So many heavy words, we feel the weight of them; we feel the weight each time, every time, all the time.
Black, brown, race, racism: words that come up; words you bring up.
It is not that we only feel the weight through words. The load does not lighten when light remains white. Whiteness is a lightening of a load.
Not white: loaded.
When you bring up racism it is like you introduce something that would not have otherwise existed. It is racism that makes “racism” a foreign word, a foreigner word, what you impose on others, what gets in the way of happiness, reconciliation.
Smile: things will get better!
Smile: they won’t.
No wonder words matter. Words are materials. We build worlds with words. We make words from worlds.
This is why: so much of contemporary politics, we might call this so much “happy multiculturalism” or “happy diversity” does not want or will the word “race” let along “racism.” It is as if by not talking about racism, racism would just go away.
Polite racism: how some are racist by seeming to prevent or to put off racism through an act of good will. That is the racism I usually encounter. What an encounter.
As if racism would just go away: as if we would go away, or as if when we stay we would agree to remove ourselves from this history, we would agree at least to wash, to be committed to being less stained by the colour of our being.
Less stained: being less.
It is as if: to remove the word “racism” from the constitution, from discourse, is to remove the thing.
It is not: lose the word keep the thing.
We need the word because we are describing something.
Words are hard. There is no doubt; words are hard. We know the troubling history of race. We know how race came into being as way of making a hierarchy out of being.
The words are reminders of this history. Some of us don’t need reminders. The words can be directed. They are directed.
When they remove the word “race” perhaps they are really expressing a desire to remove the bodies associated with that word: race as what we bring; those who are not white, not human, not universal.
As if we would go away when “race” is what they do not say.
A smile: I don’t see your colour. A smile: I don’t see you.
Back to the universe.
Gender too: even when we know the violence of the machinery of gender, we know the bodies that gender can spit out we also know: that the desire to eliminate the word “gender” masks a desire to eliminate the bodies associated with the word “gender.”
Trans people: there is no gender! If it disappears, you disappear.
It does not; you will not.
Will not; not willing; willful. No wonder: for some just to be is to be willful.
Oh this some can we change the sum? (1)
The desire to eliminate those who are “not” to preserve those who are: if you have heard it before, you have been here before.
I still think that no one has diagnosed whiteness as well as Frantz Fanon. His words echo as wisdom:
In Europe the Black man is the symbol of evil…The torturer is the Black man, Satan is black, one talks of shadows, when one is dirty one is black. It would be astonishing, if the trouble were taken to bring them all together, to see the vast number of expressions that make the black man the equivalent of sin. In Europe, whether concretely or symbolically, the Black man stands for the bad side of the character. As long as one cannot understand this problem one is doomed for ever to talk in circles about “the Black problem.” Blackness, darkness, shadow, shades, night, the labyrinths of the earth, abysmal depths, blacken someone’s reputation: and on the other side, the bright look of innocence, the white dove of peace, magical heavenly light (1967: 188-189).
It would be astonishing. Dark and light, black and white: ways of creating different classes of being. Shadows; how darkness falls; the dark ones as fallen.
Blink; brighten things up again. You clean up well: look, the ethnic one, she is doing so well. Clink.
Whitening: a requirement to be civil in return for the good fortune of a place at the table; at their table.
No wonder I wanted to queer tables.
A wall: when a world is what you come up against. That experience: when you walk into a room and it’s like a “sea of whiteness.” A sea: a wall of water. It can feel like something that hits you. When you are not white, whiteness is solid, a body with mass. You tighten up; you experience a restriction; no room, no room to be. For those who inhabit whiteness, perhaps the room feels airy. Whiteness can be like a crowd: many as momentum.
I have said this before: things are fluid if you are going the way things are flowing. If you are not going that way, a flow acquires the density of a thing; solid. What one body experiences as solid, another might experience as air.
A wall, no wall. There; nothing there.
Flight, bright, light, white.
There; nothing there. No wonder “there” can become despair.
Heavy, slow, down, brown.
This is not to say we cannot or do not move up; though ups can lead to downs. One time after giving a talk on whiteness, a white man in the audience said, “but you’re a professor?” You can hear the implication of this but: but look at you Professor Ahmed, look how far you have gone! Look, look! How easily we can become poster children for diversity, how easily we can be “held up” as proof that women of colour are not “held up.” Being a diversity poster child: it can make the world you come up against recede as if you bring it to an end; as if our arrival and progression makes whiteness disappear. If only we had the power invested in us! If only, if only!
When women of colour become professors this is not the only kind of reaction we receive. When a colleague of mine, a Black feminist, became a professor someone said to her: “they give professorships to anyone these days.” In one case you fulfil the fantasy of meritocracy, a singular brown body becoming shiny happy evidence of inclusion. In the other, when a brown body arrives, her body is not elevated as value. She comes to embody the loss of value: when she can be a professor, anybody can.
Anybody: the loss or erosion of the value of somebody.
Anybody: the wrong body.
When black feminists or feminists of colour write books, when we introduce terms and concepts, how quickly our work is separated from our bodies. We are willing that separation; of course we are; we borrow everything from others; we want to give back what we have been given. We have been given so much, because she was here before; she was my before. So many she’s; a collective before.
But then the words, concepts become neutralised and appropriated; re-worded into other people’s stories, domesticated, funded, and you feel angry and sad: all over again. And I have seen this happen: again and again.
Whiteness: what good fortune, in the best hands, surely?
It is like the British Museum: we can just look after your bones better. They are fragile, people! We can let your bodies be preserved. As relics; reduced to bare matter; to remind us of where we have been; of how we took form.
In preservation is elimination.
We know this.
Heavy, slow, down, brown.
What a downer, Sara, just cheer up!
I am writing whilst down; heavy in heart, slowed down; the weight of things.
You can probably tell.
I am writing because I am not willing to let things go.
In the past year words have been sent out like missiles, thrown at me; and I have not been able to get out of the way. I know what this does when it happens to me, someone well protected by position, by an institution (or maybe not, institutions will not protect you if they are protecting themselves) so I can understand what this happening would mean for others, those who are less protected. I stretch my hand out to you; I give you my arm.
I have been called “braindead” and “incredibly stupid,” a “killjoy cheerleader who resorts to bullying as a strategy.” In fact, bullying as a term keeps coming up. When you talk about sexism and racism here (not over there but here) it will happen very quickly: you will be called a bully. When you point out power you are judged as exercising power. You are labelled as aggressive; mean. It could almost be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
There can be nothing more threatening than challenging how space is occupied. People occupy that space by hearing you as threat.
Maybe: we become what they hear. Maybe: we need to threaten the world that perceives us a threat. Maybe: that’s a threat.
We don’t get over it. It is not over. Getting over it does not make it over. It makes it not over, all over again.
Heavy histories: our bodies; willful reminders. We need to be more than reminders. We are more. We don’t need reminding.
We come up again. It will come up again.
(1) This is a question I repeat twice in the conclusion of Willful Subjects (2014). I will keep repeating it, no doubt.
Fanon, Frantz (1967). Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.