Four ways the Black/White Binary ought to concern White People

This spring in Applying the Analysis, many of our colleagues of color have written poignantly about the impact and implications of the Black/White Binary. They have clearly delineated how the Black/White Binary functions as a divide and conquer strategy among communities of color, how it keeps People of Color from fully understanding each other’s histories, and ultimately how it keeps People of Color from battling the true common enemy of White Supremacy. To continue the conversation, we want to examine the issue of the Black/White Binary from the perspective of those of us who identify as White, how we continue to reap the benefits of a society built on a foundation of White Supremacy, and what we might do to begin to disrupt the Black/White Binary in our own circles.

1. The Black/White Binary Maintains White Supremacy and Unearned Power and Privilege

The true power of the Black/White binary is that it functions to support White Supremacy in our society and institutions.  That is its function and aim, and it has a very successful track record. While White Supremacy remains unexamined, White people continue to reap economic, material, psychological and social benefits we have gleaned for centuries. The Black/White binary’s divide and conquer dynamic among People of Color allows White People to continue to retain and expand societal benefits while People of Color fight over the scraps that fall of the White Supremacy table.  Our goal then as White People is to constantly be aware of how White Supremacy is supported by the Black/White Binary.  If White People truly want to disrupt the historical patterns of White Supremacy, we have to diligently reject the false logic of the Black/White Binary.

Take for instance, Joy’s experience growing up White in North Dakota. The narrative around race in North Dakota at the time, and likely still today, was that “racism” occured when White People mistreat Black people. Because there were so few Black people in North Dakota (the reasons for which could constitute another blog post), North Dakota did not have a problem with racism. The fallacy of the Black/White binary allowed North Dakotans to believe that they had didn’t have to deal with racism because of the small Black population of the state. Consequently, Joy and other North Dakotans could virtually ignore over a hundred years of theft, genocide, and disposition of American Indians. That issue was not even on the radar, even though the predominantly White, Scandinavian and German descendants of the European colonizers, continue to reap the benefits of lands seized under policies like the Dawes and Homestead Acts. Joy and her family continue to financially benefit from the land her ancestors had access to through homesteading, which was only available to White people. This adherence to a a Black/White binary around what constitutes racism maintains unexamined White supremacy and the benefits that come with it.

2. The Black/White binary’s historical myth allows us to deny that our entire society is affected by racism.

As White people growing up in the United States, our framework for understanding what little we do about race is often framed only by Blackness. White people, culture and history are considered normal, whereas Black people, culture, and history are viewed as “racial” and at the other end of a spectrum. This narrative leaves us no room to understand the racial implication of the genocide of millions of Native Americans and the theft of their lands and resources, the exploitation of Asian American labor in agricultural and industrial projects (e.g. the building of the transcontinental railroad), the robbery of lands that once belonged to Mexico and the subsequent mistreatment of the inhabitants of those lands and their descendants, nor our colonial and neo-colonial exploits in the Caribbean, Central and South America, Asia, and other locations around the world. Even the history and experience of Black people is distorted by this simplistic rendering of history.

For example, when Ryan reflects on what he learned about race and racism in his formal education, it went something like this: Once upon a time a group of Europeans fled oppression and moved to a vast, unoccupied continent to create a free society. Some of those Europeans were bad and enslaved Black people, but this was solved by Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation.” Some of those same bad white people, however, continued to mistreat Black people by creating “Jim Crow” laws, but this was eventually stopped by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. Now we live in a post racial society where even a Black man can become president. This obviously simplistic and incomplete understanding of race seen through the Black/White binary allows White people to be oblivious to other People of Color’s histories, and to avoid owning our part in the damage that our actions have done both in the past and present. It absolves us of having to work to fix or repair the carnage our ancestors left in their wake because we are ignorant of its very existence. We can even use the myth of the Black/White binary to deny the actual experience of Black people by turning it into something much more simplistic and trite rather than the complex reality that it is.

3. The Black/White Binary keeps us from working against our own dehumanization.

White people are also dehumanized by racism, and the Black/White binary hides this reality. The binary is a simplistic paradigm based on either/ or; good/ bad; wrong/ right; winner/ loser. Instead of recognizing we all regain our humanity and community if White supremacy is dismantled, the Black/White Binary with its either/or logic has White people fearing that if racism is eliminated we lose. We fear that we will lose our privileges and that Black people will oppress us once they are on the top. Take, for example, the recent claims by many White people of “reverse racism.” In these complaints we hear a deep fear of being on the bottom, because, in our heart of hearts, we know that we have created an “either/or” world and that we do not want to lose our position. What a powerful disincentive to work for justice, and those of us working for a more racially equitable society need to combat this falsehood wherever possible.

Moreover, the Black/White binary doesn’t leave room for the full diversity of humankind and thus doesn’t allow for healthy, resilient community. In his blog post, James’ Addington discusses how living in a diverse, interconnected community actually provides strength and resilience for all participants, whether they be humans or micro-organisms. The Black/White binary, however, creates a system in which instead of living in meaningful community, the set-up places White people in the role of oppressors who exploit others for our own gain. This causes broken relationships and isolation which goes against our human need for belonging and connection. Instead of being part of a differentiated, rich community life, we participate in our own dehumanization by robbing from others and weakening the very fabric that should exist to support all people, including ourselves.

4. The Black/White Binary keeps us from standing in solidarity with all People of Color to end racism.

If we don’t understand how we are all harmed by racism, White people will not be able to stand in solidarity with all People of Color to eliminate racism. How many times have we as White people been ignorant of not only our own racialized experiences and histories but also those of the various People of Color groups we seek to partner with? Moreover, remaining stuck in the Black/White binary could tempt us to try and help, save and fix Black people who we perceive to be the sole objects of racial oppression. We can also be tempted to use other People of Color group stereotypes to set some sort of imaginary standard for Black people and how they should comport themselves (See Laura Mariko Cheifetz’s blog on the Black/White Binary and the Model Minority Myth).

Another way we fail to stand in solidarity occurs when we observe the Black/White binary causing a division between Communities of Color and we simply back away and distance ourselves. We throw our hands up and say, “this is a People of Color problem, let them fight amongst themselves.” For example, as Antiracist White people we sometimes have the problematic notion that in order to be accountable to POC we have to listen to, follow and do whatever People of Color say. If the binary has them fighting with one another, however, we may find ourselves in a situation where we do not know who to follow or agree with. In this situation we may be tempted to take sides and align ourselves with one People of Color group as truly being more oppressed (or more to our individual liking). We need to be accountable to an analysis of racism that challenges the Black/White binary and includes all our histories and perspectives. Then accountability and solidarity doesn’t become about aligning ourselves with individual People of Color who we personally like the best.

Moving Forward

For those of us who identify as White and want to engage in the work of dismantling systemic racism we must heed the clarion call of our Colleagues of Color to continually push ourselves past the Black/White Binary. We must see the totality of racism and how we continue to benefit from it.  We need to hear the stolen stories, listen to People of Color from all racialized groups, be accountable to and stand in solidarity with a rich, complex analysis of racism that includes all People of Color (as well as ourselves!), and relentlessly work on our own internal transformation and that of our institutions. Antiracist White People need to be able to name the binary playing out when we see it and be proactive in disrupting it.

If this series of blogs has sparked your interest about understanding and interrupting the Black/White binary, we invite you to join us at Crossroads Leadership and Development Institute this summer in Chicago where we will continue to explore the construct of the Black/White binary and how we can continue to organize to transform our institutions into more racially just organizations.



Joy and Ryan Baiey

Joy and Ryan Baiey

Joy Bailey has been the Director of Organizing and Training for Crossroads since 2011 and has been a Core/Organizer Trainer since 2008. She has her Bachelor’s degree in Spanish Education and her Master’s in Socio-cultural Studies in Education, both from Western Michigan University (WMU). Formerly, Joy taught high school Spanish for six years in Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) and also taught courses on race and racism in education at WMU. Joy has been doing local antiracism organizing in Kalamazoo Public Schools since 2001. Although originally from North Dakota, Joy currently lives with her spouse in Chicago, IL.

Ryan Bailey received his BA in English Education from Western Michigan University, his MA in Educational Leadership from Michigan State, and is a Nationally Board Certified teacher. He has participated in a variety of professional educational experiences including a Fulbright-Hayes exchange to Senegal and presentations to the National Council of Teacher’s of English. Ryan’s antiracism development began and continues within the context of the organizing work of Crossroads and ERAC/CE. An avid home-brewer, vintner, writer, reader, outdoors man, cook, traveler, and tennis player, Ryan makes his home in Chicago, IL with his partner Joy.