The discomfort at difference is a critical sensation and gift that Dr Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed we would share in
I am uncomfortable (while) writing this article, recognising Martin Luther King Jr. and his day of national remembrance—critically uncomfortable.
Purchasing my passivity with benefits called “power” and “privilege”, I am made culpable for perpetuating systematic violence under the banner of whiteness—I am uncomfortable with that.
The correct feelings, society has taught me, are to be simultaneously grateful, guilty, and complicit in “how far we have come”. As if distance is always a good thing. I would rather feel implicit and implicated. At some point my Polish features shifted from a marker of Eastern European insurgency to generic white ascendency, from backwater Catholic to acceptably Christian-Non religious, from dangerous to domestic, from one of “those” to one of “us”. Frankly I miss my friends on the outside and being allowed to publicly articulate all the costs of being brought into the fold—I am uncomfortable with this.
I am suspicious of or outright fear anyone that fights intensely to be comfortable—not comforted, but comfort-able—able at any moment to feel “fortified” “with” their relation to others. I wonder, how many things are they missing, excluding and ignoring that which make them un-com/fort/able and where those things are supposed to go. How far will they go to remove this difference which disquiets them?
One answer we have been receiving in addition to nominal inclusion is the offer to forget that we are ever or were ever excluded. How often do we hear people say they want to be “post-racial”? Is this not a dream of those that don’t want to feel guilty, contingent, responsible, or different? Who would get access to this world, what bodies, cultures, and alliances would be broken? Race as a way of knowing is also a way of meeting, of forming alliances as well as distinctions.
Because I am now marked as white, I am regarded as a neutral and natural member of the dominant society, but I am aided in my ability to slip free at times and retain (even add critical mass to my discomfort) by my gender as a trans-woman. It does not make me an expert on race, nor does it excuse either my ignorance or my relations to others (directly or systematically) because of race, but it does allow me to better understand difference and the tactics people deploy to remove such disturbances from their world.
Trying to be kind to me, people say they “don’t think genders (should) exist”; once again, assuming my complicity—as though I would go through the expense, suffering, and discomfort of being transgender if I didn’t care very much about gender. My gender gives me immense pleasure; it is my way of existing, feeling, fighting, associating and distinguishing myself. We need more genders, not less, and more and better ways of relating to gender.
My gender, my difference from the properly white collective, marks me as more disposable, more marginal, always and already the recipient of prejudice. One can hardly be blamed if they slip up or slip into perpetuating systems which displace me, recites the public mind, because that is just the life of someone in my shoes—the shoes of an-other.
Don’t get me wrong, people generally want to “do the right thing,” but they also want the disturbance to go away as quickly as possible. They tolerate or excuse my presence, in an act they view as charity motivated perhaps out of a kind of guilt. When they get the chance, however, many are ready to inform me or show suggestive body language that my presence does inflict a kind of injury and they want me to know that they are in fact bearing it—bearing me.
They aren’t asking me to leave (isn’t that nice of them?). Or if they are asking, they want to do it nicely, because they know (or think they know) that I am not making anyone uncomfortable on purpose; that I don’t want to make them (or their parents, their grandparents, their employer, their town, their parish, or anyone not as charitable as them) “uncomfortable.”
But I take pride when I do affect them, disturb them, make them uncomfortable. Not because I wish them ill, but because making them uncomfortable is my gift to them. They are having a “trans” moment, I say. They are experiencing difference, acknowledging that they participate in a system that tries to eliminate or pacify such difference, perhaps even feeling that they have suffered a personal loss for participating.
Yes, I hope for more genders, more difference, more possibilities and more demands to come out of ourselves and relate to the world in its newness, its contingencies, and its discomfort with us. Thus, in a critical sense, we need more races and more and better ways of relating to race. We cannot and should not simply try to homogenize everything, white-wash everything until we are one nominally comfortable people; that simply covers things up, pacifies critical discomfort, and dangerously threatens to eliminate differences and the very memory of difference.
Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of different children playing together, studying together, and working together, as a collective family. Few memberships exemplify differences between people more than being in a family. He asked us to love one another, but, again, family or not, it is the ones we love that give us the most discomfort. It is that bond of filial love that prohibits us from simply “getting rid of the disturbance” and instead demands that we live with, become affected by, and inhabit the space of disturbance. It asks us to count the cost of such fellowship and to remember why we pay it. Affectively, Dr. King dreamed we would share in his discomfort.
So long as I am uncomfortable, I have a greater ability and a greater compulsion to move or step aside or set down my place for the sake of another; even if it is only a local and temporary act. By making another uncomfortable, I continue to provide them with an embodied mechanism by which they can see, pursue, and ally with lives that their “privilege” has denied them. Discomfort not only allows us to acknowledge our contingency with each other, our convivial and parasitic method of living, but offers us opportunities for exchange, change, and perhaps even escape—not escape from this world, for we are all in this together, but into difference, into yet other ways of being and being with, feeling and feeling with, comforting and discomforting with us all—and on this day in particular, I can show my love and respect for him, by being uncomfortable (along) with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
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