Not At Peace With Oneself

I was asked a question earlier this month. I cannot remember the exact wording, but it went something like “is it sometimes ok to be silent to be at peace with oneself.”

If I had been asked this question at another time, or if the question had been asked using slightly different words, I might have given this answer:

We do what we can, where we can, by recognising our own limits, our capacities, and that can be a way of surviving politically, by which I mean, keeping hold of our commitments. Sometimes, then, withdrawal from a conversation or silence in a situation can be how we keep doing our work.

But in the words “at peace with oneself” I heard something else.

They gave me another answer.

There are times when we cannot be at peace with ourselves.

There are times when we should not be at peace with ourselves.

We are in those times.

It is not the time to be silent.

Nor at peace with ourselves.

I do not want not to be shocked by what is happening right now, as I get up, move around, begin each day. I do not want not to be conscious of it, to let myself be distracted by this project or that. If I get distracted, which sometimes I do, I remember how that too can be a privilege, when you are not having to work just to stay alive.

The shock cannot stop when what is shocking has not.

It is shocking, the genocide happening right in front of us, watched, endorsed, justified, cheered, even, by so many officials on the left and the right; the destruction of lives and hopes and dreams, memories, futures, places, spaces, the deaths of so many Palestinian people. I don’t want understanding how colonial occupation works as an architecture of brutality and surveillance, how the military industrial complex is a condition of possibility for the incarceration of populations and peoples; how extreme acts of violence by a state can be justified as a right to defence; how some lives are valued more than others, how some deaths count more than others; how reality is distorted to fit the interests of those who are powerful, made into another weapon, so perpetrators of violence don’t have to see themselves, to stop myself from being shocked by this.

And then the shock of how others are not shocked.

And then, having the Home Secretary Suella Braverman calling protests against the violence committed against the Palestinian people, protests calling a ceasefire, for freedom for Palestine, “hate marches.”

Maybe it is not shocking because of what we know, that long history of justification of the violence committed by Israel through the use of the charge “antisemitism” against anyone critical of Israel,  also “extremism,” deflecting not only the critiques but the violence they point to.

You can not be shocked because it has happened before. Because we have been here before.

You want it to be shocking before it is too late.

It is already too late for too many.

You want it to be shocking before it is too late.

The BBC did issue an apology for calling those who marched for Palestinian freedom “Hamas supporters.”

You can apologise for an action but still do it.

Drop the words keep the frame.

Michelle Donelan, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, wrote a letter to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). She says she finds that its appointment of individuals to its equality, diversity and inclusion advisory group who had expressed “extremist views” disturbing. It is a disturbing letter, singling out and naming two academics (I will not name then because that she named then was itself an abuse of power). One had tweeted that she found the UK “crackdown on Hamas support” disturbing. Donelan demonstrates exactly why it is right to be disturbed. The UK “crackdown” has meant that any person who expresses support for Palestinian liberation or who critiques the actions of the Israeli state, past or present, can and will be treated as “supporting Hamas.”

There would be so much, then, that we would not be free to say or do, because of how it will be dismissed as terrorism or as “support for Hamas.” We are right to be disturbed by the attempt to stop those who support freedom for Palestine from speaking.

Saree Makdisi has described with breath-taking clarity the violence Palestinians speaking to the Western media are not allowed to speak of, “What we are not allowed to say, in other words, is that if you want the violence to stop, you must stop the conditions that produced it. You must stop the hideous system of racial segregation, dispossession, occupation, and apartheid that has disfigured and tormented Palestine since 1948, consequent upon the violent project to transform a land that has always been home to many cultures, faiths, and languages into a state with a monolithic identity that requires the marginalization or outright removal of anyone who doesn’t fit.”

We need to listen to Palestinians, to hear about the violences that would otherwise be left unsaid.

Donelan also calls the communications of another academic “extremist” because she used words the “apartheid” and “genocide” with reference to Israel.

These terms are used widely with reference to Israel for a reason.

So what else are we being told? I can hear what else we are being told.

When we are told calling enforced racialised segregation Israeli apartheid is extremism, we are being told Israeli apartheid is not extremism.

When we are told that naming extreme violence genocide is extremism, we are being told genocide is not extremism.

When human rights lawyer, Craig Mokhiber, the director of the New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, resigned he described what Israel is doing in Gaza as “a textbook case of genocide.” He also said, “The European, ethno-nationalist, settler colonial project in Palestine has entered its final phase, toward the expedited destruction of the last remnants of indigenous Palestinian life in Palestine.”

I understand the need to make this claim “a textbook case” but I still shuddered when I read it. As if that it is a textbook case makes it clearer or more real.

We don’t need a textbook or a definition or the law, even, to call it what it is.

The extremism that won’t see itself. The extremism that says it is not extreme to murder thousands of people, to call them human animals, not to see the difference between all of these people and a terrorist organisation, maybe they see some people vaguely, a threatening brown mass of humanity, racism that blunt instrument, calling them, “the children of darkness,” themselves the “children of light.”

But the marches are happening all over the world because people are seeing it, which also means that people, many, many people, are making it harder for the violence not to be seen, the violence of colonial occupation.

It takes a collective.

Has done, will do.

I remember saying (it’s a killjoy truth, even) this.

There is only so much we can take on because there is only so much we can take in.

Sometimes, we need to take it on even when we can’t take it in: to take it on as to take it out, to get out, to protest, to express ourselves.

To share our solidarity with Palestine.

All over the place.

I am grateful for all the people who are doing that: sharing words and solidarity, Black feminist solidarity, getting themselves onto the streets, into train stations, Sisters Uncut, Jewish Voices for Peace, stopping the traffic, becoming the traffic, chanting for Palestinian freedom, speaking up, speaking out, sometimes risking their own livelihoods in doing so. I am grateful for podcasters who are doing that, speaking out, speaking up, for radical publishers (also here), who are doing that, sharing resources on Palestine, a history, ever present.

We need these resources. We need each other more than other to show up, turn up, however we can, in our queer ways, so they cannot contain it, the violence, the injustice, the sheer abject cruelty, the devastation of a place and a people, screen it out, the blinds down.

I learn from Audre Lorde.  I always do. I reread her 1982 address  “Learning from the 60s,” given as an address to Black people on the occasion of Malcom X weekend at Harvard University.  Lorde says in her address that “revolution is not a one time event” but means becoming ever “vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make a genuine change in established outgrown responses.” In this address, Lorde gives an account of the times she is living in.

We are Black people living in a time when the consciousness of our intended slaughter is all around us. People of Color are increasingly expendable, our government’s policy both here and abroad.  We are functioning under a government ready to repeat in EI Salvador and Nicaragua the tragedy of Vietnam, a government which stands on the wrong side of every single battle for liberation taking place upon this globe; a government which has invaded and conquered (as I edit this piece) the fifty-three square mile sovereign state of Grenada, under the pretext that her 110,000 people pose a threat to the U.S. Our papers are filled with supposed concern for human rights in white communist Poland while we sanction by acceptance and military supply the systematic genocide of apartheid in South Africa, of murder and torture in Haiti and EI Salvador. American advisory teams bolster repressive governments across Central and South America, and in Haiti, while advisory is only a code name preceding military aid.

Decisions to cut aid for the terminally ill, for the elderly, for dependent children, for food stamps, even school lunches, are being made by men with full stomachs who live in comfortable houses with two cars and umpteen tax shelters.  None of them go hungry to bed at night. Recently, it was suggested that senior citizens be hired to work in atomic plants because they are close to the end of their lives anyway.

Can anyone of us here still afford to believe that efforts to reclaim the future can be private or individual? Can anyone here still afford to believe that the pursuit of liberation can be the sole and particular province of anyone particular race, or sex, or age, or religion, or sexuality, or class?

Lorde’s words echo as wisdom in history, her descriptions of her time, too relevant to our own. She calls for us to pursue freedom for all. It is an urgent call, a question turned into a bolt of electricity, to anyone of us here. I  hear in Lorde’s call for anyone of us here, to be committed to revolutionary change in the work we do, with our full selves and with each other. Lorde says, “To refuse to participate in the shaping of our future is to give it up. Do not be misled into passivity either by false security (they don’t mean me) or by despair (there’s nothing we can do). Each of us must find our work and do it.  Militancy no longer means guns at high noon, if it ever did. It means actively working for change, sometimes in the absence of any surety that change is coming. It means doing the unromantic and tedious work necessary to forge meaningful coalitions, and it means recognizing which coalitions are possible and which coalitions are not.  It means knowing that coalition, like unity, means the coming together of whole, self-actualized human beings, focused and believing, not fragmented automatons marching to a prescribed step.  It means fighting despair.”

I learn from Lorde and many others what it means to fight for change, to be in solidarity with Palestine, to form coalitions across our differences, keeping them in mind, making them meaningful, to march but not to a prescribed step, to fight, and to fight despair.  We become vigilant for the smallest opportunities for change before they close like windows.

We work for change whether or not it is coming.

Because that is the right and just thing to do.

Yes, each of us can only so much. Together, we can do more.

#SolidaritywithPalestine. #FreePalestine. #EndIsraelliApartheid #EndtheOccupation #CeaseFireNow


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Killjoy Truths

I write this post in solidarity with Palestine. I express my solidarity as a feminist killjoy, in my own terms, on this blog. To express solidarity with Palestine is to be a killjoy, wherever we are. We get in the way because of how we mourn, or who we mourn, becoming a problem because of what we point to or because of the violence we refuse to pass over, the violence of colonial occupation, the violence enacted right now against people in Gaza by the Israeli state.

We are willing to get in the way.

I write this post as a no, made all the louder because of how it is shared with so many others, all over the world, no to the Israeli state, no to those standing in alliance with the Israeli state, no to those who justify the violence unleashed against Palestinians, no to the dehumanising rhetoric that has its own colonial history allowing that violence to be enacted, legitimated, by not being seen.

To see the violence can be to unlearn how it is not seen. To see unseen violence is to be a killjoy at work.

I often use killjoy as an adjective: not just as a way of being someone doing things but as a way of describing what we are doing.

Killjoy Solidarity: solidarity in the face of what we come up against.

Killjoy Solidarity: the solidarity we need to face what we come up against.

Such solidarity would not be safe in abstraction, warm and fuzzy, a way of feeling something without doing it. It would be a call to action and to attention, keeping at the front of our consciousness the reasons we need to be in solidarity, the violence, the material realities of suffering, ongoing colonial occupation, the brutality of state racism.

I learnt this from Audre Lorde: sometimes we have to stop what we are doing to register the impact of violence, violence as structure not an event. In an interview with Adrienne Rich, Lorde describes how she was listening to the radio in her car, and heard about the acquittal of a white police officer who had murdered a black child. She says she had to stop the car to get her feelings out. That expression took the form of a poem called “Power.”  Lorde took it in, the violence of the police in, the violence of white supremacy in, to get it out, to get it to us.

I was going to write something else today. Then I couldn’t. I had to stop what I was doing to write this instead, this post, this killjoy truth, a solidarity statement with Palestine. I write this statement as a feminist and queer scholar of colour based in the UK, whose family are from Pakistan, brown Muslims who had to leave their home in the midst of the violence they called Partition, to express my killjoy solidarity with those fighting for the lives, for Palestinian liberation, right now.

Right now, there are many of us protesting even though some of us have been prohibited from doing so. Our governments are trying to stop us from assembling, from expressing our solidarity with you, from chanting for your freedom, from waving your flags. To protest is also to protest those who try to stop us from protesting, who are complicit in the violence being enacted against Palestinians.

We refuse. Collectively. We are saying no to that.

For me, killjoy solidarity is a killjoy truth, a term I introduce in The Feminist Killjoy Handbook. This is the last truth in that book.

Killjoy Truth: The More we Come up Against, The More we Need More

The more we need more. The more we need each other. We need to become each other’s resources.

I also call killjoy truths hard worn wisdoms: it is what we know because of what keeps coming up. Our exhaustion with something is how we know so much about it – trying experiences as a revelation of structure.

A killjoy truth is also what is hard to know, what we might resist knowing because of what we sense we would have to give up. There are so many ways we can “not see” violence even when it is being directed at us, let alone when it is directed toward others. We can inherit ways of not seeing violence – dismissing words or actions as small or trivial, explaining violence away: it didn’t mean anything, he didn’t.

We have to open the door.

I think of a conversation I had with a woman of colour. She was being harassed by her supervisor. At one level, she knew what was happening: killjoy truths are often those we first feel in our bones. Bones can guide you. So, she knew enough to know to keep the door of the office open during supervisions. But it was hard to admit what he was doing. She feared she would “take [herself] down by admitting to the violence he was enacting.” To admit can mean to confess a truth and to let something in. To admit violence can feel like killing your own joy, getting in the way of your own progression.

So, she closed an actual door. But, she also closed the door of her consciousness, trying to handle the situation by shutting out what he was doing. When handles stop working, the truth gets in. It can be a shattering. It can hit you. It is harder to see what takes longer to see. And, if to admit something is how it becomes real, it can feel like you are the cause of it. It can also require work: to recognise the situation you are in as harassment is to realise how much you will have to do to get out of it.

Killjoy truths can be what you have work to admit yourself.

Killjoy truths can be what institutions refuse to admit about themselves.

A complaint can be the effort to make the institution admit it, let it in. But then: you come up against the institution. So often: you end up out.

Hence all the doors in these stories. Those who are stopped see what stops them. Doors, also blinds. Another person I interviewed described the architecture of the university: the doors with locks on them, windows with blinds that come down, the narrow corridors. The architecture of power. I think of one woman who was physically assaulted by her head of department. She complains but he is cleared of wrong doing. How? In the report the violence is described “on par with a handshake.” On par, equals equal.

The violence of an action is removed by how it is described. 

Description as a blind.

It is not that we don’t see the violence because the blinds are down.

The blinds come down because the violence is seen.

Unseen violence is not simply violence that is not seen. Unseen violence is an action. You have to unsee something because it is seen. A complaint can be an effort to make the violence seen, to bring it out. A protest, also, can be an effort to bring the violence out, to make it public by creating a public.

Killjoy truths: what are revealed to us when we try and reveal the violence. We learn how that violence remains unseen, behind closed doors, covered by the materials, the blinds we might call ideology, from what happens when we say no to it, when we complain or protest.  If you raise the blinds, or try to, or open the door, or try to, revealing a violence that many are invested in not seeing, you become the cause of it. That’s how killjoys often appear: as if they are the cause of the violence they reveal.

Sometimes, what we shut out, so that we can do our work, so that we can focus or function, is what institutions shut in. That’s how our truths, killjoy truths can end up under lock and key, in the institutional closets we sometimes call filing cabinets. We become killjoys at work when we work to get these truths not just out of ourselves but institutions. If the truth would damage the reputation of an institution, we need to be willing cause damage. I call that a killjoy commitment.

The nation too has many closets; the British empire, also. It is well known that the British government ordered the destruction of  thousands of documents from its archives, records of colonial crimes that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government” or that could “embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg. police informers.”

Killjoy Truths: What they do not want revealed.

They removed evidence of violence. A removal is successful when evidence of the removal is also removed. I sometimes call this polishing, empire as world-polishing, empire as a polished story, told by removing the violence.

Perhaps that’s why our stories matter so much. We become the evidence. Our bodies, our memories, our stories, colonial archives. And so, they try and contain us, to stop us from expressing ourselves. Our killjoy truths: in expressing them, we shatter the containers.

There are many ways that state violence, colonial violences are made to disappear from view, not seen.

We see the blinds come down.  We see them see it. We see how they stop seeing it.

I think back to my career as a feminist of colour academics, the blinds I have seen coming down. I shared this story in the handbook:  It is my first year as a lecturer in Women’s Studies. I am in the top room of the fanciest building on campus. We are seated around a large rectangular table. The meeting is for the approval of new courses. I am there because I have a new course on Gender, Race and Colonialism being considered.  Most of the courses are approved without much discussion. When my course comes up, a professor from another department begins to interrogate me, becoming angrier as he went on. And he went on. I was there, seated at the same a table as he, a young woman, a person of colour, the only brown person in the room. The word in the course description that triggered his reaction was the relatively uneventful word “implicated.” That I had used that word was a sign, he said, that I thought that colonialism was a bad thing. He then gave me a lecture on how colonialism was a good thing, colonialism as modernity, that happy story of railways, language and law that is so familiar because we have heard it before. I think of this as a killjoy encounter not because I spoke back in response to what he said when he said it, I did not, but because I could hear from his reaction that what I was doing, was speaking back, refusing to tell that story, that happy story, of imperial progression.

Not to tell that story, the happy story, is to be positioned as stealing not just happiness but history.  We know we are supposed to gloss over these histories, the violence that led us to be here. We smile for their brochures; smiley, happy, shiny brown faces.

Or we don’t. We learn from how we are received when we don’t gloss over the violences that make it hard to be here. Perhaps it is not surprising, given what I learnt that I ended up out of it: the institution, that is.

That killjoy truths are shut out by institutions because of what they would reveal about them is how some of us are shut out.

We are shut out for truth telling.

And so, we assemble to bring these truths out. We come out with it. We come out with them. That’s why they are shutting the door. They don’t see it like that. They won’t use the words to describe it – the Nakba, genocide, ethnic cleansing- as if without the words to describe what is happening it is not happening. We use those words, Nakba, genocide, ethnic cleaning because that is what is happening.

A shut door

To the truth.

What else is being shut out? Who else?

Shutting the door to the violence enacted against the Palestinian people by the Israeli state is also shutting the door to other violences, shutting the door to our complicity, the complicity not just of present governments, but past governments. The injunction not to speak of the violence being enacted against Palestine and in Gaza is the same injunction not to speak about the violence of British imperialism, that history that is present. Those of us living and working here whose families came from former British colonies, know this injunction, we recognise it, because we know what follows failing to meet it.

I think back to the professor who heard a no in use of the word implicated. We make no the implication of our work.

We say no to that. We take it out.

We have to remove the polish from the picture, not be the polish in the picture.

We remove the polish of the past or from it. I suspect most of us living and working in the UK are not taught by schools about the role of British imperialists in determining what happened in and to Palestine. We most likely are not taught about past deals made by government officials, premised on utter disregard for Palestinian people, the Sykes-Picot treaty of 1916, the Balfour declaration signed on November 2 1917.  I borrow the word disregard from others. Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud describes how he heard the name Balfour, as a child growing up in a Gaza refugee camp,  because the anniversary of the declaration was a day of shared protest. He concludes: “While Balfour cannot be blamed for all the misfortunes that have befallen Palestinians since he communicated his brief but infamous letter, the notion that his ‘promise’ embodied – that of complete disregard of the aspirations of the Palestinian Arab people – is handed from one generation of British diplomats to the next, the same way that Palestinian resistance to colonialism is also spread across generations.”  The late Palestinian scholar Edward Said described the Balfour Declaration thus “made by a European power … about a non-European territory … in a flat disregard of both the presence and wishes of the native majority resident in that territory.” In “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims,” Said summarises this history for us with characteristic precision, “Imperialism was the theory, colonialism the practice of changing the uselessly unoccupied territories of the world into useful new versions of the European metropolitan society. Everything in those territories that suggested waste, disorder, uncounted resources, was to be converted into productivity, order, taxable, potentially developed wealth.” He notes that the Zionist attitudes about “the Arab Palestinian natives” were “more than prepared for in the attitudes and the practices of British scholars, administrators, and experts who were officially involved in the exploitation and government of Palestine since the mid-­nineteenth century.”

When we hear how Palestinian people are being talked about now, it is history we hear, our history. “Human animals.” “Not a humanitarian crisis.” Not ethnic cleansing” because they are “not humans.” “Not civilians.”

A people as a target.

The violences committed by Hamas were barbaric. I deplore these actions, and mourn for lives stolen. But the brutality of those actions cannot be used to obscure the violence that came before them, nor the violence that has come after, how that brutality was used to justify more violence against a people already fighting against brutality. We have to refuse to shut the blinds on this history, the ongoing violence of settlement and displacement, how violence is used to remove Palestinian peoples from what they have left of their land. We need to see the violence of an open-air prison that is Gaza, of fences, and borders, and police. We need to see the violence of not having what you need, food, water, electricity, medical supplies.  We need to see the violence of having nowhere to go, shelters, when bombs fall as well as the violence of bombs that fall. Or if we don’t see it, what we need to see, we commit ourselves to learning. Solidarity requires giving attention to what demands it, the violence of colonial occupation.

Killjoy Truth: We see in the violence that is seen, the violence that is not.

We see the violence of how people turn away from the violence, turn away from those who suffer the consequences. We will not turn away. Solidarity also means being willing to keep opening that door, to the hardest most painful truths, the violent colonial histories that are kept present, violence that is still.

I write this post also in deep admiration for Palestinian people, for your resilience and resistance, and with rage against the world that demands it.

#FreePalestine #KilljoySolidarity

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In Conversation with Judith Butler

Since the launch of The Feminist Killjoy Handbook in March of this year, I have been taking #FeministKilljoysOnTour to share some #KilljoySolidarity.

I am looking forward to the US edition of #FeministKilljoysOnTour to coincide with the publication of the handbook by Seal Press on October 3rd. I will share details on my website in September.

I am pleased to share the audio recording of an event from the earlier tour, a Conversation with Judith Butler that took place on April 28th at Cambridge University.  It was a warm, uplifting and rather overwhelming experience. I was originally intending to transcribe the conversation, but I realised so much of it would not be captured by being written up. So you can listen here.

This conversation gave me another chance to thank Judith Butler for the gift of their work.

What a killjoy joy it is to know you are out there.

I am sharing below my introduction to our conversation.

And thanks to Lucy Van De Wiel for this photo taken just after the conversation.


Thank you for being here, for being part of this conversation. My name is Sara Ahmed and today I will be in conversation with Judith Butler and we hope as well to leave time and space for you to join in the conversation if you so wish, to share thoughts and feelings.  A conversation needs a space. Thank you so much to Q+ for providing this space, for providing so many queer spaces, so we can assemble together. I think of queer spaces as small pockets we open up within institutions so we can breathe more easily within them. If we need these pockets to survive the institutions that remain hostile environments for many of us, it is still work, institutional work, even, to make them. Thanks especially to Sarah Franklin and Lucian Stevenson for that work. Creating queer space is precious and painstaking work and it can also be a source of queer joy, or what I sometimes call killjoy joy, the joy of crafting worlds by making room for those who are not accommodated.

A conversation needs a space. A conversation is a space. I feel as if I have been in conversation with Judith Butler in one way or another since I took up my pen and began to write my way into existence.  Judith and I previously had a conversation almost a decade ago, over email; the editors of the journal Sexualities asked me to ask Judith about Gender Trouble. I remember so well your response to the first question, which was that you found questions about Gender Trouble “odd” because you “never reread” your own books. I remember being rather impressed by the firmness of the “never”!  And yet we talked of how books have many lives in part because of where they go, who they find. Maybe today we might talk of how our own lives become entangled with the lives of books as readers, as writers, as both. Most of my conversations with Judith, admittedly, though, have been inside my own head. Some of these conversations came out in words, on pages, as citation. Concepts can be craft: the concepts Judith has given us, shaped and sharpened by use, provide materials to help us to do our own work. I think of how I reused your definition of performativity from Bodies that Matter to describe what I called non-performativity: how words do not bring into effect what they name (words like diversity, for instance).

To be in conversation with someone else’s work over a sustained period of time can be a queer kind of intimacy, you are not on the same page but you are catching something, a thought or an idea that does not come to you with crisp edges, as clarity or revelation, but more slowly or gradually in turning the pages, by sustaining the engagement. Perhaps how we write together sometimes in proximity, sometimes not, is another way of talking about the project of living together. In Undoing Gender, you write “I am speaking to those of us who are living in certain ways beside ourselves, whether it is in sexual passion, or emotional grief or political rage. In a sense, a predicament is to understand what kind of community is composed of those who are beside themselves.” You keep teaching me in your work, including in your most recent book, What World is This?  In which you use the phrase, “strangers in grief,” that collectivity can be a way of being beside ourselves, beside each other, responding as best we can to a crisis that is shared. Sharing is not always warm or fuzzy, or happy; it can be hard and painful and bumpy.

Still, I have killjoy joy to be speaking with Judith in person, to be sharing this space with you all. The impetus for this conversation is the publication of my book, my first trade book, The Feminist Killjoy Handbook.  In the last month or so, I have been taking feminist killjoys on tour, visiting bookshops and theatres; where I go, feminist killjoys are coming with me. The handbook is a collection of killjoy stories, assembled because of how many of you came with me, stories of how we become the problem when we point to a problem of we when give that problem its name, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism. I call this a killjoy truth: we have to keep saying it because they keep doing it. But we are heard as the ones repeating ourselves, a broken record, stuck on the same point. We don’t even have to say it before eyes start rolling. I turned that into a killjoy equation: rolling eyes equal feminist pedagogy.

And yes we do laugh. And we say it more. And we need more to say it. That more can be who is behind us. Citation is feminist memory. The handbook brings together many authors who have given me killjoy inspiration. Judith’s work appears throughout and I also include Gender Trouble and Precarious Life in my recommended reading list for feminist killjoys at the end of the handbook (I only allowed myself to pick two for any author). Sarah Franklin introduced Judith on Wednesday by reading out the first paragraph of their PhD dissertation. I am not going to go that far back, but I do want to read out two sentences from the preface of Gender Trouble. Judith wrote, “To make trouble was, within the reigning discourse of my childhood, something one should never do, precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise to my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: the prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble.” Judith taught me that we need to be in trouble or to be the trouble we are assumed to cause, to trouble the prevailing laws, the rules that tell us where we can go and who we can be, even if being in trouble is to risk being reprimanded, caught up in the same terms. Perhaps we become trouble makers, queer trouble makers. Queer troublemakers, feminist killjoys, we are assembled here. I know I could only write The Feminist Killjoy Handbook because of who is assembled here, because of all the trails that have been left behind by those who deviated from the paths they were told to follow.

Trails, and other queer tales. We will begin the conversation with Judith asking me some questions about The Feminist Killjoy Handbook. Judith has a book coming out next year Who’s Afraid of Gender, which is also their first trade book, which they spoke about with such feminist and queer fierceness on Wednesday.  This book is going to be such a gift for us, helping us to handle something, the anti-gender, anti-trans and anti-queer and neo-fascist movements as they manifest globally, by giving us to the tools to diagnosis how they work. So, the conversation might also move to the act of sending work out into the hostile environments that work is about. And then, who knows, we will follow a queer feminist trajectory, which means ending up in unexpected places. Over to you, Judith.


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A Joyous Killjoy Debt: To Ama Ata Aidoo

I am writing this post to express my gratitude to Ama Ata Aidoo. Ama Ata Aidoo died on May 31, 2023.

Gratitude can be grief.

I am deeply indebted to Ama Ata Aidoo for how she repurposed the figure of the killjoy. Her novel, Our Sister Killjoy, published in 1977, was the first text to give a killjoy her own voice.

In The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, I acknowledge my debt to Aidoo in the following way.

“To Ama Ata Aidoo thanks for the gift that is Our Sister Killjoy. It is a joyous killjoy debt that I have to you.”

A joyous killjoy debt.

Our Sister Killjoy was my travelling companion in writing the handbook, which also meant that Sissie, the narrator of the novel, our sister killjoy, was also my companion.

I wrote the handbook in the very best of company.

I had written about Sissie before. She appears, albeit rather briefly, in The Promise of Happiness. In that book, the feminist killjoy was herself rather contained – I gave her a chapter. I don’t think she was too happy about that! Over time, feminist killjoys have spilled out of that container, taken over even, roaming more freely in my life and my work. Over time: the time it took for me to realise my debt to Aidoo.

I recently listened to a panel with Ama Ata Aidoo, “Five Decades of Killjoy Feminism.” Thank you so much to the Radical Book Collective, as well as Bhakti Shringarpure, Ainehi Edoro, Esther Armah, Meg Arenberg, Otoniya Julianne Okot Bitek as well as Ama Ata Aidoo for their beautiful and warm contributions to this panel.

I learnt so much from how Aidoo spoke about the writing of Our Sister Killjoy in the panel. She says, “Some critics have told me it is an experimental book…when I was writing it, I wasn’t thinking it was experimental. It was the way it came out; my words came out.” I was reminded of how Audre Lorde spoke of writing her poem, “Power.” Lorde writes, “I was driving in the car and heard the news about the cop being acquitted. I was really sickening with fury, and I decided to pull over and just jot some things down in my note book to enable me to cross town without an accident, to continue functioning because I felt so sick and so enraged. And I wrote those lines down, I was just writing—and that poem came out without craft.”

Writing: how words come out.

Writing can feel like something coming to you rather than from you.

Perhaps the writing comes to us especially when we are writing from the killjoy; when what we are writing about is what we write against, the ongoing and structural violences of colonialism and racism.

The violence that takes our breath away can sometimes give us the words for it.

In the panel on killjoy feminism, Aidoo also discusses how she came to the word killjoy. She says, “I didn’t sit down and say Sissie is a killjoy…it just came to me, like titles and characters come to other writers.” The word killjoy came to Aidoo perhaps because of how Sissie acquired her shape or character, as somebody who is a trouble maker, who is anti-colonial, but also who is sharp, witty, funny, fierce, someone who can cut the atmosphere. Aidoo describes Sissie as “an elephant in a China shop.” Such a precise description! Some of us become killjoys because of how we refuse to talk, by passing over difficult topics, speaking delicately. You become a killjoy because you are perceived as such by others, too much, too big, clumsy, breaking what is of value, not taking care. Aidoo comments on how Sissie is seen: “they think she is going to say something to embarrass them.” The killjoy comes out with it, she says it, what is there, lurking in the background, but so often remains unsaid, the violence of colonialism, that violence of who gets to speak, who gets to be judged as worth something, as being human.

The killjoy comes to us as a word for the work as we are doing it.

I have been thinking about how I came to that word killjoy, too. When I first began working on happiness, I did not begin with the figure of the feminist killjoy (or any other kind of killjoy). I became interested in writing about happiness (as an extension in a way of my earlier work on the cultural politics of emotion) because I wanted to explore what happiness was doing as well as saying, how happiness can be a polite speech. It was researching the uses of diversity that led me to happiness – how diversity can create a happy impression. A practitioner described diversity as “a big shiny apple…it all looks wonderful but the inequalities are not being addressed.” I can’t quite remember how I came to the figure of the feminist killjoy, but I suspect politeness was the thread. It came to me, she came to me, as a memory of being that person around the family table, failing to be delicate in the face of what I found so painful and problematic, my father’s sexism, his patriarchal reasoning.

The words feminist killjoy came to me because she was already out there, a recognizable figure, a stereotype of feminists, those miserable feminists who make misery their mission. Misery is not our mission. But still if misery is what we cause in saying what we say, doing what we do, we are willing to cause it.

Even when a word, a figure, a stereotype is out there, we still have to pick it up. I picked  the feminist killjoy up rather slowly. And it took me time to pick up Our Sister Killjoy. I remember when I first heard of this book. I was giving a lecture on the promise of happiness at the University of Kent back in 2006. The feminist killjoy appeared in the middle of that lecture.  When someone in the audience asked me a question, she mentioned Our Sister Killjoy.

I don’t remember her question. I remember Our Sister Killjoy.

The feminist killjoy led me to you.

A feminist killjoy, a sister killjoy, a live connection, an electric connection: snap, snap, sizzle. I heard that in Sissie.


I have been thinking more about how we come to writing, and how writing brings us to other writers, to words that capture something, about ourselves, about each other.

For me, the feminist killjoy did not arrive fully formed. I did not hear her smile brightly and say hello or frown and say no. She was, in many senses, an impression, a vague one at that. She became sharper in time. How sharp she became!

In the first paper I published from my happiness research (in 2007), I did not even use the term “the feminist killjoy.” She appears but as “the kill joy feminist” (“Take the figure of the kill joy feminist. She appears alongside the happy housewife” – yes, I made kill joy two words). And, the kill joy feminist is then turned into a series of questions in a discussion of affect and atmosphere:

Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced or negated under public signs of joy? Does bad feeling enter the room when somebody expresses anger about things, or could anger be the moment when the bad feelings that circulate through objects get brought to the surface in a certain way?

The feminist killjoy began to acquire more of a status as a figure as an answer to this question about what she is doing (or what she, by saying something, teaches us about what others are doing). There was more to firm up. And, when I firmed them up, giving them a book of their own, a handbook, I came to understand my joyous killjoy debt to Ama Ata Aidoo. I am sure there is more to understand. I know there is.

I might yet write more love letters to Sissie.

I love how Our Sister Killjoy is a catalogue of killjoy encounters. Sissie’s story is written like a travel diary; she travels from Africa to Europe, from Ghana to Germany to England. Her killjoy story begins before she even gets to Europe. On a plane, a white flight attendant invites her to sit at the back with “her friends,” two Black people she does not know. She is about to say that she does not know them, and hesitates. “But to have refused to join them would have created an awkward situation, wouldn’t it? Considering too that apart from the air hostess’s obviously civilized upbringing, she had been trained to see to the comfort of all her passengers.” Sissie’s hesitation speaks volumes. Not to go to the back of the plane or to say she does not know the other Black people would be to refuse the place she had been assigned. If the flight attendant is trained “to see to the comfort of all,” not to follow her instruction would be to cause the discomfort “of all.” At this point Sissie goes along with it. But she can see what is wrong with it. And because she can, we can.

Aidoo (and also Sissie) shows us how being a sister killjoy or feminist killjoy is to be conscious of what we create, “an awkward situation.” To create an awkward situation is to be judged as being awkward.  That judgement is how we hear ourselves in history. And, this is why becoming conscious of what we create can be a world consciousness.

In Germany, Sissie wanders around a market. She sees “polished steel. Polished tin. Polished brass.” Sissie “saw their shine and their glitter.” Something becomes shiny because of what is not seen. Sissie sees what is not seen. She then sees how she is seen: “Suddenly, she realized a woman was telling a young girl who must have been her daughter: ‘Ja, das Schwartze Mädchen.’ From the little German that she had been advised to study for the trip, she knew that ‘das Schwartze Mädchen’ meant ‘black girl.’ She was somewhat puzzled. Black girl? Black girl? So, she looked around her, really well this time.” When she is addressed as the Black girl, she is puzzled. But then she sees that it is she they see. Reading this passage, I was reminded of Frantz Fanon’s discussion of being seen as a Black man by a white child. Fanon shows that to be seen as Black is to be made fearsome in the present and to be given a history. He describes how the white man had “woven [him] out of a thousand details, anecdotes, stories.” A history can make it hard to breathe, a circle “drawing a bit tighter.”

When Sissie sees herself seen as a Black girl, she looks around. It is then that she sees whiteness, “She looked around her, really well this time.” She regrets it: “when she was made to notice differences in human colouring.”

For Sissie, seeing whiteness is about refusing to be drawn into it.

And then Sissie becomes more herself, more of a killjoy, in conversations she has with other Black people about why they stay in Europe. Sissie listens to an eminent doctor who said he stayed in Europe “to educate them to recognize our worth.” Sissie asks if by “them” he means “white people,” and he says, “Well, yes.” Sissie can hear the violence of that yes of having to demonstrate one’s worth to those who have denied it. Sissie’s critique of the injunction to be positive is a critique of what those who have been colonized have to do in order to be recognized by the colonizer as being worthy, what they have to remove from themselves. The implication is that some end up having to polish themselves, make themselves more palatable, appearing grateful, smiling, as shiny as the commodities that Sissie sees in that marketplace.

I recognise that smile. That shine. That sheen.

And so, along the way, you helped me to circle back to another starting point, diversity as polite speech. You helped me to appreciate why the project of killing joy, that world making project, is about seeing whiteness, seeing how you are seen, seeing what is not seen, who too, who is not seen, however much we regret what we have learnt to notice.

I turned what I learnt from you into a killjoy equation:

Noticing = A Feminist Killjoy’s Hammer

We hammer away at the world by noticing it. A hammer is a rather blunt instrument. Noticing can also be a pen or a key board, writing as fine tuning, how we rearrange the world, moving words around so things appear differently. There is wisdom here. I use the word strangerwise for this wisdom. It is an odd word for an old wisdom, the wisdom of strangers, those who in being estranged from worlds, notice them.

Sissie’s wisdom, also, yours.

Perhaps writing is another kind of circling, how we learn not being drawn into it, that narrow picture of the human, whiteness as worth, as a project of becoming worthy, etched into the ground by colonialism.

I have been wondering too if that is why writing matters so much, writing ourselves out of their stories by writing our own. In considering the feminist killjoy as poet, I wrote about how Aidoo wrote about writing (as I wrote about bell hooks writing about writing in that chapter as well as an earlier post on this blog). In an interview, Aidoo give us her answer to a question:

At the age of 15, a teacher had asked me what I wanted to do for a career, and without knowing why or even how I replied that I wanted to be a poet. About four years later I won a short story competition but learned about it only when I opened the newspaper that had organised it, and saw the story had been published on its centre pages and realised the name of the author of that story in print was mine. I believe these moments were crucial for me because . . . I had articulated a dream. . . . It was a major affirmation for me as a writer, to see my name in print.

The poet can be claimed in a reply to a question of what you want to be, who you want to be. You can claim to be one before you are one. A poet can claim you, and in claiming you, a poet can be how your name and your words end up in print.

I think again of Sissie, our sister killjoy, how by travelling she gets her words out and about. Sissie gives serious speeches. She writes an unsent letter to her lover, addressed as “my Precious Something.” She begins by restating his instructions to her, “Yes I remember that I was going to be positive about everything. Since you reminded me that the negative is so corrosive.” But when she reflects on his reminder of the corrosion of negativity, which he compares to cancer, she makes an analogy with the West: “I nodded agreement, my eyes lighting up at how professionally clear you always are. But I remember too when I attempted to grasp your point better by suggesting a political parallel, that negativism then must be like the expansion of western civilization in modern times, because it chokes all life and even eliminates whole races of people in its path of growth, you said laughing: ‘There you go again, Sissie, you are so serious.’”

The feminist killjoy or sister killjoy is often caught by that word serious. Alice Walker describes a “womanist” in the following way: “A black feminist or feminist of color. . . . Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behaviour. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good’ for one. . . . Responsible. In charge. Serious.” We can be willful because we know too much, say too much, because we exceed other people’s expectations of what will do us good. Walker highlights both the words willful and serious.  We are willful when we will for ourselves, know for ourselves, seriously.  A judgment can be a negative charge. We turn the judgment into a project. We are willing to be charged. We are charged up.  It can be electric; we are back to that snap, snap, sizzle.

Snap, snap; Sissie.

Sissie accepts that charge. She becomes a sister killjoy poet even if she appears in novel form. Sissie is not given a linear story. Some sentences appear all alone, finding their companions on other pages. Some pages appear like poems with jagged edges, allowing words to be sharper, clearer, more illuminating. A chapter turns out to be a letter she has written but not sent. As readers we become the recipient of the unsent letter. The thoughts she has, killjoy thoughts, spill onto the pages. Perhaps a killjoy character needs another kind of book. Perhaps she writes one.

Another kind of book: we read them because we need them. From Our Sister Killjoy we receive so much; snap, energy, defiance, will. I think of how Michele Cliff describes how she was inflamed by reading Our Sister Killjoy. She writes, “In her pellucid rage, Aidoo’s prose breaks apart into staccato poetry—direct, short, brilliantly bitter—as if measured prose would disintegrate under her fury.” Cliff shows how Aidoo’s story of our sister killjoy, Sissie, with its “rage against colonialism,” freed her to “direct rage outward into creativity,” so that if she could write in fire, she would.

And so, she did.

To write in fire is to write fire. Audre Lorde describes her own commitment to writing fire as she was dying: “I am going to write fire until it comes out of my ears, my eyes, my nose holes—everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!”

And so, she did.

Writing fire can be how you go out.

Writing fire can be how you go on.

I know so many fires are being lit, will be lit, because of what you wrote, sent out, put about.

It is a joyous killjoy debt we have to you.

Thank you Ama Ata Aidoo.

Your feminist killjoy

Sara xx



Aidoo, Ama Ata (1977). Our Sister Killjoy: Or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint. Harlow: Longman.

Cliff, Michelle (2008). If I Could Write This in Fire. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fanon, Frantz. (1986). Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.

Lorde, A (1978). The Black Unicorn. New York: Norton.

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

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




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Common Sense as a Legacy Project: Some Implicationsj

In my previous post Common Sense as a Legacy Project, I explored how common sense becomes a way of defending national culture, social traditions and social institutions from perceived threats. The book Common Sense Conservativism for a Post-Liberal Age repeatedly evokes wokeism as a summary of threats to common sense: the woke are those who are trying to take what is ours for themselves, denying reality, truth, stealing our happiness as well as our history.

Readers of this feminist killjoy blog are probably very familiar with these uses of wokeism. The projects of widening participation and social inclusion are often dismissed in these terms. Diversity training in public institutions: that’s woke! Disabled dancers and “mismatched same sex couples” on Strictly Come Dancing: that’s woke! A Black mermaid or a Black James Bond: it does not matter if it’s a mythical creature or fictional character, that’s woke! Putting your pronouns in your signature: that’s woke!

Woke is a much-used term, a useful term, because of how much and how many can be dismissed by it.  These dismissals can be understood as techniques. My task in writing this follow up post is not to try to persuade anyone of anything (let alone those whose careers rest on the “anti-woke” wave). I am writing this post as I think it helps to try to explain what is going on as it is going on. Let me identify three key aspects of anti-wokeism/ common sense conservatism.

  1. The imposition of change

A primary implication of the argument for common sense conservatism is that traditions or conventions are or would be unchanging without the imposition of change. One way culture and history are treated possessively is to suggest change comes from outsiders. This is why the refusal to recognise the dynamic nature of culture is central to common sense conservatism. In my book, What’s the Use? On The Uses of Use I name institutions themselves as anti-life: to stabilise the requirements for what you need to survive and thrive within institutions is to stop changes that would otherwise happen because of the dynamic nature of life.  We might call these techniques for stabilising the requirements reproductive mechanisms. When diversity work is understood as imposed change, this is in part a reflection of the investment of some people in institutions not changing (and when I say investment I mean it: those who benefit from institutions do not want changes that might risk their benefits, that transmission of legacy).

When we are judged as imposing change, what is not recognised is the imposed nature of what we are trying to change. What is understood as “the way things are” has become naturalised or habitual. A good example of this is pronouns. Some people seem to experience being asked to respect other people’s pronouns as an imposition on their freedom. Freedoms can be predicated on being unthinking: some people do not want to think about, or be conscious of, social conventions such as how we refer to other people.

Institutions also have habits.

Let’s take one example from my own study of complaint. I spoke to a lecturer about her experience of appointment panels. Her university had introduced a numerical system for evaluating the performance of job candidates in an effort to ensure equality of treatment. She described what actually happened during the appointment process: “Someone would say, that woman’s presentation was outstanding, but, really, he’s the guy you’d want to have a pint with, so let’s make the figures fit.” The figures are made to fit when a person is deemed to fit. The person most likely to be appointed is still the one who can participate in a shared or common culture; “the guy you’d want to have a pint with,” who you can relate to, whose company you would prefer. Hiring can be a habit, how the same sorts of people keep being appointed, reflecting back who is already here. When new policies and procedures are introduced to break that habit, they do not always stop what is habitually done from being done.

When change is treated as an imposition, it is made harder to change things.

Those who try and change how things have been done are often represented as having an “ideology.” So “critical race theory” is treated as ideology, which is central to how the polished view of empire keeps passing itself off as reality (you will quickly find arguments that “critical race theory” is being imposed in schools as soon as teachers try and include a history of the British empire from not-polished points of view).

And also, when the project for trans liberation is understood as motived by “gender ideology,” what is disguised is how gender ideologies, that is, convictions about what women and men are and what they are like (mostly, I would add, with reference to sex, that is assumptions made about men and women on the basis of the nature of their bodies) are reproduced everywhere else. These convictions often disappear, that is, they do not appear as ideology, precisely because of how they become common sense. Ideology often works by demarcating or bracketing ideology itself as happening somewhere else.

This is why freedom struggles often mean coming up against what other people call reality. Feminists should know this: our fights for freedom have often been framed as flights from reality (biology, nature, history, and so on). But given how some feminists dismiss trans liberation as a flight from reality (even using an arm wrestle to signify that reality – I am keeping this point oblique for the time being), it is clear that lessons are not always learnt.

2. The reversal of power

Common sense conservatism (as with other conservative political arguments) positions those who are fighting for equality as not only motivated as a desire for power but as having power.  And those who have power (for example in the media and government) also then represent themselves as without power.

I explored this reversal of power in the first chapter of The Feminist Killjoy Handbook. Consider how racism and transphobia are often articulated as if they are unpopular or even minority positions (or to be more specific many people in the public domain position themselves as being censored when their views are described as racist or transphobic).

The positioning of racial or religious minorities, especially Muslims, and of trans people as too easily offended leads to an increase in racist and transphobic speech acts. There is an ‘incitement to discourse’ in a story of the suppression of discourse: so many people continue to make racist and transphobic statements by saying they are not allowed to make them. One comedian at the end of a set that included much transphobic content claimed, ‘I think that’s what comedy is for, really – to get us through stuff, and I deal in taboo subjects because I want to take the audience to a place it hasn’t been before, even for a split second.” This so-called ‘taboo subject’ is in fact a well-travelled path, where we are used to going rather than where we haven’t been; a confirmation of, rather than challenge to, the transphobia of mainstream culture. But then, if you call it out, give the problem its name, that person will most likely represent themselves as “cancelled” and quickly embarking on a cancellation tour. And so, we end up with some people speaking endlessly about being silenced, given more platforms to claim they are no-platformed.

Those who are more represented in the public domain tend to represent themselves as more censored.

I have described this mechanism in earlier posts.

Whenever people keep being given a platform to say they have no platform, or whenever people speak endlessly about being silenced, you not only have a performative contradiction, you are witnessing a mechanism of power.

Note also the new habit of scholars who have best-selling “anti-woke” books  representing their popularity as a sign that the public are tired of wokeism. It is rather amusing. But it is also sad and pathetic. Of course, their books are bestselling because of the alignment of their arguments with the views of the powerful: governments that are willing to stoke the anti-woke to increase their popularity; not to mention the global rise of fascism.

 That’s the wave you are riding on baby.

Diversity programmes and equality initiatives are also treated as evidence of wokeism. Let’s pause here.  Elite, white and male-dominated institutions are represented as “woke institutions” on the basis of the existence of programmes designed to make them less so, less elite, white and male dominated. Of course, many of these programmes fail because of how hard it is to intervene in the reproduction of power (that these programmes are called woke is one of these reproductive mechanisms!). Recall my earlier example of how a new system was introduced to try to ensure equality of treatment in appointments. That very system, which might be used as evidence of wokeism, was bypassed in order to select people who were deemed to fit or to fit in. One senior manager I interviewed for my complaint project summarised this mechanism as “policies are for the others.”

Power can be exercised by the bypassing of policies and procedures designed to intervene in the reproduction of power. This is also how institutional change can be prevented by appearing to be enabled.  An organisation can be called too woke because of its diversity initiatives, and still be successful at reproducing whiteness and other forms of power and privilege.

As feminists of colour, we know how diversity can be polish. Organisations create the appearance that something is being done; and yes, they sometimes use us, to do that. We also know that even polished versions of diversity can be quickly framed as “too much,” as an ideological imposition, a way of re-naturalising hierarchies and habits of many kinds.

Consider the use of terms such as “race equality industry” to dismiss a whole history of efforts to bring about race equality or the use of the term “trans lobby” by many gender-critical feminists and their anti-woke allies. Any programmes designed to enable trans people to live their lives on their terms, to have access to public resources including health and welfare become treatable as a consequence of a “trans lobby.” This is how trans people who are under-represented in positions of power in media and government can be represented as powerful.

A fight for survival is treated as the formation of an industry.

The reversal of power is how power is retained.

As soon as you try to stop someone who has power from abusing that power, you will be identified as motivated by a desire for power. I think of a conversation I had with a woman professor who supported students who made a complaint about sexual misconduct and sexual harassment by a lecturer at her university. The professor defended his own conduct thus, ‘He came up to me and said, “It’s a perk of the job.” I could not believe it. He actually said it to me. It was not hearsay; this is a perk of the job. I can’t remember my response, but I was flabbergasted.’ The implication is that having sex with your students is like having a company car; what you are entitled to because of what you do. She added, ‘The women: they were set up as a witch-hunt, hysterical, you can hear it, can’t you, and as if they were out to get this guy.’ In this case, the complaint was not upheld and the lecturer returned to his post with minor adjustments to supervisory arrangements.

When you describe an entitlement as harassment you are understood as depriving somebody of what is theirs; the complainer-as-killjoy could characterize this deprivation.

3) More with Less

The “common” in common sense matters. If there is a reversal of power, there is also a reversal of position. Consider how when we try to widen the curriculum you are treated as damaging the tradition. We want more, and we are treated as stopping this or that writer from being taught.  By asking for more, we are treated as less, as lessening the value of something, but also as removing what or who is already there.

I think there is another reversal here: more with less. Let me explain.

In my previous post, I described the experience of a woman of colour academic who as dropped from the diversity committee after “mentioning things to do with race.” It is worth asking: why did she keep mentioning those things? Racism, that’s why. She told me that in her department’s research meetings, senior white men professors frequently made racist comments.  This is just one example, “I’m from London and London is just ripe for ethnic cleansing.”  She described how people laughed and how the laughter filled the room. She decides to complain. She gathered statements from around twenty people in her department. A complaint can be a collective. A meeting is set up in response to her complaint. At that meeting she was described by the head of human resources as “having a chip on her shoulder,” “they treated the submission as an act of arrogance on my part. A grievance is heard as a grudge, a collective treated an individual. She leaves, and “it was all swept under the carpet and the same things continued.” Sweep; sweep; polish, polish. The same things keep happening because of how much is swept away, who is swept away.

The transmission of a legacy is dependent on stopping those who trying to stop the same things from happening.

When she is dropped from the diversity table for mentioning things to do with race, her colleagues are given permission to make racist comments at that same table. This is how, under the banner of diversity, you are allowed to be racist but not call something racist, perhaps because the latter speech act brings the whole thing into dispute, or even just into view, the table itself. If her complaint is treated as me not we, racist speech is heard as we not me, as what we should be free to express around that table.

Common sense can work both by turning a me into a we (society matters as an extension of my hand) and a we into a me (a complaint as a will to power). And so, we learn, common sense is not as common as it is presented as being (how a few make themselves many), whilst complaints are more common than they are presented as being (how many are made into a few).

When those of us fighting against abuses of power are dismissed as having a will to power, we are treated as depriving others of what is theirs. Some understand and describe “theirs” as “common sense.”

The story of how some are losing their hand is a story of those who treat the world as their hand.

We are telling other stories.

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Common Sense as a Legacy Project

Common sense tends to be understood in a commonsensical way at least by those who appeal to it. We typically hear of common sense as what we have lost or what we need to resolve a conflict or dispute in a mature and reasonable way (“a common-sense approach”). Or, common sense is used to indicate the status of proposition as grounded in reality (“it is common sense that sex refers to biology”). Common sense can also be used to demarcate a class of subjects: those who have common sense, who are sensible and practical as well as reasonable, who hold onto reality. Common sense can thus also be used to demarcate a class of subjects who are deemed to lack it or to have lost it. Historically, common-sense has been defined against the absurd (Thomas Reid), scepticism (G.E. Moore) and most recently “the woke” (Michael Nazir-Ali and many, many others, writing right now!).

Across varied usages, the sense of common sense matters (1). Common sense can refer both to a sense of what is obvious and an assumption that this sense is shared. Take Stuart Hall’s (1977) description of “what passes as common sense feels as if it has always been there, the sedimented, bedrock, wisdom of ‘the race.’” Common sense can be a feeling of longevity, what hangs around or goes without saying. For Hall, following Gramsci, “Common sense is not coherent: it is usually ‘disjointed and episodic’, fragmentary and contradictory. Into it the traces and ‘stratified deposits’ of more coherent philosophical systems have sedimented over time without leaving any clear inventory.” That it is hard to give a history of common sense, to provide it with a clear inventory, is a sign of its historical effectiveness. Anthropologist Clifford Gertz (1975) describes common sense as having a recognizable “tone and temper.” He explains, “an air of ‘of-courseness,’ a sense of ‘it figures’ is cast over things –again, some selected, underscored things. They are depicted as inherent in the situation, intrinsic aspects of reality, the way things go.”

And so, the more you challenge “the way things go,” the more you know about common sense. As historian Sophia Rosenfeld notes, “Common sense really only comes out of the shadows and draws attention to itself at moments of perceived crisis or collapsing consensus.” Common sense points to a crisis, rather than resolving it. This is why I describe common sense as legacy project. A legacy can mean something that happened in the past or what the past leaves behind (as war leaves a legacy of suffering, for instance). Legacy can also be something transmitted by or received from our predecessors. Legacy becomes a project when what has been, or should be, received from our predecessors is understood as threatened in some way. It might be that legacy is always a project insofar as reception or transmission is never simple or straightforward or guaranteed.

By common sense as a legacy project, I am pointing to how common sense is used as a defence of social institutions and traditions. In the UK common sense is often spoken of as a national legacy, as what we have bequeathed from the past in the form of a faculty. In fact, during the COVID pandemic, government officials including the then prime-minister Boris Johnson regularly referred to “British common sense,” sometimes described as “good and old,” other times as “solid,” as what we should use in making judgements about what to do, whether to mask or not, where to go, where not to go, a rather convenient way, no doubt, of displacing responsibility from government to individual. This idea of “good old British common sense” is an old idea if not a good one. Sophia Rosenfeld comments, “By the 1720s, good old English or British common sense had become a recognisable entity.”

Appealing to common sense is thus often about appealing to those who assumed to have it and for whom some things should be just plain obvious (if this is a claim about reality, this “should” should show us that claims about reality are also often moral claims).  But even if common sense is presented as a faculty of a subject, the literatures of common sense are full of objects. It might be obvious why this is the case. Those who defend common sense do so by exemplification; examples include human-made artefacts such as tables but also human bodies and their parts (2). The analytical philosopher G.E. Moore argued that he could not be more persuaded by sceptical questions about the existence of external reality than he could by common sense. And in defending common sense, he makes use of his own hand both in his paper “In Defence of Common Sense,” and then in a lecture, “Proof of An External World.” It is in the lecture that Moore’s hand acquires an exemplary status. He asks: how can you prove the existence of an external world? He answers his question by holding up his hand: “How? By holding up my two hands, and saying, as I make a certain gesture with the right hand, ‘Here is one hand’, and adding, as I make a certain gesture with the left, ‘and here is another.’” The gesture is not just pointing to something (what should be obvious to someone with common sense), it is a refutation of something, or somebody, else. The hand provides evidence of the folly of scepticism.  The hand, in other words, becomes a tool.

Note how “certain” is attached not to the object but the gesture. What the hand is doing is partly that, or how, we can make reference to it. I became interested in what Moore was doing with his hand after reading the foreword of a book on conservative common sense, written by the reverend, Michael Nazir-Ali.  The book was produced by a new lobby group in the UK called the “Common Sense Group,” which now has over 50 conservative members, who describe themselves as “the institutional custodians of history and heritage.” There is nothing remarkable about this group. We have heard their stories before, they are old and worn, familiar from Brexit (and well before), stories of taking the nation back, taking back control, stories that are also fantasies of a nation that isn’t and a past that wasn’t. What interests me is how the “Common Sense Group” has made “common sense” part of a wider “anti-woke” conservative agenda.   

How does Nazir-Ali define common sense? He writes that common sense:

came simply to mean good judgement which is not easily swayed by intellectual or cultural fads and takes a realistic view of ourselves and what is around us. In philosophy, this view was vigorously defended by the analytical philosopher, G. E. Moore, who held that when a philosophical view is in conflict with Common Sense, it is more likely that the view was in error rather than that Common Sense had gone astray. He gave the example of knowing that his hand existed and was his as being more certain than any sceptical attempts to show that such was not the case. Moore’s argument can, of course, be legitimately extended to our knowledge of our body as a whole and to the different parts of it and their purpose. It could also be extended to our knowledge of our relationships, their meaning and purpose and, indeed, to the social structures and institutions which provide coherence and stability to the social order.

Nazir-Ali makes use of Moore’s hand, moving from the philosopher’s certainty that “his hand existed and was his,” to his own certainty about the nature of bodies and their purposes, to social structures and institutions. The quality of certainty is thus moved from an object that appears to be near and proximate to what is more complex and distant (2). Common sense conservatism can then speak of the stability of social institutions insofar as they are extensions of “his hand,” or “my hand,” in other words, society matters as an extension of myself or even as his or my possession.  This is how legacy is turned into, or treated as, reality. And, this is how reality itself is made a possession. Moore employs his hand as a defence against the sceptics. Nazir-Ali then reemploys Moore’s hand as a defence against “the woke.”  Throughout the book there are multiple references to woke.  It is the references to woke that are substantial.

The hand becomes not only what was there, or is there, but what could be lost, which is why that certain gesture is necessary, the hand as what is being handed down, from one philosopher to another, one generation to another.If it is the references to woke that have become substantial, the quality of substance is transferred to the hand, which is how the hand comes to matter more, the more it is missing.

Common sense conservatism becomes a story of a lost hand.

Another contributor to the book, Gareth Bacon writes:

Britain is under attack.  Not in a physical sense, but in a philosophical, ideological and historical sense. Our heritage is under a direct assault – the very sense of what it is to be British has been called into question, institutions have been undermined, the reputation of key figures in our country’s history have been traduced. This gives huge power to activists and forces the leaders of organisations to fight endless fires of grievance, stifling freedom, embittering the workplace and sowing division.

A sense of what it is to be British is understood both in a positive sense and as a common sense.  So many different actions are being named as assaults against this common sense – including complaints or grievances made within the workplace.  In my book, Complaint! I did not use the language of “hegemonic complainers” because I was well aware how many complaints in the workplace are dismissed as if they derive from those who are either powerful or have a will to be so. The minimization of harm and inflation of power work together as if some make slights more than they are to make themselves bigger. “Hegemonic complaint” would, nevertheless, be a good description of what is going on in common sense conservatism. Hegemonic complaint functions as meta-complaint, a complaint about complaints, those minor grievances made by mischievous minorities. A meta-complaint might not register as a complaint, made without leaving a clear inventory, becoming common sense.

Bacon includes Black Lives Matter and Decolonizing the Curriculum as examples of assaults on the “philosophical, ideological and historical sense” of what it is to be British. He writes that these movements are “not motivated by positivity. Quite the reverse.” Positivity is tied to preservation. And this is why the judgement of negativity is more than a story of motivation. By locating negativity in the outsider, whether the killjoy or “the woke,” culture and history are not only stabilised, they are given a positive quality.  Bacon adds, “words that have been universally understood for millennia, such as ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are now emotionally charged and dangerous.” Of course, this statement is not true, words change, language does; as we do. Questioning the meaning of words such as man or woman, trying to open them up, is treated as giving them a negative charge or even stopping people from using them. Another conversative politician (he has since become prime minister) stated, “We want to confront this left-handed culture that seems to want to cancel our history, our values, our women.” The argument that women are being cancelled expressed with that old sexist possessive (“our women”) draws loosely from the “gender critical” argument that the term gender has replaced sex.  Perhaps we are supposed to treat sex like a statue, what you have to affirm as being there, what is supposed to stand up or to stand firm.

All you have to do to be heard as complaining, as damaging legacy, is not to affirm something. So, when students asked for more philosophies from outside the West to be taught, offering nuanced and careful critiques, they are represented as cancelling white philosophers; asking for more as stealing what is there or from who is there.

Note that the negativity belongs to the judgement not the action. The tagline for this blog is killing joy as a world-making project. I now have a chance to explain more what I mean by that. Killing joy becomes a world making project when we refused to be redirected by a negative judgement away from an action. Instead, we turn the judgement into a project. We keep it up, questioning, trying to widen range of texts being taught, widen the range of meanings, widen the terms we use for who we are, how we are, widening the routes into professions, widening the doors so more can enter. We keep doing this work even when those actions are judged as damaging.

And we will be judged so, as damaging.

Killjoy Commitment: When critique causes damage, we are willing to cause damage.

But we don’t even have to say anything, or do anything, to be the cause of damage.

Heidi Mirza, a woman of colour professor, describes a conversation at her inaugural lecture as professor ‘a white male professor leaned into me at the celebration drinks and whispered bitterly in my ear, “Well they are giving Chairs to anyone for anything these days”’ (2007). When a woman of colour becomes a chair, chairs lose their status and value. The value of some things is made dependent on the restriction of who can have them or be them. This is how a woman of colour professor becomes a damage to legacy. She becomes, we become, evidence of how some are losing their hand.

We are being told whose hand it is.

Those who are told it is not their hand, know whose hand it is.

I can tell you: we can tell you another story about hands.

We have heard how the hand of common-sense conservatism is extended as certainty from what is mine to social relationships and institutions. This extension is not simply an act of individual cognition, but an institutional mechanism.  To have a place at the table, you are required to affirm something, its reality, value, its status as possession (3). I will be describing this requirement to affirm as “polishing the table.” To polish can mean to make something smooth and shiny by friction or coating, to see to one’s appearance, or to refine and improve. The word polish shares a root with the word polite. In UK, polishing is a national past-time.  The history of the British empire is often told as a polite story of well-mannered colonisers. Those of us living and working in the UK whose families came from former British colonies are asked, nay required, to gloss over the violence of histories that led us to be here. And so, when our very arrival is understood as damage to legacy, we are tasked with repairing that damage.

I remember one time when I, as a junior lecturer designed a new course on race and colonialism. I was asked to attend the university committee. We are seated at a large rectangular table in the fanciest room in the fanciest building. I was the only brown person at that table.  A professor from another department began to interrogate me, getting angrier as he went on. And he went on. I can’t remember everything he said. But the word in the course description that triggered his reaction was the relatively uneventful word “implicated.” That I had used that word was a sign, he said, that I thought that colonialism was a bad thing. He then gave me a lecture on how colonialism was a good thing, colonialism as modernity, that happy story of railways, language, and law, that is so familiar because we have heard it before. This is why in The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, I describe empire as world-polishing, we are required to tell the story of empire as a happy story, not only to remove violence, but to remove evidence of that removal.

Diversity too can be polish. A woman of colour academic describes, “I was on the equality and diversity group in the university. And as soon as I started mentioning things to do with race, they changed the portfolio of who could be on the committee and I was dropped.” I think back to how the professor heard a no in my use of the word “implicated.” You can just use words like race and you will be heard as saying no, as being negative, destructive, obstructive.

Polishing can mean more than smiling for their brochures; it can require using words that gloss over our experience.

We smile or vanish. We smile and vanish.

When we see through the polish, we see so much. I spoke to another woman of colour academic who talked to me about complaints she had about sexism and racism but did not make. In explaining to me why she did not make them, she offers a sharp description of the culture of her institution:

There’s an agreement between people not to rock the boat. People would talk about the institution as a kind of legacy project and would imply that you just didn’t understand how the institution was formed. The implication was that you have to be respectful of how this place was organised and what its traditions were essentially. And if you were not abiding by that it was because you had not been there for ten years.

The culture of her institution is that you don’t complain about the culture of the institution. Institutional culture can be what stops a complaint about institutional culture. To complain is thus to provide evidence that you have not been in an institution long enough to understand it, to respect it, how its organised, its traditions.  The complainers would be those who have not yet internalized the norms of the institution, those for whom the project of the institution has not yet become their own.  She did not complain but that was not because the project of the institution had become her own.  She did not complain because, as one of two academics of colour in an otherwise all white department, she did not want to stand out any more than she already did. But because the problems she did not complain about did not go away, she decides to leave for another post. She submits a resignation letter, which took the form of a complaint about how racism and sexism were part of the institution. The other academic of colour resigned at the same time, “after we resigned, they said we were the wrong kind of people. This is the two-brown people in the department of around fifty people.” Being the wrong kind of people, not white, not right, is used to explain and dismiss that complaint. When complaints are dismissed as coming from people who are too new to abide by, or respect, an institutional legacy, some people will be dismissed as complainers no matter how long they have been in an institution.

You become a complainer by virtue of not reproducing an institutional legacy.

This expression “rocking the boat” came up often in my interviews, most often in the form of a warning. I spoke to a student who was involved in a collective complaint with other students about sexual harassment. She describes how she was warned, “I was repeatedly told that ‘rocking the boat’ or ‘making waves’ would affect my career in the future and that I would ruin the department for everyone else. I was told if I did put in a complaint, I would never be able to work in the university and that it was likely I wouldn’t get a job elsewhere.” Complaints are framed as how you would damage a department or institution as well as yourself, how you would deprive yourself of a career path. A well-used definition of common sense is sound and practical judgement.

Complaints are impractical. Complaints are made impractical.

It is made practical to affirm the institution.

Earlier, I suggested that common sense as a certainty about something, turns hands into tools: that certain gesture. The hand of common sense, that certain gesture, becomes the hand of correction, telling you don’t go that way, go this way, that this way is the right way, the way you need to go to get what you need.  A warning not to complain is also a positive instruction: you are being what to do by being told what not to do. A hand comes up not just to say, no don’t do this, a hand can also be a yes, to correct as to redirect, that’s right.

To progress you have to say yes.  I think of polishing as a yes, yes to the institution. To become professional is to polish yourself. Consider Edward Said’s (1993) description of the professionalism “not rocking the boat, not straying outside the accepted paradigms or limits, making yourself marketable and above all presentable.”  To polish yourself is to be willing to polish the institution. I think of how when I disclosed what had been going on in my institution, the various enquiries into sexual harassment that had taken place, a colleague said that my action was “unprofessional,” because it caused “a fall-out which damages us all now and in the future.” We are learning what it means to be professional. To be professional is to be willing to keep the institution’s secrets, to protect the reputation of an institution. When we smile, what else vanishes?

Those who complain, who refuse to polish the picture or be the polish in the picture, give common sense a clear inventory.

Let me explain what I mean by returning to common sense conservatism. We could compare the book written by the Common-Sense Conservative Group, to the Sewell Report published in 2021, the UK government’s most report on race. The report declared that there was no evidence of institutional racism in the UK. It claims some ethnic groups do not well because they are too negative, they dwell on racism or are haunted by history. It even suggests we see the positives in slavery. Yes, it was a polished report.

It is important to note that the report was authored primarily by Black and Brown British people.  Diversity becomes a door deal: the door is open to some of us on condition we shut that door right behind us. Shutting the door can mean shutting the door on others like us. Shutting the door can mean not even thinking of oneself as one of the others.  And so, we learn: you are more likely not to be stopped by institutional racism if you deny it exists. You might even be promoted. And then your promotion can be used as evidence of what does not exist.

Polishing is tied to progression, the more you deny, the further you go. When polishing is tied to progression so much disappears, a disappearing, a clearing. We sometimes call that clearing “common sense.” By showing what has been made to disappear, we provide that common sense with its inventory.

  1. I began researching common sense some years ago, although I put the project on hold to write The Feminist Killjoy Handbook. You can see a description of the project here. Recently I was asked if I was going to continue sharing my work on my blog. I decided it was time to start sharing some ideas from my common-sense research. Future posts might include a critique of the idea of “biological sex” as common sense (extending some of the arguments from “Gender Critical as Gender Conservative”) as well as a discussion of racialised common sense. In the project I will be drawing especially on ethnomethodology and social phenomenology (in particular drawing on the work of Harold Garfinkel and Alfred Schutz). My hope is that interrogating common sense will provide a good way of diagnosing what is going on in contemporary “anti-woke” movements. For a lecture that draws on some of the material shared in this post see here.
  2. I will be considering the complexity of using the hand as a tool with reference to time and space (because after all, to readers of Moore, his hand is not now or near).
  3. I consider the “the table” as an object of common sense in the wider project, drawing on Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition as well as The Life of the Mind.


Bacon, Gareth. 2021. ‘What is Wokeism and How Can It be Defeated’, Common Sense Thinking for a Post-Liberal Age.

Geertz, Clifford. 1975. “Common sense as a Cultural System.”  The Antioch Review, Vol. 33, No. 1.

Hall, Stuart. 1977. “Culture, the Media and the ‘Ideological Effect’”, in J. Curran, M. Gurevitch and J. Wollacott (eds), Mass Communication and Society, London: Edward Arnold,

Mirza, Heidi. 2017. “‘One in a Million’: A Journey of a Post-Colonial Woman of Colour in the White Academy.” In Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British Academia, edited by Deborah Gabriel and Shirley Anne Tate. London: UCL Press.

Moore, G.E. 1925. “A Defense of Common Sense,” Contemporary British Philosophy (2nd series), ed. J. H. Muirhead.

Moore, G.E. 1939. “Proof on An External World.”

Nazir-Ali, Michael. 2021. Foreword. Common Sense Thinking for a Post-Liberal Age.

Rosenfeld, Sophia. 2011.  Common Sense: A History.  Harvard University Press.

Said, Edward. 1993.  “Professionals and Amateurs.” Reith Lecture.


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The Feminist Killjoy Handbook is out in the world! Bringing it out into the world has taken time – and my blog has been quiet during that time. I am glad to share its arrival here. Please do order the book from independent bookstores, many of whom have got behind the handbook: you can find a list here. If you do read the book, share a picture on twitter (using the hashtag #wearefeministkilljoys). It means so much to me to know the handbook is in your hands.

We launched the book at an event in Rich Mix, London, on Thursday, March 2nd 2023. It was electrifying and emotional to be with so many people – killjoys, colleagues, affect aliens, trouble makers, friends. Each of us can be all of the above! And we filled the room with our killjoy solidarity. And, it gave me a chance to think more about what I mean by killjoy solidarity. Killjoy solidarity is how I sign my letters, in Killjoy Solidarity, Sara, kiss, kiss. But it means much more than a way of signing or signing off. For me, killjoy solidarity is the solidarity we express in the face of what we come up against. In the handbook I offer what I call killjoy truths, or hard worn wisdoms, what we know because of what keeps coming up. Let me share the last truth offered in the book, which probably best explains what I mean by killjoy solidarity.

Killjoy Truth: The More We Come up Against, the More We Need More.

The more we need more. Sometimes, being feminist killjoy, can feel like coming up against it, the very world you oppose. Killing joy, naming the problem, becoming the problem, can make us feel alone, shattered, scared. I think of a student who wrote to me from a very painful place, giving me a trigger warning for the content she was to share. At the end of her letter, she said My killjoy shoulder is next to yours and we are a crowd. I cannot see it at the moment, but I know it’s there.’ I love the idea of a killjoy shoulder, becoming feminist killjoys as how we lean on each other.

We cannot always see a killjoy crowd. But we know it’s there. And we are here.

That’s one reason I wrote The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, to say, we are here. Although I have written about feminist killjoys before, the handbook is first book I gave them of their own. I made their book a handbook, because I think of it as a hand, a helping hand, an outstretched hand, perhaps also a killjoy shoulder, or a handle, how we hold on to something. A history can be a handle. It can help to know that where we are, others have been. When we travel with feminist killjoys, going where they have been, feminist killjoys become our companion. We need this companionship.

Killing joy can take so much out of us, the energy and time required to name the problem, let alone to become one. My emphasis in the handbook is also on what killing joy can give back to us. Whilst being a feminist killjoy can be messy, and confusing, it can also lead to moments of clarity and illumination, sharpening our edges, our sense of the point, of purpose. In addition to killjoy truths (those hard worn wisdoms), I offer killjoy equations (what is revealing and quirky about our knowledge) killjoy commitments (the wills and won’ts of being a feminist killjoy) and killjoy maxims (the dos and don’ts).  In the second chapter, I also offer some killjoy survival tips; my first tip to surviving as a feminist killjoy is to become one.

To become a feminist killjoy is to get in the way of happiness or just get in the way. We killjoy because we speak back, because we use words like sexism or transphobia or ableism or racism or homophobia to describe our experience, because we refuse to polish ourselves, to cover over the injustices with a smile.  We don’t even have to say anything to killjoy. Some of us, black people and people of colour, can killjoy just by entering the room because our bodies are reminders of histories that get in the way of the occupation of space. We can killjoy because of how we mourn, or who we do not mourn, or who we do mourn. We can killjoy because of what we will not celebrate; national holidays that mark colonial conquest or the birth of a monarch, for instance. We can killjoy become we refuse to laugh at jokes designed to cause offense. We can killjoy by asking to be addressed by the right pronouns or by correcting people if they use the wrong ones. We can killjoy by asking to change a room because the room they booked is not accessible, again.

Killjoy Truth: We have to Keep Saying It Because They Keep Doing It

Note that negativity often derives from a judgement: as if we are only doing something or saying something or being something to cause unhappiness or to make things more difficult for others. Killing joy becomes a world making project when we refuse to be redirected from an action by that judgement. We make a commitment: if saying what we say, doing what we do, being who we are, causes unhappiness, that is what we are willing to cause.

Killjoy Commitment: I am willing to cause unhappiness.

But it can be hard, precisely because the negativity of a judgment sticks to us, because eyes start rolling before we even say anything or do anything as if to say, she would say that.

Killjoy Equation: Rolling Eyes = Feminist Pedagogy

She would say that; we did say that.

Even if we say it, killjoy solidarity can be hard to do. I learnt so much about killjoy solidarity by talking to those who did not receive it. I am thinking of the conversations I had with students and early career lecturers who, having made complaints about sexual harassment by academics, did not receive solidarity they expected from other feminists, often senior feminists. Why? It seemed that those senior feminists did not want to know about something that would be inconvenient for them, which would get in the way of their work or compromise their investments in persons, institutions or projects.

Killjoy Commitment: I am willing to be inconvenienced.

It is not so much that killjoys threaten other people’s investments in persons, institutions, or projects. We become killjoys because we threaten other people’s investments in persons, institutions or projects. And “other people” can include other feminists. And “other people” can include ourselves. Killjoy solidarity can also be the work we have to do in order to be able to hear another person’s killjoy story. We need to be prepared for our own joy to be killed, our progression slowed, if that is what it takes.

So yes, the negativity of the judgement can stick to us. It can slow us down, make our lives more difficult.

I think also of the negativity of words such as queer, which have historically been used as insults, and that are full of vitality and energy because of that. Reclaiming the feminist killjoy is a queer project. A killjoy party, a queer party, is a protest. I wanted to have a party, also a protest, to launch the book because of how many of us are under attack, our claims to personhood dismissed as “identity politics,” our critiques as “cancel culture,” our lives treated not only as light and whimsical, lifestyles, but as endangering others, as recruiting them.  These attacks, which are relentless, designed to crush spirits, are directed especially to trans people right now. I express my killjoy solidarity to you, today and every day.  It can be exhausting having to fight for existence.

Killjoy Truth: When you have to fight for existence, fighting can become an existence.

And so, we need each other. We need to become each other’s resources. Feminism can or should be such a resource.  But what goes under the name of feminism, at least in the UK right now is anti-queer as well as anti-trans, willing to use categories such as sex or nature or natal to exclude some of us, categories that many of us have long critiqued. We say no to this. That no is louder when we say it together. A book can be a no to this. We keep writing, keeping fighting, knowing that we are sending our work out into the hostile environment that we critique.

We say no even when we know it is hard to get through.

We say no together, to make room for each other.

I am glad to be embarking now on a book tour, which we are calling Feminist Killjoys on Tour (you can find some of the events listed here).

If I am near you, come by and let us share some #killjoy solidarity. I want to say thanks, too. I left my post, my profession, my life really, back in 2016. I am profoundly grateful to all of the readers who have stayed with me because you have made it possible to dedicate my time to writing, to become a killjoy writer.

For me #killjoy solidarity is also how we thank each other for what we help make possible for each other.

I think of the feminist killjoy as a shared resource for living strangerwise. Strangerwise, is an odd world for an old wisdom, the wisdom of strangers, those who in being estranged from worlds, notice them, those who in being estranged worlds, remake them.

In fighting for room, we make something for ourselves.

Killjoy Truth: To make something is to make it possible.

Possibility can still be a fight because we have to dismantle the systems that make so much, even so many, impossible. Still, this truth is closest to what I call killjoy joy. Killjoy joy is how it feels to be involved together in crafting different worlds.  We need joy to survive killing joy. We find joy in killing joy. I think of all the letters sent to me by feminist killjoys, how we reached each other. I think of what I have learnt from picking the figure of the feminist killjoy up all those years ago, and putting her to work. When I think these thoughts, I feel killjoy joy. Perhaps we find killjoy joy in resistance, killjoy joy in combining our forces, killjoy joy in experimenting with life, opening up how to be, who to be, through each other, with each other. Killjoy joy is its own special kind of joy.

In killjoy solidarity,

Sara xx

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Feminism as Lifework: A dedication to bell hooks

A lifework: the entire or principal activity over a person’s lifetime or career. To be a feminist is to make feminism your lifework. I am deeply indebted to bell hooks for teaching me this – and so much else, besides.  I write this post in dedication to bell.

When bell hooks died, I couldn’t bring myself to write about her, what her work meant to me, to the students I have taught over many years, to those with whom I share a political project and community. I read what others wrote, grateful that for some of us grief does not take away the capacity for description.  For me, it takes time for words to come, to get to a point when I can say something about losing someone. You can lose someone with meeting them. Or, you can meet someone through what they gave to the world.

Words are coming out because of what you gave to the world. In Talking Back: Thinking Feminism, Thinking Black, hooks wrote of writing as “a way to capture speech, to hold on to it, keep it close. And so, I wrote down bits and pieces of conversations, confessing in cheap diaries that soon fell apart from too much handling, expressing the intensity of my sorrow, the anguish of speech, for I was always saying the wrong thing, asking the wrong questions. I could not confine my speech to the necessary corners and concerns of life. I hid these writings under my bed, in pillow stuffings, among faded underwear” (1988, 6-7). In writing, by writing, bell hooks refuses to be confined. She spreads her words, herself, all over the place.

All that intensity, it goes somewhere. The pages fall apart from “too much handling.” The paper is cheap, the material she has available. She makes do; she gets through. The pages wear out because of how they matter. To write is how she spills out, spills over, the intensity of sorrow, filling it up, stuffing it where she can, where she is, the places she has, under the bed, in the pillow cases, among her underwear, under, in, among; hidden with delicates, her other things. In putting her writing there, her thoughts and feelings tumbling out, what she hears, “bits and pieces of conversations,” she exceeds the space she has been given, the concerns she is supposed to have, allowed to have, the corners, the edges of the room.

We are asking the wrong questions when we question a world that gives us such little room.

There is much beauty in bell hooks’s writing about writing, in her description of what is wearing about the work, about the words. And, there is pain, too.

hooks writes of how you can be caught out by others who think they have found something out about you by finding your words. She mentions how her sisters would find her writing and end up “poking fun” at her (7). She describes leaving her writing out as like putting out “newly cleaned laundry out in the air for everyone to see” (7). Note she does not talk about dirty laundry, that expression often used for the public disclosure of secrets. This is cleaned laundry; it is hanging out there because of labour that has already been undertaken. When writing is labouring, it is what we do to get stuff out there, to get ourselves out there. There is still exposure of something, of someone, in the action of airing, making your interior world available for others to see.

To spread yourself out can be to go back in time, to pull yourself out by pulling on those who came before. hooks describes how as a Black girl she had to stand her ground, defy parental authority, by speaking back. She also describes how she claimed her writer-identity, “One of the many reasons I chose to write under the pseudonym bell hooks, a family name (mother to Sarah Oldham, grandmother to Rosa Bell Oldham, great-grandmother to me” (9).  Penning your own name can be how you claim a Black feminist inheritance. Defiant speech, too. Elsewhere, hooks describes how her grandmother was “known for her snappy and bold tongue” (1996, 152). Writing can be writing back but also writing from, to be snappy as to recover a history.

In Talking Back, hooks also writes about memory, sharing a memory of how her mother remembered, “I remembered my mother’s hope chest with its wonderful odour of cedar and thought about her taking the most precious items and placing them there for safe keeping. Certain memories were for me a similar treasure. I want to place them somewhere for safe keeping” (158). Smell can travel through time; we remember something by smelling it.  And an object can hold our memories, keep them for us, so we can return to them. For hooks, memories are not always clear or even true. She tells us she remembers “a wagon that my brother and I shared as a child” (158). But then she tells us her mother says, “there had never been any wagon. That we had shared a red wheelbarrow.”

A wagon, a red wheelbarrow. The question isn’t which one was it. Objects acquire different colours and shapes, depending. And writing too; how objects acquire different colours and shapes, depending. You might be a red wheel barrow or a wagon. The question isn’t which one. Sometimes, in loosening our hold on things, also ourselves, we bring them to life. In a conversation with Gloria Steinem, bell hooks describes how she is surrounded by her own precious objects, feminist objects. They are the first things she sees when she wakes up. She says “the objects in my life call out to me.” And then she says she has “Audre Lorde’s ‘Litany for Survival’ facing me when I get out of bed; I  have so many beautiful images of women face me as I go about my day”.

Feminism becomes how you create your own horizon, how you surround yourself with images that reflect back to you something precious and true about the live you are living or that life you have lived.

A story of survival, of persistence, also love.

Writing, too, hooks shows us, can be how we surround ourselves.

We write ourselves into existence. We write, in company. And we write back against a world that in one way or another makes it hard for us to exist on our own terms. When I think of what it takes to write back, who it takes, I think of how many came before us who laid out paths we could follow. And I think of you.  It can be good hap to find you there. Sometimes, it takes my breath away when I think of how easily we can miss each other.

We write because we are missing something. We write to help us find each other. In reflecting back on her life-saving book Feminism is For Everybody, bell hooks tells us how her commitment to feminism grew over a lifetime. The preface to the second edition begins, “Engaged with feminist theory and practice for more than forty years, I am proud to testify that each year of my life my commitment to feminist movement, to challenging and changing patriarchy has become more intense” (vii).  I like how you didn’t write “the feminist movement,” but “feminist movement.” Without the “the,” we can hear the movement. I think of the encouragement you give us in sharing this testimony. You teach me that we can find a way through the violence of this world by sustaining our commitment to changing it. To sustain – even intensify – our commitments to feminism is a political achievement given that what we try to challenge and to change, others defend, others who have the resources to turn their defence into an instruction. To express your feminist commitments has life implications – you end up at odds with so much and so many. You also taught me that to be “at odds” is not simply about what is painful and difficult – it is also an opening, an invitation even. That is how you defined queer after all, “being at odds.” What might seem like the negative task of critique, naming what we oppose, showing how violence is implicated in the most cherished of cultural forms, is thus an affirmative task of creating room so that we can live our lives in another way.

In telling this story of her lifelong commitment to feminism as a politics of changing the world, bell hooks addresses us, her audience. She notes that her books were “rarely reviewed,” but still “found an audience.” She describes how she is “awed” that her work “still finds readers, still educates for critical consciousness” (viii). When feminist books are not reviewed by the newspapers with wide circulation or displayed in the front of the bookshops because they are too dissident, how do we find them? hooks suggests her own books were found by “word of mouth” and through “course adoptions.” I found bell hooks through the latter. Her work was assigned in a class I took in 1992 (the teacher who assigned bell hooks was Chris Weedon, thank you Chris for that assignment). Any so by word of mouth or by being taught in feminist classrooms, bell hooks’ books found their readers and saved our lives.

How we find bell hooks is not unrelated to what she has to teach us. Finding feminism is not about following the conventional paths that lead to reward and recognition. Your definition of feminism is “the movement to end sexism, sexual exploitation and sexual oppression” (2000, 33). From this definition, we learn so much. Feminism is necessary because of what has not ended: sexism, sexual exploitation, and sexual oppression. And for hooks, “sexism, sexual exploitation and sexual oppression” cannot be separated from white supremacy and capitalism.  That is why, you keep naming it, what you oppose. In Outlaw Culture, hooks made use of the term “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” an impressive eighteen times! No wonder you have given me so much killjoy inspiration! You named it, nailed it, every time!

There can be costs to nailing it. I think again of hooks awe that her books found their readers. There is a story we can glimpse here of what bell hooks did not do to “find” her audience. In a public dialogue with Marci Blackman, Shola Lynch and Janet Mock at the New School in 2019, hooks says, “I say to my students: Decolonize. But there’s also that price for decolonization. You’re not gonna have the wealth. You’re not gonna be getting your Genius award funded by the militaristic, imperialist MacArthur people.” hooks clarifies that she is not speaking against those individuals who accept these awards but rather pointing to how to decolonise our dependency is to create our own standards for living. To receive funding or prizes or fellowships from organisations whose power derives from the system you critique is to accept a limitation. Even if you think of yourself as working the system it can be hard not to end up working for the system.

You taught me that to change the system we have to stop it from working. I think of that price, the price we pay for the work we do.

Feminism too can end up being the avoidance of that price. We have to find another way through feminism. I think of how bell hooks’s critiques of white feminism gave us so many tools, for instance, her critique of Betty Friedan’s solution to the unhappiness of the housewife, the “problem that has no name” (except of course, you named it).  You write, “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). And you taught me how to “do feminist theory” by reflecting on what happens when we “do feminism.”   You write, “a group of white feminist activists who do not know one another may be present at a meeting to discuss feminist theory. They may feel they are bonded on the basis of shared womanhood, but the atmosphere will noticeably change when a woman of colour enters the room. The white women will become tense, no longer relaxed, no longer celebratory” (2000, 56).  In this description there is so much insight into everything. A woman of colour just has to enter the room for the atmosphere becomes tense. Atmospheres – they seem intangible mostly. But when you become the cause of tension, an atmosphere can be experienced as a wall. The woman of colour comes to be felt as apart from the group, getting in the way of a presumably organic solidarity.

There are many ways we can be removed from the conversation. That removal creates a feeling of unity. That some feminist spaces are experienced as more unified might be a measure of how many are missing from them. You taught me to notice who is missing, which is how we become killjoys, getting in the way of the occupation of space.

You taught me to be willing to get in the way.

You taught me to teach.

Teaching is how we learn, but also how we do the work of transformation. You write of teaching as how we model social change, and as “the practice of freedom…that enables us to live life fully and freely” (1988, 72). I always taught your work. I taught your work in every year I taught, watching students be transformed by your work. We often read your article, “Eating the Other.” I had drawn upon it in one of my first books, Strange Encounters, in an oddly titled chapter, “Going Strange, Going Native.” This is your description, “The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (1992, 21).  Ethnicity becomes spice is perhaps one of the most perfect descriptions of how racism operates in consumer culture! You taught me in this piece how to theorise whiteness, how it becomes not only absence but neutral, a dull dish, how people of colour become spice, adding something, flavour even, added on, that goes on.

I kept being taught by you.

Did I tell you that?

I did not communicate directly with bell hooks. I did send bell hooks a message once by writing to her publishers South End in 2009. I wrote, “I know you have published works by one of our contemporary scholars and activists whom I most admire: bell hooks. I myself am a feminist of color working in and from the British and Australian context. I have been very influenced by bell hooks’ work, especially in my book Strange Encounters (2000), which drew on her wonderful critique of the exoticizing of otherness. It has been such a privilege and pleasure to work with her work.” They told me they passed this letter on to you, but I don’t know for sure if they did. And I wished I had written to you again. But then I think there was a sense in communicating to you through writing not addressed to you but to “feminist movement.”

We are that movement.

It was when I wrote Living a Feminist Life that I felt the fullness of my debt to you. That book had your handprints all over it, signs of what I could do because of what you had laboured to show, what you had left out for us to see. I remember putting your name on the top of the list of scholars who I would love to endorse that book never imagining you might say yes. When I first saw your words about my work I almost fell out of my chair. I was profoundly moved to know that you had read my work let alone that you had endorsed it.

And then my publisher put a sentence from you on the front of the book!

It said, “everyone should read this book.”

I still feel overwhelmed when I see the cover of Living a Feminist Life. Because I see it and I see your name. I see it and I see you. I am about to send out another book, The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, also addressed to feminist movement. You appear all over this book, in the chapter on surviving as a killjoy, the feminist killjoy as poet, the feminist killjoy as activist. I dedicate that last chapter to you.

There are many ways we communicate in writing our love for the world we are bold enough to want for each other.

Thank you bell, for what you helped me to see.

To be bold enough to want.

In killjoy solidarity,

Sara xxx



hooks, bell (2014). Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Second Edition. London: Pluto Press.

hooks, bell (2006). Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. New York: Routledge.

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

hooks, bell (1996). “Inspired Eccentricity: Sarah and Gus Oldham” in Sharon Sloan Fiffer and Steve Fiffer  (eds), Family: American Writers Remember Their Own (ed.), New York: Vintage Books.

hooks, bell (1992).  Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press.

hooks, bell (1988). Talking Back: Thinking Feminism, Thinking Black. Boston: South End Press.




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The Complainer as Carceral Feminist

I am often asked how my arguments about complaint activism relate to the projects of transformative and restorative justice as well as abolitionist feminism. In an answer to one such question, I spoke of my caution in using some of these terms to describe some of this work because I had heard of how they can be misused in institutional settings. But I also said that complaint activism “has much more kinship with these other projects including abolitionist projects than it might appear at first” because you are thinking about “how to have accountability, how to deprive people of institutional power, and thus how to build relationships that are about enabling some people to get into, and stay in, institutions that would otherwise remain inaccessible.” I also noted that even if I did not use these terms, the “kinship” between the projects would become obvious “further along the line.”

In this post, I want to go a little further along that line by considering the figure of the complainer as carceral feminist. In my conclusion, I will turn to the important new book Abolition. Feminism. Now, by Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners and Beth E. Richie to explore the kinship between abolitionist feminism as they describe it and the work of complaint collectives formed to get complaints about harassment and bullying through the systems designed to stop them.

Let me begin with my own implication. I have been called a carceral feminist because of the support I gave to students who made a collective complaint about sexual harassment and (probably more importantly) because I gave that support in public. During the enquires into sexual harassment that led me to resign, and after I resigned, I was sent many letters and messages, overheard many conversations on social media and in person, and read public posts calling me a carceral feminist. Sometimes the accusation came with a psychological profile: that I envied the professors who were the objects of complaint, that I wanted what they had, their students, their centre, for myself.  In one public post, I was described as an all-powerful, punishing and vindictive person who had singlehandedly tried to destroy another professor’s professional and personal life. So, I recognize the figure of the complainer as carceral feminist from being assigned her. And, I know how it feels to be called something you oppose because of how you oppose something.

As soon as I began the research, I found that I had company. So many people I spoke to who made or supported a formal complaint (especially when the complaints were about sexual harassment or sexual misconduct by academics) had been called carceral feminists. Why? Making a formal complaint at a university is not the same thing as calling the police. It is not about sending people to prison. So why does this figure appear when formal complaints are being made? What is she doing?

Let’s assume in the first instance that formal complaints are treated as carceral because they can lead to an investigative and disciplinary process, and, at least potentially, to a penalty being enforced by an authority. The figure of the complainer as a carceral feminist might be exercised to imply that the point of a complaint is punishment or penalty. In her brilliant book We do this ‘Til we Free us, Mariame Kaba differentiates punishment from consequences. For Kaba, punishment means “inflicting cruelty and suffering on people.” In contrast, “Powerful people stepping down from their jobs are consequences, not punishment. Why? Because we should have boundaries. And because the shit you did was wrong and you having power is a privilege. That means we can take that away from you. You don’t have power anymore.”

Kaba’s work is an invitation to ask hard questions about the nature of institutional power. You have institutional power when the position you are given by an institution gives you power over others. In the sixth chapter of Complaint! I consider institutional power in terms of who “holds the door” to the institution, who can determine not only who gets into the institution, but who progresses through it. Those who abuse power often represent themselves as generous, as willing and able to open the door for others. In a gift is lodged a threat to shut the door on anyone who will not do what they want them to do.

How, then, do we deprive someone of institutional power? It is precisely because some people have that power that it is hard to deprive them of it.  If to deprive someone of institutional power is an institutional outcome, then to deprive someone of institutional power has to involve the institution in some way; it is a commitment to an institutional process of some kind. But having institutional power also means you can mobilize the institution’s own resources to stop those who are trying to stop you from abusing that power. Those who “hold the door” to the institution can and do shut that door on those who complain.

This is why to complain about an abuse of power is to learn about power: complaint as feminist pedagogy.

I want to stress at the outset that most people I spoke to did not want to punish the person or persons they were complaining about and if anything explained their reluctance to complain as concern about what the consequences would be for those they were complaining about. Why complain, then? Most people I spoke to complained about conduct for the simple reason that they wanted it to stop. A student who complained about the most senior member of her department said she “wanted to prevent other students from having to go through such practice.”   Wanting the behaviour to stop is also about wanted what happened to you not to happen to others.  This is why I describe complaint as nonreproductive labour, the work you have to do to stop the same things from happening, in other words, to stop the reproduction of an inheritance.

We are learning something about consequences – to stop someone often requires stopping the system from working.

What then is the framing of a complaint as about punishment rather than consequences doing?

Let’s take an example. I spoke to an academic who supported a collective of students who made a complaint about the conduct of a lecturer in her department. She describes the process, “a student, a young student, who came and said to me that this guy had seduced her basically. And then in conversation with another woman she found out he had done the same to her. And then it snow-balled and then we found out there were ten women, he was just going through one woman after another after another after another.” The professor defended his own conduct thus, “He come up to me and said, ‘it’s a perk of the job.’” I could believe it. He actually said it to me. It was not hearsay; this is a perk of the job. I can’t remember my response, but I was flabbergasted.” We need to learn from how “perk of the job” can be mobilized as a defence against a complaint about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. The implication is that having sex with your students is like having a company car; what you are entitled to because of what you do.

A complaint can then be interpreted as a contradiction of an entitlement: the right to use or to have something.  To deprive someone of power is to deprive them of what they experience as theirs. The women who made the complaint were quickly framed as motivated by a desire to punish. As the professor I spoke to describes, “The women: they were set up as a witch-hunt, hysterical, you can hear it can’t you, and as if they were out to get this guy.”

To deprive someone of power is understood by those with power as punishment. 

As soon as you try to deprive someone of power, you will be identified as motivated by a desire for power. That identification is often used because it often succeeds. In this case, the complaint was not upheld and the lecturer returned to his post with minor adjustments to supervisory arrangements.

The framing of complaint as punishment can be a way of avoiding consequences.

It is convenient to pathologize the complainer as having a will to power.

Madeline Lane-McKinley has offered an important critique of what the framing of complaint as carceral is doing. She describes how the one who complains, “will be told you are putting someone else on trial. This is precisely what enables sexual abusers, for instance, to claim they are being witch-hunted, while mobilizing a witch-hunt themselves.” Lane-McKinley identifies a “carceral anti-feminism,” which names “all feminism carceral.”

When appeals to other forms of justice are made, this identification of feminist complaint as carceral is kept in place. Complaints can be framed as the failure to resolve the situation by other more positive means. I think of one student who was sexually assaulted by a professor. In consultation with the students’ union, she submitted an informal complaint. It was sent to a dean who told her she should “just have a cup of tea with him to sort it out.” Another student told me how it took repeated complaints by her and other students about the conduct of a professor before those complaints got uptake. And after the complaint got uptake, and a disciplinary process began, she was told by a colleague that “she should have used restorative justice,” with restorative justice being indexed weakly rather like that “cup of tea,” a loose and light signifier of reconciliation.

Note the suggestion “she should have used restorative justice,” was not made by someone speaking from or on behalf of an institution. It was made by a feminist colleague.  In a recent virtual panel on transformative justice, a survivor described how the language of transformative justice was “misused” as “a network of support” for her abuser. As many feminists know, the system is already designed as a support system for abusers. What we also need to know is that support is being enacted by the use of critical feminist language.  I remember how we were told after the enquiries took place that we should have used transformative justice. That term was not just used weakly, it was divorced from its radical history. When you are told you should have used transformative justice in cases where those who have abused power have refused and still refuse to recognize the harm they caused, transformative justice is used as a way of avoiding accountability, the opposite way to how it is used by our communities as a demand for accountability.

The very argument that complaint = carceral feminism can justify a certain kind of relation to the institution that I would summarize as institutional quietism. I think of this problem as at least in part a problem of white feminism.  Of course, it remains important and necessary to critique carceral feminism as white feminism – as Alison Phipps for instance has done. I am not offering these observations to contradict that critique. And yet, it still needs to be said: I have had a number of conversations with Black feminists and feminists of colour about being called carceral feminists by white feminists. White feminists justify their withdrawal of support from those who complain by using that very equation complaint = carceral feminism. In case this seems odd or surprising, remember there is a long history of Black women and women of colour being identified by white feminists as angry, punishing, mean and hostile. If the carceral feminist can be turned into a psychological profile, it can also become a racial profile. In an earlier post on the figure of the white friend, I noted how that white feminists often push Black women and women of colour to be more positive or conciliatory, a gesture that can sweep over racism and racial harassment as if it was a misunderstanding or a miscommunication, to protect their white colleagues or even themselves. White feminists might even suggest to those of us who are initiating or supporting complaints about bullying or harassment read such-and-such Black feminist on forgiveness (I know this because it happened to me).  In my lecture, After Complaint I noted that many of the concepts we develop to critique how power works can be used to mask how power works. I suggested that “our terms,” can become screens, assertions of the right of some to occupy time and space.

Along with a critique of complaint as carceral feminism goes a certain kind of institutional fatalism  (there is no point in complaining if the whole institution is going down or there is no point in complaining if the point is to bring it down). But of course, some have to complain in order to be able to get into the institution, to move through them, or to do their work. Institutional fatalism is only useful to those whose relation to the institution is not under threat or those who don’t need to complain to access the building.  If not complaining or not “rocking the boat,” can be about how some people protect the good relations they have to those who allocate resources, as I argued in “Complaint as a Queer Method,” only some of us have such relations in the first place. In other words, the action that is avoided by the critique of complaints as carceral feminism would threaten a more positive relation to the institution.

Being against complaints as carceral as a matter of principle allows some people to present themselves as being oppositional without having to do anything or to give anything up. 

Please note, I am not saying that not complaining is only about protecting a positive relation to the institution. There are many reasons not to complain including a lack of trust in the institution (as I will discuss in due course), or an unwillingness to commit to a process that is designed to remain confidential and internal to the institution. I am rather pointing to how a critique of carceral feminism can be used to mask the protection of a positive relation to the institution by enabling it to be expressed as if it was a radical stance rather than institutional complicity. 

If the critique of the complainer as carceral feminist is used by those who are critical of the institution, the institution not only benefits from but often shares that critique. In one instance, a senior administrator explained the decision not to appoint someone with expertise in sexual harassment or equality to head an enquiry into sexual misconduct by a professor because they “did not want to be seen to be conducting a witch-hunt.” The professor was, unsurprising, cleared of any wrong doing by an enquiry led by someone who was sympathetic to him.  A formal process is framed as a potential witch hunt by those given responsibility for conducting that process; consequences are avoided by being treated as punishment.

Is the push to be conciliatory another technique for avoiding consequences? I think back to the dean who told one student to “have a cup of tea” with the lecturer who had assaulted her. In the UK, the first stage of a formal complaint process is informal – and if your complaint is about an abuse of power you are encouraged to resolve the complaint in the department or unit where the abuse of power occurred. You are encouraged to identify that informality of the process in positive terms. I think of two students who met with administrators about their complaint.  They describe what happened,

Student 1: They didn’t record it or take any notes. I think there were one or two lines written.

Student 2: It was very odd.

Student 1: You did feel it was a kind of cosy chat.

Student 2: Very odd; very odd.

Student 1: They were sort of wrapping the conversation up, because it had gone on, and I said this is us making a formal complaint and there was shift in the atmosphere. And I said we do want to follow it up as a complaint.

Informality can be used as a way of trying to discourage an informal complaint from becoming formal; turning a complaint into a casual conversation that can be more easily wrapped up. It is then as if the complainer is requiring an adherence to rules and conventions, or as if the formality necessary to make a complaint is itself a form of antagonism (not having a “cosy chat,” not being friendly). A formal complaint would become what someone makes because they are being unfriendly. Note how when the students make clear that they are making a formal complaint there is a “change of atmosphere.”

When universities direct those who are considering complaint to use more informal or less formal methods, they seem to do so to minimize harm and to demand compliance with the effort to restore the status quo. In one case, I talked to an academic who had make complaint, as had other members of her department about bullying by the head of the department. She described how they were invited to mediation, “the Pro-Vice Chancellor then said I am going to give you this gift, I have arranged for you to go to this hotel, and I have arranged for this person, a negotiator, to sit with you and sort this out. I had been bullied and called in so many times by this guy; I just thought I am not going to mediation meeting with this person.” Being invited to enter mediation is represented as a gift. The gift is proximity to the person who is being abusive, you are being asked to be in the same room as him, to sit with him, as if all you need to resolve the problem is time and proximity. The use of seemingly more positive methods such as mediation by institutions often translates into those who abuse power being given more opportunities to express themselves.

I am not saying that there is no place for mediation in conflict resolution. But abuse is not conflict, although it is often framed as such by institutions. In Complaint! I share many instances of how harassment and bullying are treated as conflicts between parties that can be resolved by mediation, as different viewpoints that ought to be heard, as if you are hearing different sides of the same story. I shared examples of sexual and physical assaults being described as styles of communication (one head of department who assaulted a colleague in a corridor was described in the report that cleared him of wrong doing as having “a direct style of management”).  When assaults and other abuses of power are treated as styles of communication, complaints can be framed as misunderstandings (“it didn’t mean anything” is a common retort for a reason). More or better communication is then turned into a solution.

In making communication the solution, individuals become the problem. Talking about harm or hurt can be a way of not talking about institutional power. Talking about trauma can be a way of not talking about structure. I noticed how quickly during the enquiries where I used to work the term “vicarious trauma,” began to be floated around (popping up in dialogue and documents), as if we are a collective had traumatized each other rather than been infuriated by the institutional response to the complaints. I recall how the only support I was offered was therapy – including in the final communication from the Warden after I resigned. Even if that offer was motivated by a genuine concern for my wellbeing, you can see the problem: we become the location of the problem, yet again.

To locate a problem is to become the location of a problem.

Those who don’t become the problem are protected. Institutions in protecting themselves protect those whom they have already given power. In other words, they are protecting their investment. You don’t have to go through a complaint to know that institutions will do what they can to protect their investments. In fact, it is because of what some people know about institutions that they decide not to complain. If you don’t trust the institution, why would you go through a complaints process?  This is an important question. But we also need to ask: what if the lack of trust in the institution is precisely what is being used by those with institutional power?

Those given power by institutions have a concerted interest in making them untrustworthy.

I talked to a group of students informally. They described to me how they were dissuaded from lodging a complaint about sexual harassment. They were told by academics in the department that any complaint would be repurposed by senior management as a tool to be used against “radical academics,” that the complaint would become a carceral tool in the sense of being used punitively to close them down. This was a very successful method: for the students to express what they felt, a political allegiance to the academics, being on the same side, against the same things, required them not to complain about the conduct of those academics even though they objected to that conduct.

Many of those who complain share this concern that their complaint will be used by hostile management to justify decisions that those they themselves would not make. Damn it, I share this concern! Having said this, my study of complaint also taught me that management can use any data in any way – positive data can be used to create the impression there is no problem (and if there is no positive data, institutions will create it, or use existing data very selectively) and negative data can be used to justify the withdrawal of support (and if there is no negative data, institutions will create it, or use existing data very selectively). What is important to note is that the concern about the use of the negative data of complaint is in turn instrumentalized. If that concern is used to stop complaints, it is also used to enable the conduct that the complaints, if they had been made, would have tried to stop. And then, those who do make formal complaints about harassment or bullying by academics are treated as managers, disciplining “radical academics,” trying to stop them from expressing themselves freely.

The implication that to complain is to become the manager or to call the manager invites potential complainers to see themselves in the terms they often oppose. The figure of the complainer as carceral feminist is closely related to the figure of the complainer as manager explored in chapter 5 of Complaint!  These figures help explain what might seem at first like a curious finding: the use of the word neoliberal to dismiss complaints and, in particular, student complaints. One student who made a complaint about harassment by a professor in her ma program said, “My complaint was called neoliberal.” Her complaint was called neoliberal by other students in the program. The other students also said that the complainers “needed to be in ‘solidarity’ with those whose education was now being disrupted, not the other way around.” Neoliberalism can be mobilized to judge those who complain as motivated by self-interest. Not complaining about harassment from a professor then becomes judged as being in the collective interest, a way of holding on to the professor by keeping silent about his abusive behaviour. Note if complaint is framed as punishment because it would deprive someone of power, the complainer becomes a stranger, depriving others of what they want, in this case, the professor. You can be punished for that consequence. The student was also told it was questionable to complain, as to complain is to “turn to the institution” and to “seek support” from it.  In other words, entering into an institutional process by submitting a formal complaint is framed in advance as institutional complicity. Some academics position themselves as working against the neoliberal institution, refusing to comply with its bureaucratic impositions. This positioning is convenient because it allows abuses of power to be framed as non-compliant, rebellious or radical.

Those with institutional power often represent themselves as against institutions.

The designation of complaint as neoliberal can be used to imply that to make a complaint is to behave like, or to become, a consumer. Another student who made a complaint about bullying and harassment from a professor in her ma program said, “The idea that would come up is that I was somehow being a very neoliberal person, the idea of the student as a stakeholder.” When a student making a complaint about harassment is treated as a student acting as a stakeholder, treating education as an investment, the university as a business, complaints about harassment are made akin to not liking a product. Complaints about harassment can be minimized and managed when filtered as consumer preference. She added, “Maybe I am just a perfect neoliberal subject. Or maybe I am a person who doesn’t want to be abused.” What is striking is what she is revealing: how not wanting to be abused, complaining about abusive behaviour, can be judged as being “a perfect neoliberal subject.” We need to learn from how neoliberalism can be used to picture the person who does not want to be abused and who acts accordingly.

I think the designation of the complainer as neoliberal is useful because so many of us working within educational institutions would make (or have made) critiques of neoliberalism as damaging institutions. If a complaint is designated as neoliberal, the complainer can be identified as damaging universities not because they damage their reputation, which would be a neoliberal model of damage, but because they threaten progressive educational values or even the idea of the university as a public good. One student who put in a complaint about harassment was told, “You are going to ruin any chance for this innovative work continuing.” The effort to stop a complaint can be justified as giving support to innovative work. We might think of institutional violence as happening over there, enacted by those who would or could direct that violence toward us, as critical thinkers, say, subversive intellectuals, even, but that violence is right here, closer to home, in the warm and fuzzy zone of collegiality, in commitments to innovation, radicality, or criticality, in the desire to protect a project or a program.

In most instances, the diagnosis of the complainer as neoliberal happens retrospectively, but it can also be made in advance in an effort to justify the conduct (and thus to stop complaints). An undergraduate student was persuaded to enter a sexual relationship with a senior man professor: “The first time he touched me he closed his office door. I thought it was strange that he closed the door.  We weren’t doing anything wrong. I pondered, Why hide this? He informed me that the university’s ‘sex panic’ was the reason: predatory neoliberal policies encroaching on our freedoms. I nodded. The door remained closed after that.” Here the closed door is deemed necessary because of “neoliberalism policies” as well as “sex panic,” a term that associates neoliberalism with a narrow, moralizing, feminist agenda. Policies are treated as the police. It is implied that the door is closed because of how certain forms of conduct (such as having sex with your students, that perk of the job) have made rights into wrongs.

Feminism can thus be treated as part of a managerial and diplomacy regime that is imposed upon others to restrict their freedom. Equality can be dismissed very easily as audit culture, as tick boxes, as administration, as bureaucracy, as that which can distract us from creative and critical work and can even stop us from doing that work.  I think the word neoliberal also becomes attached to other words, including feminist, prude, uptight, moralizing, killjoy, and policing. If these words seem far apart, remember neoliberalism is used to picture the complainer as individualistic. Being a prude, uptight, and moralizing can thus be part of that same picture: the person who is unwilling to give herself to others or to participate in a shared culture is judged as putting herself first. A complaint can then be treated as an imposition of will, as forcing your viewpoint upon others, depriving them of what they experience as theirs.

Force can then be framed as originating with the complaint, even when the complaint is about violence. The figure of the complainer is treated as a symptom of a more generalized structure of violence, whether institutional, managerial, neoliberal or carceral. When complaints against academics are made, they can pass themselves off very quickly as the ones being forced, being forced out or being forced into compliance by a disciplinary regime. The complainers are then treated not as protesting violence, but as enforcing it; the complainers become not only the managers, but the police, or the prison guards. I think this passing is successful because many academics identify themselves as potentially harmed by a disciplinary apparatus because of who they are or the beliefs they hold. If you have had an experience of the institution coming down on you, you might be sympathetic to those who frame complaints made against them as the institution coming down on them.

I am using the word passing deliberately here. Passing often works because it approximates something real. Of course, we do know that complaints can be used to discipline academics for their minority views or status. It might be on these grounds alone that we could say that complaints can be carceral feminism. But there is a but! I also know of instances where complaints against minoritized academics have been dismissed as an exercise of institutional power in problematic ways. In one example, a man of color left his post after complaints by students about harassment and bullying. His departure was publicly represented by his supporters as being a result of a complaint made by a single white student who didn’t like how he expressed himself. I spoke informally to the students who were involved in the complaint process. I learned from them that complaints were made not by one student but by a group of students, including students of color, and related to Islamophobia and racial harassment as well as sexual harassment and bullying. This is how the use of the figure of the privileged white complainer, we could even call her Karen, can stop students of color from being heard; it can stop complaints about racial harassment from being heard.

A complaint against a minoritized person is not always an exercise of power against that person because of their minority status. As many of us know too well, institutions reward abusive behaviour, often strategically misrecognizing harassment and bullying as expressive, eccentric, or even as signs of genius. Those of us who are not straight, cis white men are more likely to have doors opened to us when we reinforce those same patterns of behaviour. I do know of cases of complaints made against queer academics that are motivated by homophobia and received uptake given the hyper-surveillance of non-normative bodies. But I also know of cases where queer academics have framed complaints about their conduct as homophobia to deflect attention from abusive patterns of behaviour.

It is hard to tell the difference between those who pass themselves off as  disciplined for dissidence and those who are disciplined for dissidence.

We also need to remember that many, even most, of those who repeatedly harass, or bully other people can and do frame complaints against them as motived, malicious or oppressive. They can then position themselves as minoritized by virtue of being the object of a complaint. I recently read an article that listed examples of academics who had been disciplined by universities for “not fitting,” with their regimes. In that list, a known harasser (I say known as the complaint file is in the public domain) was casually positioned next to a Palestinian academic who lost his tenure because of his critiques of Israel.  That adjacency is telling us something.

That it is hard to tell the difference between those who pass themselves off as disciplined for dissidence and those who are disciplined for dissidence can be instrumentalised.

Even though feminism can be associated with neoliberalism as well as managerialism, it is worth noting that some feminists can be persuaded by this reframing of complaint as a disciplinary technique used against dissident academics. I have read many letters of support written by feminists on behalf of colleagues who have been accused of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct. We need to understand how this can happen. I think of one case. Multiple complaints were made by students against an academic man (who had a leading role in the national union), which included allegations of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, and sexual harassment.  Despite the number and severity of allegations, he was still able to convince many of his colleagues that he was the one being harassed. I spoke informally to the group who worked together to make those complaints. A professor said, “His narrative was apparently that he was being accused of making sexist comments and the ‘feminazis,’ us, were out to get him.” The case against him was also described as a witch hunt.  This use of such terms will be familiar to feminists: we only need to consider how quickly #MeToo was framed in this way, as a persecution of innocent men by a feminist mob.

The lecturer also received support from feminist colleagues who wrote letters on his behalf without even hearing from the students who had made the complaints. Some of these feminists have public roles in challenging the culture of sexual harassment (for example in leading campaigns against the use of NDAs). And yet behind closed doors, they were given their support to those accused of sexual harassment. The professor I spoke to explains: “Many colleagues, about sixty-eight to seventy, came forward on his behalf to suggest that really, he was a ‘good guy,’ just a regular ‘Northern Cheeky Chappie,’ maybe a bit of a rough diamond. . . . They had no idea of what he was being accused of, other than what he offered up to them as his own narrative.”  These exact descriptions, “rough diamond,” a “Northern Cheeky Chappie,” were used by academics (including feminist academics) in letters of support submitted on his behalf. We can hear what they are doing. They are intended as rebuttals. They are used to imply that the complaints derive from a failure of those who complained to appreciate how he was expressing himself. They are used to imply that the failure to appreciate how he was expressing himself was a form of snobbery or class prejudice. An early career academic from a working-class background described to me how enraging it was to be positioned as middle class, as if “working-class women never complained,” as if working-class women did not have their own militant feminist history and were not themselves instrumental in the battle to recognize sexual harassment as a hostile environment in the workplace in the first place.

I cannot overstate how painful and triggering it is when feminist colleagues who speak out against sexual harassment in public give their support to serial harassers when called upon to do so without even hearing from those who complained. Those who complain about harassment often end up feeling all the more stranded—they are all the more stranded—because the solidarity they expected to receive from those with whom they share an allegiance is withdrawn from them and given to those whose violence required them to complain in the first place. I think again of the survivor who shared how the language of transformative justice was “misused” to create “a network of support” for her abuser. I think of her; I thank her.

A critique of the misuses of the language of transformative justice can be understood as a contribution to the project of transformative justice.

We need to know that support for those who abuse power is being justified by the misuse of the language of transformative justice.  We need to explain it. We need to contest it. And we need to create our own support systems.

Let’s return to Mariame Kaba’s description of consequences as depriving someone with institutional power. Those who complain come to know first hard about how hard it is to deprive someone of power in part through learning about what complaints do not do, where they do not go. Complaints procedures are atomising: most institutions do not allow collective complaints for a reason. We are made smaller by being kept apart. Confidentiality can also lead to isolation – you are not supposed to talk to anyone about your complaint or you are only supposed to talk to those with an institutional position. You can end up having to hold so much in.  This is why I think of complaint activism as the work of getting complaints out.

The work of complaint teaches you how the system works. I think of one of the woman professors who participated in the complaint collective that was dismissed as a witch hunt. I was interested in where she ended up. She said, “By the end I just wanted to put a flame to the whole thing.”  Going through what appears to be a purely bureaucratic or formal process, a tiresome, painful, difficult process, can be very politicizing, and sometimes then, energizing. Some of the strongest critiques of institutions come from those who have tried to make use of formal complaints to challenge abuses of power. When you make a complaint, you might not necessarily begin by thinking of yourself as part of a movement nor as a critic of the institution let alone as trying “to dismantle the master’s house” to evoke the title of Audre Lorde’s important essay. But that is where many who make complaints end up.

There is hope in this trajectory.

It is here that I can hear the kinship between the work of such complaint collectives and the abolitionist feminist project. Consider Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners and Beth E. Richie’s recent book, Abolition. Feminism. Now. I love how, in this book, they do not just write about abolitionist feminism but from it or even as it, creating a living feminist archive of a movement that is happening now, that is urgent, necessary, now.

Here is just one of their descriptions of abolitionist feminism:

For us, abolition feminism is political work that embraces this both/and perspective, moving beyond binary “either/or” logic and the shallowness of reforms. We recognize the relationality of state and individual violence and thus frame our resistance accordingly: supporting survivors and holding perpetrators accountable, working locally and internationally, building communities while responding to immediate needs. We work alongside people who are incarcerated while we demand their release. We mobilize in outrage against the rape of another woman and reject increased policing as the response. We support and build sustainable and long-term cultural and political shifts to end ableism and transphobia, while proliferating different “in the moment” responses when harm does happen. Sometimes messy and risky, these collective practices of creativity and reflection shape new are static identifiers but rather political methods and practices.

What I find so powerful about this description is how resistance is framed as a response to the relationality of state and individual violence. We have to find ways of responding that do not involve the expansion of reliance on institutions that cause harm such as the police or prisons. This does not mean abandoning accountability, but demanding it, being inventive, creating our own resources to try and bring an end to violence. Transformative justice is the work we do to create those resources.  This is also how I understand the work of complaint collectives: it is about how we create and share resources, how we identify violence, including institutional violence, the violence of how institutions respond to violence, how we mobilize against it, how we work out how to bring an end to it by working together.

That work is also about showing how solutions are often problems given new forms. As Davis, Dent, Meiners and Richie also describe, “As new formulations surface, others fade; networks and groups proudly identify as feminist, queer, crip, Black, and/or abolitionist. Rattled by their demands and sometimes simply their formation, dominant institutions struggle to contain and manage these movements. But yet another “diversity committee” or another “equity officer” are inevitably failed efforts to contain these insurgent demands.” Complaint collectives are often formed because of how institutions try to manage complaints, often through positive injunctions such as diversity.  To create a complaint collective is to work through the institution, but also against it, creating pockets in which we can breathe, as well as new relationships and alliances along the way. We imagine other kinds of institutions in the act of complaining about what happens in institutions, which are often also complaint about institutions, the kinds of institutions we have. Complaints can be a repurposing of negativity, a push to dismantle the institution from the inside out. From abolitionist feminism and from working in a complaint collective, I have learnt that a dismantling project is a building project.

We complain to make other institutions possible.

We know what is possible by fighting for it.







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Feminist Ears

In today’s lecture,  I will reflect back on my project on complaint, and in particular, my method of listening to complaint, listening as learning about violence. I was inspired to do this research after taking part in a series of enquiries into sexual harassment that had been prompted by a collective complaint lodged by students. I began working with the students in 2013, left my post and profession in 2016, started gathering testimonials in 2017 and published Complaint! in 2021. I am giving you the timeline because time matters, because during this time, almost a decade now, I have been immersed in complaint. I wrote the book from that immersion.

I describe my method as becoming a feminist ear. One academic wrote to me, “I want the complaint to go somewhere, rather than round and round in my head.” When a complaint goes round and round in your head, it can feel like a lot of movement not to get very far. To become a feminist ear is to give complaints somewhere to go. In time, I began to be addressed as a feminist ear. A student sent me a message. “I am writing because I need a feminist ear. Perhaps you can use this complaint in your work.”  To become a feminist ear is not only to be willing to receive complaints but to make use of them, to do something with them, to make them work or to make them part of our work.

Before I turn to discussing my project on complaint, let me say a little about how I came to the idea of feminist ears.  I first introduced this idea in my book, Living a Feminist Life. I was writing about the feminist film, A Question of Silence (Gorris, 1982).  I was writing about snap, those moments you can’t take it anymore, when you lose it; I call snap a “moment with a history.” In this film the character Janine, a psychiatrist, is a feminist ear; she is listening to the stories of women who between them had murdered a man; she is listening to what they say, but also to silence, what is not or cannot be said. We listen with her, also through her, to sexism, the sounds of it, how women are not heard, how so often women might as well not be there, as secretaries, as wives, perhaps also professors, blanked when we say something, blanked because we say something. I will return later to how blanking can be used as a method for stopping complaints. The film shows how a feminist hearing is a shared action.  Janine in hearing these other women’s stories, their complaints, begins to hear how she herself is not heard. She begins to see how she herself has disappeared from her own story, her life, her marriage, how her life is organised around him, his words, his work, his world.

It was only after I went to see this film during a feminist festival in London that I began to use the expression feminist ears.  I was so struck by how loud the audience was especially during the scene when a man is congratulated after saying the exact same thing a woman secretary had just said – only to be ignored. The groan of the audience really hit me, that sound of recognition, of relief even.  Why relief? So often we can’t quite put a finger on it, sexism say, or racism, even when we come up against it, even when it stops us from doing something, from being something, it is hard to show, to share what we know. It can be a relief to witness collectively what so often works by not being quite so visible or audible. The loudness of the audience was matched by the scene toward the end of the film in the courtroom, when Janine pronounces the women sane only to be met with the judge’s incredulity. The women in the courtroom begin to laugh, louder and louder still, because they can hear what the patriarchal judge cannot.

Feminism: we hear what each other can hear.

Feminism: we hear each other hear how we are not heard.

Feminism: we are louder not only when we are heard together, but when we hear together.

So, when I say that my method in researching complaint was to become a feminist ear, this becoming was not mine alone.

I spoke to a lecturer about what happened when she returned after long term sick leave. She is neuroatypical, she needs time, she needs space, to return to her work, to do her work. But the complaint takes so much time, so much work: “there are like four channels of complaint going on at the same time. But interestingly none of these people seem to be crossing over.” You have to speak to all these people who are not speaking to each other. She speaks to a physician from occupational health, “I think his sense was that if I was well enough to stamp my foot and complain then I was well enough to work.” Because she could hear how she was being heard, we too have the opportunity to hear something; how a complaint is audible as a tantrum; how the complainer is cast as spoiled; how a grievance is heard as a grudge.   She describes what happened in the meeting, “[the physician] had to write a report on whether he thought I was fit for work, or what my problems were…he was shocked I think that I complained to him in the room face-to-face. He was dictating the letter to the computer, which was automatically typing it and I think he was astonished that I said I am not going to sign it.” I think of her refusal to sign that letter, to agree with how he expressed her complaint back to her, the words he reads out loud, his words, the computer automatically typing those words, his words; the different ways you can be made to disappear from your own story.

It is worth nothing here that complaint can be an expression of grief, pain, or dissatisfaction; something that is a cause of a protest or outcry, a bodily ailment, or a formal allegation. The latter sense of complaint as formal allegation brings up these other more affective and embodied senses. To complain you have to become expressive, the word express comes from press; to press out. Think of how she has to keep saying no, no even to how her no is recorded. It can be hard to keep saying no if you don’t feel you have a right to keep saying it, “There is something else which is something to do with being a young female academic from a working-class background: part of me felt that I wasn’t entitled to make the complaint – that this is how hard it is for everybody, and this is how hard it should be.” If part of her felt she was not entitled to complain, she has to fight all the more, she has to fight against that part of herself, that inheritance of a classed as well as gendered history; she has to fight to express her complaint in her own terms, she has to fight for what she needs to do her work.

To listen to complaint is to learn from those who are listening, to learn from those who have to fight to get into institutions, fight to be accommodated by them.

  1. Feminist Ear as an Institutional Tactic

I mentioned earlier that this project was inspired by working with students who had put forward a collective complaint. I first met with the students in our department’s meeting room. They told me what had been going on. It was so much to take in. If to be a feminist ear is to take it in, a complaint is to let it out. Just after the meeting with the students, a feminist colleague came to my office. I told her some of what the students told me. She burst into tears. She said something like, “after all of our work this still happens.” There is so much feminist grief in this still, that the same things happen, still, despite everything, all that work, feminist work, our work, to try to change the culture of sexual harassment. We need time, also space, to express this grief, to turn it out and, sometimes, to turn it into complaint.

In the weeks following that first meeting, more students came to my office to talk to me. In an endnote in chapter 6, a little hidden, but it is there, I quote from a student “we’re all concerned that your office has become something of an emergency drop-in centre for women in various states of crisis. I hope you’re alright”.  I am still touched by their concern. The students did not come to me because I had any special training or skills. I didn’t and I don’t. They came to me because I said I was willing to listen. They came to me because they had so few places to go. They came to me because the institution had already failed to hear their complaint.

It was a very noisy time. In one ear, I was hearing the institutional story of how well it was handling complaints, the story of equality and diversity, about what the university was committed to doing; I was receiving letters about how the university was going for an ATHENA bronze award for gender equality, would you like to participate Sara, we could use your expertise, Sara. In the other ear, I was hearing more and more complaints, more and more about violence, about institutional complicity, about previous enquiries that had not go anywhere; writing unanswered letters asking for a public acknowledgement that these enquiries had happened, asking for discussions of what they revealed, how sexual harassment had become part of the institutional culture. In one ear, in the other ear; the feminist ear is the other ear.  If we can see through the glossy image of diversity, we can also hear through it, the buzz of it, to what is not being said, to what is not being done.

Becoming a feminist ear meant not only hearing the students’ complaints, it meant sharing the work. It meant becoming part of their collective. Their collective became ours. I think of that ours as the promise of feminism, ours not as a possession, but as an invitation to combine our forces.  I am grateful that the students I worked with Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Alice Corble, with support from Heidi Hasbrouck, Chryssa Sdrolia and others, wrote about what the work they began as students in one of the two conclusions of the book. In the conclusion to their conclusion, they write about how they “moved something,” how “things are no longer as they were.” To move something within institutions can be to move so much. And it can take so much.

I decided to undertake this research before I resigned but I did not begin the research until after.  My resignation, which I posted about on my blog, was widely reported in the national media. Whilst I found the exposure difficult, I was also moved and inspired by how many people got in touch with me to express solidarity, rage and care. I received messages from many different people telling me about what happened when they complained. I heard from others who had left their posts and professions as a result of a complaint. One story coming out can lead to more stories coming out.  By resigning from my post, I had made myself more accessible as a feminist ear. Having become a feminist ear within my own institution, I could turn my ear outward, toward others working in other institutions.       

To become a feminist ear is not only to learn how complaints are stalled, it is to be involved in the effort to get them moving again.  This is why I understand the feminist ear as an institutional tactic. Hearing is not enough.  One academic describes “I had a hearing …but I think it was just to placate me.” To placate is to calm or to sooth. Hearings can be used to draw a line as if to have heard a complaint is to have dealt with it. We should be suspicious if organizations (or individuals for that matter) utter the words, “I hear you,” before we say anything. Hearing can be about appearing to hear, which is how a hearing can be a disappearing, a complaint is let out only to be turned into steam, puff, puff.  

By feminist ear as institutional tactic, I am pointing to how we have to dismantle the barriers that stop complaints from going anywhere, institutional barriers, the walls, the doors, that render so much of what is said, what is done, invisible and inaudible. If you have to dismantle barriers to get complaints out, complaints can make you even more conscious of those barriers; the walls, the doors. In my research into diversity work, I had noticed how walls kept coming up. One diversity practitioner described her job as a “banging your head on the wall job.” When the wall keeps its place, it is you that ends up sore. And what happens to the wall?  All you seem to have done is scratch the surface.  One lecturer described the work of complaint, “It was like a little bird scratching away at something and it wasn’t really having any effect. It was just really small, small; small and behind closed doors.” A complaint can feel like scratching away; a little bird, all your energy going into an activity that matters so much to what you can do, who you can be, but barely seems to leave a trace.

Diversity work as scratching the surface; complaint as “little bird scratching away at something.” Scratching can give you a sense of the limits of what you can accomplish.

2. An Ear to the Door

Doors tell us where complaints happen: complaints are mostly behind closed doors.  This expression “behind closed doors” can refer to the actual doors that are closed so someone can tell their story in confidence or the process of keeping something secret from a wider public. In this work, I am trying to open a door, to let out or express something that has been kept secret.

It can take time to open the door. A PhD student based in the US is being harassed by her supervisor. She is explaining to me why it was so hard to see what was going on when it was going on:

And it’s odd to think back, in this moment, this seems absolutely insane to me, but at the time it was part of the culture of the department we had. You know another professor I had met with earlier in the programme said you know that he had to keep a big wooden table between him and his female students so he would remember not to touch them and then another of our long-time male faculty is notorious for marrying student after student after student.  And that was within all this rhetoric of like critical race studies, and you know, pedagogy of the oppressed, as I am recounting it to you, I just wanted to say that it is so jarring to look back on it, because it looks so very clear from this hindsight perspective.

When what you experience “at the time” is part of the culture, you don’t identify it at the time you experience it. The harassment, the misconduct, which was institutionalized, expressed in the idea that senior men would need a big wooden table order to remember not to touch women students, is happening at the same time that the rhetoric of critical work is being used as if to describe what is happening; critical race studies; pedagogy of the oppressed. If your feminist ear is an ear to the door, a feminist ear is also an ear to the past. You listen back, go over something, realising what you did not see at the time. Clarity can be jarring. (2)

Complaints tell us so much about time, the time it takes to get to it not just through it. The student is a queer woman of colour: she is from a working class-background; she is the first in her family to go to university.  She has had to fight so hard to get here. Her supervisor is making her feel more and more uncomfortable, he is “pushing boundaries,” wanting to meet off campus, in coffee shops, then at his home. She uses a door to handle the situation, “I tried very hard to keep all of the meetings on campus, and to keep the door open.” She keeps the door open; an actual door at the same time as she closes other another kind of door, I call this door the door of consciousness, “I thought I would take myself down by admitting to the kind of violence he was enacting.” Take myself down: to admit to violence can feel like becoming your own killjoy, getting in the way of your own progression.  To admit can mean to confess a truth as well as to let something in.  Note how doors can hold a contradiction, keeping the office door open is an admission of a truth that she handles by not letting it in.  Handles can stop working:

I was sitting with another colleague at another lunch another day and he started texting me these naked photos of himself and I think I just hit a critical mass of like, I just can’t handle it anymore. I said just look at this, and she was just like, you know like, completely speechless…. And then like it suddenly started to seep into me, into her, in this shared conversation about like, how horrible and violent that I am having to receive these things, right, and so that basically put a process in motion.

A handle is sometimes what we use to stop violence directed at us from seeping or leaking into us. When the handle stops working, the violence seeps not only into her but also into her colleague; into a conversation, into the space in which they were having a conversation.

When violence gets in, a complaint comes out. However, there is no switch, one in, one out. For a complaint to come out, she has to make the complaint, to bring it out, to tell the story of what happened, to keep telling it. She goes to the office responsible for handling complaints, “they were like, ‘you can file a complaint. But he’s really well loved by the university, he has a strong publication record, you are going to go through all of this emotional torment.’ It was even proposed that he could counter sue me for defamation of character. The line was essentially, you can do this, but why would you.” A warning that a complain will have dire consequences, can take the form of institutional fatalism: statements about what institutions are like, what they are as what they will be, who they love, who they will protect. In the end she does not file a formal complaint, because she knew what she was being told: that she wouldn’t get anywhere, it wouldn’t get anywhere, because he was going somewhere.

You can admit violence, but then when you try and share the story, as she did, you hear more doors being shut. An early career lecturer was being sexually harassed by a senior man professor mainly through constant verbal communications – he emailed her about wanting to suck her toes. She thought she had handled this by asking her line-manager to ask him to stop not knowing that her manager sat on that request. When a complaint is not passed on, the harassment goes on:

And then I was in a meeting with my line manager and her line manager and we were in this little office space, like a glass fish bowl type meeting room, and then the main office where all the staff desks were and he emailed me and I made a sound, eehhhhh, there’s no way to articulate it, someone’s just dragging your insides like a meat grinder, oh god this is not going to stop, and I made that sound out loud, and my line manager’s line manager said, what’s happened. And I turned my computer around and showed him and he said for fuck’s sake, how stupid do you have to be to put that in an email. You could see a look of panic on her face. Like, crap, this has not magically gone away.

That sound, that eehhhhh, pierces the meeting, that meeting taking place in the little glass room, a fishbowl, where they can all be seen. Something can become visible and audible sometimes even despite yourself; a complaint is what comes out because you can’t take it anymore, you just can’t take it anymore, your insides like a meat-grinder; a complaint as how you are turned inside out. Note how the problem once heard is implied to be not so much the harassment but that there was evidence of it (“for fuck’s sake how stupid do you have to be to put that in an email”).  A sound becomes a complaint because it brings to the surface a violence that is already in the room but otherwise would not have to be faced.

To hear with a feminist ear is to hear the different ways a complaint can be expressed. A complaint does not necessarily involve filling in a form or even an intentional action. A complaint can be expressed without words. In Living a Feminist Life, I also focused on how we find meaning in sound. I suggested that feminist ears can be how we hear, “the sounds of no, the complaints about violence, the refusal to laugh at sexist jokes” as speech.

The story of a complaint can begin with we do not do or say, because we show, in one way or another, we are not willing to go along with something. A postgraduate student attends an away day,

 They were making jokes, jokes that were horrific, they were doing it in a very small space in front of staff, and nobody was saying anything. And it felt like my reaction to it was out of kilter with everyone else. They were talking about “milking bitches.” I still can’t quite get to the bottom of where the jokes were coming from. Nobody was saying anything about it: people were just laughing along. You start to stand out in that way; you are just not playing along. 

To experience such jokes as offensive is to become alienated not only from them but the laughter that surrounds them, giving them somewhere to go. She is hearing with a feminist ear. And in hearing sexism, she feels “out of kilter with everyone else.” Not participating in something can means it sound louder; remember, clarity can be jarring.

A feminist ear is not just how you receive complaints but how you express them.

Our bodies can say no, before we do.

If you don’t laugh, you stand out. Maybe some people laugh not to stand out. When you stand out, you become the target. In other words, when you don’t participate in violence, it can be channelled in your direction.  Later in the day, she is having a conversation with someone about her PhD, and he “leant across the table or physically came forward, he was slightly ajar to me, he was really close, and he said “oh my god I can see you ovulating.” Sexism: how you are reduced to your body. Sexism: how you are stopped from having a conversation.  The student who made these comments is quickly defended by a member of staff “[he] started to lean on me; immediately he said to me, oh you know what he’s like, he’s got a really strange sense of humour, he didn’t mean anything by it, and the implication was I was being a bit over-sensitive and that I couldn’t take a joke.” The staff member by leaning in this way, positions himself with the harasser, telling her to keep taking it, that it doesn’t mean what she thinks it means, that it doesn’t mean anything, so that if she has a problem, the problem is her.

Harassment can be the effort to stop you identifying harassment, which means that those who identify harassment are harassed all the more. A senior lecturer has been bullied by her head of department over many years. She attends a meeting:

He started to yell, and I stood up…you go out of the office and then to the left is a little passage way to the door. I went up to the front door and it has two locks that you have turn in two different directions and I had all my bags on me and then up behind me came a pair of hands, and pulled my hands off the lock. He then wrapped his arm around me and so I was constrained with my arms by my sides. And I didn’t know what to do. I thought if I try to go to the front door again, he may grab me again.

The lock that turns in two different directions; it is hard to know which way it turns, which way to turn; the hands that come up, pulling her hands off the lock, the lock becomes a hand, a hand a lock, what stops her from getting out. She does get out, but it was hard.  She submits a complaint.  He is suspended during a formal enquiry. What does the enquiry find? In the report the assault is described as “on par with a handshake.” On par, on par equals equal. A physical assault is turned into a friendly greeting. The deputy head of resources read that sentence out to her in a meeting,

[He] read two paragraphs orally that you can read in the extract I sent you. He read that what he had done ‘was on par with a handshake,’ that was the conclusion, and he that he going to be returned to his position as Head of Department.

He is returned, she is removed. I think of the administrator reading out that description of the physical assault on her, to her.  I think of how you can be hit by words.  The violence of an action is removed by how it is described. There is so much violence in this removal of violence.  When violence is shut out by description, description becomes a door. And it is not just violence that is shut out, she is shut out, the one who tried to bring the violence out from behind closed doors.

3. Hearing the Machine, clunk, clunk

In listen to those who complain, I have had my ear to the door, to hear how complaints are contained is to learn how the institution works, what I call institutional mechanics.

An MA student was considering whether to complain.  Her story began with how she questioned the syllabus, “he left anyone who wasn’t a white man essentially until the end of the course.” “I brought this up and he said, well, last year there were no women on the syllabus so be happy with what you get.” It turned out that he had only added women to the end of the course after students in previous years had complained. When she has an essay tutorial with the Professor, she tells him she wants to wrote her essay on gender and race. He says, “if you write on those fucking topics you are going to fucking fail my course, you haven’t fucking understood anything I have been talking about if you think those are the correct questions for this course.” When you ask the wrong questions, you witness the violence of correction: “But then he says, wait, you know what, your so fucking old, your grades don’t really matter, you’re not going to have a career in academia, so write whatever it is that you wanted, it doesn’t fucking matter.” She hears herself being written off. The complainer, who is questioning the syllabus, becomes the feminist who has got the questions wrong; becomes the old woman who might as well be wrong, a hag as well as a nag, who is too old for it matter whether she gets it wrong, because she can’t proceed, she won’t proceed.

In the end, she decides to make a formal complaint because she “wanted to prevent other students from having to go through such practice.”  Complaint can be thought of as non-reproductive labour: what you have to stop what happened to you from happening to others, to stop the same things happening.   When she tells the convenor of the MA programme that she is intending to complain, she is warned, be careful he is an important man.” A warning is a judgement about who is important as well as a direction. She goes ahead with the complaint. And she “sacrificed the references.” In reference to the prospect of doing a PhD, she said, “that door is closed.”   That door is closed, references can be doors, how some are stopped from progressing. When the door is closed on her complaint, and also on her, she will not be there, bringing to the institution what she might have brought to it, the door is kept open for him so he can keep doing what he has been doing where he has been doing it.  Doors can be the “master’s tools,” to evoke Audre Lorde, telling us something about who gets in, what they do when they get in, as well as how some become trespassers, whether or not they get in.

To make a complaint within the institutions is to notice the door, because of how it closes, because of how you are stopped, the slam of the door, the clunk, clunk of the institutional machine. Sometimes you can feel that door slam. At other times, it can be hard to tell how you are stopped. It is almost like there is nothing there.  I call this blanking. A woman of colour post-doctoral researcher based in the US is blanked during a meeting about her complaint about racial discrimination “From the very beginning I get into the room the provost doesn’t look at me during the entire meeting. It was like this weird thing: she is actually going to pretend I am not in the room.” It is weird but it can work, they don’t acknowledge, they pretend you are not there, then you are not there, and your complaint disappears when you do. An indigenous academic based in Canada is trying to make a formal complaint after her tenure case was sabotaged by a senior white manager. Despite numerous attempts to initiate an enquiry, she does not get anywhere “I had to send an email to her with the subject line in all capital letters with an exclamation point, my final email to her after 7 months. THIS IS A GRIEVANCE! THIS IS A GRIEVANCE! And her obligation under the university rules and the process is that she has to put it forward. She did not. She did not put it forward.” Sometimes you have to shout because you are not heard.

If you have to shout to be heard, you are heard as shouting.

I will return later to how she expresses her complaint in another way. You can be stopped by how you are heard. You can be stopped by how you are questioned. A trans student of colour make a complaint about sexual harassment and transphobic harassment from their supervisor who kept asking them deeply intrusive questions about their gender and genitals. Questions can be hammering; for some to be is to be in question. These questions were laced in the language of concern for the welfare of the student predicated on judgements that they would be endangered if they conducted research in their home country. Racist judgements are often about the location of danger “over there” in a Brown or Black elsewhere. Transphobic judgements are often about the location of danger “in here,” in the body of the trans person: as if to be trans is to incite the violence against you. When they complain, what happens? They said, “people were just trying to evaluate whether he was right to believe there would be some sort of physical danger to me because of my gender identity… as if to say he was right to be concerned.” The same questions that led you to complain are asked because you complain. These questions make the concern right or even into a right; a right to be concerned. A right to be concerned is how violence is enacted, a violence premised on suspicion that some are not who they say they are, that some have no right to be where they are.

The complainer becomes a stranger, not from here, not really from here, the one who does not belong here. And yet, consider how diversity is figured as an open door, minorities welcome, come in, come in. Just because they welcome you it does not mean they expect you to turn up.  A woman of colour described her department as a revolving door: women and minorities enter, only to head right out again, whoosh, whoosh. We can be kept out by what we find out when we get in. People of colour are assumed to enter the diversity door however we enter the institution. And that door can be shut at any point. The door can be shut to stop us getting in. The door can be shut because we get in. A Black woman academic was racially harassed and bullied by a white woman who was her head of department,

 I think what she wanted to do was to maintain her position as the director, and I was supposed to be some pleb; you know what I mean, she had to be the boss, and I had to be the servant type of thing, that was how her particular version of white supremacy worked, so not just belittling my academic credentials and academic capabilities but also belittling me in front of the students; belittling me in front of administrators.

How do you know it’s about race? That’s a question we often get asked. Racism is how we know it’s about race; that wall, whiteness, or let’s call it what it is, as she has, white supremacy, we come to know intimately as it is what keeps coming up. To have got there, a black woman in a white institution, a lecturer, a senior lecturer, on her way to becoming a professor, she is now a professor; is to be understood as getting above herself.  To belittle someone, to make them little, can function as a command: be little! And that command is being sent not only to her, but to those who are deemed to share the status of being subordinate: students; administrators.   She said: “I had put down that I would like to work towards becoming a professor and she just laughed in my face.”  That laugher can be the sound of a door slammed.   Some of us in becoming professors become trespassers; you are being told you need permission to enter by being told you do not have permission.

Harassment does not just take place behind closed doors it takes place around the doors we sometimes call promotion. I am listening to an indigenous woman academic. I have already shared what happened when she tried to make a complaint after a senior manager sabotaged her tenure case.  When you are harassed and bullied, when doors are closed, nay, slammed, making it hard to get anywhere, it can be history you are up against; thrown up against. Complaints take us back, back further still, to histories that are still:

There is a genealogy of experience, a genealogy of consciousness in my body that is now at this stage traumatised beyond the capacity to go to the university. There’s a legacy, a genealogy and I haven’t really opened that door too widely as I have been so focused on my experience in the last seven years.

To be traumatised is to hold a history in a body; you can be easily shattered. There is only so much you can take on because there is only so much you can take in. We can inherit closed doors, a trauma can be inherited by being made inaccessible, all that happened that was too hard or too painful to reveal.  Decolonial feminist work, Black feminist work; feminist of colour work is often about opening these doors; the door to what came before; colonial as well as patriarchal legacies; harassment as the hardening of that history, a history of who gets to do what; who is deemed entitled to whom.

When the door is shut on her complaint, she makes use of the door:

I took everything off my door, my posters, my activism; my pamphlets. I smudged everything all around the building. I knew I was going to war; I did a war ritual in our tradition. I pulled down the curtain. I pulled on a mask, my people we have a mask…and I never opened my door for a year. I just let it be a crack. And only my students could come in. I would not let a single person come in to my office who I had not already invited there for a whole year.

A closed door be a complaint, a way of refusing what the institutions demands from you, a way of refusing to disappear. She still does her work; she still teaches her students. She uses the door to shut out what she can, who she can.  She takes herself off the door; she depersonalises it. And she pulls down the blinds and she pulls on a mask, the mask of her people, connecting her fight to the battles that came before, because for her this is a war.

Conclusion: Opening our Ears, hear, here

Our battles are not the same battles. But there are many battles happening behind closed doors. Behind closed doors: that is where complaints are often found, so that is where you might find us too, those of us for whom the institution is not built; and what we bring with us, who we bring us, the worlds that would not be here if some of us were not here; the data we hold, our bodies, our memories, the more we have to spill, the tighter the hold.

Consider how many complaints end up in the containers we sometimes call filing cabinets. One student said her complaint was “shoved in a box.” Another student describes how complaints end up in the “the complaint graveyard.” When our complaints are filed away, or binned or buried, we too are filed away, or binned or buried. It is not just “institutions” that contain complaints. Many people I have spoken to had been told by feminist colleagues or colleagues with whom they had a political allegiance, to hush, hush, to keep quiet about their complaints to protect the reputation of a professor or a programme. I’ve heard that hush, hush. I think back to an event we organized on sexism in 2014. Some of the students from our collective spoke in public about the work they had been doing on sexual harassment. Afterwards, a feminist colleague expressed concern to me in private that to go public about the problem would lead to people overlooking the critical feminist work that had been done at the college.

There is a cautionary tale here. If we are silent about sexual harassment to protect the feminist reputation of a university, we are not working for a feminist university.

Working for a feminist university is a project because we are not there yet.

To get there we need to get our complaints out, not keep them behind closed doors. I call this work complaint activism, how we find different ways to express our complaints, to release them from their containers. A queer feminist student based in India described their work to make violence more visible as the work of complaint, “We complained through posters that there is gendered discrimination. We performed complaint through spoken word poem recital.” They took on a role as student representative on an internal committee that dealt with complaints. They made complaints in the classroom. When they challenged a professor who made offensive comments, they stood their ground “Before I could complain, he complained. The complaint was addressed behind closed doors with other professors.” Despite the doors, they kept complaining in one way or another.  They become, in their words, “a nuisance for the admin,” an institutional killjoy.

I think too of a disabled student who talked me through a complaint she made about the failure of the university to make reasonable accommodations. She told me how she came to use complaint as an activist tool not only to push the university, but also other public institutions, to be as accessible as they claimed to be. From her, I also learnt how a complaint can lead those who are near them to hear them.  She told me how after a particularly difficult meeting, a meeting can be what you feel the wall coming down, a file suddenly appeared, “a load of documents turned up on the student’s union fax machine and we don’t know where they came from, they were historical documents about students who had to leave.”  She speculates that a secretary was doing “their own little bit of direct action,” releasing those documents to support her complaint, an act of sabotage as well as solidarity. If the student I spoke to hadn’t made her complaint, that file would have stayed put; dusty, buried. The file included hand-written letters from past students who had complained. A complaint file, that bin, that graveyard, can be lively, reminding us that others have been here before.

We can meet in an action without meeting in person.

Earlier I suggested that a feminist ear can be an ear to the past, we hear something we could not admit at the time. In opening that ear, also door, it is not only our own complaints that come out, other people’s complaints come too. Perhaps that is why we are told to keep a lid on it. One student who participated in a complaint about sexual harassment describes “The scale of the response was so extreme, in a way, compared to what we were complaining about. Now on reflection I guess it was because there were hundreds of complaints, they had suppressed that they did not want to have a lid lifted on it.” To complain is to lift a lid; the more complaints are suppressed, the more spill out.  It can be explosive, what comes out.

A complaint collective can be behind an explosion. A complaint collective can be what you need to survive it. This student was part of such a collective, a group of four students who began working together so that one student who was harassed, you have heard from her, it was she who was targeted after she did not laugh at sexist jokes, would not have to make a complaint on her own. The students in supporting her began to talk to each other.   “A group of us began to connect up, and we found out there was a much richer history of [this student] acting inappropriately toward women.” Sharing notes is how you recognize that an incident, an event, a one-off, has a longer history; a structure not just an event.  The more you challenge structures, the more you come up against them, “I think there’s this assumption that when you put in a complaint in an academic setting everyone is very convivial, but actually things were being said that were being passed back to us, that there was a real physical aggressive threat that these men were starting to build up, and things had been said like, we might get a brick through our window or we might get our hand pounded in iron.”  Threats of violence are used to try and stop those who are complaining from complaining. That violence is often hidden by assumptions of conviviality or by the closed doors of confidentiality. Threats of violence toward an us (“our window,” “our hand”) are also being “passed back to” an us. A complaint collective can be what you need for violence to be witnessed by others. A complaint collective can be what you need to withstand this violence. The more force applied to stop a complaint from being made, the more you need more, to witness and withstand that force.

The more you need more.

There is so much silence about violence.  Silence about violence is violence. We have to shatter that container. This is why I place such a strong emphasis on the sound of the work in the work, the puff, puff, the clunk, clunk, the whoosh, whoosh, the hush, hush, that tells us something about how the machine is working.  To hear with a feminist ear is also to listen for the sound of release, that eehhhhh, of complaints coming out, how they end up as letters on the wall. The scratches that seemed to show the limits of what we could accomplish, can be testimony, what we leave behind. I think of the little bird, scratching can be not just an effect on a surface can be the sound of labour.

Scratching on the wall. Knocking on the door. I hear Audre Lorde knocking on a door. In an interview with Adrienne Rich, Lorde describes her fascination with a poem “The Listener,” a poem about a traveller who rides a horse up to the door of an apparently empty house. The poem in Lorde’s words ,

He knocks at the door and nobody answers. ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said. …and he has a feeling that there really is somebody in there. And then he turns his horse and he says, ‘Tell them I came,’ and nobody answered. ‘That I kept my word.’ I used to recite that poem to myself all the time. It was one of my favorites. And if you’d asked me, what is it about, I don’t think I could have told you. But this was the first cause of my own writing, my need to say things I couldn’t say otherwise, when I couldn’t find other poems to serve.”

It is important to follow Lorde, to go where she goes. When we are fascinated by something we do not always know why.  Lorde keep reciting the poem; she says “it imprinted on her.” I think of that imprint: the print of a poem on a person. To knock on the door is to turn up, to keep turning up, to find new forms of expression. We knock on the door not to demand entry but to cause a disturbance, to disturb the spirits who linger here because of the violence that has not been dealt with.

I wrote about this passage in Lorde quite a long time before I read it out loud. When I read it out loud in a lecture, I knocked on the table, my wooden desk, making this sound, as I just as I did then, so my audience could hear it. And it was only then that I remembered. it. In Living a Feminist life, I wrote about some of my experiences of growing up with a violent father. I cut one paragraph out because it was too close to the bone.  It is a door story.  It is a door story. I grew up with a father who was physically violent. One time when he lost his temper, I managed to get away. I ran down the hall and locked myself in the bathroom. I crouched in the shower, which had a glass door, which I pulled shut. My father kicked the door of the bathroom down. He then pulled the glass door open. I was scared it would shatter. Maybe that it is why, so many years later, I was attuned to the sound of shattering. He then kicked me, he kicked the door down, he kicked me. Maybe that is why, so many years later, I was attuned to the door; listening to it and not just through it.  Even now, when someone knocks loudly on a door, any door, I feel panic. In other words, that knock is a trigger. It was only when I made the knock sound so an audience could hear it, that I was taken back. Sometimes, we can only hear something in our own story when we share it with someone else. I think I needed to a close a door, not to hear the knock, not be triggered, so I could keep listening to complaints. But then, when we share complaints with others, that door opens, and with it, a space between us (3).

A door opens and with it a space between us. One of the sentences in Living a Feminist Life is,

The histories that bring us to feminism are the histories that leave us fragile.

This sentence can be rearticulated as a question of hearing, the kind of hearing that lets something in, however shattering, whatever the consequences.  

What makes it possible to hear complaint makes it hard to hear complaint.

Many of us come to work against violence because of our own experiences of it. When we work against violence, including institutional violence, the violence of how institutions respond to violence, which we can only do together, we become part of each other’s survival.  Audre Lorde said that for some of us, “survival is not an academic skill.”  For some of us, surviving the academy is not an academic skill.  I think of all the writing on the academy, which helped me to survive it, to keep chipping away at the walls and the doors,  even from afar, work by Black feminists, indigenous feminists, feminists of colour.  I thank M. Jacqui Alexander, Avtar Brah, Sirma Bilge, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Gail Lewis, Audre Lorde, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Heidi Mirza, Aileen Moreton Robinson, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Malinda Smith, Shirley Anne Tate, Zoe Todd, Eve Tuck, Chelsea Watego, and so many others, for so many wisdoms, hard worn wisdoms.

To turn up is to turn up for each other saying not “knock, knock, who is there?” but “knock, knock, we are here.”  

We knock so you can hear we are here.  Thank you.


(1) This is the spoken text of a lecture, “Feminist Ears, Listening to Complaint, Learning about Violence,” that I gave for the conference, Making Feminist Universities, Rosario, Argentina on May 26th 2022 (with minor edits made only for clarity). You can watch the lecture in Spanish here. I gave a slightly different version of the lecture at University of Iceland on Tuesday, May 24, which you can watch for a limited time here. Most of the testimonies shared with me were given by academics and students based in the UK. For the purpose of this lecture, I provided the national location when the person was not based in the UK. I will be developing the idea of the feminist ear as shared action in the introduction to The Complainer’s Handbook. In this handbook, which follows on from The Feminist Killjoy Handbook (forthcoming with Penguin Press in Spring, 2023), I will engage with these stories of complaint in a different manner than I did in my monograph, Complaint!. I will also connect them with other public accounts of making complaints across a range of institutions and workplaces.

(2) I will be picking on the significance of complaint as a “jarring” experience in The Complainer’s Handbook. The word jarring was also crucial to my account of feminist snap in Living a Feminist Life.

(3) In The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, I turn to the significance of how and when I heard that knock in my consideration of the feminist killjoy as poet.

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