The importance of being white & uncomfortable.

I could use this space today to talk about Orlando, but I think my recent Facebook post sums up just about all the complicated feelings I'm having about it. I'm sure all of the other think-pieces out there are doing a much better job addressing the implications of the massacre; I'm too in my feelings to do more than what I've done.

I'm going to talk instead about why  being uncomfortable is essential for white people. 

Last month, at Hampshire College's commencement ceremony, a young man named Xavier Torres de Janon gave a speech before graduating. The video of Torres de Janon, a young political organizer and agitator, made the rounds on social media, because his speech was not what one has come to expect from a commencement speaker. A week before graduation, he had been issued a sanction by the college for "promoting civil disruption on campus." Knowing this, I was excited to hear what he had to say.

Xavier Torres de Janon delivering his speech at the 2016 Hampshire College commencement. Source

Xavier Torres de Janon delivering his speech at the 2016 Hampshire College commencement. Source

To say "he didn't hold back" is to put it lightly. He called his soon-to-be alma mater a "harborer of rapists," an institution rife with "heartless frivolity" and racismHe went on to slam every single candidate for president and deemed them unworthy of the office and responsibility, because they did not truly care for or represent the interests of non-white, non-straight, and non-rich Americans. 

As I listened, I felt this slow anger seep into me: not toward Hampshire College, or Trump, or Hillary, or Bernie. Toward Xavier. Words like "ungrateful" and "arrogant," "naive" and "immature" bubbled up inside me. How dare he attack the college that gave him the opportunity to become as informed and confident as he was? How dare he attack Bernie Sanders, who was fighting so hard for people of all races and socioeconomic standings? The more he talked, the more I wanted him to shut up and give the kind of feel-good speech one wants to hear at a graduation. (Read: the kind that I, as a white woman, wanted to hear.)

But anger is a secondary emotion - beneath it lie the true emotions of fear, sadness, shame. We get angry to cover what we consider weakness. In that moment, my weakness was deep, deep discomfort and guilt. Classic white-people stuff. 

I see men and other white people doing this kind of bait-and-switch daily on social media ("not all men," "all lives matter"), but I didn't recognize it in myself. I thought I was completely justified in my righteous anger toward this 22-year-old know-it-all.

But then my girlfriend pulled up a straight, white dude's response to Xavier's speech. I recognized the anger and felt myself nodding along...until he started making it directly about the young man's race, sexuality, and gender expression: even about his speaking Spanish for a few moments to his mother in the crowd. Only then did I realize that I had let my own discomfort with Xavier's message distract from his message altogether, and I had chosen to find solace in the righteous anger of a sexist, racist, homophobic jerk with a blog, because it was a break from feeling guilty and uncomfortable for being party to the system that oppressed and stifled Xavier and people like him, simply by being white and liberal. 

This election cycle has shown me how toxic white liberalism can be. White liberalism (like white feminism) is more about patting ourselves on the back for all the great things we've done to help the brown and poor and less about growing to let in and elevate the brown and poor. We almost expect people of color to praise us as "the cool ones," especially when compared to the GOP. The idea of a 22-year-old standing up and proclaiming that we are no better than conservatives stung; but that didn't mean he was wrong.

It is so important to be uncomfortable, especially as white liberals in America.  We need to listen to young people, not dismiss them: especially young people who are queer, of color, and/or differently abled. Their experience and stories are essential to true progress, not progress in the name of making us all feel like we're good people. 

White people: let yourself be uncomfortable; put yourself in uncomfortable situations. Realize the privilege that exists in the choice to avoid discomfort. Listen, learn, and grow.