A Sinking Feeling

I have been thinking about how we tend to feel norms most acutely when we do not quite inhabit them. It is a feeling of discomfort, a fidgety feeling. Comfort can be a feeling that we might not even consciously feel. Things recede if we recede. I first wrote about comfort and discomfort in my chapter, “Queer Feelings,” from The Cultural Politics of Emotion (first edition 2004, second edition forthcoming 2014). I was interested in how social norms become affective in time. Here are some passages from that chapter:

It is important to consider how heterosexuality functions powerfully not simply as a series of norms and ideals, but also through emotions that shape bodies as well as worlds: hetero/norms are investments, which are ‘taken on’ and ‘taken in’ by subjects. It is no accident that compulsory heterosexuality works powerfully in the most casual modes of conversation: one asks, “do you have a boyfriend?”(to a girl), or one asks, “do you have a girlfriend” (to a boy). Queers know the tiredness of making corrections and departures, very well; the pressure of this insistence, this presumption, this demand that asks either for a “passing over’”(a moment of passing, which is not always available) or for direct or indirect forms of self-revelation (“but actually, he’s a she” or “she’s a he”  or just saying “she” instead of “he” or “he” instead of “she” at the “obvious” moment). No matter how ‘out’ you may be, how (un)comfortably queer you may feel, those moments of interpellation get repeated over time, and can be experienced as a bodily injury; moments which position queer subjects as failed in their failure to live up to the “hey you too” of heterosexual self-narration. The everydayness of compulsory heterosexuality is also its affectiveness, wrapped up as it is with moments of ceremony (birth, marriage, death) that bind families together, and with the ongoing investment in the sentimentality of friendship and romance. Of course, such a sentimentality is deeply embedded with public as well as private culture; stories of heterosexual romance proliferate as a matter of human interest. As Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner argue, “National heterosexuality is the mechanism by which a core national culture can be imagined as a sanitised space of sentimental feeling” (2000: 313).

We can consider the sanitised space as a comfort zone. Normativity is comfortable for those who can inhabit it. The word “comfort” suggests well-being and satisfaction, but it also suggests an ease and an easiness. To follow the rules of heterosexuality is to be at ease in a world that reflects back the couple form one inhabits as an ideal. Of course, one can be made to feel uneasy by one’s inhabitance of an ideal. One can be made uncomfortable by one’s own comforts. To see heterosexuality as an ideal that one might or might not follow – or to be uncomfortable by the privileges one is given by inhabiting a heterosexual world – is a less comforting form of comfort. But comfort it remains and comfort is very hard to notice when one experiences it. Think of how it feels to be comfortable: say you are sinking into a comfortable chair. Note I already have transferred how a body is affected to the object (“it is comfortable”). But comfort is about the fit between body and object: my comfortable chair maybe awkward for you, with your differently shaped body. Comfort is about an encounter between more than one body; the promise of a “sinking” feeling. To be comfortable is to be so at ease with one’s environment that it is hard to distinguish where one’s body ends and the world begins.

Heteronormativity function as a form of public comfort by allowing bodies to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape. Those spaces are lived as comfortable as they allow bodies to fit in; the surfaces of social space are already impressed upon by the shape of such bodies (like a chair that acquires its shape by the repetition of some bodies inhabiting it: we can almost see the shape of bodies as ‘impressions’ on the surface).  Spaces extend bodies and bodies extend spaces; the impressions acquired by surfaces function as traces of such extensions. As Gill Valentine has argued, the “heterosexualisation” of public spaces such as streets is naturalised by the repetition of different forms of heterosexual conduct (images on billboards, music played, displays of heterosexual intimacy etc.), a process which goes unnoticed by heterosexual subjects (1996: 49).  Streets record the repetition of acts, and the passing by of some bodies and not others.

Heteronormativity also becomes a form of comforting: one feels better by the warmth of being faced by a world one has already taken in. One does not notice this as a world when one has been shaped by that world, and even acquired its shape. Norms may not only have a way of disappearing from view, but may also be that which we do not consciously feel. Queer subjects, when faced by the comforts of heterosexuality may feel uncomfortable (the body does not “sink into” a space that has already taken its shape).  Furthermore, queer subjects may also be asked not to make heterosexuals feel uncomfortable, by not displaying any signs of queer intimacy. The availability of comfort for some bodies may depend on the labour of others, and the burden of concealment.  Comfort may operate as a form of ‘feeling fetishism’: some bodies can have comfort only as an effect of the work of others, where the work itself is concealed from view.

In The Promise of Happiness I refer very briefly to how comfort becomes a form of political labour:

Consider Ama Ata Aidoo’s wonderful prose poem, Our Sister Killjoy, where the narrator Sissie, as a black woman, has to work to sustain the comfort of others. On a plane, a white hostess invites her to sit at the back with “her friends”, two black people she does not know. She is about to say that she does not know them, and hesitates. ‘But to have refused to join them would have created an awkward situation, wouldn’t it? Considering too that apart from the air hostess’s obviously civilized upbringing, she had been trained to see the comfort of all her passengers” (1977: 10).

Power speaks here in this moment of hesitation. Do you go along with it? What does it mean not to go along with it? To create awkwardness is to be read as being awkward. Maintaining public comfort requires that certain bodies “go along with it”. To refuse to go along with it  would be to be seen as trouble, as causing discomfort for others.

In my most recent book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012) I discussed how whiteness can operate as a form of public comfort developing some of the arguments I made in the chapter, “The Orient and Other Others” from Queer Phenomenology (2004):

The word “comfort” suggests well-being and satisfaction, but it can also suggest an ease and easiness. Comfort is about an encounter between bodies and worlds, the promise of a “sinking” feeling. If white bodies are comfortable it is because they can sink into spaces that extend their shape.  To inhabit whiteness as a non-white body can be uncomfortable: you might even fail the comfort test. It can be the simple act of walking into the room that causes discomfort. Whiteness can be an expectation of who will turn up. A person of color describes: “When l 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”. 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, by being seamless or minimizing the signs of difference. If whiteness is what the institution is orientated around, then even bodies that do not appear white still have to inhabit whiteness. One person of color describes how she minimizes signs of difference (by not wearing anything perceived as “ethnic”) because she does not want to be seen as “rocking the boat”. The invitation to become more alike as an invitation of whiteness is about becoming more comfortable or about inhabiting a comfort zone.

Bodies stick out when they are out of place.  Think of the expression “stick out like a sore thumb.” To stick out can mean to become a sore point, or even to experience oneself as being a sore point. To inhabit whiteness as a not-white body can mean trying not to appear at all: ‘I have to pretend that l am not here because l don’t want to stick out too much because everybody knows l am the only black person here. When you stick out, the gaze sticks to you. Sticking out from whiteness can thus re-confirm the whiteness of the space. Whiteness is an effect of what coheres rather than the origin of coherence. The effect of repetition is not then simply about a body count: it is not simply a matter of how many bodies are in. Rather what is repeated is a very style of embodiment, a way of inhabiting space, which claims space by the accumulation of gestures of “sinking” into that space.  If whiteness allows some bodies to move with comfort, to inhabit that space as home, then those bodies take up more space.

It might seem problematic to describe whiteness as something we “pass through.” Such an argument could make whiteness into something substantive, as if whiteness has an ontological force of its own, which compels us, and even “drives” action. It is important to remember that whiteness is not reducible to white skin, or even to something we can have or be, even if we pass through whiteness.  When we talk about a “sea of whiteness” or “white space” we are talking about the repetition of the passing by of some bodies and not others. Non-white bodies do inhabit white spaces; we know this. Such bodies are made invisible when spaces appear white, at the same time as they become hyper-visible when they do not pass, which means they “stand out” and “stand apart.” You learn to fade in the background, but sometimes you can’t or you don’t.

I have been thinking more about how diversity work (in both senses, see) involves comfort and discomfort.  You have to work to make others comfortable given you have already made them uncomfortable. No wonder diversity work is emotional work! Here is the full quote I refer to in passing above:

 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.

Some forms of difference are heard as assertive, as “rocking the boat.”   Some forms of difference become legible as willfulness and obstinacy, as if you are only different because you are insistent (on being different). The pressure not to “assert your culture” is lived as a demand to pass and to integrate 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.

Racism often works by identifying the arrival of some bodies as the generalisation of discomfort.  We can identify these same mechanisms at a national level. Take for example Jack Straw’s comments about the burqa made when he was British Home Secretary back in 2006.   He suggested that the burqa made him feel uncomfortable, and that the failure of the covered woman to show her face was a refusal to communicate. When defending his comments to a Muslim woman he said, “If we bumped into each other in the street, you would be able to say hello to me. I would not be able to do the same. The obvious reason is that I cannot see your face. Chance conversations make society stronger.” The Muslim woman becomes the stranger; she prohibits the capacity to say hello, as a happily weak signifier of social solidarity. We might say that the Muslim woman is constituted as unfriendly, as refusing the very grounds of friendship. Her difference becomes the blockage point; the point where communication stops. Note also how discomfort becomes the basis of a political demand: for the white body to be comfortable, others must unveil.

More recently an article in The Guardian reports: Cameron will warn that immigrants unable to speak English or unwilling to integrate have created a ‘kind of discomfort and disjointedness’ that has disrupted communities across Britain.”[i] Those unwilling to integrate dislocate the national body, causing discomfort. To make others uncomfortable is to cause disruption. This is how the citizenship duty can become a comfort duty: you have to work to make others comfortable by minimizing the signs of difference.

Antiracist work could be described as a politics of discomfort. This is not to say that we aim to make others uncomfortable but that discomfort might be a consequence of what we aim for:  after all to challenge whiteness is to get in the way of an occupation of space. Sometimes, we might even use comfort as a technique. Some diversity practitioners described to me how they use words such as “diversity” because they are more comfortable words. To use more comfortable words can be a way of getting people to your table. Once people are seated, you can then use more confronting words such as “whiteness” and “racism.”

But of course, sometimes no matter what we say, no matter what we do, we already cause discomfort. The figure of angry woman of colour – as feminist killjoy and as killer of feminist joy – reminds us how discomfort involves explanations as well as expectations: discomfort is explained as caused by such-and-such body (in the context of feminist rooms, this such-and-such is often the brown or black feminist body) such that she is expected to cause discomfort before she even arrives.

One political strategy is to fulfil that expectation; to make what we cause part of our cause. bell hooks describes how one version of Sisterhood is that the “white ‘lady’ (bourgeois woman) should be protected from all that might upset and discomfort her and shielded from negative realities that might lead to confrontation” (2000: 46). Whatever strategies we use, as feminists of colour, we cannot avoid confrontation without also avoiding dealing with the realities of racism. We might have to risk becoming known as confrontational.

A risk is also a potential. Reflecting back on my own writing on comfort and discomfort, I have found one optimistic moment about discomfort. It is from Queer Phenomenology, when I am reflecting on having a mixed as well as queer genealogy.  I am going to end here with this “optimism of discomfort.”

I would say that the experience of having a mixed genealogy is a rather queer way of beginning, insofar as it provides a different “angle” on how whiteness itself gets reproduced.  Whiteness is proximate; it is a “part” of your background. And yet, you do not inherit what whiteness, you do not inherit what is behind you. You can feel the categories that you fail to inhabit: they are sources of discomfort. Comfort is a feeling that tends not to be consciously felt, as I suggested in the previous section. You sink. When you don’t sink, when you fidget and move around, then what is in the background becomes in front of you, as a world that is gathered in a specific way. Discomfort in other words, allows things to move. Every experience I have had of pleasure and excitement about a world opening up has begun with such ordinary feelings of discomfort, of not quite fitting in a chair, of becoming unseated, of being left holding onto the ground. So yes, if we start with the body that loses its chair, the world we describe will be quite different.



Aidoo, Ama Ata (1997). Our Sister Killjoy. Harlow: Longman.

Berlant, L. and Warner, M. (2000). ‘Sex in Public’ in Berlant, Lauren (ed), Intimacy,

University of Chicago Press.

hooks, b. (2000). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre. London: Pluto Press.

Valentine, G. (1996). ‘(Re)Negotiating the Heterosexual Street” in N. Duncan Body Space: Destabilising Geographies of Gender and Sexuality. London: Routledge.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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5 Responses to A Sinking Feeling

  1. zyprexian says:

    Wow, a lot to digest here. And a lot to comment on.

    Let’s start with heteronormativity as comfort.

    I absolutely and wholeheartedly agree with this idea of heteronormativity setting itself up as synonymous with originality and authenticity. Is this not how the closet is phenomenologically constructed? The idea that you have to “come out” implies that being “in” the metaphorical closet (with its implications of claustrophobia) that your previous experience was some kind of hollow imitation, a kind phantasmatic puppetry. Without the assumption of heteronormativity, the foundations on which the closet is constructed falters. Without heteronormativity, queers would no longer need to “come out” because this phenomenological “out” and “in” no longer factors in the equation you quite simply just exist. Now I do think there’s been a sleight of hand here – and it has a lot to do with the politics you’ve talked about. Heterosexuality has a compulsion to exist in such a way where it erases any trace of its binary opposition in some kind of triumphant dialectic. This is very counter intuitive. I think of Levi Strauss and the “raw and cooked” in the sense that you cannot conceptualise something is raw without implying its relative other. I don’t strictly think this has to be a binary opposite as this has dangerous implications for gender and sexuality with only two valid categories available. I feel more at ease referring to it as an amorphous other that isn’t necessarily implied in a hierarchical binary (which allows room for medians and a sense of scaling).

    I completely agree with you on optimistic discomfort. I feel as though even feeling comfortable in one’s own categorisation just opens up room for discrimination and intolerance “I’m comfortable in my own box, why aren’t you in my box?” is the subtext when we bring in ideas of comfort. I fall more in line with Butler in this regard that we should *all* collectively feel dislodged and discomforted with categorisation.That’s because by definition, categories surrounding gender and sexuality assimilate what “is” and what “isnt” allowed in terms of conduct and representation that then creates the politics of comfort and discomfort that you described. Those ideas surrounding political correctness and even “gender correctness” should be traced to their subjective genesis – that of there being a category to argue over in the first place. What we should do is erase the board and start fresh. When we attempt to construct an idea of what heterosexuality is, or what homosexuality is, we almost short-circuit because everyone is going to approach it differently and the semantic weight of what we are attempting to define is too much for language to bear. To draw a political parallel, an ongoing distrust and critical attitude towards the system is going to necessarily benefit us, because the system is by definition, destructive, exploitative and corrupt. This “system” in the queer sense I believe is the creation of contingent categories and the subsequent “obligation” to follow that version, whether it be queer or otherwise.

    As to whiteness and cultural correctness

    I have a huge sinking feeling regarding this, because there seems to be no end to it. At least in the UK, there is a visible “whiteness” which is both the sensibilities of whiteness but the actual white people too. In a way we have a tangible whiteness to struggle with. Thing is, I have a particular interest in how this whiteness is approached abroad. One really striking story is Dencia, a nigerian celebrity who released “Whitenicious” a skin bleaching product that apparently is flying off the shelves so fast that they’re finding it hard to restock.


    The before and after pictures are particularly striking as well as her actual interview defending the product (a ripe opportunity for deconstructionist analysis).

    My friend who travelled to Japan and is fluent in japanese informed me that the Japanese even have a word for fair skin as beauty. I believe the word is “mashirou” but will have to double check. But the translation is roughly “the one with whiteness” which in a sentence would imply someone’s extreme beauty as a result of their skin colour.

    And being Pakistani myself there is the glaringly obvious reverence for fair skin in Desi culture.

    I really wonder where these anxieties come from. Especially in countries where there isn’t at least, a visible white population. How does this issue of whiteness become so important in so many countries? What is its genesis? And how does it disseminate so easily?

    Regarding the Muslim woman,

    This is a really tricky one because Muslim women in particular are inhabiting a symbolic space that does not do them any favours. I’m actually more inclined to take this in a feminist angle, and say that it’s not just issues around language and culture, but the fact that the Muslim woman as symbol resists signification in a sexual sense. She is not, and never will be integrated in society because her aesthetic contradicts the other dominant aesthetic of expression and bodily marketing. She causes discomfort because resists the native classification of that which surrounds her. People find it perplexing or repressive. There’s certainly arguments to go each way. But the rupturing of politically correct space opens alternative gaps (though small they may be) for discussion. While I do think we’re making progress regarding religious expression, steps towards grasping with whiteness feel like they’re just going backwards :(.

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