You know that feeling when you arrive into a room and you feel like you are imposing?
Say you end up with a group of people who know each other really well. Everyone is polite and attentive. And then the conversation might fall into the charm and ease of familiarity. A falling, a rolling: shared memories that come up because just a word can be enough to bring them up. The chuckle when she said that, a chuckle that can ripple through the group, accompanied by sideways glances of affection. You don’t mind this at all; you might be sitting back and enjoying that roll. But someone looks up and notices you are not being included in the conversation. There is a checking; a feeling of being checked. And someone else might turn to you and ask you a question. It is such a polite question; the atmosphere becomes more formal. And this tonal shift is a shift of attention toward you. However good natured and considerate this checking of intimacy, you feel like such an imposition. You become the cause of the loss of the ease of informality, at least in your own mind, whether or not you are perceived by others as the cause. You might wish you could disappear so things could flow again. You become tense; it becomes tense.
Such a scenario can take place in institutional contexts. My research into diversity leads me to conclude: this scenario is often institutionalised. The most difficult moments for diversity practitioners are often the moments before a meeting starts, or after a meeting ends, before there is a shift to a more formal register, or when there is a shift from a more formal register. The moments when rules are relaxed are often when those who do not share a background feel the most “out of place.” One practitioner mentioned this kind of checking of the ease of familiarity when she enters the room. She said that in the meetings she attends, the other people always seem to know each other and talk to each other in ways she finds alienating. She told me of one difficult moment when she arrived to the diversity committee she was chairing and the two men who were already there were talking about the breakfasts they had at Oxbridge; “something to do with bananas,” she said.
You can feel alienated, you can feel like an affect alien, you can feel angry or annoyed, and still experience the situation as one in which you are the imposition. You might feel an imposition when your arrival requires that others withdraw from a shared intimacy. You might feel an imposition because your arrival prevents others from entering that intimacy. When an adjustment has to be made, because of your arrival, it is an uncomfortable feeling.
In order for some to be accommodated, adjustments have to be made. An accommodation is both a house or dwelling and a process of fitting or making fit. What I call simply “diversity work” is often about accommodation; things have to be adjusted before some can be housed. Thus far I have spoken of conversations. Adjustments matter insofar as they relate to the materiality of institutions. Think of how adjustments have to be made to spaces insofar as those spaces assume certain bodies; the pavement might have to be adjusted to support the passing through of those in wheelchairs; a podium might have to be adjusted to support those who are not the right height; a time-table might have to be adjusted to support those with child care responsibilities, and so on. Bodies can be experienced in this way, as getting in the way, when spaces are not made “accessible” to those bodies. Access, as Tanya Titchkosky (2011) has observed, should not be understood simply as a bureaucratic procedure, but is about how spaces are experienced and lived as oriented toward bodies, with their differing capacities and incapacities. That we notice some modifications of spaces to make them more accessible reveals how spaces are already shaped around certain bodies. As Nirmal Puwar (2004) describes some bodies are perceived as “space invaders.” The modifications required for spaces to be opened to other bodies are often registered as willful impositions on those spaces.
We learn from this: the world has already adjusted to some bodies. When an adjustment is already, it is not experienced as adjustment. This is how some bodies come to be at home before they even take up space; they are already accommodated. When institutional and public spaces assume certain bodies, history has become concrete.
Gender could also be re-described in the concrete terms of accommodation. You might feel at home in the pronouns in which you have been housed: “she” or “he” (oh the violence of this or, oh how few alternatives, oh we must rebel against the grammatical and gender law that says “they” cannot be given to a singular subject!). If you do not feel at home in a pronoun, it can become a site of struggle as well as estrangement. A pronoun can become uncomfortable: you might feel the pronoun as an imposition. Or to use one of my own favoured metaphors: the pronoun does not function like a comfortable chair; you do not sink into it. This uncomfortable sense of having something imposed upon you that you cannot inhabit is not necessarily registered by those with whom you interact. That’s too weak: an insistence on not being housed by a pronoun given by others can be registered as an imposition on others. In other words, it is heard as a requirement that others adjust to you, that others meet your requirements. You become an imposition when you experience a word, a norm, a category as an imposition.
Heard as a requirement: there is a history abbreviated here, of how modifications that aim to enable more equitable social relations are heard as making demands or imposing on others. This is how “political correctness” often gets used: a modification is judged as an imposition of a social norm that regulates behaviour that would otherwise be free (we can hear with this free an “easy”). As I pointed out in my post, “The Problem of Perception,” even noticing how social categories as worldly can be judged as imposing those categories on the world. For something to be judged as imposition, in this context, is how something becomes framed as foreign to a situation. An imposition: how something is understood as being pushed from the outside in.
We can feel like we are imposing, we can be judged as imposing. It is a situation. We need to follow the feelings, we need to hear the judgments; we need to make sense of the situation.
Another of putting this: those who are unhoused by being are those deemed to impose their being on those who are housed by being. An unhousing can require we become insistent. In Willful Subjects, I describe insistence as a form of political labour; one that is unevenly distributed as a requirement. Some have to insist on belonging, or not belonging, to the categories that give residence to others. Those who are transgendered or gender-nonconforming might have to insist on being “he” or “she” or “not he” or “not she” when you are assigned the wrong pronoun; you might have to keep insisting. To be in a same sex relationship can also involve experiencing the pronoun as a struggle, one that is both personal as well as political: when you partner is assumed to be “he” or “she” you have to correct the assumption, and the very act of correction is heard as a willful imposition on others. It is exhausting, this labour, which is required because certain norms are still at work in how people are assumed to be and to gather; even if there are rights and recognition, the on going and everyday nature of these struggles with signs are signs of a struggle. A desire for a more normal life does not necessary mean identification with norms, but can be simply this: a desire to escape the exhaustion of having to insist just to exist.
Diversity work, I have suggested, is work that we do when we do not “quite” inhabit the norms of an institution, as well as the work we do when we aim to transform those norms. Diversity work is thus willful work. What do I mean by this? My project on “the sociality of will” very quickly became a project on social precedence; how the will of some “comes first” because they come first. Those who come after have to be willing to adjust or make willing adjustments; for those who come after, will becomes work.
I introduced this idea in my post on conditional will. I wrote there:
If certain people come first –such as hosts, but also parents or citizens, then their will comes first. This being first is not always obvious or explicit. Indeed the host might say that they will “will” only if the guest wills, thus appearing to give the guest a certain precedence “I will if you will, then I will.” A promise to be willing can become a demand given this precedence: “you will, so that I can will.” If the other won’t will, then the one who wills the other to will so they can will also cannot will “if you won’t then I can’t.” The guest must will the same way for those who are already in place to receive what they will: “you must be willing!”
The will becomes not only work but also duty (“you must be willing”) for those who come after. Perhaps this translates in the following way: if your being is an imposition, you must be willing to minimize the imposition of being (at all). You must be willing to minimize differences in order to be accommodated.
My thesis is relatively simple: diversity work becomes willful work when we refuse to be quite so accommodating.
Puwar, Nirmal (2004). Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Oxford: Berg.
Titchkosky, Tanya (2011). The Question of Access: Disability, Space, Meaning. Toronto:
University of Toronto Press.