Earlier this year, I came across a term that sums up the deepest source of conflict when it comes to simply communicating with people who are not Black. That term is diunital cognition (also known as diunital reasoning, diunital logic, and diunital worldview).
In short, it’s a “both/and” rather than “either/or” (dichotomous) worldview, but of course it’s more complicated than that. It’s a fascinating topic on its own, especially how it names, defines, and validates the surviving Africanisms in diaspora African people and communities. This is not just a cultural form, but an entire worldview. The fact that it still exists is frankly miraculous.
As amazing as these implications are, I want to talk about how this worldview tends to come into conflict with the dominant dichotomous worldview.
Case in point: The reaction to Melissa Harris-Perry’s article about the racial dynamics of how White liberals talk about President Obama.
In the dominant dichotomous discourse, people are either racist (bad) or not racist (good). So when a person tells someone with this dichotomous worldview that something they said or did could have racist implications, they see a challenge to their moral worth and thus their humanity. So, here come the “Prove racism exists” and the “I have Black friends” and the “I studied This or That Black Author” and the quotes from Martin Luther King. Not to mention the accusations of “reverse racism” and the chips on shoulders and the hating White people and so on.
And this leaves Black folks hurt, frustrated, tired, and confused when we see White people arguing vehemently against points we never made - and making the same damn arguments each and every time. And from there, we either lash out or shut down. To be frank, it’s more often the latter than the former.
This is not an excuse, just an observation.
What a dichotomous discourse fails* to recognize or acknowledge are the nuances and complexities of a diunital worldview, which can reveal themselves in subtle ways.
(*This is not to say that dichotomous discourse is useless. It is quite valuable in many, many circumstances - especially when finding information, interpreting events, or making decisions based on empirical evidence. The problem with dichotomous thinking is that it has dominated the way Western imperialist societies have interpreted the world even when it doesn’t fit the reality.)
In these conversations, the dichotomous worldview presents a constant drive for an absolute answer, that final verdict. There is a push to resolve the question once and for all. Which is fine, if that’s what everyone agrees to. But what often happens is that dichotomous logic is assumed to be operating, so you have the inevitable conflict between racist (bad) and not racist (good) people and actions, with the drive to prove this or that racist (bad)/not racist (good) once and for all.
Speaking only for myself, until proven otherwise (and this may be a personal failing of mine), I assume a certain level of basic human decency. But, like all humans, people make mistakes that don't always reflect their good intentions or their values. Being a Good Person(TM) does not prevent anyone from doing or saying something harmful, hurtful, or flat-out wrong. If I were convinced that the person I’m about to speak to is an unrepentant bigot, I would not bother wasting my time. So if you’re not an unrepentant bigot, but a person who’s genuinely trying to do the right thing, it doesn’t strike me as necessary to constantly make that explicit if I don’t want people to lose their shit.
(Come to think of it, I’d be insulted if someone did to me what I’m expected to do for White people - that is, reassure them of their essential goodness even as (or perhaps more than) I criticize their behavior. Maybe I’m weird, but that’s not how I treat grown-ass people. You do that shit with small children who are still learning the difference between unacceptable behavior and unacceptable person.)
But, I digress.
More often than not, when I approach these things, I do so with the intent of exploring the different facets of whatever we’re talking about.
You can see it on Tumblr. Take any discussion amongst Black women about our experiences as Black women. There is a richness and a vitality to the way our discussions unfold, whether online or in person. Not just in how we speak, but also in the way we listen. When you have a chance to observe and reflect, it’s a thing of beauty. However, this beauty requires a specific environment to thrive, and part of that environment is a diunital worldview.
You know what’s fascinating about these discussions? You don’t see a lot of debate. There can be differences of opinion, but not to the extent of trying to render the other participants’ experiences and perspectives invalid. In fact, the reaction to those who try to introduce that to the discussion is often quite harsh. That’s not because we’re Angry Black Women looking for an internet fight, but because this behavior is experienced as an invasive attack on how we understand and process our experiences. It’s policing, but it’s healthy policing, much in the same way that our immune systems resist harmful viruses and bacteria.
Of course, what a dichotomous worldview sees is not a different way of relating and communicating that has its own rules of engagement, but us being hostile (bad) when they were just trying to have a discussion (good). So, rather than expanding and enriching the conversation, what we get is a reductive, simplistic dynamic that renders it impossible to address anything except the most banal and vapid aspects of our experiences.
Hence, "shut up and listen."