The Problem of Perception

When you expose a problem you pose a problem.  I have been thinking more about the problem of how you become the problem because you notice a problem. When exposing a problem is to become a problem then the problem you expose is not revealed. For example, when you make an observation in public that all the speakers for an event are all white men, or all but one, or all the citations in an academic paper are to all white men, or all but a few, these observations are often treated as the problem with how you are perceiving things (you must be perceiving things!). A rebuttal often follows that does not take the form of contradiction but rather explanation or justification: these are the speakers or writers who just happen to be there; they happen to be white men, but to describe the speakers as white men is the problem as it would make this about that; it would be to assume that they are here because of that. And so: by describing a gathering as ‘white men,’ you are then assumed to be imposing certain categories onto bodies, reducing or failing to grasp the heterogeneity of an event; solidifying through our own description something that is fluid.

I pointed out recently on Facebook that all the speakers for a Gender Studies conference were white. Someone replied that my statement did not recognise the diversity of the speakers. When perceiving whiteness is a way of not perceiving diversity, then diversity becomes a way of not perceiving whiteness. Or once I pointed out that a reference list of a book included almost only male writers (and two of the references to women were references to women in relation to men) and the author responded that I had described the pattern right, as the pattern was ‘in the traditions’ that influenced him. Or when I had a conversation with someone on Facebook about the masculinist nature of a certain field of philosophy, they responded with a ‘well of course,’ as if it to say, well of course it is like that, it is the philosophy of technology.  I have begun calling these kinds of arguments disciplinary fatalism: the assumption that in following a line we can only reproduce that line. Disciplinary fatalism often rests on gender fatalism: ‘boys will be boys’ becoming ‘ boys studying toys’ will be ‘boys studying toys’. Or, as I have described here, once when I pointed out that a speaker list including only white men and I was described as doing ‘identity politics,’ as if pointing out structure is to rely on identity (or even, to put it more strongly, as if all you are doing is projecting your own identity onto the situation such that when you are describing who is missing you are simply concerned with being missing yourself).

In describing a stabilisation as worldly (a restriction in who gathers that is in the world and that involves giving up other possibilities in advance of their loss) we are treated as stabilising that thing. There is so much invested in not noticing how social and institutional gatherings are restricted. There is a ‘good will’ assumption that things have just fallen like that, the way a book might fall open at a page, and that it could just as easily fall another way, on another occasion. Of course the example of the book is instructive; a book will tend to fall open on pages that have been most read. Tendencies are acquired through repetition. Once a tendency has been acquired, no conscious effort would be necessary. Things fall ‘that way’ almost of their own accord.  No wonder there is so much investment in not recognised how restrictions are structured by decisions that have already been made. These restrictions are precisely what do not have to come into view. And no wonder diversity work is so trying: it takes a conscious willed effort not to reproduce how things tend to fall.

When you perceive a problem your perception becomes the problem.  What I learn as well from being a feminist killjoy is how noticing a pattern in how things tend to fall is understood as making your own life more difficult than it needs to be. I have heard this sentiment expressed as kindness: just stop noticing exclusions and your burden will be eased. It is implied that by not struggling against something you will be rewarded by an increasing proximity to that thing. You might be included if only you just stop talking about exclusions! This is why the feminist killjoy remains such a negative stereotype (we affirm her given this negation): as if feminists are speaking out because they are miserable; or if feminism is an obstacle to our own happiness, such that she is what is in the way (feminism: how women get in the way of ourselves). It is implied that you would become well-adjusted if you could just adjust yourself to this world. Smile! The task then becomes self-modification: you have to learn not to perceive a problem; you have to let things fall.

[Feminist killjoy bracket: Don’t adjust to injustices. Stay maladjusted!]

And then of course if you do insist on making the same points (say: noticing whiteness, noticing male privilege) those points are often rendered self-referential: as if you tend to describe a problem because that’s your own tendency. Eyes rolling as if to say: well, she would say that. When you are heard as only ever expressing yourself what you are expressing is not heard.

And this is very hard, this is even harder: if you perceive someone’s gestures or words as inappropriate, if you encounter their gestures or words as unwelcome, then that is understood as because you are being unwelcoming.  In fact when people give accounts of sexist and racist harassment they are often dismissed as having a wrong or faulty perception, as not receiving the intentions or actions of others fairly or properly.

Some perception becomes faulty. One person I interviewed for my diversity project spoke of how if she ever refers to race, people tend to respond ‘you see everything in terms of race.’ Here ‘seeing race’ becomes understood as a magnification of something: you make race ‘bigger’ as if that’s all you see when you see it.  You can just say this word ‘once’ and it becomes all that they can hear you say. So there is a magnification at stake here, precisely because a history comes up in what you bring up. Once you use that word it fills the room (sometimes you don’t even have to use the word, just to arrive as a not white body into a ‘sea of whiteness’ can bring this history up). You are then judged as filling the room with your perception; as taking up all the space. And racism becomes your paranoia. And the task becomes to stop being paranoid: which is to say to stop talking about racism as if when we stop talking about it, racism would disappear. Perception becomes our problem: adjusting to this world means given up certain words and concepts, which get in the way of just inhabiting or occupying space. The talk about racism rather than racism as such is understood as what ‘get in the way’ of just being with others.

Some perceptions become the solution. In my book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012) I began a reflection on whose perception becomes a problem and whose perception does not. I described the book as offering a phenomenology of social perception. What do I mean? Once something or somebody is perceived as having certain qualities, that perception is what can become tangible, real. Perceptions have a social life; they are communicated; they are sent out and about. Take that tricky matter of ‘reputation,’ how some individuals are given certain attributes, sometimes independently of what they do, sometimes not. The institutional life of an individual person is partly about the value of that attribution. These little perceptions do stick to bigger categories, or might be how those categories stick. A feminist colleague who attends her university’s promotions committee tells me how you can ‘hear’ how male and female staff are valued differently just by the kinds of adjectives used in the letters to describe their performances: how descriptive words for men are upward, energetic and thrusting, whilst for women they are quieter, more sedentary, closer to the ground.  Or I remember reading a reference when a young male academic was described as ‘the next Zygmunt Bauman.’ I have no doubt that such expectations can be experienced as pressure points. But think about the narrative of next-ness: there is a waiting for the next such-and-such, such that when a body arrives who ‘can’ inherit that position; they are given that position. And perception becomes direction: if you are perceived as the next such-and-such, you might be given more time to become him, time to develop your research; you might not be asked to do so much administration (what I call institutional housework). A division of labour can derive from a difference in perception. A way is cleared that enables or eases the progression of some bodies. And that way is cleared by requiring that others do the less valued work, the work that is required for the reproduction of an existence.

A lot of what I called simply ‘diversity work’ in On Being Included is dealing with the problem of perception.  One practitioner talked about how the diversity office had had an image problem. She said: ‘I’ve had people say to me, you know, they thought they were the feminazis in the equity office and so there was a significant amount of resistance and people just weren’t included, they weren’t seen to be anything other than peripheral.  Generally the office was not engaged with the university community in a really good way’ (On Being Included, 64). I was struck during this interview by this willingness to repeat stereotypes of what feminist and equality work actually involved (not only that: violent stereotypes of feminist and equality work as violence) in order to create a space for a different kind of work. There is no doubt an agreement in the repetition: an agreement with the judgement that certain kinds of feminist and equality work didn’t work because they were too extreme. Rather than challenging the perception, the strategy becomes to generate a different kind of image.  If that is what they are thought to be, then you have to modify the thought by creating a different image. The diversity officer can ‘take up the place at the table’ by not being the one who speaks in a problematic language or a language of problems.  

Contrast this account with another account offered in chapter 1 of what is called in the diversity world ‘perception research.’ In one interview I had with staff from a Human Resources department, we had a discussion a research project that was collecting perception data:

OK yes.  It was about uncovering perceptions um, about the xxx as an employer.  … xxx was considered to be an old boys’ network, as they called it and white male dominated and they didn’t have the right perceptions of the xxx in terms of what it offers and what it brings to the academia.  I think most of the external people had the wrong perceptions about the xxx.

And I mean, quotes, there were such funny quotes like librarians they were sitting there with their cardigans you know.  They were shocking reports to read really about how people, external people, perceive the xxx so we have to try to achieve. We have to try to make the xxx an attractive employer.

 There are issues of perception amongst certain communities, which are stopping them from reaching us. (On Being Included, 34).

Diversity work becomes about generating the ‘right image,’ and correcting the wrong one.  I was quite interested that they were shocked by this image, given what I knew of the staffing profile of this university. What organizes this shock is the presumption that the perception is problem: that the perception is wrong. According to this logic, people have the ‘wrong perception’ when they see the organization as white, elite, male, old-fashioned. In other words, what is behind the shock is a belief that that the organization does not have these qualities: that whiteness is ‘in the image’ rather than ‘in the organization’ as an effect of what it does. Note the phrase ‘issues of perception’ again suggests that perception is the issue. Diversity becomes about changing perceptions of whiteness rather than changing the whiteness of organizations.  I think the final comment ‘there are issues of perception amongst certain communities, which are stopping them from reaching us’ is particularly suggestive. The implication is thus that the institution does not reach such communities – that it does not include them – because they perceive the institution as excluding them. The problem of whiteness is implicitly described here not so much as an institutional problem but as a problem with those who are not included by it.

What we have here from my data are two contrasting accounts: in one, the perception is accepted as true and the demand is for self-modification; in the other, the perception is taken as false and the demand is for a new image. How can we account for this difference? We need to show how these perceptions have quite different social careers. That is a difference that matters. In both cases, whether or not it is the perception that becomes the problem is a way of distributing the problem. Whether or not a perception is of a problem, a perception is about making some and not others into the problem. I have learnt so much from how the language of inclusion and repair make those who are to be included into the problem. And once the ‘to be included’ or ‘not yet included’ are the problem, then those already given place by the institution, and even the institution itself, can maintain themselves not only as not the problem, but also as the solution to the problem.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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12 Responses to The Problem of Perception

  1. Black Steve says:

    The way perception is used to scapegoat institutional realities has some serious parallels to how people discuss provocative/controversial art. Anytime the intentions/realities of an artwork’s source/author/circumstances are brought up in a negative or critical way, the relationship between authors and their intentions suddenly become disconnected. But when these relationships are mentioned positively, the connection is strengthened. Bruno Latour calls this oscillation “the critical trick” and suggests that we can get around it by only understanding things in terms of their relations. I support that suggestion, but it ultimately feels too descriptive. And as you’ve shown, descriptions, even ones that are empirically and historically sound, are easily dismissed as one description among many. What do you think is missing? (other than an audience willing to understand why we think these descriptions matter)

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  4. Michael says:

    I was thinking about this the other day when someone told me “I’m sorry if my statement offended you.” I immediately felt very tired. The problem stopped being whether the statement was made and instead turned to my easily offendable personality. And, in effect, the discussion shifted giving me the burden of explanation. It’s a real problem this perception thing.

    Thanks for writing this. I needed to read it.

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  6. Shane Thomas says:

    This is a tremendous analysis of the problems in moving the needle forward on spheres of oppression.

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