a young white woman in her early twenties who has just joined the staff in an administrative role. Nellie is a bit shorter than the three of us, , her face serious and attentive, her stout and beautiful body filling out a colorful top, her round arms offering a rainbow of tattoos. She is new to social justice work and appears excited about finding her place in this new job.
We close every workshop in a circle like this, asking all who have attended to stand if they choose, sit if they choose. We ask each person to name a commitment they are ready and willing to make to address the inequities we have named and explored over the last two and a half days. We wait for whoever wants to start sharing to do so and then allow the responses to travel around the circle.
The white person standing to J’s left starts. She declares a will to work harder to catch her assumptions about “one right way,” which is one of the characteristics of white supremacy culture named in the workshop. The young Black man next to her says he plans to reach out to more young men like himself, both to build the organization and to meet his own needs for support. Then Nellie’s turn comes and she pronounces “I commit to empowering People of Color in the organization and in the community.”
In the silence after her words fade, I glance quickly at J. She catches the glance. I look next at E who stares straight ahead, into the circle, impassive.
My glance with J relays a concern, one I see reflected in her eyes, that Nellie has just made a commitment that is not really hers to make. Our shared glance occurs in the space of a few seconds and reflects an acknowledgment that we are going to have to address Nellie's comment in some way. We both bring our attention back to the group, which has continued to share intentions. We close the workshop with another round of appreciations for our time together and the circle breaks. Some people move quickly to retrieve their belongings and return to their family or work obligations, some linger to talk with each other, and others begin the task of cleaning up the room. I walk over to J and, after checking in with E, we agree that I will talk with Nellie.
I approach, stop in front of Nellie, place my hand lightly on her arm, and ask if we can talk for a few minutes. She agrees and I suggest we move to the side of the room so that we can talk more privately.
“Nellie,” I say, “I think we may not have done a good job. I say this because if we had done our job well, we would have made it more clear that, as white people, we do not have the responsibility or even the ability really, to help empower People of Color. What we can do is empower ourselves and what we can do is act in solidarity with People of Color as they work together to empower themselves. Together we empower each other. Does that make sense?”
She looks at me, eyes wide, quickly filling with tears.
“Then what am I doing here?” she asks, in an almost plaintive wail. “How am I supposed to help?”
I spend the next 20 minutes trying a variety of logics to get the idea across that we, the white ones, do not want to reproduce a familiar dynamic, one where we assume we are the empowered ones destined to “help” the "poor" and "powerless" racial “other” in order to “lift them up” to our level. I acknowledge her good intentions. I talk about how we, as white people, have plenty of our own work to do. I explain the difference between a notion of “helping,” which too often assumes that we are somehow qualified to help those who are “less than.” I suggest a subtle difference between this kind of helping and an admission that those of us who are white are ourselves deeply damaged and confused. I make the point that, if anything, BIPOC people and communities are in a better position to “help” us see how white supremacy and racism have conditioned us into unhealthy attitudes and behaviors. As I talk, Nellie continues to cry. When I ask her what she is feeling, she can only say over and over again that she doesn’t know what she is supposed to do if she can’t help.
Nothing I say penetrates Nellie's distress and I finally admit defeat, at least for now. My intellectual arguments are no match for her deeply embodied emotion. I am not myself skilled enough, even after all my years of working with this material, to support her to identify the real source of her distress - her sense that either she can "help" the racialized "other" in the way she has defined help or she can't. She leaves our conversation deeply upset and disrupted by my challenge to her attachment to this idea.
Before I continue my story, let me be clear. I am not suggesting we cannot help each other tap into our personal and collective power across lines of race. Nor am I suggesting that our racial identities prescribe what we can and cannot do for each other, even across different lived experiences. I am though, tackling this idea that the primary role of white people is to “help” in the way that Nellie meant. Our culture encourages the unquestioned assumption that we, the white ones, are the baseline against which everyone else is measured. Our culture encourages the unquestioned assumption that our very whiteness means we hold the necessary qualifications to uplift and empower those we have continuously disregarded, violated, and thrown away, both physically and psychically. And I notice how often we get stuck in the either/or binary which in this case is playing out as "if I can't do what I thought, then there is no role for me." Either I can help or I can't. Investigating the complexity of "help" is not an option we can even perceive.
I reach out to Nellie several times in the following weeks, only to be met with resounding silence.
Those of us who are white are deeply invested, many of us, in the narrative that we are the normal ones with an obligation to help. We are deeply conditioned into the belief that we are uniquely qualified to fix the problems we created in the first place. We are almost never encouraged in this culture to realize that we are also and actually the broken ones.
I think about the story of the desegregation of my Southern high school in the mid 1960s, which followed a pattern across that region where School Boards deliberately and relentlessly closed historically Black schools. White School Board leaders forced Black students into classrooms of majority white students, most of whom had never been in a classroom with a Black student before. They forced Black students to be taught by white teachers, most of whom had never taught a Black student before, using a curriculum that failed to reflect either Black experience or intellect. They forced Black students into a cultural assumption of deficit, and then blamed them for their poor school performance. Either you're a good student or you aren't. And we decide, not you.
I think about the innumerable efforts since to address the “achievement gap,” efforts that continue to position Black and Brown and Indigenous students as “less than” or lacking while assuming white students are the desirable norm. I think about programs created to “help” BIPOC students meet the achievement standard of white students while assuming that white students have nothing to learn and do not need to change.
I think back to a workshop I was facilitating over a decade earlier. In that workshop, another young white woman about the same age as Nellie, along with an older white logics professor from a nearby university, were sitting in the circle. We had broken into affinity groups where those who identified racially as white met together and separately from the BIPOC participants. I was leading those gathered in the white caucus in an activity designed to help us think about our own participation in and collusion with white supremacy and racism as one way to help us understand the transformative power of understanding our own conditioning.
At one point, the young white woman began to cry. Unlike Nellie, whose tears flowed from a sense of despair at not being able to fill the role she felt destined for, this young woman was crying because she was feeling in her body and bones the emotional cost of the ways that white supremacy and racism had positioned her to participate. When I asked her if she wanted to share, she revealed in a halting and tear-choked voice that she was questioning her very right to take up space on the planet. She was feeling the : either I'm good or I'm bad and given the power of white supremacy and racism, I must be bad. I understood her question both as an extreme reaction and a deeply felt response to the ravages of racism on white bodies and psyches as we are taught to internalize our own superiority at the expense of others.
The logics professor spoke up next. He suggested that one way to “solve” her emotional pain was to genetically disappear BIPOC communities and people, which he explained could be easily done. His “reasoning” was that if we were to erase Black and Brown skin, there would be no racism. He failed to notice, for he loudly claimed no racist intent, how his suggestion assumed that white skin was the desirable choice in an echo of white nationalist calls for racial genocide. He never considered that the logical choice, if talking about erasure, was to do the easier thing and discard whiteness. The most toxic either/or of all, we exist or you don't. And we decide, not you.
This is the power of white supremacy culture, a culture that constantly teaches us those of us who are white that we are both the norm and better. Nellie felt she had no role at all if she could not “help” the “disadvantaged other” to become whole. She felt this so deeply that she could not allow herself to consider that she might be the one who needs help. Another young white woman felt the cost of this teaching. And the white logics professor claimed a solution of erasure.
Our conditioning into racism, those of us who are white, is fathomless and intense. In its more obvious forms, we overtly claim our superiority. The trickiness of white supremacy and racism, though, is how often they show up in more covert forms, making them so much harder to name, to catch, to interrupt. This internalization of our own superiority based on our membership in the white group is one of those often subtle and nonetheless deadly beliefs that both keep racism in place and separate us from our own humanity as well as the humanity of those we position as “less than." Because we can, according to this culture, only be one or the "other."
Several of the racial equity principles apply as antidotes to either/or and binary thinking. You might want to review them all to see which might prove most helpful.
One simple way to build connection is to acknowledge our experience as ours without requiring or needing or assuming that others are having the same experience. One way we can do this is through the simple use of "I" statements. Speaking in generalizations often causes disconnection. For example, in a gathering or meeting when someone says how well the group is doing in creating a sense of trust when I don't feel trust or I know there is someone in the group who is struggling - that simple generalization causes (often unintentional) disconnect. Shifting to an "I" statement allows the speaker to say "I feel a sense of trust" without claiming to speak for the experience of everyone in the group. Stating that we are not speaking for the group and only for ourselves is also a bridge builder. Speaking for ourselves also deepens our self awareness as we learn more and more to claim our own specific experience.
Contemplation is an exercise in keeping your heart and mind spaces open long enough for the mind to see other hidden material. (p. 34) ... it is a holding of a real tension, and not necessarily a balancing act, a closure, or any full resolution. It is agreeing to live without resolution, at least for a while. This is very different, and very difficult, for most people, largely because we have not been taught how to do this mentally or emotionally. (p. 107)
Non-polarity thinking ... teaches you how to hold creative tensions, how to live with paradox and contradictions, how not to run from mystery. (p. 132) A paradox is something that initially appears to be inconsistent or contradictory, but might not be a contradiction at all inside of a different frame or seen with a different eye. (p. 146)
Much of the universe seems to feed on paradox and the mysterious - everything from black holes to dark matter to neutrinos, which are invisible and weightless and yet necessary to keep matter and anti-matter from cancelling out one another. (p. 152)
Good leaders know there is no perfect solution. That is the lie and false promise of the dualistic mind, polarity, and all-or-nothing thinking. Good leaders know that every one-sided solution is doomed ahead of time to failure. It is never a final solution but only a postponement of the problem. (p. 157)