When discomfort is racial…and deadly

On May 1, Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old unhoused Black man—who struggled with his mental health—was killed by a fellow passenger on a New York City subway after he reportedly caused a ruckus and loudly proclaimed to be in need of food and water. By all accounts that I have read, Jordan’s behavior in the moments prior to being put in a chokehold by a 24-year-old white Marine veteran was just one of the many incidents that occur in all major cities with unhoused populations struggling with mental health issues. 

Nothing remarkable about it, except that he died for it. Because of a white person’s discomfort.

I was born and raised in Chicago, and spent the first almost 30 years of my life riding CTA trains, which are very much akin to the NYC subway system. That meant encountering all kinds of people, including people who were in less than pleasant circumstances. Sometimes it was annoying—occasionally unsettling—but rarely frightening. Typically if I were in an el car and felt uncomfortable, I moved to another car. Never would it have occurred to me that someone should lose their life because they were unwell and struggling. 

Apparently, Jordan Neely was well-known in the NYC subway system for his impersonation of Michael Jackson. By all accounts, Neely’s short life was tragic and traumatic. He was a teenager when his mother was brutally murdered. Black, unhoused and mentally ill with deep trauma in a country that discards people. In such a state of crisis that he cried out in a subway car that he needed food and water. Yet no one responded with kindness

In fact, Daniel Penny—his killer—decided to “subdue” a hungry and thirsty man because he was disruptive and made fellow travelers uncomfortable. Several others went to help Penny. As of this writing Penny, has been charged with second degree manslaughter, but only after quite a delay and largely because of a huge backlash from the general public. Penny was initially questioned and simply let go, despite killing someone who had not even posed a threat. Later, we would learn that Penny’s father was a New York City police captain. I am sure there was no special treatment here (wink). 

The strangest thing about this case, though, is that it has opened up a national conversation on people feeling uncomfortable—and, well, that’s when the historic roots of white supremacy showed itself. 

For many, Jordan’s behavior was out of line and his untimely death was essentially his fault, because he deigned to make people uncomfortable—because he was hungry and thirsty and without a home. I don’t know, but if I were hungry, thirsty and without a home, I would probably do anything to make myself heard. Because in many ways, we have become so used to not seeing the unhoused—and assuming erroneously there is adequate help for them—that we further dehumanize them by not seeing their humanity. Not recognizing our shared humanity. We all need food and water. 

One of the hallmarks of white supremacy culture is the entitled belief of a right to comfort. Even on public transportation with general strangers. So much so, that a white man thought subduing a man in a chokehold to get him to stop making people uncomfortable was a rational thing to do. At no point from what has been reported have I heard that anyone thought to offer Jordan a bottle of water or a snack. Surely, someone in that car could have actually helped the man out. 

White supremacy culture has always demanded comfort but it is most often Black and brown people who pay the price for this entitled belief. In this instance, a man clearly in crisis paid with his literal life. But the truth is Black and brown people always pay the price and yet rarely has anyone stopped to think about how little comfort is actually available to those very people. 

I recently shared about an experience where a white lady in a public space felt entitled to touch me without my permission, thus fucking up my day. It was upsetting, it was jarring, and I was pissed off. Yet, as a 50-year-old Black woman, the only place where I expect to be safe and comfortable is my actual home. Otherwise, I know the potential to not be comfortable is always there. In fact, the way that I get through most days is to lean towards Buddhist teachings on matters of suffering and discomfort to recognize that it is part of life. Obviously, I struggle with it, but still it helps. 

This notion of comfort often amuses me, because even with white people I know personally—in almost all of them except for a few—the expectation of comfort is always present. In fact, to the point I actually find it annoying. It is an entitlement that most white-bodied people rarely bother to examine. Or even recognize. It is just a given. 

On the flip side, in the aftermath of Jordan Neely’s death, I find myself wondering what would it look like if Black people were allowed to demand comfort in the way that whiteness demands comfort. Honestly, with the overt and convert racism that is so prevalent, there would be a lot of dead or severely injured white people. 

The insidious nature of white comfort is that is not at all limited to those “other” white people as many who read my work may think. No, my friend. The odds are high that you too demand far more comfort than you realize.

I have been thinking a lot about how we are still struggling for true racial change in this country and how many white allies fall in and out of the work because it gets uncomfortable. White people struggle with challenging themselves and their fellow white people. Meanwhile, their inability to sit with discomfort has real-life consequences for non-white people, which commonly includes premature death.

In the case of Jordan Neely’s and so many more that came before him, it is deemed newsworthy. But the fact is white discomfort kills on an almost daily basis as Black people live constantly with the many manifestations of white discomfort with us that we carry in our bodies.

It is no accident that Black people in particular are overrepresented when it comes to hypertension. Incidentally, it is hypertension that has become an issue for me. How long can you carry the trauma and burden of others in your body? How long can you deny your own comfort before a human body starts to crumble under the weight? My guess, a good 40 years or so, which is also around the point that many Black people start to realize they have hypertension. 

This week, I received an official diagnosis of hypertension. Hypertension runs in my family and played a role in both my parents’ deaths. For so long, I tried to avoid their fate, but despite 15 years of yoga and meditation, two-plus years of working with a trainer, acupuncture, herbs and supplements and more…I couldn’t outrun genetics and the reality of this Black body and life. Though as my brother reminded me, I went longer than anyone in our family to receive this diagnosis. I made it 50 years before my body started to crack under the weight. I was prescribed the lowest dosage of a hypertension medicine, and my provider feels that if I can better manage stress and perimenopause, the odds are high that I won’t need the meds for life as my parents did. 

Perhaps, but a conversation later in the week with an older Black woman, who is also a nonprofit executive director working in predominantly white progressive spaces like mine, shared her own journey to hypertension in our work. She also shared about another Black woman who did work similar to ours—a woman who after 20 years developed cardiac issues that greatly lessened when she took early retirement and moved away from the “liberal bastion” of the Northeast. That conversation reminded me that beyond the data points and my own experiences, even those of us trying to make a difference still encounter enough resistance from white discomfort that it impacts our health and our lives. 

The more I grow in my own anti-racist practice, the more I see the addiction to comfort that white people have as one of the single largest barriers we have to creating structural change. Why would you want to dismantle structures that make you comfortable?

Defund the police? Only until you encounter a situation where calling the police is easier than being uncomfortable and taking risks.

Supporting the leadership of Black and brown people? Only until it questions you and makes you feel bad, then you pull back.

Paying for the writings of anti-racist writers? Only when you can comfortably spare that extra $5 without giving up a treat for one day.

Talking to white people about their racist views? Only if you won’t be judged or ostracized.

Do you see how comfort hinders you? How comfort harms those who have never truly been allowed the privilege of comfort?  If you are still rocking with what I am putting down, I challenge you to examine how often you shy away from discomfort and ask yourself why you do it. Feel free to share your findings in the comments or drop me a line. I want to hear from you.

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Image by M.T ElGassier via Unsplash

1 thought on “When discomfort is racial…and deadly”

  1. I appreciate you asking for comments. I actual have a discomfort issue I’ve been trying to deal with on my own, and was writing the whole thing out to you when I realized that in this particular case I probably have support if I just let others in my community know I’m feeling this way. Thanks for helping me come to the realization that it’s worth working through that discomfort if I can and, even if I can’t, reminding me it’s possible to sit with it and still do the work. I hope the medications help your blood pressure and you feel as better as possible soon.

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