Black feminism as Life-Line

The presentation copied below was from a Black feminist event that took place in 2012 at the Trafford Rape Crisis Centre ( It was an extraordinary event for me, one of the very few events that I have been to where I did not look out and encounter a “sea of whiteness” and it was probably at this event that I realised I needed to speak more to different audiences: ie not just speak at academic conferences! There was such an energy in the room. We can be connected by what we come up against.

Some of these talks go over similar material. Some things are worth going over, I hope. I suspect that I’m making the same points, over and over again, rather insistently. Or as one diversity practitioner said to me, “we have to keep saying it because they keep doing it.”

Presentation ‘On Being the Problem,’ Declaring the Activism of Black Feminist Theory Convention,’ March 9 2012

Sara Ahmed

 Introduction: Life-Lines

I am thinking of those moments when a life line is thrown out to you. Sometimes we only know such a moment has happened after it has happened; the moment when what was given to you was what gave you a chance, a breathing space.  A life line can be anything or perhaps it is always something: the quiet words of an encouraging friend, an unexpected alliance with a stranger, the sounds of a familiar landscape, or of an unfamiliar one; it can be a revelation that comes to you when you are seated quietly trying to escape from the busyness of a world; or it can be when you are caught up in the buzz of a pressing intense sociality and are caught out by a thought. A life-line can be the words sent out by a writer, gathered in the form of a book, words that you hang on to, that can pull you out of an existence, which can, perhaps later, on another day, pull you into a more liveable world. That’s what it was for like for me, reading Audre Lorde’s words, gathered as poems, in prose, the essays collected in Sister Outsider, her memoir Zami. What was it about you Audre that allowed your words to reach me?  This presentation is a discussion of the reach of Black feminism, how in describing what it is like to be the problem, we can become the problem we cause. This presentation is me at my most optimistic: trying to think through what it means, and what it can do, to turn towards rather than the away from the worlds that make it difficult for us to exist. I want to dedicate this paper to all those Black feminists who taught me this: who taught me to turn towards a difficulty even if that turning seems to make life, at least in the first instance, more difficult.

But why focus on being the problem? How can making a life difficult, by accounting for the difficulty of a life, be optimistic? I am of course in having this focus inheriting a focus. Black writers have shown us over generations how the experience of racism is the experience of being the problem.  Du Bois taught us that the “real question” is “How does it feel to be a problem” (2003: 8). Du Bois is writing specifically of the experience of black folk in a country shaped by the historical present of slavery. We need to attend to this specificity. At the same time, this sense of “being the problem” comes up again and again as a reference point for making sense of the senses of racism.  Philomena Essed for instance, explores how the discourse of discrimination makes those who experience discrimination into the problem: “they not only have a problem, they also become a problem for others” (1996: 71). When those who experience racism are treated as the problem, then racism does not become the problem. If to talk about racism is to be heard as making rather than describing the problem, then to talk about racism is to become the problem you pose.  And it is this becoming the problem we cause that is for me the grounds for optimism.


I want to begin by turning to the figure of the stranger. Well maybe not quite with this figure. I first have to get there. I think one the of the strengths of Black feminism has been the willingness to give an account of our histories, not simply as histories of this or that person, of ourselves as persons, but as institutional histories of inhabiting worlds that do not take your body as the norm. It took a long time for me, I would say, to get to the point where I could even describe how race and racism had structured my own world. I was brought up in Australia in a very white neighbourhood. I went to a very white school (is there something very “very” about whiteness). There was just a few of us of colour; we didn’t quite know what to do with each other, even though we knew we had something to do with each other. I had a white English mother, and a brown Pakistani father who had kind of let go or almost let go of his own history in order to give us children a chance in the new world. We had no Pakistani friends, but there was an occasional visit to Pakistan, and visits from Pakistani aunties. But they were occasional, fleeting moments, ones that did not leave me with a possibility I could grasp.  I went to a very white school (is there
something very “very” about whiteness?). There were just a few of us of colour;
we didn’t quite know what to do with each other, even though we knew we had
something to do with each other. I was brown, visibly different but with no real account of that difference; no real sense of where it or I was coming from.  I kept feeling wrong, being treated as in the wrong, but I did not know what was wrong. Something was wrong. How to acquire the words for this something?

Much later, when writing my PhD on the relatively safe topic of feminist theory and postmodernism (not on race, I was not ready for race) I recalled an experience I had when I was 14 years old, walking close to home, along a street in Adelaide.  Two policemen in a car pulled up next to me: one asked ‘Are you Aboriginal?’ the other one quipped, ‘or is it just a sun tan’. It was an extremely hostile address, and it was an unsettling experience at the time. It was an experience of being made into a stranger, the one who is recognised as “out of place,” as the one who does not belong, whose proximity is registered as crime or threat.  The racialization of the stranger is not immediately apparent, disguised we might say, by the strict anonymity of the stranger who after all, we are told from childhood, could be anyone.  My stranger memory taught me that the “could be anyone” points to some bodies more than others. This “could be anyone” thus only seems to be an open possibility, stretching out into a horizon, in which the stranger appears as the one who is always lurking in the shadows.  Frantz Fanon (1986) taught us to watch out for what lurks, seeing himself in and as the shadow, the dark body, who is always passing by at the edges of social experience. In detecting the stranger, we are most certainly detecting someone; in some cases, we are detecting ourselves.

In some cases, we are detecting ourselves.  When I read Audre Lorde’s account of racism on the subway in New York City, on her way to Harlem in Sister Outsider I was of course reading an account of a place and a time I did not inhabit. But there was so much I recognised from her description. She remembers a white woman in a fur hat, staring at her. She remembers how as a child she looks down at herself, wondering if there is something on her coat that can explain the white woman’s horrified reaction. What does it do to oneself to look to oneself to explain a horrified reaction: to ask oneself: Is there a roach between us? And then: or is it me? Am I the roach the forces her to move away?  Stranger danger: to be recognised as a stranger as to become the cause of the other’s fright. Stranger danger: to become a stranger as to inherit the fright you are assumed to cause.

And then in Zami, when Audre Lorde shares with us another memory, a memory of people spitting at her in the streets, I understood something. An experience of racism can involve the loss of the words to explain what is going on. It was a memory of her mother explaining to her that people were spitting into the wind because they were ill-mannered and rude, because the mother wants to protect her black child from the knowledge that those people are spitting at her, because she is a black child. I understood something. I understood that racism can be what happens right in front of us – in the direction of violence towards some of us – but also that we learn not to see it.  We might learn not to see racism as a way of being protecting from racism: but of course we are not protected. We might not learn the word ‘racism’ or learn not to say that word ‘racism’ as if by not saying it, it might go away. Not naming racism as if racism is not going-on keeps racism on-going. This is why, in naming racism, we are always doing something. We need to find the words.  Black feminism can be a way of finding the words.

Institutional Whiteness

Working at an institution or walking down a street can mean inhabiting whiteness. It can be tiring, all that whiteness. Sometimes you only realise how tired you are when you leave a situation that is tiring. It is because all that whiteness is so tiring that we need spaces like these, events like these, which can allow us to take a break from whiteness. A black feminist event can be a life line. Just being in a sea of brownness can be such a relief.

We might need some relief if we are to make whiteness an object of our collective thought. Let’s think about institutional whiteness. Institutions are spaces in which some bodies more than others are at home. Institutions create strangers, as well as establish a direction towards them; those bodies who are recognised as out of place, as not belonging. I want to draw now from a project I completed on diversity work and diversity workers in educational institutions (including higher education, further education and adult and community learning) with a team of colleagues based at Lancaster. I mean diversity workers here in two senses.  A diversity worker can be someone appointed by institutions with an explicit aim of transforming and diversifying them (which might include being appointed by an institution or being appointed onto a diversity committee or equality task-force); or a diversity worker might be someone who does not quite inhabit the norms of an institution.  People of color are often diversity workers in both senses, although the both can be obscured: given institutions take whiteness as their somatic norm, we are assumed to be diversity, to add color; and because we are assumed to be diversity we are often given the task of doing diversity, as if this doing is an expression of our being.  As Nirmal Puwar has noted diversity has come “overwhelmingly to mean the inclusion of people who look different” (2004: 1). The very idea that diversity is about those who “look different” shows us how diversity can keep whiteness in place. If diversity becomes something that is added to organizations, like color, then it confirms the whiteness of the already in place.

It is certainly the case that the languages of diversity are increasingly used by institutions. The language of diversity certainly appears in official statements (from mission statements, to equality policy statements, in brochures, as taglines); and as a repertoire of images (collages of smiling faces of different colours: how important that these images are instantly recognisable as images of diversity!). We might even conclude that there has been an institutional will to diversity. And yet, a common expression that came up in a number of my interviews was of the institution as a wall.  As one practitioner describes “so much of the time it is a banging your head on the brick wall job.”   How interesting that a job description is a wall description! The feeling of doing diversity work is the feeling of coming up against something that does not move; something solid and tangible.  The institution becomes that which you come up against. The official will to diversity does not mean that institution is opened up; indeed, the wall might become all the more apparent, all the more a sign of immobility, the more the institution presents itself as being opened up. This wall describes something very difficult for diversity workers, something even more than the tangibility of institutional resistance to change. For those who don’t come up against it, the wall simply does not appear: the institutions seems committed and diverse, as happy as its mission statement, as willing as its equality statement.

Diversity can be offered as a happier view of the organisation, one that can entice us to take part.  Diversity as a viewing point can be a way of not seeing walls: don’t you know you are welcome?  Come in, come in! A commitment to diversity translates into a speech act sometimes made explicit as tagline, sometimes not:  “minorities welcome.”  Diversity is offered as invitation: a way of inviting people of colour to become part, to add color to the body of the institution.  What does it mean for the participation of some to be dependent on an invitation?  People of color in white organizations are treated as guests, temporary residents in someone else’s home.  People of color are welcomed on condition they integrate into a common organizational culture, or by “being” diverse, and allowing institutions to celebrate diversity.  We are asked to smile, to ease the burden of our arrival. If we are cross, if we talk about walls, we would be heard as very ungrateful.

To be welcomed into whiteness does not necessarily mean they expect you to turn up. What happens when a person of color turns up?  Oh how noticeable we are in the sea of whiteness : “When I enter the room there is shock on peoples’ faces because they are expecting a white person to come in. I pretend not to recognize it. But in the interview there is unease because they were not expecting someone like me to turn up. So it is hard and uncomfortable and l can tell that they are uneasy and restless because of the way they fiddle and twitch around with their pens and their looks. They are uncomfortable because they were not expecting me – perhaps they would not have invited me if they knew l was black and of course l am very uncomfortable. l am wondering whether they are entertaining any prejudice against me” (Ahmed 2012: 40-41) They are not expecting you. Discomfort involves this failure to fit. A restlessness and uneasiness, a fidgeting and twitching, is a bodily registering of an unexpected arrival.

The body that causes their discomfort (by not fulfilling an expectation of whiteness) is the one who must work hard to make others comfortable. You have to pass by passing your way through whiteness, not by becoming white, but by minimizing the signs of difference.  I think of this labor as a form of “institutional passing.” As a woman of colour describes: “I think with a person of colour there’s always a question of what’s this woman going to turn out like… they’re nervous about appointing people of colour into senior positions….Because if I went in my Sari and wanted prayer time off and started rocking the boat and being a bit different and asserting my kind of culture I’m sure they’d take it differently” (Ahmed 2012: 158). Some forms of difference are heard as assertive, as “rocking the boat.”  Some forms of difference become legible as trouble, as if you are only different in order to cause trouble. The pressure not to “assert your culture” is lived as a demand to pass and to integrate not necessarily by becoming white, but by being more alike. Note how this pressure can be affective:  you experience the potential nervousness as a threat; you try and avoid the nervous glance by not fulfilling its expectation.  Passing can be an attempt to avoid the consequences of being the problem. Sometimes it works; sometimes not.

  Anti-Racism as a Willful Politics

Sometimes we have to fulfil an expectation. Sometimes we have to become the trouble we cause. I want to think of willingness to cause trouble as a politics of willfulness.  Alice Walker defines a womanist in the following way: “A black feminist or feminist of color… Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good’ for one… Responsible. In charge.” (2005, xi, emphasis Walker’s).  Walker gives an emphasis to willful as a primary way of referring to certain kinds of behavior. Willful seems to convey what being a feminist of colour is about.

 Let’s take a typical definition of willfulness: “Let’s take a typical definition of willfulness : “asserting or disposed to assert one’s own will against persuasion, instruction, or command; governed by will without regard to reason; determined to take one’s own way; obstinately self-willed or perverse” (OED).  Being called obstinate and perverse because you are not persuaded by the reasons of others? Is this familiar to you? Have you heard this before? As we can note from this definition, willfulness usually takes the form of charge. Recall the woman who wonders whether wearing a sari will be perceived as rocking the boat. How often people of colour are charged with willfulness, as if we are only different because we are insistent on being different!

Can what we are charged with become a charge in Alice Walker’s sense, a way of being in charge?   If we are charged with willfulness, then we can accept and mobilize this charge.   To accept a charge is not simply to agree with it.  Acceptance can mean being willing to receive.   We could distinguish between willfulness as a character diagnosis (as what is behind an action) and willfulness as the effect of a diagnosis (as what is required to complete an action). You might have to become willful to survive the very diagnosis of being willful. Sometimes you can only stand up by standing firm.  Sometimes you can only hold on by becoming stubborn.

We all know the experience of “going the wrong way” in a crowd. Everyone seems to be going the opposite way than the way you are going. No one person has to push or shove for you to feel the collective momentum of the crowd as a pushing and shoving. For you to keep going you have to push harder than any of those who are going the right way. The body who is “going the wrong way” is the one that is experienced as “in the way” of the will that is acquired as momentum. For some bodies mere persistence, “to continue steadfastly,” requires great effort, an effort that might appear to others as stubbornness or obstinacy, as an insistence on going against the flow. You have to become insistent to go against the flow and you are judged to be going against the flow because you are insistent. A life paradox: you have to become what you are judged as being.  

 Persistence for some requires insistence.  Some have to “insist” on belonging to the categories that give residence to others. Take the category of Professor.  An example: we are at a departmental meeting with incoming students. We are all talking about our own courses, one after the other, each coming up to the podium. Someone is chairing, introducing each of us in turn. She says, this is Professor so-and-so. This is Professor such-and-such. On this particular occasion, I happen to be the only female professor, and the only professor of color in the room (the latter was not surprising as I am the only professor of color in the department). When it is my turn to come up, the Chair says: “This is Sara.” I am the only professor introduced without using the title professor. Diversity work can involve an experience of hesitation, of not knowing what to do in these situations. Do you point it out? Do you say anything? If you do point it out, or if you ask to be referred to by the proper name, you are having to insist on what was simply given to the others; not only that, you heard as insistent, as or even for that matter as self-promotional (as insisting on your dues). We can understand how the judgment of self-will or willfulness falls: some (let’s name this some, white men in this case) do not have to be self-willed as their own will is already accomplished by the general or institutional will. You don’t tend to notice the assistance given to those whose residence is assumed. Not only do you have to become insistent in order to receive what is automatically given to the others but your insistence confirms the improper nature of your residence.

A flow is also an effect of bodies that are going the same way. To go is also to gather. A flow can be an effect of gatherings of all kinds: gatherings of tables, for instance, as kinship objects that support human gatherings. A queer experience: you are left waiting at a table when a straight couple walks into the room and is attended to right away. This might also be a female experience: as if without a man present at the table, you do not appear. For some, you have to become insistent to be the recipient of a social action, you might have to announce your presence, wave your arm, saying: “Here I am!” For others, it is enough just to turn up because you have already been given a place at the table before you take up your place. Willfulness describes the uneven consequences of this differentiation.

Someone said to me once they thought this description reduces queer and feminist politics to self-assertion (“here I am”). But who is heard as assertive? And which acts of will are attributed as self-willed?  We need to become cautious about how self-will is used as dismissal. You do not need to become self-willed if your will is accomplished by the institution.

We notice categories when we come up against them; when they do not allow us to flow through spaces. Things might appear fluid to those who are going the way things are flowing.  An attribution of willfulness also involves the attribution of negative affect to those bodies that get in the way, those bodes that “go against the flow” in the way they are going.  Conversations are also flows; they are saturated.  We hear this saturation as atmosphere.  The willful subject shares an affective horizon with the feminist killjoy as the ones who are getting in the way of the happiness of others. A colleague says to me she just has to open her mouth in meetings to witness eyes rolling as if to say “oh here she goes.”  My experience of being a feminist daughter in a conventional family taught me much about rolling eyes. Say, we are seated at the dinner table. Around this table, the family gathers, having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something you consider problematic. You respond, carefully, perhaps.  You might be speaking quietly; or you might be getting “wound up,” recognising with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up.  However she speaks it is the one who speaks as a feminist who is usually heard as the cause of the trouble, as disturbing the peace (another dinner ruined).

Political forms of consciousness can also be thought of as getting in the way: not only is it difficult to speak about what has receded from view, but you have to be willing to get in the way of that recession. I would certainly describe consciousness of racism as willfulness. It can be willful even to name racism: as if the talk about divisions is what is divisive. Take the figure of the angry black woman explored so well by Audre Lorde and bell hooks.  The angry black woman can be described as a killjoy; she might even kill feminist joy, for example, by pointing out forms of racism within feminist politics. It is as if we talk about racism because we are angry rather than being angry about racism. Women of colour don’t even have to say anything to cause tension. Listen to the following description from bell hooks: “a group of white feminist activists who do not know one another may be present at a meeting to discuss feminist theory. They may feel bonded on the basis of shared womanhood, but the atmosphere will noticeably change when a woman of color enters the room. The white women will become tense, no longer relaxed, no longer celebratory” (2000: 56).

It is not just that feelings are “in tension,” but that the tension is located somewhere: in being felt by some bodies, it is attributed as caused by another body, who thus comes to be felt as apart from the group, as getting in the way of its organic enjoyment and solidarity.  “Turning up” can be diagnosed as willfulness, if your arrival is a reminder of histories that have already been “willed away.” This familiar figure of the angry person of colour hovers in the background: as if just around the corner, waiting for you. You turn up, only to find that figure has got there before you do. She always seems to get there before you can.

We might enter queer space. And oh shit, that figure is already there! How often queers of colour are heard as killjoys: as if talking about racism is what gets in the way of queer happiness. I noted earlier how queers might have to become insistent to be recognised as seated at a table. And yet of course we do have queer tables.  If we talk about racism within queer politics, or if we use words like “gay imperialism” or “homonationalism” introduced by queers of colour scholars such as Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem (2008) and Jasbir Puar (2007), then that talk is heard as what stops us from being seated at that queer table. Ok: let’s take this judgement on: if speaking about racism stops us from being seated, then we won’t be seated. A queer feminist politics of colour might require we refuse to be a seated at any activist or scholarly table that does not permit an attention to racism.

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

We know this: but we still have to live with this. No wonder that an institutional duty can be a happiness duty: a duty not to dwell on negative experiences of racism.  Racism is increasingly heard as an injury to organizations and their reputation as being diverse. No wonder that anti-racism can feel like banging your head on the brick wall. The wall keeps its place, so it is you that gets sore.

To become the sore points can mean doing things with these points. The word racism is sticky. Just saying it does things. Constantly, I am witnessing what the word racism does. I am speaking of racism in a seminar. Someone comes up to me afterwards and puts her arm next to mine. We are almost the same colour, she says. No difference, no difference.  You wouldn’t really know you were any different to me, she says. The very talk about racism becomes a fantasy that invents difference. She smiles, as if the proximity of our arms was evidence that the racism of which I was speaking was an invention, as if our arms told another story. She smiles, as if our arms were in sympathy. I say nothing. Perhaps my arm speaks by withdrawing.

 Racism becomes a willful word: going the wrong way, getting in the way.   When racism recedes from social consciousness, it appears as if the ones who “bring it up” are bringing it into existence. To recede is to go back or withdraw.  To concede is to give way, yield.  People of colour are often asked to concede to the recession of racism: we are asked to “give way” by letting it “go back.” Not only that: more than that. We are often asked to embody a commitment to diversity. We are asked to smile in their brochures.  We are asked to put racism behind us as if racism is behind us.  The narrative often exercised is not necessarily that we “invent racism,” but that we preserve its power to govern social life by not getting over it.  The moral task becomes to get over it, as if when we are over it, it is gone.

I have an alternative: I call it my willfulness maxim. Don’t get over it; if you are not over it.


Ahmed, Sara (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Du Bois, William [1903] (2003). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Barnes and Nobles Classics.

Essed, Philomena (1996). Diversity: Gender, Color and Culture, trans. By Rita Gircour. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Fanon, Frantz [1952] (1986). Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. C. L. Markmann. London: Pluto.


Haritaworn, Jin, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem (2008) “Gay Imperialism: The Role

of  Gender and Sexuality Discourses in the ‘War on Terror,’” in Esperanza Miyake and  Adi Kuntsman (eds.), Out of  Place: Silences in Queerness/Raciality, York: Raw Nerve Books, pp. 9-33.

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

Lorde, Audre (1982). Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. London: Sheba Feminist  Publishers.

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


Puar, Jasbir (2007). Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham:

Duke University Press.

Puwar, Nirmal (2004). Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies out of Place.

Oxford: Berg.

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

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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10 Responses to Black feminism as Life-Line

  1. Michael says:

    ” When racism recedes from social consciousness, it appears as if the ones who “bring it up” are bringing it into existence. To recede is to go back or withdraw. To concede is to give way, yield. People of colour are often asked to concede to the recession of racism: we are asked to “give way” by letting it “go back.””

    Thank you for writing, and sharing this. There is need for insistence. To say the same things over and over again especially when doing the work of unlearning the various isms that we had been ‘learned’.

  2. Thanks Michael: I do think of insistence as political labour!

  3. Thank you for this. So well & vividly explained.

  4. Pingback: Lights, Camera, Fire : Michael

  5. Hasna says:

    C’est si bien dit et écrit. J’en reconnais le vécu. Merci.

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  10. obibinibruni says:

    Funny how the policemen asking you if you were aboriginal implied that aboriginal people did not belong to Australia. I am born and raised in Canada, a settlers colony whose discriminatory policies have been used to model policies such as Apartheid and Australia’s refugee system …It is disgusting how the systems of settlers colonies treat indigenous populations.

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