White discomfort causes harm 

I am not certain when I discovered that life was not always going to be a comfortable experience for me. But if I had to guess, I suspect it was when I started kindergarten and was seated in the back of the classroom, as one of the only Black kids in the classroom. 

While I did not have the language or understanding of what was going on at that time, I did know that how I felt inside my family home was not the same as how I felt in school. Home was a safe, familiar, and comfortable place. School was a place where there was an underlying feeling of frequent discomfort. Even as I progressed through the years, making friends and excelling in classes, school was never as comfortable as home. In fact, the older I got, I realized that even when home held tension, it was still the most comfortable place to be in, compared to the larger world. 

Eventually I would gain the vocabulary and knowledge to understand that my experience of discomfort was not about me personally. That discomfort was the price of being Black and navigating white spaces

To be Black is to understand that comfort is not always ours to experience, particularly in white-dominated spaces. Instead you learn to navigate a state of duality that allows you to be present, understanding that you are only allowed to bring part of yourself to any experience—that your comfort and degree to which you can truly be yourself is dependent on the whims of the white people surrounding you. 

To this day, my direct ability to be comfortable outside my home or with loved ones is reliant on how many white-bodied people occupy a given space and whether my body perceives them as a potential threat. 

No doubt, to a white reader, this sounds jarring and hard. But as I grow older, recognizing that life is not going to bend to my comfort level is actually an unexpected blessing and gift. 

It has meant that when life throws me unexpected curveballs, and I am forced to sit with discomfort—while I may not like that moment of discomfort—I recognize that unease is very much a part of this experience we call life. The larger culture was not designed for my comfort. My comfort comes from sometimes being forced to sit with negative energies all around me and pushing through that discomfort to reach the moments of clarity and comfort. 

However, discomfort is not just about race, and learning to live in discomfort can force us to stretch and teach us to see beyond our own immediate needs. 

One communal discomfort that anyone who has raised a child deals with is the disruptive nature of babies and toddlers in particular. You can very much love your baby or small child, but the fact is, they are disruptive. And until they are old enough to exist without being dependent on us for their daily needs being their guardian means giving up bodily autonomy including sleeping, eating, and pooping when you want. That’s part of the unwritten job description. All of which are highly uncomfortable at times. 

My now 17-year-old daughter, who really enjoys sleeping, did not sleep on her own as a baby or toddler. She would only sleep if glommed on to either her father or myself. Initially, that was cute and charming. But after 12 months of sleep deprivation and chronic body aches, I existed in a physical state of distress that at one point required medical intervention. Yet, I look at the beautiful young woman she is becoming and those early years of discomfort, and I deem that it was worth it. Despite the fact that the left side of my body still deals with residual discomfort all these years later. 

Let’s not even discuss the physical act of bringing a child into the world. Neither of my kids were easy births, but despite the discomfort, I survived and I am the better for it. 

However, in recent years, when I think of various kinds of social unease, I have noticed a discomfort that does fall along racial lines, and that is often carried in white bodies. It is partly rooted in white fragility, but at times, it seems deeper than that. There is a literal inability among a rather large portion of white folks to tolerate any kind of discomfort beyond their personal sphere, even discomfort that is for the greater good. 

I wish I understood why, but a few recent interactions and my observations of the last few years of COVID as our collective experience have really brought home to me just how deeply rooted this need for comfort is in white bodies, even if that comfort could harm others. 

Back in what seems like several lifetimes ago, when COVID invaded our lives, many of us collectively changed our ways of being, both to stay safe individually and to keep others safe. When it was clear that the inside world was not safe, we pivoted and gathered outside for meals, drinks and celebrations. Even in colder weather climates such as mine, we layered up and gathered. However, as the powers that be officially normalized a still-pandemic disease with the capacity to kill or disable, I noticed that it was primarily my white friends and associates who stopped caring about the safety of both themselves and others. 

In recent months, my social life has shrunk as I have refused to jeopardize my personal safety for the comfort of being inside. From a scientific basis, COVID is no less a threat now than it was back in early 2020,but when we look at who is more likely to still take safety precautions, the data show that it falls along a racial fault line, with more non-white people still wanting mitigation efforts and white folks less inclined to want those efforts in place. 

This point was driven home on a recent trip to Boston, where my office is based. I saw very few white people masking. To be fair, there wasn’t a lot of masking in general despite the fact that new Omicron variants are emerging and caseloads are rising. The majority of people who I did see who were masked, though, were non-white. 

The only people who regularly question why I am masked are always white. Even white people who know me well often ask why I am still masked. I would be the first to say that I don’t find masking comfortable but as of this writing, I have managed to avoid COVID for almost three years. Obviously, that could change at any moment—and I know that my luck probably won’t last forever—but given the growing information that we have on the impact of COVID on the body, a little discomfort is worth minimizing my odds of a high viral load and a steaming case of long COVID. 

The thing is, when I ask the same people why they are no longer taking precautions, it is always about comfort. Even the same people who used to be willing to hang out outside on a blustery 50-degree day say they prefer to be comfortable inside. 

No doubt, we all are free to make choices but when a large group of people who hold most of the structural power are unwilling or unable to accept any level of discomfort, it is not a good thing. Whether it is dealing with hard discussions on race or simply being outside or wearing a mask to keep themselves and others safe, the inability to sit with discomfort is a deep impediment to growth. The collective of white people being unwilling to sit with discomfort and desperately clinging to their fragility is a direct threat to people of color. Their unwillingness to be uncomfortable means a steady stream of discomfort (and risks) for Black and brown-bodied people. 

Whether it is exposing BIPOC folks to an infectious and possibly deadly virus because they don’t want to cover their pie holes and expect to see the pieholes of others. Or the upholding and making of policies that disproportionately negatively impact non-white people because facing the historical nature and privilege of whiteness is too much to bear. The bottom line is white discomfort is harmful, dangerous and historically deadly.  The only way to change is to face discomfort head-on, and even in anti-racist and DEI spaces, not enough white people are ready to examine their relationship to discomfort as a barrier to growth. As a collective, white people need to feel and examine their discomfort more to grow, and they need to be willing to give up their comfort—a comfort not allowed to many marginalized groups—a lot more often for the good of others.

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Image by Callum Skelton via Unsplash

2 thoughts on “White discomfort causes harm ”

  1. Resonates deeply. Helps me to see how crises like the pandemic expose superstructures of intentional marginalization. The ethos behind masking (for example) is “help your fellow citizens and care for others as you would yourself.” But if understood truly, “fellow citizens” must mean BIPOC too. EVERYONE. Structural racism *cannot allow* that. So it is no accident that the fascist wing is the most strident against public health measures.

  2. Hi, Shay. Thanks for the essay, which I really appreciate. But I’m confused by the title. Shouldn’t it be that white COMFORT causes harm?

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