Being in Question

I am walking down a street in Cardiff. And I am stopped by someone; he is walking the other way. How interested he seems. In what, am I what? “Hey, where are you from?” The question is asked with a smiling curiosity. I shift around on my feet. It’s a familiar question but it is an uncomfortable familiar. I know what the question is asking of me. I resist giving the answer I am being asked to give. “Australia” I say. No, I mean originally. “I was born in Salford.” The questioner’s face creases with irritation. “Where are your parents from then?” He knows I know what he is asking. I give in, wanting to move on. “My father is from Pakistan.” That’s it. The conversation is over. I have given the right answer.  An explanation of where I am from, an account of not being from here, of how I ended up brown.

To be asked to account for yourself; to give an account of yourself; to feel you have to account for yourself. How do questions fall? On whom do they fall?

Moments like this, for many of us, are repeated over time. I am still asked these kinds of questions, though far less often than before, and rarely from those whom I encounter on the fast every day of the street.  More often now, it’s a question that gets asked when I say my surname, or by someone who I encounter more regularly, with the social cloak of anonymity that characterises so much ordinary exchange.

To be questioned, to be questionable, sometimes can feel like a residence: a question becomes something you reside in. To reside in a question can feel like not residing where you are at. Not from here, not? Or maybe to become not is to be wrapped up by an assertion.

I think of Ien Ang’s essay, “On Not Speaking Chinese,” which describes conversations that unfold from the question “where are you from,” often followed by “where are you really from,” questions she describes as “typical” for non-white people living in Europe (2001: 29). These questions only appear to be questions; they often work as assertions. They ask “where?” as a way of stating “not from here.” Or perhaps you become questionable, as someone who can be questioned, who should be willing to receive a question, when it assumed you are not from here. A body can become a question mark. And we learn from how questions can function as assertions: that some do not get stopped, some can move along, because how they appear is consistent with an expectation of what or who is here. A “here” can be held up as an assertion by who is held up.

You become questionable when you do not fulfil an expectation of who will turn up. I think also of Pierre W. Orrelus’s work on immigrants and transnationals of colour. He notes how as a professor of colour he is often met with surprise: “after I formally introduce myself in class, I have undergraduate students who ask me, in a surprised tone of voice, ‘Are you really the professor?’ I sometimes overhear them asking their peers, ‘Is he really the professor’” (2011: 31). Orrelus compares this mode of questioning, this sense of curiosity and astonishment, with the questions typically asked of immigrants about “funny accents.”  Really: really? When we are asked questions, we are being held up, we become questionable. In my book, Strange Encounters (2000) I drew on Mary Douglas’s understanding of dirt as “matter out of place,” to redescribe the stranger as “the body out of place.”  Being asked whether you are the professor is also a way of being made into a stranger: not being at home in a category that gives residence to others. [1]

Sometimes you might be asked questions because of who you turn up with. So many times, I have been asked when I enter a local shop with my girlfriend, “is she your sister?”  Who is she, is it a way of saying, who are you? Sister: a way of seeing or not seeing lesbian? Sister: a way of evoking an intimacy without naming it; sister as euphemism?

In Queer Phenomenology I shared an anecdote about being asked such a question, this time from a neighbour. Let me share this anecdote again:

I arrive home. I park my car, and walk towards the front door. A neighbour calls out to me. I look up, somewhat nervously. I have yet to establish “good relations” with the neighbours. I haven’t lived here very long and the semi-public of the street does not feel easy yet. She mumbles some words, which I cannot here, and then asks: “is that your sister, or your husband?” I don’t answer and rush into the house. It is one has to say, quite an extraordinary utterance. There are two women, living together, a couple of people alone in a house. So what do you see? The first question reads the two women as sisters, as placed alongside each other along a horizontal line. By seeing the relationship as one of siblings rather than as a sexual relation, the question constructs the women as alike, as being like sisters. In this way, the reading both avoids the possibility of lesbianism, and also stands in for it, insofar as it repeats, but in a different form, the construction of lesbian couples as siblings: lesbians are sometimes represented ‘as if’ they could sisters because of their “family resemblance.” The fantasy of the “likeness” of sisters (which is a fantasy in the sense that we search for likeness as a sign of a biological tie) takes the place of another fantasy, that of the lesbian couple as being alike, and so alike that they even threaten to merge into one body. I told this anecdote at a conference once, and another woman said: “but that is amazing, you’re a different race!” While I wouldn’t put it quite like that, the comment spoke to me. Seeing us as alike, meant over-looking signs of difference, even if such differences are not something that bodies simply have. But the move from the first question to the second question, without any pause or without waiting for an answer, is really quite extraordinary. If not sister, then husband. The second question rescues the speaker, by positing the partner not as female (which even in the form of the sibling risks exposure of what does not get named), but as male. The figure of “my husband” operates as a legitimate sexual other, “the other half,” a sexual partner with a public face. Of course, I could be making my own assumptions in offering this reading. The question could have been a more playful one, in which “husband” was not necessarily a reference to “male”: that is, “the husband” could refer to the butch lover. The butch lover would be visible in this address only insofar as she “took the place” of the husband. Either way, the utterance re-reads the oblique form of the lesbian couple, in the way that straightens that form such that it appears straight. Indeed, it is not even that the utterances move from a queer angle to a straight line. The sequence of the utterances offers two readings of the lesbian couple: both of which function as straightening devices: if not sisters, then husband and wife. The lesbian couple in effect disappears, and I of course make my exit (p.96).

It is a long time since that moment, since I wrote about that moment. But then we walk down the street, questions still follow us. “Are you a boy or a girl?” they ask her, this time, a question that drips with mockery and hostility. A question hovering around gender: not being housed by gender, being unhoused. Some of these questions dislodge you from a body that you yourself feel you reside in. Once you have been asked these questions, you might wait for them, waiting to be dislodged changes your relation to the lodge.

Questions can hover around, like a murmuring, an audible rising of volume that seems to accompany an arrival. Perhaps we come to expect that murmur, we too murmur; we become part of the chorus of questions, we come to question ourselves.

Do I belong here? Will I be caught out? Do I fit in here? “I am” becomes “am I?”

Perhaps any of us can feel the weight of questions that are taken on and in as one’s own. We can seek to ask these questions, whatever we are asked. Education aims to throw life back up as a question, after all; we find resources in these moments of suspension, before things are reassembled. And we can be thrown in so many ways: by what we encounter, by whom we encounter. But perhaps privilege offers some protection from being questioned or becoming questionable: a buffer zone as a zone without questions. And perhaps the modes of questioning I am describing here relate to how a body is identified in relation to a group whose residence is in question.

If we have a body that is expected to turn up, we might be less likely to be caught by what comes up.  Cultural Studies as a discipline begins with the lived experiences of not residing, of not being received “well” by where you end up, experiences of working class kids ending up in elite institutions, experiences of diasporic kids ending up in those same institutions. When you don’t fit, you fidget. How quickly the fidgeting body appears as not residing in the right place. Eyebrows are raised. Really; really? Previously I have described (following one of the examples used by William James) institutions as being like old garments: easier to wear for those who have the “right shape” where rightness is determined as much as an expectation that you will fit as it is by the contours of a body that fits. Privilege: that which is wearing.

What I have called simply “diversity work” might also involve transforming questions into a catalogue. A catalogue does not assume each question as the same question: but it is a way of hearing continuities and resonances. It is a way of thinking of how questions accumulate; how they have a cumulative effect on those who receive them. You can be worn down by the requirement to give answers, to explain yourself.  It is not a melancholic task; to catalogue these questions, even if some of the questions are experienced as traumatic, difficult, or exhausting. To account for experiences of not being given residence is not only a sad political lesson, a lesson of what we have had to give up in order to keep going. After all, think of how much we know about institutional life because of these failures of residence: of how the categories in which we are immersed become explicit when you do not quite inhabit them. When we do not recede into the background, when we stand out or stand apart, we can bring the background into the front: we can front up to how much depends on your background.[i]

When we are in question we question. This was after all how Frantz Fanon proceeded in his devastating critique of ontology, a critique that offers the work of redescription. He begins with an encounter between himself, a Black man and a white child, in Paris; he is “sealed into that crushing objecthood,” sealed by whiteness (109). White, Fanon showed, becomes the universal. To be not white: particular. To be particular can be to inherit a requirement to tell your particular story. They want to hear from you, about you.  If you speak, you are heard as speaking about yourself whatever you say. To be particular can be to be lodged in a body. We can speak back to the Universalist philosophers, if we begin with this requirement, if we seize hold of how we are held, willfully. Those lodged in the particular, those lodged as particular, can dislodge the general.

We have many histories, many points of arrival, those who somehow find themselves as “not,” as not universal, not human. But I still think, I do think, that being not, being in question for being the being you are, is the beginning of an affinity, a beginning that is behind us.

Fanon notes that the “being for others,” of which Hegel speaks, becomes what is not possible: “every ontology is made unattainable in a colonialized and civilised society” (109). What a history is abbreviated by that and! Civil history as colonial history; the civil world of polite hostility, that appears like an out stretched hand, ready to receive those who came after, who become temporary guests, likely to be cast out, unless we behave well.

For Fanon, ontology is impossible. Not being for others; not being for being.

Those whose being is in question are those who question being.



Ang, Ien (2001). On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West.

Douglas, Mary (1994). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge.

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

Orelus, Pierre (2011). Transnationals of Color: Counter Narratives Against Discrimination in Schools and Beyond. New York: Peter Lang.

[1]Of course in Douglas’s formulation is an implication: when something becomes dirty, it also becomes what must be removed; matter out of place is matter that must be moved to a different place. Gentrification could be understood in these terms: where recognising bodies as out of place is one step in a process of displacing bodies.

[i] In Queer Phenomenology I attempted to link the spatial sense of background to the temporality of background: what is behind an arrival can often be that which does not come into view.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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10 Responses to Being in Question

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  5. Reblogged this on Dimple VJKumar and commented:
    Excellent piece by Sara Ahmed.

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