The Good/bad Binary


Barbara Trepagnier talked about what she called the “good/bad binary,” in her book Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide. She argued that by focusing on such a sharp divide, white people actually made it harder to interrupt racism.

Just before the dramatic incident that happened recently in Minneapolis to George Lloyd,  Robin Diangelo in her book called White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for White People to Talk About Racism, took up this concept. The book was a gift from my half Indigenous daughter in-law. I hope she was not trying to tell me something. The book did alert me to much more subtle forms of racism that are all the more pernicious on account of the subtlety.

Diangelo pointed out that before the Civil Rights Movement it was socially acceptable for white people to openly express their belief that white people were superior to other races. When white people noticed after the Civil Rights movement how many viciously many people from the northern US and Canada treated black people —even children—the luster came off racism. As Diangelo said, “After the civil rights movement, to be a good moral person and to be complicit with racism became mutually exclusive.” Only bad people were racists. Because of that attitude “racism first needed to be reduced to simple, isolated, and extreme acts of prejudice.” A person who kills a black man lying on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back by pressing his knee into the man’s neck clearly qualifies as a bad man. Such a man is a racist. None of us want to be a racist like that. Looking at racism this way limits racists to intentional, malicious, acts of violence or animosity based on dislike of members of another race. And those are clearly racists. The problem is that there are other racists. Racists that are much more subtle than that and hence able to actually inflict much greater harm, but harm that is not immediately as obvious.

After the civil rights movement most of us saw racists as white people, often from the southern States, who were mean, ignorant, old, usually uneducated, and malicious. Who would want to be part of that group? No one of course. In fact, as Diangelo pointed out, “Nice people, well-intended people, open-minded middle-class people, people raised in the ‘enlightened north,’ could not be racist.”

The problem with this attitude is that is makes the racist ‘the other.’ We cannot be racists. We can never admit that we are racists. That would be to admit that we are horrible people. And that just can’t be true. At least, no one can admit it. There must be some other explanation. There must always be some other explanation.

Of course, saying racism is bad was an improvement over openly acknowledging feelings of racial superiority. But if we accept the paradigm we cannot acknowledge ever that we are or have been racist. That would require us to condemn ourselves. And that is never easy to do. If I am called a racist I must defend myself. In fact if it is even suggested that I was racist I will concentrate all of my resources on my own defence. I cannot allow that to stand. And this prevents me from taking a close look at myself. And that is a bad thing. Diangelo explains the consequence of this attitude this way:

In this way, the good/bad binary makes it nearly impossible to talk to white people about racism, what it is, how it shapes all of us and the inevitable that we are conditioned to participate in racism. The good/bad binary made it effectively impossible for the average white person to understand—much less—interrupt racism.

Since whites are still the powerful majority in the US and in Canada that attitudes makes it very difficult to interrupt racism. And that is the problem. If we want to do better, we must ditch this attitude.

The point is that racism comes in many colours. Not just black and white. It is never that simple.


1 thought on “The Good/bad Binary

  1. why is diangelo’s thesis about the pernicious nature of discrimination considered so definitive? people of color have been saying this for decades already. the fact, that a white person has to say it in order for some white people to pay attention is reflective of the depth of the problem. it is racist actually.
    as a white person methinks she is far too confident, far to facile, no matter how many black intellectuals applaud.

    i am skeptical that this moment in history is so definitive. why will this not be just another bump in the road?
    in fact, i think that the reflexive response of white people to this latest chapter in the longstanding debacle is almost narcissistic, a response that actually avoids real change. white people are feeling good about feeling so guilty. at least from a scientific point of view feeling bad might not be the basis for long-lasting change. and diangelo wants white people to feel really bad. and a bunch of us apparently want to feel really bad. so she should be able to pontificate for a while yet.

    real change will demand coalitions among peoples of color. that is still not happening, at least at some critical mass. what white people do or don’t do is completely secondary, almost irrelevant. widespread coalitions will develop. we will lose power eventually.

    part of the resurgence of racism can be attributed to anxiety. white people subconsciously know that the game is up. the last 500 years of colonial and imperial hegemony are drawing to a close. we are only 10 percent of the globe’s population.

    the only question is whether the quality of mercy of the vast majority of people will or will not be “strained” when it happens. if they decide to take a “pound of flesh”, if they stop being as “patient” as they have been, white people better “watch out.” the apocalypse will be upon us.

    “pray without ceasing and gird your loins.”

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