The Tyranny of White Comfort: Centering Black students in the face of hateful legislation

Jamila Lyiscott, PhD
7 min readFeb 6, 2023

Either we achieve racial equity or white people remain comfortable. Both cannot happen at the same time.

Somehow we have bought into the idea that racial equity should only be pursued to the degree that white people don’t have to feel discomfort. But we have seen and learned the hard way that the cost of centering white comfort as an educator is to decenter the truths and needs of Black students.

A 2022 Florida bill approved by the senate committee was set to “prohibit individuals from making people ‘feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.”

I can only think of the countless Black students, filled with discomfort, anguish, and psychological distress, who have wept in my arms after leaving predominantly white classrooms where their histories were eviscerated or ignored, or where the subject of race meant that their teachers and classmates saw them for the very first time with piercing gazes of expectation to explain or validate the trauma and truths of racism.

In 2010, House Bill 22 was passed against Ethnic Studies in Arizona. Rather than recognize it as a way that we can finally include accurate histories (our students know these textbooks be lying), and affirm the cultures of students of color who are hungry to understand the complexity of their ethnic identities, the language of the bill frames the ES curriculum as a threat stating:

“HB 2281 prohibits a school district or charter school from including courses or classes that either promote the overthrow of the United States government or promote resentment toward a race or class of people.”

More recently the NAACP condemned Governor DeSantis’ decision to reject an AP African American Studies course where he argues that it “lacks educational value.” The College Board has recently caved to DeSantis and stripped mostly Black authors from the Advanced Placement curriculum.

All of these efforts are a natural outgrowth of the tyranny of white comfort, a facet of white supremacy that has plagued this country since its inception. The tyranny of white comfort is the power wielded to systemically silence the historical and present-day impact of racism on our everyday lives by positioning white emotions as more important than true change. The truth is our discomfort with how history is taught in schools has never been enough to substantively change what is taught to our children, even as parents, communities, and students have spoken out for centuries about how harmful the (mis)representation of Black people remains across all curriculum.

When I see how fiercely this nation seeks to protect white comfort I can only think of our ancestors who smiled when they did not want to smile and danced when they did not want to dance because white discomfort could easily cost them their lives.

Some of the first attempts of Black people to author their truths about the violence of racism in America were written in 18th and 19th century slave narratives — narratives written and orated by the enslaved to persuade the abolition of slavery — and even then they had to tread carefully around the tyranny of white comfort.

Because of their white readership, Toni Morrison tells us that in their narratives the enslaved would try to protect their readers from too much discomfort when the story became too gruesome by using phrases such as, “but let us drop a veil over these proceedings too terrible to relate.”

In telling their story, the enslaved sought to offer the facts of American chattel slavery as evenly-tempered as possible, so as to not offend those who had the power to free them. In turn, the narratives were often praised for not being “overly emotional”………..…about slavery.

If today we have, indeed, stepped into a chapter of true freedom, then it is our responsibility to speak boldly where our ancestors had to whisper, and to prioritize justice where our ancestors had to prioritize white comfort.

The alternative is that, as educators, we are tasked with teaching our children to accept the erasure of their histories and identities with a smile. I think of Colonel Llyod (described in Frederick Douglass’ slave narrative) who one day pulled up on one of his own enslaved people to ask how slavery was going for him:

It is reported of him, that, while riding along the road one day, [Colonel Llyod] met a colored man, and addressed him in the usual manner of speaking to colored people on the public highways of the south: “Well, boy, whom do you belong to?” “To Colonel Lloyd,” replied the slave. “Well, does the colonel treat you well?” “No, sir,” was the ready reply. “What, does he work you too hard?” “Yea, sir.” “Well, don’t he give you enough to eat?” “Yes, sir, he gives me enough, such as it is.”

The colonel, after ascertaining where the slave belonged, rode on; the man also went on about his business, not dreaming that he had been conversing with his master. He thought, said, and heard nothing more of the matter, until two or three weeks afterwards. The poor man was then informed by his overseer that, for having found fault with his master, he was now to be sold to a Georgia trader. He was immediately chained and handcuffed; and thus, without a moment’s warning, he was snatched away, and forever sundered, from his family and friends, by a hand more unrelenting than death. This is the penalty of telling the truth, of telling the simple truth, in answer to a series of plain questions.

Douglass’ story about Colonel Lloyd shows us that today’s efforts to shield white people from the impact of whiteness on others is not new. Colonel Lloyd was outraged that his slaves were not satisfied within a system which designated Black people as less than human.

When our plain questions, about the worth of Black life in this country, and about the inaccuracies and absence of our histories in textbooks, get in the way of white comfort the penalty is real. Our ancestral instinct to soften the truths of racism, to not be too Black or too loud or too real or too ratchet, is a mode of survival that has kept us alive. But at what cost?

In my capacity partnering with schools to develop culturally responsive and sustaining practices I have been faced with the disdain of white discomfort.

When the white administrator stormed out of the room of a local high school where I was invited to work with a student of color alliance…I thought it was all a joke.

On the heels of my saying, “we impose school dress codes that criminalize sagging pants and durags while many crimes are carried out by people wearing suits and ties every day,” the administrator, in his charcoal two-piece suit, leapt out of the room with urgency.

When I led the virtual school-wide professional development workshop on using hip-hop in the classroom for a Minnesota middle school, I listened to the genuine concerns of teachers who panicked at the nature of mainstream hip hop and what it might invite into their classrooms. My offering that they should be careful to teach Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, with just as much nuance and caution as they teach any contemporary rapper, made one of the participating educators red with rage. Hardly able to contain himself, he unmuted to say, “I’m sorry, but I just cannot sit back as you equate our founding fathers with the violence of thugs today!”

I replied calmly,

“You’re right. The violences of indigenous genocide and African slavery carried out by those we crystalize in the canons of our classrooms can hardly be compared with the (real and imagined) petty crimes of the hip-hop artists you fear bringing into your classrooms.”

The truth is, white discomfort continues to cost us our lives. Hence the caricaturization of “Karens,” who weaponize police force at will. Hence the painful proliferation of hashtags that we know all too well. How do we break free from centuries of history that requires us to center white comfort at the expense of ourselves?

We count the cost. The cost of centering white comfort is to shred the moral fabric of truth necessary for any possibility of racial healing in this country. The cost is raising children unequipped with the historical wisdom needed to design more humanizing futures. In my work with youth, when we venture into topics of racial equity, they are always relieved to hear someone name the unnerving realities they feel every day: “cultural erasure?…yessss THAT’s what that is!” A fire sets off in their spirits and they want to understand. The things that go unnamed in their classrooms, but they feel in their souls.

The “how “ piece to centering truth and the needs of Black students must be both individual and institutional. That is to say that unlearning the tyranny of white comfort is deep inner individual work, but has also been so readily institutionalized that we have to unearth the policies and practices that continue to prop up white supremacy around us. The banning of books is one of the ugliest extremes. But centering white comfort has long been institutionally encoded in school dress protocol, hair policies, “decorum.”

We will have to be just as loud or louder than those who oppose us.

We have to abscond and take refuge in spaces of education that exist outside of the four walls of school. Our parents, families, and communities have been outraged about the (mis)representation of Black people in schools for a long time and we can mobilize that in real ways.

We have to acknowledge that the cost of and manner of resistance for white people is not the same cost for people of color, who are already navigating the emotional and psychological violences of racism.

We have to imbue our pedagogies and curriculum with not just the truths of racial trauma, but the truth of Black nuance, brilliance, and the interiority of our lives. But this means rendering our nuances worthy of study. It means casting light on our brilliance even before it is co-opted or validated by white supremacist logic. It means that our interior worlds have value that can never be banned from reality. It means unveiling the myriad ways we are forced to survive white comfort. After all, “white supremacy is not a shark; it is the water” — Guante

Acknowledgement: Grateful to Princess Garrett and Jasmine Hoskins for their insights, which strengthened this piece.

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Jamila Lyiscott, PhD

Jamila Lyiscott aka, Dr. J, is a professor of social justice education, poet, author, and viral TED speaker