I am sharing the introduction I gave for a panel discussion Confrontation? Doing Feminist and Anti-Racist Work in Institutions. I have amended it slightly and added a few observations I didn’t have time to include on the day. I learnt so much from the panel and from the combined reflections offered by Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Heidi Mirza, Lola Olufemi and Monica Moreno Figueroa. Together they asked us to think about who does the work of confronting institutions (and who does not) and also to consider how those who end up having to confront institutions are often those who have already been made precarious by institutions. We talked about the exhaustion of doing this kind of work, and how making lasting political change might involve small steps taken over a long time. We reflected too on the importance of not allowing institutions to swallow us up and of developing our own survival strategies, which might include taking breaks or holding on to our friendships and relationships that matter to us and that exist outside of the institutions in which we work. We reflected on how confrontation can sometimes operate as a masculinist style of doing institutional or political work; and how there are different ways of doing that work not all of which will be recognised as confrontational.

I want to thank Leila, Tiffany, Heidi, Lola and Monica: they reminded me that however hard it is to try to transform institutions we find each other by doing the work.

Introduction, “Confrontation? Doing Feminist and Anti-Racist Work in Institutions,” May 1 2018, Cambridge University.

I am pleased to introduce and chair our panel on Confrontation? Doing Feminist and Anti-Racist Work in Institutions. To start off I want to say something about why we have made confrontation our leading question in opening up a discussion about doing institutional work. Being in an institution can be hard work especially when institutions are not built for us. It might be the work you have to do to get here or to enter a room because you do not have the right background or the right body. It might be the work you have to do to stay in the room because of what you find when you arrive. So much feminist and anti-racist work is the work of trying to transform institutions so they are more accommodating. That work includes the work we have to do to show what we already know; how difficult and hostile institutions are or can be; how white, how male-dominated; how racist, how sexist and so on.

Institutions do not always reveal themselves. I remember when I first became head of Women’s Studies at Lancaster University in 2000 and I began to attend faculty and university meetings. I began to hear how whiteness was justified. I already knew the university was white; I was I had got used to that whiteness even though it was wearing. But I began to hear how senior managers defended the whiteness of the university. These conversations, or perhaps we should call them defences, were happening because the Race Relations Amendment Act was about to come into force. The university was going to have to deal with the question of race: a conversation can be compliance. In one meeting a senior manager said we could not do anything about whiteness as whiteness is just about geography. In another meeting a Dean said race was too difficult to deal with. I was the only person of colour at that meeting and a newbie killjoy: I did not quite have the confidence at the time to confront him. But I sent him an email saying no, you are reproducing the problem by making it something that is too difficult to deal with. A no can become a career trajectory. I ended up on the newly formed race equality committee and from that point on I was always on such committees; diversity committees became my institutional house, where I ended up hanging out. We often up on such committees because of who are not: not men, not white, not straight, not able-bodied, not cis. The more nots you are the more committees you end up on!

And yet it is wearing: the work you have to do in order to be accommodated can make it even harder to be accommodated.

It is interesting to me now that it was trying to confront whiteness that led me on that path. Yes the diversity path might be difficult and it can slow your progression, and it can be how others are freed from that requirement to do the institutional work. But it also an interesting path: you find out a lot about institutions when you follow this route. The conversations we had as a group of academics and administrators have stayed with me; conversations about what words to use, what words not to use in writing a race equality policy.

We learn from where our words end up. We learn too from where documents end up. Our race equality document ended up being ranked by the ECU (Equality Challenge Unit) as excellent (along with many other documents I would add). And the university was able to use the policy as evidence that it was good at race equality. I will always remember the experience of being at a university meeting – we had a new vice chancellor and he was enthusiastic about equality as new vice chancellors tend to be. He waved the letter and said well done, we are good at equality. That an organisation can be, to use Heidi Mirza’s (2017) powerful terms “hideously white” and be judged as good at race equality was a very important political lesson. Policies can be useful because they create an impression of doing something without necessarily doing anything. It was a disheartening process but I learnt from it: when you confront the institution with what it has failed to do, you can still end up being used as evidence of what has been done.

Of course people of colour are often used as evidence; we appear in their brochures so they can appear diverse. And we are supposed to smile. Just by not smiling we are perceived as being too confrontational. Or to use certain words, words such as racism, whiteness, white supremacy, can mean being heard as confrontational and as intent on causing damage. In fact you don’t have to say or to do anything to be judged as confrontational. To be a person of colour in white institutions is to become “the race person”: you are always given this assignment. Confrontation can then be how you are received; you can be heard as confrontational, whatever you do or say, because of what you bring up by turning up. You have to try hard not to appear confrontational when that is how you already appear: diversity work can be the work you have to do to counter how you appear.

My own experience of doing diversity led me to a research project in which I talked to diversity practitioners about their work. One practitioner spoke to me about not using terms that were in her terms “more confrontational,” to enable her to have more conversations with more staff across the university. So she used the word diversity because it was a happier, lighter and more positive word. She sensed she could travel further by indicating in advance what she was not willing to confront. Different practitioners had different strategies; another practitioner refused to use the word diversity because she understood it as a “cop out,” a word that was so light that it would allow institution to pass over what inequalities that she wanted to address.

I learnt so much from listening to practitioners about strategy, about how we do the work we do. And there is a lot of work to do. We have assembled a panel of those who are “doing the work” including the work of trying to transforming Cambridge. This work can be exhausting – “a banging your head against the brick wall job” as one practitioner described to me – equality work as wall work. But given what we come up against, the work also requires creativity and persistence. I think it is important we value the work for what it teaches us. So I am going to introduce you to the panel by naming just some of the institutional work each member of the panel has been doing. I introduce Dr Monica Moreno Figueroa who is Senior Lecturer in Sociology here at Cambridge, who is leading the Decolonizing Cambridge initiative and is also one of Cambridge’s two Race Inclusion Champions; I introduce Lola Olufemi who is Women’s Officer at CUSU and has also been centrally involved in Decolonizing Cambridge as well as other campaigns such as Breaking the Silence, on preventing harassment and sexual misconduct. The remaining panellists were all members of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths. I introduce Dr Tiffany Page who is now a lecturer in Sociology at Cambridge and a founding member of the 1752 group, a research and lobby group working to end sexual misconduct in Higher Education; I introduce Dr Leila Whitley who is visiting Cambridge Sociology from University of Konstanz where she is a post-doctoral researcher working on “the displacement of harm,” how institutions turn the harm caused by sexual assault into harm against institutions and who is also on the Advisory Board of the 1752 group; and I introduce Professor Heidi Mirza who is an Emeritus Professor and has been creating spaces for Black British feminism wherever she has been including the Institute for Education and Goldsmiths.

The CFR is somewhat of a shared thread and I want to say a little about the work we did because if we pull that thread we end up here. The CFR was set up in 2013, which happened to be the same year I was asked to attend a meeting with students about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.(1) The same year: I think the energy and the feel of the CFR was shaped by the immediacy and urgency of what became a shared and collective project, a project that was led and shaped by students activists: a project of trying to bring an end to harassment, misconduct and bullying that was here, not over there, somewhere else, but here, in the same place we were working. The CFR became a kind of feminist shelter, a place to go to recover from the fight we had on our hands, which was a fight, even, to recognise that there was a problem, and that it was an institutional problem; to have a conversation about the problem.

A feminist shelter: so much of our work is the work of supporting each other given what we are trying to confront.

Looking back on this incredibly intense period I realise again the significance of what might seem obvious: the harder it is to get through the more you have to do.

And the harder it is to get through the more conscious you have to become about how you will be received. I will give just one example. We drafted a letter to the Warden, which was a call for action, which was eventually sent on September 30 2015. I was looking at the first drafts of the letter. What is interesting if unsurprising was how the more confrontational language was gradually edited out. So an early draft contained the sentence, “This constellation of abusive practices and associated complicities constitutes an institutional culture and we have not seen enough leadership to challenge that culture.” In the version that was eventually sent, that sentence was removed. The references to leadership that remained were as follows: We are writing this letter to call for strong leadership to challenge the problem of sexual harassment”; “We urge that the college respond by taking leadership in the campaign against sexual harassment at Universities.  In fact, it would be a much greater risk to college’s reputation as a progressive and critical institution if this opportunity for leadership is not seized.” We removed the description of leadership in terms of failure for strategic reasons; we wanted the letter to be more appealing. So what remains is an appeal to leadership that uses the terms that were already used by the university as a measure of its own success (“a progressive and critical institution”).

We all probably have experience of doing the work of editing out our more confrontational language. Wouldn’t you love it if all of our first drafts could be housed together: a “first draft archive” would be a killjoy archive for sure! We do this work of editing out the more confrontational language because we sense the less confrontational we are the further we will get. If we edit words out of letters, what else do we edit out? Can what be who: who gets edited out in that process? Does it work: do you go further by being less confrontational? Can you use their terms to acquire the resources and then use the resources to confront the institution in your own terms? Or if you receive resources from the institution does it become more difficult to confront the institution because you have something to lose?

These are life questions, institutional questions; these are our questions. Sometimes doing the work of confrontation is too much to sustain, in other words, the work can get in the way of living a feminist life. Another way of trying to confront an institution is to leave it. When I resigned from my post I resigned in feminist protest and because I had “had enough.” These reasons are the same reason; if you protest because of what you have had to put up with a protest is how you signal what you are no longer willing to put up with. I needed to give out a signal. There is not much point in being silent about why you are protesting when you are protesting silence.

When I shared my reasons for resigning from my post – in protest at the failure of the institution to address sexual harassment as an institutional problem – I quickly became the cause of damageI became a leaky pipe, drip, drip. Organisations will try and contain that damage. The response in other words is damage limitation. This is how diversity often takes institutional form: damage limitation. Happy shiny policies will be put in place; holes left by departures filled without reference to what went on before. Indeed there is often a blur of activity after an exposure of a problem. One academic who participated in a collective complaint about a culture of harassment at her former university describes how: “[the university] now has a very nice patch on its intranet telling staff what happened and it all looks cleaner than clean because of all the action they have taken in the past six months and frankly they haven’t addressed the situation at all.” Cleaning up, a complaint becomes a mess, something to be mopped up and away often by the appearance of doing something. Even new complaint procedures, however important, can be used in this way: as evidence of what is being done; as a distraction from what is not being done.

But there is hope here: they cannot mop up all the mess. When you lift the lid, more and more come out. It can be explosive, what comes out. Of course this is why professional norms of conduct are about keeping a lid on it; silence as institutional loyalty, silence in case of institutional damage.

And yes much of this data if released would be damaging to an organisation’s reputation. If it would be, it should be. No wonder it is hard to release that data. To release that data often requires using alternative methods, because following the usual procedures is often how we are stopped from getting information out. And so we might: write names of harassers in books; distribute leaflets; gather in protest to reclaim spaces that have become unavailable because of how they are used. We often end up doing this kind of work because we have exhausted the usual procedures. To use alternative methods has costs: those who use such methods are often disciplined for not working in the right way.  I have examined public statements and confidential letters that assume this disciplinary form: where not following the usual procedures has been identified as damaging organisations and even in some cases as damaging feminism. One letter written by a feminist academic to me, for instance, stated that rather than making a public disclosure a better route would have been to call a meeting with other women professors in order to avoid “a fall-out which damages us all now and in the future.” We have a problem when another meeting is imagined as a solution. If there is a fall-out, it is because stuff needs to come out.

The implication is that any damage to the institution would be damage to “us all.”

Is this the risk of the institutionalization of feminism: becoming us all?

I want to learn from the fact that it is even possible that some feminists would recommend not speaking out about the role of the institution in enabling and participating in harassment. Personally: I would think of this work as part of our job description. It might be that for some feminists to become part of an institution requires loyalty, expressed as the need to protect the organisation from anything that could damage its reputation. Or a concern might be that if feminist projects are resourced by an institution to speak out about the institutional violence would be to compromise those resources.  So a feminist project ends up being defending the organisation from being compromised. Or a concern might be that if the information gets out, it will become inflated possibly by being taken up by third parties in a sensationalist way, thus allowing others to overlook the feminist work being done within that institution.

I do want to understand the concerns.

But I still think we have a problem.

We have a problem when silence about violence becomes a way of holding onto feminism.

And problems can be pedagogy: by not confronting a problem a problem is reproduced. Too often working in house ends up being a restoration project, polishing the furniture so it appears less damaged. I have called this work with reference to uses of diversity “institutional polishing.” In house, the master’s house: we can remember Audre Lorde (1984) warning, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Of course we have limited options, and sometimes we have to use the tools available to us, chipping away at the walls the best we can. Sometimes we do what is required: we might even be willing to reflect the good image the institution has of itself back to itself, talking about the institution as being critical and progressive for instance. But you have to be careful not to lose yourself in the reflection.

We have to be careful not to lose ourselves in the reflection.

Today we want to talk as openly as we can about doing the work, feminist and anti-racist work, the work of exposing the problem, of becoming the problem, about what it feels like; the risks and the compromises; to talk about what we might find and what we might lose along the way (and what can be who, who we might find, who we might lose). If one way of stopping confrontation is to increase the costs of confrontation, then to do the work, the work that can be characterised as confrontational because of what it refuses not to reveal, requires finding ways to share these costs. Today’s event is also a launch for a new network, which we are describing as a counter-institutional feminist network, FFF. It came out of our experiences of fighting for feminism. The network is open to anyone who in fighting for feminism has to fight against institutions; anyone who has had to confront what others do not want revealed.

What we fight against can be how we are for; what we are for; feminism as for.

Thank you.

(1) This work was led by students and began much earlier than 2013 when a number of members of staff became involved in the project. So much of the collective labour of trying to bring an end to harassment and bullying is invisible and is performed by students and early career academics. We need to recognise and value this work as well as consider its costs.


Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: The Crossing Press.

Mirza, Heidi (2017). “‘One in a million’: A journey of a post-colonial woman of colour in the white academy,” in Deborah Gabriel and Shirley Anne Tate (eds).  Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of colour surviving and thriving in academia. Trentham.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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5 Responses to Confrontation?

  1. MARINA says:

    Always on point sara.

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  3. BBL says:

    Thank you Sara. Deep appreciation for your words and framings, as always. I wonder if you might address what is at stake in doing this institutional work by women of color–why persist to do this work if it leads to fatigue, exhaustion, cooptation, etc.? Why bother if the work is slowly killing us? Why persist, resist rather than refuse and exit? It would be tremendous to also have your perspectives and words on this. Particularly for teaching purposes.

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