On Discomfort & Whiteness

This is the second blog post in a series of reflections about our research team’s experiences at the Canadian Association of Food Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus, June 2016.

Attending Scarborough Fare, the joint CAFS, ASFS & AFHVS academic conference was a new experience for me. As a first year masters student at my first conference, I expected to feel out of place as I learned my way around this particular space. However, the theme of the conference was also “Global Foodways and Local Foods in a Transnational City” so I was certain that considering my research focus was on local food work and immigrants in Ontario that I would find overlap with my work. What I did not expect was to encounter time and again throughout the conference a distinct lack of discussion around race or colonialism. As a scholar who works through the lenses of race, power, and difference, I took for granted that these issues would be addressed in panels throughout the conference. This is not to say these issues were never raised, as I did attend a few roundtables and panels that made an effort to discuss them. However, it often felt as if discussions would simply mention race or difference as a way to check a box on a list. Over the three full conference days of panels, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated in sessions that seemed to ignore race or simply gloss over it, particularly in sessions that focused on concepts like food justice or intersectionality.

Writing on the whiteness of university spaces, Carol Schick notes that, “…white places produce identities in which codes and expectations of proper white behaviour are vigorously enforced by reiterative, normative practices and designations of what is worth knowing” (2002).  What I was experiencing at the conference falls in line with Schick’s description of whiteness in university space. Whiteness, its practices and behaviours, influenced the focus and the thrust of the conference. The sessions demonstrated that to study immigrants, migrant foodways, and other varieties of marginalized and/or racialized people through the lens of food did not necessarily require scholars to seriously develop an understanding of systemic racism or colonialism.  While the food and culture of racialized people were celebrated, the realities of living in a racist system that disadvantages and targets certain parts of the population is not seen as worth knowing. Difference was celebrated without being problematized. Of course the option was mine (and other scholars who may have noticed) to interrupt this narrative, to ask difficult questions, to raise objections, but not only was the space not particularly conducive of critique, with little time left for meaningful discussion, but as one of few people of colour, a woman and a young student, it seemed out of turn to step in and offer a critique. Whiteness at the conference made me uncomfortable, but I hesitated to challenge or critique it, because I did not want to make others uncomfortable.

“Antiracist work could be described as a politics of discomfort.  This is not to say that we aim to make others uncomfortable but that discomfort might be a consequence of what we aim for:  after all to challenge whiteness is to get in the way of an occupation of space.” (Ahmed 2014).This discomfort is part of the labour of being an academic focused on unsettling whiteness — it is difficult, emotionally, mentally, to challenge these narratives and question these norms. It will be tense and awkward at best, and potentially combative at worst. At times this uncomfortable labour did take place, in my own presentations or alongside my colleagues at our roundtable, but these were spaces where I was scheduled to speak and therefore had a platform. Some tense and uncomfortable conversations were had, but they often stagnated around definitions of key terms (what exactly is racism? who is a settler?), suggesting that some participants were encountering these topics for the first time in a meaningful way.  In writing on the pedagogy of discomfort Boler and Zembylas suggest that, “if this takes place in an emotionally open and safe environment— that nurtures emotions of anger or guilt but challenges them with compassion and courage— there will be possibilities for mutual exploration that also nurture hope and a sense of community for initiating change” (2003, 125). As they suggest, our panel created a space where participants felt comfortable to ask foundational questions and explore feelings of guilt and frustration. It may not have allowed for far reaching discussions of more complicated questions, but it also reinforced that we must not shy away from the emotional labour of initiating uncomfortable conversations as they increase awareness and can lead to meaningful engagement.  To do this it may be necessary to change our viewpoints on discomfort.

I quote Sara Ahmed again as she writes, “Discomfort in other words, allows things to move. Every experience I have had of pleasure and excitement about a world opening up has begun with such ordinary feelings of discomfort, of not quite fitting in a chair, of becoming unseated, of being left holding onto the ground. So yes, if we start with the body that loses its chair, the world we describe will be quite different” (2014).  What if discomfort can be reframed as a positive signal of change, of a shifting of the narrative, of an opening to meaningful conversation? Perhaps if creating discomfort in ourselves and for others can be viewed not as a necessary evil, but as a progressive sign of successful activist work, it will become easier to speak up.

References

Ahmed, S. (2014, February 3). A Sinking Feeling. Retrieved from https://feministkilljoys.com/2014/02/03/a-sinking-feeling/

Boler, M., & Zembylas, M. (2003). Discomforting truths: The emotional terrain of understanding difference. Pedagogies of difference: Rethinking education for social change, 110-136.

Schick, C. (2002). “Keeping the Ivory Tower White: Discourses of Racial Domination” in Razack, S. (Ed.) Race, space, and the law: Unmapping a white settler society, p. 99-120. Toronto: Between the Lines.

 

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