Against Students

I want to begin by explaining the title of this post. What do I mean by “against students”? By using this expression I am trying to describe a series of speech acts, which consistently position students, or at least specific kinds of students, as a threat to education, to free speech, to civilisation: we might even say, to life itself.  In speaking against students, these speech acts also speak for more or less explicitly articulated sets of values: freedom, reason, education, democracy. These values are identified as requiring the reproduction of norms of conduct that students are themselves failing to reproduce.  Even if that failure is explained as a result of ideological shifts that students are not held responsible for – whether it be neoliberalism, managerialism or a new sexual puritanism – it is in the bodies of students that the failure is located. Students are not transmitting the right message or are evidence that we have failed to transmit the right message. Students have become an error message, a beep, beep, that is announcing the failure of a whole system.

In describing the problem of how students have become the problem, I will be analysing some recent writings that seem to be concerned with distinct issues even if they all address the demise of higher education and involve a kind of nostalgia for something that has been, or is being, lost. I have made the decision to quote from these texts without citing the authors by name: I wish to treat each text as an instance in a wider intertextual web and thus to depersonalise the material. Some of these texts do cite each other. And they all by evoking the figure of the problem student (who travels through this terrain with an accumulating pace and velocity) participate in the making of a shared world.

By “problem student” I am in fact referring to a number of related figures: the consuming student, the censoring student, the over-sensitive student and the complaining student. By considering how these figures are related we can explore connections that are being made through them: connections between, for example, neoliberalism in higher education, a concern with safe spaces, and the struggle against sexual harassment. These connections are being made without being explicitly articulated.  We need to make these connections explicit in order to challenge them. This is what “against students” is really about.

One of my concerns in Willful Subjects (2014) was with the politics of dismissal: I was interested in how various points of view can be dismissed by being swept away or swept up by the charge of willfulness. So: what protestors are protesting about can be ignored when protestors are assumed to be suffering from too much will; they are assumed to be opposing something because they are being oppositional. The figures of the consuming student; censoring student, over-sensitive student and complaining student are also doing something; they are up to something. These figures circulate in order to sweep something up.  Different student protests can be dismissed as products of weaknesses of moral character (generated by a thing called “student culture” or “campus politics”) and as the cause of a more general demise of values and standards.

Let’s begin with critiques of neoliberalism and higher education. These are critiques I would share: I too would be critical of how universities are managed as businesses; I too would be critical of the transformation of education into a commodity; of how students are treated as consumers. I too am aware of the burdens of bureaucracy and how we can end up pushing paper around just to leave a trail.

I want to think about here is how critiques of neoliberalism can also involve a vigorous sweeping: whatever is placed near the object of critique becomes the object of critique. For example, my empirical research into the new equality regime taught me how equality can be dismissed as a symptom of neo-liberalism, as “just another” mechanism for ensuring academic compliance (see Ahmed 2012).  Theresa May justified a withdrawal from some of the stated commitments in the Equality Act (2010) by arguing the law “would have been just another bureaucratic box to be ticked. It would have meant more time filling in forms and less time focusing on policies that will make a real difference to people’s life chances.” Practitioners talked of how academics would use similar arguments: that these forms and procedures are just another “box to be ticked,” in order to dismiss the more general relevance of equality to their work (“a real difference”). They can then enact non-compliance with equality as a form of resistance to bureaucracy. Equality becomes something imposed by management, as what would, if taken seriously, constrain life and labour. Whilst we might want to critique how equality is bureaucratised, we need to challenge how that very critique can be used to dismiss equality.

We sense the vigour of the sweep.

How convenient.

Let’s look at a specific instance. In a recent article, one professor laments the demise of the university. He conjures an ideal image of academic life: and not necessarily one that is a past although it lingers or seems that way. He evokes Oxbridge: a time and a place where professors and dons are the ones who get to decide what they are doing and how they spend or allocate their time and resources. He writes: “It is the dons who decide how to invest the college’s money, what flowers to plant in their gardens, whose portraits to hang in the senior common room, and how best to explain to their students why they spend more on the wine cellar than on the college library. All important decisions are made by the fellows of the college in full session, and everything from financial and academic affairs to routine administration is conducted by elected committees of academics responsible to the body of fellows as a whole.”[1]

It is interesting that the specific decisions referred to are how to justify the amount of wine being consumed (not whether the wine being consumed can be justified), gardens being planted, and portraits being hung, rather than the content of courses being taught. This ideal world of “don democracy” is then contrasted to the bureaucracy of corporate academia:  “Instead of government by academics there is rule by hierarchy, a good deal of Byzantine bureaucracy, junior professors who are little but dogsbodies and vice chancellors who behave as though they are running General Motors.” One has to comment here on the problematic assumption that “don democracy” or the elite system of Oxbridge is not itself “rule by hierarchy.”

The critique progresses: “In any case, the vast increase in bureaucracy in British higher education, occasioned by the flourishing of a managerial ideology and the relentless demands of the state assessment exercise, means that academics have had little enough time to prepare their teaching even if it seemed worth doing, which for the past several years it has not.” Academics no longer have the time the old dons had. We might want to point out that the time evoked as having been lost is a time that most academics would not have had; that there was always an economy of time (some academics might have had more time because others had less time). In this bleak world: “All professors are transformed into managers, so students are converted into consumers.” Here the students arrive as those who are converted into consumers, having previously come up as those to whom the dons had to explain why they spent more money on wine than books.

The following sentence brings up our first figure, the consuming student, as a problem: “One result of this hot pursuit of the student purse is the growth of courses tailored to whatever is currently in fashion among 20-year-olds. In my own discipline of English, that means vampires rather than Victorians, sexuality rather than Shelley, fanzines rather than Foucault, the contemporary world rather than the medieval one. It is thus that deep-seated political and economic forces come to shape syllabuses. Any English department that focused its energies on Anglo-Saxon literature or the 18th century would be cutting its own throat.” Even if the “hot pursuit” of the “student purse” is behind the demise of a discipline, it is the students who want the wrong things who determine what is being and not taught, who have caused the loss of the right things (vampires, sexuality, fanzines; the contemporary world rather than Victorians, Shelley, Foucault, the medieval world). Indeed, the repeated use of “rather than” implies that bad objects put in place because of what is “in fashion” with “2o year olds” have toppled the good objects put in place by old dons or departments. And it is implied that not following “whatever students want” would amount to the death of a discipline (“cutting its own throat”).

What a sweep!

Even my own relatively limited knowledge of what is taught in departments of English Literature would lead me to question much in this narrative. But what interests me here is: how so much is brought up so quickly in order to be dismissed so quickly as a product of neoliberalism, of the transformation of universities into markets.

Note the placement of the word “sexuality” in this list. We can guess what this word is doing on the wrong side of the “rather than” (even though Foucault, a historian of sexuality, is on the right side[2]). The emergence of sexuality (and its studies) can be treated as a product of the marketization of higher education. In other words sexuality becomes yet another bad object brought about because of what students want.

We need to challenge this assumption that some subjects only come into existence because universities are “in hot pursuit” of the “student purse.” We know the strong critiques of curriculum  made by those working within departments that led to the diversification of the curriculum. We know of the work of “chipping away” at the walls that are sometimes called canons. We know of the long histories of feminist and queer activisms that led to sexuality as well as gender being taken up as legitimate subjects within the academy.

If we don’t know, we should know.

These histories of labour and activism are “swept away” by the assumption that such subjects only come into existence because of the “student purse.” It is this activism that enabled a challenge to some of the decisions made by departments as well as dons about what is of value; decisions that solidify as canons. These decisions are often protected by assumptions of universality, which is a way of making a decision “indefensible” (the usual sense of indefensible is unjustifiable – I want to make this mean “that which does not need justifying”). The various subjects made possible through the labour of political critique and activism are dismissed in the flourish of a “rather than,” as simple expressions of the wanton nature of the market (that monstrous body).

The figure of the consuming subject, who wants the wrong things, a student who is found wanting, is hard at work. She is how: an idea of universal knowledge or universal culture can be so thinly disguised as a critique of neoliberalism and managerialism. She is how: an academic world can be idealised in being mourned as a lost object; a world where dons get to decide things; a world imagined as democracy, as untroubled by the whims and wishes of generations to come.[3]

We have an understanding of how: when students are being critical of what we are doing, when they contest what is being taught, they can be treated and dismissed as acting like consumers. In other words it is when students are not satisfied that they are understood as treating our delivery as a product. Critique as such can be “swept away” by the charge of consumerism. Students become the problem when what they want is not in accordance with what academics want or what academics want them to want: students become willful when what they will is not what academics will or not what academics will them to will.  What seems to be in place here is what Paulo Freire (1970) called the “bank model” of education in which teachers deposit knowledge into the bodies of students like money into a machine. Rather ironically, students are more likely to be judged as acting like consumers when they refuse to be banks.

Luckily I would say: don’t bank on it.

The figure of the consuming student has something to say to other figures such as the censoring student. I now want to return to an earlier post “You are Oppressing Us.” I referred to one letter that mobilised the figure of the censoring student (this letter has since been supplemented by yet more letters – one of which even equates alleged “no platforming” in the UK with various acts of extremism around the world). This letter speaks of how some have been stopped from speaking on campuses because they articulate viewpoints that are out of line with the views held by students (who are treated as remarkably consistent, as body or thing, and I am partly tracking what is achieved by this consistency). The figure of the censoring student exists in close relation to that of the consuming student: both work to create an impression that students have all the power to decide what is being taught as well as what is not being taught, what is being spoken about as well as what is not being spoken about; and that this power is at the expense not only of dons and departments, but also politicians, journalists and other public figures.

Students: they keep coming up as having all the power.


Yes, really.

I noted in my previous post how the letter relies on flimsy evidence because it is assembled around a desire for evidence. Indeed the instances of apparent censorship (translate: student protests) seemed to generate more discourse and discussion rather than preventing discourse or discussion. When students who protest against such-and-such speaker become censors, those who wrote and signed the letter become the ones who are silenced, whose freedoms are under threat. So much speech and writing is generated by those who claim they are silenced!

But we can still ask: what is the figure of the censoring student doing. By hearing student critique as censorship the content of that critique is pushed aside. When you hear a challenge as an attempt at censorship you do not have to engage with the challenge. You do not even have to say anything of substance because you assume the challenge as  without substance.

In the first instance, critique and contestation (“they want the wrong courses!”) is dismissed as consumerism; in the second instance, protest (“they don’t want the right people!”) is dismissed as censorship.

Sweep, sweep.

Beep, beep.

Error message.

Another figure comes up, rather quickly, at this point: she is often lurking behind the censoring student. This is the over-sensitive student: the one who responds to events or potential events with hurt feelings. She also comes up as someone who stops things from happening.  We can refer here to a number of recent pieces that I would read as a moral panic about moral panics. Many of these pieces refer to US college campuses specifically and are concerned with the introduction of safe spaces, and trigger warnings.

The figure of the over-sensitive student is invested with power. The story goes: because students have become too sensitive, we cannot even talk about difficult issues in the classroom; because of their feelings we (critical academics) cannot address questions of power and violence, and so on. A typical example of this kind of rhetoric: “No one can rebut feelings, and so the only thing left to do is shut down the things that cause distress — no argument, no discussion, just hit the mute button and pretend eliminating discomfort is the same as effecting actual change.” Or another: “while keeping college-level discussions ‘safe’ may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision.” Here safety is about feeling good, or not feeling bad. We sense what is being feared: students will become warm with dull edges, not sharp enough in wit or wisdom.

The moral panic around trigger warnings is a very good pedagogic tool: we learn from it. Trigger warnings are assumed as being about being safe or warm or cuddled. I would describe trigger warnings as a partial and necessarily inadequate measure to enable some people to stay in the room so that “difficult issues” can be discussed. The assumption that trigger warnings are themselves about safe spaces is a working assumption (by this I mean: it is achieving something). Indeed what I have said is  rather misleading because the assumption that safe spaces are themselves about deflecting attention from difficult issues is another working assumption. Safe spaces are another technique for dealing with the consequences of histories that are not over (a response to a history that is not over is necessarily inadequate because that history is not over). The aim is to enable conversations about difficult issues to happen: so often those conversations do not happen because the difficulties people wish to talk about end up being re-enacted within spaces, which is how they are not talked about. For example conversations about racism are very hard to have when white people become defensive about racism: those conversations end up being about those defences rather than about racism. We have safe spaces so we can talk about racism not so we can avoid talking about racism!

The very techniques introduced to enable the opening up of conversations can be used as evidence of the closing down of conversations. Anyone with a background in Women’s Studies will be familiar with this: how we come up against stereotypes of feminists spaces as soft, cosy, easy, which are the exact same sexist stereotypes that make Women’s Studies necessary as a feminist space. The very perception of some spaces as being too soft might even be related to the harshness of the worlds we are organising to challenge.

The idea that students have become a problem because they are too sensitive relates to a wider public discourse that renders offendability as such a form of moral weakness (and as being what restricts “our” freedom of speech). Much contemporary racism works by positioning the others as too easily offendable, which is how some come to assert their right to occupy space by being offensive. And yes: so much gets “swept away,” by the charge of being too sensitive. A recent example would be how protests against the Human Zoo in the Barbican, about how racism is disguised as art or education, are swept up as a symptom of being “over-sensitive. According to this discourse, anti-racists end up censoring even themselves because they are “thin skinned.”

So much violence is justified and repeated by how those who refuse to participate in violence are judged. We need to make a translation. The idea that being over-sensitive is what stops us from addressing difficult issues can be translated as: we can’t be racist because you are too sensitive to racism.

Well then: we need to be too sensitive if we are to challenge what is not being addressed.

We might still need to ask: what is meant by addressing difficult issues? It is worth me noting  that I have been met with considerable resistance from critical academics when trying to discuss issues of racism, power and sexism on campus. Some academics seem comfortable talking about these issues when they are safely designated as residing over there. Is this “there” what allows “difficult issues” not to be addressed here? In fact, it seems to me that it is often students who are leading discussions of “difficult issues” on campus. But when students lead these discussions they are then dismissed as behaving as consumers or as being censoring. How quickly another figure comes up, when one figure is exposed as fantasy. If not over-sensitive, then censoring; if not censoring, then consuming. And so on, and so forth.

My own sense: our feminist political hopes rest with over-sensitive students.

Over-sensitive can be translated as: sensitive to that which is not over.

All of these ways of making students into the problem work to create a picture of professors or academics as the ones who are “really” oppressed by students. This is what it means to articulate a position or a view “against students.” One US professor speaks of being “frightened” by his liberal students. He blames so much on “identity politics.” And indeed so much is blamed on identity politics: that term is used whenever we challenge how spaces are occupied. It has become another easy dismissal. We are learning here about professors (their investments, emotions and strategies of dismissal) more than we are learning about students.

And this is where it gets hard, and this is where I write with a sense of political urgency. There is another body of work that is “against students”: work on sexual harassment. This body of work intersects with the work on trigger warnings and safe spaces: they imply that a concern with safety and survival is creating the vulnerabilities that are then used to justify the regulation of the behaviour of academics or faculty. Indeed these literatures generate the figure of the professor as potential or would be victim: the one who is endangered by the very construction of students as vulnerable. One article states: “I was writing about an academic culture that misunderstands power, inflates vulnerability, and infantilizes students.” I have read other articles that suggest that when students talk of harassment it is assumed that professors must be guilty of coercion: “an enunciation of an accusation is all it should ever take to secure a guilty verdict.” The implication here is that it is easy for students to complain about professors who harass them (“enunciation” – as if an accusation is a word that can be thrown carelessly into a world); and that complaints are automatically registered as guilt, as if an offense is only committed because a student is offended. The figure of the over-sensitive student slides into the figure of the complaining student whose “hurt feelings” are treated as sufficient grounds for complaint.

Let’s pause here. I want to state what many feminists know too well: it is very difficult to address the issue of sexual harassment. And: it is very difficult to address sexual harassment within universities (particularly the harassment of female students by male academics).[4] The difficulty of addressing something is often a consequence of something. Since I have been engaged in diversity work on campus I been contacted by staff as well as students from a number of different universities about their experiences of sexual harassment. And I have learnt just how pervasive sexual harassment is – as well as just how much harassment is normalised in or even as academic culture. I have heard how academics justify their behaviour as their right: a female professor told me about one academic in her former institution who had multiple sexual relationships with his female students. When a complaint was eventually filed, he justified his conduct as a “perk of the job.” I have heard sexist excusing of sexist behaviour: “ah yeh he’s a bit of a womaniser,” “a yeh he’s one for ladies.” I have heard how much sexism (as well as racism) is defended as “just banter.” And I have learnt of the countless ways in which female students are told that to enter the university requires accepting and expecting this kind of conduct. And yet despite sexual harassment being widespread (this “despite” is probably misplaced) it is rarely publicly discussed, sometimes because of confidentiality clauses attached to the resolutions of specific cases; and sometimes because, I suspect, a frank discussion of the problem would require challenging entitlements that some do not wish to challenge.

We are so far away from the picture created by the figure of the complaining student (who wields her power over academics) that it is or should be striking. I have been in touch with students from many different universities who have made complaints – or tried to make complaints – about sexual harassment as well as other forms of bullying. I have learnt of the myriad ways in which students are silenced. Some students are dissuaded from proceeding to formal complaints. They are told that to complain would damage their own reputation, or undermine their chances of progression; or that to complain would damage the reputation of the member of staff concerned (and if they do proceed with complaints they are often publicly criticised as damaging the reputation of the member of staff); or that it would damage the reputation of departments in which they are based (with a general implication being: to complain is to be ungrateful). Students have reported how their complaints are “sat on,” how they have testify again and again; or how they are doubted and ridiculed by those they go to for advice and support.

And: because students who complain about harassment are silenced the problem of sexual harassment within universities is constantly and grossly under-acknowledged (as much violence against women is under-acknowledged). The picture of the complaining student whose accusation becomes truth is so far from the truth that there should be a public feminist outcry. We need a public feminist outcry.

I want to pause on one piece of writing (addressing the US context). It is written in the same kind of jokey tone that characterises the first article I engaged with, and has a similar nostalgia for a time past; a mourning for a freedom that has been or is being lost. Here it is not neoliberalism that signals the beginning of the end (of dons and their delightful democracy), but what the author calls “the prohibition,” a moment in time when freedom from restriction becomes the restriction of freedom [5]. The introduction of new laws around “consensual” sexual relations between staff and students is described as the rise of a feminist moralism and puritanism, based on a misunderstanding of the fluid or dispersed nature of power (the author cites Foucault; yes, he comes up again, indexed weakly, again). It is worth noting that the words “moralism” and “puritanism” are constantly being mobilised in anti-feminist writings. These words are useful because they allow a critique of power to be reframed (and dismissed) as an imposition of moral norms. We could consult for example Ray Filar’s smart challenge to an anti-feminist diatribe in which the word “moralism” is used 9 times. It is an exhausting repetition! And these are often the words used by harassers themselves, as if to refuse an advance is to be moralising about an advance (she says “no” because she is a prude, say). If you refuse an advance, or if you dare to call repeated and unwanted advances “harassment,” you are being moralistic.

Surely, not, you might say.

On academic describes “strictures on sexual harassment”  as well as “political correctness” as “the old Victorian moral panic.” In this piece of writing, sexual harassment is referred to twice and both times as a kind of moralism that restricts freedoms that would otherwise be enjoyed (sexual harassment as  intending that restriction). The use of “political correctness” implies that new norms and rules about appropriate behaviour in the workplace are simply a mechanism of policing the flow of play and desire. The feminist killjoy appears here: as if the problem of sexual harassment only comes up because she brings it up; as if feminists only object because they want to prevent the enjoyment of others.

We have looped back to one of my starting points: how equality is dismissed by being identified with managerialism, with the imposition of moral norms from the top down (feminism is then aligned with management, as a technique for managing unruly bodies, just as feminism can be aligned with the market, as a consequence of unruly bodies). Not surprisingly: the techniques for dismissing feminism are the same techniques for justifying male power. In an earlier blog, I commented on how challenging sexual harassment is understood as imposing restrictions on those who would otherwise be “free radicals.” Of course what has to be remain unsaid here is this: the freedom of some rests on the restriction of the freedom of others. So much harassment is justified and reproduced by framing the very language of harassment as an imposition on freedom. And so much violence (such as domestic violence) is not called violence because it is understood as a right and a freedom: “it is not violence, it is not force, I have a right (to your body).”

We are up against history; walls.

And let’s be clear here: when sexual harassment becomes embedded in or as academic culture, then we are talking about how some women do not have access to universities even after they have applied and been admitted. Sexual harassment is an access issue. Sexual harassment is an equality issue. Sexual harassment is a social justice issue. We are talking about women who have to exit the institution to survive the institution.

We are talking about missing women.

I have become more and more aware of what we are talking about.

Of who we are talking about.

We could and should refer to the important blog, Strategic Misogyny, which collects stories of harassment within universities. We need to hear these stories; to listen to their collective wisdom. Different posts describe in detail what harassment can feel like, and what it can do. And we learn: how power might function by not being dispersed. We are reminded when we read these posts of the immense power that academics have over students: they grade student essays and exams; they have discussions about students in meetings that are closed; they sit on committees that decide funding; they have access to confidential files that hold personal information. It is very important to recognise “power over” as a modality of power. We should not neutralise a situation by assuming its neutrality.

And it is in this context that we must question the constant exercising of the language of consent (and its companion “will”): if the person who is asking for your consent holds power over you (in effect a power to decide a future, whether a door is open or not) what does it mean to give or withhold consent? I am not saying here that that all consent is coercion, but that consent in the context of asymmetrical relations of power is not a stable ground for establishing whether or not an abuse of power has occurred. It is because some have power over others, to open or close that door, that we need boundaries, rules and norms.  So much abuse of power within universities is justified by the illiberal use of the liberal language of will and consent. As I argued in Willful Subjects (2014) some might become willing when the costs of not being willing are made too high. Being unwilling might mean being expelled from a group that would allow you to access the resources necessary for your survival let alone progression. Being unwilling might mean being called frigid or (worst still) a feminist. These names have costs. Becoming willing might be a way of avoiding these costs.

We have a sense here of what is going on here. Challenges to sexual harassment within universities can be swept up and swept away, as if the challenges are themselves the products of managerialism or neoliberalism: as just another way that academic freedoms have been restricted; as just another way academic dissent is punished.

The power embedded in a historic situation is reversed.

We have a sense of what is at stake here. Critiques of neoliberalism and managerialism have become useful tools for those who abuse the power they have by virtue of the positions they are in. Those who are accused of harassment can argue, or at least imply, that students who challenge their practices are acting like consumers, being censoring, over-sensitive, or just complaining. They can position themselves as victims of managerialism as well as marketization. A critique of neoliberalism can be used to imply that those accused of harassment are the ones who are paying its costs.

This is how: harassment can be justified as an expression of academic freedom.

That is where we have got to; this is what we are up against.

We need to support, stand with, and stand by, those students who are fighting to survive hostile institutions.

It is our job.


Ahmed, Sara (2014). Willful Subjects. Duke University Press.

——————— (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.  Duke University Press.

Coward, Rosalind (1985). Female Desires: How They Are Bought, Sold and Packaged. Grove Weidenfield.

Freire, Paulo [1970]  (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed Continuum Publishing: New York.

[1] I shuddered when I read this. One of the hardest experiences of my academic career was attending a wine evening at a college in Cambridge. I remember sitting there as expensive bottles of wine were opened, one after the other, thinking “austerity,” realising in the pit of my stomach, what “tightening our belts” allowed some not to give up. Note also how critiques of neoliberalism might be masking elitism: a hatred of “the masses,” and a perception that standards are lowering because of the widening of participation.

[2] I think the “fanzines and not Foucault” operates as a cultural contrast: Foucault is a serious and heavy scholar, fanzines are silly and light. This distinction is gendered.

[3] Interestingly one white male academic when asked about “decolonizing the university” during an Occupy event was reported to have something like “this is education not democracy: we get to decide what we teach.” He helpfully reveals to us how the democracy often defended is an illusion: what is being defended as democracy is often despotism.

[4] There is a growing and important literature on the problem of laddism within universities in the UK. See for example this very helpful workshop provided by Alison Phipps:

[5] This period of “freedom from restriction” is described as a boozy and fun period when students and staff could have sex with each other without worrying about the consequences.  I found myself wanting to reach for Rosalind Coward’s classic Female Desires (1985) – an early debunking feminist critique of the myth of sexual freedom.

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Some Striking Feature: Whiteness and Institutional Passing

I was very pleased to participate in a conference Disrupting Visibility: The Politics of Passing co-hosted by the Centre for Feminist Research on Friday. It was a wonderful event – I learnt so much from the papers I listened to. I also gave a lecture, which I am sharing here. I have just added some notes and references – otherwise, this lecture is pretty much as I presented it, which please note means that it is not a polished piece!


“Some Striking Feature: Whiteness and Institutional Passing,” presented at Disrupting Visibility: The Politics of Passing, Friday June 12th 2015, Goldsmiths.

With thanks to Morganne Conti and Linnete Manriques for their work in organising this event on passing and for the opportunity for me to speak as part of it. I really enjoyed returning to the question of passing. I say “returning” because one of the very first academics events I spoke at back in 1995, 20 years ago, in Women’s Studies at Lancaster University was a Day School on Passing. I prepared a paper subtitled “Passing through Hybridity” (1). Since then the theme of passing has often come up in my work; in fact, I had not realised until I began working on this paper how often passing has come up. Just to be brief : passing as white as a way of passing into a community in Strange Encounters (2000);  the figure of the bogus asylum seeker as the one who “passes by” in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004); passing over what is given as familiar in Queer Phenomenology (2006), passing as happy in The Promise of Happiness (2010); institutional passing in On Being Included (2012); and most recently, passing as willing as a way of being willful in Willful Subjects (2014). But even if passing keeps coming up, albeit in different ways (I will try and show how some of these ways are related), I have not foregrounded passing as a thematic nor returned to some of the classic literatures on racial passing since that conference. It can be a curious experience: going back to a once-familiar place you haven’t been to for a while; you find things you didn’t notice before. Becoming a stranger is how a landscape can become alive with detail.

What I will be sharing today then are some rather scattered thoughts on passing rather than a formal lecture. I will firstly return to some of the classic literature on racial passing, before offering a more phenomenological account of passing as lived experience, and then will turn to the question of institutional passing. And in conclusion I will relate my passing thoughts to a politics of willfulness.

Passing Figures

And I want to begin in a rather odd place, well odd for me because it is not where I would ordinarily begin. It is a quote from Freud’s essay on the Unconscious, first published in 1911, which is where I get the title of this lecture:

Their origin is what decides their fate. We may compare them with individuals of mixed-race who taken all round resemble whites, but who betray their coloured descent by some striking feature or other, and on that account are excluded from society and enjoy none of the privileges of white people ([1911]2013: 53).

The “them” in this quote refers to instincts, and Freud is describing how instincts have a hybrid origin, how they are part of the preconscious and unconscious systems in his typography of the psyche. Freud is making use of the figure of the mixed race individual who does not and cannot pass because that figure is handy.  Just as a side note, we could think more of how racism comes up so often in European thought as an aside, a way of supporting an argument, a set of background assumptions that can be mobilised quickly because they are already in operation. This quote from Freud might be familiar to those of you working on postcolonial or critical race studies: Homi Bhabha (1994) draws on it in his account of mimicry as colonial governance; Sander Gilman (1995) in his discussion of Jewishness and assimilation.

This statement seems to be offered as a statement of confidence that those of dubious origins cannot pass; that they will betray or reveal themselves.  But perhaps this belief that difference will be revealed by “some striking feature” rests on an anxiety that the others could pass their way into whiteness without being detected. In other words, a belief system can operate as a defence system: as if the belief that another cannot pass is sufficient to stop another from passing. And note what is being defended here: society as the distribution of privileges or benefits; whiteness as means of distributing privilege or benefits.

We can understand how Freud’s statement helped Bhabha formulate his model of the colonial mimicry: the other must resemble the colonizer but is never the same as the colonizer: “almost the same but not quite” as “almost the same but not white.” his “almost” is defensive: it must be assumed that we can tell the difference because otherwise the other could pass for us and even take our place. Bhabha draws on a quote from Macaulay’s Minute on Education (1835) about the purpose of colonial education which would be to create an elite Indian population who would transmit colonial values for the colonizer. Such a population would be: “Indian in blood and colour but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (cited in Bhabha 1994: 124). Macaulay is precisely not talking about the creation of a racially mixed population, although as I am sure many of you will know this was the policy in other colonial contexts including Australia (the guiding Eugenic assumption being that racial mixing would eliminate traces of Aboriginality from the population). Rather Macaulay assumed that Indianness could and should be eliminated culturally because it would always leave a trace biologically. To borrow Bhabha’s terms the Indian elite would become Anglicized not English; resembling not being.

In situations of proximity between those historically understood as “different races,” and let’s give that proximity its name, colonialism, difference becomes a defence: an assumption that we can always “tell the difference,” that race as such is a tellable difference.  The figure of the passing mixed-race individual thus became a site of anxiety, particularly in the United States in the early twentieth century. One of the famous texts to tell the story of what became known as the tragic mulatto whose passing as white prefigures her passing into death is Nella Larsen’s novella Passing, first published in 1929. In one scene, two light skinned African American women Irene and Clare are observing each other. They are seated at a table in a restaurant reserved for whites; they are both passing successfully, which means not only that neither of them realises that the other is passing but that they also do not realise they know each other; passing provides a cloak of anonymity.

Irene observes and I imagine her speaking back to Freud: “White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot. They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro. No, the woman sitting there staring at her couldn’t possibly know” (7-8). The account is pedagogic : the desire to tell the difference is what organises the science of raciology, which is itself a detection system: a search for evidence that treats the bodies of racialised others as testimony. Every bit of the body becomes a revelation.  A system based on such “silly rot” still has to be survived. What we learn as well from this novella is that “the striking feature” becomes what is feared or anticipated by the passing subject herself: to experience oneself as passing is to fear being detected or caught out for not being as one appears. And this novel reminds us how that “striking feature” can also be delayed, a threat of what is to come, of who is to come: the fear that one’s own darkness will be revealed on a future child, a child who might inherit the darkness, a child who would become the striking feature that betrays the passing individual’s dubious origins to return to Freud’s own mythic confidence (“their origin decides their fate”). This fear of betrayal –that we will betray ourselves or be betrayed by others – is central to the experience of passing. We do not have to assume we are not what we appear to be, to fear the consequences of being found not to be as we appear.

What I am suggesting here is passing is a matter of who is already found to be suspicious. Passing reopens a history that has not been closed. We can learn here from Harryette Mullen’s brilliant paper, “Optic White: Blackness and the Production of Whiteness,” first published in 1994, which considers the African American literatures on passing. Mullen reflects on what she calls “the usual mechanism of passing,” which involves the active denial and erasure of African ancestry by individuals and the gradual but violent process of assimilation (72). When passing succeeds, a population can disappear without  a trace. But she also considers how “the logic of passing” is intrinsic to “the logic of slavery” because of the construction of Blackness as a “facsimile or counterfeit of white” (73). Mullen refers to the passing subject as like “a counterfeit bill that is passed into circulation but that may be withdrawn at any point it is discovered to be bogus. The inherited whiteness is a kind of capital which may yield the dividend of freedom” (76). Light skinned African Americans who pass thus acquire the value of whiteness, they may even temporarily possess this value (and note how freedom is explicitly tied to capital), but this possession is insecure; they may be dispossessed at any moment.

This idea of the passing subject as like counterfeit money is extremely suggestive: it shows how passing is not only an act of fraud (counterfeit money passes itself off as real money) but is an attempt to defraud a system that itself depends on abstraction and exchange. Or to make use of Judith Butler’s (1990) account of drag in a different content: we can show how money is itself a drag. The counterfeit bill fraudulently reveals that the origin in being copyable is a copy. Fraud is here another way of thinking about the act of dispossession: somebody without authority puts something in circulation that passes for what those with authority (here the State) assume as their role and right to put into circulation.

Note the word “bogus” in this quote. I was struck myself that the word “bogus” actually derives from counterfeit money, a bogus was a “spurious coin” and the word is assumed to derive from slang for the counterfeit’s apparatus: that is, from the machine that makes such coins through creating impressions. Just to quote from one early usage of the bogus machine: “One bogus or machine impressing dies on the coin, with a number of dies, engraving tools, bank bill paper, spurious coin, &c. &c. making in all a large wagon load, was taken into possession by the attorney general of Lower Canada” (Online Etymology Dictionary). So much material is required to make counterfeit money!  And just to add to our queer etymological wanderings, it is always delight to wander with words, the word “spurious” implies sham, “not proceeding from the source intended,” and refers to the illegitimate child, as the one who has dubious origins because their arrival has not been rendered as legitimate by law (outside wedlock). A coin would be spurious and bogus when it does not originate legitimately; a person too. Words are allowing us to make connections. Note also that bogus can refer to a coin and to a machine for making coins: passing machines, passing as machinery.

Think of the figure of the bogus asylum seeker.  We can begin to understand how asylum as such become fraudulence: those who claim asylum are assumed to be bogus, to be passing their way into the nation through fraud, unless they demonstrate otherwise; every asylum seeker is understood as a singular impress created by a machinery that is intended to defraud the whole system.

In these instances passing is understood as a deliberate willful act of fraud; a way of falsely receiving benefits. The welfare recipient and the asylum seeker are both passing figures in this sense.  You have to demonstrate that you are not passing for what you are not (that you are what you claim you are) in order to take up residence within a nation or to receive any benefits.  The effort to establish that you are not a fraud has life consequences: a system becomes a hammer directed against those who are perpetually being rendered dubious because of their origins, because their bodies, their story, their papers, are not in the right place. To be judged as passing is to inherit a demand to establish one’s legitimacy to those who decide the criteria for legitimacy. We sense what we know: this system is wearing; it works by being wearing.

The figure of the passer is thus generated by a system as a mechanism for legitimating itself; it is how legitimacy is legitimated. Those who pass (by going undetected) both trouble the system and are how a system is justified as necessary. Some might have to pass to survive and that very survival is narrated as a way of falsely accruing benefits. Sometimes passing is really about dealing with the consequences of being perceived as passing, that is, having an act of survival interpreted by others as an act of fraud.

Within communities that are rendered illegitimate, we might call these communities “passing communities,” those individuals who successfully pass might also acquire the status of being shadowy and untrustworthy, because by passing they might access resources that are not available to those who do not or cannot pass, including whiteness as such, whiteness as resource. This shadowy circulation is difficult and our task should not be to resolve but to explain that difficulty.

A Phenomenology of Passing

I have suggested that passing comes up for those whose bodies, whose papers, are not in the right place. I now want to shift gears slightly, and try and think of passing through the lens of phenomenology: that is by thinking of passing as a field of perception. Freud’s own description of the mixed race person who cannot pass is precisely about how difference is assumed as perceptible; difference from whiteness as what is striking, difference as what creates a strong impression.  To offer a phenomenology of passing would be to give an account of how something becomes striking. When something is striking it becomes an object of consciousness; it acquires clarity, edges that are crisp, are more or less crisp, against a background that is blurry.  To pass is to pass into a background.

When things are where they are supposed to be they are in a certain way overlooked. You know that vase that appears on the mantelpiece. You might notice it when it is missing. It becomes striking in its absence; in not being in the right place, you can be struck by its being. What happened to the vase? Where is the vase? It is the beginning of a story.  Or maybe another vase has been put there in the place of the vase that is missing. You don’t notice it at first, you are busy occupied, but then you notice something is “not quite right,” strange, different. The thing out of place: it registers as intrusion; a sensory intrusion. That is not my vase, what happened to my vase? It is the beginning of another story: a story perhaps of a broken vase; of something being covered over, a story of guilt, even.

What is registered by consciousness is what disagrees with an expectation of how things should appear. A body can be what is disagreeable in this sense: a body appears all the more striking, when a body is not expected to appear, or when a body does not appear as a body is expected to appear. In my book Strange Encounters (2000) I drew on Mary Douglas’s definition of dirt as “matter out of place” to think of strangers, as “bodies out of place.”  Some bodies stand out: they do not recede into the background. To become a stranger is not to pass through. When passing fails something is revealed. Freud misunderstood this something. It is the beginning of a story: who are you; where are you from; what are you doing here?

Passing can thus refer not only to passing as or for but also passing into or to pass through. When we speak of passing as white we might mean to pass into a community or to pass through a neighbourhood. When whiteness becomes background to pass is not to appear, that is, not to appear “not white.” When you do not pass as white, you might be stopped. Not to pass as white is when a body registers as sensory intrusion.

I have written of experiences I had growing up not white in a white neighbourhood in Australia.  There was one time a police car pulled up beside me as I was walking down a street just near where I lived. One policeman asked me “are you Aboriginal?” It turned out there had been some burglaries in the area recently. To be seen as Aboriginal is not only to be seen as out of place but as a threat to those who are “in place:” proximity as crime against person and property. I answered the question with a no. If I had not given that answer, the question would, I have no doubt, led to further interrogation. But I was allowed to pass through. In other words being able to pass was a form of racial privilege: if I was brown, I was a brown settler. Being a brown settler is still being a settler.

Race is a complicated address. The second policeman then asked, and the question had the intonation of a quip, “or is it just a sun tan?” Here colour becomes it (is it, it is all about it). Colour becomes something that has to be explained or explained away. A tan explains colour as domesticated colour; bronzed not brown. A tanned woman would be a woman who acquires colour in the way other Australians do: her colour might even be an expression of national character, of what we do in our leisure time.

I remember so many comments when I was growing up about being sun-tanned, often superficially admiring or positive comments: oh how lucky you are to brown so easily, how lucky you are; how I wish, look at me, with my burnt pink red white skin.

How I wish, wish, wish


When admiration is given as compensation it is not admiration. The effort not to be sorry can be a way of being sorry.

Oh dear

But lucky you, dear

Such comments should be grouped together as polite racism, a genre that works to deflect attention from race as if race as such is an embarrassment, something that could not or should not be brought up in polite society. Such speech acts could thus be translated: your colour is not a stain on your being; we will give you the benefit of the doubt by assuming you are white underneath or at least we will pretend you white underneath because it would be harder, hard, not to pretend.

Whiteness: when colour is something that is acquired

Becoming brown not being brown

Becoming not being (2)

Polite racism works to create “presumed whiteness.”  In other words, it is more polite to presume you are white. In order not to disappear you have to make your brownness or blackness into an assertion. You might have to be assertive just to be. Or: you might have to become willingly, wilfully, some striking feature.

More is at stake in how I was able to pass by or pass through in this encounter. I also think by speaking in the voice I have, with the voice I had, I identified myself as being middle-class, as being someone who belongs in this neighbourhood, as someone they were policing for, not against. This is what intersectionality can mean in practice: being stopped because of how you can be seen in relation to some categories (not white, Aboriginal), being able to start up because of how you are seen in relation to others (white, middle-class).  No wonder: intersectionality is messy and embodied.

In a wonderful dialogical paper, Ruth Frankenberg and Lata Mani reflect on postcoloniality as a politics of location; on how individual trajectories are shaped by histories of colonialism. In her riff, Lata Mani (writing as a feminist from India who was then working in the United States) addresses two moments of arriving at her university after hours. In the first, a white male professor opens the door, and refuses her entry : “he cannot let anyone in off the street, god knows what you might do” (1993: 296). In the second, a Filipina woman at work cleaning the corridor opens the door: “she looks up at me, smiles and without a word opens the door for me” (296).

Anyone: riff-raff.

Someone: smile, come in.

Intersectionality: stopping, starting, anybody, in, somebody, out.

Intersectionality: stopping and starting.

In one moment you are not allowed in because of how you are seen (you are a stranger, you are brown, you could be anybody). In another moment you are allowed in because of how you are seen (you are a professor, you are brown but you are someone). Depending on who encounters who, a door is closed or opened. And of course it is the Professor who holds, as it were the door, to the institution; who decides who can reside there, who can be legitimately employed there, not the cleaner.

Depending on who encounters who; passing comes up when you do not pass through. Of course some professors are assumed to be passing as professors. When some of us are professors, we are treated like temporary residents; we have to be allowed in because we are not from. Pierre W. Orelus’s reflects on how as a professor of colour he is often met with surprise. He writes: “after I formally introduce myself in class, I have undergraduate students who ask me, in a surprised tone of voice, ‘Are you really the professor?’ I sometimes overhear them asking their peers ‘Is he really the professor’” (2011: 31). Really: really? Are you sure? Orelus compares this mode of questioning, this sense of curiosity and astonishment, with the questions typically asked of immigrants about “funny accents.” Being asked whether you are the professor is another way of being made into a stranger, a body out of place. Being asked “where are you from?” or “where are you really from?” is a way of saying you are not from here.

Brown, black: not from here, not here, not.

When we are talking about passing we are talking about doors. For some to pass through the door, to enter a room, requires being given permission by those who are holding that door. A door is not just a physical thing that swings on hinges, but a mechanism that enables an opening and a closing. Some have to pass when this mechanism is working.

Some: not all. This is why it does not work to say “we are all passing,” even if we are all in some ways passing because we are all, in a profound sense, temporary residents. A category too can be a dwelling: as that which gives residence.  We might say, for instance, all women are passing as women: we pass into or through the category “women” by being assigned her or assigning ourselves as her. But if you do not constantly have your legitimacy thrown into question, if you are not asked whether you are a woman, constantly, repeatedly, if you do not have the door shut in your face when you try and enter that room, then you do not have to pass as women in the same way.

Trans women may have to pass in a way that some cis women do not: because of this constant questioning of legitimacy. To pass would not necessarily mean here to pass as women, as if trans women are not women: although the perception of trans women as fraudulent women has material life consequences (and passing we have already learnt is a matter of consequence). Juliet Jacques in one of her excellent pieces published in The Guardian, drawing on Julia Serano, explores precisely this problem: how the passing narrative casts trans women as deceivers. But sometimes, as Jacques herself notes, passing  might be a way of avoiding being harassed, and it might require a certain kind of confidence: the creation of an impression of having a right to be where you reside. Another way of saying: some have to assertive just to be.

Passing can be the experience of the requirement to justify your existence in the very manner of your existence.  Sometimes whether or not you are asked a question you feel questionable. Maybe you have been questioned too many times; you come to expect it, you become to live your life as a question. You become a question mark.  I am walking with my girlfriend. “Are you a boy or a girl?” they ask her, a question that drips with mockery and hostility. A question hovering around gender: not being housed by gender, being unhoused by gender. Once you have been asked these questions, you might wait for them, waiting to be dislodged changes your relation to the lodge. Other times I have been asked when we enter a local shop “is she your sister?”  Who is she, is it a way of saying, what is your relationship? A relationship can be questionable. Sister: a way of seeing or not seeing lesbian? Sister: a way of evoking an intimacy without naming it; sister as euphemism? Recently a lesbian couple were asked by their newly arrived neighbours: “what are you?” A relationship becomes “some striking feature.”

Heterosexuality too: can be quite a blur.  When things are aligned, we have a straight line. An alignment is often what you do not see. Think of tracing paper: when the paper is lined up you see one set of lines. It is all clear. Move one piece of paper, just a bit, a tiny, tiny bit: the whole picture is thrown into disarray. Blink. You turn up at a hotel with your girlfriend and you say you have booked a room. A hesitation can speak volumes. This reservation says your booking is for a double bed, is that right madam? Eyebrows are raised; a glance slides over the two of you, catching enough detail. This time you both appear as women. But something else is not right, then; something else, brings the picture into disarray. Are you, sure madam? Yes that’s right; a double bed. You have to say it, again; you have to say it, again, firmly. Some have to insist on what is given to others. In previous work I have offered a formula:

Rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy

When you are known as a feminist, you do not even have to say anything before eyes roll. You can hear them sigh “oh hear she goes.” I now have another formula.

Raised eyebrows = lesbian feminist pedagogy

The raising of eyebrows: lodged as a question: Really, are you sure?  This happens again and again; you almost come to expect it, the necessity of being firm just to receive what you have requested. One time after a querying, are you sure madam, are you sure, madam, you enter the room; twin beds. Do you go down; do you try again? It can be trying. Sometimes it is too much, and you find other ways of huddling. Questions follow you, wherever you go. Perhaps a following can be a promise. Those whose being is in question are those who can question being.

Institutional Passing

A social arrangement might be what does not appear. We learn then that a background is also an action: whiteness for instance is being accomplished by not being revealed. To disagree with an expectation of what should appear is to get in the way of an accomplishment.

Institutions can be built around bodies, for bodies, as Nirmal Puwar shows in her wonderful book Space Invaders (2004). For some to arrive is to fit.  We learn this too from the literatures on class and passing, for example from the work of Annette Kuhn (1995) and Valerie Walkerdine (1997). The bourgeois body is attuned to a set of requirements: a way of speaking, holding the body; what you refer to, who you defer to.  Attunement seems like magic when it works. You are expected to go there, Oxbridge say, so you have already been taught how to be there before you get there.  An institution is like an old garment: if it has acquired the shape of those who tend to wear it, then it becomes easier to wear if you have that shape.  You do not have to pass because you do not have to think about it, you just pull it on; you just move on. Easier to wear: this is why I think of privilege as an energy saving device. Less effort is required to be or to do. But if you arrive into these institutions with dubious origins, you are not expected to be there, so in getting there you have already disagreed with an expectation of who you are and what you can do, then an institution is the wrong shape; the jumper does not fit. You fidget to try and make it fit, but fidgeting shows all the more that it does not fit. Kuhn describes how as a working-class girl in a grammar school she feels “conspicuously out of place” (111). And indeed, she describes this sense of being out of place by giving us a biography of her school uniform; how by the time her ill-fitting uniform came to fit, it had become “shabby” and “scruffy.”

When there is a not a fit, you become a misfit, to use Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s (2011) important terms. You might feel like a fraud; it is all left hanging. It is probably the frauds who are our best hopes for transformations: we can only loosen the requirements to be in institutions by failing to meet them. But it is hard, painful, to fail to meet them. Garland Thomson explores how disabled subjects become misfits because or when they are not accommodated by institutions. Not to be accommodated is not to be able to pass through or by. For some to pass would require making adjustments; the pavement might have to be adjusted to support the passing through of those in wheelchairs; a podium might have to be adjusted to support those who are not the right height; a time-table might have to be adjusted to support those with child care responsibilities, and so on.  To pass through can become difficult given how spaces are organized; a space can be what “gets in the way” of a forward progression.

By progression I am not speaking of upward mobility, but just the very capacity to get through or to move along or to reside or take part or to do some ordinary thing (go the toilet, get a cup of coffee and so on). We might note that diversity is often understood and dismissed as being about career advancement. Diversity becomes another way of falsely receiving benefits. As we know: some do not have to advance themselves to advance; they are advanced by virtue of their membership of a social group. An institution can be what eases a progression. This is why, this is how: the judgment of being motivated by a desire for upward mobility tends to falls on those whose progression is not eased by an institution. Tends to fall, we call it a tendency.

Institutions: how history becomes concrete. What then do I mean by institutional passing? Institutional passing might include the effort not to stand out or stand apart (although the effort not to stand out can be what makes you stand out). When you are perceived as demanding (a space has to be modified to accommodate you) you might end up trying not to make too many demands. Institutional passing might be what end up doing when or even because you cannot pass for what you are not because of the body you have, your history, or for whatever reason. Perhaps you pass by not speaking about yourself as a minority: as if by passing over being not, you would be less intrusive to those who are; or as if by passing over “not” being white, able bodied, male, straight, cis, you would “not” be “not” in quite the same way.

I know so many “not’s;” too many “not’s.” No wonder we get lost.

Passing here would be about trying to be less noticeable (although you only have to try to be less noticeable because you are noticeable). To think about the work of institutional passing, I want to draw on some of the data on diversity work I discussed in my book, On Being Included (2012). As we know diversity is often offered as an invitation, it might be a tagline, minorities welcome. Come in, come in. We are back to that door, that mechanism that enables some to decide who is let in, who is not. But just because they invite you it does not mean they expect you to turn up. What happens when a person of colour turns up? Oh how noticeable we are in the sea of whiteness : “When I enter the room there is shock on peoples’ faces because they are expecting a white person to come in. I pretend not to recognize it. But in the interview there is unease because they were not expecting someone like me to turn up. So it is hard and uncomfortable and l can tell that they are uneasy and restless because of the way they fiddle and twitch around with their pens and their looks. They are uncomfortable because they were not expecting me – perhaps they would not have invited me if they knew l was black and of course l am very uncomfortable. l am wondering whether they are entertaining any prejudice against me.” They are not expecting you. Discomfort involves this failure to fit. A restlessness and uneasiness, a fidgeting and twitching, is a bodily registering of an unexpected arrival.

I pretend not to recognise it. Passing is work; it is the effort not to notice the bother caused by your own arrival. There is pretence involved; this is not about pretending to be something you are not but pretending not to notice you are not what they expect. The body that causes their discomfort (by not fulfilling an expectation of whiteness) is the one who must work hard to make others comfortable. You have to pass by passing your way through whiteness, not by becoming white, but by minimizing the signs of difference.  As another woman of colour describes: “I think with a person of colour there’s always a question of what’s this woman going to turn out like… they’re nervous about appointing people of colour into senior positions….Because if I went in my Sari and wanted prayer time off and started rocking the boat and being a bit different and asserting my kind of culture I’m sure they’d take it differently.” Some forms of difference are heard as assertive, as “rocking the boat.”  Some forms of difference become legible as willfulness and obstinacy, as if you are only different because you are insistent (on being different). The pressure not to “assert your culture” is lived as a demand to pass or to integrate. Note how this pressure can be affective: you experience the potential nervousness as a threat; you try and avoid the nervous glance by not fulfilling its expectation.

Indeed, the consequences of racism are in part managed as a question of self-presentation: of trying not to fulfil a stereotype, an idea of who you are, an expectation of how you will be:

Don’t give white people nasty looks straight in their eyes; don’t show them aggressive body positions. I mean, for example I am going to go and buy a pair of glasses because I know the glasses soften my face and I keep my hair short because I’m going bald, so I need something to soften my face. But actually what I am doing, I am countering a stereotype, I’m countering the black male sexual stereotype and yes, I spend all my time, I counter that stereotype, I couch my language behaviour and tone in as English a tone as I can. I am very careful, just very careful.

Passing would here be about “toning it down.” Being careful is about softening the very form of your appearance so that you do not appear “aggressive” because you are already assumed to be aggressive before you appear. The demand not to be aggressive might be lived as a form of body-politics, or as a speech politics: you have to be careful what you say, how you appear, in order to maximize the distance between you and their idea of you. The experience of being a stranger in the institutions of whiteness is an experience of being on perpetual guard: of having to defend yourself against those who perceive you as somebody to be defended against.

Institutional passing can also require working on one’s own body in an effort to be accommodating. You try to make others comfortable with the fact of your own existence. The effort to rearrange your own body becomes an effort to rearrange the past. This past is not only difficult to budge; it is often what those, to whom you appear, do not recognise as present. Institutional passing can involving minimising signs of difference from institutional norms. Or institutional passing can involve maximising signs of difference from a set of expectations about what those who are different from norms are like.  Institutional passing would then include the work you do to pass through by passing out of an expectation: you try not to be the angry person of colour, the trouble maker.  You have to demonstrate not so much that you are not a fraud, but that you are not that kind of minority. The killjoy too appears here as the one that we must give up; institutional passing as appearing to fulfil the happiness duty, softening our appearance, smiling. Of course when we pass as happy, we are not happy. And sometimes we refuse to give up the killjoy; we claim her, stake a claim to her; we might even profess to be her!

To pass might require passing over the words that register that histories of injustice are not over. Not to pass over words such as racism is to encounter the wall of racism. I am speaking of racism in a seminar. Someone comes up to me afterwards and puts her arm next to mine. We are almost the same colour, she says. No difference, no difference.  You wouldn’t really know you were any different to me, she says. The very talk about racism becomes a fantasy that invents difference. She smiles, as if the proximity of our arms was evidence that the racism of which I was speaking was an invention, as if our arms told another story. She smiles, as if our arms are in sympathy. I say nothing. Perhaps my arm speaks by withdrawing.  I turn to this willful arm by way of conclusion.

Conclusion: Willful Passing

You will remember I began with Freud and his use of the figure of the mixed race person as the one who will not pass as white because of “some striking feature or other.” Perhaps we can think of willfulness in these terms: a striking feature, a strong impression, a failure to recede or to become background. In my book on willfulness I began with a story about a willful child. It is without question a rather striking story. It is a Grimm story. Let me share it with you:

Once upon a time there was a child who was willful, and would not do as her mother wished. For this reason God had no pleasure in her, and let her become ill, and no doctor could do her any good, and in a short time she lay on her death-bed. When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her arm came out again, and stretched upwards, and when they had put it in and spread fresh earth over it, it was all to no purpose, for the arm always came out again. Then the mother herself was obliged to go to the grave, and strike the arm with a rod, and when she had done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath the ground.

What a story. The willful child: she has a story to tell. My book opens with this story, with this figure of the willful child, the one who disobeys; the one who is punished, who is beaten into the ground. It is a story of a child but also of an arm: the child’s willfulness is inherited by an arm, an arm that keeps coming up, until it too is beaten down.  It is a story of an arm but also of a rod, as that which gives expression to the will of a sovereign, a will that is not deemed a willful will, a will that is deemed necessary to eliminate the willfulness of others.

The willfulness of others. Willfulness is typically defined as: “asserting or disposed to assert one’s own will against persuasion, instruction, or command; governed by will without regard to reason; determined to take one’s own way; obstinately self-willed or perverse.” To be called obstinate or perverse because you are not persuaded by reason? Is this familiar to you? Have you heard this before? The rod is how the will of some is implemented as reason. The rod equals reason. We can hear why, we can hear how, willfulness is understood as a character fault or flaw, a way of dismissing disobedience as brute impulse and perversion; we can hear why, we can hear how, willfulness provides the basis of a feminist, queer and anti-racist revolt.  You might have to become what you are judged as being to survive that judgment; to become obstinate, to keep coming up; to keep speaking up, when there is a concerted and indeed collective effort to bring you down.

I am bringing this story up again because this story is also an institutional story. It is a story that circulates within institutions. It offers a warning, a threat: speak up, and you will be beaten. The story is also an invitation to those who might be at risk of identification with the wayward arm: become the rod as a way of avoiding the consequences of being beaten. Become the rod: too much violence is being abbreviated here.  And: the willful child comes up whenever there is a questioning of institutional reason: whenever, say, sexism or racism are shown to be institutional not personal, she comes up, as if to say, speak up and her fate will be yours. There are many within institutions who cannot afford that fate; there who many who cannot raise their arms in protest even when the will of the institution is exposed as violence, even when that violence is directed against this many.  A politics of willfulness is about giving support to those who are willing to expose the will of the institution as violence, we need to become our own support system, so that when she speaks up, when she is, as she is, quickly represented as the willful child who deserves her fate, who is beaten because her will is immature and impoverished, she will not be an arm coming up alone, she will not be an arm all on her own.

We know the consequences of becoming willful, becoming that striking feature; we are reminded of these consequences constantly. We live these consequences. This is why refusing to pass or not passing cannot become a political requirement without imposing another set of unjust demands. We have to support too those who cannot come up, speak up, not demand they come up; speak up. And we should not assume silence implies an agreement. And after all passing can be how we dislodge an impression. I call this: passing as willing in order to be willful. You might smile, say yes, you might appear to agree, trying not to cause trouble because then, only then, you get closer to those who you wish to dislodge. Just think of this: an arm can be passing. Just think of this: how when a teacher asks a room full of pupils, how the arms come up then, right up, as if to say yes, we have the answer, I have the answer. An arm can be raised when the arm says “yes.” The willful arm too can pass as a willing arm; an arm can appear to be in agreement without being in agreement.

Passing helps us to get through undetected. Sometimes, we have to get through as we have work to do. We have to be fraudulent to expose the system itself as fraudulent: the counterfeit money that is no different from legal tender but for the fact that it is sent out by the wrong machine (3). When the arms are raised in agreement; the arms can strike.  Something is striking not only when it creates a strong impression, but when it causes something to stop or be arrested.  When an arm goes on strike it stops working; it aims to stop the whole body from working.

We have a system when things are working. There are many ways to do the work of stopping things from working. Sometimes we pass by refusing proximity to willful subjects. We appear to lend our hand to the masters, to hear their wish as our command, but things are not always as they appear. Sometimes we refuse to pass and we become willful subjects. We act in agreement with the strength of her impression. Our hands curl into fists. Audre Lorde once said “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984). In that unflinching “will never,” is a call to arms, do not become the master’s tool! Whichever way we do the work of dismantling, of bringing that house down, brick by brick, it is the arms that labour away. When the arms become “some striking feature,” we become an army.  We become an army, with so many striking features, bits and pieces of bodies, all over the place, in the wrong place. The arms, the arms: they strike; the arms, the arms; they rise up; the arms, the arms; they do not give up.



Ahmed, S. (2000). Strange Encounters; Embodied Others in Postcoloniality. London: Routledge.

—————- (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press.

————— (2006). Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press.

—————- (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Duke University Press.

—————– (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press.

—————– (2014). Willful Subjects. Duke University Press.

Bhabha, Homi (1994). The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge.

Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Frankenberg, Ruth and Lata Mani (1993). “Crosscurrents, Crosstalk: Race, ‘Post-coloniality’ and the Politics of Location,” Cultural Studies, 7(2): 292-310.

Freud, S. (2013) [1911]. The Unconscious. London: Karnak Books.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie (2011). 2011). “Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept,” Hypatia: A  Journal of Feminist Philosophy. 26(3): 591-609.

Gilman, Sander (1995). Freud, Race and Gender. Princeton University Press.

Kuhn, Annette (1995). Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination. London:Verso.

Larsen, Nella (2004). [1929] Passing. New York: Dover Publications.

Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: The Crossing Press.

Mullen, Harryette (1994). “Optic White: Blackness and the Production of Whiteness,” diacritics, 24: 71-89.

Orelus, Pierre (2011). Transnationals of Color: Counter Narratives Against Discrimination in Schools and Beyond. New York: Peter Lang.

Puwar, Nirmal (2004). Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Oxford: Berg.

Walkerdine, Valerie (1997). Daddy’s Girl: Young Girls and Popular Culture. Harvard University Press.

1. Parts of this spoken paper were published in the sixth chapter “Going Strange, Going Native” of my book Strange Encounters (2000). This chapter included sections on “consuming strangers” (drawing on bell hooks’ discussion of “eating the other”), “becoming strangers” (drawing on a reading of the film, Dances with Wolves), and “passing for strangers” (which begins with a reading of John Griffin’s Black Like Me). I mention this here as in the third section I consider “passing for black” as well as “passing for white.Despite the fact that our conference happened after the case of Rachel Dolezal had already begun to be discussed as a case of “passing for black” this case did not come up in any of the panel discussions I attended and I did not bring it up myself. I think there was too much to process. I do hope to read more of the work of Black feminists on the complexity of the situation (the lecture was written before the story broke but I have been following it as much as I can). So these are some of my reflections on “passing for black” published 15 years ago in case they are relevant or helpful: “passing for black has become an increasingly powerful individual and national fantasy. Passing for black is  enabled by ‘adopting’ elements of black culture, a process of adoption which then fixes or freezes those elements as indicators of what it means to be black. In Sunderland’s sympathetic account of white women who pass as black, she emphasises how these women imagine and project what it means to ‘be black’. To quote from one of her interviewees, ‘And I find that very much about black people. You know, I think, um. I just find warmth there.’ While Sunderland clearly supports this representation of the white self through claiming affiliation with black culture – for her this indicates a shift towards a recognition of mixed identities – we can be more cautious. Not only is there a fetishising and exoticising of blackness at stake, but we also have the recreation of the white subject as the one knows the difference, even if that difference is no longer seen as external to the white self or community….Passing for Black is a technique of knowledge insofar as it remains tied to the narrativisation of the white female subject’s knowledge of herself through her sympathetic incorporation of others….One can consider how such individuated acts of passing legitimate the national fantasy of multiculturalism, in which one passes for strangers by adopting or assuming their style” (2000: 132-133). For those interested the Sunderland piece I was referred to is this one: “You may not know it, but I am Black; White Women’s Self-Identification as Black,” Ethnos, 1-2: 32-58

2. In Strange Encounters (2000) I offered an analysis of how the becoming/being distinction is a racialised distinction (as a way into a critique of philosophies of becoming). Whiteness is becoming (movement, light, flight) insofar as blackness is posited as being (stasis, dark, weight). Some have to be so others become.

3. It is worth noting here that security systems, or anti-counterfeiting measures, also require the invention of means for “telling the difference” by making difference of origin more legible or material (holigrams, multi-colored bills, embedded devices such as strips, microprinting, watermarks and inks whose colors changed depending on the angle of light). Differences are generated by the very system that requires them. The implications for theories of authorship (and or as machinery) seem obvious.

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A Campaign of Harassment

It has been difficult to witness: the launching of a systematic campaign of harassment against a student at Goldsmiths, Bahar Mustafa, who is currently Welfare and Diversity Officer for the Student Union. I am writing this post to express my solidarity with Bahar Mustafa. I also want to use the occasion to try and make sense of what has been going on: to ask why and how this story came to circulate the way that it did. One of my standpoints is that doing diversity work – the work of trying to transform institutions often by opening them up to populations that have not previously been accommodated – gives us insight into the very mechanisms of power. We learn how things are working from what happens to those who challenge how things are working.

I will not be citing any of the materials written against Bahar directly apart from the original story and one sentence from a petition. I have no wish to elevate these materials by analysing them as if they offer coherent arguments (they do not). Nor would I engage with anyone directly who has participated in this campaign because it needs to be named for what it is: harassment.  And by ‘harassment’ I mean something quite precise. The word ‘harass’ derives from the French harasser ‘tire out, vex’ possibly from Old French harer ‘stir up, provoke; set a dog on.’ The campaign against this student is aimed to provoke or stir up trouble precisely by attempting to wear down and tire out not just this student but all those whom she comes to represent: BME people, women and queers who are not willing to accept their place.

This post is my case.

I will try and account for what we might call the inflationary logics at stake; how these materials through amplification and distortion, work to create a profile that has little trace of any origin. The details of the situation were quickly discarded as the details did not matter. Reality did not matter. The story is about the creation of a profile of the ‘feminist student radical’ as the one we can dismiss (or who in fact should be prosecuted) because she threatens ‘our place’ with this ‘our’ being premised on a weak identification between unnamed students who could not attend an event and endless audiences who are (encouraged to be) outraged on their behalf. Rather like the earlier case discussed here, which exercised the figure of the censoring student, a profile is created, which rests on flimsy evidence, because it allows a dismissal of the challenge made over who has the right to occupy space by those who are being challenged. (1)

The original story posted by a student at Goldsmiths in Tab opens with the line: ‘The event says “if you are white, please don’t come”’ (2). Of course, events don’t speak for themselves. I think we learn how the event is given the status of a subject. The reporter wants a subject who can be written against. He then writes: ‘it was supposed to a gathering to celebrate racial unity and protest against inequality. So imagine the horror when organisers of an anti-racism event BANNED men and white people from attending.’ In the first instance, the implication is that a request has been made by the event itself (‘please don’t come’). In the second, this request from an event becomes a ban from the organisers. The reporter then uses a screen capture of a facebook status update, written very casually, as is the usual style of facebook updates, asking men and white people not to come to the event but also suggested that people invite ‘loads of BME Women and non-binary people.’ (3) Already: what a muddle. Within one short paragraph, we have clear evidence of an inflationary logic: a request for a group of people not to attend an event has become a BAN against those people attending. It is this word ‘ban,’ which is a clear distortion of the wordage in the quoted material (that is, the evidence provided by the story), that is then picked up and put into circulation and recited endlessly.

Pick it up; amp it up.

Now: we need to be precise. To ban someone is to forbid them from doing something. The request made was quite self-evidently not a ban; it was not written in that language. In fact the request is worded as an appeal to a group of students not to attend something (hence the use of the word ‘please’). I think the use of the word ‘ban’ is strategic not only because it allows a narrative to be put in place (white people and men are being prohibited from doing something they wish to do) but because it then allows an association with the organisers of an event and the law: a casually written informal facebook status update is translated into an official policy or mandate.

Before I move on I want to pick up on another part of that appeal or request that has not been mentioned much in the coverage: to invite ‘loads of BME, women and non-binary people’. I know exactly what is being registered by this double appeal: we want more of some and less of others. I can translate this for those of you who are not following: this is ‘really’ a request not to have an event dominated by white men. Why make this appeal? Because so many events, including diversity and equality events, end up being dominated by white men not only in a numerical sense (sometimes not in a numerical sense) but because that group tends to be more dominating in how they occupy spaces (including conversational space). Indeed I have even attended events set up for BME people that end up being dominated by those who identify as white, and  who often take up all the space because they are keen to demonstrate their knowledge (whitesplaining), or their anti-racist credentials.

Let’s slow the argument down. The original article adds: ‘there is a huge difference between holding exclusionary ‘BME only’ events and the long-standing culture of open to all events which cater specifically toward BME and female students’.  A contrast is set up between events that are exclusionary and events that are ‘open to all’ but that cater specifically for BME and female students. What does it mean to cater for BME and female students in an open event? What would such catering would be? What if BME and female students want events that cater for them by being organised by and for them? Who can decide what it means to be catered for? Surely those being catered for?

Of course the event we are talking about was not ‘BME only’ (the language of ‘banned’ has allowed that to become background assertion) but we can put that point to one side.

Let me state what should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about equalities. This story should not even be controversial! Since changes to the equalities legislation (dating as far back as 2000 with the Amendment to the Race Relations Act) equality and diversity have been understood as positive duties under law. Universities as well as other public institutions no longer simply have a negative duty to fight discrimination but a positive duty to create a more equitable environment. Many universities have in the last 15 years set up networks for minority students and staff as part of their diversity and equality policies. My own college has been a bit slow off the mark: but we are hoping to set up such networks for staff. Why do we do this? Because such networks enable us to redress already existing inequalities within the sector. How so? It is quite simple really: they enable staff and students who have been disadvantaged because of their membership of a social group to share experiences; to support each other; to build relationships and connections that help them to navigate their way through institutions that are, to put it mildly, not organised to ease their progression.

As I have been exploring on this blog, power often works through or as a support system: the existing networks that enable some people to progress more easily than others not because of what they do but who they are (this ‘who’ is an ‘institutional who’). Equality work thus often involves the creation of alternative support systems. Much equality work has been about organising BME student and staff groups, women’s groups, LGBQTI groups as well as events that cater specifically for these groups: and it has been so for a long time.

None of this is radical or new.

How does this case become newsworthy, then?

For this story to become a story, to be newsworthy, certain words have to acquire a function: white people/men have to be understood as having been banned in order to reframe event as ‘exclusionary’ and in various articles as ‘separatist’. Of course the word ‘separatist’ is sticky; in the UK, all-white events and spaces, which are common, are rarely described as separatist; BME communities who ‘live amongst themselves’ usually are. Separatism is a word that tends to fall on minorities rather than on elite or privileged communities who use walls, capital, tradition or habit to restrict their spaces/keep them white.

We learn from how things tend to fall.

We call it a tendency.

Perhaps we do have to explain why BME groups and women’s groups are necessary. The work of explanation can take a lifetime: it can be exhausting because you are ‘having to explain’ the necessity of these groups to those who have no experience of why they are necessary.

When I was based in Women’s Studies, I would receive letters that basically stated: Women’s Studies is sexist. Why isn’t there Men’s Studies? Why? Because the University is Men’s Studies: because the traditional disciplines have defined their objects (and organised their canons) by generalising from men’s experience.

The project of Women’s Studies is not over until Universities cease to be Men’s Studies. The project for Women’s Studies is not over.

Note what is going on then: a space set up for a group not represented by a university is judged as excluding those who are already represented by the university. The judgment of exclusion is a mechanism for concealing how exclusions already operate.

It is not sexist to have Women’s Studies. Sexism is why Women’s Studies is necessary.

It is not racist to have BME groups. Racism is why BME groups are necessary.

But you might say: what about critical and progressive white men, those who want to be part of this struggle for equality? Being part of the struggle means knowing when to step back. I would not hesitate to step back if there was an event on equality or diversity that was for a minority group that I was not part of. Why is that so hard: there are so many events and spaces that I can go to?

The difficulty some people have in ‘stepping back’ is what is being performed here. In an earlier post on critical racism/critical sexism I mentioned an example of a male student who spoke endlessly in seminars about how men occupied too much space. He was able to see the problem ‘over there.’ He was critical; he understood how sexism can work as a way of occupying space. But he was not able to see that he was himself enacting the very thing he was describing. He was re-enacting the problem in or by the very act of seeing the problem ‘over there’. This example teaches us how the mechanisms of power can be obscured even when we (think we) have identified how they are working. It also teaches us why having spaces for those for whom a problem can never be given the status of something ‘over there’ is necessary. Because otherwise, when you create spaces to challenge power, you end up watching what you are trying to challenge being re-enacted right in front of you. Those who think of themselves as critical and progressive, or those who think of themselves as having some intrinsic right to be wherever they wish to be, are often those whose entry into the room would be at the expense of the participation of others.

I have been calling this problem ‘progressive racism’ and ‘progressive sexism’: how racism and sexism progress through those who identify themselves as progressive (4).

I can describe this because I have come up against this myself.


When we work and study in spaces that are organised around those who you are ‘not’ it is wearing. It might be an experience of harassment. It might be that male tutor who says something inappropriate about your body in class; or the ways in which a tutor addresses the question about theory to the male students; or how the core course has all set readings by male authors. It might be the way other students giggle because your surname is ‘funny’; or having European thought represented as the only thought; or the feeling of being visible or standing out in a sea of whiteness, or how when you are the only student of colour in the classroom (which you often are), everyone looks at you when race comes up as if race has nothing to do with them. Diversity work is the documentation of these experiences. It is the weight of these experiences; it is how they wear you down; how they encourage you to take up less space. Diversity work is also about how we can endure what we document. It is thus about the creation of spaces, networks and events that give us a break, a relief from this labour of being in environment that does not accommodate your being. This is what is meant by ‘safe spaces’: it does not mean no debate and is certainly does not mean spaces that are cosy: it means being able to talk about difficulties with those who can recognise those difficulties. I have used the idea of ‘brick walls’ to explain this: unless you come up against them, these walls do not appear. We need to space to talk about walls with those who have also encountered these walls.

Some diversity work, not all of it, is about organising spaces in which those who share an experience of discrimination by virtue of their membership of a social group can share those experiences. Some diversity work, not all of it, is about organising inclusive spaces in which we struggle with others who identify with the struggle regardless of their membership of social groups. We have to have both; the former does not mean we don’t have the latter, but the latter without the former will get us back to the very place we are trying to challenge. And note: how hard it can be to have those spaces organised around, with and for those who share your experience as a member of a social group that has been disadvantaged. Those who are advantaged often won’t even let you have that!

When we fight not to reproduce the institution, when we challenge power within institutions, we do become, we will become, the object of hostility and derision. Those who object to harassment are harassed all the more. So much harassment is directed against those who challenge harassment. And that is what we are witnessing here: it a campaign of harassment not only against one student but against all students who are fighting for a university that is not organised by, for, around ‘white men.’ And this is why so many of the materials that protest that it is racist to have BME spaces or sexist to have women’s spaces are also making use of violent racist and sexist words and images. This is why people can tweet against students such as Bahar as if they are tweeting for equality, whilst hurling racist and sexist insults, and making death threats. This is why many of those who are protesting supposedly against racism can recirculate racist narratives like ‘go home.’

This is why; this is how.

In fact even the language of anti-racism then become part of the racist vocabulary. Those who are ‘banned’ identify themselves as progressive (they want to attend an event on equality). They are then quickly identified as the victims of racism as well as sexism (white men are excluded). These two modes of identification are related: it is what we could call ‘racist anti-racism.’ In the petition against Bahar, we saw those two modes being articulated as or in one sentence. It is a reference to one case, that of Lee Rigby. Sisters Uncut in their important statement for solidarity for Bahar Mustafa very astutely pick up on this sentence: ‘white people attacked in our streets by radicals.’ Here the racism of the campaign against Bahar comes out. Whiteness is reasserted as ownership: ‘our streets,’ and we can hear behind this, ‘our groups,’ ‘our universities,’ ‘our nation.’  Of course it is always the others who presented as dangerous: as endangering what we assume as ours.

Whiteness is reasserted as ownership.


I have now come to the hardest part. Of course, the story was amped up (it was already amped up in the original reporting): the student concerned was put under more and more scrutiny. There is a desire to find evidence to support a belief. And of course, as you would expect, more evidence is found: of a vicious feminist and racist plot against white men.

The story is build around the desire for this evidence.

The most telling evidence was the use of a hashtag #killallwhitemen. Surely there cannot be more evidence than that? Of course there could still be even more ‘amp up’: the use of the hashtag recirculated as a command (#killallwhitemen becomes a speech act ‘kill all white men’ as Amanda Hess shows very well in her reflections on ‘ironic misandry’) such that the student can end up being represented on social media as ‘planning a genocide.’

I think we have learnt from this, if we needed to learn from this, that it is not a good idea to engage in Valerie Solanas style feminist humour on social media (5). We do need to become conscious of how words can sound when they are taken out of context.

But let me do some more explanatory work.

I once wrote a post called ‘white men.’ In this post I argued that ‘white men’ is not only institution, but a set of mechanisms for reproducing an institution. I received a number of responses on twitter that in writing this post I was calling for the murder/death/end of white men. You will note I called for no such thing: in fact if anything the only time I appeal to white men as individuals is to call upon them not to reproduce the institution ‘white men’ through citational practices.

This accusation was not new to me. Feminists who oppose institutions are often accused of violence, and even murder. The institutions we challenge are the same institutions that are upheld by some as necessary for life: family, marriage, and so on. Those who challenge the institutions deemed necessary for life are often those assumed to be willing death.

The basis of some feminist humour, whether you wish to justify it or not, is to redeploy stereotypes of feminists. The murderous feminist is one such stereotype. This hashtag (which was certainly not originated by the student being targeted) was an ironic redeployment of that stereotype. Of course the risk of redeploying a stereotype – to expose the fallacy behind it – is that you will encounter the very thing you expose.

We are encountering that thing.

The figure of the killjoy is premised on a similar conversion. She too begins as a stereotype: that feminists are against happiness; that feminists talk about sexism to mask their unhappiness; that feminists kill joy because they are joy less (6). We convert that very figure into a source of energy. We are quite prepared to kill some forms of joy. I have no doubt it would be and should be harder to redeploy the figure of the murderous feminist. Because, of course, we are not calling for violence. We are calling in fact for an end to the institutions that promote violence. Much violence that is promoted by  institutions is concealed by the very use of ‘stranger danger’: the assumption that violence only ever originates with outsiders, the obscuring of domestic violence, violence that happens ‘at home.’

I don’t think we can redeploy this figure without ending up where we started. But we do need to be clear how she started.

Let’s go back to where we started. We are witnessing how power works: power works by increasing the costs of fighting against power. It works by demonstrating these costs often through the systematic targeting of an individual: look what happens to her; it will happen to you.

The message of the campaign is a threat.

And this is also why: diversity work is about sharing the costs of fighting against power.

And this is also why: solidarity matters.

  1. I hope to write a post ‘against students,’ where I will  place these figures alongside each other (and also discuss how some of the critiques of neo-liberalism in higher education rest on another figure of the ‘consuming student,’ whose desires and wants for the wrong programmes are assumed to have caused the demise of the university).
  2. The student is a former member of UKIP.
  3. Because Women is capitalised, I think this should read: ‘BME, Women and non-binary people.’
  4. I hope to write a blog on ‘progressive racism’ in the near future.
  5. This is a reference to Valerie Solanas’s Scum Manifesto (1967).
  6. See my book, The Promise of Happiness (2010) for longer discussion.
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It is not the time for a party

It is devastating. We need to be devastated. A party based on a system of class loyalty has been given permission to rule. A party: how a few reproduce themselves by convincing many they are the many. How a party assumes human rights can be abolished by the act of abolishing an act. A party that is Eugenicist: how a few reproduce their fortune by reproducing themselves; how the few justify their good fortune as deriving from work, or effort, or good will, or character, rather than inheritance; how a few who benefit from the exploitation of many present many as those receiving benefits; how many are ruled by holding onto a distinction created by the rulers between the deserving and the undeserving, assuming that by trying to be more deserving they will be less unsafe.

Eugenics becomes a social policy: how you can eliminate others by making it harder for them to exist. Drawing on Francis Galton’s own terms, eugenics is the reproduction of the conditions that enable the reproduction of those deemed “men of a high type.”

What conditions.

A party: how some are left for dead.

Capitalism (I won’t add racial as an adjective here, all capitalism is racial as well classed because it depends on making moral distinctions between higher and lower beings) is identity politics: how the identities of some are posted because those identities secure access to a world; how the identities of some disappear by being registered as universal.

No wonder that any politics based on asserting one’s particulars against the universal is called identity politics!

Capitalism is identity politics.

Capitalism is how “the others” become labour to be used, or useless; how others become usable is how others become expendable; how others become expendable is how others become killable. Capitalism is how “the others” become those who have to be welcomed to be at all: capitalism is Neighbourhood Watch generalised into a system (that is Neighbourhood Watch extracts its particular logic from a general system – as I tried to argue in my book Strange Encounters (2000)): it is how the others become loitering, those who here, there, without a legitimate purpose, whose proximity registers as crime; or whose arrival is deemed to endanger property or to lower the value of a neighbourhood; it is how the strangers are those whose entry is understand as damage, whose entry is unlawful; whose life becomes unlawful; whose death becomes lawful. The figure of the bogus asylum seeker and what they used to call in the Australian press the “dole bludger” are “stuck together” to use the terms I introduced in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004). By sticking together these figures, through their adherence, we have the effect of coherence: a national body is reproduced around “some bodies,” as the “who” who must be defended.

We can understand why and how willfulness too has utility as a judgment: willful beings are those for whom being is willful, those who are judged to falsify their personhood as persecution with the intent of receiving benefits.

It is a system from which only a few benefit.

It is the party.

Capitalism is identity politics: how the few become the universe/universal; it is how the universal is handy because it makes others into the hands, helping hands, those who have to help reproduce the very system that reproduces their own subordination, or risk becoming unhandy hands, who are grasping at something that is not theirs.

It is time for us to curl our hands into fists. We should not be handy.

It is not the time for a party.

It is a time to be angry. We cannot separate a feeling from what a feeling is doing. To be angry is to enact your relation to a world: anger is action because anger is reaction.

I have written about anger often. I need to write about anger some more.

When I wrote The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004) I spoke on anger as key to feminism, in particular, to black feminist and feminist of colour scholarship and activism. I wanted to challenge some of the critiques of “wound culture” within some feminist theory. Let me share some of these words.


The response to pain, as a call for action, also seems to require anger: an interpretation that this pain is wrong, that it is an outrage, and that something must be done about it. But it is precisely the intimacy of pain and anger within feminism that Wendy Brown critiques as a form of resentiment. Following Nietzsche, Brown suggests that resentiment:

produces an affect (rage, righteousness) that overwhelms the hurt; and it produces a site of revenge to displace the hurt (a place to inflict hurt on the sufferer who has been hurt). Together these operations both ameliorate… and externalize what is otherwise unendurable (Brown 1995: 68).

Brown sets up an opposition between reaction and negation as responses to injury, and an action which she suggests earlier might wish to ‘forget’ the injury, or indeed the history of that injury in the pursuit of a different kind of future (Brown 1995: 56). She hence assumes that all forms of reaction necessarily lead to the fetishisation of the wound. However, I would suggest that there is no “pure action,” which is outside such a history of “reaction,” whereby bodies come to be “impressed upon” by the surfaces of others. This is important as it suggests that if feminism is an emotional as well as ethical and political response to that which it is against, then what feminism is against is not exterior to feminism, and indeed may give that politics its edge. If anger is a form of againstness, then it is precisely about the impossibility of moving beyond the history of injuries to a pure or innocent position. Anger then does not necessarily require an investment in revenge; “being against something” is dependent not only on how one reads what one is against (for example, whether violence against women is read as dependent on male psychology or on structures of power), but also on what form of action are felt to be possible given that reading.

More broadly within feminism, of course, the passion of anger has been seen as crucial. Nowhere is this clearer than in the work of Audre Lorde, specifically in her critiques of racism against Black women. As she writes so powerfully:

My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger ignoring it, feeding it, learning to use it, before it laid my visions to waste for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing… Anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification…. Anger is loaded with information and energy. (1984: 127)

Here, anger is constructed in different ways: as a response to the injustice of racism; as a vision of the future; as a translation of pain into knowledge; as being loaded with information and energy. Crucially, anger is not simply defined in relationship to a past, but as opening up the future. In other words, being against something does not end with “that which one is against” (it does not become “stuck”on the object of either the emotion or the critique, though that object remains sticky and compelling). Being against something is also being for something, but something that has yet to be articulated or is not yet. As Lorde shows us, anger is visionary and the fear of anger, or the transformation of anger into silence, is a turning away from the future (1984: 127). For Audre Lorde, anger involves the naming of various practices and experiences as racism, but it also involves imagining a different kind of world in its energy (Lorde 1984: 127). If anger pricks our skin, if it makes us shudder, sweat and tremble, then it might just shudder us into new ways of being. Anger might just enable us to inhabit a different kind of skin, even if that skin remains marked or scarred by that which we are against.

We do not all respond with anger, and to be angry is to assume that something is wrong. However, it is not necessarily the case that something is named or felt to be the cause of anger: there are moments of anger where it is unclear what one is angry about, and all these moments do not necessarily gather together to form a coherent response. Or as Carol Tauris puts it, “There is no one-to-one correspondence between feeling angry and knowing why” (1982: 18).  But feminism also involves a reading of the response of anger: it moves from anger into an interpretation of that which one is against, whereby associations or connections are made between the object of anger and broader patterns or structures. This is what allows an object of knowledge to be delineated. The object is not then the ground of feminism (it does not come first, as it were), but is an effect of a feminist response.  Anger is in this sense creative; it works to create a language with which to respond to that which one is against, whereby “the what” is renamed, and brought into the feminist world.

This process is dynamic – as can be seen by the different ways feminists have named that which they are against (patriarchy, sexual difference, gender relations or hierarchy, phallocentrism). Indeed, different feminisms construct the “object” of anger quite differently, in ways that are in tension, although they may share some similarities. So the attachment implicit in the response to anger is not simply about the creation of an object (and to create is not to create something out of nothing, but to produce a name out of a set of differential relations), as the object always fails to be secured. Not only have feminists created different names for that which they are against, but they have also recognised that what they are against does not have the contours of an object that is given; it is not a positive entity. This is implicit in the very argument that gender permeates all aspects of social life and that it is in this sense “worldly.” Anger hence moves us by moving us outwards; while it creates an object, it also is not directed simply against an object, but becomes a response to the world, as such. Feminist anger hence involves a reading of the world, a reading of how, for example, gender hierarchy permeates all aspects of sociality, is implicated in other forms of power relations, including race, class and sexuality, and is bound up with the very construction as well as regulation of bodies and spaces. Anger against objects or events, directed against this or that, moves feminism into a bigger critique of what is, as a critique that loses an object, and hence opens itself up to forms of possibility that cannot be simply located in what is. When feminism is no longer directed towards a critique of patriarchy, or secured by the categories of “women” or “gender” feminism is doing the most “moving” work. The loss of such an object is not the failure of feminist activism, but is indicative of its capacity to move, or to become a movement.


You are against what is; it is a movement.

Anger always comes up: how could it not when you are opposing a world that opposes your being? Anger came up again in The Promise of Happiness (2010) where I was interested in the figure of the angry woman of colour. I wanted to give her a hearing. Let’s hear from her again.


Of course, within feminism, some bodies more than others can be attributed as the cause of unhappiness. We can place the figure of the feminist killjoy alongside the figure of the angry woman of colour explored so well by writers such as Audre Lorde (1984a) and bell hooks (2000). The angry woman of colour be described as a kill joy; she may even kill feminist joy, for example, by pointing out forms of racism within feminist politics. She might not even have to make any such point to kill joy. You can be affectively alien because you are affected in the wrong way by the right things. Or you can be affectively alien because you affect others in the wrong way: your proximity gets in the way of other people’s enjoyment of the right things, functioning as unwanted reminder of histories that are disturbing, which disturb an atmosphere. Listen to the following description from bell hooks: “a group of white feminist activists who do not know one another may be present at a meeting to discuss feminist theory. They may feel bonded on the basis of shared womanhood, but the atmosphere will noticeably change when a woman of color enters the room. The white women will become tense, no longer relaxed, no longer celebratory” (2000: 56).

It is not just that feelings are “in tension,” but that the tension is located somewhere: in being felt by some bodies, it is attributed as caused by another body, who thus comes to be felt as apart from the group, as getting in the way of its organic enjoyment and solidarity. The body of color is attributed as the cause of becoming tense, which is also the loss of a shared atmosphere (or we could say sharing the experience of loss is how the atmosphere is shared). As a feminist of color you do not even have to say anything to cause tension. The mere proximity of some bodies involves an affective conversion. To get along you have to go along with things which might mean for some not even being able to enter the room.  We learn from this example how histories are condensed in the very intangibility of an atmosphere, or in the tangibility of the bodies that seem to get in the way. Perhaps atmospheres are shared if there is an agreement in where we locate the points of tension.

To speak out of anger as woman of color is then to confirm your position as the cause of tension; your anger is what threatens the social bond. As Audre Lorde describes: “When women of Color speak out of the anger that laces so many of our contacts with white women, we are often told that we are ‘creating a mood of helplessness,’ ‘preventing white women from getting past guilt,’ or ‘standing in the way of trusting communication and action’” (1984: 131).  The exposure of violence becomes the origin of violence. The woman of color must let go of her anger for the white woman to move on.

The figure of the angry woman of colour is also a fantasy figure that produces its own effects. Reasonable thoughtful arguments are dismissed as anger (which of course empties anger of its own reason), which makes you angry, such that your response becomes read as the confirmation of evidence that you are not only angry but also unreasonable!  To make this point in another way, the anger of feminists of color is attributed. So you might be angry about how racism and sexism diminish life choices for women of color. Your anger is a judgment that something is wrong. But then in being heard as angry, your speech is read as motivated by anger. Your anger is read as unattributed, as if you are against x because you are angry rather than being angry because you are against x. You become angry at the injustice of being heard as motivated by anger, which makes it harder to separate yourself from the object of your anger. You become entangled with what you are angry about because you are angry about how they have entangled you in your anger. In becoming angry about that entanglement, you confirm their commitment to your anger as the truth “behind” your speech, which is what blocks your anger, stops it from getting through. You are blocked by not getting through.


Blocked by not getting through.

Walls. They come up again.

Walls: how history becomes concrete.

Walls: how some can progress by blocking others, including those who aim to unblock the system.

How about this: what is unendurable is externalHow about this: capitalism generates an assumption as a ruling logic: that in being resentful or angry we have made something external internal.

I have been thinking about anger because I have been feeling angry. When we are too angry to write, we must write. We can write from our anger, about our anger, with our anger, through anger. I described in Willful Subjects (2014) how the figure of the willful subject becomes, rather like the killjoy, a container of violence: as if violence comes up because or when we speak up.  We have to spill out from our containers. Our words must spill. Bodies: too.

Of course our willfulness is diagnosed as moral weakness. Or course our anger is judged as passive and weak. Of course we are understood as being unreasonable when we refuse their reasons. Of course they call us mindless when they don’t like the content of our minds. Of course our protests are framed as riots. Of course when we oppose something we are being oppositional. Of course when we point out oppression we are being oppressive. Of course when we revolt against a violent system we are described as violent. Of course we will be judged as putting ourselves first when we don’t put them first. Of course we are assumed to be attached to our own injuries when we point out that injuries are present. Of course we become killjoys when we express unhappiness about how the happiness of a few rests on the unhappiness of the many.

Of course, of course, of course: this is the logic of the course.

This is the party. It is not the time for a party.

Seize the judgement; take it on; fight; hold on.

It is a movement. Watch us spill. Watch us roll.

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Becoming Unsympathetic

What does it mean to call upon another’s sympathy? What are we doing when we are being sympathetic?

Think of sympathy and we tend to think of a situation. Whether or not sympathy is called for might depend upon that situation. We might want someone to be sympathetic to our situation. A call for sympathy might be a call for recognition, a call to someone, so they can make sympathetic noises, the right kind of noises, those “hums” and the “ha’s” that we might hear as sympathetic. Becoming sympathetic might describe a pedagogy: learning how to respond well to another person’s situation as an attunement to how they feel, becoming “in tune” as acquiring an ability to say or do the right things; to know what are the right things to say or do. It might mean knowing when to be quiet or not, to hold or not, to leave or not, even to be helpful, or not. This sympathetic knowing might require a certain kind of intimacy with a person, a capacity to pick up what they asking of us in the flicker of a passing expression, as well a less intimate knowledge: knowingness about situations and what they demand of us. More than that: empathy, compassion and sympathy are modes of being that are about how we respond to a situation of being with someone whose situation is not one that we are in: this being with, but not in, requires that we take care, that we be careful. We might not in hard times have the time to ask the question of how to respond; the necessity of a response, means that sympathy can exercise its own grammar, becoming words that are sent out, that hover, as if they do not come from us, as if they have a life of their own.

Given the scene I have just pictured, one might assume that sympathy is something we need in some situations more than others, situations of sadness or loss, where the comfort of another might be a condition of bearability (I say “might be” as sometimes when one is sad being comforted can be unbearable.) Indeed the condolence card has routinized sympathy as a kind of habit of loss: a habitual response to loss that congeals into an object, the card itself, which can then stand in for sympathy, and even take its place. But of course sympathy does not only refer to a response to situation of sadness. We can question the routinisation of sympathy as a mode of responding to loss. Thinking of feminism as situation, we might challenge one of the primary narratives of sympathy as a gift: sympathy as what some feminists give to others who are suffering from a situation that we are not all in (for further discussion, see the first chapter of my book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004) on “the contingency of pain”).

Returning to the etymology of sympathy, we learn the sympathy derives from  syn- “together” and pathos “feeling.” Sympathy suggests to have a “fellow feeling,” but also to be “affected by like feelings,” such that one person’s feelings are in accordance with another’s. It is this relationship of feeling to accordance that intrigues me: not simply the feeling of accordance but the accordance of feeling. The history of the verb “to accord” is suggestive. The word drives from the Latin word “cordis” or “heart”: to accord is to be of one heart. Perhaps sympathy not simply as a feeling that is sent out, but as a demand that you return feeling with like feeling: that you agree with your heart. We can under how sympathy which seems as a feeling to be about extension (when you are sympathetic to others you extend your feelings to others) can also be about restriction. You might be sympathetic to the extent that you can be in accordance with others.

Maybe you are more kind to those you feel are more of your kind.

One time someone told me that she felt “especially sad” for the honeymoon couples who lost their lives in the South Asian Tsunami in 2004. She did not mean to be unkind to those she did not mention. She did not mean to say that some losses mattered more; rather she just meant to say that she could relate to some losses more because she could relate to some lives more: she could imagine going there, on her honeymoon, with that promise of happiness. Relating to the suffering of others creates a category of “less relatable” others. Sympathy is involved in the creation of the “less relatable,” as well as the “relatable.” Or, to borrow Judith Butler’s (2004) terms, sympathy can create a distinction between more and less grievable lives.

Another time I read a piece of writing that was about a survivor of rape speaking of what she needed to survive her experience. She wrote of the importance of having women only spaces: how spaces for women who have survived that experience might be necessary to surviving that experience. I have much sympathy with this sentiment. But then she created a category of “women” that was about women she could relate to defined not in terms of women who had shared this experience of sexual violence, but women who were not trans women, whereby this “not” was defined in terms of biology (1).  The restriction of relatability becomes a restriction of sympathy. But to question the restriction of relatability would be to become unsympathetic, unkind.

Is this restriction of sympathy to kind unkind? Do we need to give a feminist history to the unkind, or to write an unkind history? I will return to these questions.

Sympathy can be given as a mode of restriction. This was a central argument in my book, The Promise of Happiness (2010), even though I did not put the argument in quite these terms. When we think of sympathy, as I have noted, we tend to think of suffering. But we can be sympathetically happy: we can be happy when others are happy. I have called this “conditional happiness”: when we make our happiness conditional on the happiness of others. Sometimes the conditionality of happiness can be a crisis: we might be made happy by another’s happiness but not made happy by what makes another happy.

Perhaps we can think of sympathy too as conditional. To rephrase an earlier point: the conditions under which feelings are shared might be the conditions under which sharing is restricted. In his approach to moral sentiments, Adam Smith describes: “it gives us the spleen… to see another too happy, or too much elevated, as we call it, with any little piece of good fortune. We are disobliged even with his joy; and, because we cannot go along with it, call it levity and folly” ([1759]2000: 13, emphasis added). For Smith, to be affected sympathetically would be dependent on whether the other person’s emotions appear “suitable to their objects” (14).

I want to think about how the conditions of sympathy – whereby one’s sympathy is given on condition that another person’s emotions are deemed appropriate – are social conditions. We have a revealing moment in the film The Waitress (2007, directed by Adrienne Shelley). Jenna, an unhappily married woman, arrives at a doctor’s surgery and says she is pregnant. The doctor responds sympathetically by offering her his congratulations. His sympathy is not in response to how she does feel (miserable) but rather how she should feel (happy). She is alienated by his sympathy, even though that sympathy is in accordance with an everyday judgment (that pregnancy for married women is a happy event). The waitress is alienated by virtue of her response to being pregnant, such that to be in sympathy with her response of alienation (to offer your condolence) would be to share her alienation: “poor you stuck with him.”

A feminist utterance can be in sympathy with an alienation from happiness. Affect aliens sympathise with alien affects.

We can be alienated by sympathy when sympathy is given in accordance with an expectation of how we feel rather than what we feel. When others expect sympathy from you, they might also be expecting your feelings to be in accordance with theirs. No wonder that in living a feminist life we tend to become unsympathetic. Say someone is getting married. You do want them to be happy. But weddings don’t make you happy: you do not believe in them. But if you you don’t go along and participate in this happy occasion, you would be the one judged as being selfish, as putting your own beliefs before the happiness of others. How could you! Note that people often appeal for you to be happy for them (and to do something with them) when they know are not happy about something. This requirement to suspend your beliefs in order to preserve the happiness of others is an everyday requirement. We learn thus: so much happiness is in accordance with a set of beliefs.

In exploring in The Promise of Happiness (2010) how and when conditional happiness becomes a crisis I offered a reading of Mrs Dalloway and also the film The Hours (based on Michael’s Cunningham’s novel (2002, dir. Stephen Daldry). I have shared the reading of the former on my blog before. I now want to return to my reading of The Hours. The film places three generations of women alongside each other, and follows their life on a single day: a day in the life of Virginia Woolf, of Laura Brown, an unhappy housewife living in the 1950s as she bakes a cake and reads Mrs. Dalloway, and of Clarissa Vaughan who is organizing a party like Mrs. Dalloway, for her ex-lover and friend Richard, who is dying of Aids.

In my reading I focused on Laura Brown our unhappy 1950s housewife. She is reading Mrs. Dalloway.  She explains to a friend  why she relates to Mrs Dalloway, “because she is confident everyone thinks she is fine. But she isn’t.” To be confident is to convince the world of a happiness that does exist; it is to pass as happy with what does exist. It is to say: like you, I am not fine, like you, my life is about maintaining the appearance of being fine, an appearance which is also a disappearance.

To become attuned to unhappiness can be to become attuned to what others do not hear. Feelings of sadness can slip, and stick; they can get all over the place. Laura tries to bake a cake.  She cracks an egg. To bake a cake ought to be a labour of love. Instead, the film reveals a sense of oppression that lingers in the very act of breaking the eggs. Objects that promise happiness can become terrifying: they can haunt you in their emptiness. Not only do such objects not cause your happiness, but they may remind you of your failure to be made happy; they embody a feeling of disappointment. The bowl in which you crack the eggs waits for you. You can feel the pressure of its wait.  The empty bowl feels like an accusation.  Feminist archives are full of scenes of domesticity, in which domestic objects, happy objects, become alien, even menacing.

In one very poignant scene in The Hours, when Laura’s family gathers around the table, having their own party with the cake she has finally baked, the promise of happiness is evoked. Her husband is telling their child the story of how they met. He says: “I used to think about bringing her to this house. To a life, pretty much like this. And it was the thought of the happiness, the thought of this woman, the thought of this life, that’s what kept me going. I had an idea about our happiness.” As he speaks, tears well in Laura’s face. Her sadness is with his idea of happiness. Laura explains to Clarissa at the end of the film how she came to leave her husband and child: “It would be wonderful to say that you regretted it; it would be easy. But what does it mean. What does it mean to regret when you had no choice. It is what you can bear. There it is. No one is going to forgive me. It was death. I choose life.” A life premised on “an idea about our happiness,” for Laura, would be unbearable. Such happiness would be death. She does not leave this life for happiness. She leaves this happiness for life.

For Laura, to leave happiness is to leave everything behind her; it is to cause unhappiness for those who are left behind, an unhappiness which is inherited by her child, who we learn by the end of the film, is Richard. And it is Clarissa who in The Hours cares for Richard and attends to his unhappiness who has to pick up the pieces of the happiness that Laura has shattered. Clarissa: who ends up (like Mrs Dalloway), organizing a party for her friend, worrying (like Mrs Dalloway) that her parties are trivial. Clarissa (like Mrs Dalloway) tries desperately not to be sad; to use the happy occasion of the party, its celebration of Richard’s award as a writer, to stop herself thinking about the sadness of his imminent death; to avoid being overwhelmed by grief.

The film might in its dramatization of the unhappiness caused by Laura, the woman who cannot bear the idea of happiness, withdraw its sympathy from her plight. I think it does.  Perhaps we can learn from this withdrawal of sympathy. If the one who leaves happiness must cause unhappiness to those who they leave, then they must refuse to be sympathetic: they must not return feeling with like feeling (happiness with happiness, love with love) if they are to escape from the very obligation to return.  In other words, to give up happiness is to become unsympathetic. That Laura’s act is only narratable as unkind, violent as well as mean, as the cause of suffering that cannot be repaired, shows us just how hard it can be to give up on the idea of happiness because that idea is also bound up with the impulse to care for the happiness of others.  There are many, I think we know this, there are many who stay in situations of unhappiness out of fear of causing unhappiness, out of fear of losing sympathy, of becoming unsympathetic.

It is hard to leave happiness for life. There is always a gap between becoming conscious of what is lost by living according to an idea of happiness and being able to leave happiness for life, a gap where things happen, where lives are lived and lives are lost. Not only is there sadness in recognising gender as the loss of possibility but there is also the sadness of realizing that recognising such loss does not necessarily make things possible. After all Clarissa in The Hours spends her time, as she did in Mrs Dalloway, caring for the happiness of Richard: it is her relationship with Sally that suffers, which does not have her attention. In the end it is Clarissa’s daughter who is sympathetic toward Laura. We learn from this inter-generational sympathy: perhaps its takes more than one generation to reproduce a feminist inheritance, where we can acquire sympathy (a sympathy for affect aliens as an alien sympathy) toward those whose acts are publicly remembered without sympathy, as causing unhappiness to others.

A killjoy too: she has become unsympathetic. She is deemed as compromising the happiness of others. She is deemed as stealing their happiness because she is unhappy.

She, too.

Me, too.

We, too.

The angry woman of colour: she too comes up as unkind, as mean, as unsympathetic. As always, Audre Lorde’s words are my teachers. Lorde describes: “When women of Color speak out of the anger that laces so many of our contacts with white women, we are often told that we are ‘creating a mood of helplessness,’ ‘preventing white women from getting past guilt,’ or ‘standing in the way of trusting communication and action’” (1984: 131).  These quoted utterances are from letters that Lorde has received from white women. They share a thread. When women of colour speak of racism, we are stopping something, we are getting in the way of the promise of reconciliation, the promise that we can get on, move on, get along. We shatter the possibility of feminist community: how mean. An unkind history, a history of how feminism is assumed to belong to some kinds of women; not others.

We have to shatter some possibilities. Happiness, even.  Break a thread, even.

The freedom to be happy can become: the freedom to avoid proximity to whatever compromises your happiness. Caring for happiness can become: the freedom not to care about unhappiness. Perhaps we need to turn away from any happiness that is premised on turning away from suffering. To be touched by this suffering would not be premised on feeling the other’s suffering. The sympathy of fellow feeling, which returns feeling with like feeling, which is kind to kind, is a way of touching that touches little, almost nothing. To walk away from the paths of happiness would be a refusal of indifference, a willingness to stay proximate to the unhappiness of others, however we are affected.

(1) There are many “biologies,” or many uses of biology.  When biology is used to stabilise a distinction between kinds, biology becomes mastery: a science of kinds.


Ahmed, Sara (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.

——————— (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press.

Butler, Judith (2004). Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence,  London: Verso.

Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: The

Crossing Press.

Smith, Adam [1759] (2000). The Theory of Moral Sentiments New York: Prometheus Books.

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Living a Feminist Life

I am just heading off to Australia – to do an event at University of New South Wales on Happiness, Ecology and Life in Glass, as well as a talk at Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at Sydney University on Feminism and Fragility.  I might be away from blog for some time. And: today I sent off the manuscript of Living a Feminist Life to the publishers! It is just a baby step, as I wrote the book without a contract and no one has read the whole thing as yet, and I am expecting to come back to it with some writing tools in hand this summer.

I have learnt so much from writing this book and this blog: they are interwoven, as many of the chapters “take off” from blog posts, and the blog  definitely shaped the style and sound of the book.

It could have been called Everyday Feminism. It could have been called Feminist Killjoys.

But it’s called Living a Feminist Life!

Here’s a few paragraphs from the introduction.


What do you hear when you hear the word “feminism”? It is a word that fills me with hope, with energy. It brings to mind, loud acts of refusal and rebellion as well as the quiet ways we might have of not holding onto things that diminish us. It brings to mind, women who have stood up, spoken back, risked lives, homes, relationships in the struggle for more bearable worlds. It brings to mind, books written, tattered and worn, books that gave words to something, a feeling, a sense of an injustice, books that, in giving us words, also gave us the strength to keep going on. Feminism: how we pick each other up. So much history in a word; so much it too has picked up.

I write this book as a way of holding on to the promise of that word, to think what it means to live your life by claiming that word as your own: being a feminist, becoming a feminist, speaking as a feminist. Living a feminist life does not mean adopting a set of ideals or norms of conduct although it might mean asking ethical questions about how to live better in an unjust and unequal world (in a not feminist and anti-feminist world); how to create relationships with others that are more equal; how to find ways to support those who are not supported or less supported by social systems; how to keep coming up against histories that have become concrete, histories that have become as solid as walls.

It is worth noticing from the outset the idea that feminism is about how to live, about a way of thinking how to life, has often been understood as part of feminist history, as dated, associated with moralising or even policing stance of what might be called or might have been called, usually dismissively, as “cultural feminism.” I will return to the politics of this dismissal in my chapter on lesbian feminism. I am not suggested here that this version of feminism as moral police, the kind of feminism that might proceed by declaring this or that practice (and thus this or that person) as being “unfeminist” or “not feminist,” is simply a fabrication. I have heard that judgment; it has fallen on my own shoulders.[i] But the figure of the policing feminist is promiscuous for a reason. Feminism can be more easily dismissed when feminism is heard as being about dismissal; as being about, say, making people feel bad for their desires and investments, or about rejecting anything that is inconsistent with a set of ideas.  The figure of the feminist police is exercised because she is useful. Many feminist figures are anti-feminist tools; although we can always retool these figures for our own purposes.

In this book I refuse the relegation of the question of how to live a feminist life to history by suggesting that this question makes everything into something that is questionable. That question is one we can keep present, make present.  After all if our aim is to build feminist dwellings, we need to dismantle what has already been assembled; we need to ask what it is we are against, what it is we are for, knowing full well that this “we” is not a foundation but what we are working toward.

[i] Literally: one time when I was a PhD student a feminist member of staff pulled my off the shoulder top over my shoulders saying something like, “you are supposed to be a feminist.”

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Living a Lesbian Life

Last week I enjoyed attending the Lesbian Lives conference in Brighton (my fifth!). I gave a lecture drawn from material in my chapter on “Lesbian Feminism” which is the final chapter of the book I am working on. It was a one-off presentation, put together especially for the event, so I am sharing it with you now.


“Living a Lesbian Life,” Sara Ahmed, Lesbian Lives conference, February 20, 2015, University of Brighton

I speak today from a conviction: in order to survive what we come up against, in order to build worlds from the shattered pieces, we need a revival of lesbian feminism. This lecture is an explanation of my conviction.

Right now might seem an odd time to ask for such a revival. It might seem we are offered more by the happiness of the queer umbrella. I think the erasure of lesbians as well as lesbian feminism (often via the assumption that lesbian feminism is a naïve form of “identity politics”) would deprive us of some of the resources we need because of what is not over, what is not behind us. In some recent queer writing, lesbian feminism appears as a miserable scene that we had to get through, or pass through, before we could embrace the happier possibility of becoming queer. For instance, Paul Preciado (2012) in a lecture on queer bulldogs refers to lesbians as ugly with specific reference to styles, fashions and haircuts. The lesbian appears here as elsewhere as an abject figure we were all surely glad to have left behind. I suspect this referencing to the ugliness of lesbians is intended as ironic, even playful. But of course much contemporary sexism and homophobia is ironic and playful. I don’t find it particularly amusing.

We need to refuse this passing by holding onto the figure of the lesbian feminist as a source of political potential. Lesbian feminism can bring feminism back to life. Many of the critiques of lesbian feminism, often as a form of “cultural feminism,” were precisely because of how lesbian feminists posed feminism as a life question, as a question of how to live. Alice Echols in her book Daring to be Bad, which gives a history of radical feminism in the United States, describes: “With the rise of lesbian-feminism, the conflation of the personal with the political, long in the making was complete and unassailable. More than ever, how one lived one’s life, not commitment to political struggle, became the salient factor” (1989: 240) Note this not: the question of how we live our lives is separated from a commitment to political struggle; more than that, it is implied that focusing on living our lives would be a withdrawal of energy from political struggle. We can hear a similar implication in Juliet Mitchell and Rosalind Delmar’s argument: “the effects of liberation do not become the manifestations of liberation by changing values or for the matter by changing oneself, but only by challenging the social structure that gives rise to the values in the first place” (cited in Echols 1989: 244). The suggestion is not only that life change is not structural change but that focusing on how one lives one’s life might be how structures are not transformed.

I want to offer an alternative argument. When a life is what we have to struggle for, we struggle against structures. It is not necessarily the case that these struggles always lead to transformation. But to struggle against something is to chip away at something. Many of these structures are not visible unless you come up against them and this makes doing the work of chipping away, I call this work diversity work, a particular kind of work. The energy required to keep going when you keep coming up against these structures is how we build things, sometimes, often, from the shattered pieces.


I am currently writing a book, Living a Feminist Life, which concludes with a chapter on lesbian feminism. One of the aims of the book is to bring feminist theory “home” by generating feminist theory out of ordinary experiences of being a feminist. The book could have been called “everyday feminism.”  Feminist theory is or can be what we might call following Marilyn Frye “lived theory,” an approach that “does not separate politics from living” (1991: 13).  Living a lesbian life is data collection; we collect information about the institutions that govern the reproduction of life: it is almost too much data; we don’t have time to interpret all the material we collect.  If living a lesbian life generates data, then lesbian feminism provides the tools to help us interpret that data.

And by data I am referring to walls. I first began thinking about walls when completing a research project on racism and diversity within institutions. Diversity practitioners would talk of how the very institutions that appointed them would block their efforts. Diversity work was described by one practitioner as “a banging your head against a brick wall job.” A job description becomes a wall description. And what I learnt from doing this research was that unless you came up against the walls, they did not appear: the university would seem as happy as its mission statement, as willing as its equality statement.

In one interview I conducted quite late in the research process, a practitioner described one of her experiences of a brick wall. It was a click moment: you know that kind of moment, when something is revealed to you that you realise retrospectively you had been trying to work out or to work through. She described to me what happened within her university when they tried to change a policy around appointment procedures: she had got the change agreed at the diversity committee, but the agreement went missing from the minutes; when the minutes were sent to council someone noticed because she had chaired the diversity committee; the minutes were rewritten and resubmitted and the policy was approved by council; but then people acted within the institution acted as if the change had not been agreed. The diversity officer said that when she pointed out there has been a change of policy “they looked at me as if was saying something really stupid.” I learnt so much from her account: I learnt how the mechanisms for blocking structural transformation are mobile; things can be stationary because what stops things from moving moves. I learnt how an effective way of stopping something from happening is by agreeing to something. A “yes” can be said when or even because there is not enough behind that “yes” to bring something about.

It is the process of trying to transform a situation that allows this wall to become apparent. And I realised that this was the difficulty I had been trying to describe throughout my work: how you come up against things that are not revealed to others. Indeed what is hardest for some (I mean literally, ouch) does not even exist for others. I now use diversity work to refer not only to the work that aims to transform institutions, but the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution. When we fail to inhabit a norm (when we are questioned or question ourselves whether we are “it,” or pass as or into “it”) then it becomes more apparent, rather like that brick wall: what does not allow you to pass through. A life description can be a wall description.

Things are fluid if you are going the way things are flowing. Think of a crowd: if you are going the right way, you are being propelled forward; a momentum means you need to make less effort to keep going. If you are not going that way, a flow is something solid, a wall; an obstruction. Lesbians know a lot about obstruction. And it might seem now for lesbians that we are going with the flow. Hey, we can go; hey, we can get married. And if you talked about what you come up against now, those around you may blink with disbelief: hey what’s up, stop complaining dear, smile. I am not willing to smile on command. I am willing to go on a smile embargo, if I can recall Shilamith Firestone’s “dream action” for the women’s movement (1970: 90). Talking about walls matters all the more when the mechanisms by which we are blocked are less visible.

The everyday is our data.

A lesbian experience: you are seated with your girlfriend, two women at a table; waiting. A straight couple walks into the room and is attended to right away. This might also be a female experience: without a man present at the table, you do not appear. I have experienced my female solidarity around these sorts of experiences: say, you are pressed up against a busy bar; two women who do not know each other, and over and over again, the men are served first. You look at each other both with frustration but sometimes affection, as you recognise that each other recognises that situation, as one in which we are perpetually thrown: she too, me too, “we” from this too. For some, you have to become insistent to be the recipient of a social action, you might have to announce your presence, wave your arm, saying: “Here I am!” For others, it is enough just to turn up because you have already been given a place at the table before you take up that place.

Of course more than gender is at stake in the distribution of attention. But gender is at stake in the distribution of attention.  Every now and then you encounter something that reveals that distribution: that allows the feminist groan of recognition. One time I was at the London feminist film festival. They were showing A Question of Silence.  It is a table scene, of course: there is one woman seated at a table of men; she is the secretary. And she makes a suggestion. No-one hears her: the question of silence is in this moment not a question of not speaking but of not being heard. A man then makes the exact same suggestion she has already made: and the other men turn to him, congratulating him for being constructive. She says nothing. It is at that moment she sits there in silence, a silence which is filled or saturated with memories of being silenced: her memories, ours, having to overlook how you are looked over. Sexism: a worn thread of connection. And yes: there was a collective groan.

Feminist philosophers has taught us for over a century how men becomes universal; women particular. Or perhaps we might say women become relatives, female relatives, existing by existing in relation to men. To become woman is to become relative.  Women encounter the universal as a wall when we refuse to become relative. Note how we come to know these distinctions (such as universal and relative) not as abstractions, but in everyday social life, which is to say, in being in a world with others.

I want to add here that the requirement to become a female relative is not simply about the privileging of heterosexuality.  Working in the academy I have noticed this expectation that to progress you must progress through male networks: you have to declare your love for one dead white male philosopher or another (if not Derrida, then Lacan, if not Lacan, then Deleuze, if not Deleuze, then, who Sara, who are you following?). You have to cite men and give more time and attention to their work; you have to have references by men in order to validate your own work. Of course, we do not “have to do” what we “have to do.”  But if it is easier to refuse that requirement from a position of relative security then we learn how that requirement is enforced through insecurity, the sense that, to reach somewhere, you have to go in this direction, or you might not get anywhere at all.

For her to appear, she might have to fight. If this is true for women, it is even truer for lesbians. Women with women at a table are hard to see (and by table here I am referring to the mechanisms of social gathering, a table is what we are assembled around).  For a gathering to be complete a man is the head.  A table of women: a body without a head. Male privilege is not simply about being seen but being seen to, having your needs attended to. This is why I describe privilege as an energy saving device: less effort is required when a world has been assembled to meet your needs. You don’t need to raise your arm to have a standing. I will return to willful lesbian arms in my conclusion.

Data as wall.

You turn up at a hotel with your girlfriend and you say you have booked a room. A hesitation can speak volumes. This reservation says your booking is for a double bed, is that right madam? Eyebrows are raised; a glance slides over the two of you, catching enough detail. Are you, sure madam? Yes that’s right; a double bed. You have to say it, again; you have to say it, again, firmly. Some have to insist on what is given to others. In previous work I have offered a formula:

Rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy

When you are known as a feminist, you do not even have to say anything before eyes roll. You can hear them sigh “oh hear she goes.” I now have another formula.

Raised eyebrows = lesbian feminist pedagogy

The raising of eyebrows: lodged as a question: Really, are you sure?  This happens again and again; you almost come to expect it, the necessity of being firm just to receive what you have requested. One time after a querying, are you sure madam, are you sure, madam, you enter the room; twin beds. Do you go down; do you try again? It can be trying. Sometimes it is too much, and you pull your two little beds together; you find other ways of huddling.

Questions follow you, wherever you go. For some to be is to be in question. Is that your sister or your husband? Are you sisters? What are you? Who are you? As a brown woman I am used to be asking “where are you from” as a way of being told I am not from here. There are many ways of being made into strangers, bodies out of place. “Are you a boy or a girl?” they ask her, this time, a question that drips with mockery and hostility. Some of these questions dislodge you from a body that you yourself feel you reside in. Once you have been asked these questions, you might wait for them. Waiting to be dislodged changes your relation to the lodge.

It can be exhausting this constant demand to explain yourself. A desire for a more normal life does not necessary mean identification with norms, but can be simply this: a desire to escape the exhaustion of having to insist just to exist. A history can become concrete through the repetition of such encounters, encounters that require you to put the whole of your body, as well as your arms, behind an action. Maybe these actions seem small. Maybe they are small. But they accumulate over time. They feel like a hammering, a chip, chip, chip, against your being, so that eventually you begin to feel smaller, hammering as hammered down.  Actions that seem small can also become wall.

An ordinary battle

An ordinary is what we might be missing when we feel that chip, chip. An ordinary can be what we need to survive that chip, chip. Susan Griffin remembers a scene for us, a scene that has yet to happen :

I remember a scene … This from a film I want to see. It is a film made by a woman about two women who live together. This is a scene from their daily lives. It is a film about the small daily transformations which women experience, allow, tend to, and which have been invisible in this male culture. In this film, two women touch. In all ways possible they show knowledge of. What they have lived through and what they will yet do, and one sees in their movements how they have survived. I am certain that one day this film will exist ((cited by Becker, Citron, Lesage and Rich 1981).

Lesbian feminism: to remember a scene that has yet to happen, a scene of the ordinary; of the movements, little movements, which tell the story of our survival. It is a touching scene. Sometimes you have to battle for an ordinary.   When you have to battle for an ordinary, when battling becomes ordinary, the ordinary can be what you lose.

But you have a glimpse of it even when you lose it.

Think of this: how for many women, life has been understood as a sphere of immanence, as dwelling in not rising above; she is there, there she is; not transcending things by creating things. A masculinist model of creativity is premised on withdrawal. She is there, there she is: engaged in the endless repetitive cycle of housework. We can follow Adrienne Rich who makes this starting point into an instruction: “begin with the material,” she says, with “matter, mma, madre, mutter, moeder, modder” (1986: 213). Lesbian feminism is materialist right from the beginning. If women are expected to be here, in matter, in materiality, in work, at work, this is where lesbian feminism begins.   We begin in the lodge where we are lodged.  We begin with the lodge when we are dislodged.

A poignant lesbian scene of ordinary life is provided by the first of the three films that make up, If These Walls Could Talk 2. We begin with that ordinary: we begin with its warmth. Edith and Abby: they have been together a long time. The quietness of intimacy: of going to see a film together, of coming home together.  Yes maybe there are comments made by some kids on the street, but they are used to it: they have each other, a place to return to; home as shelter, a place to withdraw to. If the walls could talk, they would tell their story, photographs cover the walls, photographs not only of each other, of their friends, but of lesbian and gay marches, demonstrations. A wall can be how we display a lesbian feminist history.

Everything shatters, when Abby slips and falls.

Everything shatters. A life can shatter.

We are in the hospital waiting room. Edith is waiting to hear how Abby is. Another woman arrives. She says: “they just took my husband in, he had a heart attack.” When this woman asks about Edith’s husband, Edith replies, “I never had a husband.” And the woman says, “That’s lucky, because you won’t have the heart break of losing one.”  The history of heterosexuality becomes a history of broken hearts, or even just the history of hearts. To be recognised as having a heart is to be recognised as the one who is broken. With such recognition, comes care, comfort, support. Without recognition, even one’s grief cannot be supported or held by the kindness of another.

We know this history; it is a history of what we know.

And so Edith waits. When she asks the hospital staff to see Abby they say “only family are allowed.” The recognition of family ties, as the only ties that are binding, means Abby dies alone; it means Edith waits all night, alone. When lesbian grief is not recognised, because lesbian relationships are not recognised, you become “non-relatives.” You become unrelated, you become not. You are left alone in your grief.

Heterosexuality could be described as an elaborate support system. Support is how much you have to fall back on when you fall. To leave heterosexuality can be to leave those institutional forms of protecting, cherishing, holding. You have less to fall back on when you fall. When things break a whole life can unravel.

When family is not there to prop you up, when you disappear from family life, you had to find other ways of being supported. When you disappear from family life: does this happen to you? You go home, you go back home and it feels like you are watching yourself disappear: watching your own life unravel, thread by thread. No one has willed or intended your disappearance. Just slowly, just slowly, as talk of family, of heterosexuality as the future, of lives that you do not live, just slowly, just slowly, you disappear. They welcome you, they are kind, you are the lesbian aunties from London, say, but it is harder and harder to breath. And then when you leave you might go and find a lesbian bar or queer space; it can be such a relief. You feel like a toe, liberated from a cramped shoe. And we need to think about that: how the restriction of life when heterosexuality remains a presumption can be countered by creating spaces that are looser, freer not only because you are not surrounded by what you are not because you are reminding there are so many ways to be.

So much invention comes from the necessity of creating our own support systems. Note here the significance of fragility to this history: how we too can be shattered, how we need each other to put our lives back together again. And: if we are recognised as fragile, breakable, broken, we are often assumed to have caused our own damage. We after all have willingly left the apparently safer paths, the more brightly lit paths of heterosexuality. What did you expect, dear: what did you expect? Feminists are often assumed to cause their own damage, as if she, rather like a broken pot, flies out of hand. When we say she “flies out of hand” we usually means she speak out of anger, caught up by a destructive impulse, and that in breaking ties, she breaks herself.

Shattering; it is shattering; she is shattered.

There are many ways of telling the story of the struggle for recognition because there are many stories to tell. The struggle for recognition can be about having access to a good life. It can be about wanting inclusion in the structures that have been oppressive, wanting inclusion in the very structures that remain predicated on this dispossession of others.  But that’s not the only story. The struggle for recognition can also come from the experience of what is unbearable, what cannot be endured, when you lose your bearings, becoming unhoused. The struggle for recognition can be a struggle for an ordinary life, an ordinary that is more far more precious than property; indeed an ordinary as what is negated when things become property, when things become alienable things. We learn this from If these Walls Could Talk 2: when Abby’s family ask what things are hers so her things can become theirs, Abby’s things, her loved worn things, her memories, can become family possessions. A family possession is a dispossession. Perhaps a lesbian feminist struggle for recognition comes out of rage against the injustice of how some dwell by the dispossession of others. We want the walls to come down. Or, if they stay up, we want the walls to talk, to tell this story. A story too can shatter: a tiny thousand little pieces, strewn, all over the place.

Lesbian feminism: in making an ordinary from the shattered pieces of a dwelling we dwell.   We dwell, we tell. How telling.

A Willfulness Archive

In this first part of this lecture I noted how actions that are small can also become wall. Lesbian feminism might also involve small actions.  Maybe the chip, chip, chip of hammering can be transformed into a hammer: if he is a chip off the old block, we chip, chip, chip away at that block. Chip, chip, chip, who knows, eventually it might come right off. To persist in chipping at the blocks of hetero-patriarchy, we have to become willful.  I want to think of lesbian feminism as a willfulness archive, a living and a lively archive made up and made out our own experiences of struggling against what we come up against.

Why willfulness? Let me share with you a typical definition of willfulness : “asserting or disposed to assert one’s own will against persuasion, instruction, or command; governed by will without regard to reason; determined to take one’s own way; obstinately self-willed or perverse.” To be called obstinate or perverse because you are not persuaded by the reasoning of others? Is this familiar to you? Have you heard this before?

Lesbian, feminist and anti-racist histories can be thought of as histories of those who are willing to be willful, who are willing to turn a diagnosis into an act of self-description.  Let’s go back: let’s listen to what and to who is behind us.  Julia Penelope describes lesbianism as willfulness: “The lesbian stands against the world created by the male imagination. What willfulness we posses when we claim our lives!” (1992: 42, emphasis in original). Marilyn Frye’s radical feminism uses the adjective willful: “The willful creation of new meaning, new loci of meaning, and new ways of being, together, in the world, seems to me in these mortally dangerous times the best hope we have” (1992: 9). Alice Walker describes a “womanist” in the following way:A black feminist or feminist of color… Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good’ for one… Responsible. In charge. Serious.” (2005: xi, emphases in original).  Together these statements can be heard as claims to willfulness: willfulness as audacity; willfulness as standing against; willfulness as creativity.

Willfulness is usually a charge made by someone against someone.  Willfulness becomes a charge in Alice Walker’s sense, to be “in charge.” If we are charged with willfulness, we can accept and mobilize this charge. To accept a charge is not simply to agree with it. Acceptance can mean being willing to receive. A charge can also be thought of as electricity. The language can be our lead: willfulness can be an electric current, passing through each of us, switching us on. Willfulness can be a spark. We can be lit up by it. It is an electric thought.

We can distinguish here between willfulness assumed as behind an action, and willfulness required to complete an action. Sometimes to stand up you have to stand firm. Sometimes to hold on you must become stubborn. Remember my example of going the wrong way in the crowd? For some bodies mere persistence, “to continue steadfastly,” requires great effort, an effort that might appear to others as stubbornness or obstinacy, as an insistence on going against the flow. You have to become insistent to go against the flow and you are judged to be going against the flow because you are insistent. I think of this as a life paradox: you have to become what you are judged as being. You might have to become what you are judged as being to survive what you are judged as being.

We are often judged as willful when we are not willing; not willing to go with the flow, not willing to go.  To become lesbian might require not being willing women; lesbians as willful women. Monique Wittig’s (1992) audacious statement “lesbians are not women” could thus be read through the lens of willfulness. She argues that lesbians are not women because to be “women” is to be is being in relation to men: “women” for Wittig is heterosexual term or a heterosexual injunction. Remember woman becomes from the conjunction of wif and man: wif as wife, as female servant. To be a woman with a woman or a woman with women (we do not need to assume a couple form) is to become what she Wittig calls an “escapee” or a stray. To be a lesbian is to stray away from the path you are supposed to follow if you are to reach the right destination. To stray is to deviate from the path of happiness.  So if lesbians are women, if we wrestle woman away from this history of women as being for men, we are willful women.

Willful women: how striking. Willfulness as a style of politics might involve not only being willing not to go with the flow, but being willing to cause its obstruction. Political histories of striking are indeed histories of those willing to put their bodies in the way, to turn their bodies into blockage points that stop the flow of human traffic, as well as the wider flow of an economy.

Willfulness might seem here to be about an individual, the one who has to become willful just to keep going, although we see how a strike only works when it becomes collective, when others too are lit up by that spark.  We might think of characters like Molly Bolt from Ruby Fruit Jungle (1973) as part of our willfulness archive: girls who want girls are often those girls whose wills are deemed wanting. As a lesbian feminist reader it is was characters like Molly Bolt with a spring in their step that picked me up; feisty characters whose vitality is not at the expense of their lesbian desire, but is how their desire rooms across the pages.

If we think of lesbian feminism as a willfulness archive we are not simply directing our attention to characters such as Molly Bolt, however appealing. A willfulness archive would derive as much from our struggle to write ourselves into existence, as from who appears in what we write. This intimacy of audacity, standing against and creativity can take the form of a book.

A willful girl in a book

A willful girl as a book

I am rather taken by you

Gloria Anzaldúa describes her book Borderlands as follows: “The whole thing has had a mind of its own, escaping me and insisting on putting together the pieces of its own puzzle with minimal direction from my will. It is a rebellious, willful entity, a precocious girl-child forced to grow up too quickly” ([1987]1999: 88). A book, a survival strategy, comes alive, acquires a life of its own, a will of its own, a willful will; history by the bone, own but not alone. Words are sent out: willful words; they pile up, they make something. Words can pulse with life; words as flesh, leaking; words as heart, beating.

Lesbian feminism of colour: the struggle to put ourselves back together because within lesbian shelters too our being was not always accommodated. Where does she take me?  Not white, lesbian out of not; here she comes. I think of a brown history, a mixed-history as a lesbian history, another way in which we can tell a history of women being in relation to women.  I think of my own history, as a mixed lesbian, with so many sides, all over the place. I think of all that lesbian potential, as coming from somewhere. Brownness has a lesbian history; because there are brown lesbians in history, whether or not you could see us, whether or not you knew where to find us. As Camel Gupta (2014) has noted it is sometimes assumed as brown queers and trans folk that we are rescued from our unhappy brown families by happy white queer communities; but not, what if not, what if not; what if brownness is what rescues us from the white line, the line takes us in a direction that asks us to give up part of ourselves?

I will not give you up

A willful will; not willing as willing not

Lesbian feminism of colour is a lifeline made up out of willful books that insist on their own creation. Books are themselves are material, paper, pen, ink, blood, the sweat of the labour to bring something into existence. Words come out of us.

A poem weeps

Audre Lorde spoke of herself as a writer when she was dying. For Lorde, writing and speaking and living as a Black lesbian (Lorde never refused the demands of this “as” nor assumed it can abbreviate an experience), survival is militancy; words are her weapons. She says : “I am going to write fire until it comes out of my ears, my eyes, my nose holes–everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!” (1988: 76-77).

And so she did

And so she did

She goes out, she makes something. She calls this capacity to make things through heat “the erotic.”  Lorde notes: “There is a difference between painting a black fence and writing a poem, but only one of quantity. And there is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love” (1984: 58).

A love poem

A lover as poem

I warmed by the thought. I am warmed by Cherrie Moraga’s poem, “The Welder.” Moraga speaks of heating being used to shape new elements, to create new shapes, “the intimacy of steel melting, the fire that makes sculpture of your lives, builds buildings” (1981: 219).

We build our own buildings when the world does not accommodate our desires. When you are blocked, when your very existence is prohibited or viewed with general suspicion or even just raised eyebrows (yes they are pedagogy), you have to come up with your own systems for getting things through. You might even have to come up with your own system for getting yourself through.

How inventive

Quite something

Not from nothing

Something from something

A kitchen table becomes a publishing house.

To stand against what is we have to make room for what is not. Lesbian feminist world-making is nothing extraordinary; it is quite ordinary. We might think of the work of making room as wiggling, a corporeal willfulness. Remember that toe, liberated from its cramped shoe. She does not toe the line. Lesbians (as lesbians well know) have quite a wiggle; you have to wiggle to make room in a cramped space. We can be warmed by the work required to be together even if sometimes we wish it was less work. To recall the vitality of lesbian feminism as a resource of the present is to remember that effort required for our shelters to be built. When we have to shelter from the harshness of a world we build a shelter.

I think of lesbian feminism as willful carpentry: she builds with her own hands; she is handy. What we build to survive what we come against, the very materials, are how values materialise or are given expression. How easily though without foundations, without a stable ground, the walls can come down. We keep them up by keeping up with each other. A fragile shelter, a looser shelter: walls made from lighter materials, blowing haphazardly in the wind. It is a movement. We might recognise this fragility not so much as what we might lose, or will lose, but as a quality of what we have: values that do not derive or depend on making things safer, more secure or more permanent. There are other ways to survive.  Lesbian feminism is another way to survive.

Conclusion: A Lesbian Feminist Army

I want to share a “lesbian lives” story with you. I gave my very first lecture from my research project on will and willfulness in Dublin at the 17th Lesbian Lives conference in 2010. I shared a story I found because I was on a trail, I was following willful girls, going wherever they went. Yes I did end up all over the place. Because I was on this trail, I found this story: a Grimm story, about a willful child.  This is not a lesbian story. But perhaps there is a lesbian in this story. Let me share it again.

Once upon a time there was a child who was willful, and would not do as her mother wished. For this reason God had no pleasure in her, and let her become ill, and no doctor could do her any good, and in a short time she lay on her death-bed. When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her arm came out again, and stretched upwards, and when they had put it in and spread fresh earth over it, it was all to no purpose, for the arm always came out again. Then the mother herself was obliged to go to the grave, and strike the arm with a rod, and when she had done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath the ground.

What a story. It is quite a story. My book opens with this story, with this figure of the willful child, the one who disobeys; as the one who is punished, who is beaten into the ground. It is the story of a child but also of an arm: the child’s willfulness is inherited by an arm, an arm that keeps coming up, until it too is beaten down. Is the willful child a lesbian feminist? Or is the wayward arm a lesbian feminist?

We could tell a few lesbian stories about arms. One story: a butch lesbian enters the female toilets. The attendant become flustered and says “you are not supposed to be here.” The butch lesbian is used to this: how many of her stories are toilet stories; to pass as male becomes a question mark of your right to pass into female space. “I am a woman,” she says. We might have to assign ourselves with gender if we trouble the existing assignments. With a re-assignment, she can go to the toilet. When she comes out, the attendant is embarrassed; the attendant points to her arm, saying “so strong.” The butch lesbian allows the moment to pass by joking, giving the attendant a “show of her arms.”

With arms we come out, with arm we come in. These moments do not always pass so easily. Many of these histories of passing or of not passing are traumatic. Arms can be beaten; they can be straightened. Jack Halberstam in Female Masculinity notes with some surprise how Havelock Ellis uses the arm as a gender test in the case of Miss M : “Miss M. he thinks, tries to cover over her masculinity but gives herself away to Ellis when he uses a rather idiosyncratic test of gender identification: ‘with arms, palmed up, extended in front of her with inner sides touching, she cannot bring the inner sides of the forearms together as nearly every woman can, showing that the feminine angle of the arm is lost’” (1998: 80). If the muscular female arm is measured by a straightening rod, the arm is not straightened. An arm becomes a wayward gift.

So maybe I am thinking too of your arms, your strong butch arms and what they can do, who they can hold. I think of being held by your arms.  Yes, I do.

Judith Butler includes the arm in a list of limbs that can symbolise the phallus. Although I always have had sympathy for Judith Butler’s “The Lesbian Phallus” (1993: 88), and by this I mean her argument, I wonder if we make arms into phallic symbols, that we might miss lesbian arms in all their fleshy potential.

Let me share another “lesbian lives” story. When I gave that first paper on willfulness at Lesbian Lives in 2010, Kath Browne said to me afterwards, I am not sure if she remembers this, that my lecture concluded with a real “call to arms.” I think you were referring to my call for us to be willful, to be killjoys, to be willing to cause the unhappiness we are assumed to cause. It took me a long time before I heard the arms in that expression “call to arms,” even though I had already been struck by the wayward arm from the Grimm story.  Once I heard the arms, the call sounded differently:  the call to arms as the call of arms.  A call can mean a lament, an accusation; a naming, as well as a visitation (in the sense of a calling upon). Can we put the “arms” back into the “miserable army” of the inverted described in Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness? Can we hear in the sorrow of their lament a call?

A wayward arm is a call of arms. A call of arms can be a recall. Just recall Sojourner Truth speaking to the suffragettes, having to insist on being a woman activist as a black woman and former slave, having to insist that abolitionism and suffrage can and should be spoken by the same tongue : “Ain’t I a woman,” she says. “Look at me,” she says, “look at my arm.” And in brackets, in the brackets of history, it is said that Sojourner Truth at this moment: “bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power” (cited in Zackodnik 2011: 99).[1] The muscularity of her arm is an inheritance of history; the history of slavery shown in the strength of the arm, the arm required to plough, to sow the field. The arms of the slave belonged to the master, as did the slave, as the ones who were not supposed to have a will of their own.  No wonder we must look to the arm, if we are to understand the history of those who rise up against oppression.

Those who have to insist on being women are willful women, and the arm becomes your resource, something that can lend its hand in a battle to be. Trans women are willful women; women who have to insist on being women, who have to keep insisting, again and again, often in the face of violent and repeated acts of misgendering. Any feminists who do not stand up, who do not wave their arms to protest against this misgendering, have become straightening rods. When I ask for a revival of the militancy of the figure of the lesbian feminist I am imagining lesbian feminism as in a fundamental and necessary alliance with transfeminism. Transfeminism has also brought feminism back to life. And can I add here that an anti-trans stance is an anti-feminist stance; it is against the feminist project of creating worlds to support those for whom gender fatalism (boys will be boys, girls will be girls) is fatal; a sentencing to death. We have to hear that fatalism as punishment and instruction: it is the story of the rod, of how those who have wayward wills or who will waywardly (boys who will not be boys, girls who will not be girls) are beaten. We will not be beaten. We need to drown these anti-trans voices out by raising the sound of our own. Our voices need to become our arms; rise up; rise up.

There are many arms, they keep coming up, arms that are muscular, strong, labouring arms, arms that refuse to be employed, striking arms, arms that break, Gloria Anzaldua said once, “I’m a broken arm” (1983: 204);  arms that are lost in service to the industrial machine. Willful arms not only have a history; they are shaped by history. Arms are history made flesh.  Arms that exceed an idea of the arm (an idea, say, of how a woman’s arm should appear) have something to say to us. It is the arms that can help us make the connection between histories that otherwise do not seem to meet. Intersectionality is army. If histories meet in arms, then histories meet in the very limbs of our rebellion. The arms that build the master’s residence are the arms that will bring the walls down. Audre Lorde entitled an essay with a proclamation : “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984: 110-113). In that unflinching “will never” is a call to arms, do not become the master’s tool!

Chip, chip, chip, when our arms become tools, we hammer away at the house of his being. We make our own houses, lighter, looser; see how the walls move; it is a movement.Chip, chip, chip, a lesbian feminist army is being assembled.

Here we are; here we come; here we arm.

Thank you.


Ahmed, Sara (2014). Willful Subjects. Durham: Duke University Press.

Anzaldúa, Gloria (1999) [1987]. Borderlands, La Fontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco:   Aunt Lute Books.

———————- (1983). “La Prieta” in Cherrie Morago and Gloria Anzaldua (eds). The  Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour. Watertown:  Persephone  Press. pp.198-209.

Brown, Rita Mae (1973). Rubyfruit Jungle. New York: Bantam Books.

Butler, Judith  (2003). Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” London:

Echols, Alice (1989). Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America,1967-1985.  University of Minnesota Press.

Firestone, Shulamith (1970). The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. New York: Bantam Books.

Frye, Marilyn (1991). “Introduction”, Are Your Girls Travelling Alone? by Marilyn Murphy, Los Angeles: Clothes Spin Fever Press. pp.11-16.

————————- (1983).  The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory.  Trumansburg, New York: The Crossing Press.

Gupta, Camel (2014). Presentation in Black British Feminism panel, Centre for Feminist Research, Goldsmiths. December 11.

Halberstam, Jack (1998). Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hall, Radclyffe (1982) [1928]. The Well of Loneliness. London: Virago Press.

Lorde, Audre  (1988). A Burst of Light, Essays. Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books.

——————–(1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: Crossing Press.

Morago, Cherrie (1981). “The Welder,” in Cherrie Morago and Gloria Anzaldúa (eds). A Bridge Called by Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour. Watertown: Persephone Press. P.219.

Penelope, Julia (1992). Call Me Lesbian: Lesbian Lives, Lesbian Theory. New York: Crossing Press.

Preciado, Paul (2012). “Queer Bulldogs” Documenta 13.

Rich, Adrienne  (1986). “Notes Toward a Politics of Location” in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Walker, Alice (2005).  In Search of Our Mothers Gardens. Phoenix, New Edition.

Zackodnik, Teresa (2011). Press, Platform, Pulpit: Black Feminist Publics in the Era of Reform. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.


[1] Zackodnick is citing here from Frances Dana Gage’s Reminiscences in which Gave, a leading feminist, reformer and abolitionist, gives us this account of Truth’s speech as well as “bodily testimony” that has been crucial to how it has been remembered. It is important to note the status of this description as citation: our access to Sojourner Truth’s address is through the testimony of others, in particular, the testimony of white women. Maria Zackodnick notes that other accounts of this event did not include references to Truth baring her arm (2011: 99). We learn from this to be cautious about our capacity to bear witness to arms in history: we might only be able to read (of) arms through the mediation of other limbs.

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You are oppressing us!

Those who are oppressed – who have to struggle to exist often by virtue of being a member of a group – are often judged as the oppressors. We only have to turn the pages of feminist history to know this. When lesbians demanded entry into feminist spaces, we were called a “lavender menace.” We got in the way of the project of making feminism more acceptable. To be rendered unacceptable is often to be treated as the ones with the power (the power to take something away). I recently heard a heterosexual feminist speak of lesbians in feminism in exactly these terms: as wielding all the power. When black women and women of colour spoke of racism in feminism we were heard, we are heard, as angry, mean and spiteful, as hurting white women’s feelings. The angry woman of colour is not only a feminist killjoy she is often a killer of feminist joy. She gets in the way of how white women occupy feminism.

This is a difficult history.

History happens; it happens again.

Yesterday a letter was published in The Guardian that basically suggests that feminists are being silenced within universities.  This might sound like a letter I would support. I am a feminist, and I willfully refuse to be silenced, although nor do I assume I have some sort of right or automatic entitlement to speak.

However this letter works to create false impressions implying that critical feminists are being silenced and oppressed by some (relatively) unspecified others. We need to specify who these others are. The politics of the letter is about the politics of this who.

Specific cases are mentioned in the letter as evidence of the silencing of feminists. The first case mentioned is that of Kate Smurthwaite whose comedy show was cancelled by the Student’s Union at Goldsmiths. This cancellation is then described as part of “a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed ‘transphobic’ or ‘whorephobic.'” The accusations are strong: these cases are collectively identified as “attempts at intimidation” and as “bullying.” The basic claim is that no platforming is being used to silence critical feminist voices. So rather than no platforming being used as a response to fascism “today it is being used to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists.”

The letter contains much false information. I want to understand why this is the case; I want to understand how such a letter could be signed and published. Of the three cases mentioned only one was actually about “no platforming” (Julie Bindel) and even then the no platform policy is falsely attributed to the National Union of Students.

Just take the first case. Kate Smurthwaite was not censored from speaking at Goldsmiths because of her views on sex work. She was certainly not “no platformed” by Goldsmiths Feminist Society, which did hold a vote about whether to co-host this event with the Goldsmiths Comedy Society (the vote was not even about moving or cancelling the event). The eventual cancelling of the event seems to be as much a result of the performer perceiving that protests and pickets were likely – rather than protests or threat of pickets (only one tweet has been found which mentioned pickets, and that was not from a student at Goldsmiths). The organiser of this event gives us a full account of the messiness of this cancellation here.

So what is going on then? What is noticeable of course is how quickly the story of the feminist comedian being censored for her critical views gets picked up and circulated by the media, and even ends up as a “truth statement” within this letter. What do we learn from this quick circulation? Quite a lot I would say. There is an investment here: I would call this a narrative investment.  There is a desire for evidence “that feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists are being censored.”  As such the explanation of the cancellation seems to be in the end what the cancellation was about: the desire for more evidence of the stifling of debate and the censoring of some critical feminist views. These views then get expressed again as if they are being stifled.  They get repeated by being presented as prohibited.

Whenever people keep being given a platform to say they have no platform, or whenever people speak endlessly about being silenced, you not only have a performative contradiction; you are witnessing a mechanism of power. I often describe diversity work as mechanical work. We know a lot about the mechanisms of power when we try to transform the norms embedded in a situation. The power of some to determine the discourse is often upheld by being concealed or denied. We need as feminists to offer some counter explanations of what is going on than the explanations offered by this letter. The narrative of “being silenced” has become a mechanism for enabling and distributing some forms of expression. Indeed I would even argue that the narrative of being silenced from speaking has become an incitement to speak: it incites the very thing it claims is being stopped.

If there is a desire to accumulate evidence of one’s own views being prohibited or not heard, what would the desire be doing? One might think of Cathy Newman’s recent tweets about not being allowed into a mosque because she was a woman. Turns out she was in the wrong place. Why did she tell this version of events? A version can be told quickly when that version is to hand or handy.  What happened could be treated as evidence that she was excluded as a woman becomes that viewpoint is perpetually recited and is thus in circulation: that Islam is sexist; that Islam is bad for women; that Muslim women need to be saved by non-Muslim women.  I would call this viewpoint racism. I am always willing to give problems their names! Here the desire is not only for evidence of exclusion (for who one is, what one says) but for evidence that can support an explanation: they are sexists. Look!

This look is really: Look at me!

Look, look!

Note how the understandably strong reactions to Cathy Newman’s racist rant are then described by another non-Muslim feminist Louise Mensch as “trolling.” She now reappears as a white woman victim (that the white woman can go so quickly from saviour to victim is often how she keeps her place).  When narratives are firmly in place, and things happen, these happenings can be used to confirm that narrative (often regardless of what happened).

Look, look!

Sometimes a desire for evidence to confirm a belief that is already held can lead to forms of provocation and intimidation in order to generate that evidence.  More and more offensive speech acts will be articulated because there is desire for the offence to be caused; a desire for evidence that the other’s offendability has restricted “our freedom.” I explored how, for example, much Islamaphobia rests on the circulation of the figure of the “easily offendable Muslim” in my 2010 book, The Promise of Happiness. That figure is doing so much work; that figure allows racist speech to be articulated not only as free speech but as rebellious and minority speech that has to be defended in order to be articulated. This is why the myth of the “political correct majority” remains so generative: those who object to such-and-such view (a view that is often about the socially dominant exercising their dominance through verbal assaults) are treated as a silencing majority, wielding power with pens.

Back to the letter.

This is why the letter rests on flimsy material. The letter lacks evidence because it is assembled around a desire for evidence that is lacking. This letter gives evidence to this desire rather than giving us evidence. The example of Germaine Greer would be another case in point: she was not stopped from speaking at all. She spoke, as so did trans feminists activists at another event organised by  LGBT+ Society and the Women’s Society with transfeminist speakers including  Roz Kaveney and Sarah Brown (please see this important contribution by Sarah Brown which reflects on this case and offers a powerful critique of the letter). If anything what we have evidence of here is student protests leading to the proliferation rather than prevention of discourse. The very material used as evidence in the letter of a stifling of critical feminist views suggests instead a lively critical dissenting feminist student population. Lively dissenting feminist student voices are certainly what I hear when I listen to the students at Goldsmiths. I am so encouraged by their voices!

I think there is more going on. The letter is noticeably vague about the views it represents as being silenced or censored. I want to concentrate on the implications that feminists who are critical of “some demands made by trans activists” are being silenced. Note that the letter has already used the expression “transphobia” in a way that implies this accusation of “transphobia” is a means by which feminist views are being stifled. Put the sentences together and you have the picture: feminists who are critical of some of the demands of trans activists (which demands? One wonders) are accused of transphobia, which is how they are silenced.

I have since read a feminist defence of this letter which states that the accusation of transphobia is being used unfairly to dismiss the work of the feminists named in the letter (and is itself evidence that those who make the accusation have not read their work). I find this accusation that this accusation is false quite startling in relation to one person in particular. I stopped reading the comments made on social media by this person some time ago after she made repeated remarks about “trannies.” I did not want to keep encountering this language; I experienced it as “hammering.”  If I as a cis woman experienced her words as hammering, I can only imagine how trans people who read these words must feel. This is the same person who described a transwoman as a “man in a dress.”

Now you might think: free speech is freedom to be offensive. You might think: speech should be protected unless it is an incitement to violence.  What or who are we protecting? Again, one wonders.

I would argue that anti-trans stances and statements of some so-called “critical feminists” including some of those named in the letter should not be understood as feminism. I consider this work deeply anti-feminist as well as anti-trans. I have read some of this material as I am working on Living a Feminist Life, and despite what I knew already, I have been quite shocked by what I have encountered (I am not going to cite this work in my book, nor here, because I refuse to legitimate that work).

For me, being a feminist at work is also about what or who we do not cite, recite or incite.

No citation can be a feminist policy!

When I put on twitter that I consider some of this feminist material as “an incitement to violence” I was sent screenshots of tweets, which were being sent to me as evidence that trans activists are violent or incite violence against TERFS (trans exclusionary radical feminists). When I blocked some of these senders, it was taken as evidence that I was “not a feminist.” Now, politics is rarely about one good and one bad side; nor about innocence on one side and guilt on the other. But politics is also messy because power is asymmetrical. Challenging TERFS is about challenging a position not an identity. TERF describes a position. The term is not a slur: it is a pretty fair and mild description of some feminists who aim to exclude trans people from feminism. There are many radical feminists, both now and in the past, who would understand trans inclusion as a radical and necessary feminist practice. Any TERF can thus unbecome one. This unbecoming would be a feminist becoming! Please I extend this to you as an invitation! I do think we might as feminists be aiming to eliminate the positions that aim to eliminate people. Challenging TERFS is not the same kind of speech act as misgendering a transwoman by addressing her as him, an act I would describe as an intentional act of elimination.

I am not saying there have not been problematic ways of addressing the problem of exclusion by trans activists and their allies. But the desire for evidence itself, as I have already noted, can have a role in generating evidence. And I know (speaking from my own experience as a lesbian feminist of colour) that to address the problem of exclusion within feminism often means becoming the problem. Becoming the problem unsurprisingly, I would say, can lead to the use of some problematic language (it can be very frustrating, to put it mildly, too mildly, to have your very existence challenged in the spaces you seek out because in the wider world your very existence is challenged!).

Let’s get back to my point: when the letter says that critical feminists are being silenced, it is implied “being critical” of the demands of trans activists should be a legitimate feminist speech. I think what is under-described or miss-described here is the nature of some of that speech. At a feminist march a pamphlet was distributed by trans exclusionary radical feminists that I would described as a vile form of hate speech: it basically accused transwomen of being murderers and rapists. When I spoke of my own outrage about these pamphlets, one of the people named in the letter said something like, “so are you saying that it is as bad as the Holocaust.” It would take me a long time to unpack what it is wrong with this statement. But just note the implication; that violence against trans people is “relatively” minor, a footnote in a horrifying history of racial hatred.

How often: some forms of violence are understood as trivial or not even as violence at all. How often: violence is reproduced by not being seen as violence. So much violence directed against groups (that is directed against individuals as perceived members of a group) often works by locating that violence within those groups. Thus minorities are often deemed as being violent, or as causing violence, or even as causing the violence directed against them. To give an account of trans people as causing violence is to cause violence against trans people.  We are most certainly talking about lives and deaths here; and we are most certainly talking about incitement to violence.

Let’s go back to this letter.  This letter implies that some feminist statements that should be expressed freely, that what need to enable debate and dialogue as the sign of a healthy lively democracy. But transphobia and anti-trans statements should not be treated as just another viewpoint that we should be free to express at a happy diversity table. There cannot be a dialogue when some at the table are in effect or intent arguing for the elimination of others at the table. When you have “dialogue or debate” with those who wish to eliminate you from the conversation (because they do not recognise what is necessary for your survival or because they don’t even think your existence is possible), then “dialogue and debate” becomes another technique of elimination. A refusal to have some dialogues and some debates can thus be a key tactic for survival.

The presentation of trans activists as a lobby and as bullies rather than as minorities who are constantly being called upon to defend their right to exist is a mechanism of power. Sadly, this letter is evidence that the mechanism is working. These dynamics are familiar to me from my work on racist speech acts (racism is so often defended as freedom of speech). Racists present themselves as injured/ under attack/a minority fighting against a powerful anti-racist lobby that is “busy” suppressing their voices. We can hear resonance without assuming analogy. We need to hear the constant stream of anti-trans statements as a “chip, chip, chip” that has violent wearing effects.  Any feminism that participates in this chipping away is not a feminism worthy of that name.

Of course people protested against this letter. I protested too: I felt deeply enraged by it. But this will happen quickly (remember narratives “pick up” on things that happen by explaining that happening in terms that are already in placed before things happen): those who protest against the letter will be understood as the harassers. Mark my words! The protests against the letter can then even be used to confirm the truth stated by the letter; this is what is generative about it; that is how it is working.

Look, look!

And note too: protesting about the misuse of the discourse of free speech will not be judged as evidence of free speech! When people express anger and rage, that anger and rage will be heard as a political weapon. I expect people will hear that anger not as an invitation to reflect on what is wrong with what they have signed up to but as a yet another confirmation that they are wronged.

When some people exercise their freedom of speech by protesting against some speech that freedom of speech is understood as oppressive.

Free speech has thus become a political technology that is used to redefine freedom around the right of some to occupy time and space. It is “the others” who become the oppressors; those who in speaking of a wrong are judged as speaking wrong.

We need to say it: this is wrong.

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Institutional Habits

Hello fellow killjoys

In the past few months I have been finishing my book Living a Feminist Life . For some reason I have found it difficult to move from that writing project to working on my blog. I have to say, though, that writing my blog has really helped me to write the  book!

I will come back to my blog, later. In the meantime I am sharing a paper I wrote entitled “Institutional Habits”. I wrote this paper when I was a visiting scholar at Cambridge University in 2013. The paper was written for a book on Merleau-Ponty and politics that did not end up coming to fruition. It covers some material that I have covered before (from On Being Included as well as Willful Subjects) but it puts the argument together slightly differently.

All best,

Feminist Killjoy


Institutional Habits

Sara Ahmed, Goldsmiths, March, 2013

In this chapter I explore how Merleau-Ponty’s model of the habitual body can help us to understand how institutions are brought into existence over time. Merleau-Ponty suggests that time is “the very model of institution” (2010: 7). An institution, he suggests, should be understood in a double sense: it refers us both to a beginning and an end; a realization and destruction. If to institute is to open something, then an institution is also that which has begun; it is both the order already given to things, and something that disturbs an order of things; a re-ordering is a new ordering. As Rosalyn Diprose eloquently describes, for Merleau-Ponty, “meaning is both instituted (dependent upon being ‘exposed to’ an already meaningful world) and instituting (involves ‘initiation’ of the new, the opening of ‘a future’)” (2010: np, emphasis in original).  Merleau-Ponty’s concern with doubleness – with how change and creativity become possible only as or in relation to what has already been assembled or begun –  characterises his work in general, and makes his work especially well suited to understanding the particular phenomena of the institution.  Across a range of social science disciplines including economics and political science, as well as sociology, we have witnessed the emergence of  “the new institutionalism,” concerned precisely with how we can understand institutions as processes or even as effects of processes. Indeed, Victor Nee argues that the new institutionalism “seeks to explain institutions rather than simply assume their existence” (1988: 1). To explain institutions is to give an account of how they emerge or take form. Such explanations require a thick form of description a way of describing not simply the activities that take place within institutions (which would allow the institution into the frame of analysis only as a container, as what contains what is described rather than being part of a description), but how those activities shape the sense of an institution, or even institutional sense.

Returning to Merleau-Ponty’s approach to the habitual body would constitute an important contribution to the project of making sense of institutions. Indeed I explore how Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on habit can be developed to account for “institutional bodies,” by which I mean not only how bodies come to inhabit institutional spaces, but the mechanisms whereby certain bodies comes to be assumed as the right bodies by an institution. If the development of this argument is to offer a rethinking of habituation as  an institutional process, then as a development it is attuned to Merleau-Ponty’s own double sense: as both continuing and changing the terms I have inherited from him.

More specifically, in this chapter I want to think through how institutions become habits by drawing upon research I completed on diversity work within educational institutions.[1]  I mean diversity work in two senses: firstly, I consider diversity work as the work done those who are appointment to institutionalize commitments to diversity. In this sense, diversity workers could be described as “habit changers.” Secondly diversity work is the work we might do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution. Some might be diversity workers in both senses: those who do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution who are often given the task of transforming those norms. For example, people of colour tend to be diversity workers in both senses: because we tend to embody diversity for institutions of whiteness, we are often given the task of doing diversity.

The Habitual Body

We can call institutional norms “somatic norms” (Puwar 2004). Merleau-Ponty’s work on the habitual body can help us to reflect on how bodies incorporate the worlds they inhabit. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty offers powerful descriptions of the intelligence of bodies, of how we learn through our body. In dance, he suggests, “You don’t learn the formula intellectually first: for instance in dancing “it is the body which ‘catches’ (kapiert) and ‘comprehends’ movement” (2002: 165). To carry out an action is to catch its significance: “The acquisition of habit is indeed the grasping of significance but it is the motor grasping of motor significance” (165). I think it is important that we do not rely here on a distinction between mental and motor. Even tasks often deemed mental (such as the labour of thought) involve motor movement. To think might require we write our thoughts, moving our hands and arms as we lean on the desk; and in the activity of writing, in the motor of the movement, we might even “catch” the thought.

If we have a tendency to divide the mental activities from motor ones, as well as to elevate the former over the latter, than Merleau-Ponty teaches us to be attuned to the motor of the mental. He shows how bodies are engaged in the world practically. It is through the tasks that are on the way to being completed, that a body reveals a stance or attitude. As he describes:

my body appears to me as an attitude directed towards a certain existing or possible task. And indeed its spatiality is not, like that of external objects or like that of “spatial sensations”, a spatiality of position, but a spatiality of situation. If I stand in front of my desk and lean on it with both hands, only my hands are stressed and the whole of the body trails behind them like the tail of a comet. It is not that I am unaware of the whereabouts of my shoulder or back, but these are simply swallowed up in the position of my hands, and my whole posture can be read so to speak in the pressure they exert on the table. (115)

Here, the directedness of the body towards an action, which is a leaning of a body towards some things, such as a desk (that has its own leanings), is how the body “appears.”[2]  The body is “habitual” not only in the sense that it performs actions repeatedly, but in the sense that when it performs such actions, it does not command attention, apart from at the “surface” where it “encounters” an external object (such as the hands that lean on the desk or table, which feel the “stress” of the action). In other words, the body is habitual insofar as it “trails behind” in the performing of action, insofar as it does not pose “a problem” or an obstacle to the action, or it not “stressed” by “what” the action encounters. The postural body for Merleau-Ponty is the habitual body: the body that “does not get in the way of an action” is behind an action.

We can explore the relation between what is behind social action and the promise of social mobility. Merleau-Ponty uses as his example objects that enable bodies to extend their motility, such as “the blind man’s stick.”  A habit is when something has been incorporated into the body, becoming part of the body: “The blind man’s stick has ceased to be an object for him, and is no longer perceived for itself” (165). We must note here that the extension of motility through objects means that the object is no longer perceived as something apart from the body. The object, as with the rest of the body, trails behind the action, even when it is literally “in front” of the body. When I am writing I might not then notice the pen, even if it is before me, as it has to be, for me to write. When something becomes part of the habitual, it ceases to be an object of perception: it is simply put to work. Such objects in being incorporated into the body also extend its horizon, or what is within reach: “The position of things is immediately given through the extent to the reach which carries him to it, which comprises besides the arm’s own reach the stick’s range of action. If I want to get used to a stick, I try it by touching a few things with it, and eventually I have it ‘well in hand,’ I can see what things are within reach or out of reach of my stick” (166).  Habits involve not only the repetition of actions that tend toward things, but also involve the incorporation of that which is “tended towards” into the body. Reachability is hence an effect of the habitual; what is reachable depends on what bodies “take in” as objects that extend their bodily motility, becoming like second skin.

Objects that we “tend towards” become habitual insofar as they are taken into the body, re-shaping its surface.  Merleau-Ponty describes “Habit expresses our power of dilating our being-in-the-world, or changing our existence by appropriating fresh instruments” (166). The process of incorporation is certainly about what is familiar, but it is also a relationship to the familiar. The familiar is that which is “at home,” but also how the body feels-at-home in the world: “Once the stick has become a familiar instrument, the world of feelable things recedes and now begins, not at the outer skin of the hand, but at the end of the stick” (176). When bodies are orientated towards objects, those objects may cease to be apprehended as objects, becoming extensions of bodily skin. As Merleau-Ponty further suggests:

We grasp external spaces through our bodily situation. A “corporeal” or postural schema gives us a global, practical and implicit notion of the relation between our body and things, and our hold on them. A system of possible movements, or “motor projects” radiates from us to the environment. Our body is not in space like things; it inhabits or haunts space. It implies itself to space like a hand to an instrument and when we wish to move about we do not move the body as we move an object. (1964: 5)

The language implies here that bodies provide us with a tool, as that through which we “hold” or “grasp” onto things, although elsewhere Merleau-Ponty suggests that the body is not itself an instrument, but a form of expression, a making visible of our intentions. (5) What makes bodies different is how they inhabit space: space is not a container for the body; it does not contain the body, as if the body was “in it.” Rather bodies are submerged, such that they become the space they inhabit; in taking up space, bodies move through space, and are affected by the “where” of that movement. It is through this movement that the surface of spaces as well as bodies takes shape.  Bodies as well as objects take shape through being orientated towards each other, as an orientation that maybe experienced as the co-habitation or sharing of space.

How does this model of the habitual body help us to think through institutions? At one level we could think of institutions as dwelling spaces; they are thus inhabited or even haunted by bodies. Bodies are extended through the work of inhabitance. We can certainly think through these mechanisms in involve incorporation: as bodies become attuned to an organisation, they acquire practical skills and know-how. The very idea of “institutionalisation” (of becoming institutional) might even denote those tendencies or habitual forms of action that are not named or made explicit.  We can thus think of institutions in terms of how some kinds of action become automatic at a collective level; institutional nature might also be “second nature.” When an action is incorporated by an institution it becomes natural to it. Second nature is “accumulated and sedimented history,” as “frozen history that surfaces as nature” (Jacoby 1975: 31). We might describe institutionalisation as “becoming background,” when being “in” the institution is to “agree” with what becomes background. It is this becoming background that creates a sense of ease and familiarity, an ease that can also take the form of incredulity at the naivety or ignorance of the newly arrived or of the outsiders. The familiarity of the institution is a way of inhabiting the familiar. Institutions become familiar, and certain instruments come to extend the capacities of bodies, as an extension of the domain of the reachable. Institutions are designed to enable certain kinds of tasks to be completed. To design a space for work is also to create a space for the working body. Merleau-Ponty describes: “What counts for the orientation of my spectacle is not my body as it in fact is, as a thing in objective space, but as a system of possible actions, a virtual body with its phenomenal ‘place’ defined by its task and situation. My body is wherever there is something to be done” (2002: 291).

If the body is where something is to be done, then the body that is performing its tasks also requires things to be handy. Think not only of the tools that becoming part of an institution might require you to use (the communication technologies, for instance, that allow you to communicate or “sign” with others, creating lines or pathways in their trail) but also of the incorporation of the institution as an idea: you might come to think of yourself as being from such and such an organisation, such that the edges between you and it ceases to be experienced as such: it becomes part of you, part of the bodily horizon. When good things happen to it, you might feel inflated; for example, when bad things happen, you might feel deflated.

But who is this “you”? Can anyone over and in time experience this kind of ease of passage? Let’s return to the question of habit. Following Gail Weiss (2008) I would suggest that William James’s approach to habit as the gradual loss of plasticity could be usefully brought into conversation with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. A loss of plasticity is not simply a loss: it is how certain kinds of movements become easier or less trouble through repetition. James cites the work of a M. Léon Dumont on habit:

Everyone knows how a garment having been worn a certain time clings better to the shape of the body than when it was new. A lock works better after being used some time; at the outset a certain force was required to overcome certain roughness in the mechanism. The overcoming of their resistance is a phenomenon of habituation. It costs less trouble to fold a paper after it has been folded already. This saving of trouble is due to the essential nature of habit, which brings it about that, to reproduce the effect, a less amount of the outward cause is required (1950: 105).

The description of habituation can be understood in terms of attunement. A garment becomes attuned to the body that wears it. It is not just things happen to fall this way or that: through repetition, things acquire certain tendencies. Things cling better or become clingy in time. If a shape is acquired through the repetition of an encounter, then repetition becomes direction. Although William James considers habits as socially conservative (he famously describes habit as “the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent” (121)) he also suggests that habits enable the conservation of energy. When more actions become habitual, subjects are free to attend to other matters, including those matters that might matter in a morally significant way. For James, even if habits are socially conservative, they make a dynamic psychic life possible.

Maybe an institution is like an old garment: if it has acquired the shape of those who tend to wear it, then it becomes easier to wear if you have that shape. The ease of movement, the lack of a stress might describe not only the habits of a body that has incorporated things, but also how an institution takes shape around a body. If a body is oriented toward things, an institution might be orientated around that body. We might be thinking of this bodily inhabitance as “fit.” Take the example of the reduction over time of the force required to work a locking mechanism. The more you use a mechanism, the less effort is required; repetition if you like smooths the passage of the key.  James describes this reduction of force or effort as essential to the phenomena of habituation. “Fitting” could also be thought in these terms:  as an energy saving device. If less effort is required to unlock the door for the key that fits the lock, so too less effort is required to pass through an institution for bodies that already fit. The lessening of effort might be essential to the phenomena of fitting.  After all, institutions come to have their own tendencies: they tend toward the bodies that tend to inhabit them.  Once a certain body is assumed, then a body that fulfil this assumption can more easily take up a space even if the space is imagined as open to anybody. Writing these words as I am in Cambridge University, an institution of privilege which does seem to sweat from the very architecture of its space, from the pores of its skin, I am reminded how much inhabiting an institution involves garments: how class can be comfort of wearing the right jumper with the right body, a “fit” acquired over and in time: in the comportment and postures that bodies remember without having to think.

We can repose the question of whiteness in terms of the institutional body.[3] What does it mean to talk about whiteness as institutional problem or as a problem of institutions? When we describe institutions as being white, we are pointing to how institutional spaces are shaped by the proximity of some bodies and not others: white bodies gather, and create the impression of coherence.  Think of the “convene” in convention. A convention is a meeting point, a point around which bodies gather. Whiteness is a name we give to how some gatherings become conventions. Institutional norms can refer to the explicit rules or norms of conduct enforced by an institution (through a system of awards and sanctions). If we think of institutional norms as somatic, then we can show how institutions by assuming a body can generate an idea of appropriate conduct without making this idea explicit. The institute “institutes” the body that is instituting, without that body coming into view. If institutional whiteness describes an institutional habit, then whiteness recedes into the background, just like Merleau-Ponty’s comet that trails behind, not feeling the stress of an encounter.

Whiteness then can become something that we encounter, almost as if it is a tangible thing in the world. When I walk into university meetings that is just what I encounter. Sometimes I get used to it. At one conference we organize, four Black feminists arrive. They all happen to walk into the room at the same time. Yes, we do notice such arrivals. The fact that we notice such arrivals tells us more about what is already in place than it does about “who” arrives. Someone says: “it is like walking into a sea of whiteness.” This phrase comes up, and it hangs in the air. The speech act becomes an object, which gathers us around.  When an arrival is noticeable, we notice what is around. I look around, and re-encounter the sea of whiteness. I had become so used to this whiteness that I had stopped noticing it. As many have argued, whiteness is invisible and unmarked, as the absent centre against which others appear as points of deviation (Dyer 1997; Frankenberg 1993). Whiteness could be described as a habit insofar as it tends to go unnoticed (Sullivan 2006: 1).[4] Or perhaps whiteness is only invisible to those who inhabit it, or those get so used to its inhabitance that they learn not to see it, even when they are not it.

The word “comfort” suggests well-being and satisfaction, but it can also suggest an ease and easiness. Comfort is about an encounter between bodies and worlds, the promise of a “sinking” feeling. If white bodies are comfortable it is because they can sink into spaces that extend their shape. Whiteness becomes in other words not only phenomena of habituation (how an individual body repeats actions and catches their significance) but also a means of creating an institutional space in which some bodies more than others can “fit.”  Whiteness is more than a body count, even when bodies being counted are those for whom whiteness has become a habit. Rather what is repeated is a very style of embodiment, a way of inhabiting space, which claims space by the accumulation of gestures of “sinking” into that space.

Diversity Work and Habit Change

In this section I want to explore diversity work in the first sense: as the work that is done by those appointed to institutionalize a commitment to diversity. I have already described such workers as “habit changers.” We can immediately identify the paradox in this work: if you are employed to change the habits of the organization, then you are employed to change the employer.  The means by which you are given the task might thus restrict your capacity to complete the task. If to institutionalize diversity is a goal for diversity workers it does not necessarily mean that it is the institution’s goal.  I think this “not necessarily” describes a paradoxical situation that is a life situation for many diversity practitioners.  Having an institutional goal to make diversity a goal can even be a sign that diversity is not an institutional goal.

The institutional nature of diversity work is often described in terms of the language of integrating or embedding diversity into the ordinary work or the daily routines of an organization. As one practitioner explains “my role is about embedding equity and diversity practice in the daily practice of this university.  I mean, ideally I would do myself out of a job but I suspect that’s not going to happen in the short term, so I didn’t want to do that and I haven’t got the staff or money to do it anyway.” The diversity worker has a job because diversity and equality are not already given: this obvious fact has some less obvious consequences. When your task is to remove the necessity of your existence, then your existence is necessary for the task.

Practitioners partly work them at the level of an engagement with explicit institutional goals, that is, of adding diversity to the terms in which institutions set their agendas; what we might think of as an institutional purpose or end. An institution will give form to its aims in a mission statement. If diversity work is institutional work, then it can mean working on mission statements, getting the term “diversity” included in the statements. This is not to say that a mission statement simply reflects the aims of the university: as Marilyn Strathern has shown, mission statements are “utterances of a specific kind” which mobilise the “international language of governance” (2006: 194-5).  Giving form to institutional goals involves following a set of conventions.  This is not to say that mission statements are any less significant for being conventional; the aim of a convention is still directive. When I participated in an equality and diversity committee, some of our discussions were based on how to get “equality” and “diversity” into the University’s mission statement and the other policy statements that were supposed to derive from it.  We aimed not only to get the terms in, but also to get them up: to get the terms “equality” and “diversity” cited as high up the statement as possible.  I recall the feeling of doing this work: in retrospect or in abstract what we achieved might seem trivial (I remember one rather long discussion about a semi-colon in a tag line!) but the task was still saturated with significance. The significance might be thought of as a distraction (you work on something you can achieve as a way of not focusing on – and thus being depressed by – what you cannot achieve), but also could point to how institutional politics can involve the matter of detail; perhaps, diversity provides a form of punctuation.

However, institutionalisation was not simply defined by practitioners in terms of the formal or explicit goals, values or priorities of an institution. In contrast many spoke about institutionalisation in terms of what institutions “tend to do” whatever it is they say they are doing or should be doing.  They address the institutional body as a “habitual body” in Merleau-Ponty’s terms. Institutionalisation “comes up” for practitioners partly in their description of their own labour: diversity work is hard work as it is can involve within institutions what would not be otherwise done by them. As one interview describes “you need persistence and I think that’s what you need to do because not everyone has an interest in equity and diversity issues so I think it needs to be up there in people’s faces, well not right in their faced, but certainly up there with equal billing with other considerations, so that it’s always present, so that they eventually think of it automatically and that it becomes part of their considerations.”  The aim is to make thought about equality and diversity issues “automatic.” Diversity workers must be persistent precisely because this kind of thought is not automatic; it is not the kind of thought that is normally included in “how institutions think,” to borrow an expression from the anthropologist Mary Douglas (1986). Or as Ole Elgström describes in a different but related context such thoughts have to “fight their way into institutional thinking” (2000: 458).  The struggle for diversity to become an institutional thought requires certain people to “fight their way.” Not only this: the persistence required exists in necessary relation to the resistance encountered. The more you persist, the more the signs of this resistance. The more resistance, the more persistence required.

The institution can be experienced by practitioners as resistance. One expression that came up in a number of my interviews was “banging your head against a brick wall.” Indeed, this experience of the brick wall was often described as an intrinsic part of diversity work. As one practitioner describes “so much of the time it is a banging your head on the brick wall job.” How interesting that a job description can be a wall description! The feeling of doing diversity work is the feeling of coming up against something that does not move; something solid and tangible.[5] The institution becomes that which you come up against. If we recall that most diversity practitioners are employed by institutions to do diversity (though not all, some practitioners end up having equality and diversity added to their job descriptions) then we can understand the significance of this description. The official desire to institutionalize diversity does not mean that the institution is opened up; indeed, the wall might become all the more apparent, all the more a sign of immobility, the more the institution presents itself as being opened up. The wall gives physical form to what a number of practitioners describe as “institutional inertia,” the lack of an institutional will to change.

Perhaps the habits of the institutions are not revealed unless you come up against them.  I want to take as example an encounter with the institution as a brick wall.  In the UK, new legislation on equality has brought about what I have called a new equality regime, in which equality has become redefined as a positive duty. The law seems to embody a will to bring about a new kind of body. But does it? The following is a quote is from a diversity offer based in a British university, who is describing how her institution made a decision to commit to a new equality policy:

When I was first here there was a policy that you had to have three people on every panel who had been diversity trained. But then there was a decision early on when I was here, that it should be everybody, all panel members, at least internal people. They took that decision at the equality and diversity committee which several members of SMT were present at. But then the director of Human Resources found out about it and decided we didn’t have the resources to support it, and it went to council with that taken out and council were told that they were happy to have just three members, only a person on council who was an external member of the diversity committee went ballistic – and I am not kidding went ballistic – and said the minutes didn’t reflect what  had happened in the meeting because the minutes said the decision was different to what actually happened (and I didn’t take the minutes by the way). And so they had to take it through and reverse it. And the Council decision was that all people should be trained. And despite that I have then sat in meetings where they have just continued saying that it has to be just 3 people on the panel. And I said but no Council changed their view and I can give you the minutes and they just look at me as if I am saying something really stupid, this went on for ages, even though the Council minutes definitely said all panel members should be trained. And to be honest sometimes you just give up. (Ahmed 2002: 124-125).

It seems as if there is an institutional decision. Individuals within the institution must act as if the decision has been made for it to be made. If they do not, it has not. A decision made in present about the future (under the promissory sign “we will”) can be overridden by the momentum of the past.  The past becomes momentum that directs action without being given as a command or even in a way that resists a command. Note that the head of personnel did not need to take the decision out of the minutes for the decision not to bring something into effect. Perhaps an institution can say “yes” when there is not enough behind that “yes” for something to be brought about. It is simply that a “yes” does not bring something about, but that the “yes” conceals this not bringing under the sign of having brought.

A will can become a wall: what blocks an action. A wall can be an expression of what the institution is not willing to bring about.  The will is made out of sediment: what has settled and accumulated over time. Let’s return to Merleau-Ponty’s own description of the habitual body. It is a body that is leaning a certain way. When an action is being competed the body can be what trails behind. Perhaps we can think of this “behind” not only in terms of what does not come into view, but also as a form of momentum. An action is being completed because it is has energy and momentum behind it. A decision does not need to be made for the action to be completed; indeed a decision cannot easily intervene in its completion. You have to become pushy if you are to push against what has acquired momentum. As another practitioner describes “You can put all policies in place and put all the training in place and assume it will all happen and it has not happened” (Ahmed 2012: 126). Even with effort, you do not get through.  No wonder diversity work feels like banging your head against a wall. If the wall keeps its place, it is you that gets sore.

One way of thinking of diversity work would be as a practical phenomenology. It is not simply that diversity workers are philosophers- in the sense of being reflexive and critical – in their attitude toward institutions (though they are). It is not simply that they become conscious of what ordinarily recedes from view. Rather diversity workers acquire a critical orientation to institutions in the very process of coming up against them. They become conscious of “the brick wall,” as that which keeps its place even when an official commitment to diversity has been given. It is only the practical labor of “coming up against” the institution that allows this wall to become apparent. To those who do not come against it, the wall does not appear: the institution is lived and experienced as being open, committed and diverse; as happy as its mission statement, as diverse as its equality statement.

Breaking the Feather

Diversity work is also the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the “norms” of an organization. When you don’t quite inhabit norms, or you aim to transform them, you notice them, as you come up against them. We can return once more to Merleau-Ponty’s description of the habitual body, one form whom “I can,” expresses not only a practical orientation, but also competence or capacity. Merleau-Ponty notes: Consciousness is in the first place not a matter of ‘I think’ but of ‘I can’” (159). Both Iris Marion Young and Frantz Fanon supplement this focus on “I can,” with a view of the “I cannot,” a viewpoint of the body that does not extend into space: a female body, a black body: a black female body.

Let’s think more with Merleau-Ponty’s own examples. His primary example is the blind man’s stick. The blind man’s stick is a prosthesis that becomes handy: enabling the blind man to get about by feeling the world. The extension of mobility is for a body whose mobility is already compromised (the compromise is not necessarily “in” the body but as a relation of a body to a world that assumes the capacity for sight). The stick is a walking stick: incorporated into the body horizon; it becomes a means that enables the disable body to reach an end: to become more mobile in a world that tends to assume an able body in the design of public and social space. Vivian Sobchack describes in Carnal Thoughts “the prosthetic becomes an object only when there is a mechanical or social problem that pushes it obtrusively into the foreground of one’s consciousness” (2004: 211). The “point” of the prosthesis is to recede, to allow a body to inhabit a world that does not assume that body as a norm.

Merleau-Ponty also offers two other examples: that of a driver and his car; and a woman with a feather in her cap. In the case of the driver of the car, the object is a self-evident extension of the motility and range of the human body. The driver is competent when the steering wheel is not perceived as something being held, but becomes part of the body of the driver, allowing him to think whilst driving of things other than driving. What of the woman with a feather in her cap? The feather has no function; it does not enable her to move around in the world. The woman however, the example suggests, feels the feather: she “knows” where the feather ends; she is able to walk without breaking the feather: “A woman may, without any calculation, keep a safe distance between the feather in her hat and things which might break it off. She feels where the feather is just as we feel where our hand is” (165). The feather has been incorporated into a body horizon.

It might be here that we can understand the mechanisms of incorporation as not simply about the extension of bodily capacity. The incorporation of the feather seems bound up in some way not only with the achievement of femininity, but of how some bodies become what appears; or how appearance matters to the negotiation of social as well as bodily space. It might be that “appearing right” can become the aim; a body that can do is one that appears to others as doing what it can to appear in the right way. One might acknowledge here, as well, how this idea of the feminine body as attuned to her feather might itself be an expectation that gives her a direction. In other words, this idea might be a masculine idea, one that has “worlding” effects. One imagines then, too, how a woman who breaks her feather also breaks more than her feather: she might register as failing to be attuned to the requirements of femininity. [6]

I have suggested that phenomenology can help us explore bodies that are not at home in the world. When a category allows us to pass into the world we might not notice that we inhabit that category. When we are stopped, or held up, by how we inhabit what we inhabit, then the terms of habitation are revealed to us. We need to rewrite the world from the experience of not being able to pass into the world. I called in Queer Phenomenology for a phenomenology of “being stopped,” a description of the world from the point of view of those who do not flow into it (2006: 140). I suggested that if we begin with the body that loses its chair, the world we describe will be quite different (139). Or perhaps we might begin with a body that breaks the feather; that has not “felt” the things that are supposed to be part of its horizon.

In the first section of this chapter I explored an experience of fitting as comfort drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s description of the habitual body as the one that trails behind an encounter. How does it feel when you inhabit a space that does not extend your shape? To inhabit whiteness as a non-white body can be uncomfortable: you might even fail the comfort test. You won’t trail behind: you feel the stress of an encounter; you come up against a world by not being received into that world. It can be the simple act of walking into the room that causes discomfort. Whiteness can be an expectation of who will turn up. A person of color describes: “When l enter the room there is shock on peoples’ faces because they are expecting a white person to come in. I pretend not to recognize it. But in the interview there is unease because they were not expecting someone like me to turn up. So it is hard and uncomfortable and l can tell that they are uneasy and restless because of the way they fiddle and twitch around with their pens and their looks. They are uncomfortable because they were not expecting me – perhaps they would not have invited me if they knew l was black and of course l am very uncomfortable. l am wondering whether they are entertaining any prejudice against me” (Ahmed 20012: 40-41).  They are not expecting you. Discomfort involves this failure to fit. A restlessness and uneasiness, a fidgeting and twitching, is a bodily registering of an expected arrival.

The body that causes their discomfort (by not fulfilling an expectation of whiteness) is the one who must work hard to make others comfortable. You have to pass by passing your way through whiteness, by being seamless or minimizing the signs of difference. If whiteness is what the institution is orientated around, then even bodies that do not appear white still have to inhabit whiteness. One person of color describes how she minimizes signs of difference (by not wearing anything perceived as “ethnic”) because she does not want to be seen as “rocking the boat” (Ahmed 2012: 158). The invitation to become more alike as an invitation of whiteness is about becoming more comfortable or about inhabiting a comfort zone.

Bodies stick out when they are out of place.  Think of the expression “stick out like a sore thumb.” To stick out can mean to become a sore point, or even to experience oneself as being a sore point. To inhabit whiteness as a not-white body can mean trying not to appear at all: ‘I have to pretend that l am not here because l don’t want to stick out too much because everybody knows l am the only black person here” (Ahmed 2012: 41). When you stick out, the gaze sticks to you. Sticking out from whiteness can thus re-confirm the whiteness of the space. Whiteness becomes obtrusive, what gets in the way of an occupation of space.  When we fail to inhabit a category (when we are questioned or question ourselves whether we are “it,” or pass as or into “it”) then that category becomes more apparent, rather like the institutional wall: a sign of immobility or what does not move.[7]

Diversity work thus can take the form of description: it can be to describe the effects of inhabiting institutional spaces that do not give you residence. An example: we are at a departmental meeting with students to introduce our courses. We come up, one after the other, to the podium. A colleague is chairing, introducing each of us in turn. She says: this is Professor So-and-so; this is Professor Such-and-such. On this particular occasion, I happen to be the only female professor in the room..  And I am the only professor introduced without using the title. She says: “This is Sara.” And in taking up the space that has been given to me, I feel like a girl, and I giggle. It is a “girling” moment to use Judith Butler’s evocative term (1993: 7). “Girling” moments do not stop happening, even after we have been pronounced girls. We can feel this assignment as atmosphere.  When you look like what they expect a professor to be, you are treated like a professor.  A sombre and serious mood follows those who have the right kind of body, the body that allows them to pass seamlessly into the category, when the category has a certain affective value, as sombre and serious.

I could add here that I was the only professor of color in the room (as the only professor of color in the department, this detail was not so surprising).  Other critics have documented what it means to occupy the place and position of a professor of color. Pierre Orelus, for example, offers a moving account of how being a professor of color causes trouble, as if being one thing, makes it difficult to be seen as the other: “after I formally introduce myself in class, I have undergraduate students who ask me, in a surprised tone of voice, ‘Are you really the professor?” I sometimes overhear them asking their peers, ‘Is he really the professor’” (2011: 31). Orelus compares this mode of questioning, this sense of curiosity and astonishment, with the questions typically asked of immigrants about “funny accents.” Or we could think of the questions asked of strangers, “where are you from?” as if to say, or more accurately, which is to say, you are not from here. When we are asked questions, we are being held up, we become questionable. Being asked whether you are the professor is also a way of being made into a stranger, of not being at home in a category that gives residence to others.

Diversity work can involve an experience of hesitation, of not knowing what to do in these situations. There is a labour in having to respond to a situation that others are protected from, a situation that does not come up for those whose residence is assumed. Do you point it out? Do you say anything? Will you cause a problem by describing a problem? Past experience tells you that to make such a point is to become a sore point. Sometimes you let the moment pass, because the consequences of not letting it pass are too difficult.

Some have to “insist” on belonging to the categories that give residence to others.  If you point out the failure to be given the proper name, or if you ask to be referred to by the proper name, then you have to insist on what is simply given to others. Not only that: you are heard as insistent, or even for that matter as self-promotional, as insisting on your dues. If you have to become insistent in order to receive what is automatically given to others, then your insistence confirms the improper nature of your residence.  We don’t tend to notice the assistance given to those whose residence is assumed.

Conclusion: Diversity work and Disorientation

To catalogue these incidents is not a melancholic task. I realise how much we come to know about institutional life because of these failures of residence: how much the categories in which we are immersed as styles of life become explicit when you do not quite inhabit them.   Diversity work can be disorientating; a way of making the familiar strange. Bodies that don’t fit, bodies that are tripped up, caught out, are bodies to who the institution is revealed. If we are disoriented by this work, what about the institutions?

If our arrival can cause discomfort, and even if it is uncomfortable to cause discomfort, it can be how things can happen. You learn to fade in the background, but sometimes you can’t or you don’t.  As Nirmal Puwar shows when bodies arrive who seem “out of place” in institutional worlds there is a process of disorientation: “People are ‘thrown’ because a whole world view is jolted” (Puwar 2004: 43). Or, as Roderick A. Ferguson suggests, the presence of minorities and racialized others has an “eccentric” effect, given they such bodies are placed outside the logic of normative whiteness (2004: 26, see also Muñoz 2000: 68).

When bodies “arrive” that don’t extend the lines already extended by spaces, those spaces might even appear “slant-wise” or oblique.  It is worth noting here that Merleau-Ponty himself considers moments of disorientation. He notes: “If we so contrive it that a subject sees the room in which he is, only through a mirror which reflects it at an angle at 45 degrees to the vertical, the subject at first sees the room “slantwise.” A man walking about in it seems to lean to one side as he goes. A piece of cardboard falling down the door-frame looks to be falling obliquely. The general effect is ‘queer’” (Merleau-Ponty 2002: 289). By discussing a number of spatial experiments that “contrive” a situation so that a subject does not see straight, Merleau-Ponty asks how the subject’s relation to space is re-orientated: “After a few minutes a sudden change occurs: the walls, the man walking around the room, and the line in which the cardboard falls become vertical.” (Merleau-Ponty 2002: 289) This re-orientation, which we can describe as the “becoming vertical” of perspective, means that the “queer effect” is overcome and objects in the world no longer appears as if they were “off-centre” or “slant-wise.” The queer moment, in which objects appear slantwise, and the vertical and horizontal axes appear “out of line,” must be overcome not because such moments contradict laws that govern objective space, but because they block bodily action: they inhibit the body, such that it ceases to extend into phenomenal space. So although Merleau-Ponty is tempted to say that the “vertical is the direction represented by the symmetry of the axis of the body” (2002: 291), his phenomenology instead embraces a model of bodily space, in which spatial lines “line up” only as effects of bodily actions on and in the world. In other words, the body “straightens” its view, in order to extend into space.

In one footnote, Merleau-Ponty refers to Stratton’s Vision without Inversion, to provide both an analysis of the way in which orientation happens, and what happens when it fails to happen. As he puts it: “We remain physically upright not through the mechanism of the skeleton or even through the nervous regulation of muscular tone, but because we are caught up in a world. If this involvement is seriously weakened, the body collapses and becomes once more an object” (2002: 296, emphasis added). The “upright” body is involved in the world, and acts on the world or even “can act” insofar as it is already involved. The weakening of this involvement is what causes the body to collapse, and to become an object alongside other objects. We can learn from this: we can  learn that disorientation is unevenly distributed; that some bodies more than others have their involvement in the world called into crisis. This shows us how the world itself is more “involved” in some bodies than others, as its takes such bodies as the contours of ordinary experience.

Perhaps to be involved with institutions as diversity workers is an attempt to call them into crisis, to render institutions into the objects, that appear slant-wise, or as objects that appear insofar as they register as obtrusive. Our aim is to bring what we are not into view to those who are not this “not.”  It might be that institutions are not transformed by our work; that they defend themselves from the process of being revealed.  Institutions might even recover from our involvement. We might in this recovery become the objects, yet again; those who are obtrusive or willful. But the very effort to transform institutions, the effort not to reproduce what we inherit, cannot leave us untransformed. And perhaps in being transformed by diversity work as diversity workers, we start again. We might start with what is old, but in being startled by the old, we start again.


Ahmed, Sara (forthcoming). Willful Subjects. Durham: Duke University Press.

—————- (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

——————— (2006). Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duk University Press.

Alcoff, Linda Martín (2006). Visible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self. Oxford: Oxford

University Press.

Butler, Judith (1993). Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” London:


Diprose, Rosalyn (2010). “Review of Institution and Passivity.” Notre Dame Philosophical


Douglas, Mary (1986). How Institutions Think. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Dyer, Richard (1997). White. London and New York: Routledge.

Elgström, Ole (2000). “Norm Negotiations: The construction of new norms

regarding gender and development in EU foreign aid policy: Journal of

European Public Policy. 7, 3: 457 – 476.

Frankenberg, Ruth (1993).  White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of

Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis.

Jacoby, Russell (1997). Social Amnesia: A Critique of Contemporary Psychology. New

Brunswick:  Rutgers University Press.

James, William (1950). The Principles of Psychology, Volume 1. New York, Dover


MacMullan, Terrance (2009).  Habits of Whiteness: A Pragmatist Reconstruction.

Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (2010). Institution and Passivity: Course Notes from the College de

France 1954-1955.  Trans. Leonard Lawlor and Heath Massey. Evanston, Illinois.

————————————– (2002). Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith.

London:  Routledge.

—————————————(1964). The Primacy of Perception, trans. James M.Edie, Evanston:

Northwestern University Press.

Muñoz, José  Esteban (2000). “Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect in Ricardo

Bracho’s The Sweetest Hangover (and Other STDs)”, Theatre Journal, 52,1: 67-79.

Nee, Victor (1998). “Sources of the New Institutionalism” in Mary C. Brinton and

Victor Nee (eds), The New Institutionalism in Sociology Stanford University

Press. pp. 1-16.

Orelus, Pierre (2011). Transnationals of Color: Counter Narratives AgDiscrimination in Schools and Beyond. New York: Peter Lang.

Puwar, Nirmal (2004). Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies out of Place.

Oxford: Berg.

Sullivan, Shannon (2006). Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of White

Privilege. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Strathern, Marilyn (2006). “Bullet-Proofing: A Tale from the United Kingdom” in

Annelise Riles (ed). Documents: Artifacts of Modern Knowledge.  Ann Arbor:

University of Michigan Press. pp. 181-205.

Weiss, Gail (2008). Refiguring the Ordinary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[1]  For further details about this research project please see Ahmed (2012). For any quotes that I use in this chapter I will provide page numbers from this text.

[2] It is worth noting here that the word “habit” comes from the Latin for condition, appearance and dress.

[3] In drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s work to develop a phenomenology of institutional whiteness, my work is indebted to the work of scholars who have offered a phenomenology of race, in particular the work of Linda Martín Alcoff (2006).

[4] There are a number of recent studies on whiteness as a habit: in addition to Sullivan (2006), see also MacMullan (2009).

[5] It is interesting to consider the brick wall in relation to the glass ceiling: both are metaphors for institutional limits that derive their sense with analogy not only to physical objects, but also to the means by which internal spaces are delineated and contained. The glass ceiling refers to the institutional processes that stop certain categories of people from moving up (vertical mobility) whist the brick wall refers to the institutional processes that stop certain values from moving across (horizontal mobility). Both metaphors also point to the significance of visibility and invisibility: the point of the ceiling being made of glass is that you can’t see it. The transparency of glass means, however, that you can see through it; you see above to the places you cannot reach. With the brick wall, you cannot see it, unless you come up against it. The metaphor of the brick wall points to how what is tangible and visible to some subjects, something so thick and solid that you cannot see through it, does not even appear to others. What some cannot see through, others cannot see.

[6] In my forthcoming book  Willful Subjects I explore breakages as a point of queer affinity between bodies and things.

[7] I am acknowledging here that it is possible not to inhabit fully a category of privilege even if one is privileged by a category. For example if men do not inhabit the category of masculinity properly or fully, then the category appears as an institutional wall, as a physical barrier that is revealed in coming up against it. I should also note that it is possible not to inhabit fully a category without becoming conscious of the restriction of that category: the psychic work of accommodating to a world that does not take your body as norm can involve precisely not even registering those norms as a way of protecting oneself from them.

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Feminist Complaint

I have offered a feminist equation

Rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy.

I want to make sense of this equation, or to show how this equation makes sense.

I first came up with this equation – not necessarily in these exact terms – as a sense of something. I realised how much I had learnt from how eyes roll when I open my mouth, when I was listening to a diversity practitioner. It was an interview. My ear was open; my mouth was shut. She was telling me of her experience of meetings at the university. These are her words, delivered to me with force as well as wit.

She said:

“You know you go through that in these sorts of jobs where you go to say something and you can just see people going ‘oh here she goes.’”

How we both laughed when she said this; we both recognised that each other recognised that situation.

We had both been there.

Oh here she goes.

An assignment.

The diversity worker is appointed by an institution to transform the institution. That is her sort of job, a sort of job that makes her, one speculates, “out of sorts” as she is trying to sort things out. She is given this job: sorting.

Not sorted.

How is she heard? We learn from hearing. We learn from how we are heard. Which is to say: we learn from how we are not heard. That is the basis of my feminist equation.

Others within the institution who are also appointed by that institution, who are seated around the table, experience her as wearisome. They hear her as just “going on.” She can hear people hear her this way before she says anything.

She has to keep saying it when they keep doing it. One repetition is striking, the other recedes because it is familiar.

It was a transformative moment, having my own experiences so perfectly encapsulated by someone else’s words. This interview took place in 2003. It was whilst I was writing Queer Phenomenology (2006) before I had even begun the research that led me to write my feminist critique of happiness; before I had even picked up the figure of the feminist killjoy and put her to work. I began thinking of those experiences, both at work and at home, in the meeting table, in the family table, when I was met with rolling eyes.

I learnt this too: how a feminist killjoy can recognise herself in what she receives from others.

You are heard as making a complaint; you are heard as being complaining. You are heard as expressing annoyance about something. Grumbling; grumble; grump; grumpy.

You might be offering a careful critique. You might be taking care. It doesn’t matter how much care you take; how much time you take in assembling a case.

It is a quick judgment. You are judged before you say anything. The judgment has priority.

Feminist grump; feminist grumps; what a lump.

You are heard as being annoyed. You might not be annoyed. Being annoyed might under-describe the relation you have to the world that is made the subject of a complaint. How annoying! How annoying to be heard as annoyed!

How you are heard: you are formed not found. You still find yourself there.

So emotional; so moved by being heard as emotional. You are used to this. Eyes rolling. You are used to this. Feminists are heard as being emotional whatever they say, which is to say, again, independently of what they say. Being called “emotional” is a form of dismissal. How emotional. Just look at you.

A container, a leaky container.

Be careful: we leak.

And feminists of colour, well. She does go on, rather.

She will go on.

Rather she goes on.

A complaint: a matter of life and death.  A complaint: to strike at the breast. The word “complain” derives from plague. We hear this: a matter of life and death. A complaint: sick speech. Maybe she is heard as speaking from ill-will: not only as being ill herself, but as being willing to make the whole body ill.

Ill-will, willful.

They listen: damage control.

Not listening.

She makes an announcement. She is an announcement. She strikes her breast.

The word “complaint” is striking. Willfulness too is striking. Willfulness comes up, like the arm in the Grimm story with which I opened my book. That arm that pulses with life became the key figure in my willful history of willfulness. This arm will not be a supportive limb. The arm has been shaped by a history of lending its hand to the master. But having lent this way, the arm can dissent. The arm the built the house is the arm that will bring it down.

No wonder the arm comes up; it keeps coming up. The arm is a complaint. The arm is complaint made flesh.

She comes up; she keeps coming up. She has not been beaten. She persists. Mere persistence can be an act of disobedience.

She strikes her breast. The arm is striking.

A complaint is disobedience. She does not obey; she is willing herself that way.

To be heard as complaint: to be beaten.

We are not beaten: we make a complaint.

We notice what comes up. We don’t notice the ground being dislodged. What a striking figure. She stands out because what she complains about is not revealed.

The complainer: a revelation.

What a revelation.

You are heard as complaining. And maybe you are making a complaint. Or maybe you are making a critique which is heard as a complaint. But to be heard as complaining is also to be heard as speaking in a certain way: as expressing yourself. Heard thus: you complain because you are being complaining. This is what the figure of the feminist killjoy taught us. You are making that point (pointing of sexism, pointing out racism) because that is your tendency. That is what you are like.  How like you! When you are heard as only ever expressing yourself, then you are not heard. Eyes roll as if to say: well she would make a complaint; she is so complaining. And what we learn from those eyes rolling is that they roll before you say anything. You could say anything, you could be talking about anything, and still they roll. To hear you as complaining is not to hear you at all.

An anything: quite something.

Complaining, moaning, whinging.

Anti-feminism is a structure of hearing, a way feminists are eliminated from a conversation; a way certain forms of critique are dismissed in advanced of being made.

And we learn: anti-feminism is an extension of sexism. Women are already heard in this way, as complaining, moaning, whinging. If women do not accept the place they have been assigned, they are heard as complaining, moaning, and whinging. These are willful assignments; given to those who are not willing to accept how they are assigned.

Feminists: willful women.

I have heard this judgment expressed as action; in action. Students who testify about their experience of sexual harassment, students who have to testify again and again, are heard as complaining. What have they got to complain about? Yes, he is like that; it is like that. Like that. In the assumption is an injunction. Accept it, don’t make such a fuss. Stop talking about it.


Starts again.

That they have to testify to violence repeats that violence. And they have to testify, again. How they are heard when they testify to violence reproduces that violence.

Complaint: a history of violence.

And we know this too: men have used this way of hearing women as justifications of violence, even murder; she was nagging, moaning, whinging, whining.

She was being.

Nag: she was being.

Courts of law have heard these hearings as right which is to say, they heave heard complaining as justifying violence.

This is serious stuff.


A distribution of life and death can be a distributions of words.

So many of our histories are histories of willful words. Let’s think about the word “assertive.” How often minority subjects are called assertive! In being called assertive we have to become assertive to meet the challenge of this call. We might have to assert our existence in order to exist.

Others: not so much.

We are surrounded by words that register that some in being are being above themselves. Think of the word “uppity.” The word “uppity” is probably the most explicitly racialized of willful words, particularly in U.S. politics. Adia Harvey Wingfield and Joe Feagin note: “the word ‘uppity’ has long been used by racist whites to describe African Americans who ‘don’t know their place’” ([2010] 2013: 88). The word “uppity” has a very specific political genealogy, but can be related to other willful words that imply a racial and social hierarchy: being is judged as being above oneself, such that to know one’s place requires adjustment and submission. Such judgments are expressed in action. A judgment is how an idea is in action.

What have you got to complain about? Oh the necessity of complaining about this about.

We must complain. There is a lot to complain about.

Justifications of death as right; of killing as a right.

When how you are perceived is wrong, is a wrong, but is made right.



If they hadn’t complained some of us wouldn’t be here.

If we don’t complain some of us won’t be here.


Harvey Wingfield, Adia and Joe Feagin (2013) [2010].  Yes We Can: White Racial Framing and the Obama Presidency. New York: Routledge.

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