I don’t like airports. Airports make me uncomfortable. Airports make me really uncomfortable. I worry about forgetting my passport, or tickets, or losing baggage, and planes crashing, and flying into comically bad storms, or having a drunk pilot (thank you for that, Denzel Washington).

Haya Alfarhan

Mostly, airports make me uncomfortable because it’s a space that makes me hyper-aware. At any given moment, I’m worried about looking suspicious, making sure I’m speaking perfect English instead of Arabic, and looking as friendly as possible. Mostly, what makes airports uncomfortable for me is having to try to compose myself in a way that puts strangers at ease.

Up until very recently, I used the same strategy in most of my discussion-based classes. Instead of speaking my mind, I would censor myself, make a bland contribution, and leave the class with a mind full of statements I should’ve made instead. Until it finally dawned on me that comfort has no place in the classroom. When a classroom discussion is comfortable, nothing real is being said.

In an effort to make students feel included and safe, most professors who teach “challenging” material often shut down discussions in class once one student hints that s/he feels uncomfortable. This practice is detrimental to the learning environment. Race, gender, religion, sexuality and politics should never be comfortable. Students should be able to feel safe to share their narratives and opinions in class. Students should feel respected. Students can even feel insulted. Students should not feel comfortable.

Professors need to recognize that there should be a distinction between feeling “safe” and feeling comfortable. Often, people use them interchangeably, and that needs to be stopped if classrooms are aspiring to become progressive spaces. If students are forced out of their comfort zone, they’ll initially feel uncomfortable, but eventually that discomfort will trigger a need for exchange. They’ll start attempting to question their discomfort, their opinion, and deconstruct their views, leading to valuable discourse.

When safety and comfort are equated, it reinforces pre-existing privilege dynamics. When white students refuse to force themselves to ponder the input of their fellow students of color during discussions on race, it’s because their privilege affords them that comfort. When male students proclaim that their female classmates are exaggerating, it’s because they’re not ready to acknowledge a narrative that questions their privilege.

When privileged individuals are unwilling to interrogate their internalized biases because it makes them uncomfortable, it forces students with marginalized identities to trigger themselves emotionally to make a point. Privileged comfort comes at the cost of triggering marginalized students. Students who trigger themselves do so because these topics consume their lives and a lack of discourse in class is genuinely painful for them. These are often topics that they’re constantly thinking, analyzing and being plagued by.

Yes, professors should be able to facilitate their class discussions better, but it’s also students’ responsibility to engage wholeheartedly. They should be receptive to narratives that threaten their view of the world. They should welcome it. They should sit with their discomfort.

It’s in spaces that trigger discomfort for me that I’ve learned deeper truths about myself. It’s in those spaces I’ve come to understand the struggles of others and worked to understand my role in the equation. It’s in uncomfortable exchanges and conversations that I’ve been able to evolve as a person.

Discomfort is not fun, but it will make you a less shitty person. It will make you relearn things, teach you compassion, and yes, it might even make you realize some pretty painful truths. When you make the choice to be comfortable, you’re making the choice to accept what you’ve been taught about yourself and your role in the world with no questions.

Haya Alfarhan can be reached at hsf@umich.edu.

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