September 22, 2023

relocate the discomfort

viewing the puget sound from the deck of a ferry
photo caption: the waters of the puget sound from the deck of a ferry. the water gently ripples with a boat and other objects bobbing on the surface. the sun shines bright through scattered morning clouds. the scene is breathtaking and objectively beautiful. or is it?

I’ve participated in many structured conversations about race and equity. In these spaces, “the agreements” come up a lot. These are short statements that set ground rules for the conversations to come. Most DEI circles talk about agreements right after introductions. The exact number of agreements, usually 5-10, will depend on who runs the meeting. Talking about race and its impacts in america can be sensitive and quite personal. Agreements exist to help put guard rails on such conversations before they begin.

Glenn E. Singleton and Cyndie Hays wrote one of the foundational texts for talking about race in modern institutions. Their essay, Beginning Courageous Conversations About Race (pdf), came out in 2006. The essay draws from the book originally by Singleton and Curtis Linton, Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools. The focus of the essay was to help teachers talk about race in schools. It’s absolutely worth your time to read.

The authors describe in detail a total of 4 agreements:

  1. Stay engaged
  2. Expect to experience discomfort
  3. Speak your truth
  4. Accept a lack of closure

These agreements often show up in the other lists I’ve found. Dozens of DEI educators list this essay as inspiration for their own set of agreements.

Singleton and Hays wanted their guide to foster dialogue between people. Many white people in america work in environments that lifts up their needs and concerns. In settings like these, it’s taboo to talk about race. Public schools, the initial audience for their essay, function like most institutions do. They reinforce popular notions around colorblindness and meritocracy. Using these agreements can help us examine and challenge the unequal world around us.

But the way we share these agreements today can look very different than Singleton and Hays once intended. There may be a cursory review of the agreements before we enter a conversation about race. Once recited, it’s rare to see the agreements come back up in the conversation that follows. Participants are sometimes left to make meaning of the agreements themselves without the added documentation that comes with the essay. It’s no exaggeration to say that interpretations vary wildly! When we lift the four agreements out of their context, we lose something important. The people we’re asking to expect discomfort are supposed to be white. They’re supposed to be cisgendered. They’re supposed to be straight. Anyone who holds a position within the status quo should realize that their comfort may be coming at the expense of someone else’s.

talking about discomfort

What do we mean when we say “expect to experience discomfort”? I often hear people who are white describe their expectations of discomfort with a grim sadness. It feels a little like politicians talking about war in the way they think a grownup should. “Yes, it’s going to be difficult. The burden is not light, and I do not bear it with ease. But I, a person who will never see battle, am prepared to do whatever it takes at the expense of the bodies of others.”

People may say they are ready for discomfort, but I’m not sure they are. Conversations about race happen in organizations where white people often dominate discussions. They dominate leadership positions. They hold organizational power. They exercise societal power. In these worlds it’s easy to describe discomfort as an abstract concept. When they talk about discomfort, it doesn’t seem to occur to most people that we’re talking about their own.

a matter of interpretation

Here’s where I think “expect to experience discomfort” loses some people. When you’re privileged, “discomfort” doesn’t feel like discomfort. It feels like an attack. Even people with an open mind can respond defensively when they feel attacked. Some people will find a fault in the speech or approach that a person has taken to expose some truth. Others will defend themselves and their position without hearing anyone else. Others will deny altogether that someone else could feel the way they said they do. It’s not always race-based (but it’s very often race-based). Discomfort bubbles up whenever people in power realize their perspectives are not universal.

We see this all the time. Critics bluster through denials of the lived experience of Black people. They reject altogether trans people’s descriptions of how they understand their own bodies. They find excuses when coworkers tell them how their microaggressions affected them.

Too many people hear “expect discomfort” and assume it will be others who will feel the discomfort. When we realize that many perspectives exist, we start to reject larger ideas. The dominant way of understanding race gives way to other experiences and points of view. People trapped inside white supremacy first have to accept and believe that. Only then can they recognize that their dominant view on race and racism is not the only view possible.

As we know, people do often have different experiences in society based on the color of their skin. Expecting discomfort means learning this. It means reckoning with the reality that you and your ancestors likely played a role in it. People across society came together to construct and maintain this system of oppression. It’s only after we understand this that we can begin to create new systems together.

Singleton and Hays write: “A courageous conversation requires that we grow accustomed to the discomfort of abandoning old habits.”

if you are among the historically oppressed

You probably already know this. The discomfort Singleton and Hays is talking about is not supposed to be yours. The discomfort itself is not yours to own alone.

Singleton and Hays had a purpose in mind for the discomfort. If we’re going to have meaningful conversations about race, we have to expose some hard truths. These truths ingrain into people’s minds until they’re as objective as eyesight. We are trying to expose the reality of the oppressor as a single perspective in a sea of them. No one perspective is completely objective.

You don’t have to experience the discomfort. There might be a power dynamic between you and the other person. You might not have invited yourself in to this conversation on race. You don’t have to stay in it. You don’t have to stay in every one. “I need to step away from this conversation right now.” You don’t need to bring yourself more hardship for the sake of someone else’s learning. If you start to feel the impact of their intentions, walk away. Lashing out or escalating the situation probably won’t help anyone.

don’t stop

Focus on the purpose behind experiencing discomfort. We’re trying to expose the uneven reality of the status quo. I want to let people stew in their power, holding the knowledge that the workplace isn’t theirs alone.

Don’t stop advocating to make that workplace more equal. Don’t allow people to misgender you in any context. When you experience a microaggression, don’t accept it as part of someone else’s learning and growth. Correct it and talk about it in ways that are safe for you both.

It’s natural for people to feel discomfort at work right now. Let some discomfort fall on the people who are always comfortable.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]