Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Friday, December 23, 2011

Leaning Into Discomfort

Yesterday on Facebook, Son of Baldwin posted a link to an essay by Ewuare X. Osayande: "Word to the Wise: Unpacking the White Privilege of Tim Wise."

If you are not familiar with Tim wise, he is a white man well known for his anti-racist speaking and writing. His book most people know best is White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son

Osayande offers a sophisticated critique of Wise's anti-racist work suggesting (among several critiques) that Wise's work displaces people of color, providing a more palatable stage presence (because he is white). The insistence that white people need a kinder, gentler explanation reinforces the stereotype that people of color are non-stop angry (dangerous), and enables white folk in their continued efforts (both individual and systemic) to maintain a racist structure that upholds the very white privilege Tim Wise speaks against.

No need to paraphrase more; go read Osayande's excellent essay.

Immediately after I posted the essay, a few folks got back to me through email and messages, objecting that there IS a need for a kinder, gentler explanation of white privilege and racism, and that we will not reach people with an anti-racist message if we make them uncomfortable.

This reminded me of a conversation I had on Twitter a few weeks ago with some friends who identify as "LGBT allies." One of was seeking a definitive term to refer to individuals within the lgbtqqi2s community. Should he refer to an individual as a lesbian? A gay woman? A queer person? Is it LGBT? Is it queer? Is it the "gay community"? He'd run into some folks who didn't like to be called queer. He'd run into me who prefers queer. Are trans folk queer? As he described his dilemma he said in exasperation, "I want to be a supportive ally without offending anyone."

The fact is, we cannot do anti-racist work without offending anyone. Straight folk cannot support their lgbtqqi2s friends without stepping on toes sometimes. We don't grow as human beings without being uncomfortable. If we want to do this work--if we are called to it and committed to understanding our own complicity in unjust power structures, we will be uncomfortable. We will be uncomfortable often.

Several years ago, I began to meet with a therapist to work through the trauma of rape and abuse. After a couple of weeks of meeting I had shared much of my story. He asked how I was feeling, and I said, "I'm very uncomfortable." And it was true! I was acutely uncomfortable--vulnerable, defenseless. This man knew so much about my life, who I was, and what made me tick that it made me squirm just to sit in that room every week. I was facing hard things about myself and my family, deeper truths I didn't like examining. It was terribly uncomfortable.

But the alternative was to be comfortable and allow my history to swallow me in bitterness and pain. I still have a long way to go. Last week in my salsa class, the instructor brought her regular dance partner to class so everybody could have a partner and dance the whole time. For the last two months, we have danced unpartnered, learning the footwork. I was not fully prepared for a man in my personal space, and as he danced with me I could not meet his eyes. A half hour into the class I realized I had been staring at his crotch for the last thirty minutes--not intentionally, it was simply that I was deeply uncomfortable.

This is how it is with white folk talking around issues of race--we're so uncomfortable we end up staring at crotches instead of making eye contact. We allow our fear to drive our actions. Rather than examining our discomfort and learning through it, we seek out someone who will tell it to us nicer, who looks more like us, who doesn't scare us.

Perhaps the most urgent task for us as white folk in anti-racist work is to teach, cajole, encourage, demand that we learn to lean into discomfort. Because our insistence on comfort and security is perpetuating racism. And in our fear, we are missing out on powerful, meaningful relationships across racial lines. What a damned shame.


  1. Katie, this is very helpful, very insightful - said the white woman who has lived with white privilege her entire life without knowing it. Having recently attended the PCUSA's Women of Color Consultation, where I became very unintentionally the catalyst for some significant discomfort for myself and some of the women of color who were in attendance, I am only beginning to understand this. But you are right on. It's late, and I haven't read Osayande's piece yet; I plan to do so tomorrow. Thank you for being who you always are: honest, open, prodding, loving.

  2. Katie, I just read your essay as well as Osayande's. There are many parallels with the experience of women in corporate America (and I suspect many other venues) trying to describe firsthand what that is like to the men who occupy the position of privilege, and who cannot hear voices different than their own. His essay and yours thus resonated deeply with me, as an "insider" and an "outsider" as well. God forbid we let discomfort keep us from trying to listen, learn, understand. Taking salsa lessons, so to speak, and continuing to lean into our discomfort is a necessary practice. Thanks again for the way you have of placing these things on the table for others to ponder and ultimately by which to be changed.

  3. I struggle with finding the right solution. Even though I advocate for discomfort, I know that the conversations I have with friends would be seen as the kindler, gentler version. When I've come across intensely, they shut off. So do I keep doing that - and promoting people of color who do that as well - knowing no one is listening? Or do I step back, take a deep breath (for patience) and go slower, quieter than I want?

    I've been feeling a lot of what Osayande describes but it wasn't until reading his essay that it became clear in my mind. Thank you.

  4. Great post, thank you.

    Interestingly there was a huge discussion on my Twitter Tl this week in which a (straight) person who feels that she has been an advocate LGBT issues previously but was reprimanded for making a very insensitive comment. It appeared she felt that her prior good acts should somehow compensate for the current offensive statement. She was subsequently accused of displaying hetero-privilege....and the discussion went on & on. She was uncomfortable but she stayed in the conversation to learn and I was happy that she did so.

    Hoepfully those uncomfortable teaching moments - on race, sexuality, all things that are part and parcel of our humanness - can occur regularly and strengthen our humanity in the process.

  5. Sometimes, all different kinds of people need stuff to be explained to them in a kind, educated, easy to understand way. For all different reasons. Which is not to say that we shouldn't face our own discomforts. My mother used to say "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar". I, of course, used to say, "Well, I've no intention of catching any flies, gross". Mary Poppins said it "A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down". They don't call it medicine for nothing. It's the information that you need to know to keep you from making dysfunctional decisions. Sometimes it's not that I'm white that I want people to explain things to me, it's because I went to public school. In college I got upset because they didn't cover the material in class and my professor said "You think we're going to spoon feed it to you, the way they did in high school?". Why yes, I did. I like being spoon fed stuff by people who make it interesting. I'm conditioned to learn that way. I understand more about racism now, than I did when I was younger. I understand things that I cannot believe are true about life. I've experienced "reverse racism" I was on a bus and had shocking white hair and stood out like a sore thumb (I always do) and all the black men in the back of the bus were smoking, so I went to the back of the bus and lit up a cigarette, the way they were. Prior to doing so I asked if they were allowed to do that and they told me the bus driver let them all the time. When I lit up the bus driver told me to put it out. I didn't. He stopped the bus, got up and physically removed me from my seat. I had intended to get up when he told me to, but I wasn't able to, because I had armloads of shopping bags I needed to gather. He cursed at me as he was throwing me off the bus "Get off my bus you stupid white bitch". He left me out in the very late evening at a shopping center. Would I have preferred he come talk to me and say "Young lady, why do you insist upon smoking when I have asked you to put out your cigarette?" and for me to be able to defend myself saying I'd been told it was okay by the other men at the back of the bus and then for him to have said "Well, I can understand your confusion but you cannot smoke on this bus, if you want to ride it you cannot smoke". This was in the 1980's when smoking was just starting to become completely unacceptable. I cried for hours and cried all the way home in the taxi. I know that there are things about me that have invited racism. I'm a democrat, I'm psychic and have psychic visions and talents. When all the gay and lesbian people get indoctrinated as acceptable members of society and it is no longer a question of acceptance, I know my time has come to be the outcast. Psychics get crapped on, made fun of, ridiculed, invalidated and basically shunned. It's definitely don't ask, don't tell when you're psychic. But the bottom line is, everyone would benefit from a kindly explanation. There's no reason to stop doing it, just because it didn't fit one social situation. It doesn't make us weak because it works better.


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