Yesterday, I was picketing pro-lifers outside an abortion clinic, in a sort of theatrical performance. It occurred to me as soon as I set foot there that the root issue at work is colonial brain-washing. It’s in our mass media, in our many of our history textbooks, in our public education system (our schools being designed like prisons), and in our religious institutions (which are themselves a sort of public education system). It’s represented in prevalent and often narrow attitudes of cultural chauvinism and reinforced by limited stereotyping, if and when any mention is made of The Inferior, whose unique identities are washed away by colonial labelling that differentiates them from The Superior. Everything we learn and share is in shades of black or white. We regurgitate and repeat at each other without thinking, and without exploring the possibility of grey, for we do not have the word in our vocabulary and cannot conceive of its existence.
And then we are released into the real world, completely oblivious to either the magnitude of what we’ve escaped, or of the possible scale of our liberation. But all we know to do is what we’ve been doing all along, and what we’ve been watching our parents, teachers, pastors and priests do around us. The very same things are repeated on our televisions, in film, in magazines, and in books. Our whole world, constructed for us entirely out of black and white. We are told, “Now you are free.” We are even told we are now free to compete in the free market system, which our parents ambitiously encourage, as the last thing any parent wants for their child is to sit this one out. And just about the last thing any young adult wants is to miss out on the opportunity to start doing all the things their parents have been telling them they can’t do “because it’s a school night.” School’s out. It’s time to embrace the Real World.
Then we get our first jobs. There is a familiar comfort in the conformity enforced upon us all at the workplace, and especially in the way that anyone who tends to challenge our programming from school and church and pop culture becomes an instant target to be shunned and shamed. It doesn’t take any of them long to learn how to conform to black and white. Or at least try, anyway. We struggle between finding a way to be anything other than our parents (anything other than the narrow selection of Ways Of Being we’ve been shown up to this point), while struggling not to stand out too much. Unless standing out is exactly what we want to do — social norms, parents, and especially pastors and priests be damned.
So we start exploring the Real World in all the places our schools and churches and homes tried to hide from us. The real Real World. And what happens there? But we find some people who stand out just as proudly as we do, and some others who stand out but something feels different about them. There’s something going on here, but what? We don’t have words for when this happens. We didn’t even know to know it happens in the first place. Which part of the truly Real World do we believe and which part is fake? We must be being tested, so we start testing too. Two can play at that game. Take that, Life! We rapidly gravitate towards those who stand out for the same reasons we do. We stand out together, to face the really Real World, united in our rejection of its cold and alienating black-and-white-ness, and especially the fakes who we decided are only pretending to do the same.
And how do we make that distinction? Well it starts with idle chatter, as these things tend to. Before long, it becomes about a shared understanding. Maybe even because we have shared experiences. Shared history. Shared knowledge. Shared ideas about how objective we are, as we observe and speculate about everyone else. What we don’t realize is that we are now perpetuating the very same brain-washing that has been perpetrated against us. We are doing the work of undoing the differences between people when we should be honouring them. And it only begins to hit us for the first time when someone ten years older starts speculating maliciously about our authenticity, the way we have been doing to everyone else.
If we take these moments as something to reject — or in Freudian terms, to abject — to spite the person inflicting them upon us, we can keep our world organized into black and white. We can live fiercely and uncritical of this decision. We can live believing that we know ourselves better than anyone else possibly could, without ever having invested in ourselves, the work of doubting all that we think we know about what’s inside. Or we can take these moments as something to engage with, and maybe learn from, and become bigger people than the ones who tried to lower us because they’ve missed the point of it all. We can learn as much about ourselves in this moment as we have just learned about these other people. We can live seeing and honouring ourselves in other people, seeking out everything we have in common with them instead of fishing for our differences.
We can choose to keep seeing the world through a black-and-white lens, without challenging ourselves to find out just how strong we are. Or we can choose to break down the bars and celebrate as they come down one by one. Immersing ourselves in black and white, at the same time, until we free ourselves from colonial brain-washing. Becoming swallowed up by the entire world as it really truly is—many wonderful, enriching shades of grey. Without Superior This and Inferior That, except those alien constructions of human worth that shape our daily experiences in schools and churches, in front of televisions, computers and film screens, and at work. None of it means anything except whatever value we give to it and hold to it in the face of challenges.
If you want my advice, I say dive in and find yourself. You are everywhere and everyone already.