The Discomfort Curve: Balancing Discomfort and Impact
Following the highly publicized murders of Black people by both police and vigilantes, there has been much discussion about whether the largest mobilization of people is a movement or a moment. 400 years of systemic anti-Black racism has stained the fabric of this country, and reparation of that injustice needs to be equally systemic and unequivocal. Identifying and eradicating the ill of anti-Black racism that has permeated every corner of our society is tireless work — and it’s uncomfortable.
In incubating a new venture idea with the aim of working to dismantle anti-Black racism, our team continually grapples with what is a sustainable amount of discomfort to ask people to engage in the pursuit of racial justice. On the one hand, we acknowledge that if the anti-racist action we ask potential participants to undertake is too discomforting, there will likely be low participation. On the other hand, we recognize that the more impactful the proposed anti-racist action is, the more discomfort it’s likely to generate. From this internal tension was born the Discomfort Curve.
Imagine an x-y axis with discomfort on one axis and an impact on the other. We believe there is a positive relationship between discomfort and progress when it comes to taking anti-racist action. Anti-racist actions that are more accessible from a comfort standpoint are likely to yield marginal or fleeting progress. The type of action that will move the needle on anti-racism demands the ability to navigate sustained discomfort. Whether contemplating anti-racist action as individuals or in the development of an anti-racist program, we continually have to ask, how much discomfort are we willing to endure in the name of racial justice.
“As part of our nationwide movement in the aftermath of this summer’s racialized violence, there has been a proliferation of low discomfort, low-impact actions taken.”
As you wrestle with the discomfort curve, it’s important to draw an unequivocal distinction between things that are uncomfortable and things that are unsafe. The vast majority of actions we could take to advancing racial justice — decolonize curricula, actually integrating schools, replacing racist meritocracy values and policies, achieving racial parity in access to venture capital — pose no direct threat to life. They however are very likely to create significant discomfort for the people who advance these anti-racist actions. The discomfort of acting is then only compounded by the backlash to your action from those who benefit from the current system.
As part of our nationwide movement in the aftermath of this summer’s racialized violence, there has been a proliferation of low discomfort, low-impact actions taken. These limited actions have taken the form of signing up for one-time anti-racist training, sharing an anti-racist reading list, or making a donation. The people undertaking these steps have been compelled to act, a feat in its own right; yet, the scope of the action does not parallel the scope of the problem. Systemic racism in this country is so insidious and durable it can withstand these actions that are not systemic in nature.
I appreciate the street art, donations, statements, and race-centered books atop the NYTimes bestseller list. However, I’ve also seen the same institutions and people who initiated these actions continue to pay their Black employees less, fail to pass substantive anti-racist legislation, and be silent in the face of anti-Black racism in their organizations and peer groups. In short, Black people are still navigating the harm of anti-Black racism, and emerging anti-racists feel a sense of accomplishment and are redirecting their attention back to the everyday demands of life.
I get it, disrupting can be extremely uncomfortable. As a Black person, I can attest that the harm of racism is uncomfortable at best and traumatic or deadly at worst. Your Black peers are involuntarily navigating the discomfort of colleagues who are bystanders to the harm of racism and don’t speak up. Black people are by no means a monolith, but navigating an anti-Black society means they have likely been forced to develop coping skills for navigating the harm of anti-racism Blackness. Discomfort is our daily life.
Even though the Black American experience is rife with discomfort, I too must fight a different type of discomfort when I choose to engage in anti-racist action, the type of discomfort captured by the Discomfort Curve. I’m still recovering from being labeled “off-putting” for identifying racism in my peer group and holding my peers accountable for the impact of their racist beliefs and actions. I rehearse my lines in my head before going up to a mic and bringing attention to an organization’s professed valued and observable actions. I mull over the potential negative eventualities of acting. I too know the physiological manifestation of discomfort that comes with speaking out and speaking up against anti-Black racism.
However, I too stay motivated by justice. Continuing to ask 40 million-plus Black Americans and tens of millions more people of color who live in the United States to endure the unwavering harm of racism is too high a price. My commitment to justice continues to propel me up the Curve. What do you prioritize on the Discomfort Curve, comfort or impact?