Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What Comfort Tells Us about Racism

As a kid growing up in Texas, I didn't like it when my parents spoke Cantonese in public spaces. Too loud to me, their voices made me uncomfortable. The white people around us who screwed up their faces must have felt the same way. Their discomfort probably had to do with not understanding the words, the ugliness of the sounds, or both. These strangers and I had something in common: the need for their comfort. When my parents kept on talking, seemingly oblivious to the scene they were creating, they left me wondering why they didn't care as much about the white people around us as I did. In time, I gained an awareness of what comfort says about the state of internalized white supremacy in ourselves and others.

Especially for adult, middle-class white Americans, white supremacy cultivates a sense of entitlement to comfort. Their discomfort disrupts the equilibrium of the racial status quo, manifesting as annoyance, impatience, or something more serious. Consider what happens when a white person is openly called out for making a racist remark. Even at a time when the proper feeling is shame, the need for comfort dials up different, confrontational feelings. Too often, the response is defensiveness or anger. Robin DiAngelo coined a term for this condition: "white fragility." In a recent interview, she critiques how even discussions of racism need to be as comfortable as possible:
In my workshops, one of the things I like to ask white people is, "What are the rules for how people of color should give us feedback about our racism? What are the rules, where did you get them, and whom do they serve?" Usually those questions alone make the point. It’s like if you’re standing on my head and I say, "Get off my head," and you respond, "Well, you need to tell me nicely." I’d be like, "No. Fuck you. Get off my fucking head."
White fragility is a valuable and productive way to understand how internalized white supremacy precludes critical conversations about racism and deforms relationships.

White supremacy socializes white people to expect comfort, but it also socializes people of color to give comfort to white people. We know that our safety and security may depend on the white people around us being comfortable. Thus, consciously or unconsciously, we do not do things that would discomfit white people if we can help it. Perhaps the most common method for giving comfort is simply not bringing up racism in conversation. Or remaining silent or not showing anger if the topic of racism does arise. In 2014, musician Pharrell Williams famously proclaimed himself a "new black," meaning that he "does not blame other races for our issues." Oscar-winner Common asked other black people to forget about past injustices while extending a "hand in love" to white people. Isaiah Washington advised Chris Rock to "adapt" to racial profiling by police by driving less-flashy cars. And Bill Cosby used to have enough moral authority to tell young black men to pull up their pants and speak good English. The head-scratching persistence of the thing known as "respectability" politics owes to nothing more than the racist idea that black people should not make white people uncomfortable.

Non-white comfort is a trigger for racism. Because white supremacy polices non-white comfort, people of color are not allowed to be comfortable on their own terms. Being noticed as too comfortable can be dangerous or deadly. Teenager Jordan Davis and three friends were in a parked SUV when Michael Dunn asked them to turn down their loud music. When they refused, Dunn fired ten rounds at the vehicle, killing Davis. College student Martese Johnson was beaten by ABC agents after exiting an off-campus bar during St. Patrick's Day festivities in Charlottesville. In Pine Lawn, Missouri, sagging pants can get you fined. Three weeks after he fled Iraq, Ahmed Adnan Ibrahim Al-Jumaili was shot and killed outside his Dallas home while photographing his first snowfall with his family. Craig Stephen Hicks, the man who murdered Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammed Abu-Salha in their Chapel Hill home, had once appeared with a rifle at the door of two of the victims to complain about the noise they made playing a board game. Non-white comfort does not usually inspire such violent responses, but all negative responses originate from the common wellspring of white supremacy. Why?

People of color comfortable with one another decenter whiteness from any given social situation. Nothing makes this dynamic more apparent than the absence of English. My parents rarely gave a second thought to speaking Cantonese in public because they didn't grow up in the US as I had and weren't as socialized to give comfort to white people. For many immigrants, speaking your native language is comforting. However, the mere presence of certain languages other than English can annoy or even antagonize native-born Americans of all races. Such a response is a symptom of xenophobia and internalized white supremacy. Why else should another language in our midst concern us so? Intolerant responses to other languages reveal how much comfort depends on an expectation of centrality in a diverse world. For instance, some people get upset when they suspect that they are being talked about in another language. They are probably wrong, but would it matter if they were right? What would truly change in the nature of the relationship between you and the woman trimming your toenails or you and the man serving you dim sum? There is a word for the condition of thinking that everyone around you is talking about you. Paranoia. And then, is the consciousness that wants them silenced truly your own?

Even seemingly supportive or derivative responses to non-white comfort can betray an origin in white supremacy. To illustrate this point to my students, I show them a video entitled Light in the Shadows, which features a diverse group of women discussing the forms of racism in their lives. A white woman named Penny Rosenwasser admits that she is envious of how women of color can be so comfortable together. Intended as a compliment, her remark leads to an unexpected response. "I think that white people get upset when they see us comfortable," says Intisar Shareef, a black woman. "Because I think that challenges their notion of superiority in this world." In other words, Shareef explains, white supremacy in America has taught white people that people of color should not have things that they themselves do not have. How else do we explain a white woman envying the camaraderie of black women as black women? Iggy Azalea and white belly dancers are cautionary tales reminding us that white culture will appropriate whatever it envies or finds lacking in itself.

No one is entitled to comfort. The reality is that people of color experience discomfort as people of color as a regular and predictable part of their lives. This feeling of nominal discomfort is so normalized that finding yourself comfortable in a diverse setting can be a warning signal. Intisar Shareef describes such a moment and what she makes of it.
A couple weeks ago at a staff meeting at the college that I work at, there was something going on that I disagreed with, and I spoke out. And people said, "Oh, she's just bizarre." And that's just another way of labeling me as different. At first I was offended by that, and then I said, "Hmm, I am bizarre, given the environment that I was in, and proud to be it. . . . I really begin to question myself when I go into these arenas and I'm fitting in. I have to figure out, "Why am I so comfortable?" I really do. There's a lot of work that we have to do, so if I get real comfortable then something is not going on with me.
Shareef is right that when we experience comfort in institutional spaces not committed to antiracism, we should absolutely check ourselves. It is not that people of color should never feel comfortable nor fit in. It is just that it is all too easy to assimilate to white supremacy culture. If we understand that white supremacy shapes our institutional policies and practices, why should we ever be comfortable managing our little part of the system? What have we been conditioned to overlook, and why? For all of us, regardless of race, discomfort in diverse settings is a boon companion, alerting us to the danger of white supremacy in and around us. Discomfort is the canary in a coal mine. It is what keeps us awake.


  1. I haven't commented earlier on this's simply too rich and packed with meaning for me to adequately express how enlightening it has been for me. But...I saw this story on fb this morning and can't resist sharing a link to it because it so accurately seems to exemplify some of what you're writing about here. It seems to perfectly show exactly what you were writing about when you referenced the discomfort exhibited by white people when they heard your parents speaking Cantonese.

    Thank you so much for this terrifically informative bit of writing and maybe this story will serve as a useful illustration of that which you are addressing (in part anyway).

  2. This a wonderful deconstruction of a dimension of the oppressor/oppressed subconscious conditioning that is ubiquitous in the social space of a racist society. It s also applicable to any space where similar social oppositions exist, e.g., gender, age, etc. Great insight expressed at a level of expression easily understood.