A Feminist Army

I have been taking some time out to reflect upon the last three years, to process what has happened because, of course, some experiences are difficult to process when they are happening. By some experiences I am referring primarily to the work we have been doing to try and expose the problem of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct within universities. That work is work we share with many others. After I made public the reasons for my resignation, I was overwhelmed by the feminist solidarity and support I received. Each message brought a message home to me, one I have been trying to write about: living a feminist life is about how we connect with and draw upon each other in our shared project of dismantling worlds.

It is slow and painstaking work but, chip by chip, we chip away. In my killjoy survival kit I discuss how feminist killjoys need breaks from killjoying (yes it can be a doing word because it is what we are doing). It can be exhausting doing this kind of work. I have written before about how you become a problem when you expose a problem. But even if you have written about this problem of becoming a problem it does not stop you from becoming a problem all over again.

And so sometimes: we take a break from the work in order to do the work.

Whilst I have been away from my blog, we have chosen a book cover for Living A Feminist Life! You can see the cover here.

The image used on the cover is by the feminist artist Carrie Moyer who is well known for her work in Dyke Action Machine! (DAM!), one of the first queer interventionist public art projects. The image is a contemporary reimagining of the classic feminist symbol of a clenched first bursting through the woman sign (well I like to think of it as bursting). I first discussed this feminist symbol in the conclusion of Willful Subjects (2014). I come back to it in Living a Feminist Life. I come back to the symbol because my book takes up the “call to arms,” with which I ended my earlier work. I wanted to hear the arms in this call, or to hear the arms as calling.

The arm came to matter to me as a figure because of how arms came up in the willfulness archive. I want to share that story of how arms came to matter as a way of exploring what it means to assemble a feminist army.(1)

Living a Feminist Life tells my own story of becoming a feminist. A story always begins before it can be told. To become feminist can often mean looking for company; looking for others who share that becoming. This search for feminist companionship began for me through books; I withdrew into my room with books. It was willful girls who caught my attention. In writing my book Willful Subjects I formalized my pursuit of willful girls into a research trajectory. Once I began to follow the figure of a willful girl, I found she turned up all over the place. It was by following this figure that I came to encounter new texts, ones that had a ghostly familiarity, even if I had not read them before. One of these texts was titled “the Willful Child.” It is a grim story, and a Grimm story. Let me share this story again, for those of you who have not read it before:

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. This story can be treated as a teaching tool, as well as a way of teaching us about tools (the rods, the machinery of power). We learn how willfulness is used as an explanation of disobedience: a child disobeys because she is willful, when she is not willing to do what her mother wills her to do. We do not know in the story what it was that the child was not willing to do. Disobedience is not given content because disobedience as such becomes a fault: the child must do whatever her mother wishes. She is not willing, whatever.

What is striking about this story is how willfulness persists even after death: displaced onto an arm, from a body onto a body part. The arm inherits the willfulness of the child insofar as it will not be kept down, insofar as it keeps coming up, acquiring a life of its own, even after the death of the body of which it is a part. Note that the rod, as that which embodies the will of the parent, of the sovereign, is not deemed willful. The rod becomes the means to eliminate willfulness from the child. One will judges the other wills as willful wills. One will assumes the right to eliminate the others.

We might note here how the very judgment of willfulness is a crucial part of the disciplinary apparatus. It is this judgment that allows violence (even murder) to be understood as care as well as discipline. The rod becomes a technique for straightening out the willful child with her wayward arm.

This Grimm story forms part of a tradition of educational writing that Alice Miller (1987) in For Your Own Good calls “poisonous pedagogy,” a tradition that assumes the child as stained by original sin, and which insists on violence as moral correction, as being for the child. Just consider that in this story the only time that the child is at rest is when she is beneath the ground. By implication, when the child gives up or gives up her will, when she stops struggling against those she must obey (her mother, God) when she is willing to obey, she will be at ease.

Becoming willing to obey would avoid the costs of not being willing. A willing girl, who does not appear in this story, is willing to obey, which is to say, she is willing not to have a will of her own. The willing girl does not appear, but she is the one to whom the story is addressed: the story is a warning of the consequences of not being willing to obey.

Once I noticed this arm, how it came up, it stuck with me. I was struck; even stricken. The arm of the Grimm story is striking in the sense of attracting attention. It is striking because of how it appears. It comes up in a scene of violence. It comes alive after death. The arm is life after death. Before the grim ending, the arm is held up in a moment of suspension. Despite the morbid nature of this story, the arm becomes a signifier of hope; the arm in suspension is still rising.

Willfulness: persistence in the face of having been brought down. We have to reach the arm to carry that spark, to feel the pulse of its fragile life. We catch the arm in that moment of suspension.

So: even after the willful child has been brought down, something, some spark, some kind of energy, persists. The arm gives flesh to this persistence. The arm has to disturb the ground, to reach up, to reach out of the grave, that tomb, that burial.

We can twist the morbid ending into a feminist plot. The arm is at rest not because she has been beaten but in order that she return to her work; so that she can come up again.

A feminist plot: she is waiting when she appears willing. Behind the scenes: she is waiting.

We could thus rethink the Grimm story as an institutional story; institutions can be grim, after all. 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 are at risk of identification with the wayward arm: an invitation to become the rod as a way of avoiding the consequences of being beaten. Become the rod: too much violence is abbreviated here. But we witness the endless invitations to identify with those who discipline as a way of not being beaten. No wonder: the willful child comes up whenever there is a questioning of institutional will. Whenever, say, she brings up sexism or racism, the willful child quickly comes after her: as if to say, speak up and her fate will be yours. There are many within institutions who cannot afford that fate; there are many who cannot raise their arms in protest even when the will of the institution is exposed as violence. We need to support 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.

Perhaps the arm in the Grimm story is also a feminist point. To make a feminist point is to go out on a limb. No wonder the arm keeps coming up. She makes a sore point. She is a sore point. We keep saying it because they keep doing it: assembling the same old bodies, doing the same old things. She keeps coming up because there is so much history to bring up. But when she comes up, this history is what is not revealed. Her arm is spectacular; when she makes these points, she becomes the spectacle. Her soreness becomes the spectacle. And no wonder: what follows her aims to discipline her. And no wonder: what precedes her aims to warn her.

And yet: she persists.

We can think of feminism as a history of persistence. Feminist history is a history of becoming army. Perhaps then: it is not that the child is willful because she disobeys but rather that the child becomes willful in order to disobey. In order to persist with her disobedience, the child becomes her arm. It is not that the arm inherits willfulness from the child. The child inherits willfulness from her arm. Her arm: a willful becoming. She claims her arm as her own. No wonder the arm in the Grimm story appears all alone. This is how the story operates most powerfully as ideology: the implication that disobedience is lonely and unsupported. We can willfully hear the story as a plea: to join arms, to show the arms as joined.

We assemble a feminist army in response to this plea. A feminist army of arms would pulse with shared life and vitality. Feminist arms do not lend their hand to support the familial or the social order. We support those who do not support the reproduction of that order. The arm that keeps coming up might not be willing to do the housework, to maintain his house, to free his time for thought. When women refuse to be helping hands, when we refuse to clean for him, up after him, when we refuse to be his secretary, the keeper of his secrets, his right hand, we become willful subjects.

We can understand why, of all her limbs, the arm matters. An arm is what allows you to reach, to carry, to hold, to complete certain kinds of tasks. Arms are identified throughout history as the limbs of labor or even the limbs of the laborer. Arms are supposed to be willing to labor. But not all arms. Arlie Hochschild describes how “the factory boy’s arm functioned like a piece of machinery used to produce wallpaper. His employer regarded that arm as an instrument, claimed control over its speed and motions. In this situation, what was the relation between the boy’s arm and his mind? Was his arm in any meaningful sense his own?” ([1983] 2003, 7, emphasis in original). When the laborers’ arms become tools in the creation of wealth, the laborers lose their arms. When they become his arms, the employer’s own arms are freed.

We can hear another sense in which arms are striking. To go on strike is to clench your fist, to refuse to be handy. It is to refuse to work; you are striking against working conditions. When workers refuse to allow their arms to be the master’s tool, they strike. The clenched fist remains a revolutionary sign for labor movements, internationally. The arm in the grim story belongs to this history, too: the arm is a revolutionary limb; a promise of what is to come, of how history is still but not yet done.

A feminist does not lend her hand; she too curls her fist. The clenched fist is a protest against the sign woman (by being in the sign woman) as well as resignifying the hands of feminism as protesting hands. Feminist hands are not helping hands in the sense that they do not help women help. When a hand curls up as a feminist fist, it has a hand in a movement.

Arms remind us too that labor, who works for whom, is a feminist issue. Labor includes reproductive labor: the labor of reproducing life; the labor of reproducing the conditions that enable others to live. Black women and women of color; working-class women; migrant women; women who have worked in the factories, in the fields, at home; women who care for their own children as well as other children; such women have become the arms for other women whose time and energy has been freed. Any feminism that lives up to the promise of that name will not free some women from being arms by employing other women to take their place. Feminism needs to refuse this division of labor, this freeing up of time and energy for some by the employment of the limbs of others. If the freeing up of time and energy depends on other people’s labor, we are simply passing our exhaustion on to others. We can recall bell hooks’s critique of Betty Friedan’s solution to the unhappiness of the housewife, to the “problem that has no name.” hooks notes “she did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions” (2000, 1–2).

When being freed from labor requires others to labor, others are paying the price of your freedom. That is not freedom. A feminist army that gives life and vitality to some women’s arms by taking life and vitality from other women’s arms is reproducing inequality and injustice. That is not freedom. For feminism to become a call to arms, we have to refuse to allow the arms to become dead labor. We have to refuse to support the system that sucks the blood, vitality, and life from the limbs of workers.

We need to hear the arms in the call to arms. A call is also a lament, a passionate expression of grief and sorrow.Willfulness might not only be a protest against violence but a demand for return: a return of the child, a return of her arm. We can begin to understand what is being demanded: a demand for return is also a demand for recognition of the theft of life and vitality from bodies; from arms. It is a demand for reparation.

A call of arms is thus a recall. We can recall Sojourner Truth speaking to the suffragettes, having to insist on being a woman as a black woman and former slave: “Ain’t I a woman,” she says. “Look at me,” she says. “Look at my arm.” It is said that Sojourner Truth, during her insistent speech, “bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power” (cited in Zackodnick 2011, 99). In Women, Race and Class, Angela Davis notes how Truth in pointing to her arm is challenging the “weaker sex” arguments that were being used by those who opposed the suffragette cause. These were arguments that rested on flimsy evidence of flimsy bodies: “that it was ridiculous for women to desire the vote, since they could not even walk over a puddle or get into a carriage without the help of men” (Davis 1983, 61). Sojourner Truth in her speech as it has been recorded by others evokes her own laboring history: “I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns and no man could head me. . . . I have borne thirteen children and seen them most all sold off to slavery” (99). 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 plow, to plant, to bear the children who end up belonging to the master.

The arms of the slave belonged to the master, as did the slaves, as the ones who were not supposed to have a will of their own. Any will is a willful will if you are not supposed to have a will of your own. Of course we cannot simply treat the arm evoked here as Truth’s arm. The arm does not provide its own testimony. It was Frances Dana Barker Gage, a leading white feminist, reformer, and abolitionist, who gave us this well-known account of Truth’s speech as well as her “army testimony.” This account is itself a citation: our access to Sojourner Truth’s address is possible only through the testimony of others; to be more specific, through the testimony of white women.We learn from this to be cautious about our capacity to bear witness to the labor and speech of arms in history: we might be able to hear the call of arms only through the mediation of other limbs. This mediation does not mean we cannot hear truth. Patricia Hill Collins notes this lack of access as a “limitation” in her account of Truth’s speech: “Despite this limitation, in that speech Truth reportedly provides an incisive analysis of the definition of the term woman forwarded in the mid-1800s” (2000, 12). Collins thus treats Truth’s speech as an example of an intellectual at work: she shows how Truth deconstructs the category “woman” by exposing the gap between her own embodied experiences as an African American woman and the very category “woman” (12–13).

In different hands, arms can become deconstructive limbs, or intersectional points. Arms can embody how we fail to inhabit a category. Arms can be how we insist on inhabiting a category we are assumed to fail. Arms can throw a category into crisis. The arms go on strike when they refuse to work; when they refuse to participate in their own subordination.  No wonder we must look to the arm, if we are to understand the history of those who rise up against oppression.

Arms: they will keep coming up.

Willfulness: how some rise up by exercising the very limbs that have been shaped by their subordination.

And: it is those women who have to insist on being women, those who have to insist willfully on being part of the feminist movement, sometimes with a show of their arms, who offer the best hope for a feminist revolution.

The arms that built the house are the arms that will bring it down.

(1) The writing that follows is a revised version of parts of chapter 3, “Willfulness and Feminist Subjectivity,” from Living a Feminist Life.


Collins, Patricia Hill (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics  of Empowerment, 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.

Davis, Angela [1981] (1983). Women, Race and Class. New York: Vintage Books Edition.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. (2003) [1983]. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

hooks, bell (2000). Feminist Theory: from Margin to Centre. London: Pluto Press.

Miller, Alice (1987). For Your Own Good: The Roots of Violence in Child-Rearing. London: Virago Press.

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

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Feminist friends and feminist killjoys,

I am writing this post as a dedication. To you: to all of you who find in feminism an electric connection. To you: to all of you who have spoken out about institutional violence or who have supported those who have spoken out about institutional violence. This work can be difficult and painful. It is necessary work. It is costly work. So much of our work is about sharing the costs of doing the work.

I am about to start proof reading my book, Living a Feminist Life, which is the companion book for this blog. I have been writing this book in the last three years. That’s the same three years that I have been writing this blog. It happens to be the same three years that we have been building the Centre for Feminist Research, a Centre that created a home for Goldsmiths’ lively and longstanding community of feminists. This happens to be the same three years we have been working on the problem of sexual harassment as an institutional problem.

The same three years.

We needed a space like the Centre to make this institutional work possible. When feminist work is homework, when what you are trying to do is dismantle some of the structures where you are, here, not just there, then you need a feminist home. The university becomes: what you work on, and not just at. We have been chipping away at the walls; and we had a space to go to when the work was too much. I know the Centre will continue to be a lively home; my heart will stay there, even when I am not there. My feminist colleagues will remain my co-builders.

And the writing too: this book, this blog; I couldn’t have done the institutional work without having them as places to go. Words can be weapons, as Audre Lorde taught us. Writing about difficult experiences can give you a handle on those experiences; it can be how you survive them; how you make sense of what persists despite your efforts.

I have been lucky and privileged to work with many incredible feminists at Goldsmiths and beyond. I am dedicated to preserving these connections.

A feminist dedication.

In previous posts, I have been addressing the problem of silence in relation to violence.

I know: speaking out is not always possible.

I also know: there are lots of different reasons for silence.

It is important to understand how difficult it can be to expose a problem: and it is not just because you become the problem. One feminist colleague asked a concerned question: how would speaking out about sexual harassment effect recruitment onto our feminist teaching programmes? This question was not motivated by an assumption that if speaking out had a negative impact on recruitment then it was wrong to have spoken out. It was a question that came from a genuine care and concern: because these programmes are where we are doing our feminist work. I care for them too. I care for the students who come to Goldsmiths to find feminism and other tools for identifying and dismantling the buildings of power.

We can hear in the care of this concern another reason for silence. We know that sexual harassment and sexual misconduct are sector problems. We know they are social problems. And we know the nature of these problems means they are often not revealed as problems. So if someone in one organisation is speaking out about sexual harassment as an institutional problem, but others in other organisations are not, then it can indeed make it appear as if that organisation is the one with the problem: the very words can stick to that organisation and thus free other organisations from the requirement to do the work.

This is one of the reasons for silence: you might be silent because others are silent.

To get through the wall of silence we need to do this work wherever we are; those who can, must, so that silence is no longer a reason for silence. We need to speak, if we can, so others can.

This post is written out of dedication to all those who have been affected by harassment and bullying and who are working out, one way or another, how to get the message out.

I will be taking a break from this work so I can come back to it in the new year. I am looking forward to being on the advisory board of The 1752 Group and to joining in a wider feminist effort to deal with the problem of sexual harassment and misconduct with as wide a lens as possible. In the new year I also hope to start an empirical project on complaint; talking to those who make complaints about racism as well as bullying and sexual harassment within organisations in which they study or work. I think the process of making a complaint – and what follows once you have made one – has much to teach us about institutional life; about power; about how hard it is to expose what is ordinarily veiled by secrecy and silence.

Until then I will be writing my book What’s the Use, on “the uses of use.”

To say farewell: here is an extract from my killjoy manifesto. And here is my dedication.

I am dedicated to my dedication.

In fierce feminism,


ps I will also be taking a break from twitter for a period of time. I will be back for killjoy tweeting sometime in October.



Principle 3: I am willing to support others who are willing to cause unhappiness.

A killjoy might first recognize herself in that feeling of loneliness: of being cut off from others, from how they assemble around happiness. She knows, because she has been there: to be unseated by the tables of happiness can be to find yourself in that shadowy place, to find yourself alone, on your own. It might be that many pass through the figure of the killjoy and quickly out again because they find her a hard place to be; not to be surrounded by the warmth of others, the quiet murmurs that accompany an agreement. The costs of killing joy are high; this figure is herself a cost (not to agree with someone as killing the joy of something).

How do you persist? As I suggested in my survival kit, we often persist by finding the company of other killjoys; we can take up this name when we recognize the dynamic she names; and we can recognize that dynamic when others articulate that dynamic for us. We recognize others too because they recognize that dynamic.

Those moments of recognition are precious; and they are precarious. With a moment comes a memory: we often persist by being supported by others. We might also experience the crisis of being unsupported; support matters all the more all the less we feel supported. To make a manifesto out of the killjoy means being willing to give to others the support you received or wish you received. Maybe you are in a conversation, at home or at work, and one person, one person out of many, is speaking out. Don’t let her speak on her own. Back her up; speak with her. Stand by her; stand with her. From these public moments of solidarity so much is brought into existence. We are creating a support system around the killjoy; we are finding ways to allow her to do what she does, to be who she is. We do not have to assume her permanence, to turn her figure into personhood, to know that when she comes up, she might need others to hold her up.

Audre Lorde once wrote, your silence will not protect you. But your silence could protect them. And by them I mean: those who are violent, or those who benefit in some way from silence about violence. The killjoy is testimony. She comes to exist as a figure, a way of containing damage, because she speaks about damage. Over time, the time of being a feminist, we might call this feminist time, I have come to understand, to know and to feel, the costs of speaking out. I have thus come to understand, to know and to feel, why many do not speak out. There is a lot to lose, a lot, a life even. So much injustice is reproduced by silence not because people do not recognize injustice, but because they do recognize it. They also recognize the consequences of identifying injustice, which might not be consequences they can live with. It might be fear of losing your job and knowing you need that job to support those you care for; it might be concern about losing connections that matter; concern that what you say will be taken the wrong way; concern that by saying something you would make something worse.

To suggest that the feminist killjoy is a manifesto is not to say that we have obligation to speak out. We are not all in the same position; we cannot all afford to speak out. Killing joy thus requires a communication system: we have to find other ways for the violence to become manifest. We might need to use guerrilla tactics, and we have a feminist history to draw on here; you can write down names of harassers on flyers; put graffiti on walls; red ink in the water. There are many ways to cause a feminist disturbance.

Even if speaking out is not possible it is necessary. Silence about violence is violence.  But feminist speech can take many forms. We become more inventive with forms the harder it is to get through. Speaking out and speaking with, sheltering those who speak; these acts of spreading the word are world making.

Killing joy is a world making project.


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Resignation is a Feminist Issue

To live a feminist life is to be a feminist at work. Until I resigned, my own working life had been based in universities: I was a student for around 10 years and I have been an academic for over 20 years. So much of what know is shaped by where I have been located. I carry the university with me; I value the work of the university because I value knowledge and education. I value what it can do: to learn and to engage with others who are learning.  Universities are also institutions that are structured by power relations all the way down. We create feminist programmes and centres because universities, however much they exercise the language of equality and diversity, often do not express those commitments other than in policy.  So yes: most of us with feminist commitments end up working for organisations that do not have these commitments, even when they might appear to have them.  After all we often acquire our commitments to do something because of what is not being done.  To work as a feminist means trying to transform the organisations that employ us – or house us. This rather obvious fact has some telling consequences.  When we try to shake the walls of the house, we are also shaking the foundations of our own existence.

But what if we do this work and the walls stay up? What if we do this work and the same things keep coming up? What if our own work of exposing a problem is used as evidence there is no problem? Then you have to ask yourself: can I keep working here? What if staying employed by an institution means you have to agree to remain silent about what might damage its reputation?

By saying resignation is a feminist issue I am not saying to resign is an inherently feminist act even when you resign in protest because of the failure to deal with the problem sexual harassment. I am saying: to be a feminist at work means holding in suspense the question of where to do our work. The work you do must be what you question. Sometimes, leaving can be staying, with feminism. Sometimes. And not for all feminists: other feminists in the same situation might stay because they cannot afford to leave, or because they have not lost the will to keep chipping away at those walls.

So it is time to tell the story. This is my story: of how I came to resign; how I came to the decision not just to leave my post, but the university system.

This is my story.

It is personal.

The personal is institutional.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, Speaking out, I first learned of the problem of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in June of 2013 from a colleague who had been told by a student who had been harassed. I did not know what to do, so I asked a colleague who told me who to approach in senior management. I am interested, in hindsight, that I was unsure about what to do. It should be the norm that we know what to do. I then learnt from this manager that an enquiry was being conducted about sexual harassment. I was then invited by another academic to a meeting with students in response to the failure of this enquiry. That meeting took place in November 2013. Without any question, what I learnt about what had been going on changed my relation to my work environment for ever. The university would not be the same for me.

I would not have it any other way.

Sometimes you need to know what makes it hard to stay.

As a result of this meeting, which was followed by many other meetings, a new enquiry took place; followed by two more in relation to two other staff members. In two of these three cases, the members of staff left.

Why did what I learnt make the university a place I could no longer inhabit?  I knew sexual harassment was a real problem. There had been serious cases I knew about at both my former institutions in the UK – Cardiff and Lancaster. The reason this was different: I began to realise how the system was working. I began to realise that the system was working.

I began to realise too my own complicity with that system. I had previously known that the centre in which much of the harassment was happening was not a centre with which I could be connected: I found their whole ethos and culture to be incredibly sexist. So I had stopped going to their events, and had my own boycott policy in place: if I was asked to supervise any of their incoming students, or to be involved in a panel or a viva, I would say no, on principle. I thought my principle was a feminist protest. I was wrong. In fact it meant I had taken myself out from the situations where I might have witnessed the harassment and abuse firsthand. I had taken myself away from the students who could have turned to me for support. If it had not been for setting up our Centre for Feminist Research, and being asked to attend that meeting, I could have stayed knowing enough to know there was a problem but not knowing about the problem. I will return to this question of “exiting situations” in due course. We often need to ask ourselves how we didn’t know something once we come to know something.

What I came to realise was: this was not an issue of an individual person whose removal would remove the problem. Indeed the assumption that to remove a person is to remove a problem is often how the problem remains.  This was an issue of institutional culture, which had become built around (or to enable) abuse and harassment. When we talk about sexual harassment as institutional culture we can be referring to how female students are addressed in seminars and social spaces; the use of sexist language within teaching (one academic would keep using the example of woman’s bodies or referred such-and-such philosopher’s “ugly wife”); the use of sexist and racist jokes as a form of bonding especially within social spaces; as well as inappropriate touching. It can involve groping and sexual advances that are unwelcome: that is part of it but the not the start of it. It can involve a highly “intimate” and personal way of inhabiting spaces with students; it can involve the sexualising of college space (for example through the use of pornography in offices); and it can involve putting pressure on students to have sexual relationships (often through the use of drugs and alcohol).  For all of this to be going on at the same time, we are also talking about harrassment as recruitment:  there are penalties for noncooperation (withdrawal of supervision or time) as well as rewards for cooperation (the same people engaging in this behavior are in control of scholarships, for example).

We have evidence that this kind of conduct, conduct as culture, had been in place since the late 1990s. The head of the centre acknowledged to a colleague of mine they had a problem with sexual harassment in 2003. I would argue that knowing of the problem whilst the problem is ongoing is creating and participating in the problem. So this abuse and harassment was going on, whilst people knew about it, for at least a decade, probably longer. It was going on because academic staff had been given permission to conduct themselves in this way. It had been going on despite many students leaving. It had been going on because some of the mechanisms that might have stopped or brought it to the surface had been suspended by the staff themselves. Indeed, staff seemed to use their identity as political radicals to defy rules or conventions. The very regulations that might have helped to protect students were identified by academic staff with management who were then identified as against academic staff (because of their radicalism).

This is how: any complaint became identified in advance as a betrayal of a cause.

Sexual harassment became: part of a cause.

Trying to address this history, trying not to reproduce this history: another cause.

Over this last three years: it has been a lot of work not to get very far. And that is also part of the problem: something keeps happening because it is made so difficult to stop it from happening. This is not to say we didn’t anywhere. When I came to understand how the system worked, I began to work with students (and some staff) on how to reopen enquiries that would enable them to collect the evidence, which was there to collect but very difficult to provide (because very system that many students wanted to complain about was the same system that made it almost impossible to complain).

We got somewhere, although the last enquiry did not seem to be conducted with the same conviction and purpose, and I began to sense a withdrawal of institutional will. But it was what followed the enquiries that led me to giving up my own institutional will. Because despite how much the evidence showed that the problem was one of culture and  complicity, there was no public discussion held about what had been happening and what we could learn from it. There was no chance to reflect together as academics on how to develop professional norms that would better protect students from abuse and harassment and misconduct. There were changes made to policies and complaints procedures. But these policy changes were made without talking to academic staff: I only knew about them because of my own involvement.

You can change policies without changing anything. You can change policies in order not to change anything.

Policies do matter but not because changing policies automatically changes the situation. In fact, it was an issue of policy that was one of the most wearing of the issues we dealt with. In the Centre for Feminist Research’s submission to the UK taskforce set up to address violence against women within Higher Education we refer to a paragraph, which was in Goldsmiths’ conflict of interest policy. This paragraph is not unique to Goldsmiths (it is shared by a number of universities). I read this paragraph just after my first meeting with the students:

The College values good professional relationships between staff and students. These relationships are heavily reliant upon mutual trust and confidence, and can be jeopardised when a member of staff enters a sexual/romantic liaison with a student. At the extreme, these liaisons can jeopardise professional relationships and can result in an abuse of power. Problems can also occur when a consensual relationship later becomes non-consensual or a case of harassment. The College does not wish to prevent, or even necessarily be aware of, liaisons between staff and students and it relies upon the integrity of both parties to ensure that abuses of power do not occur.

The policy first offers what I would call fatalism as justification: relationships or “laisons” between staff and students will happen so we will let them happen. Note here how consensual relationships and harassment are separated clearly (and with confidence). We should all know that when there is a power relation, consent becomes an unstable category (those with more power can make not consenting more difficult). Note also the emphasis on personal ethics (confidence and trust), and the assumption of good faith (this is an institutional version of bad faith). The last sentence is the key one: the college does not want to prevent such relationships or even be aware of them. This is what I would call an institutional blind eye, the institution has declared it will look the other way. This blind eye, this act of turning away, is here given official sanction: and it is what gives permission for abuse and harassment to happen. With integrity: no less.

Not knowing: here it is not a matter of chance. If you decide not to know not knowing is willed and it is work.

One colleague said to me recently that he thinks that the reason there has been a reluctance to address this issue more publicly is because of the desire to maintain a distinction between “consensual relationships” between staff and students and abuses of power. Why? Because many academics are in relationships with former students.

We have no room for the past tense on this specific matter. We need to create and share norms of professional conduct now to protect students now. We need to stop romanticising “consensual relationships” between staff and students. To be a lecturer comes with responsibilities. This is one of them: to teach. Having relationships with students not only compromises students (and their learning experience) but the whole class: everyone is affected by it. It should not happen.

So it was very important to change that policy. That it was done, however, in silence replicated the problem that was in the policy: allowing us not to know what had gone on. Changing the policy that turned a blind eye involved turning a blind eye. And although the policy was changed it is worth noting that paragraph stayed online for over a year after we first complained about it (until after the SHHE conference at the end of 2015, to be precise, which I refer to below, when the diversity and equality officer took up the cause to take it down). We had so many communications with so many about getting the paragrah amended or removed: it was exhausting.

The effort over a paragraph embodies the wider effort: so much work not to get very far.

So much work not to get very far.

We did try to get conversations going. Even the conference organised by Anna Bull, Tiffany Page and Leila Whitley on Sexual Harassment in Higher Education (SHHE) that took place in December 2015 ended up feeling like we are talking amongst ourselves. This is not to say the conference was not important: it most certainly was. But you sensed that the people who were not in the room where the ones who needed to be there. The Centre for Feminist Research hosted a panel discussion of Sexism in March 2016: again it did rather feel like we talking to ourselves. Very few academic members of staff were in attendance. The discussion was still important to have. And of course, people are busy. But one member of staff told me they hadn’t come “because it would be too depressing.” And I thought about that: we are not having the conversations because they would get in the way of our happiness. If our happiness depends on turning away from violence, our happiness is violence.

The absence of any discussion of the problem was a reenactment of the problem: that we do not want to know about it is how it keeps being done. At our conference on Sexism, it became clear that this problem was being reproduced. It turned out that there had been more complaints that year from students who had no idea of this previous history (how could they; they had not been told about it; it had been erased). These were not the same  complaints as made before although some similar issues were coming up. But their complaints had been dismissed – or been responded to in a superficial manner – within the centre in which they were studying. And students then said they do not want to proceed with formal complaints  until after they had their final marks. So again: formal complaint procedures don’t get at this problem. The problem is that those with power over others (which is what teachers have – the power to mark, to assess, to value) end up not being questioned because of the power they have over others. This is actually a much bigger problem than sexual harassment or perhaps we should say: sexual harassment is part of a bigger problem. It is about: how academics exercise power often by concealing that power. One of the mantras that kept being used in relation to university students, “but they are adults,” as if being of age means they cannot be abused by those with power. What we seem to be lacking here: an understanding of how power works, which is of course how power works.

Watching histories be reproduced despite all our efforts was one of the hardest experiences of my academic career – well one of the hardest experiences of my life. I just found it shocking. And to complete the story: I originally asked for unpaid leave because doing this work can be demoralising as well as exhausting. But in the course of applying for unpaid leave (and the difficulty of making arrangements in my absence), I felt a snap: I call it feminist snap. My relationship with the institution was too broken. I needed a real break: I had reached the end of the line.

That snap might sound quite violent, dramatic even. Resigning in feminist protest – and making public that you are resigning in feminist protest – does get attention. It can be a sharp sound; it can sound like a sudden break.  In my case, that break was supported by many of my colleagues; but not by all. One colleague describes my action as “rash,” a word used to imply an action that is too quick as well as careless. Snapping is often a matter of timing. A snap can feel like a moment. But snap is a moment with a history: a history can be the accumulated effect of what you have come up against.  And just think: you have to do more, the more you do not get through. You have had hundreds of meetings, with students, with academics, with administrators. You have written blogs about the problem of sexual harassment and the silence that surrounds it. And still there is silence. To resign is a tipping point, a gesture that becomes necessary because of what the previous actions did not accomplish. The actions that did not accomplish anything are not noticed by those who are not involved in the effort. So the action that spills a history, so that it falls out, so there is a fall out, is deemed rash.

Well maybe then: I am willing to be rash.

But of course that my resignation has been supported by many of my colleagues is important. There are now many more people who know something more about what has been happening and who want to be part of a meaningful process of working through the legacy of this history, which is not over, and of changing practices as well as policies. The senior management is now back in dialogue with the students (some of whom are now early career academics) whose activism has been so crucial each difficult and painful step of the way. Maybe we can be cynical: maybe some of these developments only happened because reputation was at risk. I don’t think we can afford to be cynical. We need to find the resources to let us do what we need to do to make a difference; however they come about.


Resigning worked; it broke a seal.

Maybe it is sad it took that. But I am glad I did that.

Of course in leaving I am leaving students that otherwise I would have taught. How is this different to what I did before, when I exited the spaces that would have led me to know sooner what I knew later?  I am leaving, this time, because of what I know. And I need to leave because of what and who stayed.

And I also know: there are many ways to be a feminist teacher. Being employed by a university is one way. I will be exploring others.

Resigning was speaking out. It was saying: this is serious enough that I have had enough.

Resigning was also a feminist hearing. What do I mean by this? Feminist ears prick up at this point. A feminist ear picks up on what is being said, sounds of no, the complaints about violence, the refusals to laugh at sexist jokes; the refusals to comply with unreasonable demands. To acquire a feminist ear is to hear those sounds as speech.  But it is not just that feminist ears can hear beyond the silence that functions as a wall. Once it is heard that you are willing to hear, more people will speak to you. While a snap might seem to make the tongue the organ of feminist rebellion, snap is all about ears. A feminist ear can provide a release of a pressure valve. A feminist ear can be how you hear what is not being heard.

Silence: when you can hear what has not been said.

Because: those who experience harassment often have nowhere to go. A complaints procedure does not help. And when they do speak they are heard as complaining. As I noted in an earlier post, the word complaint derives from plague, in a vulgar sense, to strike at the breast. A complaint: sick speech. Maybe she is heard as speaking from ill-will: not only as being ill, but as spreading infection, as making the whole body ill. If diversity is damage limitation, then damage limitation takes the form of controlling speech, of trying to stop those who speak about violence from speaking in places where they can be heard. To contain damage is to contain those who have been damaged. When she is heard as complaining she is not heard. So those who are willing to hear will end up hearing more and more; you are providing a place to go. Once I began working with students, more and more students got in touch with me. Some of these students did not testify in the enquiries: they just needed a hearing. And so I heard more and more stories of harassment and abuse. This is not a biography of my institution: I suspect at any university if you declare you are prepared to listen to students about their experiences of harassment, you will find more and more students come to find you. This fact: reflects how few places students have to go.

When I resigned, this process that had already happened within my own college, was extended. Resignation offers a feminist hearing because a public action has a wider reach. So many people got in touch with me after I spoke out about sexual harassment with their own stories of harassment and abuse in universities; with their own battles. Telling the story is part of the feminist battle. A feminist ear can be what we are for. The more wearing it is, the more we need to hear.

Our work has to be about giving students more places to go. Right now I feel I can be a better part of this effort from working outside the university system. Otherwise for me: working would be wearing down.

And we can witness that effort acquire momentum. Even a few months ago, when I resigned, I never expected that a story about sexual harassment in universities would be on the front pages of The Guardian, as it was today. That story: it became possible because of the efforts of many including students and former students who still cannot be named.  I thank all of you. I witness the formation of a new group, The 1752 Group that will act as a national task-force to target staff-to-student misconduct and harassment, with a sense of optimism.

We have to embody the changes we are aiming for.

Because there is work to do.

Feminist work.

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No matter how much evidence you have of racism and sexism, no matter how many documents, communications, encounters, no matter how much research you can refer to, or words you can defer to, words that might carry a history as an insult, what you have is deemed as insufficient. The more you have to show the more eyes seem to roll.  My proposition is simple: that the evidence we have of racism and sexism is deemed insufficient because of racism and sexism. Indeed racism and sexism work by disregarding evidence or by rendering evidence unreliable or suspicious – often by rendering those who have direct experience of racism and sexism unreliable and suspicious. This disregarding – which is at once a form of regarding – has a central role in maintaining an order of things. Simply put: that evidence of something is deemed insufficient is a mechanism for reproducing something.

The removal of evidence of something is evidence of something.

And so: our evidence is often evidence of the removal of evidence.

The word “evidence” and “evident” share the same root (Latin: evidens). When we say something is evident, we imply that it is perceptible, clear, obvious or apparent. Something is evident when it can be seen or touched. The word “evidence” carries much stronger implications (and it is the relation between the stronger implications and the weaker ones that needs to capture our interest).  If evident is “to” then evidence tends to be “of.” When we have evidence of something, we have something that can support our claims. Evidence then is something from which inferences can be drawn. I might have some evidence that can support my argument: I might have statistics that indicate the trend that I am claiming is a trend is a trend. Evidence can have the status of exteriority to something (or at least alienability) even when it is indicative of something (for example the way crumbs might be evidence of a late night snack). Evidence: how we can be caught by leaving a trace of an action.  If you are doing something you should not be doing, you might need to be careful not to leave any evidence.

It is important to think of how evidence comes up in a legal sense, to evoke crime, guilt, and punishment. To give evidence (in a court of law) is to provide testimony. Evidence here might be first-hand: you can give evidence because you have direct experience of something. The one who provides evidence might be a witness to a crime. Evidence does carry the weaker implication: you can provide evidence of something because of what was made evident to you. In contrast other evidence might be hear-say: when someone can speak of something because they have been told by somebody else about that something. The implication here is that first-hand testimony is stronger or more direct. She has the evidence because of what she experienced herself. Of course, even first-hand testimony can be identified as weak. This might be doubts about whether someone is telling the truth, or doubts about someone’s capacity to represent accurately what went on. Even something self-evident (usually this phrase is intended to signal the lack of doubt about something) can be deemed not evidence if the self to whom something is self-evident is suspect. Doubts about evidence become doubts about persons who are providing evidence. If she is not credible, it is not credible.  And we say evidence is “just anecdotal” to imply a weakness in how a case is made: a series of first hand impressions might be distinguishable from the evidence generated by systematic research or provided by an expert who is called upon by virtue of their expertise (how expertise becomes a virtue is one way of telling the story of an institution).

Just this short and simple discussion of evidence introduces us to much complexity. In particular, it allows us to register how evidence is often understood as something that relates to objects (to have evidence is to have evidence of something) but also to subjects (someone has evidence of something). Evidence can also be a trace of where someone or something has been. However even a trace can be disputed, even crumbs can be debated: how did they get there? Who left them there? Even: are they crumbs? Evidence has to be spoken of: the crumbs do not speak for themselves. Evidence in this sense becomes a trace of a history that involves how different elements combine to create an event, as well as an interpretation of that combination. The confusion that follows these different registers matters.

I began thinking about evidence in part as a result of doing what I have been calling diversity work in the first sense: the work we do when we try and transform institutions. Working on diversity work as well as working as a diversity worker has helped me to think about how evidence matters. I am going to share one quote from a diversity practitioner that I have shared before (in On Being Included and on this blog), and that I discuss in detail in the middle part of Living a Feminist Life, which returns to, and further develops, the accounts I have offered of diversity work thus far. In this statement, a diversity worker is describing her attempt to change the policy on how many members of appointment panels need to have had diversity training:

When I was first here there was a policy that you had to have three people on every panel who had been 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.

This is a rather extraordinary description of the stalling mechanisms those of us who work in organisations are familiar with. We learn: you can adopt a new policy without changing anything. We learn: there are different ways you can stop something from happening. If one of these stalling mechanisms does not work, if something is not stalled, another stalling mechanism comes into operation. But what you also learn, which is what I want to explore here, is the status of evidence. Because what is striking is that the diversity practitioner is the one who has evidence; and that she has evidence is because she has, or seems to have, institutional backing. She has evidence the policy has been changed because the policy has been changed. We can hesitate here about the status of evidence in relation to policies. You change policy by providing evidence that you have changed policy. Evidence seems to come before something: minutes record a decision insofar as a decision has been made. And yet evidence is what is required after something. Indeed that is what we mean by a paper trail: we have to leave evidence behind us of a decision that has been made for the decision to have been made. The timing of evidence becomes more complicated than I have thus far implied: evidence is not here simply something past (having evidence of something that has already happened) but is generated in the present to enable a different future (the adoption of a new policy requires evidence before that policy becomes policy).

To have evidence of a policy is not sufficient for the policy to be enacted.  In this example the head of human resources removed the decision from the minutes: you can see here how the removal of evidence of something is an attempt to modify an arrangement. However what is being modified is the record of a modification. We learn how stasis can involve work: to keep an old arrangement you remove traces of the policy having been changed.  The decision was however put back in the minutes. This put back was a result of yet more diversity work: noticing the removal of evidence is evidence of labour. But then: when the practitioner tells her colleagues in meetings that the policy has changed, they look at her “like she is saying something really stupid.” She might as well not have any evidence because as far as they are concerned the policy has not been changed.

The story of a diversity policy that does not do anything is a tantalizingly tangible example of what goes on so often. But even if the story makes something tangible (and that it is so is a result of the labour and testimony of a diversity worker – think of how many tales like this are not told), it shows us how some things are reproduced by remaining intangible. This remaining is “stubborn,” a stubbornness that is not dependent upon an individual (although it can involve individuals) but an effect of how things combine. She has evidence; she can point to it; but it is as if she has nothing to show. Diversity work: you learn that intangibility is quite a phenomenon. Intangibility can be the product of institutional resistance. And that is a philosophical as well as political point because it teaches us that what is not evident to the senses is not simply about the status of an object. The object here is not missing or even withdrawn. The object is right there. And it is there because the right procedures have been followed to make it there. An object that has been brought into existence does not appear. Something is not perceived despite being available or near to hand: you can not notice what is right in front of you without having to make any effort to turn away.

Paper can disappear because the content of the decision that is recorded on that paper is not in agreement with what has “really” been decided, a decision that takes the form of a momentum; a direction that does not need to made into a directive because it is shared. That a policy can be agreed without being followed teaches us that a policy and a direction are not the same thing. Perhaps changing policies is a way of sustaining a direction, because those appointed to do equality and diversity (and appointments are often made to comply with the law) end up spending their time working on policies that do not do anything. As one practitioner I spoke to once said: “you end up doing the document rather than doing the doing.”

Doing the document.

Not doing the doing.

You can see why diversity workers often talk about walls when they talk about their work. Diversity work is a “banging your head against a brick wall job.” As I commented in an earlier post, what makes an institutional wall even harder is that it is not a concrete or actual wall. If there was a wall there, we could point to it. The wall might then provide evidence of itself: a wall as self-evident. Although, to qualify this (as optimism) we have also learnt something is not always perceived even when it is tangible. What makes an institutional wall harder is that unless you come up against it (because of who you are, or what you are trying to do), this wall does not appear. The walls that diversity workers speak about are assumed as phantom walls: in your head not in the world. Racism and sexism are walls in this sense: in the world but assumed as in our heads not in the world.

We have to live with that assumption.

In the world.

What is a phantom for some for others is real.

What is hardest for some does not appear to others.

And so: a policy disappears despite there being a paper trail, despite the evidence, or even because of the evidence.  People disappear too, because of what they make evident, of what they try to bring into view.  There are many ways in which you can end up disappearing. The story I have shared with you is one story of disappearance. And it is not just a policy that disappears in the story.  A diversity worker: she ends up exhausted because despite all her efforts the same thing is still happening. Sometimes you stop because it is too hard to get through. So she might leave, or turn her energy toward something else: a new policy, a new document, a new job.  And: this practitioner left her post soon after I interviewed her, for another post in another university.

What happens to a policy can happen to a person.

People disappear too: because of what they try to make evident, what they try to bring into view.

What is evident, I implied at the start, is often a weaker sense: something is evident to someone. What is evident: a matter of perception. We are now learning: perception matters. The removal of evidence is an institutional process that renders somethings not evident to those who inhabit that institution. It is as if: nothing is there.  No policy, no paper.  Maybe a person appears, but you look at her blankly. What is she waving around! What is she going on about!

The wall that you come up against, that blocks a progression (of a policy or a person), is not encountered by those who do not come up against it.

There; nothing there.

No wonder:

There becomes despair.

When we are talking about sexism and racism we are talking about what is there and not there, where “thereness” depends on how a body encounters a world. In an earlier post I talked about the importance of giving problems their names. I drew on Marilyn Frye’s work on sexism. Frye observes: “like most women coming to a feminist perception of themselves and the world, I was seeing sexism everywhere and trying to make it perceptible to others” (1983: 17). She suggests that making sexism “perceptible to others” becomes a project because many “would not see that what I declared to be sexist was sexist.”  When you describe something as sexist, you are often accused of projecting something (even projecting yourself) onto a situation. You might say, hey, that moment when the man standing next to me is assumed to the lecturer and I am not, that’s sexism. And someone else might say, “no it isn’t, take it easy, lighten up,” as if to say: it is just a coincidence; if you’d arrived at a different moment, things would have fallen differently. Sexism is often denied, because it is seen as a fault of perception; something is sexist because you perceive it that way: you perceive wrongly when you perceive a wrong. Making a feminist case thus requires we can show how sexism is a set of attitudes that are institutionalized, a pattern that is established through use, such that it can be reproduced almost independently of individual will (although hands often appear when things go astray).

And of course: sometimes even the words “sexism” and “racism” allow us to make something evident to ourselves. In Sister Outsider Audre Lorde describes the words racism and sexism as “grown up words” (1984: 152). This means that: we encounter racism and sexism before we have the words that allow us to make sense of what we encounter. Words can then allow us to get closer to our experiences; words can allow us to comprehend what we experience after the event. Sexism and racism: if they are problems we have given names, the names tend to lag behind the problems. Having names for problems can make a difference. Maybe before, you could not quite put your finger on it. With these words as tools, we revisit our own histories; we hammer away at the past.

Feminist and anti-racist consciousness involves not just finding the words, but through the words, how they point, realizing how violence is directed: violence is directed toward some bodies more than others.  To give a problem a name can change not only how we register an event but whether we register an event. Perhaps not having names is a way of turning away from a difficulty that persists whether or not we turn away. Not naming a problem in the hope that it will “go away,” often means the problem just remains unnamed.  At the same time, giving the problem a name does not make the problem go away. To give the problem a name can be experienced as magnifying the problem; allowing something to acquire a social and physical density by gathering up what otherwise remain scattered experiences into a tangible thing. Making sexism and racism tangible is also a way of making them appear outside of oneself something that can be spoken of and addressed by and with others. It can be a relief to have something to point to, or a word to allow us to point to something that otherwise can make you feel alone or lost.  We have different tactics for dealing with sexism and racism; and one problem is that some of these tactics can be in tension. When we give problems their names we can become a problem for those who do not want to register that there is a problem (but who might, at another level, sense there is a problem). You can cause a problem by not letting it go.

The inaugural conference for the Centre for Feminist Research was on sexism. The conference, which had the tagline “a problem with a name,” led to a special issue of New Formations. In that issue we made a collective effort to provide evidence of sexism in part by providing evidence of the difficulty of that effort. In my introduction to the special issue, I described our effort as creating “a sexism archive.” I noted: the sexism archive is full. Our archive is stuffed. Our archive includes not only the documents of sexism; the fragments that combine to record an upheaval. The archive makes the document into a verb: to document is to refuse to agree to something, to refuse to stay silent about something. Bodies are part of this archive; voices too. Our archive is an archive of rebellion. It testifies to a struggle. To struggle for an existence is to transform an existence.

We put all of the traces together, all of the encounters we have had; our wall stories, as I now call them; we are trying to bring something into existence. When I have had experiences of sexism or racism, I often say to myself: for the archive. One time I was invited to contribute to a special issue of the journal Feminist Theory on whiteness. Sunera Thobani (2007) also contributed an important piece critiquing the work of some white feminists. The editors invited those white feminists to respond to her piece.  And so in this same special issue we have a response from a white feminist which exercises violent and racist narratives (I am not going to name her, as I have no interest in a dialogue with those who articulate racism (1))  Some of these narratives: the woman of color isn’t a real scholar; she is motivated by ideology. The woman of color is angry. She occupies the moral high ground. The woman of color declares war by pointing to the complicity of white feminists in imperialism. The woman of color is racist (and we hurt too). The woman of color should be grateful, as she lives in our democracy; we have given her the right and the freedom to speak.

Following academic and social conventions, such as giving authors the rights to respond, or enabling a diversity of viewpoints, translates here into inviting racism onto the paper and into the room.  A woman of colour has to sit (on the page) here: the happy diversity table is the same table as the racism table. I remember thinking: add it to the archive.  By this archive I meant: the archive of racism within feminism. That archive is stuffed too!

Add it to the archive is an expression that allows us to think that an experience however difficult might have use value as evidence (we have somewhere to put it; we have a place for it to go). But of course when I say “add it to the archive” I say so with a degree of skepticism; if that archive is already stuffed, more evidence might be what we do not need.

But is that true? In the opening paper of the issue, Sarah Franklin enters a “bloody document” to our archive, one of her own essays submitted when she was a student that in being marked up by scrawled red ink is marked by sexism. The marker’s outrage in response to a feminist essay teaches us about how sexism is reproduced. This document is useful because of how it makes sexism tangible.  It makes explicit what is often left implicit: the horror with which feminist ideas are received. Franklin describes how to make a feminist critique of one of the male masters of a discipline is to be disciplined for unruly and inappropriate behavior. Her paper shows that attending to sexism means attending to the very mechanisms of reproduction; how some bodies as well as words, concepts or approaches become weeded out (of a discipline or a university), at the same time that others are encouraged and given “places to go.”

Evidence: what you accumulate when you are not given places to go.

This is why: we need somewhere to go with our evidence.

We need feminist deposit systems. Everyday Sexism and Strategic Misogyny are places we can go, virtual sites in which we can insert out stories, so they generate a collective.

Sarah Franklin’s paper was presented at our inaugural conference. The “bloody document” was put up on display. And what was striking was how cathartic it was for the audience to see that “bloody document.” You could hear the groans and exclamations of recognition. It was electric; there was a buzz each time more was revealed. So maybe in some cases: having more evidence is not about getting through (those who are unconvinced are usually very committed to being unconvinced). We are not showing our evidence of sexism to those who are sexist. We are sharing evidence with each other. Because of how slippery sexism and racism can be, even when they are solid (you can slip because you encounter something solid), because so often our experiences of sexism and racism can make us lose confidence, it can be helpful to have evidence presented in such tangible form. It can be helpful for this evidence to be delivered to a feminist collective. That “to” is the “to” that matters. Or maybe a feminist collective is generated by that delivery. Even if you know sexism and racism intimately, to have them displayed in front of you, independently of you and your own body, is to become a witness to how they work as machinery.

Clunk, clunk.

Click, click.

So we might need evidence of what we experience because of what we experience: because so often when you encounter sexism and racism you end up estranged from a world. You can feel that when something is pointed to you, repeatedly, then the problem is you. But having this evidence does not mean you can get through the walls. Evidence of walls does not bring the walls down. I was struck as editor by some reader responses to Franklin’s paper. One person suggested it wasn’t really about sexism; that these disciplinary techniques can be directed to anyone. The marker had himself highlighted and underlined gender pronouns: it was in the material how sex and gender mattered. But using words like “sexism” can still be understood as projection: you have made this about sexism, almost as a way of making this about your own particulars. And that is what happens: sexism and racism are understood as self-referential; how you make something about yourself (as if to say, it could happen to anyone, so that to say it refers to gender is to make gender your own agenda).

What is going on here? Sexism is reduced to something in particular or as being about your particulars. But the argument of the paper was to show how sexism is a technique for reproducing bodies and worlds.  So these responses reduce sexism to x in order then to state that the evidence exceeds x (so it is not about sexism).

Sexism can be reduced to an object that is counted (and thus discounted).

Feminist critiques show how sexism is not reducible to x but becomes part of a wider system that clears the way for some and not others.

So the response: exercises the reduction we challenge.

In some recent posts I have been reflecting on the problem of sexual harassment in universities. It is another problem with a name but a problem that often goes unnamed. I want to reflect on is how evidence – or the lack of evidence – plays such a crucial role in how the problem is reproduced.

There is a lot of evidence of harassment because there is a lot of harassment. In my own college (and this story would be tellable in other colleges) many people knew about the problem – maybe not the scale of it – but they knew enough to know there was a problem (2). That problem was often translated into advice or warnings to incoming female students to be careful of such-and-such professor. Knowing enough is not knowing enough. I called this “not knowing enough” in an earlier post “a partial sighting of walls.” It was partial, perhaps, because people did not want to know the scale of it; they did not want the full view. Or perhaps a fuller view is just hard to have.  In their important analysis of sexual harassment in universities, Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page note how harassment of students (such as groping) can take place in full view of others. As they describe: “The failure of bystanders to object to open displays of sexual harassment can also take a more active form. Specifically, sexual harassment can be normalised through a response to it that makes light of it. When this occurs, sexual harassment is not ignored, but laughed at” (2015: 42). Whitley and Page are giving us an account of the very mechanisms that allow the harassment that is evident not to become evident (even to those who witness it) as harassment, as wrong or a wrong, let alone to become evidence.

There are ways of apprehending things that can reduce the scale of harassment or minimize the damage. Perhaps: to arrive into an organization is to inherit a way of apprehending things. And, sometimes, something that has become increasingly evident is still not acknowledged because to acknowledge it would get in the way of something: your work, your happiness, your relationship to a person who can give you access to resources, your relationship to the institution. Maybe noticing something would demand too much time, too much attention. This is what I mean by the killjoy as testimony. She comes up because she reveals what others do not want to notice.

So I think we can learn: we can have evidence of something without something becoming evident to someone.

But there is more to say.

What happens to a policy can happen to a person.

Enquiries into sexual harassment can be held without finding evidence even when there is evidence. Sometimes evidence is not found because: there is an lack of an institutional will to find evidence. It can be easy not to find what you are not willing to find. Other times evidence is not found because: it is too hard to provide evidence.  Why is it hard to provide evidence? We need to answer this question to get at the problem. When sexual harassment becomes part of a culture, it works to recruit individuals, including those who are harassed (and when you become willing to go along with it, you experience yourself as no longer harassed, which can offer some relief from pressure). Harassment increases the costs of not going along with harassment (whether your own harassment or the harassment of others). Perhaps people around you are saying: this is OK; this is just how things are. So if you do not go along with it, you threaten how things are. Not saying something becomes a social and moral requirement for being part of something: to question or to challenge or to complain is framed as a form of disloyalty that would threaten everybody; everything. Maybe you are told it would damage your prospects to complain: to become a complainer as to lose velocity. Not coming forward might be necessary to moving on or moving up. The nature of sexual harassment makes it hard for anyone to provide evidence of sexual harassment. The more harassed you are, the harder it is to report the harassment. To be in a position to provide evidence requires that you have support.

This is another way that evidence is addressed to a feminist collective. We need to combine forces in order to give evidence of what makes it difficult to be. And we often have to work informally, to create our own support systems. In order to provide evidence of some things you have to bypass the very mechanisms that allow those things to be reproduced. Formal complaints procedures are often: methods for making evidence not appear.

Other times, evidence is provided but it is discounted. We are coming back to an old problem: you discredit the evidence by discrediting the provider of the evidence. We know this is how and why it remains so hard to get justice for victims of sexual assault: the law works to discredit the woman who is the victim by finding in her testimony, or character, or behavior, evidence of another kind, evidence of consent that would render her the criminal: the one who is falsely accusing the man, who would become the victim.  Her evidence is refuting by turning her speech into evidence of guilt, the kind of guilt that is assumed because of sexism: how women are historically understood as unreliable witnesses to their own lives; how women are heard as saying yes, whatever she says, or does; saying yes, when she says no.

Evidence of sexism is eliminated by sexism.

This is a shattering history.

Shattered lives.

How she is perceived as being as a violation of her being.

No wonder, perception matters. It is not simply that we have to show that what we perceive as sexism or racism is sexism or racism. It is not simply that we have to work on perception. Rather, sexism and racism works through perceptions: they are about how bodies are perceived in the first place; how words stick to bodies, a yes, a no; they are about whose way is cleared, who is cleared; whose way is impeded, who is impeded. And indeed: what is often not perceived teaches us how perception matters.

And this has been my own experience of racism. Right now in the UK, post Brexit; there is more attention to racism than we have been used to. We know that racism is not new. We know we are talking about the old when we are talking about racism. We have been here before; and there will be more. That attention is teaching us how much was not noticed before, the ordinary and everyday racism that allows brown and black bodies to be stopped in the streets, here, to be asked where they are from, to be told they are not from here. We have evidence of how racism was not evident to those to whom it was not directed. The evidence might not have amounted to much because of the nerve it touched: a social space can be created by turning away from what (and who) gets in the way.

Racism is reproduced by how racism is not noticed by those who are not at a receiving end.

But when you talk about racism, it is so often dismissed as in your head. Or something you are noticing because you are obsessed, because you have magnified something. So much of our work is working out how to live with the consequences that racism is imperceptible to others.

By others I am referring to: whiteness.

One time during a lecture I shared a quote from my study of diversity work. It was by a black woman talking about what happened when she entered a room for a job interview. She encounters what she usually encounters: a sea of whiteness. They did not expect her. The atmosphere becomes tense. They are fidgeting. Papers are shuffling. Papers: they can tell a story. She can tell they are not expecting her. And she knows when they see her, they see a black woman. Some come to embody what others do not wish to see. She can tell they were expecting a white person to come in. She tries to make them comfortable. Diversity work: when you have to make others comfortable with the fact of your arrival.

A white student comes up to me afterwards and says: how could she know? How could she know it was about race? It could have been something else. So often a question is an assertion in disguise. It is not about race. She made it about race.

When you say racism, they say: it could have been something else. Sometimes you just know when it is racism.  It is as tangible as hitting a wall, that the problem is you; that part of you that makes you the person they do not want or expect, the part of you than makes you stand out from the sea of whiteness. Sometimes you are not sure. And you begin to feel paranoid. That is what racism does: it makes you question everything, the whole world, the world to which you exist in relation. Heterosexism and sexism are like that too: are they looking at me like that because of that? Is that why they are passing us over, two women at the table? You are not sure.

That is what it does: you are not sure.

You are not allowed to be sure.

Sometimes you are sure.

You can be sure and not sure.

I am speaking to an interviewee – a woman of color – about racism. We are talking of those little encounters, and their very big effects. It is “off tape,” we are just talking, recognising each other, as you do, in how we recognise racism in those everyday encounters you have with people who can’t handle it, the idea of it. She says, “They always say to me that you reduce everything to racism.” A similar judgment has been implied to me, or said to me, many times. Why are you always bringing racism up? Is that all you can see? Are you obsessed? Racism becomes your paranoia. Of course, it’s a way of saying that racism doesn’t really exist in the way you say it does.  It is as if we had to invent racism to explain our own feeling of exclusion; it is as if racism was our way of not being responsible for the places we do not or cannot go. It is a form of racism to say that racism does not exist. I think we know this.

But I am thinking more about paranoia, and the good reasons for bad feelings. I guess the problem is that I do feel paranoid even if I know that this paranoia is reasonable. I do have a kind of paranoid anxiety about everything. I am not sure when x happens, whether x is about racism. I am not sure. And because I am not sure, then x is lived as always possibly about racism, as what explains how you inhabit the world you do. Racism creates paranoia; that’s what racism does. Racism is reproduced both by the fantasy of paranoia (it doesn’t “really” exist), and by the effect of the fantasy of paranoia, which is to make us paranoid.

When racism is understood as our creation, we become responsible for not bringing it into existence.

The world becomes evidence when: you are not accommodated. And the evidence you have of not being accommodated is dismissed by those who are accommodated. They like their house. They think it has room. That it is airy. You find it harder to breath.

Air can be occupied.

You have encounters like this: you can tell what is going on from the atmosphere. You recognise it. One time I was in Paris. The conversation was in French. I couldn’t understand what was being said. But I could tell when racism came up. The sound rose up. I glanced at my colleague, and she nodded. The volume switch: evidence of how the intangibility of atmosphere can become solid. An atmosphere can become a wall.

But we can have evidence of racism that exceeds this. We can have evidence of taunts. Graffiti on walls. We can have evidence of beatings.  We can have evidence of murder. We can have evidence of the police killing a black man. We can have video evidence. And still it remains possible for racism not to be seen. Because racism is how the world is seen. It is how blackness is identified as dangerous; it is how a wrong is made a right, it is how even a hand moving is made a fright. When racism is how a world is seen, racism is not seen. We can witness what is at stake here. It is a matter of life and death.

You can be stopped by a perception. You can be killed by a perception.

How you are perceived as being can be what stops you from being.

Evidence of violence can be removed. There is violence in the removal of evidence of violence.

Documents can disappear from an archive because of what they would reveal. In 2011, an archive became public: a collection of documents, 8,800 files to be exact, from 37 former British colonies. They are called the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Migrated Archives. These documents are held at the highly-secure government communications centre at Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire. These documents form a necessarily incomplete archive. We can read that history of incompletion; we can read what has gone missing. Because included in this archive are documents that document destruction; that document how the destruction of documents is willed as policy. We have now access to papers that issued instructions for the systematic destruction of other papers, an instruction made in 1961 by the secretary of state for the colonies. The documents instructed that post-independence governments should not get any material that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government,” that could “embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg police informers,” that might compromise intelligence sources, or that might “be used unethically by ministers in the successor government.” We have a trace in an archive of papers that are missing from the archive, papers that are destroyed because they record the violence of colonial history, violence committed by actors, the state; the monarchy, who have had a hand in the violence, who administered that violence.

If a document can be made to disappear, then an archive is what is not assembled.(3) An archive becomes what we do not have. And then we are stuffed.

Not all evidence of violence needs to be destroyed. Evidence can be retained but the violence is still not seen. Violence is explained away or justified. I have written about the story, The Willful Child. It is a grim story as well as a Grimm story.

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

It is a fable.

It is fiction.

It is fact.

The facts of the matter.

The story is about violence; it is about the murder of a child. She becomes ill, at the will of the God. Her mother, her doctor: they also have something to do with it. A willful will does not obey the will of those who embody institutions (religion, the family, medicine). The fate of those deemed to suffer from ill-will is to become ill. Her arm comes up. The arm keeps coming up. The arm is beaten.  And then, only then, the child has rest beneath the ground. But the story is not told as a story about murder. The story is told from the rod’s point of view.  The child must die because she is willful. Perhaps to survive she must become willful. She must become what she is judged as being.

Her death is punishment for her crime. Disobedience is her crime. It does not matter what the instruction is. She does not do what she is told do.

Doing; being. Not doing; not being.

Being can be a crime. For some, being is a crime.

The story is a warning: do not become the willful child. Willfulness justifies her death as moral, as for her own good. Violence is often justified as a right as well as right. The police are not in the story because the police are the rods. We have the evidence right there. There she is. Her arm is speaking. Her arm is evidence. The arm testifies to a struggle for life, a struggle preceded and followed by violence. Her arm throbs with life, held up in a moment of suspension. The arm is evidence of a resistance that continues despite having been brought down; the arm is how she persisted in coming up.

The evidence disappears by how the story is framed, as she does.

The violence disappears. She disappears.

It is a call to arms.

Resistance: the fight to make violence appear. Resistance: the fight to make her disappearance matter.

The story implies to disobey a command is to go out on a limb. The story implies if you disobey you will be lonely and unsupported.

Evidence of resistance disappears.

We do not.


  1. This is also how transphobic viewpoints are justified: as just another viewpoint to be expressed at the happy diversity feminist table. I refuse that feminist table. For this reason one feminist has recently called my model of dialogue “authoritarian.” If not permitting hate speech on my table is authoritarian, I will be authoritarian. I will be challenging this liberal model of dialogue in a future post currently titled “Speak to Me!”. I will also be giving some suggestions for how you can tell the difference between transphobic  work and critical work on sex and gender (much of that work is by trans scholars and activists). Baby clue: the former tends to rely on “stranger danger” narratives (posing trans women as dangerous to feminism or to society in more or less extreme ways). Racist viewpoints also rest on stranger danger narratives. Those deemed dangerous are endangered by that viewpoint. Simpler: it is dangerous to be perceived as dangerous.
  2. I include myself in that many and in a future post, Resignation as a Feminist Issue, I will discuss how I ended up knowing enough and thus not knowing enough, for too long. Baby clue: I had a policy of boycotting the Centre in which much of the harassment took place (because I had been to a few of their events in which I witnessed the sexist and misogynist nature of the intellectual culture). This policy of withdrawal meant that I actively participated in the stranding of the students who were being harassed and also that I did not witness the harassment. This is how when I first learnt of what was actually going on, I was shocked. My partial sighting of a wall meant the wall did come into full view. I need to learn from this.
  3. Sexual harassment is another “missing archive.” Confidentiality can be used within institutions to make thing disappear, the truth even; so that the institution will not embarrassed by what is revealed, things that might damage the institution. That sexual harassment cases are so often wrapped up by confidentiality, means an archive is precisely what we do not have: we not even have evidence that evidence was presented; we do not have access to papers, materials, which would allow us to know what happened. There are so many missing cases, as I have been involved in this work I have heard of more and more of them.



Franklin, Sarah (2015). “Sexism as a Means of Reproduction,” New Formations, 86: 14-33.

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

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

Thobani, Sunera  (2007). “White Wars: Western Feminisms and the ‘War on Terror.’” Feminist Theory 8, 2: 169-185.

Whitley, Leila and Tiffany Page (2015). “Sexism at the Centre: Locating the Problem of Sexual Harrassment,” New Formations. 86: 34-53.


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Equality Credentials

I resigned from my post at Goldsmiths when I got to a point that I felt I could do more by leaving than by staying. I thought leaving as an action would speak louder than words, and I had been using a lot of words.  A diversity practitioner I once interviewed talked about how we have to use words more, the more we don’t get through. Words become tired; bodies too. She spoke of “equity fatigue.” The more you say the “equity,” the less the word can do. I keep sending out emails, talking to people about sexual harassment. I could sense tiredness around me, eyes rolling again.

As I noted in my previous post, for over three years I have been working with a dedicated team of students and staff on how to get the problem of sexual harassment taken more seriously. The more I worked on the problem, the more I realised how serious the problem was – in my college certainly – and also in the sector at large. Sexual harassment is a social problem. Sexual harassment is a structural problem. Too often the very seriousness of the problem produces a certain kind of institutional fatalism: as if is to say, well it is everywhere, so it is inevitable; or it is everywhere so there is no point challenging it here, as it will just go there.

When a problem becomes general is when we need to challenge that problem generally.  We need to challenge it where we are; wherever we are.

So I have been speaking of the problem from where I am, from here, at the college I have been working at this past 12 years, but this does not mean the problem starts here. It was doing the research project on racism and diversity that led to my book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, published in 2012, which has given me a handle on what was going on. Through this project, I had already begun to understand some of the mechanisms that I watched in operation in the institutional responses to the problem of sexual harassment.  It is like machinery: clunk, clunk.

One of the key mechanisms I want to refer to here is the use of diversity and equality as a credential in a specific sense:  as that which entitles you to credit. I had referenced some of this material in my post on Progressive Racism, which was published on the same day as my post on Resignation. I referred to how activities that signal an attempt to diversify an organisation can be used by the organisation as evidence of diversity.

I have been a member of many race equality and diversity committees: not unusual for a woman of colour academic! So I have plenty of experience of how diversity work can end up being appropriated by the organisations we work on as well as for.  As diversity workers we might labour for something (a new policy, a new document) and these things can provide yet more techniques whereby organisations can appear to do something without doing anything. This is difficult: our own efforts to transform organisations can be used by organisations as evidence they have been transformed.

One of my first experiences of this mechanism: I was a member of a working group that was set up to write our university’s race equality policy in 2001.  Writing the policy happened to coincide with the arrival of a new vice-chancellor at the university. He set up some meetings with members of the university, which took the form of an official address.  I was surprising at one of these meetings, when the vice chancellor with a letter in his hand, referred to the race equality policy that we had written. With an extravagant smile, and waving the letter in front of us (somehow the physicality of this gesture mattered), he talked about the content of the letter, which took the form of a congratulation (or which he gave the form of a congratulation), informing the university that it had been given the “top rank” for its race equality policy. “We are good at race equality” he said pointing to the letter.  It was a feel good moment, but those of us who wrote the document did not feel so good.  A document that documents the inequality of the university became usable as a measure of good performance.

Indeed, as I conducted my research into diversity within universities I became aware of how diversity can be used by organisations as a form of public relations. As I have already noted, most of the interviews I conducted took place after the Amendment to the Race Relations Act (2000), which required all public sector organisations to write and disseminate race equality policies and action plans. This act was followed by many others, and then finally by the Equality Act (2010), which required all of these distinct policies to be brought together in a single document: the Single Equality Scheme (SEC). So over the period of a decade most of the work of diversity workers was about writing documents.  At various points, the Equality Challenge Unit which oversees equality in the higher education section, measured or ranked these documents, as I have discussed, moments of measuring that can be used be institutions that “did well” as a sign they are “doing well.”

But what is being measured by these documents being measured? I asked this question diversity practitioner, who answered: “we are good at writing documents.” I reply, without thinking, “well yes, one wonders,” and we both laugh.  We are wondering whether what is measured through these documents is the degree of competence in writing documents. Organisations are able to translate their writing competence into an equality competence. As this practitioner further describes:

I was very aware that it wasn’t very difficult me and some of the other people to write a wonderful aspirational I was very aware that it wasn’t very difficult me and some of the other people to write a wonderful aspirational document.  I think we all have great writing skills and we can just do that, because we are good at it, that’s what we are expert at.  And there comes with that awareness a real anxiety that the writing becomes an end in itself, the reality is being borne out by say for example, we were commended on our policies and when the ECU reviewed our Implementation Plans last year there were a number of quite serious criticisms about time slippages, about the fact that we weren’t reaching out into the mainstream and the issues hadn’t really permeated the institution and the money implement in certain specific areas.  And it wasn’t that there was hostility, it was much more of this kind of marshmallow feeling.

Being good at writing documents become a competency that is also an obstacle for diversity work, as it means that the university gets judged as good because of the document. It is this very judgment about the document that blocks action, producing a kind of “marsh mellow feeling,” a feeling that we are doing enough, or doing well enough, or even that there nothing left to do.  Marshmallow, a soft, white, gooey, sticky substance, seems a good substance to express how things stop happening by becoming too comfortable.

The orientation towards writing good documents can block action, insofar as the document then gets taken up as evidence that we have “done it.”  As another practitioner describes, “Well I think in terms of the policies, people’s views are ‘well we’ve got them now so that’s done, its finished’  I think actually, I’m not sure if that’s even worse than having nothing, that idea in people’s heads that we’ve done race, when we very clearly haven’t done race.” The idea that the document is doing something is what could allow the institution to block recognition of the work that there is to do.  The idea that the document “does race” means that people can think that race has been done when it has not. The idea that we are doing race is thus how we are not doing race.

So a problem can be reproduced by the appearance of having solved it. I mention this earlier work on diversity here and now for a reason. It helped me to make sense of a statement on Sexual Harassment published by the college on June 3rd in response to the attention given to the problem on social media (an attention that has something to do with an act of bringing to attention). This statement takes the exact form of an assertion of Goldsmiths’ equality credentials: “we take sexual harassment seriously;”  “inclusivity is a defining theme;” “we are the one of the leading providers of taught programmes focusing on gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity.”

The statement refers to various activities as evidence of its credentials. One activity is Athena Swan: which has become reduced to a branding exercise (which is not to say that is all that it is) by being evoked in this way on a statement on sexual harassment. Another activity they reference is the conference on Sexual Harassment in Higher Education (SHHE) that took place in December 2015. The conference was organised by Anna Bull, Tiffany Page and Leila Whitley. They as organisers have just published an important and powerful response to the college’s statement. As they note: “It was because no one was else was willing to organise an event on sexual harassment that we took it upon ourselves. This has been a recurring theme during our time at Goldsmiths: the reliance on the labour and energy of students, rather than a concerted effort by the institution.”An event that was claimed as evidence of what the college was doing came about because of what the college was not doing.

Feminist work in addressing institutional failure can be used as evidence of institutional success. The very labour of feminist critique can end up supporting what is being critiqued. The tools you introduce to address a problem can be used as indicators that a problem has been addressed. The work you do to expose what is not being done can be used as evidence of what has been done.

It is a problem when feminism becomes a performance indicator.

The Centre for Feminist Research was set up recently (three years ago) but draws on long histories of feminist work at the college. A history can fill rooms. That we need to have a centre for feminism is a critique of the structures of the university: we have feminist centres because we don’t have feminist universities (more women professors does not necessarily mean more feminist universities). We have feminist centres because sexism, gender inequality and sexual harassment remain structuring of university environments. In one meeting, the very existence of the Centre is referred to as evidence of the college’s own commitment to equality and feminist values. The Centre became an equality credential. A program developed in response to a problem is assumed to resolve a problem. When the problem is not resolved, the resolution becomes the problem.

The resolution becomes the problem.

The problem is not a rogue individual, nor two, nor a rogue unit nor a rogue institution. But institutions still need to recognise the problem of sexual harassment as an institutional problem. You cannot address a problem until you recognise there is a problem to be addressed.

Of course, my college is much more than these unfinished histories of sexual harassment. The college has many unfinished histories. Of course, there is incredible feminist work, work on race and diversity, and on social justice, that is going on; work that is about opening up the university to others who might otherwise not have been here.  It is this work that makes it hard to leave: I was part of something. But until this history of sexual harassment is brought out into the open, discussed, so that we can learn about how what happened did happen, over such a long and sustained period of time, affecting so many people, causing so much trauma, it must have the attention, the full attention, of the organisation.

It is not the time to be over what is not over.

As Anna Bull, Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page show when sexual harassment becomes invisible so too does the labour of trying to challenge sexual harassment. It is like: coming up against wall after wall. But what you come against is not visible to others.

And if your labour is to expose violence, because that violence is hidden, that labour can even be understood as causing violence, for example, as intending to damage the reputation of an organisation. You might become understand as a vandal, “a willful destroyer of the venerable and the beautiful.” To expose long histories of harassment that have been hidden, that are all the more structural because of how they are hidden, does mean sending out messages that can end up all over the place, because they can take the form of a revelation or scandal. The media can turn your careful accounts of structures into something sensational (I argue in Living a Feminist Life that structures are sensational but in a different sense). Some might not want you to speak out not because they are concerned simply with reputational damage, but because they care for an environment they work in, and they know that words sent out can come back in a different way.

It is a risk we have to take. Because damage limitation does not work. So we have to do the work.

To do this work, we have share the costs of this work. Attending to sexual harassment, listening to those who are affected by it, whose lives are shaped by it, is emotional and hard work. Even when you have understanding, knowledge, it can be undoing and unsettling to listen to those who have been targeted and bullied in the place you work. Sometimes we have an idea of place because of our own histories: a place seems inclusive, radical, open, because that place was open to us, because that’s how it seemed to us. But that is not how everyone experiences that place, which means a place is not the same place. For students who arrived with high hopes but who where harassed by their lecturers, the space was not open and friendly, but hostile and closed. Sometimes we have an idea of a place as happy and stimulating, maybe that is how we experience our feminist spaces, as happy and stimulating. But for students who arrived only to be harassed by lecturers, only to have to spend their time trying not to be caught in a room with them, having to fight for space to breath because of what is said to them, then the spaces they are not happy and stimulating. Listening to students’ experience of harassment did change my idea of the place I worked: how could it not? And this too explains something: the resistance we might have to hearing the stories, our resistance, mine too, might be because of how they challenge our most profound attachments. To hold onto an idea of a place as good might even require not listening to those who have a different idea.  But I think: to make our attachments – to education, to a college, to a project, to equality, to feminism– meaningful we have to listen to those who seem to get in the way. It is the only way.

The killjoy as testimony.

Another way to say this: to work toward an inclusive institution is to listen to those for whom the institution is not inclusive.

Equality is not a credential. Equality is a task. It is what we have to do, because we are not there yet.



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Speaking Out

Colleagues and killjoys,

I have received such overwhelming support and solidarity since I posted about my decision to resign from my post. I just want to thank all of you who have commented and sent me messages.

Resigning was a difficult decision. Sharing the reasons for the decision was important to me: to indicate that my resignation is both an act of feminist protest and an act of feminist self-care.

I am aware that my account was vague and short. I have been asked about the details (as have colleagues of mine): I have been asked to give the story; to tell people about what has happened. I need to say a few words in response to this request. I need to say a few words about why speaking out matters even when there are things we cannot say, even when there is much that we have to leave unsaid.

It was three years ago that I first heard from a colleague of mine about the problem of sexual harassment at the college at which I work. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. I was shocked by the account she gave. At that time it was in relation to one individual who has since left the college after two enquiries. But that conversation led me to other conversations: with management as well as, most importantly, with students. It was the students who alerted us to the scale of the problem of sexual harassment. Since then there have been four enquiries. Before then there had been two enquiries. That is six enquiries relating to four members of staff: at least that I know of.

I mention numbers because they teach us something:  when I talk about the problem of sexual harassment I am not talking about one rogue individual; or two, nor even a rogue unit, nor even a rogue institution. We are talking about how sexual harassment becomes normalized and generalized – as part of academic culture.

We are talking about what we are not talking about.

So when I referred to the “failure to address the problem of sexual harassment” I did not mean nothing has been done. There have been enquiries, after all. But these enquiries have not led to a robust and meaningful investigation of the problem of sexual harassment as an institutional problem. Even when we had policy reviews, and policy changes, the review process was not opened up for a general discussion.

In the last there years many people both within my own college and at other universities have talked to me about their experience of sexual harassment. I began to realize something through these conversations: that there have been many cases of sexual harassment in universities, but there is no public record of these cases. They have vanished without a trace. No one knows about them expect for the people directly affected. How do these cases disappear without a trace? Almost always: because they are resolved with the use of confidentiality clauses. The clauses do something: they work to protect organisational reputation; no one gets to know about what happened. They most often protect the harassers: there is no blemish on their records; they can go on to other jobs. But they also leave those who experienced harassment even more isolated than they were before (harassment is already isolating). They leave silence. And silence can feel like another blow; a wall that is not experienced by those not directly affected (because silence is often not registered as silence unless you hear what is not being said).

And another consequence: we have no way of knowing the scale of the problem.

That we have no way of knowing the scale of the problem is indicative of the scale of the problem.

I will be saying a few words about confidentiality and archives at our conference Archives Matter tomorrow.  When sexual harassment cases are wrapped up by confidentiality, we do not have an archive; we do not have access to papers, materials, which would allow us to know what happened. There are so many missing cases, as I have been involved in this work I have learnt of more and more of them. If we are to create an archive, we have not to follow the directives of an institution. And if we do not follow the directives of an institution we become the cause of the damage we document. The response becomes: damage limitation. If diversity is damage limitation, as I have described in my work on racism, then damage limitation takes the form of controlling speech: trying to stop those who speak about violence from speaking in places where they can be heard.

To contain damage is to contain those who have been damaged.

She is heard as complaining. When she is heard as complaining she is not heard.

The absence of a hearing is reproductive. Silence enables the reproduction of the culture of harassment and abuse. When we don’t speak about violence we reproduce violence. Silence about violence is violence.

There were many students who left in silence. We still do not know not what they would have said if they could have stayed.

Missing documents; missing people. We don’t know how much we are missing.


When there is no official word by an organisation, it is not just that no one knows what happened; no one has to know. You are giving individuals permission not to know. And then the talk becomes contained in pockets: feminist centres like the one we created. These spaces are important: they become shelters; life-lines: places to go.

But the following can also be true:

When we talk they do not have to listen.

And even:

We talk so they do not listen.

And in the last three years we have been working with silence, working around it; trying to break that seal; trying to find ways to get through; trying to get a more general or collective conversation going, a conversation about what happened.

Nothing. Silence. Still.

And from the point of view of those harassed, it is like that history of harassment has just disappeared. And the history of challenging harassment (which often means opening oneself to being harassed all over again) disappears with it. It is as if nothing happened. Those who had a vague idea something was amiss have a vague idea that it has been dealt with. But even if individuals leave, it has not been dealt with.  People remain (often those who had leadership positions); networks stay alive; structures or processes are not put under investigation.

And problems come up again. And complaints are ignored again.

Confidentiality agreements do not mean and should not mean we cannot talk about sexual harassment. They mean we must talk about sexual harassment. We need to participate in this conversation because it is difficult. We have a responsibility to each other; it is the same responsibility we have as educators to create an environment that enables students to flourish; to learn.

There is more. When you do speak out, you are seen as a problem, as if the problem is only there because you speak about it. It is as if the problem would go away if you stopped talking about it. I have described this difficulty before: how exposing a problem becomes posing a problem. And you will find that you accused of disloyalty – of damaging reputation, even of damaging feminism because of what you are trying to say, as if you are bringing everything and everybody into disrepute.

But we must still speak: the silence is what is damaging.

And I want to thank publicly the students I have been working with on the problem of sexual harassment over the last three years. Although there has yet to be a public acknowledgment of what has happened, although many things  have been left in place that should have been dismantled, you achieved so much, and I know many students to come will benefit from your painstaking labour even if some students are still coming up against some of the same things.

I was vague about some things; the same things. I am still being vague. I hope in time and with support we can acquire more precision. We need to leave traces. More traces. Traces of what has happened. We need to talk about what happened to learn how to stop it from happening.

I have added a paragraph on my resignation to my chapter, Feminist Snap, from my forthcoming book, Living a Feminist Life.

Let me share it by way of conclusion, and with thanks.

What I had been asked to bear became too much; the lack of support for the work we were doing; the walls we kept coming up against. That I could resign depended upon having material resources and security. But it still felt like I was going out on a limb: I did not just feel like I was just leaving a job, or an institution, but also a life, an academic life; a life I had loved; a life I was used to. And that act of leaving was a form of feminist snap: there was a moment when I couldn’t take it anymore, those walls of indifference that were stopping us from getting anywhere; that were stopping us from getting through. Once the bond had snapped, I realised that I had been trying to hold onto something that had already broken. Maybe my relationship to the institution was like Silas’s relationship to his pot: if I tried to put the shattered pieces back together I would be left with a memorial, a reminder of what could no longer be.

Resignation can sound passive, even fatalistic: resigning oneself to one’s fate. But resignation can be an act of feminist protest. By snapping you are saying: I will not work for an organisation that is not addressing the problem of sexual harassment. Not addressing the problem of sexual harassment is reproducing the problem of sexual harassment. By snapping you are saying: I will not reproduce a world I cannot bear, a world I do not think should be borne.




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Colleagues and killjoys,

It is with sadness that I announce that I have resigned from my post at Goldsmiths. It is not the time to give a full account of how I came to this decision. In a previous post, I described some of the work we have been doing on sexual harassment within universities. Let me just say that I have resigned in protest against the failure to address the problem of sexual harassment. I have resigned because the costs of doing this work have been too high.

This decision was difficult. The Centre for Feminist Research has been a lifeline and a shelter. We have together created a space within the institution that has been a space to breathe. It has been a space that is not populated by the same old bodies.

I want to thank in particular all the students I have been lucky enough to work with especially those who participated in the Feminist Postgraduate Forum and the Sexism Working Group. I read your letter, and I was filled once again with a sense of hope for feminist futures.

Resignation is a feminist issue.

I hope to write a post with this title once I have had time to reflect on what has happened and what has not happened.

Sometimes we have to leave a situation because we are feminists. Wherever I am, I will be a feminist. I will be doing feminism. I will be living a feminist life. I will be chipping away at the walls.

In solidarity,


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Progressive Racism

In this post I want to do more than simply consider progressive racism as a specific genre of racism that we can document by documenting the form it takes. I want to do more than simply show how racism can be structuring in movements that understand themselves as progressive: the very idea that we need to show this or to convince anyone of this is more than politically naive; it is an instance of how progressive racism functions. In other words, it is progressive racism that makes progressive racism surprising. I want instead to discuss progressive racism as a way of identifying a mechanism that is central to how racism functions.

Racism is at one level conservative: racism already exists. The act of conserving racism is often predicated on a denial that racism exists. What you deem racism they call progress. I still remember one time having a politics lecturer challenge me during a faculty meeting for the implication in my  description for a new course, Gender, Race and Colonialism, that colonialism was “a bad thing” – an implication he heard in my use of the word “implication.” He embarked on a long winded speech about how colonialism represented progress for the colonized (referring to law, language, technology and industry). Others around me, seating at the table, nodded. I could hear them nod! I did not yet have the killjoy resources I needed to speak back to that collective nod. But it was good to be reminded that such views still exist, that they can be assembled at a meeting table at a university. Indeed it is these kinds of views that are much repeated in mainstream press and publications about the imperial past; it is how it remains possible to be proud of empire.

Progressive racism: how colonization and the theft of land, labour, people and resources is understood as being for others.

Critical race scholarship explores how all the fundamental terms that organise human life, including the human as one such fundamental term, are racialised terms. It is the denial of this raciality that allowed some forms of violence to be concealed: for example, empire becoming understandable as the gift of modernity or even as the invitation to others to become human as well to become modern. Empire as gift: becoming modern as the acquisition of debt.Note here that this gift/debt relation is also an active/passive relation. The colonized others become the ones who are indebted (even having land and resources or kin stolen is understood as the acquisition of debt) but also the ones who receive something.  I would argue that the racialisation of the active/passive distinction is central to all racism but acquires particular importance within progressive racism.

Racism is a conservation system that goes all the way down: it gets into the very grammar of sentences; how we creates subjects and objects. To conserve something is to reproduce something. Conservation is then never simply about the past; it is future orientated.  Reproducing racism is essentially how racism is conserved through or by institutions that bind their own conservation to the power of a “some” that, even when it does not appear racial, ends up being defined in racial terms.[1]  To conserve is thus an activity or a series; it is to accumulate or to progress.

Racism as a conservation system is thus also a progression system. Thus: progressive racism is central to the history of racism. After all, the empire itself was understood as progressive, as being about increasing civilization (often identified with happiness): to quote from a historian of the East India Company: The pace of civilisation would be quickened beyond all examples. The courts, the knowledge, and the manners of Europe would be brought to their doors, and forced by an irresistible moral pressure on their acceptance. The happiness of the human race would thus be prodigiously augmented” (cited in my 2010 book, The Promise of Happiness). That empire was justifiable using utilitarian logics (the greatest happiness of the greatest number) teaches us about those logics. Note here how the gift of empire is understood in terms of law, knowledge and ethics; a forced gift that allows civilization to become ours before theirs.

Racism progresses through institutions (courts, knowledge, manners) that are understood as progressive.

So racism is justified as progressive, although the word “racism” would never appear because of this justification (as if to say: it is not racism it is progress).

However much racism depends on the idea of progress, I want to suggest that progressive racism still needs to be identified as a genre before we can generalise from our understanding of how it works. I want to return to some of the findings I shared in my book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012), which was based on qualitative research into diversity and equality work within universities. Progressive racism might be another way of describing what I called in this book educated racism: the kind of racism that exists within educational institutions. This racism tends to be a polite or thoughtful or even critical racism. Many of the diversity practitioners I spoke to for this research came into the higher education sector from other sectors. And quite a few spoke of how they expected their work to be easier in universities: they expected to find people who shared their values because they were educators. They were surprised to find so much resistance to their work within universities. I think this is why the brick wall became a finding of the research. Many of my interviewees spoke of brick walls when describing their work, although it took me some time to recognise the repetition of “wall expressions” within the data. The wall also gave expression to a disappointment of an expectation: that diversity work would be more at home in organisations that have missions that are tied up with commitment to social progress. A genealogy of progressive racism is a genealogy of this expectation. It is the very expectation that diversity and equality are more at home in organisations that are assumed to be more progressive that enables racism to progress.

Organisations can then use equality and diversity as credentials: as if to say, how can we be racist when we are committed to equality and diversity? Let me refer to an article,“Anti-Racism initiatives by Universities are failing to have an effect off campus” to show how this question becomes an assertion. The article begins by reporting on Emma Thompson’s comments in the press about the treatment of her adopted son at Exeter University: “she said Nick Griffin from the BNP would ‘love it at Exeter because of the lack of racial diversity.’”  Her comments were “vehemently disputed by the university.” In the report the welfare officer responds: “Her comments were taken out of context and sensationalised by the media. We do a lot here to promote diversity both on campus and in the community. At Exeter we have just celebrated One World Week, which we tied in with Black History Month.” The response to a challenge of diversity of the University takes the form of a statement of how the university promotes diversity.  Indeed, diversity as a form of good practice (One World Week, Black History Month) is used as evidence that there is not a problem with a lack of diversity.

In the same article, two other representatives of the University are cited: “Overt racism is not a problem on campus, but it can be a problem off campus,” says the welfare officer. “We don’t have a problem with racism here,” says the head of communications for the university, “we take a much more holistic approach, working with the community. But we don’t come at it as a way of tackling racism.” Statements such as “don’t have a problem with racism” make those who report racism into the problem. Note also that the “holistic approach” of “working with the community” is explicitly linked to not coming at “it” as racism.  Racism is not spoken about by those who speak for the university.  When diversity is a viewing point, a way of picturing the organization, racism is unseen. Racism is heard as an accusation that threatens the organization’s reputation as diversity led.  Racism is heard as a potentially injurious to the organization, as what could damage and hurt the organization.  In other words, institutional racism becomes an institutional injury. When institutional racism is talked about as an “accusation” then it becomes personalised, as if the institution is “the one” who is suffering a blow to its reputation. Those who speak about racism thus become the blow, the cause of injury.

Progressive racism is how racism is enacted by being denied: how racism is heard as a blow to the reputation of an organisation as being progressive. We can detect the same mechanism happening in political movements: when anti-racism becomes part of an identity for progressive whites, racism is either re-located in a body over there (the racist) or understood as a blow to self-reputation of individuals for being progressive. This term “progressive whites” comes from Ruth Frankenberg important work on whiteness studies. She argues that focusing on whiteness purely in negative terms can  “leaves progressive whites apparently without any genealogy” (1993, 232).  Kincheloe and Steinberg in their work on whiteness studies write of “the necessity of creating a positive, proud, attractive antiracist white identity” (1998, 34). Indeed, the most astonishing aspect of this list of adjectives (positive, proud, attractive, antiracist) is that antiracism then becomes just another white attribute in a chain: indeed, anti-racism may even provide the conditions for a new discourse of white pride.

In a previous post, I discussed the case of Peter Tatchell. I would describe Tatchell’s work as progressive racism. Let me return to my arguments with this term “progressive racism” as a handle. As I noted earlier in 2005 a book Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality was published which included an article by Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem entitled “Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the War on Terror.” This chapter offered a critique of racism (in particular Islamaphobia) in gay politics, including as an example the work of Peter Tatchell and OutRage. The publishers received complaints about the chapter from Tatchell and his legal team. The chapter has been described by Peter Tatchell as “false and libelous.”  Before a proper discussion about these complaints with the editors or authors, the publisher issued a formal apology to Tatchell, based on a set of counter-assertions about Tatchell and OutRage! These counter-assertions included: that he has never “claimed the role of liberator and expert of Gay Muslims”; “that he is not Islamaphobic”; “that neither he nor Outrage are racist” and “that they have not engaged in racial politics,” and so on. As “counter-assertions” these assertions counter what are assumed to be the “assertions” of the chapter.

Progressive racism gives us a handle on what is going on here. A response to racism becomes a way of asserting one’s credentials as a progressive political subject. In other words progressiveness takes form as counter-assertion. These counter-assertions might also offer an assertion of a given person’s credentials. Counter-assertions are often stronger than countering the original assertion in the form of a negative claim (“I am not racist”); they often make additional assertions in the form of a positive claim (“I am anti-racist”). These responses fail to respond to the actual critique of racism as they take the form of self-recognition (“I don’t recognise myself in the critique of racism”; “I recognise myself as an anti-racist”). Progressive racism recentres on whiteness as a form of political heroism, as if whiteness is what allows us to progress beyond racism.

Progressive racism, I think, amps up whiteness as a way of occupying space. What do I mean by amping up? Progressive racism allows the increase of the power or force of whiteness. It allows a white subject to remain in the position of the one who is active/heroic/giving to the others. If the others do not receive this gift happily, they become ungrateful or mean. Progressive racism helps us to understand how white subjectivity is crafted as heroic in the first place.

Puff, puff; an ego becomes inflated.

Whiteness can then end up taking up even more space. Even anti-racism as a space ends up being occupied progressively by whiteness.

And then: racism becomes an injury to that individual’s reputation as being progressive. 

Progressive racism: how racism progresses through the self-perception of being progressive.

I am reminded of the film Dances With Wolves, which I wrote about in my 2000 book, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. This film could be described as progressive racism. What is progressive about it? Well it is an attempt to offer an alternative to the brutal racism of the classical Western. Here the natives are not presented as a homogeneous mass that threaten the white settler subjects – whose lives and happiness depend on their elimination. They are given names and faces. The film represents the unfolding of the frontier as a violent process of destruction. But the hero remains the white subject. We are encouraged to disidentify from the bad whites by identifying with the good white (the singularity of good whiteness matters here). It is his capacity to overcome his own whiteness, to “go native” as a gesture of sympathy, as being with, as being for, that is the progressive racism of the film.

Progressive whiteness: the power to unmake as well as make the border between self and other.

Progressive whiteness: whiteness unmaking whiteness, molar becomes molecular.

And then he disappears. Whiteness: often disappears. Here whiteness might appear all the more forceful by the narration of that disappearance as a gift.

In other words the white subject’s overcoming of his whiteness becomes a gift to the other. Oh how familiar. Whiteness is often at work through or as overcoming/becoming: the white subject gives by giving up their whiteness.

Progressive racism: how anti-racism becomes another white gift.

Whiteness is exercised in his narrative of self-overcoming; whiteness as gift, right down to the molecule.

And let’s be clear here: White heroism converts quickly into white injury: racism becomes an injury to whiteness.

I want to consider one final example, this time the work of an academic Slavoj Žižek. I have written about racism in Žižek’s work before and I am cautious about writing about it more. I want to treat Žižek words as expressive of a wider logic I am trying to identify – I will not be linking to the lectures or texts I cite as I have no wish to restrict my analysis to the question of whether Žižek is racist or not. I have no interest in that question; for me it is not the right question. One of the reasons I am referring to Žižek’s work is because he has explicitly called for “progressive racism” as a way of responding to racism. In a lecture he identifies progressive racism with making racist jokes (also described in the same lecture as “dirty jokes”) as such jokes can enable solidarity. I assume he means solidarity between those that racism sets apart; it is, of course, usual to think of jokes as a form of social bonding.

In this lecture Žižek contrasts what he calls “progressive racism” to “political correctness,” which he identifies with an institution: Santa Cruz. His discussion evokes the right wing critique of political correctness: that it functions as an imposition of moral norms on the freedom of others, political correctness as taking the fun out of jokes. In doing so he inflates the power of those who challenge speech by evoking political correctness as if it is the hegemony (just as he evokes “liberal multiculturalism” as if it is hegemony – despite the fact that multiculturalism has been sentenced to death by being associated with segregation, terrorism and indeed death by progressive European nations).

It is interesting how “racist jokes” slide into “dirty jokes.” That slide is an old borrowing: if race often works through rendering the other “dirty,” racism is articulated as freedom to be dirty. The desire to tell “dirty jokes” associate racism and sexism with pleasure and humor. To challenge racism  would be to deprive a body of both. The killjoy is a ghostly presence here.

Political correctness might describe the effort to find jokes that do not rest on stereotypes of others. So what makes telling racist jokes progressive? How would a progressive racist joke be different from any other racist jokes? The difference is not in the jokes; the difference is an account of what the jokes are doing. A progressive racist tells racist jokes as a way of challenging racism by enabling solidarity: being with by sharing the butt of the joke.

But, you see, we can all be the butt!

Perhaps a progressive racist joke is a joke told by somebody who is progressive: in the sense of someone whose political ends are progressive. And yet I would argue that not only is the joke the same joke (word for word), but the structure of address is pretty much the same structure of address: the progressive racist would expect the other to be willing to be the butt of the joke by receiving that joke as an expression of solidarity. The person who is not willing to be the butt, would then get in the way of political solidarity (as well as taking the fun out of the joke). Same old, same old. The problem is: inequality exists in the very structure of address; you cannot joke your way out of a structure.

We are not all “buts” in the same way.

This is allowing us to get closer to the mechanism I want to identify: how racism is repeated by becoming part of a progressive agenda. This a little bit like how ironic racism works: by being ironic you get to repeat racism as if the distance enables you not to be what you say. More recently Žižek has written two pieces that rest on what I would call run-of-the-mill racism, the kind of racism that those who think of themselves as progressive would not usually articulate. Although maybe not: given how Žižek assumes liberal multiculturalism as a hegemony, and political correctness as a form of moral hygiene, then racism can easily be articulated as radical and rebellious.

Before I refer to these pieces I want to talk about what I mean by run-of-the mill racism. This is a kind of racism that is not sophisticated, polite, educated or subtle. It is not a racism that is masked or screened by the appearance of being something other than itself. In other words this form of racism reveals itself in a gleeful manner. I am a racist, so! Ha ha! So there! Žižek prefaced a recent contribution by using such a speech act (“I am a racist”), reproduced with qualification (“but I hate my own race even more”). Self-declarations of racism do not mean masking does not occur (see my discussion of speech acts that admit to one’s own racism here).

Run-of-the-mill racism rests explicitly on ideas of superiority. Statements do not necessarily have to say: European culture is superior; we are superior because we are European or white. In other words, what is explicit about such statements is not necessarily that they refer to race. The “we” that is superior might be the left, or what’s left of the left, or what Žižek calls “the radical Western left.”

The “we” is the progressive we.

That left can then be associated with the universal (as that which is beyond race, minor detail!) as what we, if we are to progress,  must enter. The universal: as class, as a class. Don’t enter, don’t progress!

And indeed I would argue that run of the mill racism is often banal: it takes the form of casual background assumption of the superiority of a “we” to which a subject is progressively attached.

This is from a recent article:

The clearest expression of the “desire for the west” are immigrant refugees: their desire is not a revolutionary one, it is the desire to leave behind their devastated habitat and rejoin the promised land of the developed west….But since, for the large majority of pretenders, this desire cannot be satisfied, one of the remaining options is the nihilist reversal: frustration and envy get radicalised into a murderous and self-destructive hatred of the west, and people get engaged in violent revenge.

Racism operates here as an assumption of envy in the other, or even as a desire for the other to be envious: that to be an “immigrant refugee” is to want what the West has. Really? Think about it. Immigrant refugee: even in those two words are are implied narrative, a way of conflating immigration with asylum. Becoming a refugee, fleeing a situation of war and conflict, is understood as “desire for the West.” It is this racism that has structured how state racism works as a security system: that really behind a claim to asylum, a claim of persecution, is a “desire for the west.” It is this racism that allows the figure of the bogus asylum seeker to circulate, as the one who uses asylum as a screen for their true desires (for our jobs, our houses, our benefits, our women, and so on). It is this racism that implies: they want what we have; they lack what we have.

What is striking about Zizek’s comments on “immigrant refugees” is how close they are to the kinds of comments articulated by the Prime Minister, David Cameron. Žižek and Cameron sound quite alike even though some of Žižek’s terms are not used by Cameron who of course has no critique of the violence of global capitalism [2]. But that the racism can be sustained in the name of a critique of the violence of global capitalism is teaching us something; that even this kind of critique can reproduce violence by how it does not locate violence. Both Žižek and Cameron argue explicitly against “multiculturalism,” which they inflate with power (as a hegemony or consensus); they both identify political correctness and/fear of being branded racist as having prevented us from being critical of minority cultures (whilst being critical of minority cultures); they both say the problem is we have been too tolerant, that tolerance has weakened us (although this us is defined differently); they both call for some kind of universalism/ integration in response (entry to a we as the requirement to give up some particulars).

Zizek’s comment on “immigrant refugees” is not obviously a form of progressive racism. This is Zizek sounding a lot like the Tory government. Or maybe we can just keep identifying  how what appears on the right also appears on the left. It is racism that hears in the situation of refugees, those who have to flee their home due to persecution and war, a desire to have what the West has. It is racism that allows the figure of the terrorist to become stuck together with that of the “immigrant refugee.” It is racism that allows terrorism to be explained as a consequence of envy and resentment.

Then: the concern with racism, let’s even call it anti-racism, is identified by Zizek as a problem because it distracts from the universality of class struggle: “In the first half of 2015, Europe was preoccupied by radical emancipatory movements (Syriza and Podemos), while in the second half the attention shifted to the “humanitarian” topic of the refugees. Class struggle was literally repressed and replaced by the liberal-cultural topic of tolerance and solidarity. Zizek is the one naming concern with refugees “humanitarian,” even if he is using quote marks.  When we are talking about the topic of refugees we are talking about the state management of life and death: we are talking about death by policy; we are talking about the distribution of vulnerability to populations. All of this talk is dismissed as a “liberal-cultural topic of tolerance and solidarity.” Indeed talk about such matters becomes what is repressive. Literally; apparently.

To talk about refugees as posing a crisis is to talk about state racism (in other words, we are locating humanitarianism within a history of violence). We are talking about how some immigrants become dangerous; some bodies become foreign. Concern about immigration is usually a mask for racism (“it’s not racist to ask critical questions about immigration”). Even phrases like “anti-immigrant” can be used to mask racism: not all migrants are the object of our concern. The dismissal of concern about brown and black deaths as “liberal-cultural” is racism in action: it is a repetition of the violence that decides whose lives count and whose do not. If the solution is class struggle, then the solution might be the erasure of the facts of blackness, and brownness, a refusal to recognise how structural violence is directed toward those who do not pass into whiteness.

The radical Western left: passing into whiteness.

But we have more to say here. Because Zizek identifies the problem as: our inability to address sexual violence in minority cultures as a result of political correctness.

Mostly through generalization, many on the Left resorted to all possible strategies in order to blur facts. Exhibiting political correctness at its worst, in two Guardian articles the perpetrators were vaguely designated as “Asians.” Claims were made. This wasn’t about ethnicity and religion but rather about domination of man over women. Who are we with our church pedophilia and Jimmy Saville to adopt a high moral ground against a victimized minority? Can one imagine a more effective way to open up the field to UKIP and other anti-immigrant populists who exploit the worries of ordinary people?

What is not acknowledge is that such anti-racism is in effect a form of covert racism since it condescendingly treats Pakistanis as morally inferior beings who should not be held to normal human standards.

In fact, as feminists of colour have shown the racialisation of sexual violence is one of the key ways racism functions. Feminism of colour: dismissable as political correctness. Those who point out how racism is central to how sexual violence and sexual abuse are reported and represented are judged to create the very conditions for fascism. This is a round about way of saying: pointing out racism leads to racism.

Let me return to a previous post to explain what I mean. I noted there how the problem of violence against girls and women in Western countries is rarely denoted as a problem of culture. So if a white man attacks a woman, and if he is put on trial, his whiteness would be inessential or incidental, an irrelevant detail. He would not be vaguely identified as white in the reporting of this kind of case. If a brown man – he might be an immigrant, he might be a Muslim or a “vaguely designated Asian” attacks a woman, his brownness becomes essential: perhaps the violence is identified as originating with immigrants or Muslims or vaguely with Asians. Summary: some forms of violence are represented as intrinsic to some forms of culture (as a cultural problem or a problem with culture); other forms of violence get represented as extrinsic to others (as an individual problem or a problem with individuals). Racism increasingly operates through the idea of “culture” as being what minorities “have.”  Culture here becomes something fixed but only for some cultures (culture becomes their nature). Making violence into a problem of culture is thus a way of racializing violence. Much racism today operates as or through the racialisation of violence.  And as Sara Farris has recently noted “when sexism is racialised and depicted as the exclusive domain of the non-western or non-Christian Other, all women end up losing.”

Another comment:

They are well aware that what they are doing is foreign to our predominant culture, but they are doing it precisely to wound our sensitivities. The task is to change this stance of envy and revengeful aggressiveness, not to teach them what they already know very well.

In fact the idea that rape, sexual abuse and sexual violence is foreign to “our predominate culture,” is how rape, sexual abuse and sexual violence become part of our culture. The idea that rape is foreign is what allows the identification of the rapist as a foreigner. This is “stranger danger” in action, and stranger danger is, as feminists have shown, again and again, dangerous to women, as women are endangered most often at home, by men they know, by familiars not strangers. Progressive racism rests on progressive sexism because of how sexism is assumed to be foreign. Progressive racism: how violence is assumed to originate with outsiders. Progressive racism is intimately tied up with domestic violence.

And, of course, stranger danger is dangerous to those deemed strangers; strangers are endangered by being recognised as strangers. We have a word for this: racism.  There is nothing more dangerous than being perceived as dangerous.

Also note, this narrative that positions sexual abuse as foreign to our culture, also positions that abuse as an attack on our culture. Violence against girls and women, in other words, is positioned as an attack on an us, with this “us” evoking the subject with progressive values. This is a very traditional form of sexism: which understands sexual violence against women to be not really about power over women, or even not really about women. Her wounds are covered up and covered over as a “wound to our sensitivities,” as if violence against her is really directed at us. An us that is: white and male.

Indeed the fact that many progressive centers and movements have covered up and covered over sexual harassment and sexual violence is not coincidental. I know of women who have been told that if they complain about the violence directed against them by self-defined progressive men of the left that they would be betraying the cause. It would be the end of the party! This is why anti-feminism is so central to progressive politics: feminists become identified with the state, as bureaucracy, as a repressive apparatus, as imposing moral norms on those who would otherwise be free radicals. This is why feminism is so often dismissed as moralising. And this is what it means for equality to become understood as a progressive value: so  much abuse and harassment can take place because the assumption of equality enables the abuse of power to be masked (as if having sex with your students is a form of egalitarianism – yes I have even heard this claim).

When we are talking about progressive racism and sexism we are talking then about racism and sexism of the left. If you bring racism or sexism up, especially in progressive circles, you will be judged as suffering from political correctness, or as doing identity politics. You are melancholic: too attached to your own particulars, too attached to yourself. You become me; they we. I have called this melancholic universalism: the requirement to identify with the universal that repudiates you.

We have learnt then a little more about what is meant by repudiation. Although there is more to learn. You have not to talk about racism or sexism as if not talking about them  stops them from existing. If you talk about racism and sexism, then you are deemed as being divisive, ruining the party. You have not to talk about yourself as racialised or gendered subjects. That’s a promise! You have to pass over the details as if they only exist because you insist they exist. You are not supposed to talk about the harassment you routinely experience. Repudiation: what you have to do to progress. If you talk instead of repudiation as a requirement, you become the killjoy, again. You are depriving their bodies of their pleasures. You do not laugh at their dirty jokes. They are not funny; this is not fun.

You are refusing to be saved by white men.

You are ungrateful.

We should be ungrateful; there is nothing here to be grateful for.

[1] This “some” cannot be defined from the start as racial (as being white say) because the law prohibits it. So the “some” might be defined in terms of qualities – the best, the excellent and so on – that ends up being racialised. Racism: so often about how things end up by not appearing to start with racism.

[2] In fact we could easily place some of Žižek’s recent contributions alongside speeches made by David Cameron – the similarities are uncanny and instructive.


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

Kincheloe, J.L and Steinberg, S.R (1998) “Addressing the Crisis of Whiteness: Reconfiguring White Identity in a Pedagogy of Whiteness,” in J. L. Kincheloe, S. R Steinberg,. N. M Rodriguez and R. E Chennault (eds) White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America. New York: St. Martin’s Press. pp 3-29.


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Queer Fragility

Queer: a word with a history. A word that has been flung like a stone; picked up and hurled at us, a word we can claim for us. Queer: odd, strange, unseemly, disturbed, disturbing. Queer: a feeling, a sick feeling; feeling queer as feeling nausea. When we think of what this word has gathered, we gather around the word.  It is a fragile assembly. To create an assembly we would not begin with queers who are fragile although fragile queers might appear somewhere along the way. Queer fragility: to offer a meditation on fragility and how it can provide a queer connection, an odd, sometimes startling and always sensational connection, between what and who is deemed fragile.

In older uses of queer – queer to describe anything that is noticeable because it is odd – queer and fragility were often companions. A companion is a travelling companion. In one of George Eliot’s essays, “Three Months in Weimar” the narrator describes the sound of an old piano thus: “it’s tones now so queer and feeble like those of an invalided old woman whose voice could once make a heart beat with fond passion.” So: queer and feeble.

Feeble, frail, invalid, incapacitate, falter, weak, tearful, worn; tear; wear; queer too, queer is there, too.

These proximities tell a story. We might get in touch with things at the very point at which they, or we, are worn or worn down; those moments when we break or break down, when we shatter under the weight of history.

Crip, queer: shattering words. Carrie Sandahl teases out the “affinities and tensions” between crip and queer (1993: 26). Crip and queer: both these words have hurtful histories; they are words that drip with insult. They are words that are claimed, becoming pointed; becoming ways of pointing to something, because they keep alive that history: negation as political sensation.

This affinity and tension might be carried by the words themselves. For Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick what makes queer a “politically potent term” is how it cleaves to “childhood scenes of shame” (1993: 4). The potency of queer is what it cannot not bring up. Alison Kafer explores how the word “crip” is charged word. Drawing on Nancy Mairs’ essay on wanting people to wince at the word, she suggests “this desire to make people wince suggests an urge to shake things up, to jolt people out of their everyday understandings of bodies and minds, of normalcy and deviance” (2013: 15). Queer and crip: willful words that work by insisting on what they bring up; a charged history, a shattering history; they are shattering words.

Feminism too: tends to break things when said.

Shattering words. The sound of breaking glass.

A shattering can be evocative: it can bring strong images, memories, feelings, to mind.

After all we began with an evocation: the sound of an old piano evoking the sound of an “invalided old woman.” Could this evocation vibrate with affection? Could a heart beat with passion for what is wavering and quavering? Could we hear in valid, truth coming from strength, the violence of a history that demands something from those who cannot embody something?

Ableism: hearing you sound out of tune, a body as abrasion.

So queer and feeble: attuned to the sound of that sound.

Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation offers a sustained attention to fragility as a consequence of a world that is wearing, of a world that does not accommodate a body; of a world that does not provide a body with a home. Writing about his experience of cerebral palsy, Clare describes climbing up and down a mountain: “my feet simply don’t know the necessary balance. I lurch one from one rock to the next, catching myself repeatedly as I start to fall” alongside his experience of writing “the faster I try to write, the more the pen slides out of my control, muscles spasm, then contract trying to stop the tremors, my shoulder and upper arm painfully tight” (7). Writing, climbing: they are activities, a body doing things, trying things.

In Willful Subjects (2014) I described clumsiness is a queer ethics. Clumsiness is a crip as well as queer ethics; we have to create room for bodies that do not obey commands; that do not move in straight lines; that lose their balance. A body that is less stable is less supported by a ground that is less stable. If a world is organised into straight lines, if there are narrow spaces available to move around in (along a corridor or between that table and that wall), if tools are made for hands that can keep a firm grasp on things, then activities are harder for some to complete than others. Activities can bring you up against walls.

A body that wiggles about: deviating from an accepted path.

Clumsiness: when a world is what you bump into.

And the wall appears in Clare’s text as a place from which you can view a world that is alien: “I watched from the other side of a stone wall, a wall that was part self-preservation, part bones and blood of aloneness, part the impossible assumptions I could not shape by body around” (144). A stone wall: made out of a body that cannot be shaped by an assumption, a body that is not accommodated by a pronoun, he or she, which is at once an expectation of what a body can do and be. That or: violence more.

Clare describes how in this harsh and heavy world his most “sustaining relations” were with stones: “I collected stones –red, green, grey, rust, white speckled with black, black streaked with silver –and kept them in my pockets, their hard surfaces warming slowly to my body heat” (144-145).  And it is stones that Clare picks up, which give another sense of a body. From a shattering, a story can be told, one that finds in fragility the source of a connection.

Picking up the pieces of a life can be like picking up those stones; they are warmed by the heat of a body, finding life in a pocket; they; you, you too.

You too: when a word has been thrown at you, you do not expect to find a shelter there, to gather around. When you do, when you gather around an insult, you are not obeying an order. The word “obey” derives from the word “audience,” to give ear, to listen. You are disobeying by hearing an insult as an invitation to be somewhere. But of course sometimes a word does not provide shelter because of a history of being thrown, of how you are thrown. You do not stay; you hurry away.

In my book, Queer Phenomenology, I concluded  with a discussion of disorientation (1), of queerness as an oblique or slant-wise relation to a straight world. I choose not to call for disorientation because for some being thrown might be what leads you away from a word that is thrown at you. A word can seem like a world when it is not accommodating.

I began my conclusion “Disorientation and Queer Objects” with a quote from Merleau-Ponty.

The instability of levels produces not only the intellectual experience of disorder, but the vital experience of giddiness and nausea, which is the awareness of our own contingency and the horror with which it fills us’ (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 296).

And then I noted:

Moments of disorientation are indeed vital. They are bodily experiences that throw the world up, by throwing the body off its line. Disorientation as a bodily feeling can be undoing, and can shatter one’s sense of confidence in the ground, one’s belief that the ground on which we reside can support  the actions that make a life feel liveable. Such a feeling of shattering, or of being shattered, might persist and become a crisis. Or the feeling itself may pass, as the ground returns, or as we return to the ground. The body might get reoriented if the hand that reaches out finds something to steady an action. Or the hand might reach out and find nothing, and might grasp instead the indeterminacy of air. The body in losing its support might then be lost, undone, thrown.

Sometimes, disorientation is an ordinary feeling, or even a feeling that comes and goes as we move around during the day. I think we can learn from such ordinary moments. Say you are concentrating really hard. You focus, what is before you becomes the world. The edges of that world disappear as you zoom in.  The object – say the paper, and the thoughts that gather around the paper by gathering as lines on the paper– becomes what is given by losing its contours. The paper becomes worldly, which would even mean you lose site of the table. Then, behind you, someone calls out, says your name. As if by force of habit, you look up, you even turn around to face what is behind you. But as your bodily gestures move up, as you move around, you move out of the world, without simply falling into a new one. Such moments when you “switch” dimensions can be deeply disorientating. One moment does not follow another, as a sequence of spatial givens, which unfold as moments of time. They are moments in which you lose one perspective, but the  “loss” itself is not empty or waiting; it is an object, thick with presence.  You might even see black lines in front of your eyes as lines that block what is in front of you when you turn around. You experience the moment as loss, as the making present of something that is now absent (the presence of an absence). You blink, but it takes time for the world to acquire a new shape. You might even feel angry from being dislodged from the world you had inhabited as a contour-less world. You might even return the address with the frustration of: what is it? What is “it” that makes me lose what is before me?

So yes, those moments of switching dimensions can be disorientating. What do such moments of disorientation tell us? What do they do, and what can we do with them?

We can consider how queer politics might involve disorientation, without legislating disorientation as a politics. It is not the disorientation is always radical. Bodies that experience disorientation can be defensive, as they reach out for support, or as they search for a place to reground and re-orientate their relation to the world. So too, a politics that proceeds from disorientation can be conservative, depending on the “aims” of its gestures, depending on how it seeks to (re)ground itself. And, for sure, bodies that experience being out of place might need to be orientated, to find a place they feel comfortable in the world. The point is not whether or not we experience disorientation (for we will, and we do) but how such experiences can impact on the orientation of bodies and spaces, which is after all about how the things are “directed,” how they are shaped by the lines they follow. The point is what we do with such moments of disorientation, as well as what such moments can do, whether they can offer us the hope of new directions, and whether new directions are reason enough for hope.

In Living a Feminist Life, I returned to the question of orientation as a question of fragility (2),  queer fragility. Not to be accommodated is to become fragile: to be less supported by a world is to become more easily breakable. My aim was not to celebrate fragility but to register fragility as a consequence. I wanted to challenge how fragility can be used as a form of anticipatory causality, and thus as a defense mechanism (avoiding proximity to that which is anticipated to cause damage ).

I also wanted to show how fragility is also a way of telling a story about someone or something.

Fragility is generative: the quality assumed to belong to something is generated by the assumption.

So, for queers, it might be assumed you caused your own damage because you left the safety of a brightly lit path. For queers: we deviate from the path we  are supposed to follow. For queers: when damages are returned to you as a consequence of deviation. And we know: if you stayed on that path you would have been damaged in another way. That would have been: not the story usually told.

The brightly lit: dangerous to those deemed dangerous.

For some fragility is understood as caused by your own actions, as what follows an act of deviation.

Just deserts. It hurts.

So: fragility was a thread I picked up from the deviant paths of Queer Phenomenology, although I am not sure I realised this until now. In the conclusion to that book I turned to Sartre’s novel Nausea. A rather queer novel, I would say; still. Nausea could be described as a phenomenological description of disorientation, of someone losing their grip on the world. What is striking about this novel is how much the loss of grip is directed towards objects that gather around: “I must say how I see this table, the street, people, my packet of tobacco, since these are the things which have changed” (9). Here, again, the table appears first in a queer story. It is the things that are gathered in the way that they are, which reveal the disorientation, like an exercising of a ghost.

These these. The story moves on:

Something has happened to me: I cant doubt that any more. It came as an illness does, not like an ordinary certainty, not like anything obvious. It installed itself cunningly, little by little; I felt a little strange, a little awkward, and that was all….There is something new, for example, about my hands, a certain way of picking up my pipe or my fork. Or else it is the fork which has a certain way of getting itself picked up, I don’t know. Just now, when I was on the point of coming into my room, I stopped short because I felt in my hand a cold object which attracted my attention by means of a sort of personality. I opened my hand and looked: I was simply holding a doorknob (13).

We begin with the “me” as the place where something happens, a little strangeness, awkwardness that emerges over time, as if with a life of its own. The becoming strange of the body does not stay with “me.” For if it is my hands that are strange, then it is my hands as they express themselves in a gesture. Such gestures are precisely where my hands meet with objects, where they cease to be apart, but pick things up. So is it my hand or is it the fork that is different? What is so compelling to me about this account of “becoming queer” is how the strangeness that seems to reside somewhere between the body and the objects it is near is also what brings those objects to life, and makes them dance. So the doorknob when it is being what it is there to do (allow the body to open the door) is that – is even “just that.” But when the door knob is felt as other than what is it supposed to do, then it comes to have a tangible, sensuous quality, as a “cold object” or even one with a “personality.”

Perhaps the doorknob, rather like the stone, is warmed by proximity. Attention: can be warming.

The  objects that are gathered as gatherings of history -domesticated objects, such as doorknobs, pens, knives, and forks – are in a certain way overlooked. What makes them historical is how they are overlooked. Seeing such objects, as if for the first time involves wonder, it allows the object to breathe not through a forgetting of its history, but through allowing that history to come alive: how did you get here? How did I come to have you in my hand? How did we arrive at this place where such a handling is possible? To re-encounter objects as strange things is not to lose sight of the history, but to refuse to make them history by losing sight.

Queer objects might be a matter of how we attend to things, or what “things” can do, when they are in touch with other things. We might be talking in other words, of the queer effects of certain gatherings, which “things” appear to be oblique, to be “slipping away” insofar as they are losing their place, alongside other things, or where “things” seem out of place in their place alongside other things.

The object around which I have most gathered these thoughts has been the table. In a way, I have made the table a rather queer object by attending to it, by bringing an object that is often in the background to the front of my writing.  To move the “behind” to the “front” can have a queer effect. We could ask, for instance, whether queer tables are the tables around which queer bodies gather. It is certainly the case that tables can support queer gatherings: the times that we might gather around, eating, talking, loving, living and creating the spaces and times for our attachments. Queers have their tables for sure. Stories of queer kinship are full of tables.

Tables: they are rather queer things.

In Living a Feminist Life, the fragility of things held my attention, the fragility of things, queer things.  A broken jug: it spills. To spill: to cause something to fall from a container, often unintentionally. When we spill we reveal something. We spill the beans when we reveal something that is confidential; when we say something that we are not supposed to say. To spill derives from the word to spoil. The spiller is a spoil sport. This is why I described the feminist killjoy as a broken container. She flies off the handle. When she speaks, she spills. Perhaps it is the family table that she breaks. A queer table is where she ends up. Mopping up the spillage.

To spit is also to spill. Sometimes we encourage each other to spit it out because of the difficulty we have saying something. Words: they too can become queer things. We have to spill what is difficult to reveal.

Spit it out, spill it out.

Racism: when we spill, we spit.

We break open a container. We watch the words spill. They spill all over you.

It is a warming thought. And I think of 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, 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. Snap to it.

How inventive

Quite something

Not from nothing

Something from something

A kitchen table becomes a publishing house

We assemble ourselves around our own tables, kitchen tables, doing the work of community as ordinary conversation. A broken history might be how we got here, but in getting here we are doing something. We create our own support systems,

When we have to shelter from the harshness of a world we build a shelter

The effort required for those shelters to be built, brick by brick; she has a hand in it.


What a shelter

The roots; back to routes. Skelter from skelt: “to hasten, scatter hurriedly.” Scattered; shattered; confusion. The helter?

Just there for the rhyme.

Poetry in motion.

To build from the ruin; our building might seem ruined, when we build, we ruin. How easily though without foundations, without a stable ground, the walls come down. We keep them up; we keep each other up. We might then think of fragility not so much as the potential to lose something, fragility as loss, but as a quality of relations we acquire, or a quality of what is we build. Queer fragility: a quality of what is built. A fragile shelter has looser walls, made out of lighter materials; see how they move; it is a movement.

A movement is what is built to survive what has been built. Queer fragility: how we loosen our hold on things. How we mess things up. How we survive what is messed up.

(1) For an excellent recent discussion of disorientation and its relevance for moral life that draws on feminist philosophy see Harbin (2016).

(2) I discuss the question of fragility throughout Living a Feminist Life though especially in chapters 7 “Fragile Connections” and chapter 8 “Feminist Snap.” My lecture “feminism and fragility” drawn from the book was posted earlier here.


Eliot, George (1884). Essays and Leaves from a Notebook. Edinburgh: Blackwood.

Harbin, Ami (2016). Disorientation and Moral Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kafer, Alison (2013). Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1962). The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith, London: Routledge Kegan and Paul.

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.

Sandahl, Carrie (2002). “Considering Disability: Disability Phenomenology’s role in Revolutionizing Theatrical Space,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. 16(2): 17-32.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1963). Nausea, trans. Robert Baldick, London: Penguin Books.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1993). “Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel.” GLQ: 1, 1: 1-14.



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Losing Confidence

Losing confidence: it can be a feeling of something gradually going away from you, being eroded. You sense the erosion. You might stumble, hesitate, falter; things might gradually unravel so you end up holding onto the barest of threads. It might be an experience in the present that throws things up, throws you off balance; or a memory of how you lost your way once before that comes back in a flash and catches you unaware. When you lose confidence it can feel like you are losing yourself: like you have gone into hiding from yourself.

Sometimes losing confidence is slow; other times losing confidence is sudden. In the conclusion to Queer Phenomenology I wrote of how disorientation “can shatter your sense of confidence in the ground” (2006: 157). Confidence can indeed shatter like glass. And when your confidence shatters, you are the one who ends up in pieces. In Living a Feminist Life I began picking up some of these pieces. I was writing about how you end up trying to put yourself back together again; how you can feel like a fragment of your former self. When your confidence is shattered it is not just you that feels different: the world appears different, those edges sharper, the wall harder, that ceiling higher; obstacles, those things that are in the way, appear larger, magnified.

Or when you have lost confidence in something or in someone, in a relationship, everything can come into focus; everything becomes significant; when she frowns, or turns away, or does not smile the way you expect her to: is that because she doesn’t want you anymore, is she telling you something? Questions, a wavering, a hesitation: when something gets wrapped up in doubt you can end up wrapped up in yourself. And then perhaps when you are all wrapped up, your anxiety that she is turning away means she turns away: you have left her nowhere else to turn.

Are you then creating a problem by sensing a problem?

The question itself can make you lose confidence.

Sometimes: we learn about something from losing something.

Confidence can be the quality of something that is in the world: a gesture can be more or less confident; we sense the difference from how the arm moves in the air. If to lose confidence is a faltering gesture that gesture has ripple effects. A loss can be passed around, losing confidence in each other, in a situation; a “we” comes to be at the moment we falter.

In an earlier post I reflected on how an experience of violence too can have effects on one’s confidence; you might feel smaller because of what has happened to you; you might try and take up less space. You learn to inhabit your body differently through this expectation that what lies ahead might be shattering. When you sense the world “out there” as a danger it is your relation to your own body that changes: you become more cautious, timid, you might withdraw in anticipation that what happened before might happen again.  It might be your own experiences that lead you here, to caution as withdrawal, but it might also what you have learnt from others. You are taught or told to be careful: to be full of care as to become anxious about the potential to be broken. You begin to learn that being careful, not having things like that happen to you, is a way of avoiding becoming damaged.  And you sense the consequence: if something happens you have failed to prevent it.  Losing confidence might be about the work we have to do to be; a loss of confidence that registers not only as bodily fragility but also in how the world registers as intrusion, as not providing a shelter or home.

Confidence might also involve passing: some have to pass as confident in order to pass through a space; along a street or a corridor. Passing as confident means: appearing as if you are sure you have a right to be there, being upright or firm. You might be putting on confidence like armor, as if you can be defended by appearing to be what you do not feel at all.

Not all of us have to pass as confident to pass through; not all of us have to pass to pass through. 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.  Passing is what you have to do because or when your legitimacy is in question. 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 not women has material life consequences. Juliet Jacques (2014) drawing on Julia Serano (2007) explores precisely this problem: how the passing narrative casts trans women as deceivers or as fraudulent.  But sometimes, as Jacques herself notes, passing might be what you have to do to avoid being harassed. To pass as cis is to pass through without being detected: or to try to. Passing might then require a certain kind of confidence: the creation of an impression of having a right to be where you are; who you are. You experience a requirement to justify your existence in the manner of your existence.

Confidence: a manner of existence. It is not surprising that confidence leads us to the question of manners. Confidence derives from the Latin confidentia “firmly trusting, bold” (com plus fidere). The word confidence rests on faith or trust. To be confident can thus mean to have trust in an expectation.

Confidence could thus be understood as an orientation toward the future even if it is experienced in the present: to be confident in something is to be confident of something: that what you wish to bring about can be brought about. When I am confident in myself I am confident that I can bring something about. Confidence might then be registered as a bodily boldness that carries something forward; it can be the strength of a conviction or the appearance of that strength. To lose confidence can then be to lose strength not because you become physically weaker but because your estimation of what you can do has weakened; you are not sure you can carry that thing; it is too heavy, your arm hurts, you waver; it falls, you fall. Or if you are passing as confident, to lose confidence would be that moment that passing is revealed; to come out as faltering.

We can hear from these simple descriptions how confidence matters. So much feminist work has been concerned with gender as a mechanism for distributing confidence; how girls are less confident in their own capacities than boys. And yet even from this sentence we can see see the problem of “zooming in” on confidence as an explanation of gender and power. It can imply that girls are their own obstacles, in the way of themselves; that if girls were just more confident a problem would be resolved (or even: a hierarchy dissolved). This confidence in confidence could be another way that women are made responsible for what happens to them; as if our task in challenging gender relations is to modify ourselves. We could be confident in what we can do but still not be able to do it; the world can throw something up that renders doing something impossible: possibility is not dependent on confidence alone, even if losing confidence can make something impossible that might otherwise have been possible.

We need to give confidence another kind of embodied history; we need to show that bodies have histories that “go all the way down,” and that histories shape bodies and how they matter (Butler 1993).(i)  Feminist phenomenology teaches how a lessening of confidence happens somewhere between body and world.  Iris Marion Young in her classic essay “Throwing Like a Girl,” describes how women often “lack confidence in their capacity to do what needs to be done” (2005: 34). As she goes on to note: “we decide beforehand – usually mistakenly – that the task is beyond us and thus give it less than our full effort” (34). Confidence even as a mistaken estimation of one’s abilities shapes an outcome; how a body reaches for something determines what can be reached. Because women are less confident, women might go for something with less conviction. When we fail, we have confirmed the estimation, however mistaken.

Gender becomes here a question of estimation, how some end up underestimating what they can do. Perhaps also: how some end up overestimating what they can do.

Under/over: gender as measurement.

We tend to work out how the sex/gender system works from those who register as an error message. Because of course, throwing like a girl is also an expectation: that we can tell girls are girls; that we can tell what girls are like, from how they throw. If a girl throws too strongly, too fast, too far, she is throwing like a boy. Then she becomes a crisis: her confidence would be unfeminine; her confidence would be over-confidence. Women who are confident are often judged as over-confident. In other words lacking confidence becomes an expectation; a lack can be how you are accomplishing something. Girls by throwing badly are performing gender well. Girl is being accomplished because of how she falters (although not all girls become girl). In other words throwing like a girl might be deemed a result of what she lacks, but she is supposed to be lacking; she is supposed to throw the way she does.

Sexism: a system for deciding whose confidence is warranted; whose not.

Sexism: a confidence system.

Sometimes we lose confidence because others do not have confidence in us in the first place. We can lose confidence before we acquire confidence, as if confidence was never ours to have.  This loss of confidence can be mistaken in the sense that: we might be able to do what we are not confident we can do.  Or maybe there is a past tense here: maybe we could have done what we assumed we could not do. Maybe now, given that assumption, given we have lived by it, through it, we cannot do it. A history of underestimation can shape what bodies “do do” and thus what they “can do.” A body can acquire the shape of a loss of confidence; a loss can be reproduced by being inherited.

Because it was assumed I could not, I did not. Because I did not, I cannot.

Feminism: we give a mistake a history. We talk about how it was.

We talk about how an assumption becomes a wall.

A wall: what stops you from doing something; what stops you from being something. A wall can feel internal, like a voice inside your own head that says don’t go there; you can’t do that. Even when a wall feels internal it does not begin there. You might have been told: you can’t do that. You won’t be able to do that. This lack of confidence might be attached to you being a girl, or you just being the being you are; not good enough, not smart enough, or just not, not enough; or too much, it is too much for you, you are too much; that too.  You might be defiant in the face of this lack of confidence. I can do that. I will be able to do that. But if those words are repeated, you can’t do that, you won’t be able to do that; they can become a wavering of your own will, a doubt; an uncertainty. A conviction I can transformed into a question: can I? When she is in question she begins to question herself. And maybe as you begin to question yourself, you don’t put yourself behind yourself to protect yourself from the possibility of not being able to do what you had thought you could do. In other words that mistake might be to protect yourself from the consequences of having faith in yourself. And then you don’t. And then you think I can’t. Your effort acquires the quality of the fragility that is put into the world by an expectation. You waver, you fall. And you confirm the expectation. A confirmation can be the hardening of an idea: it becomes a thing. When you encounter that thing, you become that thing.[i]

I understand how expectations can be encountered as solid things: I have been there. We need to share our stories of being there. I didn’t do as well at school as my sisters. And I would hear my father’s voice echoing across his time: his lack of confidence in my own abilities. One time he said to my sister when she got an A-, it could be worse you could get B’s like Sara. It could be worse: you could be worse; a B student. It is not even the letter, the grade, that matters; but the tone, the disappointment; the disparagement. When someone has a lack of confidence in you, someone who has authority, whose view you are supposed to respect, you can feel crushed. You meet their expectations in the lowering of your own glance; lower, less. Sometimes, we revolt against an expectation. Even then: how you are perceived as being shapes what you come to be: to revolt against something is to be shaped by what you are against.

And: that voice, that voice that speaks with confidence about not having confidence in this person or that person can be taken on by an institution. A voice that says she cannot do this; that lowers a general expectation of the capacities of some; that increases a general expectation of the capacities of others. Gender then becomes a system for distributing confidence in others. This is different from my earlier point: because I am suggesting that estimations of capacities are upheld by others before they are taken on or taken in. An institution too can be a series of gestures: someone can be carried forth by a conviction; an expectation, we sometimes call this reputation; others might be stopped by doubts in their capacities, a faltering that she might inherit, as she questions herself or as she has to work even harder to prove herself.

A perception can become a wall.

A wall can be what you perceive.

In another post I reflected on how sexual harassment works as a wall. You perceive that wall as a thing, but also as a series of actions that are confident; the words uttered in the seminar about her body, they are not even muttered because he is sure of himself; the touching of her body, often in the cold light of day, boldly, as if that touch is right; as if he has a right to touch. But those around you don’t see it. Or they do not appear to see it. You are sure it is wrong, but others do not notice, or they dismiss it, or shrug it off. Maybe you too begin to feel that the wall is inside your own head. It is happening all around you; and yet people seem to getting on with it, you can end up doubting yourself, estranged from yourself.  Note here: institutional confidence is what allows some gestures to become routine. And to lose confidence is to accept those gestures as routine.

Maybe you try not to have a problem. It is because we perceive this wall that we end up having to modify our perception.

This is another way that confidence is distributed. The more a worldview is supported, the less confidence you need to uphold it. There is confidence in the system. If you are trying to challenge that system you might need even more confidence than you would otherwise have needed. You face resistance and ridicule. The walls you come up against don’t even appear to others. The wall you speak of becomes a phantom wall. You have to hold on harder, be firmer in your conviction, because your conviction brings you up against a world. You then need to find others to share your confidence. This sense of confidence refers to trust, to secrets; those things we share that we do not (sometimes cannot) disclose.

Those who I have called affect aliens – those who are alienated by virtue of how they are affected – might need more confidence just to proceed. When you are less supported you have to push harder.

Less supported: we can think here of how actions require grounds. I referred above to a sentence from my book Queer Phenomenology about how disorientation “can shatter your sense of confidence in the ground” (2006: 157). When you cannot be confident that the ground is stable, your step falters. As I tried to describe in this book, this book that started me on some rather wandering trails of thought, by ground we can think not only of a surface upon which we tread but a support mechanism. Whiteness for example could be understood as a ground that supports those who can pass through it or into it. For those who do not pass into whiteness, you falter; your body is not supported. You might be stopped even by a question: where do you come from, as if to say, you are not from here. We learn from how questions fall. The loss of confidence in the ground is unevenly distributed because grounds are uneven: some bodies more than others have their involvement in the world called into crisis. This shows us how the world is more involved in some bodies than others as it takes such bodies as the contours of ordinary experience.

When your being is supported, when you go with the flow, you might not even notice the support system. I am rethinking here a support system as that which enables some to proceed with confidence. A flow is an effect of bodies going the same way. To go is to gather. A flow can be an effect of gatherings of all kinds: gatherings of tables, for instance, as kinship objects that support human gatherings. How many times have you been left waiting at a table whilst others are attended to right away? You don’t know why, but it keeps happening. Maybe it is just what happens, but questions hover like clouds: is it because I am a woman, because we are two women together; because we are lesbians; is it because I am brown? You have been passed over so often you lose confidence that you even know what is going on; but it keeps going on. It is work: having to keep working things out. And 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!” Arms tire out; bodies too.

You have to get your whole body behind an action.

We can pause here and return to Iris Marion Young’s description of “throwing like a girl.” She suggests that girls do not get their whole bodies behind the action: that is why girls throw less well. But one aspect of her account we could reflect upon is the extent to which it accepts that a girl when throwing like a girl throws in a way that is less good than a boy (in other words the extent to which it accepts the association of femininity and failure[ii]). It might seem obvious that the girl’s way of throwing is deficient: that the boy throws faster and further than the girl. But if we think of how the girl has to put so much energy into accomplishing things, because of the obstacles she encounters, could we not rethink her way of throwing as wisdom: she is saving her energy for more important things? Perhaps then what appears as a lack of confidence is just a sensible redistribution of energy: her action is more faltering, her attention wavering, because she is investing her time elsewhere.

Sometimes a girl throws like a girl because she lacks confidence in her abilities: though, as I noted earlier, this lack also becomes a style of feminine accomplishment. But it is possible that a girl throws like a girl because she deposits her desires, her whims, her wishes, her will, even, elsewhere?

Feminism: where else?

Although of course throwing like a feminist might mean something else entirely. This is a clue to what I mean by this something else: those who identify themselves as feminists are more likely to be perceived as overconfident. We can refuse the underestimation of our collective capacities. But we are not confident about that refusal because we know too well how collective capacities can become objects of institutional desire.

We need to throw our confidence in confidence into crisis. Maybe what confidence is doing depends upon what values we are upholding.

Feminism: it can be about losing confidence (in a world say).

Feminism: it can be about gaining confidence (in a world say).

You lose confidence in the world that rewards you for compliance.  But you also need to acquire confidence in order not to comply with that very world: you have to have confidence that you can survive the experience of challenging the system. And you are learning stuff along the way, about how the system works. And you can become bolder because of how you come to understand the situation. Consciousness can magnify problems, for sure, but consciousness might enable you to have confidence in a judgment: that this is wrong, that this wall is hard.  Feminism can allow you to reinhabit not only your own past and your own body but the world as such. You might over time in becoming aware of how you have lessened your own space give yourself permission to take up more space; to expand your own reach. It is not necessarily the case that we take up this permission simply by giving ourselves permission. It does take time, to reinhabit the body, to become less wary, to acquire that confidence.

Confidence can be needed to hold onto a view that puts you at odds with those around you. But what about the confidence that allows us to hold onto a view that is shared? Sometimes in order to become a feminist we need to lose confidence in a view that we have been encouraged to hold dear: we might need to acquire confidence that we can go on without that view. Sometimes we need to lose confidence or even our trust in a world that  diminishing what it is we can be. Sometimes a new thought, a starting again, requires losing confidence.

 I once put it like this: to lose confidence is the gift of a new thought.

Feminist confidence: the process through which we validate and support each other in our project of dismantling a world. We have to have a certain confidence to do this kind of work: to use words like “sexism” and “racism” for example.  A feminist movement thus requires that we acquire feminist tendencies, a willingness to keep going despite or even because of what we come up against. We could think of this process as acquiring feminist confidence: to be feminist and do feminism is a bold gesture.  If we tend toward the world in a feminist way, if we repeat that tending, again and again, we acquire feminist confidence. We still have to lose confidence to acquire that confidence.

The acquisition of feminist confidence, to become that sort of girl or woman, the wrong sort, or bad sort, the one who speaks her mind, who writes her name, who raises her arm in protest, is necessary for a feminist movement. But of course being the wrong sort does not make us right. Much injustice can be and has been committed by those who think of themselves as the wrong sort: whether the wrong sort of women or the wrong sort of feminists. There is no guarantee that in struggling for justice we ourselves will be just. We have to hesitate, to tamper the strength of our tendencies with doubt; to waver when we are sure, or even because we are sure. A feminist movement that proceeds with too much confidence has cost us too much already.

We falter with feminist conviction. As we must.


Ahmed, Sara (1996). Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press.

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

Dahl, Ulrika (2015). “Sexism: A Femme-inist Perspective,” New Formations, 86: 54-73.

Gatens, Moira (1983). “The Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinction” in Judith Allen And Paul Patton (ed), Beyond Marxism: Interventions After Marx. Sydney Interventions. pp.143-160.

Serano, Julia (2007). Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman in Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Berkeley, CA; Seal Press.

Young, Iris Marion (2005). Female Body Experience. Oxford University Press.

[i] In Living a Feminist Life I stress that we need to think of sex and gender in these terms: as embodied histories (recent attempts to bracket biological sex from history by some trans exclusionary feminists needs to be challenged by feminists). Judith Butler (1993) taught us to think of “girling” as a social mechanism. A baby is born: we might say “it’s a girl!” or “it’s a boy!” Even before birth: we might watch on a screen to see whether it’s a girl or boy, where it is a girl and boy is decided by virtue of the absence or presence of a penis. The attachment to gender rests from the very beginning on phallocentrism: on the penis as the decider of the future, two sexes as two paths; the sexual binary as fate, as fated, as fatalism. Even when we critique the sex-gender distinction, even when we learn from feminist critiques of this distinction (Gatens 1983; Butler 1990), we know that that distinction works often as a form of sequencing: as if from sex, gender follows. We could call this sequencing “gender fatalism,” as implied by the assumption that “boys will be boys.” Sex is thus given as an assignment; homework. No wonder mere description (it’s a girl, it’s a boy!) provides the basis of a task (being boy! being girl!), as well as a command (you will be boy! you will be girl!). To receive an assignment is to be a given a sign: boy or girl. This “or” too is doing something, registering as opposition; one or the other. A sign: what means or denotes something. Right from the very beginning matter and meaning are deeply entangled; it is not matter (sex), then meaning (gender). You are in being assigned x or y also being assigned to a group; an assignment is what you receive from others that will determinate how you are positioned in relation to others. We are more than these assignments right from the beginning. This is after all feminist hope: we do not have to live by other people’s assignments.

[ii] Of course losing confidence does not always refer us back to ourselves. We might lose confidence that we can do something because we don’t have confidence in something or even someone. I remember when I had an old car that would struggle to start on a cold winter morning. I had little confidence it would start. I have no doubt that lack of confidence registered in my desperate effort to get the car to start; that losing confidence might have had something to do with how it would not start. When we lose confidence, our estimation of things can be confirmed. A loss can be a loop.

[iii] See also Ulrika Dahl (2015) for an important queer femme critique of how feminists associate femininity with failure.


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