Thinking Outside the Systemic Box

When I ask people to define creativity, they inevitably use the phrase “to think outside of the box”, but this cliche always leaves me to wonder: What box? As I often tell my students: You can’t think outside the box if you don’t know you’re in oneIf you want to create positive change in the world, then you need to understand your context (the premise of this entire newsletter). Otherwise, all creative solutions will be limited by the box you’re in. As my constant guide, adrienne maree brown, so well captures:

“We are living in the ancestral imagination of others, with their longing for safety and abundance, a longing that didn’t include us, or included us as enemy, fright, other.”

(1) adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

The first step to thinking outside the box is to understand what we inherited. The question becomes: If we are fish in water, what does it take to see the water we are swimming in? This could be a moment of deep unlearning when an event shifts our perspective dramatically (something you can’t unsee) or it could be gradual or intentional unlearning (following a curiosity or confusion that leads to new understanding). For white people who are shielded from the effects of racism, we often are unaware of race till a later age than people of color, who usually have a memorable moment of realizing their ‘otherness.’ I don’t have a clear answer to the question “When did you first realize you are white?” because I didn’t have to think about it. This is a function of oppression: it is so pervasive in nature (literally built into our institutions) that it can be hard to see by those who don’t experience its effects and who actually may benefit from the systems in place (2). If you’ve worked hard for your successful career, it can be shocking to realize your success stems from systemic privileges such as a having a Western sounding name (3) or given the chance to learn from failure (4). Learning this can be a rude awakening that may bring up feelings of denial, anger, guilt, or overwhelm. Robin DiAngelo encapsulates this experience in a recent conversation with Resmaa Menakem and Krista Tippett on the On Being podcast:

You know, Krista, I think what you were articulating is what sociologist Joe Feagin calls the white racial frame: the framework through which we make racial meaning. And it includes everything — interpretations, perceptions, emotions, language — and when you’re viewing through a frame, it’s so internalized, you don’t know you’re viewing through a frame.

I would not have been able to tell you that I had a racial framework. I was raised to just see myself as human. I’m just a person, looking out through objective eyes. [laughs] No, I’m looking out through white eyes. And that is really hard, for a lot of white people. 

(5) Robin DiAngelo and Resmaa Menakem: In Conversation, ON BEING WITH KRISTA TIPPET

This is why noticing and coming to terms with “the box” is part of the creative process; creativity requires being able to relate and respond to the given constraints. Beverly Daniel Tatum broke down the process of developing an understanding of your racial frame into ‘Racial Identity Development’ stages for each race (6). For white people, the stage of ‘Disintegration’ means “the bliss of ignorance or lack of awareness is replaced by the discomfort of guilt, shame and sometimes anger at the recognition of one’s own advantage of being White and the acknowledgement of the role of Whites in maintaining a racist system.” It takes determined and sustained effort to move past this stage into immersion and eventually autonomy: “The internalization of a newly defined sense of self as White is the primary task of this stage. The positive feelings associated with this redefinition energize the person’s efforts to confront racism and oppression in daily life.” (7So thinking outside the box is a lifelong commitment. It’s a creative practice of asking probing questions, listening widely, observing and reflecting on your lived experience in relation to others, and being willing to examine your frame of understanding: Why do I believe this? Where does this belief come from? How does it affect how I see things or what information I take in? These are the kinds of questions that will actually lead to “thinking outside the box”; to questioning the box itself. And stay tuned for next time, when we ask the question: How can we dismantle the box?

Living is a creative act,
Evelyn Thorne

Everyday Creativity Tip

One way to examine your box is to know your underlying values. If you don’t explicitly know the values you are operating by, then you will default to the dominant beliefs you inherited. Writing down your guiding values can be both a clarifying process and an opportunity to shift your intentions. Many years ago, I wrote a version of “My 10 Commandments” to help guide my moral compass and define for myself the values I wanted to uphold. Surprisingly, these values still hold up, or perhaps unsurprisingly, since ethics are meant to be foundational practices. This list has shaped my personal “thinking box.”

My 10 Commandments

  1. Be present
  2. Show up
  3. Engage yourself in the world
  4. Listen deeply & widely
  5. Prioritize the voices of the oppressed
  6. Embrace the complexity of humanity
  7. Never stop questioning and be willing to unlearn
  8. Find empowerment in art
  9. Seek communities that give you strength
  10. Treat yourself how you treat others


1. adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, p.21
2. Oppression: the systemic and pervasive nature of social inequality woven throughout social institutions as well as embedded within individual consciousness. Oppression fuses institutional and systemic discrimination, personal bias, bigotry and social prejudice in a complex web of relationships and structures that saturate most aspects of life in our society. From Racial Equity Resource Guide.
3. Dina Gerdeman, “Minorities Who ‘Whiten’ Job Resumes Get More Interviews”, Harvard Business School,
4. DG McCullough, “Women CEOs: Why companies in crisis hire minorities – and then fire them”, The Guardian,
5. On Being with Krista Tippet, “Robin DiAngelo and Resmaa Menakem: In Conversation”,
6. Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Talking about Race, Learning about Racism: The Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom”, Harvard Educational Review,
7. There are also lists of these stages for people of color, biracial people, or other ethnic affiliations:

Originally published July 20, 2020 on the Creativity in Context Newsletter by Evelyn Thorne.

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Living is creative act

Published by Evelyn Thorne

Evelyn is a writer, educator, and facilitator who helps people unlearn misconceptions and limiting beliefs about their creative identities.

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