I hope this year to begin working on my book Living a Feminist Life in (relative) earnest. Feminism is where I deposit so much of my own hope and energy, and it will be interesting to reflect on this depositing as a life question. For me, feminism is how I live my life: it is about the kind of relationships I have, or hope to have, especially with women; it is about the worlds I am involved in bringing about. Feminism for me includes a project of making a world in which women (those who travel under the sign ‘women’) can relate to each other rather than being understood in relation to men. It is a project because we are not there yet.
I also hope in Living a Feminist Life to develop my concept of ‘sweaty concepts’ (see here). I want to explore how we generate new concepts by thinking from and with our own experiences of being feminists. Some of these experiences are about living the consequences of describing ourselves as feminists. I was a lecturer in Women’s Studies for the first 10 years of my academic career. I used to listen to how people responded to Women’s Studies, both within and outside the academy. It gave me lots of opportunity to hear how feminism is heard: responses would be mocking (‘ah is that where you teach women how to iron the clothes’; ‘ah you can study anything in universities these days’, ‘oh can I take the course, I fancy a bit of that’) to hostile (‘oh a bunch of man hating lesbians’) and every now and then curious (‘oh there is such a thing? Women’s Studies?’).
Picking up the pieces of curiosity is a feminist gift. But you also have to work out how to handle the mocking and hostile responses. And when I am thinking of living a feminist life one of the things I am thinking of is feminism as a handle or handling: a way of dealing with what comes up, which is often the same kinds of sexism that led us on the way to becoming feminists in the first place. And by sexism we are talking certainly about attitudes and norms that are about undermining women as well as how these attitudes and norms are discriminatory, how they make spaces such as universities less open and less available to those subjects who are addressed in this way. The understanding of such attitudes and norms as sedimented institutional practices causes so much resistance and hostility. For many women being in certain kinds of spaces means being sexualised or diminished often by or in casual modes of address, such that when you point it out, you are the one who become the problem because you are ‘taking it too seriously’, because you re-describe what is often justified as just banter as discriminatory.
Feminism: what we need to handle the consequences of being feminist. I learnt very quickly how feminists are assigned the status of difficult people, and how that assignment carries an institutional weight. This is what the figure of the feminist killjoy teaches us. It is not only that you are caught up in tense situations but that you become the cause of tension. There is often a social agreement around causality: if you affect some in a negative way, you become the source of negativity not just for them but for others who agree with them. You can inherit an agreement. This is how there can be an expectation that you will be difficult before you even arrive into a situation. The killjoy is often judged to be difficult in advance of what she says, such that whatever she says, she is heard as making things difficult for herself as well for others. I have learnt so much from the difficulties of being assigned difficult!
Elsewhere I have simplified this claim:
Rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy
Of course, sometimes you do fulfil an expectation not by being difficult as such (difficulty is a relation, it is hard to do it or be it on your own) but by saying the kinds of things they expect you to say: you might be talking about a film, and you need to say, as a feminist you are compelled to say something about problem of sexism. (I and some of my feminist friends had feminist killjoy moments with family over the film, Kramer vs Kramer, about how the mother becomes demonised: did you?). So you say it; you make that point. And then: the noise, the noise! ‘Oh can’t you just let us enjoy this lovely sweet film’; ‘you are always looking for problems etc.’ Just to bring such issues up is to get in the way of other people’s enjoyment. The enjoyment is reaffirmed as ‘innocent.’ It is as if these problems are not there until you point them out; it is as if pointing them out makes them there.
These are difficult moments. But they do not prepare you for the difficulties of being in feminist spaces and still encountering the problem of being the problem. It can be difficult to have experience of being a feminist killjoy in the world and then to become part of feminism and be perceived as killing feminist joy! And this is how many women of colour experience feminist spaces. When you talk about whiteness, or mention race or racism as structuring your own experience, you get in the way of an occupation. You are accused of hurting white women’s feelings, and of causing divisions because you talking about divisions. Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Sunera Thobani, Aileen Moreton-Robinson have taught me to think about the figure of the angry black woman, or the angry woman of colour, or the angry indigenous woman, as another kind of killjoy. And I am also thinking here of the recent contributions of Mikki Kendall, Flavia Dzodan, Suey Park, and Reni Eddo-Lodge as well as other black women and women of colour who are involved in the difficult and risky work of pointing out issues of whiteness and racism within feminism in social media. There are consequences to making these kinds of points. We live these consequences.
And as feminists most of the time we do not inhabit feminist spaces, which is probably why encountering the same problems in feminist spaces that we encounter in the world at large is so exhausting. And depressing: the walls come up in the places we go to feel less depleted by walls. Perhaps part of the difficulty of pointing out how power operates within feminism to structure who has access to feminist spaces is that those points are received by those who have more power. And that is quite a reception: you end up challenging people’s self-perception of themselves as critical of power.
I am returning to the issue of ‘criticality’ I discussed in my last blog post of 2013. When individuals or institutions identify themselves as being critical (or radical or progressive) they can not see how they are implicated in the problem. Indeed there is a curious modality here: critical whiteness, for example, can be a form of whiteness that recognises itself, but by recognising itself, does not see itself as whiteness in quite the same way, given that whiteness is often reproduced by not being recognised. Even recognising oneself as being something can be an implicit claim not to be the thing one recognises oneself as being. And I mean implicit: not being the thing one recognises oneself as being is often not articulated but becomes instead an impression or at most a sensibility (of having done something, achieved something: this is why ‘noticing’ whiteness is often about being noticed noticing). I explored some of the paradoxes that follow when institutions recognise their whiteness or racism in On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012).
It might be important then to think about how being reflexive or critical about something allows the reproduction of that thing. I have noticed this in recent anti-feminist writings: when the writer makes an acknowledgement of sexism as structuring their experiences in order to move on quickly: the acknowledgment becomes what I call an ‘overing technique,’ you acknowledge in order to move on. [Apologies can often work like this: when a person, sometimes on behalf of an institution or nation apologise about x in order to put x behind them, as if the apology is sufficient to overcome what is being apologised for, as I discussed in my chapter, ‘Shame Before Others’ in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004)]. And in ‘moving on’ what is recognised is often reduced: as if sexism is a matter of bind spots or a form of individual privilege that once acknowledged is somehow resolved. To challenge such speech acts of noticing/recognising power is not only to imply that power is not made over by being acknowledged but also to suggest that to be critical of power can be a way of holding onto power. You can hold on by the appearance of giving up.
I think the ways in which ‘pointing out sexism or racism’ becomes heard as injurious is an expression of this problem: your critiques are heard as causing injury to someone’s reputation for being feminist/anti-racist/radical etc, as upsetting their feelings, even as being mean because you have failed to acknowledge their work, what they have given up, their political commitments, and so on. In this situation even using words like ‘racism’ become heard as injurious not to those that have experienced racism but to those that hear this word as an accusation. This is how racism becomes heard as an injury to white people; sexism as an injury to men, and so on.
I think there is an assumption that any project of radical transformation requires fostering positive identities for those involved in that project (where this positivity is re-attached to progressive political agendas). I have encountered this assumption in relation to the role of white activists in anti-racism. Whiteness Studies has been written about as if one of its primary tasks is to foster a positive progressive white identity. Ruth Frankenberg, for example, argued that if whiteness is emptied out of any content other than its association with racism or capitalism ‘this leaves progressive whites apparently without any genealogy’ (1997: 232). I should note here that Ruth Frankenberg’s work has been hugely important: offering us a feminist and critical geography of whiteness that attends to the complex ways in which white women negotiate whiteness in time and in space (see Frankenberg 1993). But the implication of this particular argument is in my view somewhat unfortunate. It assumes the subjects of Whiteness Studies are ‘progressive whites,’ and that the task of Whiteness Studies is to provide such subjects with a genealogy. Kincheloe and Steinberg make this point directly when they comment on: ‘the necessity of creating a positive, proud, attractive antiracist white identity’(1998: 12). The most astonishing aspect of this list of adjectives (positive, proud, attractive, antiracist) is that ‘antiracism’ becomes just another white attribute. Anti-racism becomes a discourse of white pride.
One wonders what happens to bad feeling in this performance of good, happy whiteness. If bad feeling is partly an effect of racism (rather than its origin) and racism is accepted as ongoing in the present (rather than what happened in the past), then who gets to feel bad about racism? One suspects that happy whiteness, even when this happiness is about anti-racism, is what allows racism to remain the burden of racialised others. Indeed, I suspect that bad feelings of racism are projected onto the bodies of unhappy racist whites, which allows progressive whites to be happy with themselves in the face of continued racism towards racialised others. To be a killjoy in whiteness studies would be to refuse to affirm this critical progressive white subject. We might even suggest that critical progressive white subjects are no less occupying of space, or that being critical of whiteness is another way of occupying whiteness.
How does this discussion relate to the figure of the feminist killjoy? She too could be understood as a kind of projection: from her we learn how unhappiness is located in the bodies of those who challenge where happiness is located. But we might also need to think as well about the risks of affirming the killjoy; we might become cautious about the joy of claiming a community of killjoys. The figure of the killjoy is not a figure then we can assume we somehow always are: even when we recognise ourselves in that figure, even when she is so compelling, even when we are energized by her. We might in assuming we are the killjoys, not notice how others become killjoys to us, getting in the way of our own happiness, becoming obstacles to a future we are reaching for.
Activism might need us to involve losing confidence in ourselves, letting ourselves recognise how we too can be the problem. And that is hard if we have a lifetime of being the problem.
Frankenberg R. (1993) White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
________ (1997), ‘Introduction: Local Whiteness, Localising Whiteness,’ in
R. Frankenberg (ed) Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism.Durham: Duke University Press.
Kincheloe, J.L and Steinberg, S.R (1998). ‘Addressing the Crisis of Whiteness: Reconfiguring White Identity in a Pedagogy of Whiteness,’ in J. L. Kincheloe, S. R Steinberg,. N. M Rodriguez,.and R. E Chennault (eds) White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America.New York: St. Martin’s Press.