Skip the zero-sum game and shoot for something better

How do you see the world? Is it an either/or, zero-sum game? Have you considered “both/and?”

Recovering from my addiction to whiteness (aka the “culture of white dominance,” aka “white supremacy culture”) requires that I practice living in new ways. I need to build new pathways in my brain, practice being different than I am when I’m swimming in whiteness, not noticing the water.

In my recovery from alcoholism, I found that sharing my personal experience with recovery is one way for other alcoholics to see their own alcoholism/addiction more clearly so they can find a path to recovery. When I write about racism, I tend to use a similar communication style. That is, I write about me and my experience of recognizing and recovering from my addiction to whiteness. I am not speaking for anyone else (whiteness wants me to assume everyone’s experience is like mine). That said, I have talked with enough white people about these issues to know I am not alone in these experiences. It turns out that holding conflicting truths and even conflicting ways of being in my head, heart, and body at the same time are skills I have needed to start practicing as I work on getting out of the water of whiteness.

White supremacy and racialized capitalism do not want me to learn these skills. Our systems of oppression want me to stay in an “either/or” framework, not a “both/and” framework. The dominant culture here in the USA wants us to believe it’s either you or me who will prosper. In The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee writes about the “zero-sum” way of viewing the world and how it harms all of us. She breaks down many of the practical losses we all suffer at the hands of systemic racism. It is clear that viewing the world as “us or them” hurts everyone and most of us—especially those of us who are white—don’t have much practice thinking in terms of both/and.

Add to that the fact that even within the “both/and” thinking, there are nuances and complexities that binary pairings don’t include. To address this, I am trying to relax the grips of perfectionism as I practice new ways of thinking and feeling and being. I want to break free from habitual patterns that keep me locked up in white supremacy.

Some examples of the simple “both/and” ideas I practice holding: working hard is important and resting is important; I’m a good person and I need to be better; and, it’s possible to feel both exquisite joy and deep sadness about the same thing.

Slightly more complex ideas are a part of my practice of “both/and,” too. Such as: mindfulness can be a powerful tool we can use to live in more embodied ways, in solidarity with people from all social locations and mindfulness has become a commoditized product supporting denial of oppression—a dangerous tool of white supremacy.

Then there are also other, deeper, nearly unbearable conflicting truths I practice holding. The absence of a clear binary is especially apparent here. For example: at any given moment, thousands of people across the world are dying of starvation or disease and my life is stable and comfortable; I am a good and loving person who believes in my core that everyone deserves dignity, love, respect and the systems of oppression that are literally killing Black and brown-bodied people were built for and continue to serve people like me and I have welcomed the protection of those systems (I am complicit) and I am doing what I can to break down those systems and my work dismantling white supremacy will make very little difference in the wider world and my work dismantling white supremacy can be transformational for me and those around me and, and, and, and, and…

In “Embracing Both/And: A Response to Linda Burnham,” Alicia Garaza writes that “liberation is rendered incomplete by an unwillingness to free ourselves from the very structures that we claim to abhor.” She continues, “to achieve freedom—and that requires work, a change of ingrained practices, habits, and ways of being that uphold the status quo.”

Using “both/and” instead of “either/or” may seem like an insignificant practice, but it has already had a profound effect on how I interact with the world. This simple change also has been surprisingly challenging, like it’s bending my brain!

But, by using this language and these thought processes I acknowledge immediately that there are many realities existing at the same time. Thinking about the world using the framework of “both/and,” brings a relational quality to my mind and body.

We are all interconnected. There are vast and multiple truths at every turn. In using “both/and,” I touch an openness and freedom I believe is connected with the larger indefinable spiritual powers that will bring us all together on the path of liberation, justice, and love.

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