Use is a Life Question

I am pleased to share the comments I prepared for the launch of my new book What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use earlier this year. I titled my comments “Use is a Life Question” so that’s the title of this post. That title takes me to a different place now because we are in such a different time now. I think of what it means to get used to changed circumstances, radically changed circumstances, how change can be a point of commonality; what connects us can be that our circumstances have changed even if our circumstances are different.  We can share a change in circumstances without sharing circumstances.

Words can come back to you as circumstances change. As I have been finishing Complaint! I have been thinking again about the histories of use, of utilitarianism, and upon whom the injunction to be useful falls (and on whom it does not, who is freed by that same injunction). So often, a complainer becomes a stranger. A complaint that you do not belong can be used as evidence that you do not belong. The more you are treated as a stranger, not from here, not really from here, the harder it is to complain. And the harder it is to complain the more vulnerable you become. Right now, in the middle of the pandemic, this loop between vulnerability and complaint has become a lesson; a hard, cruel lesson. As Zubaida Haque, deputy director of the Runnymede Trust describes, “We know that BME NHS staff can’t complain as much because they’re worried about the recriminations of complaining….They’re much likely to be harassed and face discrimination compared to their white counterparts. There is the question of, did they have the appropriate PPE equipment? If they didn’t, did they feel they could complain or were they worried about the recriminations from complaining?”[1]  Exploitation works by making it harder to complain. And you might not complain because you are told, again and again, that you are a stranger, not from here, if you are brown or black you are treated as not from here even if you were born here; that you should be grateful just to be here.

This expectation of gratitude is performed most violently as the demand for sacrifice.

I think of the title of the powerful poem “You Clap For Me Now,” a “coronavirus poem on racism and immigration in Britain.” [2]

You clap for us now. That clap can be the same sound as the door being slammed.

“You cheer when I toil.”

A cheer can mask a hostile environment. A cheer can be a hostile environment.

You might be cheered when you are useful only to be told to go home when you are not.

To recover what I call queer use, to recover what has been stolen, to recover from what has been stolen, is to protest this violence.

In killjoy solidarity with those protesting this violence,

Sara xx

Use is a Life Question, Comments for Launch of What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use, Cambridge University, February 13, 2020

Thank you for being here today to help us launch What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use. It is a killjoy joy to be launching this book at Cambridge with the Centre for Gender Studies and LGBTQ+ Cam as our joint hosts. I began the research for this book at Cambridge when I was visiting Professor in the Centre for Gender Studies in the spring term of 2013. And 5 years later in 2018, I gave a lecture on queer use for LGBTQ+Cam, which was the last time I presented material from the book in this form. By queer use I refer to how objects or spaces can be used by those for whom they were not intended or in ways that were not intended.  We are queering use when we create spaces like Gender Studies and LGBTQ+, spaces that help us to do our work in institutions that were not built for us, as well as our work on institutions to make them more accommodating. And if we need these kinds of feminist and queer spaces, to keep our work going, it takes work to keep these spaces going. I would like to thank in particular Joanna Bush, Jude Brown, Heather Stallard and Sarah Franklin for their work.

It is quite a loop, from 2013 to 2018, here, there, back again. When I returned to Goldsmiths from Cambridge in the summer term of 2013, I became involved in a series of enquiries into sexual harassment and sexual misconducted prompted by a college complaint lodged by students. I learnt so much from the work they had to do to keep that complaint going. During this period, I stopped working on the uses of use; I can remember the moment it became obvious that is what I needed to do. I put away my old red note book. We fill books in writing books; our notes, scribbles, records of where we have been. Instead I wrote another book, Living a Feminist Life, and yes, this book gave me somewhere to deposit my feminist rage more directly, as well as frustration, frustration can be a feminist record, and also knowledge, the knowledge you acquire from being a feminist at work.

There is no doubt that that experience was shattering: I left my job, yes, a job I had loved, although in some ways it felt more like the job left me.  I had a “snap,” the moment when you can hear a bond break; a snap that moment with a history. But I left more than a job, I left a life, a structure, what I was used to, an identity, who I had understood myself to be, a way of organising my time, of giving order to things; I left what was familiar. I returned to my use project, picking up my scruffy red notebook was like catching up with an old friend, in that period after leaving my post, when I was working through, working out, what happened, as well as working out what I wanted to do.

What’s the Use helped me pick up the pieces. Writing about use whilst I was trying to get used to new circumstances made it clear to me how use was another way of posing the question of what it means to live a feminist and queer life, in other words, how use is a life question. The question, “what’s the use” can sound like it comes from a feeling of exasperation, and it can without doubt be said in exasperation. But the question “what’s the use” can also come out of a sense of curiosity, of interest, what’s the use, what is use, which is why I begin the book with Virginia Woolf who kept asking “what’s the use?” as a way of questioning pretty much everything. Perhaps we question use, or turn use into a question, use as a life question, the more we are not used to something, or because we refused to get used to something or because of our experiences of inhabiting worlds that are not used to us; how we appear; how we assemble. And although I offer a strong critique of how use can become about restriction, a restriction of who can do what, who can use what, how things and spaces when used in some ways become harder to use in other ways, I do insist that there are different uses of use and that these differences matter.

I think of this insistence as a feminist inheritance: I already mentioned Virginia Woolf, I also think of Audre Lorde who wrote often about the importance of being useful as a way of facing outwards to others (I offer in my conclusion some thoughts on Audre Lorde’s words on useful death), and I also think of Marilyn Strathern who in her paper, “Useful Knowledge,” notes the importance of critiquing the requirement that knowledge be useful in accordance with criteria decided in advance by considering other uses of use; for instance, use as a way of cultivating faculties.

I describe What’s the Use? as the third in a trilogy of books that use the method of following words around, in and out, of their intellectual histories.  The “out” part really matters: although my training was in the history of ideas, I didn’t do, I am probably quite incapable of doing, a conventional history. [A side note: in 1990 I applied to do a joint honours degree in History and Literature, hoping to write my honours thesis on ideas of history in literature, but my proposal was rejected by the History Department as not being historical enough!]  I could follow Natasha Tanna in thinking of my method as queer genealogy; to borrow from a description of her recent book, a way of “bringing together disparate fragments.” In each of the three books, I take quite ordinary speech acts as an impetus for thought. In The Promise of Happiness the speech act that had my attention was “I just want you to be happy,” which was often said to me in a tone of exasperation; and in Willful Subjects “I will if you will.” In this book, it is “use it or lose it,” a phrase familiar to us from personal training and self-help books. As a phrase it teaches how use can be an injunction or even a moral duty, you must use something to keep it alive.  And in that quite ordinary speech act is another history, of how use became a technique, for example, you can direct people along a path by making that path easier to use; how you can discourage a course of action by making it harder to follow.

To follow words is to go where they go.  But, of course, use is too used as a word to follow use everywhere. In this book I worked with materials that made use of use that most captured my interest. If I had located the book in an academic discipline that made use central as a category of thought, I would probably have located the book in design studies. But what captured my interest was, in fact, the use of use in biology, and more specifically, Lamarck’s law of use and disuse, which refers to how organs are strengthened by use, or weakened by disuse, and his law of inheritance, which suggests that, if certain conditions are met, the effects of use are inherited as modification of form. The idea that use shapes bodies in this way, which was sometimes called “the law of exercise,” was also widely articulated in nineteenth century social thought, including utilitarianism. In the book I approach utilitarianism primarily as an educational project rather than as moral philosophy with specific reference to Jeremy Bentham’s text, Chrestomathia, where he creates a plan for a school for middle-class children based on useful knowledge.[3]  Bentham was influenced by the monitorial school movement; monitorial schools were introduced into poor and working-class areas of Britain as well as in many British colonies. I learnt so much from reading about the techniques used in these schools. For example, Joseph Lancaster, who opened his first school in Borough Road in 1778, used only a small number of books in his classes, with the premise that fewer books would be read more. The idea was simple: you would direct the child to what he called “useful ends” by narrowing the paths available.  Andrew Bell who was appointed by the East India Company as Director of the Madras School for Eurasian Orphans of Soldiers in 1787 articulated his aim as “to rescue the children of the soldiers from the degradation and depravity of that class to which their mothers mostly belonged.” Making these children useful was about taking them from their Indian mothers, a theft narrated as redemption, utility as redemption; children were treating as orphans, as deserted or abandoned, rather like how land was treated as desert,  as unused; children became raw materials that could be shaped in accordance of the needs of the company.

What was articulated as a natural law became the basis of an educational technique. And because I am a rather queer scholar, wandering willfully around rather varied terrains, I should add here that I partly became intrigued by Lamarck law of use and disuse because of the use of example of the blacksmith’s strong arm to illustrate that law (the idea being that if the blacksmith makes use of his arm, his sons will be born with stronger arms, a story of paternity turned into profession). I noticed how the blacksmith’s strong arm was used as an example of Lamarck’s law of use and disuse without that example being used by Lamarck (the other typical Lamarckian example, the giraffe’s long neck, Lamarck only uses once). I think the arm became what one commentator called “the standing illustration” for the law of use and disuse because the arm provided a way of telling the story of modernity as a story of improvement, of how workers become more attuned to what was deemed their social function. I thus draw on historical materialism understood as a useful archive in the book, which retells that same story, of workers becoming as it were the “arms of industry,” as a story of exploitation; use not as strengthening of capacity to perform a function, but use as exhaustion, use as depletion; use as used up.

I probably only noticed this arm was missing from Lamarck, a phantom limb, because of how arms had come up in Willful Subjects.  And arms came to matter in that project because following willfulness, led to the Grimm story, “The Willful Child.” And in that story, an arm keeps coming up, an arm that inherits the willfulness of a child; that arm was striking. That arm became my lead. To wander is not to be without a route or a reason; it is to be redirected by what we encounter. To do cultural studies, to be an interdisciplinary scholar, for me, means being willing to go beyond the edges of fields, including those that have been shaped by our own training. And in What’s the Use, however much the arm was my lead, it was things that kept my attention; used things, old things; perhaps the arm had a hand in leading me there, worn out from being used as an example of the effects of use. In the first chapter, these are my main companions: a second-hand book, a well-used path, an unused path, a used up tooth paste, over-used exclamation marks, an occupied toilet, a broken cup; an old bag; a usable/ unusable door; an out of use post-box.

Here is a collection of some of my companion objects in writing the book as well as my old red note-book mentioned earlier. I call this collection, companions (see note 4 for why I included two copies of the book itself in the photo with its companions).

Use is a Life Question

We write, always, in companionship.  We present, too, in companionship.

It was from giving presentations from the work and in particular using power-point that allowed these things, which I first describe in terms of their use status, to acquire a different status in my own argument. I should note as an aside here that even if we use technologies like power-point for specified ends, using them can still mean we end up somewhere unexpected. I began to develop my argument with these used things as well as through them. I think this way of using things created moments in my text that were jarring, disconcerting, even, well I certainly experienced them that way, a feeling can be a question: can I really be discussing a used up tube of toothpaste in the same chapter that I reference Edward Said’s critique of Zionism for how it rendered Palestine unused and uncared for land?  I know I can because I did, and I remain committed to telling bigger stories through smaller things, to changing scales, but it is, I admit, jarring.

Although I was using things in a different way to how I had them before, used things had appeared in my work before. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion I likened heteronormativity to a comfortable chair, a world is more comfortable if it takes your shape; in Queer Phenomenology, I used, I am sure some would say overused, the example of the table, considering how the writing table appears in philosophy because it is in front of the philosopher only to disappear again because of what (and who) he can put behind him. Tables reappear in The Promise of Happiness, this time as the family table, along with the feminist killjoys, who get in the way of how the family is occupied. In Willful Subjects, I likened an institution to an old garment, how institutions take the shape of those who tend to wear them, so they are easier to wear if you have that shape.

On reflection, it is obvious that these objects mattered in part as they were also ways of talking about the effects of use, the sociality of use, how worlds are built for and around some bodies, how worlds are shaped by whom uses what to do what.

In this work I reuse the same images with different captions. The most used image in the book is in fact the well-used path.

Used Path 2

The image reappears six times with the following captions:

The more a path is used, the more a path is used

A longer neck

A stronger arm

An old policy

The more he is cited, the more he is cited

Heterosexuality: a path that is kept clear

If a used path is made smoother by use, from the tread of past journeys, that smoothness makes the path easier to use; the more a path is used, the more a path is used; there is more to more. I think of this “more to more” as the strange temporalities of use, how use, in pointing back, to where we have been, the tread of past journeys, points forward. I had in fact already used the well-used path in Queer Phenomenology, to talk about heterosexuality as a support system. But including an image of a well-used path alongside these captions helped me to make the argument, or perhaps to show it, about how use can be a building block for habit, how use can not only ease a route but become an invitation or perhaps an instruction: go that way! People often laughed when I showed the image “the more he is cited, the more he is cited” because I think it captures a problem we are familiar with; how we taught to cite the sources that have already had the most influence; how a citational path is created, a furrow deepened, how we end up reproducing what we inherit.

How we end up reproducing what we inherit: citation is one way of thinking about how universities are occupied. Whilst I was writing What’s the Use, I also began interviews for a project on complaint. In the project I am listening to people who have made, or tried to make, formal complaints about abuses of power within universities. This project has taught me a great deal about how universities remain occupied by learning more about what happens to those who try and challenge that occupation. I have been calling this institutional mechanics: you learn about how institutions work from how complaints are stopped from getting through.

Working on complaint and use at the same time has shaped both projects. Doors are the most tangible connection. It was because I was writing about use as building works, as scaffolding, that I noticed the doors in my complaint data; solid doors, glass doors, revolving doors; complaints as happening behind closed doors. Doors were not amongst the examples of used things in the first version of What’s the Use that I submitted to Duke. I included them when I rewrote chapter 1, because of how doors came up in accounts of complaint. Complaint changed the form of use. And it is not surprising doors kept coming up in my project on complaint: we tend to notice doors when they are shut in our face, which is to say, we tend to notice what stops our progression.

We learn about institutions from our efforts to transform them. Or to evoke Audre Lorde, we learn how the master’s house is built when we try and dismantle that house. What’s the Use is also about doing this kind of institutional work, the work of decolonizing the university, the work of challenging how racial and sexual harassment get built in, showing how universities are occupied all the way down. To open spaces up requires more than opening a door or turning up; sometimes you have to throw wrenches in the works, to stop things from working or become “wenches in the work” to borrow Sarah Franklin’s evocative terms. And it is a fight: we have a fight on our hands. It can be a fight for room, room to be, room to do; room to do your work without being questioned or being put under surveillance. A fight can be how we acquire wisdom: we know so much from trying to transform the worlds that do not accommodate us. But that fight can also be just damn hard. We have feminist and queer programmes and events not just because they are nice things to have, though they are that, what a relief, but because we need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform.

In doing this work, we need each other; we need to become each other’s resources.

Publishers also matter to how we become each other’s resources. I would like to acknowledge Duke University Press; it has been so important they provided me with a nest for my words. Duke became my publisher for Queer Phenomenology, all other publishers found this book too odd for their markets. My editor Ken Wissoker never used the word “market” when I approached him about this book (or any of the others) which is how I suspect I ended having so much room to roam. I also want to thank Combined Academic Publishers, representing Duke in UK/Europe, for their support in bringing the books to readers here.

Family: that’s another word we can reuse for our queer gatherings. I dedicated What’s the Use to my queer family, Sarah and Poppy. Being a feminist at work is also about living a feminist life; I am so glad to be sharing my life with Sarah. So many of the words and ideas in What’s the Use I worked through with you. I could replace “words and ideas” with “obsessions,” I don’t know how many times you listened to me talk about Lamarck’s non-use of the blacksmiths arm but it was a lot!  I also want to thank Poppy, who is here with us today.[4] Poppy, I am not sure you would be that impressed that I only mention you by name in reference to water bowls and puddles, though the word poodle does come from puddle. But Poppy: your paw prints are everywhere. You taught me to feel what I came to know, that to queer use is not to call for the cessation of use but its animation. You taught me how you can turn an old discarded shoe into a toy, a source of endless amusement, how a stone on a beach, seemingly lifeless, can become a friend, if you pull it behind you with your paws quickly enough it will dance. You taught me how a change in perspective, being closer to the ground, say, using your nose rather than your eyes, say, can be how you find new paths.

New paths, old paths, companions, friends, those who help us pick up the pieces when we fly off the handle, when we lose it rather than use it. In the book, I use this image as my primary example of queer use: a post-box that has become a nest.

Birds Nesting

Of course, the post box could only become a nest if it stops being used as a post-box otherwise the birds would be dislodged by the letters; hence the sign “please don’t use” addressed to would-be posters of letters.  Being lodged by the letters in the box is a good way of describing how spaces become restricted by use; of accounting for the materiality of that restriction; how some have no room, no room to breathe, to nest, to be, because of how spaces are already being used.

In my conclusion I return to the image for the last time with the caption “a queer teacher.” The image teaches us that it is possible for those deemed strangers to take up residence in spaces that have been assumed as belonging to others. The post-box could have remained in use; the nest destroyed before it was completed; the birds displaced. A history of use is a history of such displacements, many violent, displacements that are often unrecognised because of how things remain occupied.

I am aware this is a rather happy, hopeful image; not a typical image, perhaps, for a killjoy. Queer use is rarely about just turning up and being able to turn a box into a nest or a room into a shelter: to queer use, to enable some to take up residence in spaces not built for them, often requires a world-dismantling effort.

My task is to keep describing that effort. I think of the birds rather affectionately as our queer kin; they turned an opening intended for letters into a door, a queer door, perhaps, a way of getting into and out of a box. I mentioned earlier that the arms travelled with me from my willfulness project into my use project. I am now writing a book on complaint. And the birds are coming with me. One person described her experience of complaint thus: “it was like a little bird scratching away at something.” It was like: note this it. A complaint as something that you are doing can acquire exteriority, becoming a thing in the world; 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.

Perhaps those scratches are a trace, what we leave behind, how we leave ourselves behind, traces for others to follow.  Queer use, scratching away at something, making room, making nests, from what has been left scattered.

[1] Cited in Aina Khan (2020), “Why are ethnic minorities more vulnerable to coronavirus?”

[2] The full performance is available here.

[3] The schools provided me with a way of considering how utilitarianism travelled throughout empire not only as a body of ideas or as a way of justifying colonialism as increasing happiness, as I explored in The Promise of Happiness (2010), but also as a set of practices aimed at creating “a useful class.” See also my 2017 post, Useful, which explains how I made use of Bentham and includes some of my key sources. In the second chapter of the book, I also consider the connection between utilitarianism and eugenics. These histories meet in the formation of London University.

[4] Since I gave this presentation, our queer family has expanded! Early on during lock-down we decided to bring forward a plan to bring a puppy into our home. Her name is Bluebell. Here she is:


Caring for her, at this time, a fragile buoyant being, has been a precious task. A new being in a household is work as well as joy: there have been challenges, especially for Poppy, who will have a paw in shaping her companion. A shaping can be painful. Bluebell adores Poppy but tends to express her adoration by doing things like jumping on Poppy’s head. Poppy has been a wise and patient teacher for Bluebell (with the occasional understandable snap).  Bluebell like Poppy is teaching me so much about queer use. She has found her own use for some copies of my book What’s the Use. You can see evidence of her usage if you look carefully at the photo shared in this blog. What’s the Use became a chew toy. I can’t think of anything more fitting. I am letting her chew right through.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Complaint Collectives

Killjoys and complainers,

I have been away from my blog for such a long time! I wasn’t expecting to be away from it for so long, but such are the times. I have been working on my book Complaint! Today, I am sending a draft to my publisher. It is just a small step but the book is making its way slowly into the world.

What a privilege it has been to work on complaint! I am so grateful to everyone who has shared their stories with me. It has been so very helpful to have this book project to focus on during these times, to keep my bearings by listening and working through these stories.

I am going to take a break and then I will be back. In the meantime, I am sharing a few paragraphs from the conclusion.

As this book is so much about the sound of complaint, I also spoke these words for you.

In killjoy solidarity,

Sara xx



In this book I have assembled a complaint collective. This book is a complaint collective. My task in conclusion is to reflect on how complaint collectives work; how we assemble ourselves. I have collected together different people’s experiences of complaint sharing with you, some of you, I expect, are complainers too, as much as I can of what has shared with me. A collective is a collection of stories, of experiences but also more than that, more than a collection.

I think of the first time I presented this material.[1] I was standing on a stage, and the lights were out. I could hear an audience, the sounds, the groans, sometimes laughter, but I could not see anyone. The words: they were so heavy. I was conscious of the weight of them; the pain in them. And as I read the words that had been shared with me, knowing the words were also behind me, lit up as text, I had a strong sense, a shivering feeling, of the person who shared those words saying them to me, of you as you said them, of you being there to say them. I felt you there, all of you, because you were there, helping me withstand the pressure I felt under to do the best I could do, to share the words so they could be picked up, heard by others who might have been there too; that painful place, that difficult place; complaint can be a place; so your words could do something; so your words could go somewhere. And each time I presented this work, the feeling has been the same, of you being there with me. Maybe to keep doing it, to keep saying it, that is what I needed, for you to be there with me. A complaint collective can be a feeling we have of being there for each other, with each other, because of what we have been through. We recognise each other from what we have been through; we even know each other. It can be hard to convey in writing how much that feeling matters.

A collective can be a support system, what we need, who we need, to keep a complaint going. Over the past years friends as well as strangers have expressed concern, worry even, for my welfare, because of my choice to stay close to scenes of institutional violence, the same scenes that led me to leave my post and a profession that I had loved. I too questioned myself about this: why stay so proximate to what has been so hard, and yes, so painful?  Pain can have clarity. It is clear to me that I have, and how I have, been supported by doing this work. It has helped me come to terms with happened, to pick up the pieces of a shattered academic career, yes I do understand that career to have ended as a direct result of my participation in a complaint; to make and to understand the connections between what happened to me and what happened to others. And that the research has supported me has also taught me; if a complaint collective is what I have assembled, a complaint collective is how I have learnt. Learnt is one of the most used words in this book for a reason.

In sharing your words, more words have been shared with me; so many people have come up to me after lectures and seminars telling me stories of complaint. A collective: we combine; how we combine. That combination can be a matter of hearing. I listened to each account and I listened again, transcribing, reflecting, thinking; feeling. And in listening to you, becoming a feminist ear as I described in my introduction, I also put my ear to the doors of the institution, there are many reasons doors keep coming up as I explained in part 3, listening out for what is usually kept inaudible, who is made inaudible, hearing about conversations that mostly happen behind closed doors. I was able to hear the sound of institutional machinery that clunk; clunk, from those who have tried to stop the machine from working, from those who came to understand how it works; for whom it works. When I think of the collective assembled here, I think institutional wisdom. I think of how much we come to know by combining our forces, our energies. I think of how much we come to know because of the difficulties we had getting through.

The difficulties we had getting through: we have been hearing how complaint means committing yourself, your time, your energy, your being, to a course of action that often leads you away from the work you want to do even if you complain in order to do the work you want to do (as many do). Trying to address an institutional problem often means inhabiting the institution all the more. Inhabitance can involve re-entry: you re-enter the institution through the back door; you find out about doors, secret doors, trapdoors: how you can be shut in; how you can be shut out. You learn about processes, procedures, policies, you point out what they fail to do, pointing to, pointing out; you fill in more and more forms; forms become norms; files become futures; filing cabinets become graves.

Filing Cabinet

So many complaints end up there: filed. When complaints are filed, they are buried. When complaints are buried, those who complain can end up feeling that they too have been buried.

Sometimes we bury our own complaints, trying not to remember what was hardest to handle. Or we might bury a complaint because it is exhausting to keep making it. A postgraduate student told me how when she started the process of making a complaint, other people kept expressing concern. She described how that concern can “rob you of your own complexity. It reduces you to one story, one narrative, and a victim one at that.” When you have to keep telling the story of a complaint, it can end up feeling like another way of being dominated. A story about what happened to you can end up being a story about what somebody else did. She added “it was almost like, I got muted out. I got removed from my own story as it became his story or their story about him.”

Sometimes in order not to be removed from our stories we bury them.

A burial of a story can be necessary.  A burial is an important part of the story. To tell the story of a burial is to unbury a story. I could only write this book, pull it together, because complaints did not stay buried. I think of this book as an unburial and I think again of the arm that is still rising in the Grimm story, The Willful Child. In this book I have tried to catch complaints at that moment of suspension; a complaint as an arm still rising, still coming out of the ground; not yet done, not yet beaten. To tell the story of a complaint is how the complaint comes out from where it has been buried. The sound of the book is not just the sound of institutional machinery, that clunk; clunk, but the sound of the effort of coming up, of what we bring when we bring something up; who too, who we bring up. The physical effort, you can hear it, the wear and the tear, the groans, the moans. One academic said she could hear herself moaning when she was telling me about the different complaints she had made at different times. She said, “I am moaning now, I can feel that whining in my voice [makes whining sound].” I said, “we have plenty to moan about.” We can hear it in our own voices; we can hear it in each other’s voices. We can hear it because we feel it; the sound of how hard we have had to push; how hard we keep having to push. I think of that push as collective, a complaint collective.

I am aware that if these stories have been hard to share, to share an experience that is hard is hard, that this book might have been hard to read, hard on you, readers. I know some of you will have picked up this book because of experiences you have had that are hard, experiences that led you to complain, experiences of complaint. You might have had moments of recognition, painful and profound, as I did when I listened to these testimonies.  It can help to share something painful, although not always and not only. One academic said to me at the end of our dialogue, “It’s really helpful talking to you. It reminds me that I am not alone.” It was helpful for me to talk to you too. A complaint collective: how we remind ourselves we are not alone. We need reminders.

My hope is that this book can be a reminder: we are not alone. We sound louder when we are heard together; we are louder. In this conclusion, I reflect on the significance of how complaints can lead you to find out about other complaints (and thus to find others who complained). Complaint offers a fresh lens, which is also an old and weathered lens, on collectivity itself.

[i] I am referring here to the lecture, “On Complaint” presented at the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne, on October 28, 2018. I had presented material from the project before, but this was the first time I presented a lecture based entirely on the testimonies I had collected. Previously I had shared the material with the scaffolding drawn from my project on the uses of use (Ahmed, 2019). It made a difference to present complaint as complaint: without the scaffolding, I felt much more exposed.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Complaint and Survival

It is an overwhelming time; it is hard to know what to do. For those who are non-essential workers, being at home, withdrawing from physical proximity to others, is how we express our loyalty to others, our care for others. For those who understand themselves to be less vulnerable, less likely to become seriously ill from coronavirus, withdrawal is necessary, trying not to become a link in a chain that could lead very quickly to disaster for others.

We don’t always know the situation in which others find themselves; we don’t always know about other people’s disasters. Compassion and care rest, I feel, on not making presumptions about how other people are doing. We need to listen; to learn. What makes a situation more or less hard is not always tangible or obvious even if we can point to what can ease burdens, material and economic securities, support systems; buffer zones that can protect some from the harsher consequences of crises if not from crises.

If we lose our anchors, we don’t always know what will help us get through. For me, working as an independent scholar, writing is a handle that gives me something to hold onto; I know that is not true for everyone. I don’t write to be productive or because I think what I have to say is important. It is not; it is what it is. Continuing with my own projects such as my project on complaint, keeping  myself going by keeping them going, is not about “carrying on” or “staying calm” or any of the other truisms that seem to circulate as national nostalgia for a time that never was. For me, writing is about holding on; how I stay in touch with myself as well as with others because some of my other handles are broken. It won’t necessarily always be that way. For me, now, writing is a lead, leading me to others; writing as hearing from others.

We are readers before we are writers. I find myself picking up Audre Lorde, again; her words again, guide me through.  I think of Audre Lorde and I think of those moments when a life-line is thrown out to you. A life line: it can be a fragile rope, worn and tethered from the harshness of weather, but it is enough, just enough, to bear your weight, to pull you out, to help you survive a shattering experience.

Words can pull us out.

In an interview with Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde described how she was so “sickened with fury” about the acquittal of a white policeman who shot a black child that she wrote the extraordinary poem, “Power” (2017, 85).

In Lorde’s own words:

I was driving in the car and heard the news on the radio that the cop had been acquitted. I was really sickened 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 because I felt so sick and so enraged. And I wrote those lines down – I was just writing, and the poem came out without craft.

She stopped the car to get her feelings out.

She stopped the car and a poem came out.

She stopped the car because she knew that what she felt would come out, one way or another; an accident or a poem.

A poem is not an accident.

I have been thinking about that: how sometimes we have to stop what we are doing to feel the true impact of something, to let our bodies experience that impact, the fury of an escalating injustice, a structure as well as an event; a history, an unfinished history.

Sometimes to sustain your commitments you stop what you are doing.

In stopping, something comes out.  We don’t always know what will come out when we stop to register the impact of something. Registering impact can be a life-long project. Perhaps collectives are assembled so we can share the work of registering the impact of what is ongoing; what is shattering.

I have been thinking about stopping and starting; what we have to do to express the truth of a situation; I have been thinking about complaint and survival.

I want to share some quotes from a testimony given to me by an indigenous woman academic. She talked to me about how the project of surviving the violence of colonial occupation led her both to complain and not to complain. Both actions – complaining and not complaining – were for her about survival, not just her own survival, but the survival of her family; her people.

She said:

It is possible I learned very early that in order to keep my job and to have a stable income… that I better just keep my mouth shut, and learn how to avoid these encounters, to protect myself, and to keep quiet about it.

For many, surviving institutions requires trying to avoid “these encounters” that you recognise because they happen. You try to avoid them by being silent about them if they happen or because they happen. Not to be silent, speaking out, speaking up, can be to turn yourself into a target. No wonder some refuse to refuse to be silent – if your family, your people, have been targeted, you might lay low, be quiet, not complain, or not do anything that might be heard as complaint; doing what you can to survive.

Doing what you can to survive: to survive certain histories can require not complaining about them or at least not expressing complaints in the usual places by filling in a form or by sharing in public what you think or feel about a given situation. I noted in my previous post “In the thick of It” how complaints can come out in the middle of a situation, expressed sometimes despite ourselves. Survival can be another way of expressing a complaint, of refusing to acquiesce to the demands of a situation. The implication here is that some of the actions that seem to be about “not complaining” can be oblique complaints, complaints that are not quite expressed or fully expressed; complaints that are below the surface; hidden complaints; underground complaints; queer complaints.

We might end up expressing our complaints in less usual ways because of what happens when we make complaints in more usual ways. She did in fact try to make a formal complaint, a grievance, after her tenure case was sabotaged by a senior white manager:

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.

A complaint does not go forward because it is not put forward by those who receive the complaint. That capitalized subject heading has much to teach us about how complaints are not heard. You have to shout because you are not heard. If you have to shout because you are not heard, you are heard as shouting. When complaints are heard as shouting, complaints are not heard.

Walls can be built from silence. Walls can be effects.  The consequences of how complaints are not heard make it less likely that complaints will be heard; you become worn out, worn down, by the struggle to get a complaint through.

The more you do not get through, the more you have to do. You change tactics:

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.

In order to survive institutions, we need to transform them. But we still need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform. Closing a door can be a survival strategy; she closes the door to the institution by withdrawing herself, her commitments, from it. She still does her work; teaches her students. She makes use of the institution’s door by using it to shut out what she can, who she can.  Doors can hold so many histories. If she uses the door to shut the institution out, she also takes everything off the door (“my posters, my activism, my leaflets”). She depersonalizes the door; takes herself out of it; her politics off it. That door is not going to be where she expresses herself. 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 quite frankly for her, this is a war.

And so we learn: you can withdraw from an institution to take up a fight. You can take the institution on by taking it out. You don’t put everything you have into it; you do what you have to do to get through.

I think of Lorde: how a poem comes out when she stops what she was doing. I think sometimes you withdraw from a situation – driving a vehicle, being in the driver’s seat – to express your commitments. You close the door; stop the car because you need to get something out; you need to get yourself out.

You need to get yourself out; get yourself through.

When there is an effort to stop you from getting through, getting through can be how you express a complaint. When you are told you are not supposed to be here, that this place is not for you, the likes of you; this university, this nation, this neighborhood, being here can be complaint; being can be a complaint; being as complaint. If not complaining gives you a better chance of being, not complaining can give you a better chance of complaining.

Can: not always and not only. It can be a difficult deal: how we survive some structures can be how those structures are reproduced.  Yes, that is true. But there is more to it. The story of reproduction is a much less smooth story when told from the point of view of those who express their complaints obliquely, passing as not complaining, in order to trouble what they receive; that inheritance we call history. There can be creativity in laying low. When you pass into the background, you are not striking, you do not appear to be striking (behind a smile, there can be a strike behind a smile) there are other things you can do.

We learn from survival strategies. We are our survival strategies.


There is only so much you can take on as there is only so much you can take in.


We can’t take everything on. We can’t take everything in.



Lorde, Audre (2017). Your Silence Will Not Protect You. London: Silver Press.

Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments

In the thick of it

A complaint can be what you have to make because of a situation you are in. Complaints are immanent. Immanence implies to be in something or to dwell; to remain.  Perhaps a complaint is what you make because you do not want to remain in a situation; a complaint can be an effort to get out of a situation you are in.  You are in the thick of it, right in the thick of it. To be in the thick of it means to be in a situation where it is most intense; it means to be in the most crowded of places. The idiom “in the thick of it” can also reference how much you have to do; it can imply, being occupied or busy. What do we learn from complaint, or about complaint, by considering complaint as intensity, as crowded, as busy?

Complaints might come up or come out in the middle of a journey: a middle can be a muddle. I am muddling through, at this difficult time; thinking about time. If it takes time to make a complaint; it takes time to reach a complaint.  When we think of complaint as what you have to reach, we are thinking about different ways that complaints come out as expressions of dissatisfaction with a situation. A complaint might be how you say no to something whether in speech or in writing or even through non-verbal communication; complaints as objecting, calling out, contesting, naming; questioning; and so on.

When a complaint is about something, you first have to admit to something, to recognise something as being wrong, as being something you need to complain about. To admit to something can mean both to confess a truth, and to let it in. A complaint can require opening a door to the truth of a situation; letting it in; letting it sink in. Before you have any conversations with others, you might first have conversations with yourself. A complaint might begin with a sense of something not being quite right; with an uneasy feeling, with discomfort; concern. You might sense something is not right without being sure of yourself.  A complaint might begin with being unsure about whether what you are experiencing is something to be complained about.

A Masters student begins her new programme with high hopes and expectations. And then “it started.”

It started I would say in the second or third lesson I had with Prof X. There were certain signs that rang alarm bells for me and my first reaction is stop being paranoid, stop being a feminazi where everything is gendered, you know, you are probably reading too much into this, you need to take a step back. What I started doing was questioning myself first rather that questioning his behaviour.

When an alarm bell rings you are hearing a warning; the sound of a bell announces a danger in the external world even if an alarm bell is what you hear inside your own head. It does not always follow that you take heed of what you hear. And so: she starts questioning herself rather than his behaviour. She recalls how she doubted herself for being alarmed. She tells herself off, even, she gives herself a talking to; she tells herself to stop being paranoid, to stop being a feminazi, to stop being a feminist, perhaps. It is striking how in questioning herself, she also exercises familiar stereotypes of feminists as feminazis, with the implication that gender is a judgement that is imposed upon a situation from the outside. We learn from what is possible: it is possible to identify as a feminist and worry that gender is an imposition. External judgements can be given voice as internal doubt.

It takes time for her to realise that her first impressions were right. Her sense that something was amiss, which was followed at first by telling herself not to be paranoid, is confirmed by what she keeps encountering. She describes how the syllabus was occupied: “he left any thinker who wasn’t a white man essentially until the end of the course.” A syllabus can tell you who is being valued, what is valued; who comes first, who has priority. You can come up against a structure in a syllabus. Many of us are familiar with such structures. Even structures can take time to reveal themselves: “and then by week 5, I was like, no, no, no, no, things are wrong not just in terms of gender, things are desperately wrong with the way he is teaching full-stop.” Perhaps her first reaction is to say no to the bell, no to no. But then she realises she was right to hear that something was wrong; those no’s come out; more of them. I think of those no’s, all four of them, as the sound of an increasing confidence in her own judgement: “it was a progressive realisation that it wasn’t just me being paranoid.”  Perhaps once you get a single no out, other no’s will follow.

Sometimes if you have a sense of something wrong, you might check in with others. What did you think of this? Is that what you think? A senior woman, a professor, a head of department experiences misogyny and sexism at a table on an away day. One of the male professors says things that are particularly offensive. She checks in with friends and colleagues. This happened; this is what he said. The responses lead her to doubt herself: “the person who was the main protagonist in the banter; I was told he couldn’t be you must have imagined that because he is married to a real feminist.” You must have imagined that; it can’t be true; it couldn’t be. She knows what happened.  External voices can be internalised as doubt. To proceed (and she did, although her complaint was to stall later, after she was placated by a senior manager) she has to put their voices aside, not to believe them. What if the experiences you need to complain about have shaken your confidence?  She said: “it does shake you; you think oh am I making a fuss, should I make a fuss. I have already made a massive fuss at my previous institution, which went on for months.” She had participated in a formal complaint in her previous job, at an earlier time, another time, a complaint about sexual harassment that did not get anywhere. If a complaint is stopped it can have a knock on effects on those involved; you can be stopped later, another time.

We carry our complaints with us whether or not we make them.

So many of the people I spoke to made use of this expression, “making a fuss,” as if to complain is to be fussy, to be too particular, demanding even, as if a complaint makes something bigger than it needs to be, as if you are making yourself bigger than you are. But you also might know that that is how you will be judged. You might try and keep the complaint secret in order not to make a fuss. One early career lecturer describes: “I felt frightened to tell other people. I don’t know why. I did feel really frightened. I did not want to kick up a fuss. I didn’t want to make a big scene. I don’t like that anyway. I don’t like to feel that a lot of people would have known what was going on.” You might avoid talking about what you are going through to avoid making a spectacle of yourself.  And it is not that you would be wrong: those who complain are often perceived as making a fuss, even making a fuss over nothing. Another early career lecturer was told: “you look like somebody who is causing a fuss.”

Those times you have not been heard: you don’t leave them behind either. One postgraduate student describes: “I would wonder how much is going to be a repetition of not being taken seriously, not being heard.” When you have not been heard, you wonder about the point of speaking out, of expressing yourself. Hearings can be walls, silence can be hard; you have to push very hard to make a complaint if that’s how you have been heard, not heard, if you have not being taken seriously before.

I have learnt from talking to people how ways of speaking and behaving that seem, at one level, obviously problematic can still be justified as how things are or how things are done. An international student, for instance, arrived into a new department only to find professors being intimate and sexual with students in front of staff and other students. No one seemed to be paying any attention, to show any signs of noticing that something was amiss. She said: “I thought at first this must be how they do things in the UK.” Sometimes it is the unremarkability of the behavior, how other people are not remarking upon something, not objecting, or showing signs of objecting, that can make you wonder whether what is happening is not objectionable after all.  Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page have noted how the absence of objections to sexual harassment can work “to normalise sexual harassment in the university environment” (2015, 42).

The absence of other complaints can make it hard to recognise there is something to complain about.

This also means that: complaints can be stopped by stopping other complaints.

The work of complaint can also involve an internal process of coming to terms with what you are experiencing. Even if you have to complain about something that is being done to you, whether by somebody else or by a structure that is enabling somebody else, you still have to come to terms with yourself. A complaint can feel like an existential crisis, a life crisis. The conversations you have with others are relayed endlessly as conversations with yourself. I noticed in listening to people’s testimonies how often people when sharing their complaints with me put on “other voices,” so when they told me what the head of human resources said, or what their supervisor said, they would change their voice; it was like I was listening to a chorus. And that is probably because making a complaint can feel like becoming a chorus, all those conversations take up time and space in your head, more and more voices, they become loud; louder still.

I am talking to a postgraduate student based in small progressive university in the US. She is talking about the time it took to get the point where she realised she might have to make a complaint, to decide whether to complain. She is part of the story; she is telling the story. She is a queer woman of colour. She is the first person in her family to go to university. She’s had to fight really hard to get here.  She has had to fight really hard to get here. I have repeated that sentence because of how much it matters; because of how it matters. She knows something is not right, she is feeling more and more uncomfortable: he keeps pushing boundaries, wanting to meet off campus, then in coffee shops, then at his house. She tries 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 she closes another kind of door, we might call this door the door of consciousness, trying to shut out what he is doing. She describes “I thought I would take myself down by admitting to the kind of violence he was enacting.” To admit can mean to confess a truth but it can also mean to let something in.  Take myself down: if to admit to violence makes it real, then to admit to violence can feel like becoming your own killjoy, getting in the way of your own progression.

A closed door can be a handle, how you handle a situation, by which I mean you close a door by not letting it in, the truth of a situation sink in, because letting it in would mean giving something up.  But 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.

When the handle stops working, the violence directed at her seeps not only into her but into her colleague; into the conversation, into the room in which they are having that conversation. That violence is only witnessed because of this seepage; a complaint is expressed, gets out, at the same time the violence gets in.

A complaint can then feel like an alarming exteriority, what you have to do to get out of a situation, yes, but also what comes at you, what would mean giving up on something you had fought very hard for.  For a complaint to get out, something gets in. And I think it is important to remember that the work of complaint (including the work of reaching complaint) is work you are doing when you are still at work, when you are still trying to do your work; you are trying to hold yourself together; you are trying not to fall apart. If some of the work around complaint might seem or feel like internal work (the conversations you have with yourself), complaints often come out at work, in social situations.  These points about internality and sociality are related: if you are trying to hold something in and that effort fails, a complaint is expressed; what was kept apart is shared.  To express can mean to squeeze something out. The sociality of how complaints are expressed is another way of considering the effects of how complaints are contained.

In another example, an early career woman academic is being sexually harassed by a senior professor, a star professor, mainly through verbal communication.  The professor arrived at the same time she did: “he was much older, late 50s, early 60s. It was a big thing in the university, what a coup we have got this extraordinary professor; he was on the side of the angels.” This new professor starts communicating with her in a way that feels increasingly uncomfortable. She does not want to make the situation worse than it is; she describes his behavior as mildly irritating; annoying yes, distracting. His behavior, however mild, is still getting in the way of her being able to do her work. And she wants to do her work:

He made me feel uncomfortable and at the time I didn’t know it was ok to say, please can you give me some personal space, that’s not appropriate. Because I wasn’t saying no, I really didn’t know how to negotiate this. He clearly read that as “all things ago here.” The comments became more overtly sexual to the point where he made this strange comment about wanting to suck my toes, even I, naïve as I was at that point, went, oh shit this is not, this is really, really not ok in the work environment.

She does not know how to tell him to stop, even if what he is doing seems small, perhaps because she feels smaller than him, he is a professor, “on the side of the angels,” no less; she a junior lecturer. Hierarchies can make handling harassment hard, which is how hierarchies enable harassment. But she wants the behavior to stop:

All I wanted at that point was for someone to talk to him and say you need to stop this. Like that’s what needs to happen. So I went to my line manager who was a woman and said this is going on, this is making me feel really uncomfortable, and I don’t know how to handle it, we are in a shared office space and we are often in the office space alone, I just want someone to have a chat with him and say, please don’t continue with this. And she assured me that she would do that. And much later I learnt because she did not want to complain, nothing happened.

She needs assistance to get no out, to say no to the behaviour. The harassment she has to deal with has already seeped in; she doesn’t know how to handle it. She wants it to stop; she wants him to stop. It is her line-manager who sits on the complaint, despite her assurance. A complaint can be stopped because others do not want to pass the complaint on. Passing on a complaint can be making a complain (“she did not want to complain”), which is in itself telling us something about stoppages, about what does and does not get passed on; passed around.

When an attempt to stop harassment is stopped, the harassment does not stop:

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.

A “yes” can work rather like magic, assurance, she would do that, she did not do that, making a complaint go away, disappear into air, rather like steam: puff, puff. If the complaint was evaporated the harassment “has not magically gone away.” Her complaint comes out in the middle of the meeting, not as an account given by someone to someone, an intentional action, but as a sound, eehhhhh, a gut-wrenching expression of a no, or even a no, not again, or even, enough is enough. 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.

A complaint can be expressed rather like a snap; you hear the sound of something breaking.  If that sound sounds sudden, it is because of what you did not hear before, the pressure of what came before. Her sound becomes an alert, leading to a question, what’s happened, what’s up; the sound leads to her turning her computer to him, so he see what she has been sent. A complaint comes out because what she was sent is heard and then seen.  And 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 would otherwise not have to be faced. Violence is often dealt with by not being faced.  It is then as if the complaint brings the violence into existence; forcing it to be faced. Perhaps this is how complaints (and complainers) are often heard as forceful. For those who receive the complaint, who hear the sounds she makes, it is the complaint that alerts them to violence, to what she has to face, which means, in a certain way, the complaint can then be treated as the origin of violence. There is a clue there, in that description, her description: how the complainer becomes a problem because of what she does not contain.

A complaint can be what it takes to get through; to pierce the seal, to open the door, to let something in, to get it out. A complaint can be the work you have to do to get violence out. It can be terrifying but necessary.



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


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Slammed Doors

Colleagues and killjoys,

How can we respond to this time, to this difficult and painful time, to this time in which those who are so much more vulnerable become so much more vulnerable? It is time to take care of each other; to look out for each other. It is always that time, but sometimes we know it, the truth of it. And we know that however compelling this truth, that that is not always what happens, that that is not always how decisions are made. Care is an urgent practical task. The less some are supported, the more they need to be supported. We do what we can, where we can.

All of my own speaking events for the rest of this academic year have been (or will likely be) cancelled or postponed. I will continue to write and to work carefully on my book on complaint, which I can only do because so many people have given me their time, their stories, their complaints, and yes, their care; their care for alternatives; their care not to reproduce worlds that are unjust. Over the next few months I hope to share posts regularly on my blog. The post below is my presentation from an event organised by Katy Sian that took place earlier this month. Please do read Katy’s important book, Navigating Institutional Racism in British Universities. It was a delight and honour to speak alongside Katy and my friend and colleague Heidi Mirza. Please also do read the book Heidi recently edited with Jason Arday Dismantling Race in Higher Education.  Navigating, dismantling; we have so much work to do.

Stay safe, close in heart and spirit. More soon, Sara

Slammed Doors:  Diversity and/as Harassment, Paper presented for Thinking of Leaving: Racism and Discrimination in British Universities Panel, March 6, University of York, by Sara Ahmed

I wanted to start by saying I am not thinking of leaving. I left. And when I left the academy, I am not sure I was thinking about leaving.  I just reached a point when I couldn’t do it anymore, keep quiet about what was going on, going into the departmental meeting room to talk about this or that, the same meeting room in which I first heard from students about the harassment and bullying they’d been subjected to. But I do not want to go over this, what led me to leave; it is still too painful, too difficult. I want instead to use my time to share some research I have done since leaving, research that leaving helped me to do. I resigned in protest about the failure of the institution to deal with sexual harassment as an institutional problem.  I shared the reasons for my resignation on my blog.  I did not disclose much information but I disclosed enough.  I became a leak; drip, drip. The story leaked into the mainstream press, and the university quickly responded in the mode of damage control, using tired old non-performatives: saying how much they did not tolerate sexual harassment; how they had robust procedures and policies; how committed they were to creating a diverse and inclusive environment. If any of this had been remotely true, I would not have had to resign. This will be familiar to students and scholars of colour: we know how universities respond to our complaints about racism by announcing their commitments to diversity.

I don’t want to take any more of our precious time talking about how my former employer used (and still uses) diversity as damage control. Posting about my resignation did something else, something far more important: it helped other people to find me; those who had experiences of making complaints that led them to confront institutions head on and, in some instances, also led them to leave. The research I have been doing on complaint was possible because of this finding.  A leak can be a lead; complaints can be how we find each other. We follow what we find.

In my earlier project on diversity, I noticed how often walls came up. One practitioner described: “it is a banging a head against the brick wall job.”  A job description becomes a wall description.  In my project on complaint, doors keep coming up.  Perhaps we could think of doors as “the master’s tools,” to borrow from Audre Lorde; doors tell us how institutions function, for whom they function; how only some are allowed to enter, how others become trespassers.

No Trespassing

Doors can tell us something not only about who can get in but who can get by or who can get through. After all, when a path is no longer available to us, a door becomes a figure of speech: we say that door is closed. A women of colour academic described her department as a revolving door, “women and minorities” enter, only to head right out again: whoosh, whoosh.

Revolving Door

Getting in can be how we are shown the way out. We can recall here that diversity is often represented as an open door, translated into a tag-line, tag along; tag on: minorities welcome: come in, come in!  One university transformed the “open door” of diversity into a project of attaching photographs of Black and minority ethic staff and students to door panels across the campus. Here BME students and staff are pictured not even as going through the door but as on the door.

Just because they welcome you it does not mean they expect you to turn up. You might turn up and end up on the diversity committee. We often end up on the diversity committee because of whom you are not: not white, not cis, not able-bodied, not man, not straight. The more nots you are the more committees you end up on!  A woman of color 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.” Certain words carry a complaint, you just have to say words like race or racism and you’ll be heard as complaining.  A complaint can be how you are received as much as what you send out. She added: “whenever you raise something, the response is that you are not one of them.” A complaint seems to amplify what makes you not fit, picking up on what you are not. A complainer becomes a foreigner, a complaint a confirmation that you are not from here, not really from here.

“Whenever you raise something the response is you are not one of them.” I cannot think of a more helpful description of the problem of becoming the problem. It is not that raising something makes you not one of them. You are already not one of them. Not being one of them is a judgement with consequences: it means being put under scrutiny. As she further describes: “To retain your post you have to be whiter than white. You are not afforded any good will. You have no scope for error. You don’t have any scope for being a bit foggy. The level of scrutiny is so high.” The expression “whiter than white” is telling us something; how whiteness becomes clean, good, pure, yes, but also how people of colour have already failed to be those things even before we get here, or how easily you come to fail, because when you are under scrutiny, anything can be used as evidence of failure, any mistake you make, and we all make mistakes; or anything quirky, irregular, out of place, queer even, can be confirmation not only that you are not from here, but that you are not meant to be here. Sometimes you might try and pass not because you identify with them or wish to be one of them but just because it is safer not to stand out.  I have called this work institutional passing; passing as trying to maximize the distance between you and the figure of the complainer. When passing fails, when you raise something, perhaps you use the word race, although let’s face it, for people of colour turning up is enough to bring race up, you reconfirm a judgement that has already been made.

A complaint about how you do not belong can be used as evidence you do not belong. A student of colour objects to how a lecturer is communicating with her – he is overly intimate. He had sent her an email from a private Hotmail account and suggested they “meet up during this or the next weekend in the evening.” She communicates to him that she founds his style of communication inappropriate. His response: “As for meeting in the evening and its combination with [personal email], this is how we do it here at the department (ask our MA students). Perhaps your department has some other norm which I do not understand. Also, your religion might be a problem.” Note the assertion of “how we do things here” as an answer to a questioning of how he is doing things. Note the interpellation of other students into that assertion. Note the implication that an objection is an expression of a difference in norms. And note how her religion – she is from a Muslim background – is used to explain her objection. When her complaint is explained away, she is explained away.

We often end up having to keep explaining ourselves. A trans student of colour complaints 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. The questions were laced in the language of concern, concern for the welfare of the student predicated on judgments that they would be endangered if they conducted research in their home country; racist judgments are often about the location of danger “over there” (in a brown elsewhere). But when they complain, what happens: “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 complaints process can lead to a reiteration of yet more intrusive questions, questions that make the concern right or even into a right; a right to be concerned. So much harassment today is enacted as a right to be concerned; we have a right to be concerned about immigration (as citizens) or we have a right to be concerned about sex-based rights (as “adult human females”). A right to be concerned is how scrutiny is enacted, how the violence of that scrutiny is masked, a violence premised on suspicion that some are not who they say they are, that some have no right to be where they are, that some have no right to be.

Embodying diversity in making you more visible can make you more vulnerable. A postdoctoral researcher, a woman of colour wanted to make a complaint about racial discrimination. She was hired as part of a diversity programme.  And she knows that the programme is precarious: “I don’t want to do something that is going to threaten a programme that is supposed to diversify the faculty.” Doors can be closed when we are made responsible for opening the door for others. If diversity often ends up being located in students and scholars of colour who are assumed to be here because we bring diversity with us, it can be harder to address the problems we have when we get here, which are not unrelated to the problems we have getting here. She used the term “coercive diversity” for how the university wanted to make use of her body and her research as evidence of its diversity whilst undermining her work as a colleague; as an early career academic; as a human being.

Another woman of colour researcher described how her expertise was used to secure funding for a project on diversity. Once the project was funded, she was shut out. She describes : “If you are a mascot you are silent, everything you are amounts to nothing, you are stuffing, if that, a skeleton with stuffing….I was kept out of the frame of the management structure; I had no control over how the money was spent, who was being employed, who was being invited to the advisory board.” You are stuffing; a skeleton with stuffing. As a symbol of diversity, a mascot, you are supposed to be silent, or perhaps you provide the raw materials, data; the experience, which is converted into theory, by the white academy. What happens when the stuffing speaks? What happens when those who embody diversity can theorize for ourselves? She told me what happens. She documented seventy-two instances of racial and sexual harassment directed toward her because she refused to be silent. Harassment can be the effort to silence those who refuse to comply; harassment can be the attempt to stop you from identifying harassment as harassment, which means the one who identifies harassment as harassment is harassed all the more.

Harassed all the more: a Muslim student of colour does not get the same number of classes to teach that other students do; she does not get the fellowships other students get. She is an international student; she is a mother; she does not have enough to get by. She has to complain to get what she needs: “after I made a complaint against them, I felt all sorts of overt discrimination as If the complaint made everyone free from the mask they used to put on when they were dealing with me before.” Diversity is that mask, when it slips, racism is given freer expression. Note then: a complaint can bring out what a complaint is about. She decides to leave. But she needs the support of the professors. Only two of the professors would write her letters. When she does not into any other programme, she asks to see those letters: “she wrote that ‘I am good at transcribing data’ nothing at all about my research, awards, the paper that I was working with her on, nor about the classes I took with her.” We are back to how some of us become reduced to data.  References too can function as doors, how some gather speed and velocity; how others are slowed down or stopped.

No Trespassing

Note then: power can work through what might seem a light touch: all you need to do to close a door on someone is to write them a less positive reference. This means that: the actions that close doors are not always perceptible to others. A closed door can itself be imperceptible; we can think back to the how diversity is figured as an open door; come in, come in; as if there is nothing stopping anyone from getting in or getting through. Or it might be that the effects of the actions are perceptible but the actions are not: so when someone is stopped, it seems they stopped themselves.

For those who are deemed dependent on doors being opened, those who embody diversity, whose entry is understood as debt, a door can be shut at any point. A door can be shut after you enter. A door can be shut because you enter.  I am talking to a black woman academic. She had been racially harassed and bullied by a white woman colleague:

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 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 added: “I had put down that I would like to work towards becoming a professor and she just laughed in my face.” That laughter can be the sound of a door slammed. 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 your station, above yourself; ahead of yourself.

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.

No Trespassing

Closed doors can mean that other people do not hear that laughter; they do not hear that door being slammed. And those who try to stop you from progressing are often the same people who front the institution, perhaps nodding enthusiastically about diversity. Nod, nod, yes, yes, slam. I am listening to an indigenous woman academic. She told me how she could hardly manage to get to campus after a sustained campaign of bullying and harassment from white faculty, including a concerted effort by a senior manager to sabotage her tenure case as well as the tenure cases of other indigenous academics. When you are harassed and bullied, when doors are closed, nay slammed, in your face, making it hard to get anywhere, it can be history you are up against; thrown up against. Complaints can take us back 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. So 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 7 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, trauma can be inherited by being made inaccessible, all that happened that was too hard, too painful to reveal.  Decolonial feminist work, black feminist work; feminist of colour work is often about opening 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 what; who is deemed entitled to whom. A complaint can be necessary: what you have to do to go on. But you still have to work out what you can take on. She went on by taking them on:

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.

Closing a door can sometimes be a survival strategy; she closes the door to the institution by withdrawing herself, her commitments, from it. She still does her work; she still teaches her students. She uses the institution’s door to shut it out, 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, quite frankly, for her, this is a war.

Our battles are not the same battles. But there are many battles happening behind closed doors. I am speaking to a Black woman. She had been a Professor; she had been a Dean.  I use the past tense because she is no longer a professor; nor is she a Dean; she was dismissed from her post. The stories we share of becoming professors need to be supplemented by stories of unbecoming professors. The case begins as an administrative dispute. She has evidence that the university did not follow its own procedures.  But the evidence she has becomes evidence of her insubordination. If you don’t back down, a wall comes down. Racism comes up in what comes down. As she describes: “Race and gender are always in there. I thought this has never happened before. The first time it happens is when you have a black woman dean.” Race and gender: they are always in there; in the situations we find ourselves in. If you are not compliant, if you are defiant, they will do what they can to stop you.

How we are stopped is how institutions are reproduced. In order to survive those institutions, we need to transform them. But we still need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform. Sometimes, we do end up out of it, sometimes we get out; sometimes we are forced out. But if they are trying to shut us up by shutting us out, they have failed.  A complaint is a record we carry with us, we are that record, it is a painful record, no doubt, no question, a shattering; we can be left in pieces not just our careers, but our lives, ourselves. We pick up the pieces.  Perhaps that is what we do for each other, with each other; each piece, however sharp, a fragment that connects us, a story shared.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Feminists at Work

It can be overwhelming: how much feminist work there is left to do. We might need to give ourselves permission to be overwhelmed, to stop as well as to start up, to take a break from the work even if we need to keep doing that work. I stopped. In the early days of the new year and new decade, I started up again. I have gone back to work, to my feminist work. I have been working closely on complaint, working with my transcripts, reading, listening, learning; reflecting on how hard some people are willing to fight, some people do fight, in order to build environments in which they can do their work. It is my task for this year, to bring together the material I have collected from listening to complaint, to gather and to hold the data, to let it spill. As I expect to be immersed in this task for some time now, I thought I would share a lecture I gave at Malmö University last year when accepting an honorary doctorate. I share the lecture in the form I gave it, though I have not included all the images. You can also see a video of the lecture with the powerpoint slides incorporated here. Thanks so much to Camilla Lekebjer, Rebecka Lettevall and Kristin Järvstad for all the work you did to make my visit possible and for the warmth of your feminist hospitality. On the occasion, I was surrounded by feminist, queer and anti–racist activists some of whom I knew personally (a special thanks to Ulrika Dahl and Asynja Gray for being my special guests!), and some of whom I did not. We need to surround each other, as we do this work; we need to surround each other in order to do this work.

Killjoys, misfits, trouble-makers; willful wanderers and woeful warriors: we fight for room to be as we wish; we wish for room in which we did not have to fight to be.

In solidarity and with affection,


“Feminists at Work: Complaint, Diversity, Institutions”, Lecture given at Malmö University, October 17 2019, by Sara Ahmed

To live a feminist life is to be a feminist at work. To be a feminist at work requires working on as well as at institutions. I have called the work of working on institutions diversity work: the work we have to do in order to be accommodated or the work we have to do because we are not accommodated. In my lecture today I want to retrace some of the steps in my own journey as a feminist of colour scholar and as a diversity worker. I will ask what it means, what it does, to be “on it,” and how being “on it,” trying to transform institutions, ends up being the work of complaint. A complaint can be what you have to make but a complaint can also be how you are heard. When we challenge how diversity is happily claimed by organisations, as a sign of what they are already doing, as I do think we need to do, we are heard as complaining; as being negative; destructive; obstructive. We become killjoys at work.

I first picked up the figure of the feminist killjoy by placing her where I had received this assignment, at the family table. You can be a killjoy because of what you bring up wherever you meet up. You might be identifying the sexism of a much loved film, or questioning how heterosexuality is presumed as the future of a child, or challenging how colonial occupation is transformed into a national holiday. And it might be assumed that you are saying this, doing this, even being this, because you are unhappy or because you are trying to stop others from being happy. If the feminist killjoy gets in the way of happiness, to claim this figure is to be willing to get in the way.  We become killjoys at work, institutional killjoys, when we get in the way of institutional happiness or when we just get in the way.

To be a feminist at work is to inherit the effects of other feminists at work. It is important to recognise that some of us can only be here, at universities, because many before us fought for us to be here. And we created feminist programmes such as Gender Studies; feminist centers, places to do our work because of how the university was already occupied when we got here. In these programmes, on them, some of us still end up as killjoys, getting in the way of feminist happiness or just getting in the way.

Many of my own experiences of being a killjoy at work have been a result of pointing out racism on feminist programmes.  I think of Audre Lorde in 1978 turning up at an event to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex. She agreed to speak; she does speak, on a panel, “The Personal is Political.” But she finds that the panel on which she is speaking is the only panel at the conference in which black feminism and lesbianism are represented. Lorde takes a stand; she makes a stand. She uses the time and the space she has been given to make a critique, perhaps a complaint, about the time and space Black feminism and lesbianism has been given.   That critique was to become one of her best-known essays, “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”  In that essay Audre Lorde asks a question, “What does it mean when the tools of racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that patriarchy?”  Lorde tells us what it means by showing us what it does.  When a feminist house is built using the tools of “racist patriarchy,” the same house is being built, using the same doors ; doors can be the master’s tools, how only some are allowed to enter; how others become trespassers, or if they are allowed in how they end up in a little room at the back of the building. Doors are not just physical things that swing on hinges, though they are that, they are mechanisms that enable an opening or a closing. When a path is not available to us, a door becomes a figure of speech; we say “that door is closed.”

Some openings, feminist conferences, end up being closed. Lorde stresses that those who are resourced by the master’s house will find those who try to dismantle that house “threatening.” Even an attempt to open up a space to others can be threatening to those who occupy that space.  In my new book on the uses of use What’s the Use, I use this image as an image of queer use: how things can be used in ways that were not intended or by those for whom they were not intended.

Birds Nesting

I think of these birds rather affectionately as our queer kin; they turned a small opening intended for letters into a door, a way of getting in and out of the box. Of course, the post box can only become a nest if it stops being used as a post-box; hence the sign “please don’t use” addressed to would-be posters. I am aware that this is a rather happy hopeful image. Queer use is rarely about just turning up and being able to turn a box into a nest or a room into a shelter: to queer use, to enable some to take up residence in spaces not built for them, often requires a world-dismantling effort.

I am not going to be talking about queer use today, though I will return to the image of the post-box that has become a nest.  I want instead to focus on diversity work and complaint as world-dismantling efforts.  My own work builds upon work by Jacqui M. Alexander, Heidi Mirza, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Malinda Smith, Shirley Anne Tate and Gloria Wekker, as well as many others, who have offered powerful critiques of diversity in the academy as a way of building black feminist and feminist of colour counter-institutional knowledge. There is no doubt that doing this kind of work, trying to open institutions up to those who are not accommodated, can be frustrating, exhausting and shattering; we come up against walls, doors that appear open end up being closed. This work is also how we come to know what we know; we know so much about institutions from our efforts to transform them.

Doing Diversity

How do you end up as a diversity worker? We all have our stories to tell. Sometimes we end up on the diversity committee just because of who we are not: not man, not white, not cis, not able-bodied, the more nots you are the more committees you are on! We can end up being given diversity as a task because we are assumed to be diversity, to bring diversity with us.

My own story of becoming a diversity worker is hard to separate from my own story of being a feminist at work. When I became director of Women’s Studies as a relatively junior academic, I began to attend faculty meetings. I was the only person of colour at these meetings.  It is important to note that I noticed this: whiteness tends to be visible to those who do not inhabit it. And during the discussion of one item at a faculty meeting on equality the Dean said something like “race is too difficult to deal with.”  I was a feminist killjoy in training at this point, and did not quite have the confidence to speak out during this meeting. So I wrote an email.  I said that saying that race is “too difficult” is how racism gets reproduced. I was asked to join the new committee set up to write a race equality policy. You speak up and the diversity committee is where you end up.

There can be a problem with who ends up on such committees. There can be a problem with who does not end up on such committees. We can still learn from being on them. We talked about words like diversity, racism; we talked about the different associations those terms had for us. And we crafted a policy that made use of critical vocabularies, naming whiteness as an institutional problem, for instance. I have since then found policies interesting as a way of telling stories about institutions; who writes them; how they are written; where they do and do not go. What happened to our policy was how I first began to identify the mechanism I would later call “non-performativity.” The Equality Challenge Unit ranked the policy as “excellent.” The university was able to use the document as evidence of being good at race equality: as if to name something is to bring it about.  Non-performativity: when naming something does not bring it about, or when something is named in order not to bring it about.

A document that documents racism becomes usable as a measure of good performance. However much that experience led me to recognise my own complicity, or perhaps because it led me to recognise my own complicity, the conversations we had on that committee stayed with me. Complicity can be a starting point: if we are on it, we are in it. We are implicated in the processes we identify; we can identify processes because we are implicated in them. In my subsequent study of diversity, I collected stories by talking to diversity practitioners, those who are given the task of diversifying institutions. Diversity practitioners know all about what policies do not bring about. You can still make use of such policies to show how organisations are not doing what they are saying. Diversity practitioners have to make do with what is available to them. Perhaps diversity itself becomes a tool. One practitioner observes : “I would say that the term diversity is just used now because it’s more popular.  You know it’s in the press so why would we have equal opportunities when we can just say its diversity.”  We can “just say its diversity” if diversity is “just used now.”  Use becomes a reason for use, the circularity of a logic transformed into a tool.

The word diversity might be “just used now,” because of its affective qualities as a happy or positive term. Another practitioner described diversity as a  “big shiny apple,” “It all looks wonderful but the inequalities aren’t being addressed.” Diversity can be a way of appearing to address a problem. This practitioner described her job thus: “it is a banging your head against a brick wall job.”  A job description becomes a wall description. If you keep banging your head against the brick wall, but the wall keeps its place, it is you that gets sore. And what happens to the wall?  All you seemed to have done is scratched the surface. This is what doing diversity work often feels like: scratching the surface, scratching at the surface.

So many of the stories I shared in my book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, as well as in the middle section of Living a Feminist Life, were stories of how much diversity workers have to do because they did not through. One story in particular has traveled with me. A diversity worker managed to get a new diversity policy agreed after multiple attempts to block that policy; for example, the head of human resources removed reference to the policy from the minutes of the meeting.  After the policy was agreed, her colleagues blank her when she refers to the policy. Blanking is an activity: you treat someone or something as if they do not exist because they do; when they do. There are many ways to stop something from happening. This is why I called diversity workers institutional plumbers. You have to work out where things are stuck; how they are stuck, because they are stuck.

The Work of Complaint

How we arrive at our research questions matters. If becoming attuned to how racism was talked about, or not talked about, led me on a path to study diversity, it was my participation in a series of enquires into sexual harassment and sexual misconduct that led me to study complaint. These enquiries were prompted by a collective complaint lodged by students.  A collective complaint is created by a complaint collective: it can take a collective to keep a complaint going. I learnt so much from the work they had to do to keep that complaint going. Since then I have interviewed students, academics and administrators about their experience of the complaint process.

Making a complaint can also require becoming an institutional plumber. It is because complaints often get stuck in the system that complaints end up about the system. On paper it can seem is if making a complaint is a rather linear process ; indeed procedures are often represented as flow-charts; with paths and arrows, which give the would-be complainant a clear route through. The clarity of a procedure can be used to indicate a commitment.  One university writes that complaints will  “assist in identifying problems and trends across the University.”   They then write that complaints will : “form the basis of positive publicity, in demonstrating that identified issues have been resolved.” Organisations use complaints procedures like how they use diversity; as a way of appearing to address a problem. When complaints record a problem they can be quickly folded into a solution; a record of how universities have resolved something; resolution, dissolution. Resolutions can be problems given new form.

Listening to those who have made or tried to make formal complaints has taught me that the gap between what is supposed to happen and what does happen is densely populated.  This gap is where my study is located:  I am minding the gap. I spoke to one administrator about her work in supporting students through the complaints process:

 So your first stage would require the complainant to try and resolve it informally, which is really difficult in some situations and which is where it might get stuck in a department…And so it takes a really tenacious complaining student to say, no, I am being blocked…. If something bad has happened, and you are not feeling that way inclined, you can understand why a student would not have the tenacity to make sure that happens ….So you can imagine that something on paper that looks very linear is actually very circular a lot of the time and I think that’s the problem, students get discouraged and get demoralised and feel hard done by, and nothing’s getting resolved and then they are in a murky place and they can’t get out.

If a procedure exists in order to clear a path, that path can be blocked at any point.   A complaint is not simply an outcome of a no, a complaint requires you to keep saying no along the way.  This practitioner acknowledges that what is required to proceed with a complaint (confident and tenacity) might be what is eroded by the very experiences that lead to complaint (“something bad has happened,” “not feeling that way inclined”).

I suggested earlier that diversity work can often feel like scratching the surface. Making a complaint can also feel like scratching the surface. Let me share with you a description from an early career lecturer. She made a complaint about how the university handled her sick leave which turned into a grievance into how she had been treated as a neuroatypical person by her university:

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.  I think people maybe feel that because of the nature of the complaint, and you are off work so they have to be polite and not talk about it and so much of their politeness is because they don’t want to say something. And maybe [it is] to do with being in an institution and the way they are built; long corridors, doors with locks on them, windows with blinds that come down, it seems to sort of imbue every part of it with a cloistered feeling, there is no air, it feels suffocating.

It was like: note this it. A complaint, as something you are doing, can acquire exteriority, becoming a thing in the world; 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; the more you try, the smaller it becomes, you become, smaller; smaller still. A complaint is made confidential as soon as it is lodged, so all this happens behind closed doors, a complaint as a secret; a source of shame, what keeps you apart from others. A complaint becomes a magnifying glass: so much appears, so many details are picked up by an attention; the building, the  long corridors ,  the locked doors ,  the windows with blinds that can come down , less light, less room; you cannot breath; cloistered; suffocating.

Complaints can allow institutions to be registered all the more intensely; you acquire a sense of the institution through an experience of restriction. That sense is not always about things becoming clear.  If complaints happen behind closed doors, those doors are also closed to those who make a complaint. One lecturer who complained after being harassed by a professor in her department describes :

It is like being trapped in some kind of weird dream where you know you jump from one section to another because you never know the narrative. I think that’s the power that institutional abuse has on you.

Making a complaint can feel like becoming a character in somebody else’s story; what happens to you is dependent on decisions that are made without your knowledge or consent. Making a complaint about harassment can often feel like being harassed all over again, becoming subjected, again, to another’s will.

The gap between does happen and what should happen can be what you fall through; how you fall through.   Remember “mind the gap” is familiar to us as advice and a warning And warnings are useful because they introduce notes of caution predicted not on abstract rules but on someone’s own health and safety. Those who are trying to make a complaint are frequently warned about the consequences of complaining.  A student describes : “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 is was likely I wouldn’t get a job elsewhere.” Complaining is framed as self-damage as well as damage to others, ruining a department, no less.  The flip side of a warning is a promise, a promise that if you don’t complain, you will go further. What you are told you need to do to progress further or faster in a system reproduces that system. One academic describes not complaining as the default : “the default academia thing, the university thing: it will be fine, if we do wait, don’t make a fuss.  A default is what will happen if you do not change the setting intentionally by performing an action.   Not complaining is thus about not performing an action or altering the setting; not complaining as how things are set.

Warnings articulate a no, don’t get there. Complaints can also be stopped by a yes, by a nod, by the appearance of being heard.  An academic brings a complaint to her line manager: “I would say he’s a yes man. So whenever I’d talk to him he would say yes but I knew the yes was definitely not a yes; it was a ‘we’ll see.’” Perhaps a yes can be said because there is not enough behind it to bring something about; we are back to the non-performative, given bodily expression as a nod, yes, yes, nod, nod.  She describes yes saying as a management technique: “this weird almost magical thing that happens when you speak to people in management when you go in there and you kind of ready for it, and you are really fired up and you kind of put your complaint, your case, your story to the person, and then you sort of leave as if a spell has been cast, leave feeling like ok something might happen and then that kind of wears off a few hours later and you think oh my gosh. It is like a slight of hands, almost like a trick, you feel tricked.” The feeling that something might happen is what is being achieved; to be left with a sense you are getting somewhere is how you end up not getting anywhere. A yes can stop a complaint from progressing by diffusing the energy of the one who complains.

Another method of stopping a complaint is to declare a complaint “not a complaint” because it does not fulfill the technical requirements for being a complaint. A member of staff made a complaint about bullying from her head of department. The experience of bullying had been devastating, and she suffered from depression as a result. It took her a long time to get to the point where she could make a complaint:

I basically did it when I was able to, because I was just really unwell for a significant period of time. And I put in the complaint and the response that I got was from the deputy VC. He said that he couldn’t process my complaint because I had taken too long to lodge it.

Some experiences are so devastating that it takes time to process them. And the length of time taken can be used to disqualify a complaint. The tightening of the complaint genre – a complaint as the requirement to fill in a form in a certain way at a certain time – is how many struggles are not recorded.

If organizations disqualify complaints because they take too long to make, they can also take too long – in accordance with their own procedures – to respond to complaints. One student described how the university took seven months to respond to her complaints, and then another seven months to respond to her response to their response to her complaint:  “it is my theory they been putting in the long finger and pulling this out, dragging this out over unacceptable periods of time, to try and tire me out so that I will just give up.” It can seem exhaustion is not just the effect but the point of a complaint process. Exhaustion can be a management technique: you tire people out so they are too tired to address what makes them too tired.

I have used the term “strategic inefficiency” to describe how organizations have an interest in stopping or slowing complaints. We might think of inefficiency as annoying but indiscriminate, affecting everybody, everything. Listening to those who have complained has taught me that inefficiency can be discriminatory. An international student was waiting for her complaint to be processed whilst her visa was running out:  “Ten days before my visa was about to run out I applied for a new visa. And they were like how can we give her a visa she is on probation. You have to have good standing to get a visa and they were like this complaint thing is open.” For students and staff who are more precarious because of their residential, employment or financial status; the longer a complaint is kept open the more you could lose. There is a connection between the discriminatory effects of inefficiency and the efficiency with which organizations reproduce themselves as being for certain kinds of people, those whose papers are in the right place, those who are in the right place; those who are upright, straight, able; well-resourced, well-connected.

A complaint can go through the system and still nothing happens.    Perhaps complaints end up in a filing cabinet; filing as filing away. One student said of her complaint: “it just gets shoved in the box.” Another student describes: “I feel like my complaint has gone into the complaint graveyard.” When a complaint is filed away or binned or buried those who complain can end up feeling filed away or binned or buried. We need to remember that a complaint is a record of what happens to a person. Complaints are personal. Complaints are also records of what happens in an institution. Complaints are institutional. The personal is institutional.  One academic researcher shared her complaint file with me: “One of the things I talked about in those documents, I am very open, I was under such stress and trauma that my periods stopped….That’s the intimacy of some of the things that go into it, bodily functions like this.” A body can stop functioning. A body can announce a complaint. That body is in a document. And that document is in a file. And that file is in a cabinet. To file a complaint can mean to become alienated from your own history, a history that is often difficult, painful and traumatic.

Complaint as Diversity Work

A body can announce a complaint. It is worth remembering here that a complaint can be an expression of grief, pain or dissatisfaction; something that is a cause of a protest or outcry, a bodily ailment as well as a formal allegation. We are learning how the latter sense of complaint as formal allegation brings up these more affective and embodied senses. With bodies in mind, we can think about the work of diversity and complaint together; to show how they are part of the same work. If walls came up in my research into diversity, doors have come up in my research into complaint.   I have already noted how complaints happen “behind closed doors.” If complaints provide data, that data is kept under lock and key. Doors can be about who is locked out as well as what is locked in. You might not be able to open the door because the door is too heavy or too narrow. As Aimi Hamraie describes in Building Access: “Examine any doorway, window, toilet, chair or desk…and you will find the outline of the body meant to use it” (2017, 19, emphasis added). They usefully name this outline “the normate template” (19). Those who don’t assume the shape of the norm know the norms; norms become walls: what hits you is what stops you from entering.

A disabled academic has to keep pointing out that rooms are inaccessible because they keep booking rooms that are inaccessible. She has to keep saying it because they keep doing it . “I worry about drawing attention to myself. But this is what happens when you hire a person in a wheelchair. There have been major access issues at the university.”  She spoke of “the drain, the exhaustion, the sense of why should I have to be the one who speaks out.” You have to speak out because others do not; and because you speak out, others can justify their own silence. They hear you, so it becomes about you; “major access issues” become your issues.  A complaint might be necessary because you do not fit the requirements of an organization, because you are a misfit to use Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s important term. She describes being a person with a disability in an ablest institution as like being a “square peg in round hole.”  You can also be a misfit given what has become routine. An organization that organizes long meetings without any breaks assumes a body that can be seated without breaks. If you arrive and cannot maintain this position, you do not meet the requirements. If you lay down during the meeting, you would throw the meeting into crisis. A social justice project might require throwing meetings into crisis.

 Perhaps because organizations are trying to avoid such crises, misfits often end up on the same committees (otherwise known as the diversity committee). We can be misfits on these committees. 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.” Certain words carry a complaint, you just have to say words like race or racism and you’ll be heard as complaining.  Given that people of colour just have to turn up to bring race up, we can be heard as complaining without even saying anything. A complaint can be how you are received as much what you send out. If you do raise something, you end up confirming a judgement that has already been made. She describes: “whenever you raise something, the response is that you are not one of them.” A complaint seems to amplify what makes you not fit, picking up what you are not; a complaint as foreign, a complainer as a foreigner, not from here, not here, not.

A structure: when the same things keep coming up. But if you keep having the same problem, you can be made to feel the problem is you. A lesbian academic describes:  “if you have a situation and you make a complaint, then you are the woman who complains, the lesbian who complains.  And then of course you get witch-hunted, you get scapegoated, you become the troublesome uppity woman; you become the woman who does not fit; you become everything the bully accuses you off, because nobody is listening to you. And you don’t like to hear yourself talking like that but you end up being in that situation, again. You can hear them saying, ‘oh there you go.” A diversity practitioner had said something similar to me: she only had to open her mouth in meetings to witness eyes rolling as if to say “oh hear she goes.” Both times we laughed: it can be relief to have an experience put into words.  The feminist killjoy comes up here; she comes up in what we can hear. We hear each other in the wear and the tear of the words we share; we hear what it is like to come up against the same thing over and over again.  We imagine the eyes rolling as if to say: well she would say that.

It was from experiences like this that I developed my equation: rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy.

Sometimes we do laugh; we need each other so we can laugh. In that laughter is also a groan of recognition. To be followed by rolling eyes is after all to be followed by eyes. A trans student of colour complaints 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. The questions were laced in the language of concern, concern for the welfare of the student predicated on judgments that they would be endangered if they conducted research in their home country; racist judgments are often about the location of danger “over there.” But when they complain, what happens : “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 complaints process can lead to a reiteration of yet more intrusive questions, questions that make a concern right or even into a right. So much harassment is enacted as a right to be concerned. We have a right to be concerned (as “citizens”) about immigration; we have a right to be concerned (as “adult human females”) about sex based rights. A right to be concerned is how the violence of scrutiny is masked, a violence premised on suspicion that some are not who they say they are, that some have no right to be where they are, that some have no right to be.

When you complain about what you come up against, you come up against what you complain about. What complaints are “about” is how some end up “out.”   A woman of colour described her department as a revolving door: women and minorities enter only to head right out again: whoosh, whoosh. You can be kept out by what you find out when you get in.  Getting in can be how you are shown the way out.

And yet, we can think of how diversity is often figured as an open door, turned into a tagline; tag on, tag along; minorities welcome, come in, come in!  One university transformed the “open door” into a project of attaching photographs of Black and minority ethic staff and students to door panels across the campus. BME students and staff are pictured not even as going through the door but as on the door.

Remember the post-box that became a nest?   There could be another sign on the post-box: “birds welcome”.

Birds Welcome

Diversity is that sign: birds welcome, minorities welcome: come in, come in!  Just because they welcome you, it does not mean they expect you to turn up. That sign would be a non-performative if the post-box was still in use because the birds would be dislodged by the letters, a nest destroyed before it could be created. Comments, jokes, questions, who are you, what are you; what are you doing here, where are you from, where are you really from function as letters in the box. They pile up until there is no room left, no room, no room to breathe, to nest, to be. This is why diversity work is work: it is not enough to open the door. For some of us to be in the room requires stopping what usually happens in that room, the usual is the structural in temporal form; otherwise some of us would be, as it were, displaced by the letters in the box.

Doors can be closed because of what you refuse not to bring up. When an MA student indicated she wanted to make a complaint about bullying and sexual harassment by the most senior member of her department, she was told by the convener of the programme: “be careful he is an important man.” Be careful: a warning not to proceed can be a statement about who is important. The student went ahead with a complaint. In her terms, she “sacrificed the references.” In reference to the prospect of doing a PhD she said: “that door is closed.”   That door is closed: references too can function as doors, how it is made possible for some to progress, others not.  Reference systems are how some are enabled by their connections, how some gather speed and velocity, more and more, faster and faster, “he is an important man.” Many do not make complaints because they cannot afford to lose the references.  Power can work through what might seem a light touch: all you need to do to close that door is to write a less positive reference. The mere lift of a supportive hand can function as the heaviest of weights.

The actions that close doors are thus not always perceptible to others.  For those deemed dependent on doors being opened, those who embody diversity, whose mere entry is understood as debt, doors can be shut at any point.  A door can be shut because you are told that a door will be shut. A trans lecturer considered making a complaint after not getting a promotion and goes to their union. They are told: “because I was trans I would never be promoted.” Perceptions can be doors: how you are perceived as being as how you are stopped from progressing. This is not to say that we are always stopped; you have to work harder to get through the doors of perception. When a black woman told her white head of department, “I would like to work towards becoming a professor,” her head of department “just laughed in her face.” That laughter 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.

A door can be shut after you enter. A door can be shut because you enter. I am listening to an indigenous woman academic. She told me how she could hardly manage to get to campus after a sustained campaign of bullying and harassment from white faculty, including a concerted effort by a senior manager to sabotage her tenure case as well as the tenure cases of other indigenous academics. 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; they take us 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 traumatized beyond the capacity to go to the university….. So 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 7 years.

To be traumatized 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, 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 what; who is deemed entitled to whom. A complaint can be necessary: what you have to do to go on. But you still have to work out what you can take on. She went on by taking them on:

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.

In order to survive institutions we need to transform them. But we still need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform. Closing a door can sometimes be a survival strategy; she closes the door to the institution by withdrawing herself, her commitments, from it. 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 depersonalizes 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, quite frankly, for her, this is a war.

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 who embody diversity; 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; perhaps the more we have to spill, the tighter the hold.

Complaint Collectives

The more we have to spill, the tighter their hold.  When organizations can’t stop a complaint from being made, there is an effort to stop a complaint from getting out. Non-disclosure agreements are the tail end of a much longer process of containing complaints.  I think of filing cabinets as institutional closets; complaints are buried here because of what they could reveal. One student who made 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 suppress is to contain as well as to keep secret. The more information is suppressed, the more there is to spill. This is why so many norms of professional conduct are about keeping a lid on it; silence as institutional loyalty; silence in case of institutional damage. A wall can be built from silence. And those walls can also be built around feminist spaces. Many have relayed to me how feminist colleagues, often senior feminists, often senior white feminists, were among those who told them to “keep a lid on it.” When feminists keep complaints “in house,” treating the data contained by a complaint as a secret, as what must be kept secret, they have become not the birds nesting, but the letters in the box, treating complainers as trespassers; complaints as messy matter, as straw, not as part of a nest but as “matter out of place.”

Sometimes we have to “lift the lid” to make complaints matter, to make a mess. When I make the reasons for my resignation public, I shared information, not very much, but enough; that there had been these enquiries.   I became a leak: drip, drip. Organizations will try and contain the damage. The response in other words is damage limitation. This is how diversity often takes institutional form: damage limitation. Happy shiny policies will be put in place, holes left by departures will be filled without reference to what went on before; a blot becomes something to be wiped up, wiped away; as if they are mopping up a mess.

But there is hope here; they cannot mop up all of our mess. A leak can be lead. A leak can be how we leave traces of ourselves behind.  Sometimes you hold on by passing a refusal on. A postgraduate student made an informal complaint about white supremacy in her classroom: using that term for what is at the university, can get you in serious trouble; she knew that but she was still willing to do that. She became in her terms “a monster,” an indigenous feminist monster, and is completing her PhD off campus.   She said that “an unexpected little gift,” was how other students could come to her: “they know you are out there and they can reach out to you.” A complaint in taking you back can point forward, to those who come after who can receive something from you because of what you tried to do, even though you did not get through, even though all you seemed to have done was scratch the surface.  Yes, those scratches: we are back to those scratches.  They seemed to show the limits of what we accomplished. They can also be what we leave behind. They can be testimony: a complaint as writing on the wall; we were here; we did not disappear. The complaints in the graveyard can come back to haunt institutions.

I shared the image of a complaint graveyard with one person that had been shared with me by another. She said:

You have to think about the impact of doing this. Because having yet another complaint, it means that you give more credibility to the one who comes after you. When you talk about haunting you are talking about the size of the graveyard. And I think this is important. Because when you have one tombstone, one lonely little ghost, it doesn’t actually have any effect; you can have a nice cute little cemetery outside your window, but when you start having a massive one, common graveyards and so on, it becomes something else; it becomes much harder to manage.

We can and do form complaint collectives. We can and do become harder to manage. But we do not always assemble at the same time or in the same place. You might feel like a lonely little ghost: gone; gone away; a stray. Your complaint might seem to have evaporated like steam, puff; puff. That complaint can still be picked up and amplified by others. You might not be able to hear it now; it might not have happened yet.  But each complaint gathers more, a gathering as a gathering of momentum; the sounds of refusal; little ghosts, little birds, scratching away at something.  We gather, becoming that momentum. Thank you.


Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The Same Door

In the first chapter of my new book What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use, I reflect on the use status of different things, from well-used paths, to used up tooth-paste, to over-used exclamation points. One of my examples is “usable/ unusable doors” (75-65). I photographed this door, which is a door at a university near where I live.

Usable Unusable door

This door is a door I can use, I do use, it is usable for me, but it is not a usable door for  disabled people with mobility restrictions.  To reflecting on usability is to reflect on who a world is built for. This is why scholarship in disability studies was one of my primary sources of inspiration in writing the book. As Aimi Hamraie describes in Building Access “Examine any doorway, window, toilet, chair or desk…and you will find the outline of the body meant to use it” (2017, 19, emphasis added). Hamraie usefully name this outline “the normate template” (19). Those who don’t assume the shape of the norm often know the norms; norms become walls: what hits you can be what stops you from entering.

Doors were not originally one of my primary examples in the first draft of the book although I did have examples of signs on doors. They came into the text later. Why? When I began doing interviews for my project on complaint in the middle of 2017, I noticed how often people made reference to doors. Doors came up figuratively, certainly, but it was the actual doors that first caught my attention. That I was working on use, making use of things, was probably why I noticed these doors.[1] Something can be right in front of us, but we still do not notice it. Research can be about becoming attuned to what is already there: you notice an arrangement; you reflect on what you notice.

In the book I kept reusing the same images with different captions.[2] But there is one instance in which I use the same caption with different images. That caption is “the same door.” In this post I explore the connection between these different uses of the same door.

Why do doors come up in testimonies about complaint? Complaints are made confidential as soon as they are lodged. The expression “behind closed doors” is thus everywhere in my data. This expression might be used to refer to actual doors: you might tell the story once the doors of the office have been shut. The expression is also used to convey what is kept hidden or secret from the public. If complaints are data-full, and complaints require evidence, they require you to collect data, then that data is kept under lock and key. Doors can thus function as containers of complaints. My own task is to open the container.

My first use of “the same door” as a caption on page 181 refers to how if harassment and bullying happen behind closed doors, then they happen in the same place complaints happen. I reused the image of an usable/unusable door from chapter 1.

Usable Unusable door

I will be working in future writing on accounts of physical or sexual assaults that happened in offices or corridors. In these testimonies, doors figure prominently. I am not sharing these testimonies here: to share them responsibly requires giving them the fullness of my attention. Doors came up not only because they were shut, but because someone was struggling to get out of the room. Two women academics I spoke to, one who was sexually assaulted by a lecturer when she was a student, the other who was physically assaulted by her head of department as a lecturer, described to me in acute detail the handles or locks on the doors of the office or corridor in which the assault happened because those handles or locks were difficult to use. When you are struggling to get out, a lock can be imprinted in your memory. They both managed to get out, but it was hard. It was made hard.

We tend to notice what stops us from getting out when have to get out. And if you have to struggle to get out of the room, it can be another struggle to get a complaint out. In another instance, when a student made a complaint about an assault (her assailant in this instance had locked the door) she is called to a meeting with senior academics. They were all colleagues of the lecturer who assaulted her. In talking to her, they referenced their shared history with him. As another student said, “they have each other’s backs.”

The “same door” is a device I am using to show what might be obvious but still needs to be said (the obvious is too often left unsaid): the same structures, the same networks that enable harassment are “at work” in stopping complaints about harassment.  Doors can be our teachers: they teach us the significance of a complaint about harassment being lodged in the same place the harassment happened.  If they have each other’s backs, their backs become doors.

The second use of the caption “the same door” (p. 202) might seem quite different. Here the image is of a sign on the door: women.

women's sign

A sign on a door is often a use instruction: it tells you who should use what door. The signs are of course not referring not to the toilets themselves as men or women but to the users of the toilets. You might go that way, open that door, because of who you understand yourself to be, but still be told you are using the wrong door because of how you appear. Use instructions can be enforced not only by the police or security guards but by other users, who are invited to become police, to look out for those who are, as it were using the wrong door.

Doors exist alongside other technological methods for directing human traffic, that is, for telling us which way to go when we have to go. Doors are also telling us something about the nature of sex as an assignment. We are supposed to be as constant as an assignment. And so: if you are assigned girl, if girl is your original assignment, you are supposed to follow that path, which means using the same door that you used before; the same door. This is my other use of “the same door.” It is a use instruction that teaches us something about the nature of an assignment.

Is there a connection then between this “same door” and the other “same door”? I think there is a connection. Being told you are using the wrong door often means in practice being harassed. You can be harassed behind a door; you can be harassed for using the wrong door. Many women who are gender non-conforming, including cis as well trans women, have experiences of being harassed in toilets because they do not conform to an idea of how a woman should appear.

When you complain about harassment you are often harassed all the more. You encounter the same door.  The same door can also refer to how a person is stopped when they are trying to stop something from happening. A trans student of colour complains 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. The questions were laced in the language of concern, concern for the welfare of the student predicated on judgments that they would be endangered if they conducted research in their home country; racist judgments are often predicated on stranger danger, the location of danger “over there” (a brown elsewhere). I will return to stranger danger in due course.

When they complain, what happens? “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 complaints process can lead to a reiteration of yet more intrusive questions, questions that make a concern right or even into a right. So much harassment today is enacted as a right to be concerned. We have a right to be concerned (as “citizens”) about immigration; we have a right to be concerned (as “adult human females”) about sex based rights. A right to be concerned is how the violence of scrutiny is masked, a violence premised on suspicion that some are not who they say they are, that some have no right to be where they are, that some have no right to be.

A complaint is put out into the same world a complaint is about. The doors that are closed on complaints, which stop them from getting through or getting out, can be the same doors that are closed on persons, which make it difficult for some to get through. A trans lecturer considered making a complaint after not getting a promotion and goes to their union. He is told: “because I was trans I would never be promoted.” I think of the weight of that because: how you can be made responsible for what stops you from progressing even if it is discrimination that stops you from progressing. You have to deal with what comes at you: each time you are slowed down by trying to challenge what slows you down.  In his testimony, he describes transitioning as moving between different zones of discrimination. Before he transitioned, he had experienced routine sexism:“being pushed out and side-lined in terms of my career.” He also described what it was like to witness colleagues who “make use of sexual jokes” only to be quickly promoted. In transitioning, he enters a different zone of discrimination: “I started transitioning and he fired me.” Indeed he describes how discrimination against, and harassment of, trans people is given a “green light.” I think of traffic lights, not amber, not red, but green: a traffic light is saying, yes, go, you can say that, yes, you can do that; fired; fire away.

A green light to harassment, yes, go, you can say that, yes, you can do that: is that where we are today?

That is where we are today. In the UK today, we are on a permanent green light: permission is constantly being given for transphobic harassment, creating a hostile environment for trans people. Some of this harassment operates through the logic of stranger danger: trans people are often positioned as strangers not only as “bodies out of place,” but as threatening those who are “in place.” Stranger danger is a well-oiled machine: it works so well from being used so often.[3] Just think about the use of terms like “gender extremism,” which work to creating a menace, a vague sense of menace, borrowing perhaps from racialising discourses (extremism as a term tends to stick to some bodies more than others). Just think also of the use of terms like “the trans lobby,” to imply a powerful and sinister agent that is behind this or that action. If stranger danger works to locate danger in those deemed outsiders, stranger danger also creates the figure of the endangered most often a child. Contemporary transphobia works to suggest or imply that trans people are endangering children (one headline reads, Are you transphobic? Me neither, we’re just worried about our children). Stranger danger thus creates a missionary position: we have to save the children. We have seen a proliferation of this positioning.

Contemporary transphobia is thus eerily similar to earlier forms of homophobia (and by saying earlier homophobia I am not saying that such homophobia has disappeared – it most certainly has not).  Gays and lesbians too were often presented as endangering children[4]. And a “gay lobby” was deemed to be promoting “gay lifestyles,” by teaching or recruiting students, by publishing books about happy gay families.

Damn it: we needed those books!

Many of us can recognise these forms because we have seen them before.

Power is often legitimated by treating an effort of a minority to survive, to create resources to enable their survival, as the formation of an industry. Those with power often position themselves as having to defend themselves (as well as others for whom they claim to speak) or defend a group or an idea/ideal that has already taken their shape; the nation, the race, civilization, even life itself, as if they are the minority under attack. That reversal of power is a central means by which power operates.[5]

Stranger danger is about how danger is located in the outsider.[6]  Stranger danger thus creates a line, a boundary, between inside and outside. Some are judged as imposing on others; by virtue of existing, or by being too proximate, you can be deemed to have crossed a line necessary for the protection of others. A category too can be assumed to be closed; a door can be used to close the category “woman,” for instance. Closures however much they are justified as natural or necessary still depend upon actions; hence the creation of new terms if the old ones are drawn in a way that risks including those some do not want to include (woman becomes “adult human female,” for instance).  This is how a conversation about terms can actually be about how some are shut out of conversations. Note: you can be asked to participate in a conversation even though the terms of the conversations are about shutting you out.

I have no interest in having a conversation in these terms.

All categories have social lives. I think stranger danger can also work through category formation. My sense is that “gender” can be turned into a stranger; yes I am suggesting a category of thought can be treated as a stranger, framed as an imposition on nature or on biological reality.  The externality of “gender” as a category can then be used to refer to the externality of people who are assumed to rely on a category for their existence (simplified as: gender does not exist, you don’t exist as you say you do).  When gender is made foreign, those who use that category to make sense of their own selves are treated as foreigners. Part of the transformation of gender into the stranger, is the treatment of sex, often biological sex, as nature or even as native.

Categories such as “sex,” “nature” or “biology” or “biological sex” are being used to justify trans exclusion as natural and necessary, as if these categories are not themselves product of labour, as if we do not have a hand in making and shaping them.[7] Feminism gives us internal resources to challenge this use of categories, whichever categories are being used.[8]

We have behind us many feminist critiques not only of the sex/gender distinction but also of the idea that biological sex is given.[9] It would not be possible for me to review all the feminist work that would be helpful. I will just give a few pointers. In the radical feminist tradition, Andrea Dworkin’s Woman Hating, challenges what she calls “the traditional biology of sexual difference” based on “two discrete biological sexes” (1972: 181, 186). She expands further: “Hormone and chromosome research, attempts to develop new means of human reproduction (life created in, or considerably supported by, the scientist’s laboratory), work with transsexuals, and studies of formation of gender identity in children provide basic information which challenges the notion that there are two discrete biological sexes. That information threatens to transform the traditional biology of sex difference into the radical biology of sex similarity. That is not to say that there is one sex, but that there are many. The evidence which is germane here is simple. The words ‘male’ and ‘female,’ ‘man” and ‘woman,’ are used only because as yet there are no others” (175-6). Dworkin argued that transsexuals in a culture of “male-female discreteness” are “a state of emergency,” and argued that they should have access to hormones and surgery because they have a “right to survival [in their] own terms” (176). If Dworkin did imagine that transsexuals might disappear in some projected future, which she did, this was also because she imagined that discrete sexes, that is, women and men, would also disappear. Whatever we think of her androgynous solution, we can learn from her diagnosis of the problem. Dworkin teaches us that radical feminism, a feminism that is feminist at root, cannot be formulated without a radical understanding of sex and biology.

We could also turn to the evolution of arguments about sex and gender in feminist sociology. Ann Oakley’s classic, Sex, Gender and Society certainly made use of the sex-gender distinction, with sex referring to biological differences, visible differences of genitalia, and differences in procreative function; and gender to “a matter of culture” that refers to the social classification into “masculine” and “feminine”’ (1972, 16). However in a later work offers a strong critique of this same distinction. In “A Brief History of Gender,” Oakley writes: “the distinction between sex and gender does not call into question how society constructs the natural body itself” and “sex is no more natural than gender given that our speaking of both is mediated by our existence as social beings” (1997, 30).  Or we could think of the work of historical materialist Christine Delphy who provided a strong critique of the sex-gender distinction in Ann Oakley’s earlier sociological work as well in the work by the anthropologist Margaret Mead. Delphy argues that gender precedes sex,. She writes: “we have continued to think of gender in terms of sex: to see it as a social dichotomy determined by a natural dichotomy” (1993, 3). Christine Delphy called as a materialist feminist for a full and feminist de-naturalization of the category of “biological sex.” So much feminist work has shown that what is deemed originary is an effect. If gender creates the effect of two distinct biological sexes, it is important we do not make the effect our cause (otherwise we would simply be reproducing the system we are trying to dismantle, taking what it creates, as our ground).[10]

We can also find resources in feminist phenomenology. Phenomenology has been an important for feminism because it is a way of doing theory in the first person. Phenomenology helps us to explore how worlds can take shape by receding into the background. When something has become natural, it tends to be looked over. Phenomenology also helps us to think about how bodies are shaped through habits, ways of acting that are repeated over time. Simone de Beauvoir or Iris Marion Young are feminist philosophers who have shown how we become women through in relation to our bodies. Biology matters, yes, but biology is always part of our historical situation. From feminist phenomenology, we might learn how bodily matter and social meaning are always entangled; I think of Iris Marion Young’s concern with how girls learn to throw “like girls;” she calls this “inhibited intentionality.” An idea of what girls can do can affect what girls do, which shape what girls can do. We can thus de-naturalise the category of “biological sex” and still talk about our lived experiences as gendered beings (in fact we have more not less to talk about when we don’t bracket sex as if was outside the social or the cultural domain). We can talk about physical and fragile bodies, aging bodies; and yes, we can still talk about women’s bodies without presuming in advance who is “women.”[11] We can talk in this way because we do not assume that others will have the same experiences; to inhabit a body is to be thrown into a world with others. Phenomenology can also help us to re-think how categories themselves are social as well as lived entities. Categories too can be how we are thrown. Some of us will be thrown by how we are known; we will not be “at home” in the categories that have been used to name us, to identify us.[12]

There is of course much work in the biological sciences, which can help us to show how biological reality is much more complicated than two discrete biological sexes.[13]  And we could work more sociologically; we could track the uses of biology.[14] When biology is used to refer to something outside history or without a history, biology is performing a social function. What are the social effects of these uses of biology? This is where we come back to the same door. It is not a coincidence that the investment in biological sex has led to increasing gender conservatism: the presumption that you can tell who is a woman or man from how they appear. Simply out, gender conservatism is about sex. This is rather obviously the case in the religious right: arguments against “gender ideology” are made as arguments about the immutability of sexual difference as Judith Butler has shown. They take the form of statements: sex is given; there are two discrete biological sexes; marriage can only be about two sexes. Those who are against gay marriage (as well as gay adoption and queer families) are the same people who are arguing against the idea that gender can be experienced as an identity that does not correspond to biological sex. With the increasing spread of right wing politics across the globe, none of us can be confident that we have finished having to make the case for gay marriage (for those who would want to make that case). That is, even if we live in a country that has allowed gay marriage, the idea that gay marriage is against nature (and biology) persists. And we need to note the slide between conservative ideas about sex and gender to conservative ideas about sexuality: sex is man or woman; marriage is man and woman.[15]

To learn from the social uses of biology is to understand how and why gender critical can become very quickly gender conservative. It is not just the religious right that is spreading conservative ideas about gender. Gender critical feminists might not be making the same arguments against gay marriage (although the allegiance of some of these feminists to white supremacists and the religious right probably means that step is not far off).  They are however making similar arguments about biological sex as given. The consequences are not only anti-trans, they are anti-feminist. When you are critical of gender, but uncritical of sex (sex uncritical = biological sex is given), you tighten rather than loosen the hold of the gender system. We can see the effects of this gender conservatism all around us. We are witnessing increasingly conservative judgement being made in the name of feminism on the basis of women and men’s appearance, organised around the assumption that you can always tell the difference between men and women by how they appear (on discussion forums on social media and also in everyday life, at public toilets, on streets). Many cis women as well as trans women have been caught out by this; they have been told they are not really women because of how they appear. By “being told” I am talking about being harassed. And I have heard it justified by some gender critical feminists that if some women are harassed in toilets by other women because they do not appear to them as women (including, say, butch lesbians) that would be “a regrettable cost” in the broader project of protecting women from men.

Harassment as a regrettable cost: harassment as protection; we are back to the same door. I’ve heard that door being closed before, as a lesbian, as a lesbian of colour. Lesbians have often been told we are not really women; gender conservatism has very dire consequences for lesbians; whether cis or trans. Black women and women of colour too, have had the door closed in our faces; not women, not really, not you. Some of us have been shut out of feminism, told our concerns were distractions from the real thing.

The same door can be a feminist door. To open feminist spaces, requires constant vigilance; we have to keep questioning ourselves, learning from each other about each other.

Let me share a few paragraphs from the conclusion of What’s the Use on queer doors.[16]


A transfeminist project might show how original assignments are themselves constructions. As Emi Koyama notes, “While the concept of gender as a social construct has proven to be a powerful tool in dismantling traditional attitudes towards women’s capabilities, it left room for one to justify certain discriminatory policies or structures as having a biological basis” (2003, 249). Biology can be used as a tool because biology is often assumed to be about what is fixed or immutable. The very idea of two distinct sexes is transformed into an architectural principle by the use of doors.

If we think of biological sex as a door, we learn how biology can function as technology, to return to my discussion in chapter 2. This intimacy of biology and technology helps us to explore the queerness of biology and to consider what Sarah Franklin has called transbiology. Franklin introduces the cyborg embryo picking up on Donna Haraway’s (1991) creative reuse of the figure of the cyborg as well as her use of the concept of “trans-” to describe how new hybrid entities “blast widely understood notions of natural limit” (Haraway, 1997, cited in Franklin 2006, 170).  The cyborg embryo is born and made, biological and technological. The cyborg embryo is a product of what Franklin calls the IVF/Stem Cell interface: stem cell research is dependent upon “surplus” or “spare” embryos generated by assisted conception technologies. Interestingly, Franklin’s discussion of transbiology refers a number of times to doors. She describes how human stem cell derivation laboratories are built adjacent to assisted conception units and how the laboratories and clinics make use of doors to allow the passing through of biological materials—eggs and embryos—between them: “Like the cyborg embryo, transbiology is a mix of control and rogue, or trickster, elements. The hoods are noisy breathers, the eggs are dirty, and the door is queer” (2006, 175, emphasis mine). The door is there because it offers the most convenient way to pass materials through. The door is queer because it is not meant to be there; the lab is supposed to be a clean, controlled, and sealed environment.

We can pick up on the significance of the queer door. An opening created for convenience can have a queer potential: it can mean lessening control of what or who can pass through. The biological would then be about the potential of transfers and transits of many queer kinds. It might seem that doors function to contain us; to be told to use the same door is to be told who we are and what we can be. Perhaps use instructions are only necessary because they can be refused. Indeed, one might think of how the postbox can become a nest only by creating a queer door: the birds turn an opening into a door, that is, a way of entering the box.

Birds Nesting

A queer door can be the effect of unexpected arrivals: openings intended for some things to pass through can end up providing an access point for others.

By considering the uses of use, I have been able to show how the potential for movement can be eliminated or almost eliminated before that potential can be realized in this or that instance. In chapter 1, I suggest that use can lessen the queerness of use; when things are used repeatedly in a certain way it becomes harder for things to be used in other ways. Those for whom use is harder are trying to use things in other ways. Timing matters. If use instructions are made because they can be refused, use instructions are made even more forcefully when they are refused. Some forms of use are corrected, punished; do not use that is saying, in truth, do not be that. Those who refuse the instructions know how they work.


You come to know the instructions, when you are hit by them, when a door is slammed in your face. Maybe sometimes we might make use of doors ourselves, to create spaces, shelters, in which we can breathe, to survive the harshness of being shut out.  To turn that door into a wall, a way of stopping other people from entering, by treating the closing of the door not as a decision, as temporary, a product of labour, what we have a hand in, but as natural, as permanent, is to turn a shelter into a fortress. We cannot afford to do that. We can never afford to do that. There are too many lives at stake.

I wrote this post to work out what the same door is doing. I also wrote this post in response to the setting up an LGB alliance. Removing T (also I, also Q) is shutting the door, the same door, on those who are part of a shared struggle against forms of power and authority that work by restricting ideas of what life can be, what it means to be a woman or man or not a woman or not a man, to be both, to be neither, which restrict who we can love; how we can love. We were in the same bars, laughing and living, surviving the worlds that decided our lives were lifestyles, our choices whims; our ideas false; that we were selfish or dangerous because of what or who we refused to give up. We marched in the same marches, recognising something of ourselves in each other, as we fought for a world that could reflect our own images of ourselves back to ourselves; however tired, however worn; we loved what we could catch in each other’s reflections. We called each other family because we turned up for each other when we are cast out from our homes, our communities. Perhaps we are sloppy, rather messy; we are not unaffected by the trauma of being rejected. Perhaps we got things wrong; when you have been treated as wrong, it can be hard not to inherit that judgment. We have been at times confused with each other or turned into inauthentic versions of each other.[17] Maybe if we were confused with each other it is not surprising we are sometimes confused by each other. But that confusion becomes what we share: we work it out by working together. We can’t sort it by creating new distinctions, by separating ourselves from each other. At this moment, they are slamming that door in your faces; trying to close our shared struggle for freedom and justice to those of you travel under the sign T.

Well: they are shutting the door on us too; the same door; turning their backs on us too; their backs become doors.

We created our letters, our assembly, LGBTQI, fragile, fabulous, furious, because we needed each other; we needed to become each other’s resources.

We needed each other; we need each other; we still do.


Beauvoir de, Simone (1997). The Second Sex, trans. by H.M.Parshley. London: Vintage Books.

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

Delphy, Christine (1993). “Rethinking Sex and Gender,” Women’s Studies International Forum, 16, 1: 1-9.

Dworkin, Andrea (1972). Woman  Hating. New York: E.P.Dutton.

Franklin, Sarah. 2001. “Biologization Revisited: Kinship Theory in the Context of the new Biologies,” in Sarah Franklin and Susan McKinnon eds,  Relative Values: Reconfiguring  Kinship Studies. Durham: Duke University Press.

Germon, Jennifer (2009). Gender: A Genealogy of an Idea. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hamraie, Aimi.(2017). Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Oakley, Ann (1972). Sex, Gender and Society. Maurice Temple Smith.

Oakley, Ann (1997).  “A Brief History of Gender,” in A. Oakley and J. Mitchell (eds) Who’s afraid of feminism?, London: Hamish Hamilton; New York, NY: The New Press.

Rich, Adrienne (1993). ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ in H. Abelove, M.  Barale, and D. M. Halperin (eds), The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, New York: Routledge.

Sanz, Veronica (2017). “No Way out of the Binary: A Critical History of the Scientific Production of Sex,” Signs, 47, 1.

Spade, Dean (2006). “Gender Mutilation,” in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (eds).  The Transgender Studies Reader. London: Routledge. pp.315-332.

Stone, Sandy (2006). “The Empire Strikes Back: A PostTransexual  Manifesto,” in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (eds). The Transgender Studies Reader. London: Routledge.

Young, Iris Marion (1990). Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays. Bloomington Indiana University Press.

Wilchin, Rikki (2014). Queer Theory, Gender Theory. Riverdale Avenue Books.

Wittig, Monique (1992). The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

[1]So for instance in my diversity research, published as On Being Included, I reflect on how diversity practitioners often talk about walls in describing their work. But I did not notice the walls until after I completed the research – I came back to the data a few years after completing the work having finished a book on happiness. I know wonder if writing about feminist killjoys is what helped me to notice the walls.

[2] It is interesting to note here that presenting the use research as a power-point changed how I presented the book. With power-point I kept using the same image but with different captions. And I noticed how this allowed me to make the points more concretely. In this first version of the book I used each image once – for example the well-used path – and then referred back to that image. In the final version the well-used path keeps reappearing with different captions: the more a path is used, the more a path is used; a longer neck; a stronger arm; an old policy; more can refer to how many; the more he is cited, the more he is cited; heterosexuality, a path that is kept clear.

[3] I began working on the uses of stranger danger as a frame in my second book, Strange Encounters. Most of my work has been on stranger danger as a technique of racialisation. A crucial aspect of stranger making is that the stranger, however singular as a figure comes to stand for a group. It is crucial to understand how this work in the media reporting of violence. Take anti-Muslim racism: if a Muslim person commits an act of violence, that violence becomes expressive of the violence of Muslims (which quickly then becomes an argument against immigration or for increased securitisation and so on). Much transphobic reporting works to make an instance of violence made by a trans person as expressive of the violence of a group (which quickly then becomes an argument against “gender ideology,” or allowing trans people to live in accordance with the gender identity and so on).

[4] We have to become good readers here about how narratives of danger work. You do not have to say “all gays are pedophiles” or “all gays endanger the well-being of our children,” all they need to do is put the category of pedophilia near to the category of homosexual to create this effect. Or note how if a lesbian or gay person is involved in child abuse, the category of lesbian or gay will often be made explicit in media reporting, which becomes an implicit invitation to make being lesbian and gay part of the problem: but when a heterosexual person is involved in child abuse (much more commonly) their heterosexuality is less likely to be brought up in the description, which allows heterosexuality to disappear from the problem.

[5] Those who speak against the rights of a minority will thus almost always position themselves as the minority. They are not. Critical feminist voices have been over-amplified by the media – and of course if you will ask people if they are not allowed to speak about x, when x is the site of a controversy, you will find those people very easily and very quickly. We can witness how this mechanism works by how much the same people speak about not being allowed to speak at all (no platform has become a big platform for a reason). I would add here that this is also the case for other positions. You can find many white academics who are involved in the new eugenics (which is the old eugenics in dressier form) who would go onto the television and talk to newspapers about how they are harassed because of expressing critical viewpoints, how talking about white displacement or differences in IQ between racial groups or colonialism as a moral project is not racism and how other people calling it racism is how they are censored. We know they could do that because they do do that. Much harassment is justified as freedom of expression. Note: all of our equality commitments are about the imposition of restrictions on what people can do and say. If some people understood these restrictions as restrictions on their freedom, you are learning about their sense of entitlement. When some gender critical academics say that “out of politeness” they respect pronouns of their students they are implying they are free to do so or not to do so. They are in fact not free not to do so; they are required to do so under existing equality law (the guidance to the Equality Law 2010 by the EHRC uses deliberate misgendering as an example of harassment of persons with the “protected characteristic” of gender reassignment). Also, using theory to justify misgendering (I can call you he because my theories mean I don’t recognise you as she) is no less harassment than it would be without said justification: your theory does not exempt you from the requirement to act in a certain way. One has a sense here of the political stakes of the attack on “gender theory.”  I would add many people justify verbal forms of harassment as expressions of freedom – and also sometimes use “my theory gives me permission to say x” as well. I know this from my complaint research: I have collected many examples of sexist and racist as well as transphobic speech being justified not only as freedom of expression but with reference to a person’s “theories.” For example one student who objected to a sexist expression was told: “I don’t need to talk to you about discourse analysis and post-structuralism, and we can all do a discourse analysis on x; and we’d all come up with very different meanings.”

[6] Stranger danger can be dangerous. It can be dangerous to those deemed strangers: those who tend to be treated as dangerous are often those who are most vulnerable to violence. But it can be dangerous because of where it does not locate danger: here, at home, in the family. Women for instance are much more at risk when they are home. Stranger danger is how the violence that is close to home is often overlooked.

[7] As Sarah Franklin has noted, biology can refer to both a “body of authoritative knowledge (as in the science of reproductive biology) and a set of phenomena” (2001, 303). Biology can thus refer both to studies of living organisms and to the living organisms themselves. This confusion of different senses of biology is evident in some of the wider discourse, which has had the effect of treating “a body of authoritative knowledge” as if corresponds to a set of phenomena.

[8] Transphobia seems to create a moving target.  I am exploring in this post today how and why “biology” and “biological sex” are the main terms in use. At other times it is not biology but “socialisation” that is used: trans women cannot be women because they were socialised as men and benefited from male privilege. Here it is the social rather than the biological that becomes what is immutable: as if socialisation goes one way, relates only to one category (sex) and is not contested and disputed in everyday life depending on how one might not embody or not embody that category. Feminism itself depends on the failure of socialisation to bring about willing gendered subjects. Another typical argument is that “transgenderism” as a set of medical practices depends on essentialist notions of gender because it corrects gender nonconforming behaviours and is shaped by a heterosexist imperative.  Of course there has been decades of scholarship by transgender theorists that is critical of how gender and hetero norms become an apparatus of truth within medical institutions; that has shown how in order to gain access to surgery and hormones, trans subjects have to tell a narrative that is legible to authorities because it maintains gender scripts: from Sandy Stone’s wonderful “The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto” ([1987] 2006) to more recent work by Dean Spade (2006) and Riki Wilchins (2014).  This work shows how not to be accommodated by a gender system (which requires you to “stay with” an assignment made by authorities at birth) can involve becoming more vigilant and reflexive about that system (although it is very important not to expect those who are not accommodated by a system to become pioneers or transgressors of norms, either). I think what is going on in anti-trans feminist work is the desire to exclude and police the boundaries of “women” on whatever basis can be found (hence the target is a moving target).

[9] For a discussion of how the “sex-gender” distinction was imported into Gender Studies (via the work of John Money on intersex communities) see Jennifer Gorman (2007). Gorman also explores the link between Gayle Rubin’s model of the “sex-gender system” and Money’s work.

[10] This reversal was also performed by Judith Butler in her classic Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), which drew on many other feminist theorists to show how physical and sexed bodies are shaped right from the very beginning (or even before a beginning) by social norms and values. Following the “uses of use” deepened my understanding of the complexity of chains of cause and effect. When effects are treated as causes there are further effects (including on causes). If sex is an effect of gender, the assumption that sex is a cause is what gender effects. The very assumption of causality brings worlds as well as bodies into existence. Doors are especially useful to help us address the materializing effects of assumptions.

[11] It is also worth remembering here the strong lesbian feminist critique of the category of “women.” The history of the word “woman” teaches us how the categories that secure personhood are bound up with a history of ownership: “woman” is derived from a compound of wif (wife) and man (human being); woman as wife-man also suggesting woman as female servant. The history of woman is impossible to disentangle from the history of wife: the female human as not only in relation to man but as for man (woman as there for, and therefore, being for).  We can make sense of Monique Wittig’s (1992) audacious statement “lesbians are not women.”  She argues lesbians are not women because “women” is being in relation to men: for Wittig, “women” is a heterosexual category, or a heterosexual injunction. Wittig calls the lesbian an “escapee” from this system.

[12] Those who are not at home, come to know categories more intimately, which is why some of the most important work on gender, sex and sexuality is coming out of trans studies. Can I also add that to dismiss “identity” and “emotions” as somehow immaterial relative to “sex” as “material” is to forget so much previous feminist work. I have even heard a gender critical feminist say she doesn’t believe in gender because she is a materialist!  I am tempted to quote here from Marx on matter and labour but I won’t.  There is a huge and important literature that teaches how emotions, how we feel in relation to objects and others, are physical and embodied as well as being about judgment or cognition; how we come to know about ourselves as well as worlds. If your body does not feel right, if you feel wrong, it takes a huge amount of work, a difficult transition, to get to a point to where things feel right. I am myself a cis woman, but I have learning so much from trans people’s accounts of transition and of the emotional and physical nature of this process. On what it means to feel wrong, or in thinking about how wrong feels, it is hard not to think of my own experience of heterosexuality. I remember the work it took, how long it took, to let my bodily feeling “this is wrong,” however powerful and palpable that feeling was, to lead me to change my situation. Sometimes feelings can be traumatic, because you realize from them just how much you have to do to rearrange yourself, your life, so you can breathe, even if there is joy and hope and possibility in that rearrangement. To dismiss other people’s feelings about gender as immaterial, as I have heard people do, is deeply unethical. I can’t breathe in this version of feminism.

[13] Please also consult with the incredibly rich domain of feminist science studies. For an article that reviews the “critical history of sex” with reference to feminist science studies see Sanz (2007).

[14] Of course there is a lot of confusion about categories as the same categories are being used differently by different people.  For example gender now tends to be used on equal opportunities forms rather than sex – I think gender is used almost like polite speech. But to make clear distinctions when in everyday life those distinctions are unclear would be to remove ourselves from everyday life. Yes, we can make provisional definitions, but these are working definitions: we use them to do certain work; we have to keep working on them. We have to keep working things through because or when they are messy.

[15] Gender and sexuality are not the same thing but neither can they be separated. What Adrienne Rich (1993) called “compulsory heterosexuality” is also a gender system (we could call this system hetero-gender); it rested on ideas about what men and women were like and could be. The implications for our activism ought to be obvious.

[16] These paragraphs are from the section “Refusing Instructions.” Citations for the material in this section are listed in What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use.

[17] Anyone who knows the history of sexology will know about these confusions, many early and varied  categories such as that of “inversion” rested upon them (if a person wanted someone of the same sex, that was because they must really be the other sex or if a person wanted to be the other sex, that was really because they wanted the same sex).


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Queer Vandalism

I am pleased to share that What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use has arrived into the warehouse! You can purchase copies direct from Duke University Press (use access code E19AHMED for a 30 percent discount) or Combined Academic Publishers (use access code CSP019USE for a 30 percent discount). I want to thank again everyone at DUP and CAP for helping to bring my books into the world. It is always such a collective effort.

I have just returned from a short snappy lecture tour in Canada. I learnt so much from  sharing new work on complaint (some of that work is included in the fourth chapter of What’s the Use, but there is much work left to do, much I have yet to say). I was touched to meet so many feminist killjoys and to sign books including some rather tattered copies of Living a Feminist Life! I hope I never take for granted the immense privilege of having someone pick up and read my work. To meet readers with my books in their hands, books they have made second-hand is such a joy, a killjoy joy!

Thank you if you do pick up and read What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use. The book  is full of images of second-hand, old and worn things. I have so much affection for used things, and for the stories they help us tell. To mark the publication of the book, I am sharing a part of the section “Queer Vandalism” from my conclusion “Queer Use” (minus notes and images).

With love,

f-k xx


Queer Vandalism

When we recover a potential from materials, when we refuse to use things properly, we are often understood not only as causing damage but as intending what we cause. Queer use could thus also be interpreted as vandalism: “the willful destruction of the venerable and beautiful.”

Sometimes the nuclear family is held up as the source of the venerable and beautiful. In The Promise of Happiness (2010) I explored how the image of family is maintained by polishing its reflection; a labour of keeping up appearances, smiling as way of covering over what does not correspond to happiness. We can think of this polishing as straightening; the removal of damage, the stains, the scratches, can be the removal of traces of a queer existence. When queer desires are deemed damaging, it can be assumed we desire to cause damage as if we trying to ruin a picture or as if we are demeaning something by not elevating it. Not following a family line is understood as breaking that line: queer as snap, snap, as if you are cutting up the family with a pair of scissors by arranging your life in a different way. Not following something as destroying something: no wonder they find us to be destructive. We can turn a finding into a will; if our desires cause damage, we might be willing to cause damage, willing even to destroy the nuclear family and marriage if that’s what it takes to live our lives in queer ways.

For some, extending marriage to gays and lesbians would be enough to destroy marriage; gay marriage would be the effort to destroy a sacred institution; gay marriage as queer vandalism.  I think this position is far too optimistic: queers need to do more than marry each other to destroy the institution of marriage. In aiming for more, queer politics might recover the militancy of second wave feminist approaches to the nuclear family as an institution we should aim to destroy. One thinks especially here of Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectics of Sex (1970), which it’s organizing assumption that institutions such as the family that promise happiness by narrowing down what counts as a good life should be dismantled. Given how the family is occupied we might need to become squatters; to squat the family, to enter the building and do something else, to loiter, to linger, to go astray.

We might use the word family to describe our queer gatherings; queer use as reuse. I think of Susan Stryker’s description of what was opened up for the “queer family we were building,” when her partner gave birth to their child. She describes: “We joke about pioneering on a reverse frontier: venturing into the heart of civilization itself to reclaim biological reproduction from heterosexism and free it for our own uses.” She adds: “We’re fierce; in a world of ‘traditional family values,’ we need to be” (1994, 247). When things are used by those for whom they were not intended, the effect can be queer. We can laugh at the effect. Joking about queer effects is not unrelated to rage against the machinery of the family, which as Stryker shows renders some offspring into deviants and monsters. And that rage itself can be transformative: “through the operation of rage, the stigma itself becomes the source of transformative power” (1994, 249). It takes work to reclaim biological reproduction “for our own uses” just as it takes work to reoccupy the family, to make the familiar strange. And it takes work to rearrange our bodies, to rearrange ourselves. Stryker offers her own rearrangement by refiguring transgender embodiment as an affinity to monsters, to those who have been deemed monstrous, speaking back to Frankenstein in words sharpened by rage.  Queer use: when we aim to shatter what has provided a container.

To open institutions up that have functioned as containers you have to throw usage into a crisis; you have to stop what usually happens from happening; and a “what” can be a “who,” to stop “who” from happening. We might have to occupy the family by rearranging our bodies. Or we might occupy a building or a street with the intent to disrupt ordinary usage, to get in the way of how that space is usually used (for what and by whom). Political protest often requires becoming an inconvenience. We might have to park our bodies in front of that door. In protesting, we are willing to cause an obstruction. Of course sometimes you can cause an obstruction by virtue of existing or by questioning the virtue of an existence. But we learn from how much of our political work requires disrupting usage. Usage can be how something recedes, an injustice; violence. To make violence noticeable sometimes you have to make a scene; to stop business as usual; to stop the flow of traffic; to make it impossible to open or close that door, to stop people from passing through or passing by.

Sometimes we need to disrupt usage to bring attention to a cause. At other times, that you disrupt usage teaches us about a cause. When you make use of an unoccupied building, for instance, you become a squatter. You might not necessarily aim to cause disruption: you might squat because you need to have access to shelter. But in doing what is necessary you are refusing an instruction, a use instruction, which tells you not to enter unless you have legitimate access. To enter an empty house without permission is to make an assertion: that that ownership of a house does not justify the house being vacant. Ownership is not only the right to use something but the right not to use it. The future is owner occupied. It causes disruption not to render vacancy right or a right.

A squat can be part of a political protest. You might enter a building that is unoccupied in order to bring attention to a cause. In 2017 the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut occupied Holloway Prison “to demand that the empty space be used to support local domestic violence survivors.” You have to occupy a building to demand that a building is used to support those who are not supported. We learn from how survival and protest can be part of the same project.  If you have to occupy a building in order to survive, in order to have somewhere to go to escape from violence that usually happens in house, domestic violence, that occupation is a political project; you counter the violence of a system by revealing the violence of a system.

Occupying empty buildings can also be about trying to fill those vacant spaces in a different way: it can how space is thrown into relief by not being occupied by, say, a white bourgeois family this is what the bedroom is for, this is what the kitchen is for, each room to be used for bodies doing things in the right combination with other bodies. To squat, to make use of a space without owning a space, is to throw open the question of what space is for, to be released from the obligation to fill all the rooms in a certain way. Maybe queers become squatters of the family; we might not have a key to the door, but we can force it open by how we combine our forces. Queer use: in reusing old words for how we assemble we widen their range of uses.  As Erica Doucette and Marty Huber note, “the range of uses for squatted buildings is often much wider than simply providing a place to live. These projects link ideals with material realities and utopias, as a crucial point for many queer-feminist living projects is finding ways to combine affordable and politically responsible forms of living/housing” (2008).  A widening of use is necessary given the restriction of use. Experimentation with living and housing is a project of queering use, changing how we occupy spaces; a “who” change as a “what” change.

Queer use offers us another way of talking about diversity work: the work you have to do to open institutions to those for whom they were not intended. Even to try and open a container can be deemed damaging, ruining the value of something, given how often the value of things tends to depend upon their restriction. I think of how when more of us become professors we are used as evidence of the lessening of the worth of being professors. And opening up institutions is not a task that can be achieved by a singular action precisely given how institutions are closed – and often remain closed through the very appearance of being open. What’s the Use has provided an explanation of how it is through small acts of use that possibilities become restricted; how histories becomes concrete, hard as walls. My task has thus been to keep thickening my account of use, more and more, heavier and harder; to show how histories can occupy buildings, can stop spaces from being usable even after they have declared vacant or open for business.

We know about closures from trying to open things. When you become a diversity worker you learn how those who try to stop something from happening are themselves stopped. This is why I describe diversity workers as institutional plumbers; you have to work out how things are blocked because they are blocked. We might from this description assume that diversity workers are appointed to unblock the system. But blockages can be how the system is working. The system is working by stopping those are trying to transform the system. This means that: to transform a system we have to stop it from working. When you stop the machine from working you have damaged the machine.  Plumbers might need to become vandals, or we might have to pass as plumbers (fixing the leaks) to become vandals (making leaks bigger). We might have to throw a wrench in the works or become, to use Sarah Franklin’s (2015) terms “wenches in the works,” to throw our bodies into the system, to try and stop the same old bodies, doing the same old things. The “wench in the works” has a queer kinship with the feminist killjoy, a kinship of figures can be a kinship of persons, as non-reproductive agents, as those who are trying to stop what usually happens from happening. A non-reproductive agent aims not to reproduce a line, not to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before.

So much is reproduced by the requirement to follow. In chapter 4 I described how you are required to follow the well-trodden paths of citation; to cite properly as to cite those deemed to have already the most influence. In order to craft new knowledge we might have to cite differently; citation as how we can refuse to be erased. We can consider the work of indigenous and black feminist scholars such as Zoe Todd (2016) and Alexis Pauline Gumbs (2016) who have showed how we can craft different knowledges by not following old citational paths. In Living a Feminist Life (2017) I had a rather blunt citation policy, which was not to cite any white men.  In this book I have not been able to have such a policy: following use has meant engaging with the history of utilitarianism, which is a history of books written mainly by dead white men. Even if I have been critical of this history, use as reuse, I have kept it alive. A reuse is still a use damn it! If I have used their names, I am not writing to them, or for them. I write to, for, those who are missing, whose names are not known; whose names cannot be used; those who are faint, becoming faint, fainter still.

An occupation can be secured as a requirement to follow a line, to use the well-trodden path. To speak of whiteness in the academy or of colonialism as the context in which Enlightenment philosophy happened is to bring up the scandal of the vandal. Decolonizing the curriculum as a project has been framed as an act of vandalism, a willful destruction of our universals; knocking off the heads of statues, snapping at the thrones of the philosopher kings.  In chapter 4 I referred to one way that eugenics is given an institutional home by the naming of buildings, lecture theatres and professorships after eugenicists such as Francis Galton at the UCL. I noted how the use of Galton’s name was justified at a panel, Why Isn’t My Professor Black, as an inheritance. There has since been a wider and meaningful discussion of the role of Galton’s legacy at UCL. This questioning of a legacy was represented to the wider public as the Galton Must Fall Campaign. Whilst we might support such a campaign if it did indeed exist there was no such campaign; it was in fact invented to discredit the questioning of a legacy as “cultural vandalism.” When it was pointed out that such a campaign did not exist, the newspaper made some small amendments clarifying that such a campaign “has yet to materialise.” What is clarifying is how discrediting works. To discredit the questioning of a legacy is to discredit the questioner.  Even posing a question or making a history questionable is framed as vandalism.

A judgement can be turned into a project. If questioning what is received as inheritance is understood as damaging institutions, we might need to damage institutions. A complaint too is often treated as (potential) damage to the organisation.  In chapter 4, I introduced some data from my study of complaint. This study of complaint was inspired by my own experiences of working on multiple enquires into sexual harassment and sexual misconduct, which is to say my project was inspired by students. After three years of trying to get through, of coming up against wall after wall, I eventually resigned. I resigned because I had had enough, and because I did not want to stay silent about what had been going on. Resignation is another way of saying no to system; you withdraw your labour, your body, yourself. The word resignation can seem to suggest giving up, reconciling yourself to your fate, to resign yourself to something. I hear the word resignation and I hear a long drawn out sigh rather like saying, perhaps, what’s the use. But resignation can also be how you refuse to resign yourself to a situation. Perhaps you are giving up on something, a belief that you can do the work here, but you are holding onto something, a belief in doing the work. What appears to be giving up can be a refusal to give in.

I resigned in part because of the silence about what was going on. To get information out sometimes you need to get out. There is no point in being silent about resigning if you are resigning to protest silence. When I shared my reasons for resigning I became the cause of damage.  To speak out is to become a leaky pipe: drip, drip.

Organisations will try and contain that damage; public relations works as a form of damage limitation, repairing an injury to the organization’s reputation. Indeed this is how diversity often takes institutional form: damage limitation. Happy shiny policies will be put in place; holes filled without reference to what went on before. Paper as papering over: organisations often use paper to paper over the cracks; the leaks. Or they send paper out to create a trail, paper that can be used as evidence of what has been done. Creating evidence of doing something is not the same thing as doing something.

But there is hope here; they cannot mop up all of our mess. One spillage can lead to more coming out; can lead, does lead. Just loosen the screw a little bit, a tiny little bit, and you might have an explosion. We need more explosions.  Queer use might describe this potential for an explosion, how small deviations, a loosening of a requirement, the creation of an exit point, opening a door to allow something to escape, can lead to more and more coming out.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why complain?

Why complain? What do you hear in this question? It is a deceptively simple question. It is a difficult question. A question can be a journey. This question can take us places, to scenes of devastation, yes, but also to other kinds of scenes.

Why complain, why would you; a why can be sharp, a reminder of the point of a complaint. There must be a point to what is hard, to what is made hard.

Do you hear should in this question: why complain as why should you complain? In asking why, I refuse to smuggle in should. I am not using the question to mask an instruction.  I hear should and I wince. Rather I am thinking of do, why do people complain; we learn why from do. I have been learning how complaint means committing yourself, your time, your energy, your being, to a course of action that often leads you away from the work you want to do even if you complain in order to do the work you want to do (as many do). A formal complaint can lead you into the shadowy corners of an institution, meeting rooms, corridors; buildings you did not have any reason to enter before become where you go; what you know. We can learn from this: how trying to address an institutional problem often means inhabiting the institution all the more (1). Inhabitance can involve re-entry: you re-enter the institution through the back door; you find out about doors, secret doors, trap-doors: how you can be shut out; how you can be shut in. You learn about processes, procedures, policies, you learn to point out what they fail to do, pointing to, pointing out; you fill in more and more forms; forms become norms; files become futures; filing cabinets, graves.

One student submitted a letter of complaint to her head of department about bullying from a professor in her department. Nothing happened: after being told there would be a follow up, there was no follow up (2).

She describes:

“I feel like my complaint has gone into the complaint graveyard.”

When complaints are buried you can end up being buried.

And yet, many do complain. Why complain given so many complaints ends up being buried? A burial is not only where you might end up, the last stop in a sorry tale, a destination; burials can be evoked as a potential before you even start. Warnings evoke burials: you are warned that a complaint would mean career suicide, the end of a line; making a complaint as becoming a ghost.

You are also warned that you will be buried by the process.

Maybe a burial is a part of a story. The question of why, why complain, help us to pick up other pieces of the story. This question why complain is around me, surrounds me; hovering as hearing, as I am listening to and transcribing the final interviews for the project; as I am thinking about how to pull the pieces together (3). Thus far I have been sharing data in posts and lectures that offer snap-shots of institutional life, as well as accounts of what I call simply institutional machinery; the clunk, clunk, of how complaints are stopped from getting through or getting out as the sound of institutions at work. My data is generated by listening to those who did complain or who took some steps in that direction even if they did not go through with it. It is those who try to get through who teach us about stoppages. And so: in listening to stories of stoppages and blockages, I am also hearing about the work that some – let’s call them the complainers – are prepared to do; despite the walls they come up against, because of the walls they come up against. The clunk, clunk is not the only sound I can hear; I can hear the strain, the physical effort, the wear and tear; I can hear how hard some are willing to push, because they are not willing to give up or to give in.

Why complain? Why would you?  How could you?

I did not make this question, why complain, an explicit question during interviews. I began the research thinking I would be doing semi-structured interviews. I arrived with my prepared questions for my first interview, and realised they would not work. Complaints are too messy even for a loose series of questions.  So I asked those I spoke to one opening question: I asked people to share the experiences that led them to consider making a complaint as well as their experiences of making a complaint. I wanted the stories to come out, fall out, in whatever order they came out.

Perhaps I have gathered testimonies. And so: a complaint testimony can be an answer to the question: why? In this post I am sharing some of the points shared with me.

I am sharing why, a why can be shared.

One academic talked to me about the problem of misogyny and racism in her department. Like many I have spoken to she understood the problem she was coming up against as a problem of institutional culture. It is hard to make a complaint about the culture of an institution. Procedures (also routines, habits) often direct us to make complaints about individuals, to somebody who can be held to account. But that does not mean that the institution is not the object of a complaint from the complainer’s point of view (4). She made what we might call an informal complaint; gathering statements from a number of people, pulling them together to create a document, a collective complaint, which she submitted to human resources (5).

Why complain? She gave me two important reasons. She “wanted it recorded” and “the culture was being reproduced for new PhD students.”

These reasons are related. You have to record what you do not want to reproduce.

The point of a complaint can be to intervene in the reproduction of something. She did not understand the culture of the institution as simply something or some simple thing, institutional culture as an object, a fetish object, cut off from history, from labour; as being inevitable, what you have to accept, what you had to protect. Reproduction instead becomes a scene of instruction; norms and values are passed on for new postgraduate students. A complaint is a refusal of that instruction, a refusal to pass on the same thing. If you complain because a culture is being reproduced you complain in order to stop that culture from being reproduced.  A complaint can come out of a sense that the culture will be reproduced unless you do what you can to try and stop it.

We could thus think of complaint as non-reproductive labour, as the work you have to do in order not to reproduce an inheritance (6).  Of course, we know about the clunk, clunk of institutional machinery when we try and stop the machine from working. When those who try to stop a culture from being reproduced are stopped, a culture is being reproduced.  Those who try to stop a culture from being reproduced also know how a culture is reproduced.  You know the engines of social reproduction do not run smoothly.

You know how much work is required for things not to change.

A student made a complaint about the conduct of the most senior member of her department. He would repeatedly swear at students, make racist and sexist jokes in class and during social events; undermine and ridicule students in class, especially mature women and any women who articulated feminist viewpoints. She described her action as “alerting the university,” to what had been going on. She had already left the university. So why complain? She complained because she “wanted to prevent other students from having to go through such practice.”  By the reproduction of culture, we are talking about practices: we are talking about what people are routinely doing; how they are behaving; what they are saying; what they are allowed to do and to say (even when what they do and say contradicts commitments made in official policies on equality and diversity and dignity at work).

To prevent other students from “having to go through such practice” requires stopping those who are participating in such practice. What you want to prevent, others can be invested in reproducing.  Under-statement: when you challenge people’s investments you do not tend to be received well. Many have talked to me about how their complaint was assumed to be motivated in some way. Discrediting is often performed by giving the complainer motives: to discredit is to answer the question why complain on her behalf. She is assumed to complain because she has a will to power or because she wishes to deprive others of a power they enjoy: perhaps she is envious or disappointed. If these reasons are familiar it is because they are rehearsed with regularity in anti-feminist arguments: feminists are often dismissed by judging a concern with injustice as a desire for power (7). A common strategy for discrediting a complaint (and perhaps also feminism) is to suggest a complaint is motivated by the desire for punishment; a complainer is often treated not only as a killjoy, as being mean, against pleasure, but also as being punitive (8). The language of punishment is often used diagnostically, that is, as a way of explaining the psychology of the complainer. But we can use the diagnosis to say something else about someone else. Perhaps the effort to stop some ways of acting is experienced by those who are acting in such ways as punishment in the sense of potentially depriving them of what it is that they want. In other words, punishment is the effect not the cause (an effect that is then turned into a cause). Trying to stop harassing and bullying behaviours (by describing such behaviours as harassing or bullying) is experienced as depriving some of their freedom as well as what they assume as their entitlement (9). I will have much more to say about the relationship between harassment and entitlement: the right to have or use something.

In this case, it turned out that many students in the past had made similar complaints about this professor’s conduct: the university did not need to be alerted of the problem. Another member of staff from her department responded to her initial informal complaint by saying “I hear a lot of these complaints every year,” in an intonation that almost implied a yawn, heard that before, been there, done that. There was no interest in stopping the behaviour; perhaps because he was the most senior member of the department, a highly valued and highly paid professor. It is not just the institution that was invested in him: the more a person is networked, the more are invested in that person. The resistance to hearing a complaint often comes from colleagues and peers, from those who benefit from an existing set of arrangements, those for whom reproduction also means: connections; resources; alliance; allegiance.

A complaint can be what you do in order to stop something from happening. What happens does not “just happen.” If something keeps happening, we are talking structure not event or structure as well as event.  Wanting to stop something from happening can be about wanting to stop something from happening to others. An academic told me the she would complain again despite the fact that her previous complaint about racial harassment had cost her so much in terms of career progression as well as personal well-being. Why complain can be posed as a question again, why complain again? She said: “it was something I had to do because of my politics, a wrong had been done, I had to make sure it had been put right even at my own personal expense it turned out. I’d still do that again. I’d do it for another person not for me, if the same thing happened I would do it again. I wouldn’t change my mind on it or say no I didn’t notice anything. I wouldn’t do that.” She would complain again not for herself but for another person despite what happened to her; perhaps even because of what happened to her.

You do not want those who come after you to have to go through what you went through. A complaint can be experienced as what you do for others. Note also: a complaint can be a refusal not to notice something, a refusal not to notice “a wrong has been done.” She added: “In the worst possible situations, you learn a lot about yourself, other people, and institutions.” Noticing too can be what we do for others; it can be how we learn about ourselves as well as others. No wonder complaint is feminist pedagogy: we often learn about worlds from the worst possible situations. We learn what’s wrong when we try to address what’s wrong.

What’s wrong with you? Those who make complaints are often asked by friends, peers, colleagues why they make complaints; the question why complain is often asked out of concern. A complaint: you have to keep explaining yourself. A postgraduate student made a complaint about the conduct of her supervisor. When she told me why she complained she also told me she was asked why complain: “A lot of people are: why you are doing this? You are at risk or do you want the moral ground. For me it might sound dramatic, but it is simply true: I couldn’t live with myself.”  

You might proceed with a complaint, despite what it requires in order to live with yourself. Note the negative: not to complain would be not to be able to “live with myself.”  That expression “I couldn’t live with myself” or “I can live with myself” has been used a number of times in testimonies.  I hear an implication in an expression: a decision whether to complain is also a judgement about what you can live with; it becomes a way of expressing not simply your values and commitments but the values and commitments you could not give up with giving up on yourself.

A senior academic made a complaint about bullying from her head of department. Why complain? She gives us an answer in telling her story:

 Apart from anything else at a personal level I can live with myself. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself just coping with that situation and letting it happen. I could have gone the other way and just protected myself, and just said can I take my sabbatical early and get out of there, that would have been another strategy, but that wouldn’t have been me to do that so I couldn’t have done that. I didn’t feel I had options really. I had to complain. It wasn’t like a choice. For me, if I saw something that was so wrong, I couldn’t not do anything.

A complaint can be how you live with yourself because a complaint is an attempt to address what is wrong, not to cope with something; not to let it happen; not to let it keep happening. You make a complaint as a way of doing something. And so: a complaint can be a way of not doing nothing. Many who make complaints don’t do so because they feel they will necessarily get justice or some other resolution of a problem, although of course different people enter the process with different expectations about what they can achieve. A beginning can be a refusal: you refuse to cope with a situation that is unjust. You will not just leave the problem behind you by not complaining (even if a complaint leads many to leave). A complaint is often about confronting what is, saying no to a wrong that persists.  A complaint is what you do if you are someone who does not want not to care about what is wrong, as someone who “saw something that was so wrong.”(10)

For those who complain because of what they came to know, a complaint becomes an expression of a commitment; it can be how express yourself. It is given you have the commitments you do (there are many givens that need to be given before a complaint can be made), that complaints tend to be experienced not as choices but as being necessary (“I couldn’t not do anything”). If a complaint is how you live with yourself a complaint can also be about the kind of world you want to live in; a complaint can be about the wrongs you are not willing to let happen.

A desire not to reproduce something, violence, an injustice, is a desire for something, for a world in which those violences; injustices, do not happen.

In past work I have focused more on how the costs of complaining are made high. These costs can be about warnings as well as punishments: you are warned you will be punished; punishments are often used as warnings to other would-be complainers. There is no doubt: complaint is made costly. From the question, why complain, I am learning about the costs of not complaining. Not complaining can be thought of as an action or as a series of actions that are performed in the event of there being something to complain about (11). The decision not to complain can be strategic: the flip side of a warning is a promise; you are told that not complaining will ease your progression. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with doing what you need to progress – think of how many do not have to make difficult decisions in order to enable their own progression. For example you don’t have to decide whether to make a complaint about not being promoted if you are promoted. If you have to decide not to complain in order to progress you are already having to do a certain kind of political work that others are spared from doing.

This is not to say that progression is not a feminist problem.

What we are told we need to do to progress is what reproduces the system. 

A decision not to complain can also be about what you can cope with: you might not be able to cope what is required in making a complaint; you might estimate that a complaint would cost you too much. We can learn from how and why people decide not to complain when they have grounds to complain. I have learnt so much about not complaining from those who have complained: even if I have talked mainly to those who have participated in formal complaints, many have spoken to me at length about their experiences of not complaining. One woman professor did not proceed to a formal complaint after experiencing gross misogyny from senior male colleagues at an away day. She did raise the issue with senior members of the university; she just did not follow it up when they did not follow it up. She did not go on to a formal complaint in part because her previous efforts to support students making a formal complaint about sexual harassment had not got anywhere (stopping a complaint can lead to more stoppages down the line). She also did not go on to make a formal complaint because when what happened, happened, her mother was seriously ill. She was having a difficult time in her personal life; she had caring responsibilities. Life can be a reason for not complaining; if complaints require time, time can be what some of us do not have.

Not complaining because it would be too costly to complain does not mean it is not costly not to complain. Those costs can be personal – you might find it hard to live with yourself if you had grounds for a complaint but did not or could not do so. Costs can also be institutional: the grounds remain, and they are often the same grounds you have to do your work; the same grounds that make it difficult to do your work.

The same grounds.

And so: the costs of not complaining can be the same costs as the costs of having to put up with what makes it difficult to do your work. I spoke to a retired academic about her complaint history – she gave me her history in three chapters with each chapter corresponding to her experiences at the three different universities in which she had been employed. She talked to me about how being a person who had complained – a complainer, even; we can reclaim that figure – mattered to her. Why complain? Why not: “I took a huge risk by complaining and fighting and not accepting what they had done to me.” She describes: “I bloody decided to fight them and I’ve seen so many people who don’t and I’ve seen so many people crushed in many ways because they haven’t gone to the union, they haven’t gone to access to work; they’d just been so isolated that they just get crushed…there’s no way I was going to let them do that to me.” A complaint is a way of not being crushed. Complaints do not just lead you into the secret chambers of the institution, as I described earlier; they can also lead you to form new partnerships; they can lead you to work more collectively, to work with the union and with other colleagues to address a problem that is shared.

Similar problems; similar complaints.

Participating in a complaint can thus be a politicising process in a similar way to participating in a protest: you get a real sense of the scale of a problem when you try to address a problem. And getting “a sense of the scale of a problem” means acquiring a stronger sense, a sharper, clearer sense, of how institutions work. Participation in a formal complaint can often lead people to develop strong critiques of institutional power. Critiques can be expressed in action: they can be about what you are willing to do or not willing not to do. Formal complaints (often because of what they fail to achieve) can often lead to other more direct forms of political action such as occupying the university, leaking information about failed processes either to other members of the university or to a wider public, or to creating complaint collectives in order to create a shared record or to share experiences (12).  I will be describing the formation of “complaint collectives” in future work.  The work of complaint does not stop with a complaint (although it is hard to tell when a complaint stops and starts) in part because when you complain you find out about others who have complained.

Findings, meetings: they can change things.

Even if organisations try and isolate complainers, and even if sometimes their efforts succeed, not complaining can be how some end up even more isolated. She described further: “You’ve got to pull in as many resources as you can. But for me the tragedy was that I have seen so many other colleagues go under because they’ve been too scared to fight that fight and I completely understand why they have been.” It might be fear that stops people from fighting. But whatever stops people from fighting (and sometimes people are just too tired or have too much already on to take on a fight), when more people are stopped from fighting, the less people are fighting. And that is one way power works: by lessening (and thus also lessening the impact of) those who challenge how power works. As she described: “It’s really hard because people are so overworked and don’t have the time to defend themselves or campaign about everything.”

Complaining can be a hope, an aspiration – it can be what you have to do to breath. Sometimes you complain in order to survive. This does not mean that you get through: many of the stories I have and will be sharing are stories of not getting through or of not getting very far. But not getting through does not mean not getting somewhere. If you have to create a record of what you do not want to reproduce, that record exists for you; you take it with you. A complaint can become a companion. One lecturer who made a complaint about bullying at her former institution gives us an answer to why complain by reflecting on what she was asking for: “I am glad that it exists for me, and that if any questions are raised I have it and also that I did lodge a grievance, I had a go, I did try, and for the record that matters to me. It matters to me not that I tried to seek justice, because I don’t really believe the process can deliver that, but just to have some accountability and explanation in the hope of institutional change, which was I think all I was asking for in the end.”

The hope of complaint can end up being modest, tied closely to the wear and tear of fighting institutional battles; the hope of institutional change of some kind. That hope can be in the trying.  A hope can thus be immanent: it can be in the institutions we are in; hope as the effort to transform institutions. That hope can also be weary; a weary hope, a hope that comes from an experience of wearing, of being worn down by what you have to do to keep on, going on. The work of complaint is often about going back: you are willing to go back over what has happened, however hard.  If there is a hope in this work that hope also takes us back; we keep going over what is not over. But the weary hope of complaint can still points forward, to what is not yet possible given an existing arrangement. It is this kind of hope that animates non-reproductive labour; the work of trying not to reproduce what already exists is the work of trying to make something else possible.

One student who talked to me about a series of complaints about harassment and bullying, none of which got anywhere, gave an answer to why complain by leaving with a sense of hope: “You know the process is broken, but still you know you must do it, because if you don’t, more falls to the wayside. So it’s like a painful repetitive cycle where you do what you know is right, knowing it may not make a difference at that time, but you always hope, you always have that hope, that maybe because I did this, it paves the way for something else. I think that is why I keep doing it: because I have hope. I have hope that justice maybe confronted at some point. But it is hard to say, hard to say what will happen.” To pave the way is to make something possible, even though it might be hard to say, hard to know what will happen. Perhaps that paving can become pavement; you try to create a different ground in the present by insisting that the present is not enough. This is not a bright hope, agentic, forward, and thrusting. This is a hope that is closer to the ground; slow, below. You can have hope because of what you come to know from below.

Perhaps the hope of complaint is below the ground. I think back to the image of the complaint graveyard. I shared with one person this image that had been shared with me by another.

A dialogue is possible by connecting stories; tales; trails.

Why complain? A complaint can be a collective:

You have to think about the impact of doing this. Because having yet another complaint, it means that you give more credibility to the one who comes after you. When you talk about haunting you are talking about the size of the graveyard. And I think this is important. Because when you have one tombstone, one lonely little ghost, it doesn’t actually have any effect; you can have a nice cute little cemetery outside your window, but when you start having a massive one, common graveyards and so on, it becomes something else; it becomes much harder to manage.

If our complaints lead us to leave, we might leave with a sense of failure, of not having done very much at all (12). But think of this:  an impact can be in what follows, who follows. Even when a complaint leads you to leave, you leave something of yourself behind by complaining. The ghosts can gather; the more we complain the louder we become; it can be explosive. We might not be able to hear it now; it might not have happened yet. We might feel like a lonely little ghost; gone. But each complaint gathers a momentum, picking more and more up; we do not know what a complaint can become.

Complaints can point to those who come after, who can receive something from you because of what you tried to do, even though you did not get through, even though all you seemed to have done was scratch the surface.

Why complain? We become harder to manage.

Why complain? I can think of so many reasons because so many reasons have been shared with me. We become our reasons.



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


(1) One of the reasons given to me for not proceeding with or to a formal complaint is precisely this: a sense that some people have that to proceed would be to commit to an institutional process and to allow oneself to become institutionalised in a certain kind of way.

(2)  This is one of the methods of stopping a complaint that I will be discussing in more detail in future writings: no follow up. In some cases there is no response at all (no indication is given that a complaint has even been received). Many people have talked to me how they simply do not get any response to emails, letters or even to comments made in person during meetings. They do not receive a no (eg. a warning) or a yes (eg. a nod); they receive a blank. I will be thinking with those I have spoken to about institutional blanks.

(3) I have now interviewed 40 people for this project. I completed transcribing my data in early July 2019. I am no longer arranging formal interviews but continue to communicate with people informally as well as to receive written statements. Over this summer I will be starting to write a new book on complaint as well as writing a new lecture, If these Doors Could Talk, and revising and updating my lectures Complaint as Diversity Work and Complaint as a Queer Method to give this autumn.

(4) This is very important: institutions often work to atomise complaints, to separate and to individuate, at the level of process as well as procedure. For example a group of staff wanted to make a complaint about discrimination in the handling of promotions but they were not allowed to meet with human resources as a group; they were required to have one-to-one meetings. And institutions often restrict the scope of a complaint by requiring the complaint to be about a singular person (or by reducing it to a single person in how they interpret or frame the findings). As one of my interviewees who participated in a complaint about sexual harassment, which she understood as a complaint about the culture of the institution, describes: “The bottom line is, and this is what the report has done, is basically protect their interests. And what they have effectively done with that report is identify one rogue member of staff whose been encouraged to take retirement, and then of course ‘they’ve dealt with the situation’, and the reason they left all of our testimony out of the picture is that they didn’t want to accept exactly why we wanted to talk to them about it in the first place which was that this all was the face of culture.” There is so much that is not faced (include the face of culture) when harassment is located in a rogue member of staff. As Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page describe “Yet, it is very hard, within the structure of the complaints process, to name a culture or an institution as being involved in the maintenance of an environment where sexual harassment is common”  (2005, 47). It is hard to make institution the object of the complaint given the complaint is handled by that institution.

(5) Many of the activities I will be describing in my work could be described as informal complaints (from an institutional point of view). An informal complaint would be any disclosure (written or spoken) about a problem to a person or persons who have an institutional position (for example, a head of department, a director of postgraduate studies, a supervisor, a senior manager or a member of human resources). In the UK in the case of student complaints in the event a complaint goes forward an informal disclosure or complaint is then treated as the first stage of the formal complaint process. This means that you can make a disclosure to a person without intending that disclosure to be a complaint even though it will acquire that formal status retrospectively if you go ahead with a complaint (I have some interesting examples of what can follow from this quirk). This also means that: if you make an informal complaint, but do not take it further, that informal complaint does not acquire the status of a complaint and does not need to be recorded as such. Many (I would even speculate most) complaints are stopped at this first informal stage, which means many of the actions I am hearing about are not recorded (or do not have to be recorded) by institutions as complaints.  The tightening of the complaint as a genre is, indeed, how many struggles are not recorded. This is why I am trying to loosen my understanding of what is involved in complaint without making complaint too encompassing of too many different kinds of political work.

6) This is one way I am thinking of complaint as a queer method, complaint as non-reproductive labour. I will be picking up from some of my arguments about “queer use,” complaint as the work you have to do in order to open institutions up to those for whom they were not intended.

(7) In an earlier post, Sexual Harassment, I described how anti-feminism is crucial to how complaints are dismissed. I wrote there “I think moralism is useful as a charge because it carries another implication: that feminism masks its own will to power. Whenever we challenge what is being assembled, who is being assembled, we are assumed as wanting power: as wanting their courses, their centres; even their students, for ourselves.  This can circulate as rumour and innuendo, implying that the feminists only object because they want what they object to.”

8) This is especially the case in complaints about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct – the carceral feminist appears here as a figure to imply an alignment between making a complaint and becoming part of a disciplinary institutional apparatus. The complainer is then positioned as the police/ prison guard. Sometimes of course it can take a removal of persons to stop some forms of harassment; that this is the case is telling us something about how harassment is enabled and built into a system. Complaints if they lead to an enquiry do involve a disciplinary process. In cases when persons are removed from posts either by resigning before a tribunal takes place or by having their contract terminated, those who initiated the complaint are often made responsible for that outcome, as if that was what they intended or as if that is why they complained (when what they want is for the problematic behavior to stop). A complaint is then framed as a failure to be conciliatory; it is as if rather than complaining those who complained could have just tried to talk to that person. The idea that you could just talk to someone who is being abusive is an idea that protects the abuser. Note formal complaints are usually a last resort; they are made because those who abuse power given to them by virtue of position cannot simply be persuaded by other means, such as informal conversations, not to engage in problematic behaviours. If persons are removed, they don’t suddenly recognise their behaviour as problematic. Instead, they typically represent themselves as victims of false accusations, neoliberalism, management, feminist campaigns, and so on, and so forth. This is also why the figure of a malicious complainer is exercised long after a complaint has been “resolved.” It is a way of re-telling the story of a complaint as a witch hunt.

(9) In practice many forms of harassment including sexual, racial and transphobic harassment are justified as expressions of freedom (freedom as the freedom to say or do such things). See an early post, “Against Students,” for some reflections on this. I would also argue that many recent trans-exclusionary and transphobic statements made by academics also treat some forms of harassment (such as the purposeful misgendering of students) as expressions of freedom (as if whether you respect other people’s preferred pronouns is simply about being polite or what you should be free to do or not do in accordance with your own beliefs), with clear evidence of confusion between academic freedom and personal freedom. Note all equality and diversity frameworks are about the creation of norms of conduct that are intended to restrict what is permissible to say or to do. That some experience such restrictions as restrictions of their freedom is telling us something about how their own sense of freedom depends upon maintaining the inaccessibility of social worlds and public domains to others. I am considering showing just what recent anti-trans statements get wrong about equality and diversity (and diversity training – with all its limits), but it is tiresome to have to argue against these kinds of viewpoints.

(10)  She also told me how many colleagues who “sort of knew” something was wrong tried to avoid her once she indicated she might pursue a complaint even though they were sympathetic colleagues who would be otherwise concerned about abuses of power. Perhaps one way some avoid having to make a complaint or participate in a complaint about wrongs they themselves are committed to challenging is by trying not to “see it,” or to “know it,” by looking away or staying away. The effort to avoid proximity to a complaint often means in practice trying not to notice what is wrong. For those who have political commitments to challenging wrongs, the work of trying not to notice wrongs that are closer to home can be potentially compromising (of an idea of who you are or what you value), which might be how and why those who complain come to embody a threat.  For some not to be reminded of how they did not challenge what they would be otherwise committed to challenging, they might have to eliminate (avoid, dismiss, reject) those who make the challenge.  No wonder then: a complainer often becomes institutionally dead. She is made to disappear; it can be most convenient.

(11). It matters what a complaint is about. In my project I am inheriting this about: whatever those I have spoken to have complained about, my project is about. It is with reflecting on the different meanings of complaint here. A 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. I hope in my work to show how the latter sense of complaint as a formal allegation brings up other more affective and embodied senses. But I am also interested in how a complaint can be a cause: a complaint is not simply something you make but what you have; a complaint as a cause to complain. Complaints can thus be about objects as well as subjects.

(11) I have been rather bemused by how some who offer strong critiques of institutional culture or politics in their work can turn around and offer weak appeals to due process. Many of the stories I have been collecting are stories of due process: they are stories of what happens to those who follow the procedures that are developed “in house.” That these are often the same stories as stories of institutional violences gets us to the heart of the problem. It is by following processes and procedures, even those developed in consultation with feminist activists and academics, that often leads to a deep recognition of the role of processes and procedures in reproducing the problem they were intended to address. It does not follow we should not use due processes and procedures – we should learn to learn from those who do.

(12) I will be writing on complaints and leaving in due course. Many of those I have spoken to who went through with formal complaints did end up leaving their posts or programmes. This has something to tell us about the nature of this work: a complaint can make it hard (or in some cases impossible) to stay; a complaint can sever the connections you need to survive and thrive in an environment. Some people I have spoken to who put forward complaints only did so once they knew they were leaving: this also tells us so much about the nature of the work. Some people need to know they have somewhere else to go before they can make a complaint because they know a complaint might lead to them needing to leave. It might be assumed that to leave is to leave a problem behind you. My research suggests otherwise: leaving can be the effect of not putting problems behind you, and leaving (however hard or unchosen) can enable other ways of dealing with problems that are shared.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

White Friend

I am talking to a woman of colour about the racism she has experienced in her academic career thus far. She has a lot to share. The more experiences you have, the more you have to share. She talks about two instances in which she is identified as having “a chip on her shoulder.” This expression “chip on her shoulder” has come up often in my data: it can be used to imply that the one who complains does so because she is bitter, that her grievance is really a grudge.

Chip, chip; chip: if we keep chipping away at the old block it is not surprising they keep finding the chips on our shoulders. What is most unsurprising is often what is most hard.

In the first instance she is told she has a “chip on her shoulder” by the head of human resources. It was during a meeting to discuss a complaint she had submitted about racism, bullying and misogyny in her department. She had collected testimonies from around 20 people; the complaint was a collective. She describes: “they treated the submission as an act of arrogance on my part.” It is as if she put a complaint forward as a way of putting herself forward; a complaint is often treated as self-promotional. I have shared her experience in previous posts. Her account has taught me a lot about how those who complain are dismissed and how this dismissal can rehearse the problem that the complaint is trying to address: for instance, how women of colour are often positioned as embittered (or even envious), as if we are talking about racism because we are sore or as if we are projecting a personal failure onto a system. It is a form of racism to say that racism does not exist. We can know this, but still have to deal with the consequences of this.

She talked to me about another occasion in which this expression is used. Here the setting is more familiar; it her familiar. It is an academic setting. She is giving a paper on the emotional labour of diversity work. It can be exhausting to talk about what is exhausting.  We often do what we do to make sense of what we do. A white feminist academic in the audience responds in a hostile manner saying she had “a chip on her shoulder.”  If making complaints can take you into meetings with human resources, what you encounter there is often the same thing you have already encountered in academic settings.

Talking about racism means dealing with the racism articulated in response to what you are talking about. Which also means: you end up doing more emotional labour the more you talk about doing emotional labour. The labour of dealing with racism is not only about dealing with those who articulate racist views or who respond in a hostile way because you are talking about racism. That labour is often performed in relation to many others, including those around you who you might have expected to be more sympathetic. In this case, she had to perform that labour in responding to two white academics she understood to be her friends. They were also her white allies: in their academic work they both offered critical perspectives on race. She has reasons to expect them to “get it,” to have understood what had gone on, and to give her support. “Getting it” is important to solidarity work – so many experiences are made harder if other people do not, cannot, or will not “get it,” get what is going on. She said that although her white friends and allies had heard what had been said; they “could not recognise it.”  Often non-recognition works by giving explanations for something in such a way that what is explained is explained away. An explanation can be saying: away! Go away!  They say: “she got wrong-footed;”  “she didn’t understand;” “we like her.” Wrong footed is used to imply the white woman who had just made a muddle of her words. Racism is often heard as an error message, as inexpressive or as not expressing how things are: what a person is like; what an institution is like. Their friendship with a white woman (“we like her”) stops them from recognising the racism experienced by a woman of colour who is also their friend. She describes to me what she would have liked to say to them:  “you’ve just witnessed somebody abuse somebody because they have expressed their experience of racism and your problem is you can’t hear what you’ve just heard.”

“We like her” as a statement of affection ends up being a performance: we like her; we are like her.

The white friend appears as a figure created through a relay of messages: her white friends cannot hear racism when it is expressed by their white friend. Perhaps they can hear racism when it is articulated by those who are further away: we might think of how critical often depends upon distance. I will return to the problem of critical white friends in due course. Hearing racism further away might be what enables them not to hear racism closer to home. The racism they cannot hear is then treated as if it is not there. She said: “they probably deleted it from their memory.” This deletion is what enables them to stay loyal to a white friend, to maintain an idea or investment of her as a good person who would not say or do what they are committed to opposing.

What else is being deleted? Who else is being deleted? We need to think of how she as a woman of colour she does not delete the experience from her memory; she is telling the story to me, after all, another woman of colour, who “gets it” because I have been there. We need each other if we are to live with what we get. And what some delete, others retain. We also retain the memory of the deletion. We know what we are being told: that out of loyalty, white allies can and do abandon us. Loyalty might be to a white friend, to a colleague, but can also work more abstractly as loyalty to some “we,” which might be a sensible “we,” a sense of shared project, or to an institution.  Perhaps an institution too can be retained as a good thing, a warm and inclusive thing, through repeating and sharing such acts of deletion. (1)

We also learn: loyalty can be how some do not, or even will not, notice the violence that happens right in front of them. What else does loyalty stop us from noticing? Is loyalty how spaces are occupied by what and who is screened out? These questions will stay with me as I work through the material of complaint.

Even to use a word like racism is to be heard as complaining not only in the sense of being negative or mean but also in the sense of being self-promotional; a sore point as a point that is pushed. Racism is often directed all the more to those who complain all the more about racism. Racism is not just an idea about who is worth what or more, about how higher and lower become properties of persons organised into clear and distinct groups. Racism is how ideas are expressed in or through actions; how some try to make others smaller, less significant; less valued. This is why the judgement of getting above yourself, above your station, or ahead of yourself is so often racialised. Even talking about racism can be heard as making too much of yourself. (2)

In another instance a black woman has a meeting with a white colleague who has just become her new head of department. This colleague refers to the “history” between this black woman and a former head of department, another white woman. She says: “I want you to reconcile with her because after all she is my friend and colleague and all she ever did was write you some long emails.”  Note how the former head of department is evoked possessively as colleague and friend (“my friend and colleague”). This white woman by expressing her desire for reconciliation (“I want you to reconcile with her”) is also offering an interpretation of events (“all she ever did is to write you some long emails”). As I noted in an earlier post on damage limitation, responses to harassment often work to minimise harrassment; when superficial solutions are offered a problem is treated as superficial. A key tactic for minimising harassment is to present harassment as a style of communication: long emails might be annoying, but the implication is that they are not harmful or serious (3). Harassment is often treated like a point of view shot: as what you can see from where you are located or because of where you are located; a way of interpreting a situation rather than being a situation. This is how harassment can disappear by being treated as a conflict between perspectives. This is also how to describe an experience as harassment can be deemed to become a harasser, as the one imposing your own perspective onto others.

It is important that the appeal is being made by a white woman on behalf of a friend and colleague; her white friend. This white friend enters the scenario as a figure, loaded with value and significance; she is appealing. Why is this figure so appealing? What work is she doing? What do learn from how and where and when she turns up?

It is not simply that the white woman is saying what she wants (“I want you to”). This expression of desire is also a management tactic: she is giving an instruction; she is telling a black woman, who is also a colleague (but importantly is not addressed as a colleague), what to do, and what to say. The work of reconciliation often falls upon those who have been harassed – she has to reconcile with her. Reconciliation is also restoration of a “we” premised on warm and fuzzy feelings of friendship and collegiality. The problem here is not simply that those who are harassed are expected to do the work of reconciling themselves to the situation they are in (to reconcile with her as reconciling yourself to a situation) although that problem is quite a problem given that the situation is the harassment (reconciliation with her as reconciling yourself to being harassed by her). Reconciliation does not just happen once you have reached a certain point in a longer sequence. Reconciliation is often there from the very beginning as an expectation or appeal. In other words, the expectation she will smooth things over or keep smoothing things over is how she is required to maintain a relationship that is damaging.  An expression of desire for reconciliation might appear to be a friendly gesture. There is nothing friendly about this gesture. If she does not return the desire for reconciliation, if she is not willing to smooth things other, moving on, getting along, getting on, she becomes the one who has not only damaged a connection but refused to repair the damage.  The perception of her as causing damage justifies and perpetuates the harassment.

Reconciliation can thus be a form of harassment. You can experience an expectation as a pressure (the press in pressure is that the same press as the press in oppression): to let it go, to let go, to get over it. I have been thinking about this too: how complaints are often deemed as what you are doing when you fail to be conciliatory, a word that can also mean being unfriendly; as if rather than complaining you could have just talked something through.

This is rather like that old multicultural fantasy: the fantasy that if only we could get closer we would be as one.

The expectation of reconciliation does not seem to lift at any point: it seems to be there all along. Many people have talked to me about the role of weak or empty apologies in the complaint process. In one case a professor makes an apology to a student who had lodged a complaint against him for bullying. His apology was unsolicited. But it was inserted into her complaint file in a way she experienced as deeply intrusive. An apology can be how somebody tries to pull themselves out of a critique or a complaint. An apology can be a form of self-justification as well as given as an instruction: I didn’t mean it! Move on! An apology can even be an extension of the behavior that someone is supposedly apologising for. She describes: “I think they thought I would accept it as a real apology. Reading it, it is not an apology. He did exactly the same thing he used to do in seminars…. I am just going to capitulate in such a tone that tells you that I don’t believe a word you are saying, therefore not giving you the respect of recognising that you might have a valid point.”

The person who apologises does not have to say what they are apologising for, or if they do say, they can do so in such a way that the problem is made slight or becomes about how someone is affected rather than what that person caused: you might apologise for hurting someone’s feeling, which rather conveniently make the hurt feelings the problem (as well as the obstacle to reconciliation) rather than the fact that you acted in a way that undermined another person. An apology in the case of bullying can be a form of bullying; you can be telling someone how little you think they are worth by appearing to concede in such a way that intonates that their complaint is not “a valid point.”

To appear to recognise your role in a problem can be how recognition is withdrawn.

When you are involved in complaint, you are often surrounded by weak and non-performative apologies. Perhaps one person can offer an apology as a way of asking another to “move on” because of what an apology does not require: any meaningful recognition of that person’s complicity in the violence the complaint was about. My own feeling is that apologies (as with other apparently “friendly” gestures) are so often used because they can be how some people maintain a fiction they acted in good faith despite the evidence of their role in bullying and harassment or in silencing complaints about bullying and harassment; in other words, apologies can allow people to get themselves out of doing the much harder work of recognising their own role in situations they are nevertheless able to identify as bullying and harassment.

An apology can make something and somebody seem small. Reconciliation (rather like harassment) is often about belittling: you try and make something be smaller than it is. To treat an injury as small is to treat a person as small. That treatment is also about who gets to be bigger, who is allowed to take up more space. You can end up being where you are judged to be: taking up less space because it is exhausting to be or stay in that space.

When the harassment is made small, the harasser can be treated as the injured party; if it is slight, they are the ones who have been slighted. This is why the white friend is evoked quickly as an injured party. What Gloria Wekker (2016) has called “white innocence” is central to the redirection of sympathy. We could think here of the role of white tears, expressions of hurt and grief that are often shared. Luvvie Ajayi offers a powerful and astute analysis of how white women’s tears are “weaponised,” tears can be used to “shield white women from consequences.” Ruby Hamad explores how “legitimate grievances of brown and black women are no match for the accusations of a white damsel in distress.” When white innocence becomes white injury, affection becomes instrumentalized. In order to maintain that innocence, that sense of injury, those who complain about racism become the real harassers; if they didn’t mean it, racial grievances are not only grudges they are mean.

Being mean is not simply a judgement one person makes about another. That judgement gets passed around; it becomes a rumour that spreads, information travels faster along the well-used paths of academic networks. The singularity of the white friend quickly becomes a collective; a network of feeling, did you hear, poor her, how mean!  Whiteness can function as a wall of sympathy. It is not just that sympathy is extended by being restricted; how some are kind to those deemed of the same kind. The gesture of being sympathetic to a white friend is the same gesture as the gesture of being hostile to those who complain about racism. So many stories have been shared with me about this: how if you are involved in any way in a complaint about racism or racial harassment that implicates a colleague, other colleagues turn away from you; you are “dropped” from invites, removed from references and  from the ordinary sociality that makes up so much of our professional lives.

Sympathy as removal.

It is the same gesture.

When a door is closed, the same door is being closed.

The affection between white friends is how racism is not heard, or if it heard, it can be how racism is either deleted or deflected as an injury to those accused. As Fiona Nicoll argues “The very idea of suggesting that someone might be racist has been elevated into a crime to rival (if not displace) racism itself” (2004, 20). The displacement of racism is the enactment of racism.

A white friend might explain how critical white subjects displace the racism in order not to recognise it; a white friend might be the one deemed hurt by an accusation of racism; a white friend can also be the one who expresses racism. A Muslim woman of colour describes such an experience:

I had a white friend who was also a colleague – we worked at the same university. We worked together, we helped each other. But there was a tension, an increasing tension. I felt it was about race, sometimes you just feel it.  Anyway one time it really came to a head. She said something like: tell me what to think about Muslim women who wear the face veil. I struggled to answer, because I just wanted to say that was a totally inappropriate question, and then she told me what she thought, that she couldn’t meet their eyes, she couldn’t make that feminist sisterly connection. Eventually we stopped communicating. Later I saw one of her papers when it was published – she had removed references to my work. I actually checked the earlier version because I could not quite believe it! And that has happened with stuff since. You watch yourself be removed by someone who you had thought of as a friend. Now she writes on race: she is cited for her work on race.

Sometimes racism is a feeling of tension; you know it’s about race, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it. The tension can then come to a head, rather like a boil. The racism that is already there, just below the surface, blubbing away, is expressed (4). Her white friend seems to be asking a question of her and there is no doubt that “that question” is a problem: it is a problem to ask her Muslim friend what to think about what other Muslim women do. We are familiar with the problem: it is like when white teachers ask questions about race and their gaze keep landing on the one student of colour in an otherwise all white classroom. Oh how many times we have to squirm our way through and out of these loaded questions! To have to receive that question is how you are made responsible for it; a question as how race becomes about you, and how you become a question.

A question can be a load.

But even if that question is a problem a question is not really being asked. She is using a question (what should I think of Muslim women who wear the face veil?) in order to tell her friend what she thinks. Questions can be assertions in disguise. And what is being asserted? White feminist solidarity is asserted as a universal. White sisterhood becomes about meeting each other’s eyes; it becomes a demand that other women unveil in order to share a sense of sisterhood. Those women who do not participate in a white feminist universal become barriers; a barrier can be the concreteness of a difference. The requirement for friendship might be that women of colour participate in their universal. Participation might require putting aside our particulars, our differences; becoming available as a resource.

So many stories of racism are also stories about plagiarism; they are about the relative value given to different people but they are also about the appropriation of other people’s work. Perhaps white colleagues can make use of words by cutting those words off from bodies – it is easier to use the words, to make them appear as your words, when those who wrote them disappear. Or it might be that some white scholars despite their anti-racist scholarship (or even though their anti-racist scholarship?), have a sense of entitlement: a right to use or have something. Perhaps people of colour become data that can only be converted into theory, into capital, by a white academy. I suspect the figure of the white friend appears in different stories of removal and deletion because she operates from a sense of entitlement; it is about who is at home, who gets to be at home. If, as I noted earlier, persons of colour becomes more of a problem when they are closer to home, then critical white subjects who work on race might require scholars of colour they cite to be further away. Not all white people who do critical work on race act like this. But we need to learn from the fact that it is possible to do critical work on race and act like this.

Harassment can also be understood as hardening of that history, a history of entitlement, a colonial as well as patriarchal history, a history of who gets to do what; who is deemed entitled to what; who is deemed entitled to whom. These hard histories are not just out there; they are in here. They are not just about what happens in hostile institutions; they are about what happens in spaces we might otherwise experience as warm and intimate. A hard history can be between friends.

  1. In the project I will be considering in much more detail the problem of how academic network operates as friendship networks. This problem can be about how academics call upon their friends to do certain kinds of work – from writing positive references or reviews of their work to supporting or defending them in harassment cases. It can also be about how friends are appointed into roles within departments; here a “friend” might refer not only to someone we know well but someone we imagine we could get know well. A “could be friend” is someone you could like, liking is often about likeness; a hire as about hiring those who are alike.
  2. In future posts, I will offer a close up lens on racial harassment as a method of belittling. I have been glad to read important recent work on racial harassment as it operates within universities by Kalwant Bhopal, Nicola Rollack  Shirley Anne Tate and Heidi Mirza.
  3. It is worth noting that physical as well as verbal harassment can be presented as styles of communication For example, when a member of staff made a complaint after a head of department physically accosted her in a corridor he was described in the report (that cleared him of any wrong doing) as having a “direct style” of management. That description can also provide a justification of behavior: physical harassment as blunt speech. I will return to how physical and verbal forms of harassment are treated as styles of communication in future posts.
  4. Thinking about complaint has led me to become interested in writing more about the sociality of expression – of how things “come out” or are squeezed out in the thickness of everyday worlds.



Bhopal, Kalwant. 2015. The Experience of Black and Minority Ethnic Academics. London: Routledge.

Mirza, Heidi .2017. “‘One in a Million’: A Journey of a Post-Colonial Woman of Colour in the White Academy’ in Deborah Gabriel and Shirley Anne Tate eds. Inside the  Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British  Academia. London:  UCL press, 39-53.

Nicoll, Fiona (2004) “’Are you calling me a racist?’: Teaching Critical Whiteness Theory in Indigenous Sovereignty,” borderlands, 3.2.

Tate, Shirley (2017). “How do you feel? Well-Being as a Deracinated Strategic Goal in UK Universities,” in Gabriel, Deborah and Shirley Anne Tate. 2017. eds. Inside the  Ivory Tower:  Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British  Academia. London: UCL press. 54-66.

Wekker, Gloria 2016. White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments