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Challenging either/or thinking

Thinking about the fight to end white supremacy can sometimes feel like trying to break through a supposedly impenetrable wall. It can seem daunting and impossible. It can sometimes feel hard to imagine a world without that wall. However, as history has shown us, progress can be made with collective effort and action. Alone we may not be able to break through, but, as one of many, we will realize our goal. We have to keep building our movement, and challenging the way white supremacy presents in our work, as well as in our personal lives. If we keep pushing, we will win, and we will not only break, but demolish that wall. Change on a larger scale starts with change on a smaller scale.

True liberation rests on the other side of that wall.

If that seems like a lot, never fear! We happen to have an amazing resource from the anti-racist activist Tema Okun to help guide the way. There is an awesome document, created by Tema, that breaks down the characteristics of white supremacy, and provides insight into how to remedy them. This piece comes from a vast body of work that has been compiled by Tema and others to fight back against the white supremacy. So far, we’ve examined “individualism”, “perfectionism”, "paternalism", the concept of there being only “one right way”, feeling a “sense of urgency”,“quantity over quality”, and “defensiveness”. This week we are going to discuss the problematic way of thinking in terms of either/or.

What is “either/or thinking” and what does it mean?

This type of thinking falsely creates a binary for navigating the world. It proclaims that there are only two options for every decision made, and reduces decision making to simply making the “right” choice or the “wrong” choice. Buying into this way of thinking increases the likelihood of perpetuating other characteristics of white supremacy. “Perfectionism” and feeling a “sense of urgency” are both encouraged by this mode of thinking because it puts a lot of pressure on people to quickly make the “correct” decision.

Another problem with this mode of thinking is that it makes it difficult to manage conflict, evaluate the value of different ideas, and to learn from mistakes.

Finally, it is often used by those with an agenda, who see the issue in black and white, to push for the outcome they desire without taking time to be creative and explore other possibilities.

So how does this relate to social justice issues?

As was mentioned above, this type of thinking encourages the white supremacist cultural traits of “perfectionism” and feeling a “sense of urgency”. If there are only two options, it follows that decisions would need to be made “quickly” and “correctly”, so as to avoid “failure”. If there are only two options, one good and one bad, then the stakes are high to choose the right one. If this mindset takes hold in social justice work, it can lead to rushed decisions, and to decisions that do not lift up the most marginalized. If choices are made from a place of thinking we either get to have this or that, it is likely that the chosen path does not accommodate multiple needs and viewpoints. This is a problem because multiple needs and viewpoints are a prerequisite to enacting socially just changes and policies. Furthermore, people, and the world at large, do not exist in a binary.

The world (and all things in it), exists on a spectrum, with many choices available to us at any given time.

What can we do to fight it?

Luckily for us, Tema has provided some antidotes to this type of thinking! One great way to challenge this type of thinking is to call it out when you see it, and remind folx that there are multiple ways to approach a task. This is especially important to do when it seems like important decisions are being rushed, and that the stakes are high. You can encourage people to slow it down, and to consider all options and solutions to a challenging situation. Allowing people to take a break and think about it is also good practice. Most importantly, avoid making decisions under extreme pressure.

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