No matter how much evidence you have of racism and sexism, no matter how many documents, communications, encounters, no matter how much research you can refer to, or words you can defer to, words that might carry a history as an insult, what you have is deemed as insufficient. The more you have to show the more eyes seem to roll. My proposition is simple: that the evidence we have of racism and sexism is deemed insufficient because of racism and sexism. Indeed racism and sexism work by disregarding evidence or by rendering evidence unreliable or suspicious – often by rendering those who have direct experience of racism and sexism unreliable and suspicious. This disregarding – which is at once a form of regarding – has a central role in maintaining an order of things. Simply put: that evidence of something is deemed insufficient is a mechanism for reproducing something.
The removal of evidence of something is evidence of something.
And so: our evidence is often evidence of the removal of evidence.
The word “evidence” and “evident” share the same root (Latin: evidens). When we say something is evident, we imply that it is perceptible, clear, obvious or apparent. Something is evident when it can be seen or touched. The word “evidence” carries much stronger implications (and it is the relation between the stronger implications and the weaker ones that needs to capture our interest). If evident is “to” then evidence tends to be “of.” When we have evidence of something, we have something that can support our claims. Evidence then is something from which inferences can be drawn. I might have some evidence that can support my argument: I might have statistics that indicate the trend that I am claiming is a trend is a trend. Evidence can have the status of exteriority to something (or at least alienability) even when it is indicative of something (for example the way crumbs might be evidence of a late night snack). Evidence: how we can be caught by leaving a trace of an action. If you are doing something you should not be doing, you might need to be careful not to leave any evidence.
It is important to think of how evidence comes up in a legal sense, to evoke crime, guilt, and punishment. To give evidence (in a court of law) is to provide testimony. Evidence here might be first-hand: you can give evidence because you have direct experience of something. The one who provides evidence might be a witness to a crime. Evidence does carry the weaker implication: you can provide evidence of something because of what was made evident to you. In contrast other evidence might be hear-say: when someone can speak of something because they have been told by somebody else about that something. The implication here is that first-hand testimony is stronger or more direct. She has the evidence because of what she experienced herself. Of course, even first-hand testimony can be identified as weak. This might be doubts about whether someone is telling the truth, or doubts about someone’s capacity to represent accurately what went on. Even something self-evident (usually this phrase is intended to signal the lack of doubt about something) can be deemed not evidence if the self to whom something is self-evident is suspect. Doubts about evidence become doubts about persons who are providing evidence. If she is not credible, it is not credible. And we say evidence is “just anecdotal” to imply a weakness in how a case is made: a series of first hand impressions might be distinguishable from the evidence generated by systematic research or provided by an expert who is called upon by virtue of their expertise (how expertise becomes a virtue is one way of telling the story of an institution).
Just this short and simple discussion of evidence introduces us to much complexity. In particular, it allows us to register how evidence is often understood as something that relates to objects (to have evidence is to have evidence of something) but also to subjects (someone has evidence of something). Evidence can also be a trace of where someone or something has been. However even a trace can be disputed, even crumbs can be debated: how did they get there? Who left them there? Even: are they crumbs? Evidence has to be spoken of: the crumbs do not speak for themselves. Evidence in this sense becomes a trace of a history that involves how different elements combine to create an event, as well as an interpretation of that combination. The confusion that follows these different registers matters.
I began thinking about evidence in part as a result of doing what I have been calling diversity work in the first sense: the work we do when we try and transform institutions. Working on diversity work as well as working as a diversity worker has helped me to think about how evidence matters. I am going to share one quote from a diversity practitioner that I have shared before (in On Being Included and on this blog), and that I discuss in detail in the middle part of Living a Feminist Life, which returns to, and further develops, the accounts I have offered of diversity work thus far. In this statement, a diversity worker is describing her attempt to change the policy on how many members of appointment panels need to have had diversity training:
When I was first here there was a policy that you had to have three people on every panel who had been trained. But then there was a decision early on when I was here, that it should be everybody, all panel members, at least internal people. They took that decision at the equality and diversity committee which several members of SMT were present at. But then the director of Human resources found out about it and decided we didn’t have the resources to support it, and it went to council with that taken out and council were told that they were happy to have just three members, only a person on council who was an external member of the diversity committee went ballistic – and I am not kidding went ballistic – and said the minutes didn’t reflect what had happened in the meeting because the minutes said the decision was different to what actually happened (and I didn’t take the minutes by the way). And so they had to take it through and reverse it. And the Council decision was that all people should be trained. And despite that I have then sat in meetings where they have just continued saying that it has to be just 3 people on the panel. And I said but no Council changed their view and I can give you the minutes and they just look at me as if I am saying something really stupid, this went on for ages, even though the Council minutes definitely said all panel members should be trained. And to be honest sometimes you just give up.
This is a rather extraordinary description of the stalling mechanisms those of us who work in organisations are familiar with. We learn: you can adopt a new policy without changing anything. We learn: there are different ways you can stop something from happening. If one of these stalling mechanisms does not work, if something is not stalled, another stalling mechanism comes into operation. But what you also learn, which is what I want to explore here, is the status of evidence. Because what is striking is that the diversity practitioner is the one who has evidence; and that she has evidence is because she has, or seems to have, institutional backing. She has evidence the policy has been changed because the policy has been changed. We can hesitate here about the status of evidence in relation to policies. You change policy by providing evidence that you have changed policy. Evidence seems to come before something: minutes record a decision insofar as a decision has been made. And yet evidence is what is required after something. Indeed that is what we mean by a paper trail: we have to leave evidence behind us of a decision that has been made for the decision to have been made. The timing of evidence becomes more complicated than I have thus far implied: evidence is not here simply something past (having evidence of something that has already happened) but is generated in the present to enable a different future (the adoption of a new policy requires evidence before that policy becomes policy).
To have evidence of a policy is not sufficient for the policy to be enacted. In this example the head of human resources removed the decision from the minutes: you can see here how the removal of evidence of something is an attempt to modify an arrangement. However what is being modified is the record of a modification. We learn how stasis can involve work: to keep an old arrangement you remove traces of the policy having been changed. The decision was however put back in the minutes. This put back was a result of yet more diversity work: noticing the removal of evidence is evidence of labour. But then: when the practitioner tells her colleagues in meetings that the policy has changed, they look at her “like she is saying something really stupid.” She might as well not have any evidence because as far as they are concerned the policy has not been changed.
The story of a diversity policy that does not do anything is a tantalizingly tangible example of what goes on so often. But even if the story makes something tangible (and that it is so is a result of the labour and testimony of a diversity worker – think of how many tales like this are not told), it shows us how some things are reproduced by remaining intangible. This remaining is “stubborn,” a stubbornness that is not dependent upon an individual (although it can involve individuals) but an effect of how things combine. She has evidence; she can point to it; but it is as if she has nothing to show. Diversity work: you learn that intangibility is quite a phenomenon. Intangibility can be the product of institutional resistance. And that is a philosophical as well as political point because it teaches us that what is not evident to the senses is not simply about the status of an object. The object here is not missing or even withdrawn. The object is right there. And it is there because the right procedures have been followed to make it there. An object that has been brought into existence does not appear. Something is not perceived despite being available or near to hand: you can not notice what is right in front of you without having to make any effort to turn away.
Paper can disappear because the content of the decision that is recorded on that paper is not in agreement with what has “really” been decided, a decision that takes the form of a momentum; a direction that does not need to made into a directive because it is shared. That a policy can be agreed without being followed teaches us that a policy and a direction are not the same thing. Perhaps changing policies is a way of sustaining a direction, because those appointed to do equality and diversity (and appointments are often made to comply with the law) end up spending their time working on policies that do not do anything. As one practitioner I spoke to once said: “you end up doing the document rather than doing the doing.”
Doing the document.
Not doing the doing.
You can see why diversity workers often talk about walls when they talk about their work. Diversity work is a “banging your head against a brick wall job.” As I commented in an earlier post, what makes an institutional wall even harder is that it is not a concrete or actual wall. If there was a wall there, we could point to it. The wall might then provide evidence of itself: a wall as self-evident. Although, to qualify this (as optimism) we have also learnt something is not always perceived even when it is tangible. What makes an institutional wall harder is that unless you come up against it (because of who you are, or what you are trying to do), this wall does not appear. The walls that diversity workers speak about are assumed as phantom walls: in your head not in the world. Racism and sexism are walls in this sense: in the world but assumed as in our heads not in the world.
We have to live with that assumption.
In the world.
What is a phantom for some for others is real.
What is hardest for some does not appear to others.
And so: a policy disappears despite there being a paper trail, despite the evidence, or even because of the evidence. People disappear too, because of what they make evident, of what they try to bring into view. There are many ways in which you can end up disappearing. The story I have shared with you is one story of disappearance. And it is not just a policy that disappears in the story. A diversity worker: she ends up exhausted because despite all her efforts the same thing is still happening. Sometimes you stop because it is too hard to get through. So she might leave, or turn her energy toward something else: a new policy, a new document, a new job. And: this practitioner left her post soon after I interviewed her, for another post in another university.
What happens to a policy can happen to a person.
People disappear too: because of what they try to make evident, what they try to bring into view.
What is evident, I implied at the start, is often a weaker sense: something is evident to someone. What is evident: a matter of perception. We are now learning: perception matters. The removal of evidence is an institutional process that renders somethings not evident to those who inhabit that institution. It is as if: nothing is there. No policy, no paper. Maybe a person appears, but you look at her blankly. What is she waving around! What is she going on about!
The wall that you come up against, that blocks a progression (of a policy or a person), is not encountered by those who do not come up against it.
There; nothing there.
There becomes despair.
When we are talking about sexism and racism we are talking about what is there and not there, where “thereness” depends on how a body encounters a world. In an earlier post I talked about the importance of giving problems their names. I drew on Marilyn Frye’s work on sexism. Frye observes: “like most women coming to a feminist perception of themselves and the world, I was seeing sexism everywhere and trying to make it perceptible to others” (1983: 17). She suggests that making sexism “perceptible to others” becomes a project because many “would not see that what I declared to be sexist was sexist.” When you describe something as sexist, you are often accused of projecting something (even projecting yourself) onto a situation. You might say, hey, that moment when the man standing next to me is assumed to the lecturer and I am not, that’s sexism. And someone else might say, “no it isn’t, take it easy, lighten up,” as if to say: it is just a coincidence; if you’d arrived at a different moment, things would have fallen differently. Sexism is often denied, because it is seen as a fault of perception; something is sexist because you perceive it that way: you perceive wrongly when you perceive a wrong. Making a feminist case thus requires we can show how sexism is a set of attitudes that are institutionalized, a pattern that is established through use, such that it can be reproduced almost independently of individual will (although hands often appear when things go astray).
And of course: sometimes even the words “sexism” and “racism” allow us to make something evident to ourselves. In Sister Outsider Audre Lorde describes the words racism and sexism as “grown up words” (1984: 152). This means that: we encounter racism and sexism before we have the words that allow us to make sense of what we encounter. Words can then allow us to get closer to our experiences; words can allow us to comprehend what we experience after the event. Sexism and racism: if they are problems we have given names, the names tend to lag behind the problems. Having names for problems can make a difference. Maybe before, you could not quite put your finger on it. With these words as tools, we revisit our own histories; we hammer away at the past.
Feminist and anti-racist consciousness involves not just finding the words, but through the words, how they point, realizing how violence is directed: violence is directed toward some bodies more than others. To give a problem a name can change not only how we register an event but whether we register an event. Perhaps not having names is a way of turning away from a difficulty that persists whether or not we turn away. Not naming a problem in the hope that it will “go away,” often means the problem just remains unnamed. At the same time, giving the problem a name does not make the problem go away. To give the problem a name can be experienced as magnifying the problem; allowing something to acquire a social and physical density by gathering up what otherwise remain scattered experiences into a tangible thing. Making sexism and racism tangible is also a way of making them appear outside of oneself something that can be spoken of and addressed by and with others. It can be a relief to have something to point to, or a word to allow us to point to something that otherwise can make you feel alone or lost. We have different tactics for dealing with sexism and racism; and one problem is that some of these tactics can be in tension. When we give problems their names we can become a problem for those who do not want to register that there is a problem (but who might, at another level, sense there is a problem). You can cause a problem by not letting it go.
The inaugural conference for the Centre for Feminist Research was on sexism. The conference, which had the tagline “a problem with a name,” led to a special issue of New Formations. In that issue we made a collective effort to provide evidence of sexism in part by providing evidence of the difficulty of that effort. In my introduction to the special issue, I described our effort as creating “a sexism archive.” I noted: the sexism archive is full. Our archive is stuffed. Our archive includes not only the documents of sexism; the fragments that combine to record an upheaval. The archive makes the document into a verb: to document is to refuse to agree to something, to refuse to stay silent about something. Bodies are part of this archive; voices too. Our archive is an archive of rebellion. It testifies to a struggle. To struggle for an existence is to transform an existence.
We put all of the traces together, all of the encounters we have had; our wall stories, as I now call them; we are trying to bring something into existence. When I have had experiences of sexism or racism, I often say to myself: for the archive. One time I was invited to contribute to a special issue of the journal Feminist Theory on whiteness. Sunera Thobani (2007) also contributed an important piece critiquing the work of some white feminists. The editors invited those white feminists to respond to her piece. And so in this same special issue we have a response from a white feminist which exercises violent and racist narratives (I am not going to name her, as I have no interest in a dialogue with those who articulate racism (1)) Some of these narratives: the woman of color isn’t a real scholar; she is motivated by ideology. The woman of color is angry. She occupies the moral high ground. The woman of color declares war by pointing to the complicity of white feminists in imperialism. The woman of color is racist (and we hurt too). The woman of color should be grateful, as she lives in our democracy; we have given her the right and the freedom to speak.
Following academic and social conventions, such as giving authors the rights to respond, or enabling a diversity of viewpoints, translates here into inviting racism onto the paper and into the room. A woman of colour has to sit (on the page) here: the happy diversity table is the same table as the racism table. I remember thinking: add it to the archive. By this archive I meant: the archive of racism within feminism. That archive is stuffed too!
Add it to the archive is an expression that allows us to think that an experience however difficult might have use value as evidence (we have somewhere to put it; we have a place for it to go). But of course when I say “add it to the archive” I say so with a degree of skepticism; if that archive is already stuffed, more evidence might be what we do not need.
But is that true? In the opening paper of the issue, Sarah Franklin enters a “bloody document” to our archive, one of her own essays submitted when she was a student that in being marked up by scrawled red ink is marked by sexism. The marker’s outrage in response to a feminist essay teaches us about how sexism is reproduced. This document is useful because of how it makes sexism tangible. It makes explicit what is often left implicit: the horror with which feminist ideas are received. Franklin describes how to make a feminist critique of one of the male masters of a discipline is to be disciplined for unruly and inappropriate behavior. Her paper shows that attending to sexism means attending to the very mechanisms of reproduction; how some bodies as well as words, concepts or approaches become weeded out (of a discipline or a university), at the same time that others are encouraged and given “places to go.”
Evidence: what you accumulate when you are not given places to go.
This is why: we need somewhere to go with our evidence.
Sarah Franklin’s paper was presented at our inaugural conference. The “bloody document” was put up on display. And what was striking was how cathartic it was for the audience to see that “bloody document.” You could hear the groans and exclamations of recognition. It was electric; there was a buzz each time more was revealed. So maybe in some cases: having more evidence is not about getting through (those who are unconvinced are usually very committed to being unconvinced). We are not showing our evidence of sexism to those who are sexist. We are sharing evidence with each other. Because of how slippery sexism and racism can be, even when they are solid (you can slip because you encounter something solid), because so often our experiences of sexism and racism can make us lose confidence, it can be helpful to have evidence presented in such tangible form. It can be helpful for this evidence to be delivered to a feminist collective. That “to” is the “to” that matters. Or maybe a feminist collective is generated by that delivery. Even if you know sexism and racism intimately, to have them displayed in front of you, independently of you and your own body, is to become a witness to how they work as machinery.
So we might need evidence of what we experience because of what we experience: because so often when you encounter sexism and racism you end up estranged from a world. You can feel that when something is pointed to you, repeatedly, then the problem is you. But having this evidence does not mean you can get through the walls. Evidence of walls does not bring the walls down. I was struck as editor by some reader responses to Franklin’s paper. One person suggested it wasn’t really about sexism; that these disciplinary techniques can be directed to anyone. The marker had himself highlighted and underlined gender pronouns: it was in the material how sex and gender mattered. But using words like “sexism” can still be understood as projection: you have made this about sexism, almost as a way of making this about your own particulars. And that is what happens: sexism and racism are understood as self-referential; how you make something about yourself (as if to say, it could happen to anyone, so that to say it refers to gender is to make gender your own agenda).
What is going on here? Sexism is reduced to something in particular or as being about your particulars. But the argument of the paper was to show how sexism is a technique for reproducing bodies and worlds. So these responses reduce sexism to x in order then to state that the evidence exceeds x (so it is not about sexism).
Sexism can be reduced to an object that is counted (and thus discounted).
Feminist critiques show how sexism is not reducible to x but becomes part of a wider system that clears the way for some and not others.
So the response: exercises the reduction we challenge.
In some recent posts I have been reflecting on the problem of sexual harassment in universities. It is another problem with a name but a problem that often goes unnamed. I want to reflect on is how evidence – or the lack of evidence – plays such a crucial role in how the problem is reproduced.
There is a lot of evidence of harassment because there is a lot of harassment. In my own college (and this story would be tellable in other colleges) many people knew about the problem – maybe not the scale of it – but they knew enough to know there was a problem (2). That problem was often translated into advice or warnings to incoming female students to be careful of such-and-such professor. Knowing enough is not knowing enough. I called this “not knowing enough” in an earlier post “a partial sighting of walls.” It was partial, perhaps, because people did not want to know the scale of it; they did not want the full view. Or perhaps a fuller view is just hard to have. In their important analysis of sexual harassment in universities, Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page note how harassment of students (such as groping) can take place in full view of others. As they describe: “The failure of bystanders to object to open displays of sexual harassment can also take a more active form. Specifically, sexual harassment can be normalised through a response to it that makes light of it. When this occurs, sexual harassment is not ignored, but laughed at” (2015: 42). Whitley and Page are giving us an account of the very mechanisms that allow the harassment that is evident not to become evident (even to those who witness it) as harassment, as wrong or a wrong, let alone to become evidence.
There are ways of apprehending things that can reduce the scale of harassment or minimize the damage. Perhaps: to arrive into an organization is to inherit a way of apprehending things. And, sometimes, something that has become increasingly evident is still not acknowledged because to acknowledge it would get in the way of something: your work, your happiness, your relationship to a person who can give you access to resources, your relationship to the institution. Maybe noticing something would demand too much time, too much attention. This is what I mean by the killjoy as testimony. She comes up because she reveals what others do not want to notice.
So I think we can learn: we can have evidence of something without something becoming evident to someone.
But there is more to say.
What happens to a policy can happen to a person.
Enquiries into sexual harassment can be held without finding evidence even when there is evidence. Sometimes evidence is not found because: there is an lack of an institutional will to find evidence. It can be easy not to find what you are not willing to find. Other times evidence is not found because: it is too hard to provide evidence. Why is it hard to provide evidence? We need to answer this question to get at the problem. When sexual harassment becomes part of a culture, it works to recruit individuals, including those who are harassed (and when you become willing to go along with it, you experience yourself as no longer harassed, which can offer some relief from pressure). Harassment increases the costs of not going along with harassment (whether your own harassment or the harassment of others). Perhaps people around you are saying: this is OK; this is just how things are. So if you do not go along with it, you threaten how things are. Not saying something becomes a social and moral requirement for being part of something: to question or to challenge or to complain is framed as a form of disloyalty that would threaten everybody; everything. Maybe you are told it would damage your prospects to complain: to become a complainer as to lose velocity. Not coming forward might be necessary to moving on or moving up. The nature of sexual harassment makes it hard for anyone to provide evidence of sexual harassment. The more harassed you are, the harder it is to report the harassment. To be in a position to provide evidence requires that you have support.
This is another way that evidence is addressed to a feminist collective. We need to combine forces in order to give evidence of what makes it difficult to be. And we often have to work informally, to create our own support systems. In order to provide evidence of some things you have to bypass the very mechanisms that allow those things to be reproduced. Formal complaints procedures are often: methods for making evidence not appear.
Other times, evidence is provided but it is discounted. We are coming back to an old problem: you discredit the evidence by discrediting the provider of the evidence. We know this is how and why it remains so hard to get justice for victims of sexual assault: the law works to discredit the woman who is the victim by finding in her testimony, or character, or behavior, evidence of another kind, evidence of consent that would render her the criminal: the one who is falsely accusing the man, who would become the victim. Her evidence is refuting by turning her speech into evidence of guilt, the kind of guilt that is assumed because of sexism: how women are historically understood as unreliable witnesses to their own lives; how women are heard as saying yes, whatever she says, or does; saying yes, when she says no.
Evidence of sexism is eliminated by sexism.
This is a shattering history.
How she is perceived as being as a violation of her being.
No wonder, perception matters. It is not simply that we have to show that what we perceive as sexism or racism is sexism or racism. It is not simply that we have to work on perception. Rather, sexism and racism works through perceptions: they are about how bodies are perceived in the first place; how words stick to bodies, a yes, a no; they are about whose way is cleared, who is cleared; whose way is impeded, who is impeded. And indeed: what is often not perceived teaches us how perception matters.
And this has been my own experience of racism. Right now in the UK, post Brexit; there is more attention to racism than we have been used to. We know that racism is not new. We know we are talking about the old when we are talking about racism. We have been here before; and there will be more. That attention is teaching us how much was not noticed before, the ordinary and everyday racism that allows brown and black bodies to be stopped in the streets, here, to be asked where they are from, to be told they are not from here. We have evidence of how racism was not evident to those to whom it was not directed. The evidence might not have amounted to much because of the nerve it touched: a social space can be created by turning away from what (and who) gets in the way.
Racism is reproduced by how racism is not noticed by those who are not at a receiving end.
But when you talk about racism, it is so often dismissed as in your head. Or something you are noticing because you are obsessed, because you have magnified something. So much of our work is working out how to live with the consequences that racism is imperceptible to others.
By others I am referring to: whiteness.
One time during a lecture I shared a quote from my study of diversity work. It was by a black woman talking about what happened when she entered a room for a job interview. She encounters what she usually encounters: a sea of whiteness. They did not expect her. The atmosphere becomes tense. They are fidgeting. Papers are shuffling. Papers: they can tell a story. She can tell they are not expecting her. And she knows when they see her, they see a black woman. Some come to embody what others do not wish to see. She can tell they were expecting a white person to come in. She tries to make them comfortable. Diversity work: when you have to make others comfortable with the fact of your arrival.
A white student comes up to me afterwards and says: how could she know? How could she know it was about race? It could have been something else. So often a question is an assertion in disguise. It is not about race. She made it about race.
When you say racism, they say: it could have been something else. Sometimes you just know when it is racism. It is as tangible as hitting a wall, that the problem is you; that part of you that makes you the person they do not want or expect, the part of you than makes you stand out from the sea of whiteness. Sometimes you are not sure. And you begin to feel paranoid. That is what racism does: it makes you question everything, the whole world, the world to which you exist in relation. Heterosexism and sexism are like that too: are they looking at me like that because of that? Is that why they are passing us over, two women at the table? You are not sure.
That is what it does: you are not sure.
You are not allowed to be sure.
Sometimes you are sure.
You can be sure and not sure.
I am speaking to an interviewee – a woman of color – about racism. We are talking of those little encounters, and their very big effects. It is “off tape,” we are just talking, recognising each other, as you do, in how we recognise racism in those everyday encounters you have with people who can’t handle it, the idea of it. She says, “They always say to me that you reduce everything to racism.” A similar judgment has been implied to me, or said to me, many times. Why are you always bringing racism up? Is that all you can see? Are you obsessed? Racism becomes your paranoia. Of course, it’s a way of saying that racism doesn’t really exist in the way you say it does. It is as if we had to invent racism to explain our own feeling of exclusion; it is as if racism was our way of not being responsible for the places we do not or cannot go. It is a form of racism to say that racism does not exist. I think we know this.
But I am thinking more about paranoia, and the good reasons for bad feelings. I guess the problem is that I do feel paranoid even if I know that this paranoia is reasonable. I do have a kind of paranoid anxiety about everything. I am not sure when x happens, whether x is about racism. I am not sure. And because I am not sure, then x is lived as always possibly about racism, as what explains how you inhabit the world you do. Racism creates paranoia; that’s what racism does. Racism is reproduced both by the fantasy of paranoia (it doesn’t “really” exist), and by the effect of the fantasy of paranoia, which is to make us paranoid.
When racism is understood as our creation, we become responsible for not bringing it into existence.
The world becomes evidence when: you are not accommodated. And the evidence you have of not being accommodated is dismissed by those who are accommodated. They like their house. They think it has room. That it is airy. You find it harder to breath.
Air can be occupied.
You have encounters like this: you can tell what is going on from the atmosphere. You recognise it. One time I was in Paris. The conversation was in French. I couldn’t understand what was being said. But I could tell when racism came up. The sound rose up. I glanced at my colleague, and she nodded. The volume switch: evidence of how the intangibility of atmosphere can become solid. An atmosphere can become a wall.
But we can have evidence of racism that exceeds this. We can have evidence of taunts. Graffiti on walls. We can have evidence of beatings. We can have evidence of murder. We can have evidence of the police killing a black man. We can have video evidence. And still it remains possible for racism not to be seen. Because racism is how the world is seen. It is how blackness is identified as dangerous; it is how a wrong is made a right, it is how even a hand moving is made a fright. When racism is how a world is seen, racism is not seen. We can witness what is at stake here. It is a matter of life and death.
You can be stopped by a perception. You can be killed by a perception.
How you are perceived as being can be what stops you from being.
Evidence of violence can be removed. There is violence in the removal of evidence of violence.
Documents can disappear from an archive because of what they would reveal. In 2011, an archive became public: a collection of documents, 8,800 files to be exact, from 37 former British colonies. They are called the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Migrated Archives. These documents are held at the highly-secure government communications centre at Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire. These documents form a necessarily incomplete archive. We can read that history of incompletion; we can read what has gone missing. Because included in this archive are documents that document destruction; that document how the destruction of documents is willed as policy. We have now access to papers that issued instructions for the systematic destruction of other papers, an instruction made in 1961 by the secretary of state for the colonies. The documents instructed that post-independence governments should not get any material that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government,” that could “embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg police informers,” that might compromise intelligence sources, or that might “be used unethically by ministers in the successor government.” We have a trace in an archive of papers that are missing from the archive, papers that are destroyed because they record the violence of colonial history, violence committed by actors, the state; the monarchy, who have had a hand in the violence, who administered that violence.
If a document can be made to disappear, then an archive is what is not assembled.(3) An archive becomes what we do not have. Not all evidence of violence needs to be destroyed. What is not destroyed can be discounted.
White supremacy could be understood as an institutional machine, a system that reproduces itself by disguising that it is a system.
We have evidence of how that institutional machine works. But the evidence we have will be destroyed or discounted because that’s how the machine works.
- This is also how transphobic viewpoints are justified: as just another viewpoint to be expressed at the happy diversity feminist table. I refuse that feminist table. For this reason one feminist has recently called my model of dialogue “authoritarian.” If not permitting hate speech on my table is authoritarian, I will be authoritarian. I will be challenging this liberal model of dialogue in a future post currently titled “Speak to Me!”. I will also be giving some suggestions for how you can tell the difference between transphobic work and critical work on sex and gender (much of that work is by trans scholars and activists). Baby clue: the former tends to rely on “stranger danger” narratives (posing trans women as dangerous to feminism or to society in more or less extreme ways). Racist viewpoints also rest on stranger danger narratives. Those deemed dangerous are endangered by that viewpoint. Simpler: it is dangerous to be perceived as dangerous.
- I include myself in that many and in a future post, Resignation as a Feminist Issue, I will discuss how I ended up knowing enough and thus not knowing enough, for too long. Baby clue: I had a policy of boycotting the Centre in which much of the harassment took place (because I had been to a few of their events in which I witnessed the sexist and misogynist nature of the intellectual culture). This policy of withdrawal meant that I actively participated in the stranding of the students who were being harassed and also that I did not witness the harassment. This is how when I first learnt of what was actually going on, I was shocked. My partial sighting of a wall meant the wall did come into full view. I need to learn from this.
- Sexual harassment is another “missing archive.” Confidentiality can be used within institutions to make thing disappear, the truth even; so that the institution will not embarrassed by what is revealed, things that might damage the institution. That sexual harassment cases are so often wrapped up by confidentiality, means an archive is precisely what we do not have: we not even have evidence that evidence was presented; we do not have access to papers, materials, which would allow us to know what happened. There are so many missing cases, as I have been involved in this work I have heard of more and more of them.
Franklin, Sarah (2015). “Sexism as a Means of Reproduction,” New Formations, 86: 14-33.
Frye, Marilyn (1983). The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Trumansburg,New York: The Crossing Press.
Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press.
Thobani, Sunera (2007). “White Wars: Western Feminisms and the ‘War on Terror.’” Feminist Theory 8, 2: 169-185.
Whitley, Leila and Tiffany Page (2015). “Sexism at the Centre: Locating the Problem of Sexual Harrassment,” New Formations. 86: 34-53.