By MJ Ryan
I’ve been reflecting a lot on comfort recently—the white privilege of comfort and the knowledge that to change anything, we white folks have to get out of our comfort zone to fight for social and economic justice. Of course I know that intellectually, but it wasn’t until two things came together that I really “got” how uncomfortable with discomfort I truly am. And why that’s such a bad thing.
The first was seeing this graphic created by a woman named Maria Sosa (www.holisticallygrace.com) that took the concept of fixed versus growth mindset, as conceptualized by researcher Carole Dweck, and applied it to antiracism. Maria is a therapist and healer who is “all about deconstructing concepts, language, social standards and systems in order to co-create meaningful change rooted in real holistic health.”
I have used the mindset concept with myself and my clients for the past 14 years. I truly believe that only with a growth mindset can we truly learn and therefore transform ourselves and our lives. With a fixed mindset, you believe that intelligence is static and it’s all about proving that you are smart, and avoiding not getting found out about what you don’t know. With a growth mindset, you believe that intelligence can be developed and so life is all about learning, about making mistakes and improving. You know you can’t know it all. And I loved the application to the mindset we white folks need to have in order to listen deeply, unlearn and relearn.
But the first few times I looked at this graphic, I didn’t even see the words Comfort and Courage next to fixed and growth mindset. A complete white out (pun intended). Talk about wanting to avoid discomfort.
But of course it’s true. It takes courage to experience the discomfort of not knowing: not knowing what to say, not doing it “right.” To overcome our fear of making a mistake that only a growth mindset can give us. To sit with the shame that we have not done enough up till now.
Which brings me to my second lesson on comfort and courage: a year ago, a brown woman told me flat out she didn’t trust me or any other white woman. I did a half-hearted attempt to “prove” I was one of the “good ones,” but quickly realized that sitting with my discomfort over her truth was the point and stopped talking. The sense of discomfort dissipated as I went back to the business of my life, the only remnant a little feeling in the back of my head. I was back in my comfort zone.
I was reminded of this incident while attending a Race2dinner (https://race2dinner.com/) with the rest of the white staff at SheEO. As the organizers of Race2dinner, Saira Rao and Regina Jackson explained, as a white person, if I stay in the comfort zone, which I have the option to do because of the color of my skin, I will be continuing white supremacy. The very fact that it is an option is one proof of my white privilege which I must own. And that truth is very uncomfortable. But as, Regina said, “If you don’t own it, you can’t change it. And change doesn’t come without pain.”
To create a world we all can thrive in, we whites must tolerate the pain of the truth of the suffering we have caused by being part of the system that privileges us. Kristen Neff recently wrote in her Center for Mindful Self-Compassion newsletter, “As Paul Gilbert likes to say, “It’s not our fault, but it is our responsibility.” By participating in and benefitting from an unjust system, we perpetuate racism. We need …to [hold] this uncomfortable truth with love and acceptance, so we can wake up and commit to do things differently.”
We white people need to have a growth mindset when it comes to social justice work and accept discomfort as a necessary part of our work of change. That’s where the courage comes in. It’s the least we can do, given the courage our black and brown sisters and brothers need every day just to move through the world.