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Examining Binary Thought And Empowerment Through Critical Theory

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Critical theory recognizes the imbalance of power in societies, and organizations, and schools. With the emergence and trends of internationalization and globalization, classrooms now consist of a diverse mixture of students from various cultures, languages and races. Educators recently began exploring the need for inclusivity and anti-oppressive pedagogy. As schools and political ideologies have shifted, critical theorists have become more visible, encouraging schools to raise awareness of social injustice and seek truths, as practiced by Aristotle (Gutek, 2015). Critical Theorists support the exploration of ideas and personal truths as an integral part of the educational experience (Ellsworth, 1989).

Critical race theory (CRT) adds the perspective of race to the exploration of self-worth and awareness (Ladson-Billings, 1998). The role that race plays in the power dynamic of education should be acknowledged to raise awareness of any society’s diversity and to understand its marginalized populations. As I develop my own philosophy of education, I realize that the concept of CRT is extremely relevant. As a person of color, I understand that race is one of the elements that defines me, but it is not my sole identifier.

In this paper, I shall provide insight into my own background and thought process by describing a trans corporeal walk I recently took while exploring the concepts of dyadic thinking and empowerment. I will argue that we should reject binary thinking, rethink the concept of empowerment, and realize how CRT plays an important role in oppression while recognizing that universal solutions are not the answer to such a complex problem.

Oppression Examined

Our culture claims that it celebrates diversity; but at the same time, it promotes a binary method of thought. Everything is either right or wrong, good or bad, liberal or conservative, love or hate. There seems to be no moderate or ‘grey’ area. This binary method of thought is closely tied to our views of oppression. For instance, the wealthy elite view themselves as powerful and on the ‘right’ side. The wealthy and powerful see the impoverished as ‘wrong’ and weak. Critical pedagogues such as Paulo Freire developed pedagogy that they believed would empower the oppressed and help them free their bodies from oppressive holds (Gutek, 2015). However, critics such as Ellsworth (1989) questioned the value of empowerment, highlighting that critical theorists did not understand that their raising the consciousness of others might have resulted in oppression or dominance instead of liberation. What she means by this is that if an outsider makes bodies believe their culture is inferior and wants them to change based on the outsider’s standards instead their own, then that may be a false consciousness. An example of this behavior might be the residential schools, where indigenous children were taken from their parents, forced to change their language, styles of dress, and belief systems (find a source). This Eurocentric dominant discourse was thought to be the ‘right’ way to live in a binary world.

Oppression is extremely complex and multi-faceted. Its sensorial experience often cannot be expressed through words. Iris Young (1990) defines oppression as reducing “the potential for other people to be fully human” (p. 1). Young further explains how this could include “denying people language, education, and other opportunities that might make them become fully human in both mind and body (p. 1). Add Concluding Sentence

A Trans Corporeal Point of View

As I walked through my university, I attuned my body to the structures around me. The environment ignited a social political flame within my body. I reflected on my educational experiences and realized how I have been socialized and educated in a Eurocentric manner although I am a person of color. I felt oppressed as I walked through this place that is entrenched in colonialism. I realized I am simply a student number to this bureaucratic system that is exchanging degrees for dollars.

One significant image that stood out to me was a glass ceiling that reminded me how institutions such as my university prevent growth and favour male-dominated Eurocentric views. I reflected on how the language, dissemination of knowledge, and pedagogy within this institution are all Eurocentric. This can be quite oppressive to people of color as they are taught from a fixed perspective. Universities seldom offer multiple perspectives of a concept to consider. I wondered why I did not have any professors who looked like me or shared my ethnicity. As I walked by the library, I reflected on the construction of power and knowledge and how teachers believe that they are empowering students through education. Most of them do not understand the complexity of the teacher’s authoritarian power and privilege, or that being in the institution leaves students feeling oppressed, invisible, and not heard.

I recognize cultural disparities across campus; it is a multicultural campus, but yet still feels segregated. International students pay higher tuition fees but are treated as ‘others’, with the campus being divided into a dichotomy of domestic versus international. The rise of neoliberalism and globalization in the last twenty years has made the world appear smaller (find a reference to support this). However, the dominant discourse, race, and power of the university often conflicts with its diversity.

Binary Thought

Humans have always sought to categorize the objects around them. This categorization created hierarchies that were important to our knowing and understanding of the world around us. For instance, the underlying element of Aristotle’s metaphysics was a “dualist concept of reality” (Gutek, 2015, p. 65). Not only did Aristotle create a binary reality of form and matter, his epistemology was also binary, consisting of sensation and abstraction (Gutek, 2015). Aristotle classified all human and non-human elements ranging from nature to people in a dichotomous fashion (Gutek, 2015). This practice created a hierarchy where one was viewed as more superior than the other. Thomas Aquinas expanded Aristotle’s dualism through Thomism. Aquinas “dichotomized life and learning into two dimensions: the spiritual and the corporeal” (Gutek, 2015, p. 81). To this day, we continue to see and think in a dyadic fashion whether it be hot and cold, black and white, or night and day.

Xanthaki (2019) provides an excellent example of how “framing discussion in the binary way of cultural rights versus women’s rights neglects the real, multiple identities of women” (p. 724). When we examine women’s rights and cultural rights in a dualistic manner, we do not take into consideration the culture, social construction, or identities of the female body (Xanthaki, 2019). We end up simplifying the discussion into a dichotomy, which does not accurately reflect the complexities of either side. For instance, when reviewing women’s rights and cultural rights, we fail to fully understand each woman’s individual experience, possible victimization, or discrimination that they are facing. The dichotomy is typically formed through a Eurocentric view that does not reflect the essence of each woman’s identity (Xanthaki, 2019).


Freire’s liberation pedagogy was closely tied to the notion of empowerment as he believed that education had a democratic and empowering capacity (Giroux, 2010, p. 1). Empowerment was described as a process through which students would be able to break free from oppression and transform their realities (Gutek, 2015). Empowerment occurred through a “consciousness-raising, for people to become aware of the conditions of their lives and work” (Gutek, 2015, p. 319). Freire believed that bodies would be able to empower themselves if they understood the factors that were causing their oppression, transforming their oppressive state into freedom (Gutek, 2015).

To that end, Freire developed a campaign that was intended to empower Brazil’s impoverished class through literacy (Gutek, 2015). As we examine the literacy campaign critically through Ellsworth (1989), one can begin to question if it was as empowering as Freire had hoped. He was the authoritarian at the centre of the literacy campaign. Freire had placed himself into the dominant position of authority by holding the torch to literacy and advising the impoverished classes that they needed literacy to empower themselves (Gutek, 2015). The literacy campaign held Freire at the helm, where he granted power through literacy to the impoverished class. According to Audre Lordeas as cited in Ellsworth (1989), “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (p. 305). In this context, literacy and language were both the master’s tools. Freire convinced the impoverished that they would succeed and empower themselves through obtaining these tools. I question the success of the literacy campaign and wonder whether the impoverished class of Brazil actually gained empowerment through using the master’s tools.

Reject Binary Thought

Humans have an innate desire to classify and thus, binary thought comes easily for us. For instance, Aristotle favoured classification so much so that he organized almost all objects into hierarchies (Gutek, 2015). We continue to categorize and view the world through a dyadic lens. This type of thought is extremely partial as it neglects the complexity of multiple perspectives in each situation. We should consciously deconstruct binary thought and expand our views so that we see beyond empowered and oppressed as the only two options when examining marginalization. We should disrupt binary boundaries and see beyond victims and oppressors. Through dichotomized thought, it is inevitable for one group to hold more power. It only results in further oppression and discrimination. For example, history showcases a variety of instances where dualistic thought lead to oppression. Reflecting on the British colonization of India, the binary idea was that the British were superior and the Indians inferior (Lane, 2005). The outcome was the oppression of Indian bodies that were stripped of their cultural identities.

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A few weeks ago, I was in a building that I often frequent and my body was drawn towards a glass skylight that I had never noticed previously. The skylight reminded me of the notion of the glass ceiling and how minorities are continuously battling for equity and parity. I reflected on how we reside in a white man’s world infused with Eurocentrism. Upon further examination of the glass ceiling, it now reminds me how we need to shift away from dyadic boundaries and the dichotomy of the ‘other’ compared to whiteness. As minorities, if we continue along this path for too long, we will be unable to visualize ourselves outside of otherness. Dominant discourse forces minorities to stay in the position of the ‘other’ and that is exactly how we end up stuck. If we start with the way we think and see beyond dichotomous boundaries, we may be able to avoid otherizing ourselves.

Binary thought narrows the scope of the issue and simplifies it to the extent that human struggles, complexities, and challenges are removed. It does not take into consideration the individual struggles bodies have faced and the view presented is partial. Ultimately, this type of thought solidifies and justifies the status quo, making change and progress much more difficult.

Rethink Empowerment

The word empower is a construct that takes attention away from power imbalances. Empowerment fosters an ‘us versus them’ mindset where the oppressed should be given power by the dominate group. To empower is an active verb indicating that one person is providing something to someone else since they are unable to obtain it by themselves (cite for empower). I view empowerment as a process that builds reliance and control between the oppressed and their oppressors. If there is a provider of power, then the power can also be taken away from the oppressed body. If we examine empowerment critically, although it may be well intentioned, the concept of empowerment is laden with hints of the deficit ideology and victimization (Gorski, 2011). The deficit ideology “shapes individual assumptions and dispositions in order to encourage compliance with an oppressive educational and social order” (Gorski, 2011, p. 3). The concept of empowerment perpetuates the cycle of oppression by encouraging privileged bodies to perceive themselves as respectable citizens who can help the inferior oppressed bodies learn how to empower themselves as they are not able to do so themselves. Firstly, we should first seek to understand the motivation and mechanisms of the dominant class and how they can be oppressing without even being aware of it.

Many critical theorists such as Friere and Giroux tout liberation as the answer to oppression (Gutek, 2015). Freire viewed liberation as “freedom from the exploiting social, economic, political, and educational conditions that give a ruling group power over others, especially those who are impoverished materially and culturally” (Gutek, 2015, p. 320). I find the concept of liberation extremely inspiring, but we should also examine if liberation is as empowering as it sounds. In a school setting, the teacher is bestowed with the responsibility to empower their students. The raising of the critical consciousness that Freire refers to is the responsibility of the teacher (Gutek, 2015). Ellsworth (1989) illustrates how this can be a problem as the teacher is the authoritarian within the classroom and the one initiating the process of empowerment. Will the student feel their perspective is respected? Or will they feel they are being forced to accept the behavioral model the teacher feels is ‘right’?

Understanding CRT

Examining CRT can help us better understand and fight oppression. CRT tends to normalize racism and emphasizes the existence of racism in our society and encourages us, as people of color, to understand our own role in racism (Ladson-Billings, 1998). Ladson-Billings (1998) explains how “members of minority groups internalize the stereotypic images that certain elements of society have constructed in order to maintain their power” (p. 14). Internalizing such stereotypes can cause bodies to rationalize negative self-images and hold them as truth (Ladson-Billings, 1998). When examining oppression, as persons of color, we should recognize that we carry with us our own internalized racism. This internalization is the product of Eurocentric discourses that have told us that we are different. This discourse has become so powerful that we often believe it to be true. With this in mind, we should put ourselves outside of our comfort zones and expose stereotypes as social constructs that have no bearing on our identities. Engaging in such reflection requires a strong self-awareness and thus, we should seek to better understand ourselves and our own social location. When we feel we are experiencing racism, we should notice where it is coming from and evaluate why we are feeling it. For instance, if we experience an incident where we feel racially discriminated against, we should ask ourselves why we are feeling this and if the individual in question is actively engaging in racism, or if we have control over some of our internalized feelings that are causing us to react this way. CRT does not place the blame on the oppressed but sheds light on the years of discourse that has caused marginalized bodies to walk through life with internalized negative self concepts and identities.

Review Universalized Approaches

We universalize approaches and solutions to oppression. If one strategy proves to be effective, there is an assumption that it can be used in any situation. Universalizing the solution is a partial and fixed view of an ever-changing context. For instance, Freire’s raising of critical consciousness was considered a universal solution for all oppressed bodies (Gutek, 2015). The Freirean education model of liberation was also universalized (Gutek, 2015). The contextual nature of oppression is constantly changing so we should not attempt to use the same approach in every situation. By universalizing, we view each body through the same lens and fail to recognize their uniqueness including social location, identity, and social constructs. It is ironic how on one hand, we see universal solutions as a form of emancipation, but on the other hand, we are objectify each body by attempting to empower or emancipate them. We fail to recognize each body’s identity and social construction. Rather than universal approaches, we should seek to understand the complexities of each body and situation. Possibly five challenges of education –

Critical Reflection

We can pave a path to deeper understanding if we are willing to approach social dialogue without judgement. Thinking in a dichotomous fashion is preventing us to see the plethora of grey that lies between binaries. If we shift away from a binary mindset, we will accept that there is more than two ways to evaluate each situation. In understanding that our views are partial, we can work to understand others without bias.

Although our intentions may be well intended, we should fully examine how we empower others and if it is indeed the viable approach. The first step for teachers would be to remove themselves as the master and the authoritarian (Ellsworth, 1989). Instead, we should empower ourselves to consider all perspectives without forcing our opinion on others as the binary ‘right or wrong’. It is a difficult challenge to attempt. If we continue believing that the oppressed need to be saved through empowerment, we do not move forward. Bodies will empower themselves when they are acknowledged, recognized, and respected, not judged based on their circumstances.

We should also review teacher education as the classroom policies and curriculum create power relations, imbalances, and oppression. A key component of teacher training could include activities where teachers self-reflect and examine how they, as individuals, contribute to the power imbalances or situation that they wish to improve through empowerment (Ellsworth, 1989).

Self-awareness is closely connected to the understanding of internalized oppression. CRT sheds a light on how internalization can impact us. When we walk through life, we should evaluate situations with a critical lens to fully understand the difference between oppression and internalization. Being exposed to more perspectives and hearing more voices will allow us to avoid simplification of oppression and contextualization.


Binary thought has influenced our social configurations, such as schools, and created power imbalances throughout history. If we acknowledge that a dichotomous world exists and try our best to shift away from it, we can slowly make an impact and address oppressive discourse. To work with diverse populations and thrive in a multicultural landscape, we should acknowledge that we will never fully know each other. Do we need to fully understand each other to live in harmony and respect?

Examining oppression provides us with insight into how to move through our institutions with respect and anti-oppressive behaviors. I suggest that we continue to examine what is made impossible through empowerment so that we do not end up oppressing marginalized bodies further by doing what we think is best for them. With that, we should also consider what impacts universalizing approaches can have and fully evaluate if universalization is the correct approach.

When attempting to make positive social changes, we should seek to understand what is being made possible and what is being made impossible by our actions so that we are aware of potential implications. As a person of color, in line with CRT, I recommend we take time to self reflect and fully understand our social construction, identity, and epistemology so that we can have a strong grasp of what has internalized within our body. Lastly, I urge you to reflect on the following call to action in the powerful words of Elizabeth Ellsworth (1989):

“if you can talk to me in ways that show you understand your knowledge of me, the world, and the ‘right thing to do’ will always be partial, interested and potentially oppressive to others, and if I can do the same, then we can work together on shaping and reshaping alliances for constructing circumstances in which students of difference can thrive” (p. 324).


  1. Gutek, G.L. (2015) Aristotle: Foundation of realism. In The philosophy and history of education (pp. 51-67). Pearson: Publishers.
  2. Gutek, G.L. (2015) Critical theory and education. In The philosophy and history of education (pp. 51-67). Pearson: Publishers.
  3. Gutek, G.L. (2015) Thomas Aquinas: Scholastic theologian and creator of the medieval Christian synthesis. In The philosophy and history of education (pp. 51-67). Pearson: Publishers.
  4. Ellsworth, E. (1998). Why doesn’t this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59(3), 297-324.
  5. Gorski, P. (2011). Unlearning deficit ideology and the scornful gaze: Thoughts on authenticating the class discourse in education. In R. Ahlquist, P. Gorki, & T.
  6. Montano (Eds.), Assault on Kids: How Hyper-Accountability, Corporatization, Deficit Ideology, and Ruby Payne Are Destroying Our Schools. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
  7. Ladson-Billings, G.(1998). Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education? International Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 7-24.
  8. Lane, D.F. (2005). ‘One Power, One Mind’: Religious Diversity and British Dominion in India. Literature and Theology, 19(3), 251-264. doi:10.1093/litthe/fri038
  9. Xanthaki, A. (2019). When Universalism Becomes a Bully: Revisiting the Interplay Between Cultural Rights Women’s Right. Human Rights Quarterly 41(3), 701-724. Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved August 8, 2019, from Project MUSE database.
  10. The following article is adapted from “Five Faces of Oppression” by Iris Young. The article was originally a chapter in Oppression, Privilege, & Resistance edited by Lisa Heldke and Peg O’Connor (published by McGraw Hill in Boston, 2004).

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