Leadership Library Review — “Proud AND Critical: And-Thinking Applied to Critical Race Theory” by Barry Johnson (Polarity Partnerships, September 2021)

October 2021

If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright…./For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it./If only we’re brave enough to be it.    Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”

What are the big take-aways?

In his brief article “Proud AND Critical,” Barry Johnson, the originator of “polarity thinking,” puts his finger precisely on the fact that one’s love of country – one’s patriotism and pride – need not be affected in any way whatsoever by also recognizing how our country does and does not yet live up to its ideals.  “Being proud and motivated by our county’s ideals of ‘liberty, justice and equality for all’ comes with it a constant vigilance to live up to those ideals,” he asserts.  In other words, when it comes to the current controversy over critical race theory (i.e., the legal, social, etc. history of African-Americans in the United States), Americans have the choice to make a elevating move: we can apply an AND rather than do an OR.  We can both be proud of our nation AND act on the gaps between its aspirations and its realities. 

Why do I like it?

Paradoxically, it’s whether we are able, as a citizenry, to hold this AND that actually becomes the win-OR-lose proposition!  Johnson observes, “When we assume that we must choose between being proud of our country Or critically comparing our actions to our words and addressing any disparities, we create a false choice in which our country loses regardless of the choice.” 

I like Johnson’s message because, as part of my leadership philosophy, I believe in a fluid view of history that is informed by as many perspectives as possible as they are uncovered or emerge.  I favor seeing history as a panoply of continually-widening vistas into racial and gendered and ecological and infinite other data points, which cumulatively offer an ever more complex – and provocatively confounding – web of the past, for the sake of exposing present-day patterns.  When our triumphs, traumas, declarations, denials and assumptions are illuminated, they can then be consciously explored, integrated and – if we so choose – transmuted into healthier life-affirming systems. 

To my mind, the essence of Johnson’s piece is that the existence of myriad contradictory narratives does not invalidate anyone’s individual truth, AND our society can only thrive on its fullest scale, together, in our whole collective truth: this is not a zero-sum game!  As the leaders of our lives, what we can do is talk to ourselves about ourselves in self-compassionate ways that enlighten and include everything. We can choose to tell a grand multi-dimensional story about our evolving culture that is much larger than our incomplete, fixed and conflicting smaller ones.  We just have to nurture the courage within us (and role-model the vulnerability for each other) to inhabit the AND, which is another word for love.  “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it./If only we’re brave enough to be it.” 

In what situations would this be useful?

If you are, like I am, thoroughly (re-)galvanized by the racial justice movement sparked by George Floyd’s murder AND shocked by the prevalence of violence – toward others as well as self-inflicted – which plagues white men in America, Barry Johnson’s approach to polarity thinking (and that of his protégé Kelly Lewis, in her collaboration with Brian Emerson), can be transformative.  While I struggle to make sense of what is happening in the United States right now, for reassuring guidance I turn again and again to John Lewis’s idea of “love in action,” and all kinds of other phenomena that also shine light – to me, by me, through me and “as me.”

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

There are endless sources of light, of course, but what Barry Johnson’s piece about critical race theory brings to mind is the prophetic life of James Baldwin, whose biography and writing I’ve been studying lately. Being a queer African-American intellectual and citizen of the world during the Civil Rights era, Baldwin’s very existence was a mirror he held up to many willfully-emblinded systems in our country, which he did at his peril out of love for America.  Nearly 60 years ago Baldwin wrote presciently about the prescription for resolving the problem of our racialized society: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” 

Although he died in 1987, Baldwin foresaw what could happen if a critical mass of Americans in the heat of our present moment is unable to muster enough self-accepting, courageous responsibility to be the light rather than the flames:

Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”

May we merge mercy with might, might with right, and change the history of the world.

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