The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

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DEC 20-JAN 21 Issue
Editor's Message

Notes from a Sunken Third Place

“I’m interested in how we are able to move forward through an ever-complicated world that is filled with complicated people.”

Portrait of Jasmine Wahi. Pencil on Paper by Phong H. Bui
Portrait of Jasmine Wahi. Pencil on Paper by Phong H. Bui

Part I

In the ebbing twilight of my euphoria, after a raucously joyful post-election Saturday, I am acutely aware of a looming and layered ambivalence I feel over this “win.” I have a sense of pride knowing that after 232 years, there is not only a woman in office but a woman who is both Black and South Asian American. On paper, it is the trifecta of what I want to see in a leader. But I also remember that there is still a lot of work to be done, and that now is not the time to be complacent. The Biden/Harris win does not signal the termination of necessary work. On the contrary, it is just the beginning of a steep uphill battle.

There are two things that terrify me as we embark on this new day, after such a long night: White Liberal Complacency (WLC) and the perpetuation of Hierarchical Binary Thinking (HBT).

White Liberal Complacency (WLC)*

The phenomenon of White Liberal Complacency (WLC) is rapidly draining the energy from our ongoing social justice movements. It is focussed on the “positive” moment of change, and not the deep structural and sustainable rethinking that is necessary.

It is a shortsighted vision. It sees the battle as the beginning and the end, and not for the historical longer struggle for equity and freedom that has been waging for nearly half a millennium. It is the temporary false hope that undermines real progress and perpetuates the optical illusion of visual diversity and tokenism instead.

The reality of white supremacy has been baked into the foundation of this nation. It has been a metastatic cancer that has festered since the first colonists touched the ground, with dominance in their hearts and profit in their minds. The levels of xenophobia, bigotry, and Klan-adjacent policies and rhetoric were not born with Trump. Rather, he is the chemical-colored byproduct of a system that was built on these ideologies. To be clear, WLC is not perpetuated by white people alone. Instead, it is part of an ingrained and pervasive culture that holds whiteness and white power as the standard or status quo. People of color—a term that seeks solidarity in opposition to, but in relation to whiteness—can also be guilty of enabling and mimicking the nefarious aspects of whiteness.

The danger in claiming the Biden/Harris win as a “victory” is that it breeds complacency and reinforces the status quo. It is an out, for those who hold power, and an excuse for many to stop fighting. It encourages a return to law and order, instead of justice and care. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best—almost 60 years ago—in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action.”

Without the active support and inertia of progressive white folx, we are doomed to slip rapidly back into our “normal.”

The “normal” of the pre-Trump era was fraught with entrenched violence and bigotry. America is a nation built on the oppression of Black, Indigenous, Immigrant peoples, particularly women, non-binary, trans, and Queer folks within these communities.

There are many reasons that the American “normalcy”—the zeitgeist which pits whiteness against all else—continues to exist. One such reason, which I assert is the primary reason, is our rigid commitment to Hierarchical Binary Thinking (HBT).

Hierarchical Binary Thinking (HBT)

Implementing binaries and creating social structures based on a dualistic method of thinking a tool of conquerors. Divide and conquer is not only a wartime tactic but a method of social maintenance.

On every level of American culture, we are conditioned to think in terms of competing and/or complementary binaries. From the dawn of our education to the culture that we consume, we are continuously plied with a dualistic framework.

Us and/or/vs Them
Me and/or/vs You
Black and/or/vs White
Up and/or/vs Down
Girl and/or/vs Boy
In and/or/vs Out

But how do these two-dimensional rhetorical binaries serve us as complicated and multidimensional beings?

What about the realities of the in-between?

What about the intersections?

What about the murkiness swishing around in the canyoning interstitial spaces between each binary structure?

How long can we pretend that the clay isn't coalescing at the base, only to expand and send fissures up the ivory pillars?

How long can we survive in a two-party system when we are not two-dimensional beings?

Not much longer.

Part II

I was 12,262 days old when Kamala Harris became the first South Asian and Black woman vice president. My thoughts about the VP Elect are complicated, but I am certain of one thing: representation matters. It disrupts the hegemonic “normal” idea of what power looks like and gives us the power to imagine a new day.

For the past 30 years, I have been obsessed (albeit not always consciously) with visibility and finding a place for belonging. This quest started conscientiously in kindergarten, with a complicated need to be both seen and invisible. Understandably, this is quite a conundrum for someone whose life hadn’t even broken double digits yet. The reality of not fitting into a single prescriptive box has resulted in a lifelong nagging dread that has subtly and subconsciously permeated beneath the surface of my being since childhood. It is the result of existing in a world so rigidly defined by binary architectures that refuse to see us. Instead, they demand we bend, and break, as we shapeshift and code-switch to survive.

But there is only so long that we can exist in a phase of temporary stasis, molding ourselves into singular packets that are bursting at the seams. We cannot persist in this charade. Duality cannot, and will not contain us.

At a certain point, in the not-so-distant future, the dam will break. It must break, or we will simply shrivel into oblivion like so many once-rotund roses pressed between the sheets of a journal.

So how do we avoid the path we continue to tread on. How can we, as creatives and culture-makers shift away from an inevitable fissure into the abyss?

My theory for the moment, or perhaps less of a theory and more of a proposed solution for our world writ large, is to tear everything down. What does that mean? We—the collective we, meaning every single one of us—are pluralistic, multi-functional, multidimensional, complicated, layered, and complex beings who need to stop trying to fit into a decidedly dichotomous, and rigidly binary world. We are amorphous shifting polyhedrons trying to conform and blend into a flat plane.

The only way to resist and find our way out of the conundrum we find ourselves in is to truly see the reality of our limited space.

Part III

I am the child of immigrants—the first in my family to be born and raised in this country. Everything I know about running a business from the ground up I inherited from my father, who is not only an entrepreneurial guru but also an endearing armchair philosopher. My sense of creativity and scrappy spice (aka my “aunty energy” aka “boss lady energy”) I inherited from my mother. I often wonder what it was like for them to navigate this place as new immigrants …

As I write this note, I’m listening to my mother on the phone—she is using her phone voice. “Phone Voice” is the ultimate metaphor for code-switching. Though it seems minute, Phone Voice is a hangover of a type of hierarchical binary structure that predicates whiteness as “proper,” professional, or more valid than the accented English that my parents typically speak. One could assert that this type of code-switching is about assimilation. But perhaps it is time that we move beyond surviving within white supremacy and assert our real voices?

With this turning of the political tides and the disruption of tradition that comes with Vice President Harris’s election, I hope that my nagging fear about White Liberal Complacency and Hierarchical Binary Thinking is wrong. My sincerest hope for the future is that we dismantle the binary, in all its forms, and make room for the possibility of building new futures that are as complex and flexible as we are.

With this Brooklyn Rail issue, I’m making a small contribution to the massive task before us.

About the Issue

For this issue, I sought the company of colleagues/friends with whom I’ve had numerous discussions on what is holding this nation back—not just in the Trump era, but as a whole. It is no secret that we are also at the cusp of a new digital era that reinforces binary thinking. We are in a moment where cancel culture teeters on the edge of erasing nuance—particularly in “progressive” sociopolitical spaces, including the art world (see: postponement of the Philip Guston retrospective). Here is the question we must ask ourselves: What is at risk when we sink deeper into “either/or” or “us/them” or “normal/other” thinking? Is the preservation, nay, the aggressive perpetuation of rigid dualities not the first slippery step towards fascism? Can we truly live multidimensional lives in these two-dimensional systems? Are we doomed to crumble without a third option to turn to?

These are the questions I posed to the contributors whose work you will find herein. I asked them each to submit work: poetry, prose, design, self-reflection, advice, based on the following prompts.

  • Disrupting binary structures both/and/or within the cultural space and in larger social scapes
  • Addressing cancel culture in a cultural world that seems to be treading into territory akin to censorship and/or revisionism.
  • Creating nuance within conversations around intersectionality, identity, and belonging within the cultural space.
  • Making visible the invisible in ways that are amplified, but not exploitative.

Primarily I’m interested in how we are able to move forward through an ever-complicated world that is filled with complicated people. My foremost hope for the future is that we can combat the trend of invisibilizing or canceling that which makes us uncomfortable.


Jasmine Wahi

is the co-director of Project for Empty Space, and the Holly Block Social Justice Curator at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. She lives in Brooklyn with her dog, momo.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

All Issues