Shifting Away from the ‘Binary’

By: Irfan Toor  •  June 3, 2022  •  (4 min read)

It’s very common these days to hear people refer to society as “more divisive than ever,” whether they are talking about local and national politics or events anywhere around the world. Whether it is party loyalty or patriotism, there seems to be a trend focused on forcing people to participate in a binary narrative – and the choices seem to be getting more extreme.

For years in schools, and possibly in society, we’ve been discussing how we accommodate gender diversity, and these conversations have allowed people to gain an understanding of a non-binary perspective.

The simple example of gender expression helps people see that we can be on the same ‘side’ but not to the same degree and still be diverse in our views. To put it simply, I can be ‘macho,’  ‘metro’ or ‘trans’ and still identify as a male.

I would urge people to take a non-binary approach to many different issues that are relevant to schools leaders. After all, the fundamental aspect of ‘equity’ is to respond to the needs of the situation. For example, it is possible to believe in in-person learning and still acknowledge that some groups appreciate or prefer virtual learning. Binary thinking doesn’t allow for that flexibility, and reinforces a colonial mindset of imposing beliefs on others.

Binary thinking reinforces the idea that equity can feel like oppression – if someone is gaining something, then someone else must be losing something. This doesn’t need to be and usually isn’t the case. I was supporting a school administrator in their designation of one of their gender neutral/single use washrooms being accessible to students and the response from some staff members was that they did not have any washrooms they could use at school anymore. Somehow, they were forgetting that they were not actually being impacted – the single use washroom was still being used by one person at a time, but that usage wasn’t restricted to staff only. Their own access had not changed.

We know that identity is complex; we are a collection of many different aspects of our identity and we shouldn’t be defined by just one aspect. Nor should we be defined by one avenue of thinking.

There are aspects of religions that I personally don’t support or participate in, but I also recognize that religions have played a foundational aspect in building community and shaping values that I appreciate.

As a school leader, try and notice where you might be tempted to fall into binary thinking and challenge yourself, and your staff, to resist it. We have seen many examples over the years where ‘zero-tolerance’ and strict rule-based policies (think dress codes) have disproportionately impacted certain identities, especially non-dominant ones. That’s not to say that sometimes you don’t have to draw a line and make a difficult decision. But that’s what being an anti-oppressive leader is all about – challenging traditional thinking and making hard decisions that benefit those who have been historically under-served by educational policies and practices. Maybe it’s time to take a stand that supports those who need it the most.


Irfan Toor, Director of EDI 

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