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To White People, on Discomfort

“People are going to do what they’re going to do until it gets too uncomfortable. Then, they change.”

—Wise mom of someone I used to know

I don’t like seeing violence or suffering. I don’t go to violent movies, and if I accidentally end up at one, I look away during the violent parts, or sometimes I leave. When I see real violence, I get upset—an anxious physical response and often crying. But the most painful kind of violence for me to witness is violence in which I’m complicit, because then it’s all the physiology of my individual experience of violence, plus deep moral guilt and shame.

One thing that became slightly less painful in my life after I went vegan was that I released myself from ever again having to watch video footage of animals suffering in factory farms. This was an actual deal I made with myself: in exchange for giving up these things that have given me pleasure in the past, I don’t ever have to watch a video of a downed cow being prodded to stand up and walk to slaughter . . . because I’m doing something real to not participate in that system, I don’t have to endure that distress again. Before, when I was eating animals and animal products, I felt that it was hypocritical to turn away, so I made myself keep my eyes open when such videos crossed my path.

Last Friday, in a conversation with some friends in which I confessed that I had not yet watched the video footage of George Floyd’s murder (I have since watched it), I saw the connection—I don’t want to watch video footage of unarmed, unresisting black people being killed by the police not just because it distresses me to watch any violence or suffering. In addition to those feelings I have from watching any violence, when I watch these killings, which happen over and over and over again, I feel personally guilty, personally complicit, personally implicated. And that’s why I have to watch, because I have done nothing other than have anti-racist opinions and an anti-racist voting record. That’s it. That’s all I’ve done, and that’s near enough to nothing that it’s no free pass.

When people change, for it to stick, I think it usually has to be at least a little bit selfish. When I went vegan, much of the decision was related to just being tired of the internal conflict. I was tired of almost three decades of feeling morally conflicted about the food I ate, tired of going back and forth and changing my mind and whiplashing between following my beliefs and ignoring my beliefs. Just tired. The discomfort of continuing to be that person made it possible for me to change.

And now I’m tired of being someone whose silence made me complicit in racist policing and institutionalized racism in general.  Before last weekend, I think I’d been to one or maybe two Black Lives Matter protests in the previous five years. I read things and I watch things and I feel things and I hold a sign and then I go back to my life and then it all happens again too, too soon. I’m tired of being a person so afraid of police brutality that I will only stand with my black siblings in the bright afternoon at the courthouse instead of staying into the night when people need help and need all the solidarity they can get. I’m tired of the repetitiveness and monotony of it, of seeing the same thing happen again and again and providing not much more than the Buddhist atheist’s equivalent of thoughts and prayers. I’m tired of being this person. Being this person has become uncomfortable enough that it’s worse than the discomfort of my fears of being teargassed, of seeing conflict and violence, of getting seriously hurt. I want to change.

It’s not just me, though—part of making any change happen is making people uncomfortable. People hate being uncomfortable. Right now I’m out of town, not able to participate in the ongoing protests in my city this coming weekend, but I’m watching from a distance as one group of protesters wants to have a unity march with the mayor and the police, and another group thinks that a unity march is premature, when the people arrested last weekend for peacefully-but-angrily protesting are still charged with crimes, when the young man whose eye was destroyed by a teargas canister hasn’t received an apology, and when the mayor says in a written statement that the police’s use of force last weekend was necessary. It’s not time to be comfortable yet. It’s not time to let others be comfortable.

Arresting four officers in Minneapolis—which took nine days, protests in every state in the country and in nations around the world, and widespread police and military overreaction that proved the point of the protests—is the easy part. The hard part is reforming the entire nation’s approach to policing: Whom do they serve? To whom are they accountable? How can policies be created and revised to shift the focus of policing to service to all communities and all Americans, with transparency and accountability? This work starts now, and it won’t happen without continual and ongoing pressure from all people of goodwill—because cultural change is uncomfortable, and people don’t want to be uncomfortable. Fellow white people, please embrace your discomfort, sit with it, talk to it—let it change you. And I will try to keep doing the same.

* Note that I am absolutely not comparing factory farms to US slavery, a rhetorical move that vegans sometimes make that rightly infuriates black people. I’m focusing on myself and discussing these two things because these are two times I have felt convicted regarding my own complicity in systems of suffering.