Understanding Privilege: The Importance of Discomfort

Anna Lee ‘24

When I first came to the College of the Holy Cross, I was excited and curious. Opportunities and possibilities were laid out before me on laminated posters and pamphlets, and I yearned to pursue them. But I was also uncomfortable—the predominantly white population seemed to separate itself from the rest of the student body, and I was usually the only non-white person in class. But even as the campus became more familiar and I fell into a routine, this discomfort did not wane. Embracing discomfort, for me, is annoying but not surprising—in any space that lacks representation or familiarity, this is expected. 

Yet I noticed something strange as I became affiliated with organizations and attended events and meetings. Events that center around discussions of white accountability, allyship, and improving relationships between racial groups are rarely attended by the people they concern. For instance, the majority of Multicultural Student Organizations’ (MSOs) events are attended by people that either identify themselves with those respective groups or are people from other marginalized backgrounds (e.g., people of color, LGBTQ+ students, etc.). If they’re lucky, a spattering of white students will show up. I brought up this observation with one of my friends who replied that a lot of this disparity in attendance is due to discomfort—a common feeling among white students that they aren’t welcome in predominantly non-white spaces and therefore avoid them altogether. 

For many students, privilege is a safe space and easy to get acquainted with. To an extent, every Holy Cross student has it—whether that regards their identity, socioeconomic status, or their ability to attend college. What sets students apart is their ability to recognize that privilege, then sit with the discomfort it entails. For students from minoritized backgrounds, this is a constant challenge. After all, leaving class because everyone else is white is not always an option, nor is it feasible in other aspects of college life—say, discomfort in the dining hall, walking around campus, or studying in the library. Though college is undeniably a privilege, it also gives rise to other hierarchies that are consistently embedded in daily life for marginalized groups. 

What discussions about privilege and identity seek to do is not only serve as a safe space for students of color and other marginalized students but also to disrupt the peace that accompanies privilege. MSOs host events centered around celebration and love, but also discuss grief, trauma, and discussions of accountability. But when the only attendees are those afflicted by these oppressions in the first place, change and true allyship can never take place. Dr. Jonathan Kanter and Dr. Daniel Rosen recognize that instead of embracing discomfort, it’s a human tendency to avoid it—and at the same time, it’s a necessary confrontation. In other words, learning about race-related and minority issues is one thing, but leaning into discomfort and learning to embrace it is another experience entirely. 

Of course, the point of these discussions is not to make allies uncomfortable and expect them to deal with it. But it brings up an introspective reckoning about privilege, and the idea that everyone should be entitled to that same level of comfort and safety. When this safety is disrupted, it gives privileged students a taste of that constant worry and threat that constantly plagues many marginalized students. In order to get rid of that discomfort—not just for white students but marginalized students—allies can use these disruptive feelings as a source of motivation for policy change and action. In positions of student leadership, even in terms of government associations, the majority of students there are white—and just like most other institutions, they wield the power and connections to administration and higher ups. Therefore, a motivation for change combined with a high leadership status can give rise to new revisions, required training, increased funding for MSOs, and an administration-oriented attention towards improving the Holy Cross experience not just for white students, but for all. 

In order to jumpstart this initiative, consider attending some of these events this month, either in celebration or introspection: ASIA’s Fall Event (11/13), BSU’s Griot (11/11), OME’s Gathered event (11/15), Community Hours with OME throughout the month, OME’s Friendsgiving (11/21), Office of Sustainability’s opportunities to donate clothing or goods (11/22-11/23), and ASIA’s Origami Event (11/29). Beyond these events, getting acquainted with MSOs and other student organizations is a good first step—one that you can start with by accessing the MSO page on the Holy Cross website. Maturing in college is not just learning organizational and writing tasks—it requires a personal development: breaking the comfort of privilege, sitting in discomfort and humility, and changing what you can with the privilege you wield. 

Photo courtesy of MSO/OME
MSO/OME website QR code

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