Making Strangers

Strangers are made; strangers are unmade. Right from the beginning, I have been writing in the company of strangers. The figure of the stranger is familiar; the stranger is thus someone we recognise (as a stranger) rather than someone we do not recognise. Neighbourhood Watch provides a set of disciplinary techniques for recognising strangers; those who “out of place,” who are loitering, who are “here” without a legitimate purpose. For those recognised as strangers, proximity is a crime.

In the afterword to the second edition of The Cultural Politics of Emotion, published in 2014, I made explicit how my arguments about strangers led me to think about and through emotion. In Strange Encounters (2000) I explored how the stranger as a figure appears through the very acquisition of a charge.To recognise somebody as a stranger is an affective judgement. I was interested in how some bodies are “in an instant” judged as suspicious, or as dangerous, as objects to be feared, a judgment that can have lethal consequences. There can be nothing more dangerous to a body than the social agreement that that body is dangerous.

There are so many cases, too many cases. Just take one: Trayvon Martin, a young black man fatally shot by George Zimmerman on February 26th 2012. Zimmerman was centrally involved in his Neighborhood Watch programme. He was doing his civic neighbourly duty: looking out for what is suspicious. As George Yancy has noted in his important piece, “Walking While Black,” we learn from Zimmerman’s call to the dispatcher, how Trayvon Martin appeared to him. Zimmerman says:

“There’s a real suspicious guy.” He also said “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.” When asked by the dispatcher, he said, within seconds, that, “He looks black.” Asked what he is wearing, Zimmerman says, ‘A dark hoodie, like a gray hoodie.” Later, Zimmerman said that “now he’s coming toward me. He’s got his hands in his waist band.” And then, “And he’s a black male.” (Yancy 2013: np).

Note the sticky slide: suspicious, “up to no good,” coming at me, looking black, a dark hoodie, wearing black, being black. The last statement makes explicit who Zimmerman was seeing right from the very beginning. That he was seeing a Black man was already implied in the first description “a real suspicious guy.” Let me repeat: there can be nothing more dangerous to a body than the social agreement that that body is dangerous. And later, when Zimmerman is not convicted, there is a retrospective agreement with that agreement: that Zimmerman was right to feel fear, that his murder of this young man was self-defence because Trayvon was dangerous, because he was, as Yancy describes so powerfully “walking while black,” already judged, sentenced to death, by the how of how he appeared as a Black man to the white gaze.

The stranger is a dark shadowy figure. I use the word “darkness” deliberately here: it is a word that cannot be untangled from a racialised history. To use this word as if it can be disentangled from that history is to be entangled by that history. The racialisation of the stranger is not immediately apparent—it is disguised, we might say, by the strict anonymity of the stranger, the one who after all, we are told from childhood, could be anyone. We witness from this example how this “could be anyone” is pointed: the stranger as a figure points to some bodies more than others. This “could be anyone” thus only appears as an open possibility, stretching out into a horizon, in which the stranger reappears 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, always passing by, at the edge of social experience.

To explore how bodies are perceived as dangerous in advance of their arrival requires not beginning with an encounter (a body affected by another body) but asking how encounters come to happen in this way or that. The immediacy of bodily reactions is mediated by histories that come before subjects, and which are at stake in how the very arrival of some bodies is noticeable in the first place. The most immediate of our bodily reactions can thus be treated as pedagogy: we learn about ideas by learning how they become quick and unthinking. Somewhat ironically, perhaps, there is nothing more mediated than immediacy.

Rather than focusing on feeling as circulating between bodies, I have in my work tended to attend to objects: objects which circulate accumulate affective value. They become sticky. An object of fear (the stranger’s body as a phobic object of instance) becomes shared over time, such that the object, in moving around, can generate fear in the bodies of those who apprehend it. Fear does then “in effect” move around through being directed toward objects. It remains possible that bodies are not affected in this way; for example, someone might not be suspicious of a body that has over time been agreed to be suspicious (there is nothing more affective than an agreement because what is in agreement often does not tend to be registered).

Note also that the perception of others is also an impression of others: to made into a stranger is to be blurred. I have since described racism as a blunt instrument, which is another way of making the same argument (Ahmed 2012: 181). Stop and search, for example, is a technology that makes this bluntness into a point: Stop! You are brown! You could be Muslim! You could be a terrorist! The blurrier the figure of the stranger the more bodies can be caught by it.

Here I am speaking primarily of how strangers become objects not only of feeling but also of governance: strangers are bodies that are managed. Or perhaps we should say: the governing of bodies creates strangers as bodies that require being governed. Gentrification for instance is an explicit policy for managing strangers: ways of removing those who would be eye sores; those who would reduce the value of a neighbourhood; those whose proximity would be registered as price. We learn from this. There are technologies in place that stop us from being affected by certain bodies; those that might get in the way of how we occupy space.

Institutions too make strangers. I investigated how institutions make strangers in my book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012), an empirical study into the “world of diversity.” The charged figure of the stranger is one we encounter in the room. And when things are sticky, they are fast: this is how the figure of stranger can end up “in the room” before a body enters that room. When you are caught up in its appearance, emotions become work: you have to manage your own body by not fulfilling an expectation. Let me share with you two quotes from the study. The first is from a Black male diversity trainer:

The other point as well about being a black trainer is that I’ve got to rapport build. Do I do that by being a member of the black and white minstrel show or do I do that by trying to earn respect with my knowledge? Do I do it by being friendly or do I do it by being cold, aloof and detached? And what does all this mean to the people now? From my point of view, it probably has nothing to do with the set of people that are in that room because actually the stereotype they’ve got in their heads is well and truly fixed’ (Ahmed 2012: 160).

Building rapport becomes a requirement because of a stereotype, as that which is fixed, no matter who you encounter. The demand to build rapport takes the form of a perpetual self-questioning; the emotional labour of asking yourself what to do when there is an idea of you that persists, no matter what you do. Indeed, the consequences of racism are in part managed as a question of self-presentation: of trying not to fulfil a stereotype:

Don’t give white people nasty looks straight in their eyes; don’t show them aggressive body positions. I mean, for example I am going to go and buy a pair of glasses because I know the glasses soften my face and I keep my hair short because I’m going bald, so I need something to soften my face. But actually what I am doing, I am countering a stereotype, I’m countering the black male sexual stereotype and yes, I spend all my time, I counter that stereotype, I couch my language behaviour and tone in as English a tone as I can. I am very careful, just very careful (Ahmed 2012: 160).

Being careful is about softening the very form of your appearance so that you do not appear “aggressive” because you are already assumed to be aggressive before you appear. The demand not to be aggressive might be lived as a form of body-politics, or as a speech politics: you have to be careful what you say, how you appear, in order to maximise the distance between you and their idea of you, which is at once how you are the cause of fear (“the black male sexual stereotype”). The encounter with racism is experienced as the intimate labour of countering their idea of you. The experience of being a stranger in the institutions of whiteness is an experience of being on perpetual guard: of having to defend yourself against those who perceive you as somebody to be defended against. Once a figure is charged, it appears not only outside but before the body it is assigned to. This is how, for some, to arrive is to receive a charge.

Diversity work is not only the work we do when we aim to transform the norms of the institution, but the work we do when we not quite inhabit those norms. This work can require working on one’s own body in an effort to be accommodating. The effort to rearrange your own body becomes an effort to rearrange the past. This past is not only difficult to budge, it is often what those, to whom you appear, do not recognise as present.

If I have focused thus far on how strangers become phobic objects, I have more recently been thinking about how strangers can be created by not coming into view. A stranger might be the one to whom we are not attuned. (For a short discussion of attunement, see here).

Let’s say we enter into the mood of a situation. Moods are often understand as more general or worldly orientations rather than being orientated toward specific objects. However, when we think of mood as a social phenomenon it is clear that the situation matters. When you enter into the mood of a situation (for example by being picked up by the good cheer of others) the situation can become the shared object. Perhaps an object might become crisper in a moment of crisis. It might stand out: a willful thing that gets in the way. For example, I might enter a situation that is cheerful, and be picked up that good cheer, only to realise that this is not a situation I find cheerful. Say people are laughing at a joke I do not find funny, or even a joke that I find offensive; I start laughing too before I hear the joke. When I hear it, and I find it offensive not only would I lose my good cheer, but I would become affectively “out of tune” with others. My whole body might experience the loss of attunement as rage or shame, a feeling that can become directed towards myself (how did I let myself get caught up in this?).

Partly what this analysis suggests is the need to reflect on the career of moods as not unrelated to objects despite or even given that these objects are vague and indistinct. After all, sharing a mood can still involve as an affective valuation (what causes good cheer as being good) and thus a way of orientating the body. To be attuned to each other is not only to share in moods (good or bad, lively or unlively) but also a certain rhythm. When we “pick up” a feeling we can pick each other up. We are laughing together, we might face each other; our bodies shaking; we are shaken together, mirroring each other. When I stop laughing, I withdraw from this bodily intimacy. I can even break that intimacy; an intimacy can shatter like a broken jug. I might be left having to pick up the pieces. Sometimes we might keep laughing in fear that otherwise we would cause a breakage.

What I am suggesting is that attunement is not exhaustive: one might enter the room with certain leanings. To be attuned to some might simultaneously mean not to be attuned to others, those who do not share one’s leanings. We can close off our bodies as well as ears to what is not in tune. An experience of non-attunement might then refer to how we can be in a world with others where we are not in a responsive relation, where we do not tend to “pick up” on how they feel. This sense of not being in harmony might not even register to consciousness. We might even have screened out from our awareness that which is not consistent with our own mood, which might include a screening out of the bodies that lean another way. When this screening is not successful, then those bodies (and the moods that might accompany them) become registered as what or who causes the loss of attunement. No wonder the stranger becomes a moody figure (and indeed a killjoy!): they often come to the front, or are confronted, at the moment of losing a collective good cheer. And: we might think more here about the techniques for screening out the suffering of strangers: we might think here of the use of shields, or even the transformation of bodies into shields. Political hope might rest on the failure of these techniques.

Attunement might create the figure of the stranger not necessarily or only by making the stranger into an object of feeling (the stranger as the one we recognise as not being with), but as the effect of not leaning that way. Strangers thus re-appear at the edges of a room, dimly perceived, or not quite perceived, lurking in the shadows.

No wonder a stranger can be a rather vague impression.


Ahmed, Sara (2014). “Emotions and their Objects.” Afterword to the second edition, The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press.

————(2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press.

———– (2000). Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. Rourledge.

Fanon, Frantz (2008). [1967] Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. London: Pluto Press.

Yancy, G. (2013). “Walking While Black,” New York Times. September 1st.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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10 Responses to Making Strangers

  1. Michael says:


    And then when you come up against such a stereotype any form of response is only used to confirm said stereotype.

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