The Privilege of Discomfort

By Guest Contributor

I have grown to appreciate and accept Middlebury as the college that I attend. Daily we engage in dialogue surrounding identity. But many of these discussions are empty, one-dimensional and do not engage concepts of intersectionalities and larger societal structures that may influence one’s identity.  We make assumptions about how people identify themselves and what that means for who they are as people and who they represent politically.

As a black woman who identifies as a womanist, I was a bit floored reading Nathan Weil’s op-ed for the Campus last week, “A Call for a More Inclusive Movement.” A lot of his article seems to talk about being made to feel uncomfortable in particular spaces and particular discourses around campus. While I would like to commend Nathan for his contribution to the Campus, I would also like to challenge him, and those who “amen” along with his piece, to consider a few points.

Spaces are marked. They typically are not explicitly marked, but they are marked nonetheless. It just so happens that many of the spaces at Middlebury College — like the rest of the country — are marked “straight, white and male”. This isn’t necessarily by the fault of straight, white men that attend this institution, but symptomatic of larger oppressive social structures that exist on this campus. I challenge Nathan to think about that when he writes about the five women in his econ class. I doubt Sam Kaufman’s op-ed about feminism or even feminist activism on campus is the reason for lack of diversity in your econ classrooms. I do not think there is a “false and manufactured perception of discrimination [that] sits like a dark cloud over the department.” Maybe there is something about that particular economics class that marks that space as male as well as white. Maybe there are particular microaggressions hidden in the discourse and the literature that would make people that are not male and white feel marginalized and uncomfortable. Maybe because of the lack of diversity in the class people feel as though their identities may be Orientalized or they may be forced to speak for the entire race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, socioeconomic group and so on and so forth.

It is very easy to dismiss or overlook things that may make others feel uncomfortable when you are not a part of their group. As a male, it may be hard for you to recognize something that may be oppressive to women if it is not explicitly stated. As someone who is white, it might be hard for you to recognize if something is discriminatory or oppressive to people of color. And this is not your fault. You happen to live in a country where your race and gender are “unmarked” and “unmentioned” as integral parts of your identity. This is why many people start to feel uneasiness when whiteness and maleness becomes marked in discourse.

I want to challenge you to take pride in your discomfort, for it is a privilege and not a burden. For these four years that you attend Middlebury College, people will make you think about yourself before entering certain spaces. You will hear discussion and debate surrounding the factors that make up your identity and self-hood. This discomfort is something that some of us on this campus will have to deal with from the time we are born till the day we die. This discomfort extends well beyond the institution of Middlebury, and into larger oppressive institutions in this country and around the world. If you can bask in this discomfort you will be able to navigate spaces and begin to recognize marginalization, Orientalization and discrimination of particular people, and you will have the power to help make these spaces less oppressive.

I would like to apologize if you have felt that you are not welcomed into discourses of feminism or equality for all people. Do not feel that you “cannot join most of the liberal activist movements on this campus.” Feminism is about fighting patriarchy, not men. People who fight for racial and ethnic equality fight systematic racism, not white people. People who fight homophobia fight oppressive systems and oppressive people, not people who are allies.

Personally, I would love to see you and more people like you at meetings and rallies around these issues. If you are in favor of dismantling systems of oppression, I think there are many groups on this campus that would welcome you with open arms. I hope you and many of the students on this campus that feel the way you do can open their hearts and minds to discomfort, and begin to use the privileges that you have been granted as tools to help disable oppressive systems rather than sit back with your hands in the air yelling “what do you want me to do about it.”

Written by DAY WILLIAMS ‘14.5 of Trenton, N.J.