Being positive is often presented as a good way to be. Maybe times are difficult; maybe they are disastrous. In such times, being positive might be a way of countering the negatives. You need to buckle up, keep your chin up. It might be assumed that if you don’t stay positive, you would end up doing nothing; you might stay at home rather than go on a march, brimming with a sense of your own injury, licking your wounds, giving up hope, retreating from rather than advancing a cause. To be part of a cause is assumed to require getting over your misery: getting over it; getting over yourself.
But why be so positive about being positive? What is left out from such a view? The expression don’t agonize organize has been much repeated, becoming mantra. The expression was coined by African American activist Florynce (Flo) Kennedy. A focus in her revolutionary work was on the necessity of doing the work, in other words, on the need to organize. But “don’t agonize, organize” is often used to imply that we have to stop agonizing in order to start organizing. Feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti, for example, entitled a piece, “Don’t agonize, organize,” although she does not refer to Kennedy’s work. She argues that “Violence, pain and resentment are conducive to paralysis, not to change.” She cites Hilary Clinton on anger: “anger is not a project, as Hilary Clinton so lucidly puts it”.
It is interesting that the word agonize derives from struggle. Organizing against state violence is indeed a struggle. The worlds we are fighting against making fighting against worlds costly. In organizing we also need to share the costs of organizing. A recent article by Mira Curzer contains many principles that I agree with, principles that I share in my own killjoy survival kit (1) that derive from the need to sustain ourselves as activists. There is one argument in the post that I think we need to examine closely in the spirit of questioning ourselves as well as others: that if you are not enjoying yourself when you are protesting “you’re doing it wrong.” I think there is something wrong with the idea that there is a right way to feel when we are protesting.
Protesting is messy, and there are times when we arrive and leave with grief in our hearts. In my previous post I tried to suggest how our grief can be active, a way of bringing “our dead with us,” to use José Esteban Muñoz’s words. We might also be motivated and moved by an anger that, as Audre Lorde described, “is loaded with information and energy” (1984, 127). Audre Lorde’s work on anger has been powerfully evoked by Kirsten West Savali in a discussion of Black women’s “radical uses of anger”. She notes how white feminism occupied the recent women’s march. Anger at racism can be what brings you to the march; anger at racism can be an experience of the march. The anger is dismissed. As Savali writes “Dismissing the anger and betrayal that some black women are experiencing is violent.” Dismissing anger at racism is racism.
Black women’s anger is treated as divisive: as getting away of feminist enjoyment and solidarity. What is divisive is the assumption that divisions are caused by pointing out divisions, which is of course means there are at least two divisions at stake here: racism as a division that exists and racism as the division of not recognizing racism as a division. Audre Lorde also wrote:“When women of Color speak out of the anger that laces so many of our contacts with white women, we are often told that we are ‘creating a mood of helplessness,’ ‘preventing white women from getting past guilt,’ or ‘standing in the way of trusting communication and action’” (1984, 131). Note how the exposure of violence becomes the origin of violence. The woman of color must let go of her anger for the white woman to move on. Letting go: another way we experience the requirement to be positive as if racism only goes on because we keep going on about it.
No wonder: black feminisms and feminisms of color are archives of anger.
I am not saying, however that all those feelings that have been assumed to be bad feelings, or negative feelings, destructive, lead us to act. Sometimes we are slowed down, even stopped by the heaviness of our affections; it is too much. We can be in too much pain to go out and join in a struggle with others. We can be numb. I respect the need to withdraw in grief. I also know that many reactions that we do not notice because of a withdrawal can still be contributing something, even when we feel they are not. We can at times not be able to do something that is tangible to others but that does not mean we are not doing anything; for some staying alive is work. But happiness too can involve withdrawal. You can turn away from what compromises your happiness to preserve your happiness; you can assume that their pain of strangers has nothing to do with you, the pain of strangers can appear, as strangers appear, at the edges of social consciousness; as intrusions.
Happiness can be a bubble. Sometimes we need the bubble to burst.
It is true that sometimes we need to act quickly; we have no time to attend to how we feel. We can act quickly with whatever feelings we have in our hearts. And we might also need to recognize that not everyone has the same speed. We might also remember that a response, what can I do?, can be used as a way of rushing over something including the sticky matter of one’s own implication in what has been rushed over. It is messy; complicated; sticky, too.
We need to challenge this tendency to think that being positive is being active. It is a tendency that is evident in the affirmative turn within feminism and beyond. The equation is made more or less explicitly: not only that being positive is being active, but that being negative is being passive or reactive.
It might be implied we have a duty to be positive if we are to oppose something because what we oppose is based on negativity. For example some have suggested that fascism is about negative feeling (hatred, resentment). Fascism can just as easily be articulated as a politics of love: a love for a “we” that is fragile and in need of protection, a love that declares we first as an emergency. I have read suggestions that we should challenge fascism by being more loving towards other. The idea that we can love our way out of fascism is deeply problematic. No feeling is going to get out of this, and the idea that we can feel our way out might be how we stay in.
Partly what we need to challenge is the heroic model of an active subject. All actions are reactions. Joy is no less a reaction to something than sadness. An action is a reaction that has forgotten the “re.” All actions are reactions to something. We are shaped by something. Reaction is pedagogy, one that is not simply premised on self-revelation. We learn from our reactions to the world about the world.
A feminist killjoy experiences the requirement to be positive as a form of negation. What is at stake here is not so much which feelings bring us to action but how to respond to the injunction to feel in a certain way. Smiles are often been assumed to be performatives: that by smiling you would become happy, that you would even catch the feeling from an expression (rather than expressing a feeling you would feel the expression). I called this in The Promise of Happiness a “hopeful performativity,” the kind of performativity that is often used in positive psychology: that if repeated enough, if repeated well, you can make yourself be more positive, you can as it were talk yourself into happiness. And the assumption is that being positive will generate further returns: that as a positive person you will get a better job, be healthier, have a better chance of finding a partner, and so on. It is the promise of “smile and the world will smile with you,” the promise not only that you will make yourself happy but that you will make others happy too.
But this also means: if you fail to make yourself happy you make others unhappy.
It can cause unhappiness to be the cause of unhappiness.
No wonder something other than happiness becomes a feminist cause.
Audre Lorde and Barbara Ehrenreich offered strong critiques of the violence that follows the assumption that being positive is about generating different and better outcomes. Ehrenreich’s book title, Smile or Die says it all: ill-health and even death can be understood as a consequence of not smiling enough. Not smiling becomes morbid. She should have cited Audre Lorde who made the same argument much earlier. Lorde suggests: “looking on the bright side of things is a euphemism used for obscuring certain realities of life, the open consideration of which might prove threatening to the status quo” (1997: 76). To obscure or to take cover by looking on the bright side is to avoid what might threaten the world as it is. Lorde suggests that the very idea that our first responsibility is for our own happiness must be resisted by political struggle, which means resisting the idea that our own resistance is a failure to be responsible for happiness: “Was I really fighting the spread of radiation, racism, woman-slaughter, chemical invasion and our food, pollution of our environment, and the abuse and psychic destruction of your young, merely to avoid dealing with my first and greatest responsibility to be happy?” (76). Audre Lorde gave us an answer in the form of a question.
We have behind us many feminist attempts to critique the positivity of positivity. Betty Friedan for example exposed a rotten infection underneath the smile of the housewife. Friedan discusses “pretty housewives” who beamed over their “foaming dishpans” (1965, 19). That the housewife appears smiling as she cleans the dishes matters. Her smile becomes evidence that she is happy to do this work: the work of caring for the family which shows that she cares for the family. Think of the Disney song, “Whistle while you work,” and you get a sense of what is at stake in the appeal of this figure (the whiteness of what is at stake, the bourgeois morality, as well as the cheerful nature of femininity as a performance). Betty Friedan’s solution to the problem with no name, which she named, was for housewives to put down their foaming dish pans and to enter the paid workforce. As bell hooks (2000) notes, this meant that black and working-class women often had to do the domestic labor that allowed white middle-class woman to escape from it. Or if she went to work happily, but did not employ other women to do that work, then she would have to pick up those pans happily on her return.
Smiles can be employed as a defence of extreme forms of exploitation. Smiling peasants, smiling natives, smiling servants: these are all figures employed to do certain kinds of work. The history of the use of the figure of the smiling slave is not behind us. Consider the children’s book A Cake for George Washington published in 2006, which was full of images of smiling slaves; happy as they work. Mikki Kendall describes this book very well: “A candy coated depiction of a multi generational crime against humanity.”Smiling becomes a way of covering over violence and trauma; repainting brutality as joy. We are familiar with candy-coating strategies in the UK. For example, Trevor Phillips said in a speech to the Conservative Party in 2005, “we created something called the empire where we mixed and mingled with people very different from those of these islands.” Yes: even empire can be described as a party, as mixing and mingling, evidence that “British people are not by nature bigots.”
A history of conquest and violence can be covered over by a smile. And we can be asked to smile about this history.
A smile is employed. And you can be employed to smile. Arlie Hochschild’s The Managed Heart explores how workers becomes alienated from smiles when smiling is what workers have to do as part of your job. Her study was focused in particular on flight attendants. Smiling is part of the service. Hochschild suggests that it is harder to smile when you do not feel like smiling. It takes emotional labor to get yourself behind the smile. When the work is successful, a smile works; the smile might even appear natural or effortless. There is often a lot of effort in what appears effortless.
Even if don’t have much hope in hopeful performatives, we can think about emotional labor as the effort to bring about happiness. Hochschild uses the example of the bride who does feel happy on the wedding day. If the bride feels “depressed and upset” then she is experiencing an “inappropriate affect” (2003, 59), or is being affected inappropriately. She has to save the day by feeling right: “sensing a gap between the ideal feeling and the actual feeling she tolerated, the bride prompts herself to be happy” (61). The capacity to “save the day” depends on the bride being able to be affected in the right way or at least able to persuade others that she is being affected in the right way. Maybe it works, and the happiness of the day is preserved. We learn from this example that it is possible not to inhabit fully one’s own happiness, or even to be alienated from one’s happiness, if the former affection remains lively, or if one is made uneasy by the labor of making yourself feel a certain way. Uneasiness might persist in the very feeling of being happy, as a feeling of unease with the happiness you are in.
We do not always close the gap between how we do feel and how we should feel. Disappointment can also involve an anxious narrative of self-doubt (why I am not made happy by this, what is wrong with me?), or a narrative of rage against the world that elevated somethings as good. Anger can fill the gap between the promise of a feeling and the feeling of a feeling. We become strangers, or affect aliens, in such moments.
If you don’t appear happy, you can be stopped and asked questions. I am sure many girls and women have heard comments like, “Smile, love, it could be worse,” when they walk out and about without cheerfulness planted on their faces.If you react, it can provoke comments that are much worse. Smiling becomes a feminine achievement. But smiling can also be what you have to do to compensate when you are perceived as not feminine enough. You might have to soften your appearance because (or when) you are perceived as too hard. A black woman or woman of color might have to smile all the more because she is perceived as angry or too assertive: smiling then becomes what you have to do in order to dislodge an expectation. Expectations can be confirmed by our effort to dislodge them. Even a smile can be too assertive if you are judged as being too assertive.
Sometimes smiling becomes a requirement because of the resistance we are encountering to the work we are doing. Diversity work in the first sense that I use it (the effort to transform institutions by opening them up to those who have not been included) often involves smiling work. I have noted how diversity workers are often institutional killjoys, as getting in the way of the happiness of an organisation. When you are a killjoy, you are less likely to be heard. You know that old: eyes rolling. Some diversity workers thus try to maximize their distance from the figure of the institutional killjoy. Two members of an equality unit I spoke to informally talked very explicitly about how they smiled as a strategy. The director of the unit said “as soon as we got here we started smiling. And we just kept smiling.” I referred earlier to Arlie Hochschild’s work on how smiling becomes a form of emotional labor within the service sector. For the diversity worker, smiles might not have exchange value in quite this way: she is not required to smile in order to make customers happy. Rather smiling becomes a strategy because the worker is alienated from the organisation by virtue of the kind of work she is doing. She smiles in order to manage how diversity is perceived. She may certainly be alienated by this requirement to smile, but she senses that smiling is necessary in order to counter the perception of diversity workers as hostile or unfriendly.
Other diversity workers refuse to smile or even to use smiley words. One practitioner said that for her “Diversity obscures the issues… It can, diversity is like a big shiny red apple right, and it all looks wonderful but if you actually cut into that apple there’s a rotten core in there and you know that it’s actually all rotting away and it’s not actually being addressed. It all looks wonderful but the inequalities aren’t being addressed.” When I listened to this practitioner I was reminded of Betty Friedan’s critique of the image of the happy housewife whose beaming smile hides an infection. We can think of the labor of creating shiny surfaces. When something is shiny, so much is not reflected. The creation of a shiny surface is how an organisation can reflect back a good image to itself.
Diversity work in the second sense that I have used it – the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an organisation – also involves smiling. Sometimes we are required to smile in their brochures, almost as if we have to smile in response to the gift of having been included. Smiles become gratitude. We provide smiley colorful faces.
Diversity: a glossy brochure. Diversity: how racism is glossed over.
Smiling here might not involve just planting smiles on our faces in order to create the appearance of happy diversity. We might have to turn our bodies into smiles.
A black diversity trainer describes his work as a series of instructions that he gives to himself “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 behavior and tone in as English a tone as I can. I am very careful, just very careful.” I have called this kind of work he describes so powerfully here, the work of being “very careful,” as institutional passing: it is what you have to do to pass into an organisation by passing out of (or trying to pass out of) a stereotype. Passing is about “softening” 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 of what you say, how you appear, in order to maximize the distance between yourself and 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.
Institutional passing includes the work you do to pass through by passing out of an expectation: you try not to be the angry person of color, the troublemaker, that difficult person. You have to demonstrate that you are willing to ease the burden of your own difference. The killjoy too appears here as the one that we must give up; institutional passing as appearing to fulfill the happiness duty, softening our appearance, smiling because or when we are perceived as too harsh. We smile as compensation, almost as if we are apologizing for existing at all.
Luckily things are not always as they appear. I might smile and be plotting, passing as happy, appearing to be working in agreement in order to work against an agreement. Or I might hold into the very figures (angry person of color, troublemaker, feminist killjoy) and let them spill their containers.
Let me end with a plea: sensitive snowflakes, we need you! We can build a movement out of those who seem too weak to bear much weight. Our tears can become a mountain, our anger a weapon; when we shatter, we matter.To react is to draw upon what is behind us. So often we are assumed to be overreacting when we react to these histories that have hardened as walls. Overreaction: when you react to what is not over.
We know from feminist histories how much political work is required to refuse the injunction to be positive. Shulamith Firestone is Dialectic of Sex describes her “dream action” for the women’s liberation movement as a smile boycott (Firestone 1970, 90). She wants us to stop smiling until we have something to smile about. Perhaps we could call this action, following Lisa Millbank, a smile strike, to emphasize its collective nature.
Collectively we would strike by not smiling. Not smiling is an action when smiling is a requirement. You refuse to smile in order to meet an expectation that you should smile.
A smile strike is necessary to announce our disagreement, our unhappiness, with a system. It is time for a smile strike.
- My killjoy survival kit develops some of the arguments from this post, Self-Care as Warfare. I do not argue that we need to feel bad. I suggest that we need a different relation to bad feeling. The killjoy survival kit is the first conclusion to Living a Feminist Life (2017).
Ehrenreich, Barbara (2009). Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America. Granta.
Friedan, Betty (1965). The Feminine Mystique. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
hooks, bell (2000). Feminist Theory: from Margin to Centre. London: Pluto Press.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell (2003). The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Second Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: The Crossing Press.
———-(1997). The Cancer Journals. Aunt Lute Books: San Francisco.
Muñoz, José Esteban (1999). Disidentifications; Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. University of Minnesota Press.