By Sharmadean Reid
We recognise that by being predictable women, we are easier to control. By ticking a box, by clicking an ad, by submitting a like, we are saying - this is all we stand for. So we scramble the algorithm and slide along a spectrum of our beliefs. We do not put ourselves in either/or scenarios, we are flexible and mutable and we explore the facts of a story, seeking all points of view to support us in formulating our own. We won’t be drawn into simplistic mind games of a forced and safe decision for acceptance. We won't be backed into a corner of narrow-minded beliefs. We feel into the grey, seeking the space between, and make the call that that is where we will reside.
I have never been able to fit neatly into a category. Even as a child, my mixed Jamaican and Indian heritage meant there was never a tick box on the form for my Caribbean-Asian ethnicity. I came from a low-income household, yet my literacy was high. I had devoured every book on the reading shelves as I entered my final year of primary school. I wore pigtails, but I played football. The first two cassette tapes I ever owned were Notorious B.I.G and Gustav Holst, The Planets Suite. It made it difficult for people to figure me out as I always seemed to lie outside the edges. Sometimes it delighted them. Sometimes it frustrated them. But why?
Zeros and ones, zeros and ones. Humans like pattern and order, they like boxes and pigeonholes and things that make it easy for their brains to recognise what is in front of them. You can be a Mom but you can’t work. You can be a Virgin or Whore. You can be Ambitious or an Introvert, but you can’t be both. But what about the space between?
As a child, it was fun to shapeshift and take on different roles, but as I got older and especially as I got into relationships, there was an expectation to conform. Women are often expected to fit into narrow and predefined roles, behaviours, and beliefs that limit our ability to fully express ourselves and explore our potential. These expectations are a like a strait jacket that can create a kind of binary thinking, where we are forced to choose between two opposing options that are presented to us.
Binary thinking is a mindset that is characterised by a rigid and limiting view of the world. It involves firmly held beliefs on what is right/wrong, good/bad, or male/female. This kind of thinking can be useful in certain situations, such as when making quick decisions or solving problems that have clear-cut solutions. However, when applied to complex issues or human behaviour, binary thinking can be limiting and can lead to narrow and simplistic viewpoints.
Your belief in a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ is set very early. Mine was set by Black parenting and by my family Church. From small actions such as - it’s wrong as a woman to sit with your legs wide open, all the way to - we don’t eat pork as it’s unclean meat, I’ve been culturally guided by my caregivers as to the either/or options for group acceptance.
It was around aged thirteen that I started to question these binaries. My flexible belief system couldn’t comprehend an Us VS Them. I couldn’t figure out why some religions were bad and some were good if we all are meant to show compassion and love. I couldn’t make sense of why I wasn’t allowed to do Technology and study Art at school, I had to choose. It seemed nonsensical to me that I couldn’t play football with my male friends and be seen as a feminine figure. In addition to this, as I was coming into my womanhood, the most damning judgement of all was around being a sexual woman. It was seemingly impossible for me to enjoy sex and be seen as a moral woman. As I dove deeper and deeper into some of these tenets set by the world around me I realised that I do have the option of opting out. Of choosing the grey area.
I have always found gender roles limiting. When I have tried to play a pure “female” part as designated by culture, I simply feel trapped. The most basic trap is to either be a "good wife and mother" or to pursue a career, rather than being encouraged to find a balance between these roles or to design our own unique path. I adore being a mother, and I adored my career. While I never got it perfect, I am proud of the way I made it work. But there are many times when I was put into a box through criticism and it was hard for me to fight my way out. Similarly, I’ve always found the role of being aesthetically driven and intellectually curious a difficult one to play. I’ve been in rooms of technologists who can’t place me because my eyeliner is done to perfection. I wasn’t allowed to be hot and studious.
Eventually, I realised that holding a Binary Identity can bring a lot of confusion and shame. The criticisms I have received from others may have been their unresolved shame at being forced to play a dutiful feminine role. My ambiguous identity was a muddy mirror to their standards. My own self-criticisms playing in my head were also the same voice. When we don’t deal with this shame internally, we direct that shame outward. And then you begin calling women sluts. Or deriding working mothers. Or being disgusted with someone who displays their naked body proudly. Or cancelling or trolling someone online. It results in a warped, hateful and predictable sense of what is right and wrong, instead of fully embracing the complexity of the human condition.
The Binary Identity is also easily manipulated. Binary thinking suits advertisers, media and politicians by creating a world in which they can sort you and predict your choices. They can sell to you with ease. They know your insecurities because, in part, they manufactured them. They know what to say to you to swing your vote. And tdouble down on the issues that are most divisive, instead of designing policies that work for us all. We are living in polarising and disturbing times and non-binary thinking can help limit their control.
As a child, it was fun to shapeshift and take on different roles, but as I got older and especially as I got into relationships, there was an expectation to conform.
This doesn’t mean that you stand for nothing. Have strong opinions, weakly held. Trust your intuition, while also challenging it. Non-binary thinking involves questioning the "either/or" thinking that is so prevalent in our society and recognizing that there are often more than two options in any given situation. Ask yourself why you feel so strongly about something, particularly if it has zero impact on you. Seek out diverse perspectives on any given issue and challenge your own assumptions. Be comfortable with uncertainty. You may not receive any concrete answers, and for a non-philosophical mind, this can feel unresolved and irritating. But what would it mean to be fluid, nebulous and operate in the space between? Rather than choosing a side, have you ever thought about the power that comes from being a free agent?
Practising non-binary thinking can help us break free from these constraints and develop a more open-minded and authentic approach to life. We become powerful by developing a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the world around us. We can learn to see beyond dichotomies and recognize the many shades of grey that exist in any given situation. Begin to research, fact-check and see all sides to a story. We don’t believe the first thing we see, we enquire about it. We get curious about it.
By avoiding binary thinking, you control your own narrative. Wherever your life is right now, you can call the shots and live authentically as you please. Ask “What's right for me right now?” rather than “What's right and what's wrong?” Your views are liable to change over time as your own circumstances do. At first, the grey can be lonely. Not falling into line makes it harder for you to be part of a group. But eventually, you may find that you attract others who share your open-mindedness and willingness to embrace the messy without causing unnecessary stress and conflict. By focusing on what's right for you at the moment rather than trying to fit into a particular mold or follow a specific set of rules, you can make choices that align with your own values and priorities, despite what anyone else thinks.
Cover Image: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, She holds a place in Georgia civil rights history as one of the first two African American students admitted to the University of Georgia. She broke the mold. Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash
*We recognise that by being predictable women, we are easier to control. By ticking a box, by clicking an ad, by submitting a like, we are saying - this is all we stand for. So we scramble the algorithm and slide along a spectrum of our beliefs. We do not
By Sharmadean Reid
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