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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Double Bind and Cheap Grace (Part 1)

Please welcome guest writer, Jorge Juan Rodriguez V, a DiaspoRican who graduated in May from Gordon College with degrees in Biblical Studies and Christian Social Thought. In August, he will move to New York City to pursue an MA in Theology at Union Theological Seminary. This post originally appeared on his own blog and you can follow him on twitter here!

In her essay titled “Oppression,” Marilyn Frye speaks of the perpetual confinement of oppressed groups. She writes, “One of the most characteristic and ubiquitous features of the world as experienced by oppressed people is the double bind –situations in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure or deprivation” (Frye, 150). Colloquially, the double bind forces the socially underprivileged individual to “never win.” Race relations provide a perfect arena for the double bind to manifest.

Within a dominant, majority culture/race/ethnicity, individuals in minority cultures/races/ethnicities can often feel discrimination or micro aggressions that constantly make them aware of their minority status. The minority may feel “outside the norm,” offended by statements made, constantly under a microscope where he/she needs to defend their position purely because it is different than the majority, and perpetually wonder if their marginalization is or is not due to their culture/race/ethnicity. Being part of the majority, and therefore the dominant “norm,” affords the privilege of not feeling perpetually marginalized or questioning what cultural/racial/ethnic identity has to do with isolation.

But here is where we find the double bind. The minority feels isolated, frustrated, and as if part of their core identity is constantly facing micro aggressions. To not speak up against these aggressions is allowing them, and therein isolation, to continue. Yet, in speaking up against the aggressions, the majority –i.e. the dominant “norm”- begins to feel frustrated and upset that the minority is offended. Statements often come from the majority like “it’s not a big deal,” “why are you so sensitive,” “you shouldn’t be so uptight.”

These statements inherently delegitimize and invalidate that the minority is hurt, offended, and frustrated in an arrogant way. Arrogant because the underlying assumption is that because I would not be offended in that way, you are being ridiculous to feel that way in this situation –disregarding any sense of social privilege. Thus the double bind is complete: if the minority speaks up against his/her isolation he/she is attacked for doing so and their experience is delegitimized, yet if he/she doesn’t, the aggressions that cause frustration and isolation continue.

To apply it to a concrete example: at an institution I’m affiliated with, a black student was once greeted “what-up nigga” by a white, male student who saw the black student walking toward him and his group of friends. When the black student responded to the white student, respectfully expressing his frustration with the white student’s use of that term, the white student and his friends responded decrying that the black student was making it a bigger deal than it was. Their justification was that black people use the word with each other so they felt justified joining in that experience. The white student insisted that the black student was making a bigger deal of the situation than it was and dismissed entirely that offense was taken.

Without entering into whether or not the N-word should be reclaimed by the African-American community, let’s examine the situation from the perspective of the double bind. If the black student didn’t respond to the situation, he would have carried the pain of the statement while the white student continued thinking it was an act of solidarity. However, in responding to the white student, the black student was called “too sensitive” and was further ostracized from the group. No matter the response, the black student lost.

The double bind is so strong that some people will even dismiss my articulation of this story. Some individuals who read this will take the 'too extreme approach' and say, “of course the black student should have been offended, that word is offensive.” Individuals who take this approach completely miss the double bind the black student faced by arguing that the example was too extreme to be reality.

Others will try to employ the 'friendship approach', contesting that if the students really were friends, the white student would never make such a statement. But this sentiment also dismisses the social complexity of the double bind. What if the black student attends an institution that is overwhelmingly white and the only friend group he can have is outside his own culture/race/ethnicity. If the surroundings are homogenous and the white students all agree with the comment made by the white individual, whom does the black student have to turn to? Addressing the situation with the white students ostracizes the black student from some of the only potential friends he can have. Not doing so will make him feel simultaneously accepted and isolated from the group.

Others still will take the 'statistics approach' and argue that this example is only one isolated incident and that doesn’t account for the experience of all black students. This approach dismisses the double bind by quantifying the black students experience and saying it is legitimate only if others also have this experience. Further, it discounts the fact that other people might feel that way but don’t speak up because they themselves are under a double bind, thus skewing statistics. While dismissing the double bind, this approach reinforces it.

But perhaps, the greatest way this might be dismissed is by the 'cheap grace approach.'

Stay tuned next week to learn how we as Christians contribute to the double bind...


  1. Yes! I've been thinking a lot about the double bind for another kind of oppressed group lately. I think it's a critical concept for anti oppression work, but I hadnt seen anyone apply it before this. I look forward to part 2!!! In particular, I think the double bind is powerful for understanding how isolating and crazy making it can be to live in a "friendly" environment where "allies" have not done their own work. Even when the behavior is out right toxic, the culture of nice demands that the alienated person stand down for the sake of appearances and some fake sense of unity and conflict avoidance.

  2. Great points! How does the double bind manifest itself in church settings, where we like to see ourselves as friendly and welcoming, whether or not we actually are? Part 2 will get at some of this with regard to idea of 'grace,' but there is really so much to dig into with these ideas.


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