In praise of discomfort: a dia-blog

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CF: I am white, and I am 43. When I was a kid in the 1980s and 90s, in a pretty white/segregated community in New Hampshire, my grownups knew about racism. My grownups had lived through the civil rights movements of the 60s and 70s, and were liberals, and were hopeful that when my generation grew up, we would inherit or, like somehow be, a post-racial society. So they didn’t tell us much about race. We knew that there had been slavery in the U.S. South, and that was bad, and then the good people of the North had the Civil War and fixed all that. Also Martin Luther King, or at least the easy, quotable parts. We white kids of the 80s were supposed to be color-blind — we weren’t supposed to “see race”. Color-blindness would lead us to treat everybody the same, which would solve racism. Tensions due to racism periodically erupted and were largely attributed (outwardly — the subtext was a different story, but I wasn’t able to understand that back then) to class and poverty instead. 

CA-N: I am black and South Asian. I am the child of two immigrants, my father hailing from Trinidad and my mother from Sri Lanka. I am 27. I first heard the term “color-blind” when I was in high school, around the same time I heard about the phenomenon of “transcending race.” It didn’t make sense to me. It still doesn’t. To claim racial transcendence, whether on the individual or societal level, felt akin to disclaiming the deleterious effects of racism on people of color worldwide. If anything, I found the claim disrespectful. I was five years old when Amadou Diallo was murdered by police officers for pulling out his wallet outside of his own apartment building. As such, I was five years old when my parents explained to me that Mr. Diallo was murdered because of how society perceived and devalued black people. How could color-blindness and racial transcendence possibly coexist with this racist state-sanctioned murder?

CF: Fast forward to the 2020s. After a couple of decades in higher education and social justice spaces, I’ve developed some ability and a certain comfort level with talking about race. And maybe sometimes I have too much comfort. I have certain scripts, and repeat ad nauseum, for example, that if we don’t talk about our values, we’re just endorsing white supremacy. Less usual, in my day-to-day work, is what feels like genuine back-and-forth dialogue and disagreement. 

CA-N: When I am talking about race in a predominantly white space, I have to fight the tendency to replay and pick apart everything I say. I worry about whether I’ve made people uncomfortable, and that if I have, I will be seen through the lens of a stereotype about black women (which need not be repeated here) and in turn, my contributions will be discounted. Luckily, by this point I have had ample experience with fighting this tendency. As such, I have found it easier to express my thoughts and concerns as it pertains to racism and supremacy in a more direct way, with less sugar-coating. I do not seek to make people uncomfortable, but I am okay with that side effect. Growing edges tend to be uncomfortable, and importantly so. As such, when I am in discussions about aspects of identity in which I hold a more privileged position, I try my best to accept and engage critically with my discomfort – why I feel discomfort, what that means about my relationship with my privilege – rather than avoiding it. 

CF: Your concern about making people in white spaces uncomfortable is really helpful for me to know about. I feel like, just as you said, dialogue about race should NOT be comfortable… but the discomfort should be normalized as one of the ordinary stressors of being in professional spaces and moving in society. Right now, for many well-intentioned white people, the stakes for disagreements feel really high: If I’ve done something wrong about race, I will be forever branded as racist! And so the potential for disagreement gets cordoned off into special antiracist spaces with a huge emotional charge. I feel like what we need more of is both a lower bar to genuine dialogue, and to bring these lower-stakes conversations into ordinary life, because fear makes us stupid and defensive. 

And to be clear, the responsibility for lowering this bar must not be on BIPOC folks. Rather, white people need to be building our emotional muscles both individually and collectively by bringing race and antiracism into our conversations.

CA-N: I want to add something to your point that the people bringing race into conversations should not always be people of color, about a phenomenon some friends pointed out to me recently: when a non-person of color agrees with something a person of color says during a tough conversation about race, I think it is important for that person to publicly/visibly agree during the conversation itself, rather than only telling the person of color they agreed privately. If you agree with something a marginalized person said when they are speaking to a group of people who have more power than them, and you also have more power than that person, a public display of agreement is more meaningful than a private acknowledgement. It might be less comfortable, but it was likely more uncomfortable for the person of less privilege to share the comment in the first place. 

CF: I think your point here about power is a really important one. I tend to worry, in those moments, not only about taking the risk of speaking up in support of a colleague, but also about the risk of seeming paternalistic — shouldn’t the voice of my colleague of color be enough, without the endorsement of a white person (me)? Also, in these moments, my identity as a white woman is presenting me with contradictions. White women are socialized to be responsible for avoiding “real talk” and smoothing over conflict. Knowing that my colleagues are exhausted, I also have a (paternalistic / collegial) urge to protect them.

CA-N: This is an interesting point. I think a lot of marginalized people, of all genders, are made to feel that they have to avoid broaching certain topics about identity or discrimination or do so in an “acceptable” manner so as to not ruffle too many feathers or rub people with more privilege in the wrong way. By extension, taking the further step of calling attention to micro/macroaggressions can be nerve wracking for fear of making someone uncomfortable, upset, or retaliatory, or being met with dismissiveness. 

CF: In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been called out on assumptions and mistakes I’ve made around race a couple of times. The first time it happened, it was third-hand, about a comment that I made nearly a year ago. The second time, it was in the middle of a dialogue, about a comment I had made several seconds ago. The first time it happened, I felt extremely uncomfortable and noticed my defensive reactions trying to kick in. Worries about “cancel culture” swirled around in a nexus of shame and guilt. But I tried to pause and be mindful of those emotions and think about them …  it made me more ready, the second time it happened, to be grateful for the openness of the colleague who spoke up, and their willingness to take the risk of raising this issue.

CA-N: From our own experiences having – or not having – discussions about race, whether one-on-one or on a group level, what do you think we can suggest to others? As ICHers, I think one decision we’ve made is to look to an expert to lead us as a staff in some of these discussions. 

CF: Yes, it is important that we are bringing in an expert to help rather than trying to DIY it.

CA-N: Exactly, and I think that decision also acknowledges the very real expertise and labor that goes into leading others in these conversations (and the need for that work to be compensated appropriately). Another thing that will be important will be setting the space communally – what are some ground rules we want to set? How do we ensure these ground rules are made together? How are we simultaneously prioritizing and allowing for safety, honesty, openness, and healthy disagreement through the norms we set? 

I hope that one of these norms can be around creating space for people to ask questions, but without having the answering being burdensome for one or only some members of the staff. 

CF: Yes!  And I’d only add one other goal for the conversations, which is both a process indicator and an outcome: creating a space in which we can all bring our whole selves to work, without anybody feeling like we have to hide or disguise any important aspects of our identities. Professionalism is certainly an important value, but we need to allow for a wide range of interpretations of “professional”, making sure that when we strive for “professionalism” we are not just unintentionally striving for whiteness.

Carrie Fisher, PhD

Research and Evaluation Scientist

Ceylon Auguste-Nelson, BA

Research and Evaluation Project Manager