Feeling Depleted?

I am currently preparing a new lecture that I will be giving in Vienna next week, “Diversity work as Emotional Work.” I will be drawing on some old material that I published in On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional life (2012). It is interesting going back because you arrive with a slightly different lens, and you notice things even in your own interview transcripts that you just hadn’t noticed before. I have so enjoyed it: that reminder that projects are never over, that our materials are as full of life as we are. Or maybe more full of life, because sometimes we can feel depleted.

And that is what I am thinking about right now: feeling depleted. It is not that feelings are themselves being depleted (the rather economic model of emotions that is evident for instance in some uses of the concept of “compassion fatigue,” in which is it is assumed that emotions in being used are being used up) but that we can feel depleted. By saying “feeling depleted,” I am talking about material as well as somatic phenomena: of not having the energy to keep going in the face of what you come up against. Thinking back to my project on diversity work, I realise now how much of the account I offered was of the uneven distribution of energy, of how some bodies become depleted because of institutional requirements and how this depletion “registers” at a bodily level how institutions become stuck.

What do I mean by diversity work here? I am drawing on the model I offered in the conclusion of On Being Included. Firstly, diversity work can refer to work that has the explicit aim of transforming an institution; and secondly, diversity work can be what is required, or what we do, when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution. These two senses often meet in a body: those who do not quite inhabit the norms of the institution are often those given the task of transforming those norms. Some of us are given diversity as a task – becoming members of equality and diversity committees – because we are perceived as being diversity. When diversity becomes an invitation perhaps what is at stake is not so much who you are but who you are not: not white, not male, not straight, not able-bodied. If you are more than one of these “nots” you might end up on more than one committee! Embodying diversity can thus require additional work; the depletion of the energy of diversity workers is part of the embodied and institutional history of diversity.

In an earlier blog “It is tiring, all that whiteness,” I alluded to this phenomena (here). I described the experience of relief of entering a room and not encountering what you usually encounter, all that whiteness:

When you inhabit a “sea of brownness” as a person of colour you might realize the effort of your previous inhabitance, as the effort of not noticing what is around you. It is like how you can feel the “weight” of tiredness most acutely as the tiredness leaves you.  To become conscious of how things leave you is to become conscious of those things. We might become even more aware of whiteness as wearing, when we leave the spaces of whiteness.

When something is wearing, it is not always that you feel worn done. Feeling worn down can be a retrospective realization that you have been or are being worn down. It might be that in order to inhabit certain spaces we have to block recognition of just how wearing they are: when the feeling catches us, it might be at the point when it is just “too much.” You are shattered.

Feeling worn down: I think feminist killjoys are familiar with this feeling, that sense of coming up against the same thing, whatever you say or do. We have, I think, in face of this feeling to think about how to protect ourselves (and those around us) from being diminished. Audre Lorde taught us that caring for one self can be “an act of political warfare” as a form of self-preservation not self-indulgence (1988: 131). There are “those of us,” she reminds us, who were “never meant to survive” (1978: 32). The relations we develop to restore, to replete, are world making. With each other we find ways of becoming re-energised in the face of the ongoing reality of what causes our sense of depletion (I am willing to use the language of causality here, causality as contact zone). We can recognize each other, find each other, create spaces of relief, spaces that might be breathing spaces, spaces in which we can be inventive.

In Willful Subjects I reflected further on how tiredness (and depletion) can be unevenly distributed. In my discussion of habit and attunement in chapter 2, I drew on William James who quotes from the work of M. Léon Dumont to describe how over time a garment begins to cling more and more to the body that wears it. I think institutions could be thought of as rather like old garments: they acquire the shape of those who tend to wear them, such that they become easier to wear when you have that shape. Privilege could be thought of in these terms: another sense of wearing. Another of Dumont’s examples is the reduction over time of the force required to work a locking mechanism. The more you use a mechanism, the less effort is required; repetition smooths the passage of the key through the hole.  James describes this reduction of force or effort as essential to the phenomenon of habituation.  I would claim that the lessening of effort is essential to the phenomenon of privilege.  If less effort is required to unlock the door for the key that fits the lock, so too less effort is required to pass through an institution for bodies that fit. I think of social privilege as an energy saving device: less effort is required to pass through.  For other some bodies so much more effort is required to get through, to stand up; to stay standing.

Sometimes you can only stand up by standing firm.  Sometimes you can only hold on by becoming stubborn.  A social standing can thus be a material standing. Audre Lorde once wrote: “In order to withstand the weather, we had to become stone” (1984: 160). It would be hard to overestimate the power of Lorde’s description. Social forms of oppression can be experienced as weather. They press and pound against the surface of a body; a body can surface or survive by hardening.  For some bodies to stand is to withstand.  We can be exhausted by the labour of standing. If social privilege is like an energy saving device, no wonder that not to inherit privilege can be so trying. There is a politics to exhaustion. Feeling depleted can be a measure of just what we are up against.

Diversity work is emotional work because in part it is work that has to be repeated, again and again. You encounter a brick wall.  Even when a new diversity policy is adopted somehow things stay in place; they keep their place. I have many examples of these “wall encounters” that I shared in my book, On Being Included. To those who do not come against it, the wall does not appear: the institution seems open, committed and diverse: as happy as its mission statement, as willing as its equality statement. Things appear fluid.  I have said this before: things are fluid if you are going the way things are flowing. We can reflect on the significance of frustration here: it is not only that the wall keeps its place, but those who don’t come against it, don’t notice it.  This can be profoundly alienating as an institutional experience. No wonder that when the wall keeps its place, it is you that becomes sore.

One more thing: I wrote this blog when I was feeling depleted. And in that fact is another political lesson: sometimes we can feel less depleted by writing about being depleted or even just sharing that sense of being depleted with others.


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

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

Crossing Press.

———————-(1978). Black Unicorn. New Rork: W.W.Norton.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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38 Responses to Feeling Depleted?

  1. Michael says:

    It’s always refreshing to stop by here.

    I find that there’s a lot of tiredness going round – and a lot of it is deliberate. A friend once asked me “What, you thought they’d go down without a fight?” This active creating situations purely to deplete (I think, largely of the feminists are man hating dykes theory as I write) works so well that we rarely even realise how tired we are until, as you say, we move to a less tiring space and feel the fatigue wash off.

    I’m actually very interested in the policing of feminist work by non-feminists. Like “where were the feminists when ___ happened.” I think this is one such form of depletion – then again, I may be rambling. What I really wanted to write is: thank you for writing this.

  2. Lotus says:

    ah, the reflection. how many times have i had to tell myself “white folks, you are NOT making me tired today!” thank you.

  3. Lampito says:

    What a great essay.
    You’ve made it possible for people to envision physical bodies, along with their concomitant reserves of limited energy, as resources to be (and that are) tapped for institutional initiatives. The means to a diverse end are made up of people, and you’re asking the kinds of questions that promise to demand and produce an ethics of institutional diversity. You’re right to suggest that when institutions hanker after it without the virtue of actually understanding its importance or being sincerely invested in it, then diversity inevitably becomes the problem of those insourced to make diversity happen. It’s almost like diversity is analogous to the demands of “king cotton.”

  4. Pb says:

    Much needed. Thank you!

  5. wendycall says:

    Thank you for expressing this destructive dynamic that I’ve seen over and over again — inside and outside the academy. May the positive feedback you receive allow you to feel a little depleted, in knowing that you have gifted those who read it.

  6. Yes. Feeling depleted. And also thinking about how Butler (1997) talked about melancholia/ foreclosed loss for the subject in ‘The Psychic Life of Power’ (where not being able to be queer shapes heterosexuality) and what happens when feeling “not enough” happens at the racialised/ queer subjects point of arrival because of preexisting straight lines and white lines. Thinking back to ‘Queer Phenomenology’ and the “I can” associated with motility. Depletion seems to suggest a store of psychic, physical and emotional energy to deplete. Whereas, I start from already depleted

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  9. Reblogged this on Somali Womanhood and commented:
    A great essay on the emotional toll that diversity work inflicts on people of color, especially if you’re not protected by privilege.

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  23. Leah says:

    Yesterday I was in an intensive course, on the fifth of ten, 7-hour days. The lecturer announced that she would delay the lecture so that people could take a break. A few students walked out to the restroom and I laid down by my desk, by my service dog, out of the way of traffic, to calm my dizziness and headache and close my eyes – still listening and awake. “While we’re waiting, let’s talk about X,” suggested the instructor after about one breath, and she started a discussion of a previous topic. I listened.
    As the instructor led the discussion, she walked from the front of the classroom to standing right next to me at the back of the room. Then, in the middle of a sentence, she declared “OH!” drawing the class’s attention to where I lay attentively. “I just had this image of stepping right on your face!” Then instead of moving back to the front of the room, or even moving one step away, she continued leading the discussion (that was really a break?) from the same spot. I began to boil inside, but I couldn’t articulate why until I read this piece. Thank you.

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  25. Anne V. says:

    Thank you for articulating this, that I have often felt, and not before had words for.

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  38. Reblogged this on Dangerous Meredith and commented:
    I am sharing this blog because it is so beautifully written and contains powerful insights for anyone pondering diversity and inclusion within their organisation.

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