I want to talk about being uncomfortable—or, rather, being comfortable with what is uncomfortable—in order to learn and progress as an individual in a progressive society. Maybe this means I want to talk about art, or education, or both.
How important is disquiet to learning? How comfortable must I become with discomfort in order to progress as an educated citizen? I have been thinking about these questions a great deal lately, based on my experience with the recent art exhibit at K, “Behind Closed Doors.” The exhibit was sponsored by Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership (ACSJL) and appeared in various locations around campus during winter term (Dow Science Center, Mandelle Hall, Anderson Athletic Center, Dalton Theatre, ACSJL, Hicks Center, among others)
The exhibit featured a comment box open to anyone—faculty, staff and students of K as well as members of the general community. The exhibit’s purpose was to get people to have a conversation that they might not normally have about segregation and racism in our country.
Artist and Kalamazoo native J.D. Brink took two old doors, scarred them with bullet holes and shattered their windows. Perhaps the most violent stroke employed by the artist was affixing two original signs, one on each door: “Whites Only” and “Colored Only: No Whites Allowed”. The art exhibit was first displayed in Balch Playhouse on the opening night of The Mountaintop, a dramatic depiction of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s last night alive, set in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on the eve of his assassination on April 4,1968.
The comment box offered people the chance to engage with Brink’s artwork and become part of a silent conversation with the campus community. A forum was held on February 26 in the social justice center to converse about the significance of the exhibit. Arcus Center Fellows Kiavanni Williams ‘18 and Erin Butler ‘18 revealed the comments from the box for reflection and discussion.
Unfortunately the event was poorly attended. I shared the nearly empty room with Kiavanni and Erin. The comments were neatly taped to the backs of smooth wooden doors like paintings in a gallery. The three of us read each comment to ourselves. Some comments provided personal anecdotes of racism experienced in the U.S., others questioned the purpose of the exhibit and seemed to resent the discomfort it inspired. Some were hauntingly irreverent about racism in the present day, and too many showed a troubling ignorance of the history of Black people in America (a group that includes persons of various backgrounds: African-American, Afro-Caribbean, Caribbean, Afro-Latino, African, and a number of mixed raced individuals). Twenty-six people commented, all anonymously, and, sadly, the comments ranged from overt racism to a disturbing obliviousness to the issue of racial discrimination in America as a present day issue.
I was most struck by what each comment shared: a sense of deep and brooding discomfort. It is indeed jarring to see, in 2016, a “Whites Only” and “Coloreds Only” sign, and several commenters wanted the exhibit removed. As a Black woman I have made a habit out of ignoring stares and holding my tongue when I hear people appropriate aspects of my culture for pleasure. I have felt the stiffness of a classroom where I am one of just a few Black students. I have endured jokes that stab instead of tickle. My freshman year I felt #unsafeatK and that sensation still lingers. My African-American peers as well as other students of color on this campus have also experienced the discomfort that those dilapidated doors with Jim Crow signs seemed to inspire in every building they stood.
To me, those doors are too familiar; I’d seen them before in the eyes of some who judged me entirely by my skin, in the eyes of politicians and teachers throughout my life. The duration of that discomfort has no doubt made a callus over once vulnerable parts of myself and my soul. But it has also made me aware, made me tolerant to the wiles of ignorance, and made me strong. It is through discomfort that we can truly discover the purest elements of our humanity. Hopefully struggle and education will guide us to a greater understanding of what needs to occur for all to live in peace.