Diversity Work as Complaint

In my previous post I suggested that making a complaint can be a form of diversity work. You might have to complain in order to progress within an organisation. When a complaint is necessary in order for you to progress, a complaint can be an obstacle to your progression. I have spoken to many academics who have made complaints because they did not receive a promotion and who understood not being promoted as a result of structural impediments such as ableism, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. A structure can be what slows you down.  And note that to make a formal complaint is to enter into a difficult and time-consuming project. You can be slowed down even more by having to address what slows you down (1).

A complaint is also diversity work in the sense that a complaint teaches you about an organisation; you learn about the culture of an organisation from how a complaint is treated especially if a complaint is about the culture of an organisation.

I think we can also reverse my formulation: diversity work as complaint. I have been using diversity work in two senses: the work we do to transform an institution and the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution. These two senses can meet in a body: those who do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution are often given the task of transforming these norms. A complaint is another way these senses of diversity work meet; it is what you are doing when you challenge the norms that govern institutional life either as an explicit task you have given yourself or by virtue of how you appear.

A complaint can be a catalogue of instances. You are sent a “calls for paper” in advance of it being circulated. It refers only to white men. This is not unusual; it is business as usual. You point it out as usual. You have to keep saying it because they keep doing it. A concerned response, yes, you are quite right, we will amend it. The “calls for paper” is then circulated. It still only refers to white men. You are at a meeting with staff and students. You are the only woman of colour professor at the meeting. This is not surprising: you are the only woman of colour professor in the department. And you are the only professor not referred to as professor. If you were to ask to be referred to as professor, you would be heard as being self-promotional, as insisting on your dues. You are giving a talk on whiteness. A white man is in the audience and responds, but you’re a Professor. You can hear the implications of this but, but look at you Professor Ahmed, see how far you have come. 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. You are giving a talk on racism. A white woman comes up to you afterwards and puts her arm next to yours. We are almost the same colour, she says. You wouldn’t know you were any different from me, she says. It is as if talking about racism creates a difference that would not otherwise be there. I do not say anything. I have let my arm do the talking. You are invited to give a lecture at a university. The lecture is advertised as part of the university’s diversity programme. They do not advertise it as a research event, despite being asked to do so a number of times by the woman of colour who invited you. Diversity and research are treated as two different tracks, such that in doing diversity, or being diversity, you fall off, you might even be pushed off, the research track, the track that leads further up the organization, the track that eases and enables a progression.

These examples are more than a catalogue of instances. They are a catalogue of the university. They teach us how a university is built. We become diversity workers, when we try to dismantle the structures that are not built to accommodate us.  We also become complainers. Asking for women and people of colour to be added to a reference list or a syllabus is heard as complaint, using words like whiteness or racism is heard as complaint, asking to be referred to by the right title is heard not only as self-promotional but also as a complaint; indeed a complaint is often heard as self-promotional.

Complaint: a word can bring up a history. The word complaint derives from old French, complaindre, to lament, a lament, an expression of sorrow and grief, from Latin, lamentum, “wailing, moaning; weeping.” Wailing, moaning; weeping: as feminists of colour, we are often heard this way, whatever we say, however we say it; hysterical, killjoys, over-reacting, sensitive, easily hurt, angry, as if we do not get over it because we have not got over ourselves. A complaint can be how diversity work is registered whether or not a complaint is made. One time at a reception a white male professor (who was also a senior manager) came up to me and asked me rather crossly why I was always “going on” about being a feminist killjoy. He murmured something about there being lots of women in senior management at the college (he didn’t mention that all the senior management were white). The implication was: there was nothing to complain about; we should be happy and grateful for the support given to our own progression.

Summary: complaint as ingratitude.

In an earlier post, Feminist Complaint, which I wrote before I began my project on complaint, I noted how to be heard as complaining is not to be heard. Listening to those who have made complaints has allowed me to understand more about how complaints are heard. I am beginning to appreciate how hearing as such is a mechanism: how a complaint about an organisation is heard as how an organisation works. A complaint can be considered a technology of hearing. I want to pick up here up on four key terms from my earlier post on complaint as diversity work: firstly complaints are heard as negative, as whining or moaning about a state of affairs that you could just as easily accept. This is how a complaint is a killjoy genre: no wonder I am writing about complaints! Secondly (and relatedly) a complaint is heard as destructive even if those who make complaints understand themselves to be contributing to a conversation or to be involved in a shared process of culture change. We learn so much from this: any attempt to modify something is judged as trying to destroy something. A complaint might be teaching us about the investment in things staying the same or being as they are. Another crucial aspect of how complaints are heard is magnification: a complaint is heard as calling for more than is being called for. Once heard this way, a complaint can be dismissed as too extreme to be considered as part of a constructive process (2). A complaint can then be treated as self-referential, as being about the complainer. A complaint becomes the expression of a failure to be properly integrated into the culture of an institution.

How does considering complaint as a technology of hearing help us to make sense of the work of diversity work? Let’s take “decolonising the curriculum” as an example. Decolonising the curriculum usually involves staff and students in conversation with each other about what is being taught and what is not being taught. It involves trying to reflect on how histories of colonialism shape the syllabus by informing decisions about the syllabus. But when treated as complaint, decolonising the curriculum is understood as 1) a failure to appreciate history 2) an attempt to destroy what is of inherent or universal value 3) a will to bring to an end what or even who already exists 4) as coming from militant students (in particular from BAME students) who by complaining are demonstrating that they are not integrated properly and who are promoting themselves by imposing their own agenda upon others.

If this sounds familiar it is because it is familiar.

Take for example the coverage of the SOAS decolonising the curriculum project. The SOAS campaign is a good example of diversity work; of how questioning what is taught is about thinking about the history of an institution;  breathing life into that institution. A helpful post describing the campaign begins with the history of SOAS itself: “the School of Oriental Studies began as a colonial project in 1916 to deepen Europe’s understanding of the Global South. “Africa” was eventually added to the schools name in 1938. With the 100th year of SOAS coming up, it’s important to assess the colonial origins of the institution and look ahead to the ways in which the school is developing.” The post further describes: “One of the key aspects of this campaign is for us to examine the ways in which Western philosophy puts a specific conception of Man at the centre. This enables the myth of ‘universal truth’ as being a body of knowledge that has dictated the current colonial structure of the world we live in today.”

Oriental studies: one might think here of Edward Said’s Orientalism. For Said “the Orient is an integral part of European material civilisation and culture…a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and styles” (1978: 2, emphasis Said’s). A university can be a supporting institution; where ideas circulate and are held. We can think of how that support can work as a referencing system; Orientalists who have the authority and expertise cite Orientalists. A citational chain is created. Just take the work of James Mill, a utilitarian philosopher. After he published his History of British India, he was offered a role in the East India Company (his son John Stuart Mill also had an administrative role in the company). How did Mill become an authority on India? He tells you himself: “A duly qualified man can obtain more knowledge of India in one year in his closet in England than he could obtain during the course of the longest life, by the use of his eyes and ears in India” ([1818] 1997, 4). Mill considers himself an authority on India because he had never been to India. He learns about India from other books written by Orientalist scholars; knowledge becomes a system of references in which the others are the objects, not subjects, spoken about, not spoken to. I think of that closet in England as a container technology; how empire is “at home” through the restriction of the circulation of knowledge about “the others.”

We acquire knowledge about knowledge from learning this history. We learn so much about utilitarian philosophy from the history of the East India Company, for instance. How is the project of decolonising the curriculum represented in wider public discourse? It is certainly not framed as learning more from more. Let’s take this article from The Telegraph. It describes the campaign as follows:  “students at a prestigious London university are demanding that figures such as Plato, Descartes and Immanuel Kant should be largely dropped from the curriculum because they are white.”  This framing is very useful: it demonstrates for us how hearing complaint works. The students asked for no such thing; they did not ask for any philosophers to be removed from the syllabus (let alone “because they were white”). They asked for more philosophy from outside the West to be included; and they asked for more discussion of the colonial contexts that shaped eighteenth and nineteenth century European philosophy.  Asking about, say, the role of racism in Enlightenment philosophy teaches us more not less about that philosophy.  When you don’t put racism in brackets (as if what Kant had to say about Africa had nothing to do with his universalism or his educational or moral philosophy), you learn more about philosophy as well as the world.

Decolonising the curriculum is a chance to learn more about a history that is not simply behind is. But that is not how the work of decolonising the curriculum is framed; it is framed as a willful attempt to damage what should be revered.  A complaint about a canon is framed as the failure to revere the canon. Indeed a complaint teaches us about what (and who) becomes an object of reverence.

We learn also: it can be made compulsory to revere something.  A complainer has to refuse this compulsion.

One academic I interviewed described what she called “a culture of not complaining” in her former university. This might not sound much like academic culture: surely academics complain rather a lot? Maybe they complain about somethings but not others. Maybe you are allowed to complain about the weather or even bad management; a complaint can then become a bond; when a grievance can be shared it is allowed to be expressed. Maybe complaining is permitted when it creates a sense of sharing something, however negative. But what if you want to complain about what is being shared? This academic explained the “culture of not complaining” as being a result of what she called “a legacy project.” She spoke of how her colleagues described the institution’s history as what you would come to respect if you were there long enough.  The would-be-complainer is positioned as a kind of newbie: a complaint is implied to be a result of someone not having been in an organisation long enough to appreciate its history. A complaint becomes a symptom of impatience: as if with patience you would have eventually come to revere that which you question.

Speaking of questions: even asking a question about the value of something can be heard as attempting to destroy its value, like chipping away at a statue, or as being a result of what you have failed to appreciate. Questions can be heard as complaints when there is so much you are not supposed to question. This is how students who question what they are being taught are heard as being destructive, as if questioning is itself a form of impertinance.

The history of empire too is a kind of legacy project. So often empire is evoked today as a moral project just as it was during the period of imperial expansion; empire as a gift, as bringing others into modernity, as bringing law and order and railways, not a history of violence and conquest, of the appropriation of labour, that is, of people; and of land and resources. Even to speak of empire in less than glowing terms is deemed to compromise a legacy. In my book, The Promise of Happiness (2010) I considered the figure of the melancholic migrant as the one who is deemed to compromise the nation because of the failure to let go of memories of racism, as if memories of racism (rather than racism itself) are what stops participation in the national game. A complaint is framed not only as a result of the failure to be integrated but as being what would prevent a future integration; a complaint as what you must give up to get on or to get along.

Those who try to offer another kind of account of the history of empire are discredited. To be less than positive about the legacy of European imperialism is to be heard as being negative. Negation becomes property; as if complainers are being negative because they have a negative being. We are back to how complaint is judged as self-expression and thus as self-promotion.  When we ask for more people of colour to be added to a syllabus, we are often heard as talking about ourselves, as if we are only concerned with being missing ourselves, or with being added ourselves. Identity politics is used whenever those deemed strangers, as not belonging, question how worlds are constructed whether what is questioned is a building, a syllabus, a meeting, or a programme.

And if a critique is heard as being about those who make the critique, the object being critiqued disappears. Or a critique is heard as a willful act of trying to destroy that object. You just have to say that a canon might not be the simply expression of quality or worth, and they hear relativism as if you are going to teach Shakespeare alongside a cereal packet (how could you do that to Shakespeare!). You might ask for more philosophies from outside the West to be taught on the syllabus, and they hear you as calling for the removal of white philosophers; they make use of white as an adjective as if it attaches simply to who. You can hear how being heard as making a complaint matters: to hear a complaint is to hear somebody as trying to destroy something, complaint as vandalism, but also trying to bring an end to somebody, as censoring who, as leading to less of who. In fact students are asking for more not less; more context to what is taught, more to be taught than the narrowness of the world as seen from a viewing point, a point that disappears as point by being treated as universal.

We need to make explicit what is at stake here: when decolonising the curriculum is treated as vandalism, those who call for decolonising the curriculum are treated as vandals, and they are singled out and targeted and disciplined as such (3). How diversity work is heard as complaint is really about this: the disciplining of those deemed complainers, the attempt to make them pay for having complained at all.

And so: a complaint also becomes about the cost of making a complaint.

I want to return in conclusion to what we learn from Said. To study Orientalism is to study not only how others are viewed but the power relations at stake in the production of that view. At one point Said does share the stakes of his study. He notes: “Much of the personal investment in this study derives from my awareness of being an “Oriental” as a child growing up in two British colonies. All of my education, in those colonies (Palestine and Egypt) and in the United States, has been Western, and yet that deep early awareness has persisted. In many ways my study of 0rientalism has been an attempt to inventory the traces upon me, the Oriental subject, of the culture whose domination has been so powerful a factor in the life of all Orientals” (1978, 25, emphasis added). To inventory the traces is to register how domination works; how domination impresses upon those who, as subjects, have been rendered objects.

When the objects dare to speak?

How are they heard?

As complaint; as complainers; as complaining.

(1) I will be addressing complaint in relation to promotion in due course. I have gathered some rather extraordinary testimonies that have deepened my understanding of how power works through relative speed: how some are enabled to progress more quickly; how others are slowed down.

(2) Please note that I am not assuming that what is heard as extreme (or as more extreme than it is) is extreme. Such judgements are often dependent upon the norms that complaints are challenging. Also note the implication of my argument for an understanding of censorship. A position or viewpoint can be censored – can cease to be expressible in certain forum – by how it is heard. Indeed censorship can happen by identifying a viewpoint as censoring as we can witness in how decolonising the curriculum is framed as an attempt to censor – to stop philosophers from being taught – even when no one involved in the campaign articulated such a view.  Following complaints is teaching me the mechanics of how the most dominant can represent themselves as the most censored.

(3) We can witness how the framing of decolonising the curriculum as vandalism involved the singling out and targeting of BAME student activists in the more recent media reports of decolonising the curriculum at Cambridge. Listen to Lola Olufemi for her powerful reflections on these techniques, and also for how she relates the task of decolonising the curriculum to the work of feminist killjoys.



Mill, James [1818] (1997). History of British India, London: Routledge.

Said, Edward (1978). Orientalism. London: Routledge.


About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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2 Responses to Diversity Work as Complaint

  1. Reading this immediately brought to mind the media response to Lola Olufemi and how she was both objectified on the front page of the Telegraph as a beautiful young black woman, while at the same time the point of her campaign, about including non-white, non-western authors on the English reading lists, was completely misrepresented as Cambridge being ‘forced to drop white authors’. The torrent of public abuse aimed at her because of this, which surely must be a conscious outcome of the way they approached this, is something the newspaper can then disown or distance themselves from. It really is evil.

  2. Pingback: Complaint as Diversity Work in Sports Media Courtney M. Cox / University of Southern California – Flow

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