Some people are shocked to learn that I chose to be a sex worker at one point in my life. Maybe this is because I don’t fit their expectations of who does sex work. I am white, middle class, university educated, from a loving family, and a long-time yoga teacher. What’s more, I talk about this time in my life openly, just like I would any former job. As is my intention, these conversations illuminate the good/bad binary of whomever I’m speaking to.
The good/bad binary is one of the very human ways we simplify decision-making. By predetermining how we feel about something, we give ourselves permission to not think critically about things on a case-by-case basis. On top of that, we almost always position ourselves as good with whatever is “other” being perceived as bad. Which is why in so many conversations what we’re really doing is defending and/or affirming our goodness.
In her book White Fragility, author Robin DiAngelo talks about the good/bad binary in relation to racism. She explains that the imagery from the civil rights movement of the 1960s solidified that to be racist was to be overtly violent towards Black people. With that, the social narrative shifted to support the false notion that white people couldn’t be racist if they weren’t hurting Black folx in obvious ways. They were the “good” white people.
The good/bad binary also affects our perceptions of money. It’s common for creative folx—who, in my experience, take issue with authority—to see money as bad because it’s used to uphold oppressive power structures. In truth, money is a neutral tool that can be used to empower people and/or to do harm. That being said, what we believe to be true about money matters because it shapes how we wield it.
One of the most liberating things we can do is separate ourselves from the good/bad binary. Whether we’re talking about sex work, the inherant racism of white folx—myself included—and/or money, the good/bad binary has us rushing towards a conclusion. And in our hurry to affirm our goodness, we miss out on the nuances and learning that’s available in the grey areas. Because being good isn’t the same as being awake.
Good and bad aren’t objective, empirical truths. They are a spectrum that shifts as social narratives shift. For this reason, they make lousy waypoints. Instead, maybe what we need instead of “good” is more empathy; a greater capacity to see and understand how someone’s experience is different from our own and also valid, even if we don’t want it for ourselves. Maybe empathy will allow us to see our own biases and -isms more clearly too.
When I tell people I used to be a sex worker, call another white person out on their racism or acknowledge my own or talk openly about money, it’s their shame that gets reflected back at me. Shame is “bad” and must be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, when shame takes over, we lose our ability to get curious. Not about our whether or not we’re “good” but about our capacity to be empathetic and see the world through another’s eyes.
So, how is the good/bad binary shaping your responses?