The Importance of Both/And in Times of Tragedy

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Written during the height of 2017’s hurricane season devastation, this piece is a strong call for Americans to fight the urge to retreat into rigid, polarized ways of social thinking in the wake of tragedy. As confusing as it is, Jessica Gjerde wants us to step into spaces where all of our complicated beliefs and identities can coexist. Trust Jessica for a moment and follow her into both/and thinking.


Last year was rough for the United States of America. Regardless of your political views, it is hard to ignore the enormous loss resulting from natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, senseless loss at the hands of individuals, and divisive either/or rhetoric bringing out the ugliest of humanity. We are being called to action, perhaps by something greater than ourselves, to find a way to come together as people.

In my last piece about being both/and in an either/or society on Involvio, I talked about the need to give folks agency to authentically identify themselves in a way that embraces evolution and imbalance. I shared my own feelings of isolation and rejection when trying to make myself fit into either/or spaces. My belief is that many people around the world feel this way because our systems and structures have not changed with us. Let me explain.

Accounting for History

Before I share my thoughts about the power of understanding both/and, it is important to acknowledge the history that created either/or and keeps it in power. I will be brief, but I encourage more reading on the history of race, particularly in the United States. Race is a social construct created and sustained for many reasons, but the most important is to justify and enable white supremacy.

While it is my belief that blurring our understanding of race and racial identity formation (both/and) is imperative to dismantling the social confines of race, I also acknowledge the fact that we have made race very real in education, economics, politics, and every other major system stratifying society. Dismantling and disentangling race from these systems feels impossible, but I have to hope and believe that it is not. As I mentioned in part one of this series, I have faith that higher education can lead the charge.

Acknowledging the Present

Although I write through the lens of being multiracial, I am guessing there is some universal experience with folks not fitting neatly into either/or spaces. Whether it is your gender, class, race, or religious identity, we live in a time of growing acceptance for fluid ways of relating to our identities that exist on a continuum. We are seeing the resistance to this in the form of white supremacy. It was blatant at the white supremacist (alt-right) rally in Charleston, and it was blatant in our delayed, sub-par response to Puerto Rico’s cry for help. An island filled with U.S. citizens was in crisis, and the best excuse for not helping them right away our president could come up with was pesky “big water”.

The reality is that none of the people native to Puerto Rico are considered white, and in a time when white supremacists (like our president) believe the salience and power of Whiteness is under attack, taking a few extra days at the risk of losing non-white lives is completely rationalized.

Look at his recent comments about the “shitholes” many of our immigrants of color come from. This type of polarizing discourse enforces either/or. It tells us to retreat into communities of people who look, think, and act like us. Violence replaces respectful dialogue, and willful ignorance replaces growth and learning. We become the strongest defense against our collective liberation, and only a select few reap the benefits.

Achieving a Better Future

Demographically, we know the future will look different. We also know that any positive, meaningful change to our society has been historically met with resistance, violence, and new forms of oppression. If that last statement is not something you agree with, I recommend the documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay.

Achieving a better future with different outcomes will take a different approach. It will take a new understanding of humanity and our relation to one another. We have to be willing to live in that messy, fluid space of both/and that allows us to connect authentically with agency outside of either/or systems that seek to keep us from liberation. I think the generation that can do that is coming down the pipeline, but we MUST be ready for them!

I am currently studying as a doctoral student in higher education at the University of Arizona. Though it is early in my academic career here, I am hoping to expand on this and generate data to support my hypotheses on both/and. I hope that it will be embraced by the field because we are in a unique position to help empower and inform the next generation, and I am holding on to all the optimism I have left in these times of tragedy that they can help liberate us all.

Feedback is, as always, encouraged and welcomed. You can connect with me on LinkedIn, Twitter, or email me at


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