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Mental Health & White Supremacy: Either/Or Thinking

There’s more than two ways to be.

For most white people, being called a racist is unbearable. I have interacted with white people* who have comfortably shared openly racist beliefs and yet they will still balk at being called a racist. There is something about this term and this idea that strikes many white folks to their very core, that ignites such shame that they are able to generate a cognitive dissonance so strong it can, in one breath, espouse an incredibly racist belief while also saying, how dare you say I am a racist?

This is the power of either/or thinking.

If we can hold a rigid line — you are either racist, or not racist — then you can safely deposit yourself in one camp or the other. And you will seldom (though they certainly exist) meet a white person who will confidently say, “Yes, I am a racist.”

If we hold to these binaries, we lose precious gray space that allows us to take accountability and responsibility for harm that we cause (this is also related to the white supremacy tenet right to comfort). The shame of being called a racist often leads us to shut down or become so defensive we don’t allow ourselves to examine that we said something that perpetuated racism, that hurt someone else, that caused harm. Many of us stay frozen in a state of panic, exercising mental gymnastics until we have found a loophole or external reassurance that whew, we are not racist! and we can rest now and move on. The alternative, of course, is to sit with what can be an incredible but necessary discomfort of confronting how we have internalized and externalized white supremacy, a discomfort that pales in comparison to the violence that white supremacy inflicts on all of us and most notably on BIPOC.

While examining how this relates to how we have internalized and externalized white supremacy, I invite you to consider other ways either/or thinking is creating harm in your life. Here are some common ways I see this show up in me, amongst my loved ones and the wonderful people I sit with:

  • I am either all good or all bad. If I even feel I have done or thought something bad, that means I am all bad. I am not allowed to have the nuance I naturally extend to others.

  • We get caught in a rigid binary of right or wrong without examining all the messages we have received over our lives that made us believe something was right or wrong, and without examining if we even agree with these messages.

  • We try to simplify complex situations into binaries instead of noticing that often in life, we are dealing with spectrums. I’ll use myself as an example. Sometimes I feel I am too passive. If I enter into either/or thinking, I hold a belief that I have to either be passive or its opposite, assertive. So in order to be better, I need to change and become assertive across all domains of my life. What if instead I noticed the areas of my life where being more passive has been helpful to me, or noticed the areas where I don’t mind being more passive? Maybe there are even times I value being more passive and see its benefits. Instead of deciding that I have to be all passive OR all assertive, I can instead notice the parts of my life I want to be more assertive in and practice in those areas. When I do this, I also notice I am much more compassionate to myself. I experience myself as a learner, someone who can grow and change, rather than someone who is wrong who has to change.

Want to explore some antidotes to either/or thinking? Check out this document from Tema Okun or this worksheet.

Interested in learning more about tenets of white supremacy culture? This document explains different facets, as does Okun’s website.

*While I believe that only white people can be racist (in a specific USA context) due to the structural and systemic nature of racism, I want to observe that people of all races and ethnicities can perpetuate white supremacy and cause harm.


Sam Barklow, LCSW, MSW, is a psychotherapist with a Master of Social Work (MSW) who provides individual and couples counseling. She is a warm and empathetic counselor who believes that all of her clients have the knowledge and abilities to feel more at peace and balanced in their daily lives. She views counseling as an opportunity for both her and clients to explore different perspectives, talk through emotions and practice new skills.

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