The Power of Discomfort

I begin this writing with a painful admission, especially as a higher education professional. I was raised in a community that made racists feel comfortable to share their beliefs. Thankfully, my parents were not among them—I never once heard my mother or father judge someone by their skin color or nationality—but other community members, and sadly even other family members, regularly made comments about the propensity of entire races for laziness or theft or ignorance. Raised in the rural midwest, I had limited opportunity early on to let experience conquer stereotypes. I knew, though, the labels did not describe the admittedly few non-white students who attended my elementary school. When I felt uncomfortable hearing these comments and would ask my parents why even some family members talked this way, I was told, “That’s just who they are. We can’t change them, but we love them anyway.”

I did love my family deeply. I loved them with all of their flaws as I hoped they loved me with mine, but as I furthered my education, more discomfort would follow. I would feel it when we studied historical events such as slavery, Apartheid, and the Holocaust, and I realized the horrors that humanity was capable of. I would feel it when we studied more recent injustices such as new redlining, racial profiling, and hate crimes, and I had to acknowledge that humanity hadn’t fixed itself and not everyone wanted it to.

            House Bill 1775, approved by Oklahoma’s governor in May 2021, sought to ban instructors in the state from teaching anything that might make an individual feel discomfort or guilt on account of their race or sex, and with that bill’s passing the focus on DEI instruction has drawn sharp attention from political leaders who question higher education’s role in “indoctrination.” Recently Oklahoma higher education institutions have also had to report the money spent on diversity, not because political leaders want to ensure we are encouraging it but as a threat to state funding if we’re spending too much on it. At a 2023 conference I recently attended, I heard that other schools are scouring documents to eliminate trigger words (“diversity, equity, inclusion” but also “democracy”) and debates have abounded in the news and social media over the past couple of years about how we can teach history while avoiding topics that make students feel uncomfortable. (Cue here the statement that I am about to speak as an individual and not on behalf of my institution.)

            I think back on my childhood and I know it will be a great injustice to our students and to the values that higher education should support if these leaders are allowed to continue to squelch any conversations that are uncomfortable.  I believe this because I also believe that education’s great power is in showing us better paths forward, but those paths require us to acknowledge problems, historical and present—even those that make us uncomfortable. 

Granted, the power of discomfort is a difficult message to sell and always has been.  Socrates’ famous line that an “unexamined life is not worth living” may have inspired some students but he was still sentenced to death for putting ideas in their heads. Today that message is difficult to sell to a  public that is often suspicious of higher education, that doesn’t want to see their children come home for the weekend questioning their beliefs, and that isn’t supportive of their tax dollars being used to create that very discomfort that educators know is so essential to progress.

            True, students should not need to feel personal guilt over historical events that happened before they were born, but they should be squirming in their seats if facts fly in the face of the bias they’re espousing. It is that discomfort that makes them question and ultimately change their belief. It is that discomfort that allows us to recognize the past is not in the past if we still have headline stories like George Floyd’s.  And if they don’t recognize society’s guilt in allowing inequalities to thrive still, if they aren’t uncomfortable with the knowledge that oppression still exists, how will they, how will we all, ever move past these injustices?

A colleague recently referred to the DEI debate as a vocabulary treadmill, one that forces us to spin out new words to convey to all of our students that they matter, that different voices matter, that equity matters, while editing our documents to expunge words that support those very beliefs.  I am ready to get off the treadmill. Diversity matters. Equity matters. Inclusiveness matters. And a good dose of discomfort, when it leads us to want to be better than we are, that matters most of all.

Pam Stinson, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, Oklahoma State University - Oklahoma City

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