Let me start here, with a question I’ve had to ask myself many times recently: What is your personal comfort worth to you?
More specifically, what would you give up to avoid feeling unpleasant things like awkwardness and shame?
I invite you to be radically honest with yourself for this one: What are you willing to let someone else suffer so that you can feel comfortable in your skin? Is there a cost for comfort you consider too high, and if so, what is it?
Amid 2020’s many conversations on race, gender, queerness, class, and ability, I’ve been seeing the same theme cropping up over and over again: Discomfort. The people with the most privilege are made most uncomfortable by these topics, possibly because they believe they have the most to lose or, as race and gender columnist Shree Paradkar pointed out in this brilliant interview, because they worry that what the privileged have done will soon be done to them, in a kind of vicious, table-turning reckoning. The oppressors shall be oppressed. The straight, white, wealthy, highly educated male will somehow lose his right to be free, to marry, to own property, to vote, to have a voice, to run things, to be heard, to be respected, to hand out inflammatory hot takes on Twitter.
Perhaps nondisabled people have terrifying visions of a new world order where disabled people lock them into the institutions and low expectations that were once reserved for them.
Perhaps middle-class white writers like me are under the impression that if we let this “diversity thing” get out of hand, we will soon find ourselves crushed beneath the weight of all we have ignored.
(Perhaps marginalized groups aren’t actually calling for anything like this, and these fears say a lot more about the privileged than they do about those who call them out. Moving right along…)
I suspect that were it not for the visible disability that has defined and marginalized me from birth, I would be bleating just as loudly, defending my right to a comfortable life, free of hard questions, free of the obligation to make room at the table, free never to acknowledge that I’ve been playing my life on ‘easy’ mode, while so many have been stuck on ‘very hard.’
Yes, my whiteness has been a protective shield, one I liked to pretend wasn’t there at all so I could tell myself I merited everything I’ve been given. But the one thing I have never experienced for more than a moment here and there is comfort in my skin. My broken eyes and long white stick have seen to that. Fitting in is a foreign concept, and I know exactly what it has cost me to live at the service of other people’s comfort.
My entire life as a blind woman has, to one degree or another, revolved around other people’s need to feel comfortable with me. Different is automatically discomfiting, and it was my responsibility as the disabled person to mitigate this as much as I could. I must never put people on edge. I must never do anything too ‘blind.’ I must look and behave as much like a sighted person as possible, and I must face every rude question, every invasion and every aggression with saintly patience. I put people off, you see. People shouldn’t be held accountable for what they do and say when they’re uncomfortable, should they? People can’t progress beyond what they’re taught, can they?
As for my comfort? As for my desire not to feel unpleasant things like awkwardness and shame? That luxury isn’t mine to have.
If the person asking me why I bother to get a job makes me uncomfortable, well, them’s the breaks. People don’t know any better. Educate your little heart out, and move on, kiddo.
If powerful school officials and academics debating my right to an equal education makes me uncomfortable, well, I’d best work extra hard to prove them wrong. It’s on me to protect my rights and my dignity, to be a good example so the next disabled person won’t have it so hard. No pressure.
If the man dragging me by the waist because he insists I’m going the wrong way makes me uncomfortable, well, maybe I should get out of public life if I can’t handle the consequences. People are going to help in ways I don’t like, and I might want to try gratitude on for size. It’s not their job to be up on the latest how-to-help-disabled-people trends, come on.
If people congratulating my husband for “taking me on” makes me uncomfortable, maybe I ought to consider the fact that not everyone would be willing to “take care” of a blind partner. I’m really very lucky, you know. (My husband’s disability is invisible. The emotional labour I invest in supporting him through it goes uncongratulated, and so it should.)
I’m losing some of you, I know. You’ve heard all this before. It’s all very sad and whatever, but what can you do about it? You’re very sorry I had to go through this, that so many people had to go through this, but … shrug? You’re pretty sure you’re one of the good ones? Thoughts and prayers?
Stay with me just a moment longer, because I think I know where you’re coming from. If you’ve never walked into a new space and been physically blocked by people who thought that, just by the look of you, you shouldn’t be there, I can understand how you’d clutch your comfort close. If you’ve never had your hard-won qualifications dismissed because one glance convinced someone you were incompetent, I can see how you’d find all this a little mystifying. If you’ve never been asked, encouraged, even ordered to put up with abuse because your identity makes someone uncomfortable, then absolutely, I can imagine you’d be willing to give up an awful lot to make sure you never experience that.
I, privileged though I am, have lived with all of these realities, and I know the cost of someone else’s comfortable life. There are many levels of oppression I will never experience because I am a middle-class cisgender white lady with a pretty enough face who can usually get people to warm to her if they give her a minute or two to try. I’ve never been accused of committing a crime because I “looked” guilty, never been trained to fear the authorities the way Black and Indigenous people have. I’ve never been spat on or screamed at because I spread the “Chinese virus,” or because I belong to a religious minority, or because my gender presentation offended someone, or because someone assumed I must be a terrorist. And I will never get stuck behind the layered barriers faced by fellow disabled people who have racial, sexual, gender and other identities that put them at risk and push them even further to the margins.
Yet, I have lived in a visibly disabled person’s skin long enough to understand that each time we are made comfortable, each time our privilege is upheld, someone else suffers for it. Someone else is made uncomfortable. Someone else feels awkward. Someone else feels the shame and displacement we dare not shoulder.
This is what keeps me up at night, how attached I am to being comfortable, how in love I am with the security blanket of meritocracy and the bedtime-story mythology of ‘work hard and you shall be rewarded’ or ‘you get what you give.’ And if you’re white and disabled, if you’ve known one kind of oppression but have a hard time getting fired up about the kinds you don’t personally have to confront on a daily basis, I see you. I see you and I’ve been you and I think maybe you’re a little bit in love with that blue-sky meritocracy, too. You’ve hustled, haven’t you? You’ve worked hard and broken barriers? Why should anyone take that away from you? All this is making you a wee bit uncomfortable, isn’t it?
Yes, I see you there.
It’s time to sit with those sleepless nights. It’s time for me and, I hope, for even one person reading this, to move beyond conversations about discomfort. It’s time to stop giving each other credit for allowing ourselves to be uncomfortable, because that’s not an end. That’s the very beginning, the very first step. Much as we may resist it, Shree Paradkar was right when she asked that if the price of comfort is violence, oppression, murder, systemic marginalization, then what on earth is comfort really worth? Why are we celebrating our selfless willingness to experience discomfort when there is so much on the line? Why did I ever believe the lie that a little shame, a little awkwardness now and again would be enough?
So I’ll ask you again: What is your personal comfort worth to you? Is it worth violence directed at people you may never even meet? Is it worth the marginalization, abuse, and shaming of people who have never been allowed the luxury of being comfortable in their skin?
Think about it. Lose a little sleep. Watch how much you can grow when you stop being quite so comfortable. I dare you.