Refusal, Resignation and Complaint

I am sharing the last lecture I presented this academic year. I gave the lecture as part of the third Colonial Repercussions symposium curated by Nikita Dhawan for Akademie der Künste, June 23-24, 2018. It was helpful to share my work on diversity, complaint and use and to stretch myself somewhat by thinking of the hope of “no.” It was a delight to listen to reflections on colonial repercussions and planetary humanism by black feminists, feminists of colour and postcolonial scholars including Angela Davis and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. You can listen to the presentations here. I have resisted the temptation to add to the lecture – I am sharing what I presented. You can listen to more detailed presentations from my research into “the uses of use” here  and from complaint here.

Whilst in Berlin I also read from Living a Feminist Life for a stand-alone event organised by Iris Rajanayagam for xart splitta. I want to thank all of those attended and especially those who shared some of their own experiences during the discussion.

Over the next two months I will be taking a break from my blog as I complete the finishing touches on my book, What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use.

I wish all you killjoys out there the hottest of feminist summers!

No! Refusal, Resignation and Complaint, Lecture presented by Sara Ahmed at Colonial Repercussions conference, Berlin, June 23 2018.

On March 10 2014 a panel Why Isn’t My Professor Black? took place at University College, London with Black British scholars William Ackah, Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, Deborah Gabriel, Lisa Amanda Palmer, Nathan Richards and Shirley Tate (1). Why isn’t my Professor Black: what a necessary and urgent question! At the end of the panel, a member of the audience asked another necessary and urgent question about the UCL’s continued use of Francis Galton’s name. Galton as you probably know coined the word eugenics described by him as a science of improvement. Galton bequeathed funds to UCL (then London University) for a Professorship as well as Department of Eugenics.  The UCL has removed the word Eugenics (they replaced it with genetics) but they have kept Galton’s name. The provost of the UCL at the panel justified the continued use of Galton’s name by saying “in my defence, I inherited him.” A use can be explained and defended as inheritance.

There has since been a wider and meaningful discussion of the role of Galton’s legacy at UCL.  This questioning of a legacy was represented to the wider public as the Galton Must Fall Campaign. Whilst we might support such a campaign if it did indeed exist there was no such campaign; it was in fact invented to discredit the questioning of a legacy as censorship and vandalism.  When it was pointed out that such a campaign did not exist, the newspaper made some small amendments clarifying that such a campaign “has yet to materialise.” What is clarifying is how discrediting works. To discredit the questioning of a legacy is to discredit the questioner. Even posing a question or making a history questionable is framed as vandalism, “a willful destruction of the venerable and beautiful.” A judgement can be turned into a project.  If questioning what is received as inheritance is understood as damaging institutions, we need to damage institutions.

So much of the work we do is dealing with the consequences of the work we do.  In my lecture today I want to talk about “no” as work : as the work you have to do in order not to reproduce an inheritance. We might think of no as expressive. The word express comes from press. It implies something that is squeezed out.  To get a no out you have to do more than say no; a no needs somewhere to go. My talk will be concerned with we can call diversity work, the ordinary and painstaking work of working on institutions so they are more accommodating. I will be talking today specifically about working on universities: although I am no longer at a university I am still working on it. It might seem like an odd choice for an event on utopianism, desire and hope, to be talking about doing this kind of institutional work; the kind that often does not seem to get us very far. But for me it is from our small efforts to make room that we register the full force of what we are up against. Maybe what I will be offering today is a killjoy utopianism, a willingness to inhabit what seems negative as an insistence that worlds can be otherwise. We are willing to be there, in the wear and tear, for as long as it takes.

I will be drawing today on arguments from a book I have recently completed, What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use. In the book, I follow use around, the way I followed happiness in The Promise of Happiness, and will in Willful Subjects. And I have followed use right back into the university, as a way of thinking about how universities are built. We might recall how the use of Galton’s name is justified as inheritance. I will also be drawing on data I collected in project on diversity, first presented in my book, On Being Included as well as new material from my current research on complaint in which I have been talking to students, academics and administrators about their experience of making complaints within universities.

Uses of Use

To transform institutions requires becoming conscious of how they are built. We can think of this consciousness as consciousness of use. So I am start with use.  To start with use is to start small: use is a small word with a lot of work to do; Rita Felski has described use as “work-man like” (2003, 5).  Use when used as a verb can mean: to employ for some purpose, to expend or consume; to treat or behave toward; to take unfair advantage of or exploit; to habituate or accustom. Use is a relation as well as an activity that often points beyond something even when use is about something: to use something points to what something is “for.” Some objects are made in order to be used.  What they are for brings them into existence. Even if something is shaped around what it is for, that is not the end of the story. As Howard Risatti notes in A Theory of Craft:

 Use need not correspond to intended function. Most if not all objects can have a use, or, more accurately be made useable by being put to use. A sledgehammer can pound or it can be used as a paperweight or lever. A handsaw can cut a board and be used as straight-edge or to make music. A chair can be sat in and used to prop open a door. These uses make them “useful objects” but since they are unrelated to the intended purpose and function for which these objects were made, knowing these uses doesn’t necessarily reveal much about these objects (2007, 26).

Use can correspond to intended function, but use does not necessarily correspond to an intended function. This not is an opening. I am not so sure if uses are quite as unrevealing about things as Risatti implies at least here. I am being told something about the qualities of a sledgehammer that it can be used as a paperweight. That a sledgehammer can be used as a paperweight tells me about the heaviness of the sledgehammer. Something cannot be used for anything.  Use is a restriction of possibility that is material. Nevertheless there is something queer about use; intentions do not exhaust possibilities.

Risatti implies that use makes something usable. Use also makes something used. Wear and tear usually means a depreciation of value.  I think of the surface of a table, worn, scratched.  Marx suggests that when a table is exchanged, it ceases to be a mundane object, “an ordinary sensuous thing.” To use the table is to bring it back to earth.

We can think of the marks left by use not as the erosion of value but as testimony.

The table testifies to a history.

scratched top of an old wooden table

Marx discusses wear and tear in relation to machines: “The material wear and tear of a machine is of two kinds. The one arises from use, as coins wear away by circulating, the other from non-use, as a sword rusts when left in its scabbard” ([1867] 1990, 528).  Machinery intensifies rather than saves labour: you have to get the most of the machine before it wears out, a wearing that is passed on to workers, wearing out as passing on and passing out; used as used up.

A worn thing might eventually break.  When something breaks from use it might be taken out of use, rather like this cup, which has lost its handle.

It is a rather sad parting.


When we think of something in use, we might think of a sign on a door:  occupied.

This sign tells us that the toilet is in use.

Occupied toilet

It tells us that we cannot use the toilet until whoever is using the toilet is finished using the toilet. Use often comes with instructions that are about maintaining personal and social boundaries.   

Or take this image of a post box.


There is a sign that politely asks the would-be poster not to use the post box by posting a letter into the box. In the previous image the toilet was occupied because it was in use. In this case the post box is out of use because it is occupied. Although of course from another point of view, it is in use. The post box has provided a home for nesting birds. Intended functionality can mean who something is for, not just what something is for. Which means that: something can be used by those for whom it was not intended. A change of function does require a sign, “please do not use,” to stop what would be usual, that is, to stop a person from posting a letter through the box.  The sign, we assume, is temporary. That box will come back into use as a post box when it ceases to be a nest.

Back into use: use can involve comings and goings.  Take the example of the well-trodden path. The path exists in part because people have used it. Use involves contact and friction, the tread of feet smooths the surface; the path is becoming smoother, easier to follow.

The more a path is used the more a path is used.

Used Path 2

How strange this sentence makes sense.

Without use a path might disappear, becoming overgrown, bumpy; unusable.  Like this path; we know it is a path because of a sign.

But you can hardly see the sign for the leaves.

Unused Path

A path can appear as a line on a landscape. A path can also be a route through life. Heterosexuality can be a path; an easing of a passage, a clearing of a way forward. To deviate from that path can be hard. When it is harder to proceed, when a path is harder to follow, you might be discouraged; you might try and find another route. Think of how you can be dissuaded by perpetual reminders of how hard something would be. Deviation is hard. Deviation is made hard.

So much is reproduced by the requirement to follow. In the academy you might be asked to follow the well-trodden paths of citation; to cite properly as to cite those deemed to have already the most influence.  The more a path is used the more a path is used.   

The more he is cited the more he is cited.

Used Path 2

A path is kept clear through work; occupation depends upon erasure; such and such white man might become an originator of a concept, an idea as becoming seminal, by removing traces of those who were here before. When use leaves traces in places, occupation can involve the removal of those traces (2).

On Being Stopped

Diversity work is the work of trying to transform institutions by opening them up to populations that have hitherto been excluded; diversity work as deviating from the well-used paths, as not going the way things are flowing.   And yet at another level diversity seems to be a rather well-used path, an arrow even, which can be an instruction and thus a direction:

Go that way!

Diversity Arrow

The ease with which diversity travels might be why diversity work is hard work.  One diversity worker describes diversity as “a big shiny apple”: “it all looks wonderful but the inequalities aren’t being addressed.” The word diversity might be used more because it does less.  Diversity can be a sign of the difficulty of getting through.  This practitioner described her own work thus “it’s a banging your head against a brick wall job.”  

A job description becomes a wall description.

Wall Job

If you keep banging your head against the brick wall, but the wall keeps its place, it is you that gets sore. What happens to the wall?   All you seemed to have done is scratched the surface. This is what diversity work often feels like:

Scratching the surface, scratching at the surface.

Scratched wall 3

Let me share with you an example of an encounter with an institutional wall. The example is from a practitioner who developed a new policy on appointments.   This is the story:

When I was first here there was a policy that you had to have three people on every panel who had been diversity 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.

A decision has been made. That decision can be overridden by the momentum of the past:  the past becomes a well-worn path, what usually happens still happens.  Note that the head of human resources did not need to take the policy out of the minutes for the policy not to come into effect.   I have called this dynamic “non-performativity,” when naming something does not bring something into effect, or when something is named in order not to bring something into effect.

The wall: that which keeps standing. The wall is a finding.   Let me summarise the finding: what stops movement moves.  If we witness the movement we might miss the mechanism.  I think this is important as organisations are good at moving things around: creating evidence of doing something is not the same thing as doing something. In our example, what stopped something from happening could have been the removal of the policy from the minutes; it could have been the failure to notice this removal; but it wasn’t. It was the way in which those within the institution acted after the policy had been agreed.   Agreeing to something can be another way of stopping something from happening.

A diversity policy can come into existence without coming into use.  I noted earlier how a sign is often used to make a transition from something being in and out of use, such as in this case of the post-box. Institutions are also postal systems.  Maybe the diversity worker deposits the policy in the post-box because she assumes the box is in use.

The post-box that is not in use might have another function: it might stop the policy from going through the whole system.


The policy becomes dusty, rather like Marx’s rusty sword; from rusty to dusty. A policy can become unusable by not being used.

Consider too all the energy this practitioner expended on developing a policy that did not do anything. The story of how the wall keeps standing is the same story as the story of how a diversity worker becomes shattered; as she says “sometimes you just give up.” 

Maybe she ends up feeling used up, limp, spent rather like this tube of toothpaste; with nothing left to give.


Or maybe she flies off the handle, to recall that broken cup.

The expression flying off the handle can mean to snap or lose your temper.


Another practitioner describes: “you know, you go through that in these sorts of jobs where you go to say something and you can just see people going ‘oh here she goes.’”  We both laughed, recognising that each other recognised that scene. The feminist killjoy, that leaky container, comes up here; she comes up in what we hear. We hear each other in the wear and the tear of the words we share; we hear what it is like to come up against the same thing over and over again.  We imagine the eyes rolling as if to say: well she would say that.  It was from experiences like this that I developed my equation: rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy.

A wall can be what you encounter because of what you are trying to do. Making a complaint can also involve coming up against walls. If a policy appears to create a path, a path can be how you are stopped from getting though. Complaints procedures are often pictured as paths, as flow-charts;

flow, flow, away we go, arrows, which give the would-be complainant a route through.

Flow chart

I spoke to an administrator about her work in supporting students through the complaints process:

So your first stage would require the complainant to try and resolve it informally, which is really difficult in some situations and which is where it might get stuck in a department…And so it takes a really tenacious complaining student to say, no, I am being blocked. So you can imagine that something on paper that looks very linear is actually very circular a lot of the time and I think that’s the problem, students get discouraged and get demoralised and feel hard done by, and nothing’s getting resolved and then they are in a murky place and they can’t get out.

A complaint is not simply an outcome of a no, a complaint requires you to keep saying no along the way. And what is required to keep a complaint going – such as confidence and tenacity – might be what is negated by the very experiences that led you to complain.

Complaints can be stopped by the use of warnings.   A warning can function like a singular exclamation point; we know what they are telling us to do from how they are used:

Stop! Danger ahead!

Exclamation Point

One student describes: “I was repeatedly told that ‘rocking the boat’ or ‘making waves’ would affect my career in the future and that I would ruin the department for everyone else. I was told if I did put in a complaint I would never be able to work in the university and that is was likely I wouldn’t get a job elsewhere.” Complaining is framed as self-damage as well as damage to others, ruining a department, no less. This student describes how the pressure not to complain was exerted : “In just one day I was subjected to eight hours of grueling meetings and questioning, almost designed to break me and stop me from taking the complaint any further.”   You don’t have to prevent people from doing something you just make it harder for them to do something.

Remember: deviation is hard. Deviation is made hard.

Complaints can be stopped by the appearance of being heard. An academic describes what followed when students made a complaint about the behaviour of professors at research events. A meeting is set up: “they said they would have an open meeting but it was just about calming [the students] down.” The example of the diversity policy that did not come into use implied that an organisation can say yes to a new policy when there is not enough behind that yes to bring something about.  Perhaps an organisation can allow a no to be expressed when that no has nowhere to go.  Venting is used as technique of preventing something more explosive from happening: you let a complaint be expressed in order that it can be contained.  Once the students have vented their frustrations, getting the complaint out of their system, the complaint is out of the system.

This mechanism functions like a pressure relief valve that releases enough pressure so that it does not build up and cause an explosion.

Pressure Valve

If you do keep going with a complaint where do they end up? Thus I have received numerous accounts of complaints that are lodged and still nothing happens. Perhaps complaints sit there, rather like that diversity policy.

The post-box becomes a filing cabinet; a complaint is filed away.

Filing Cabinet

Files can also function as bins; how things are discarded. One student describes: “it just gets shoved in the box.” Another student describes: “I feel like my complaint has gone into the complaint graveyard.” A filing cabinet as a graveyard, maybe there is a ghostly promise in that.  When a complaint is filed away or binned those who complain can end up feeling that they too are filed away or binned.

Closing the Door

Sometimes a complaint is registered because of who you are not. A not can also be about where you have to go. You might end up on a diversity committee because of whom you are not: not men, not white, not cis, not straight, not able-bodied. The more nots you are the more committees you end up on!  Even you agree to be on the committee they can still find you disagreeable. A woman of colour academic describes:  “I was on the equality and diversity group in the university. And as soon as I started mentioning things to do with race they changed the portfolio of who could be on the committee and I was dropped.” I noted earlier that diversity might be used more because it does less. The word race might be used less because it does more.  The word race carries a complaint; race as a refusal of the smile of diversity. Any use of the word race is thus an overuse. She added : “whenever you raise something, the response is that you are not one of them.” Not one of them: a complaint seems to amplify what makes you not fit, picking up what you are not. Perhaps a not is heard as shouting, as insistence, a stress point, a sore point.

A complaint: when “a not” becomes an exclamation point.

Exclamation Point

A complaint can be how you are received.  A complaint can be what you have to make because of how a university is occupied. She told me how she set up writing group in her department and how the meetings become dominated by senior men:  “What I found in each of the meetings were senior men who were bullying everyone in the room.” The bullying took that form of constant belittling of the work of more junior academics as well as postgraduate students:  “The first session someone was being just really abusive about someone’s PhD saying it was rubbish.”  Racist comments are made: “I’m from London and London is just ripe for ethnic cleansing.” She described how people laughed, how the laughter filled the room. She commented on these comments: “These were the sorts of things being aired.” These were the sorts of things; sentences as sentencing; violence thrown out as how some are thrown out.

Aired: even the air can be occupied.

She decides to make a complaint because she “wanted it recorded,” and because “the culture was being reproduced for new PhD students.”   A complaint becomes a recording device; you have to record what you do not want to reproduce.  She gathered statements from around twenty people in her department. A complaint can be a feminist collective. A complaint can be evidence of a no that is shared.  A meeting is set up in response to her complaint.   At that meeting she was described by the head of human resources as “having a chip on her shoulder,” as if she complains because she has a personal grudge. She adds: “they treated the submission as an act of arrogance on my part.” It is as if she put a complaint forward as a way of putting herself forward; a complaint is treated as self-promotional. Her complaint goes nowhere.  When those who try to stop a culture from being reproduced are stopped, a culture is being reproduced. She describes the department as a revolving door: women and minorities arrive only to head right back out again; whoosh, whoosh.

You might have to get out because of what you find out when you get in.

Revolving Door

Doors are not only physical things that swing on hinges (though they are that) they are mechanisms that enable an opening or closing. Diversity is often represented as an open door; minorities welcome, come in, come in; diversity as a tag-line, tag along; tagged on.

Come in, come in: I think back to our post-box.  

There could be another sign on that post-box: “birds welcome.”

Birds Welcome

The sign, “birds welcome” would be a non-performative if the post-box was still in use because the birds would be dislodged by the letters, the nest destroyed before it could be created. I suggested earlier that use is a restriction of possibility that is material. You can use paper for some things and not others because of the material qualities of paper. Restrictions can also become material through use. The letters in the box, the words that are thrown out; they become materials, they pile up; they stop others from making use of something. What is material to some, leaving you with no room, no room to breathe, to nest, to be, can be what does not matter to others because it does not get in the way of their occupation of space; it might even enable their occupation. You can stop others from using a space by how a space is being used, by what a space is being used for; for as door.

A door can be what stops you from getting in. A door can also be what stops you from getting out.  I am speaking to an academic about the first complaint she made when she was a student. One of her lecturers on her course had been making her feel uncomfortable. One time she enters his room:

And then one afternoon, I went into his office to talk to him about something, it was an office a bit like this but without any glass, with a door that opened inwards and opened on a latch, and he pushed me up against the back of a door and tried to kiss me and I pushed him away, it was an instinctive pushed him away, and tried to get out of the room and it was a horrible moment because I realised I couldn’t actually, it was very difficult to operate the latch.

A door without glass, solid, can’t be seen through, a door as what you are pushed against, the latch that won’t upon, getting stuck, trying to get out; the work you have do to get out. She did get out of his room, but it was hard. Behind closed doors; harassment happens there, out of view, in secret. A door is shut on her. The same door is shut on a complaint. She submitted an informal complaint, a letter, detailing the assault. Where does her complaint go? Her letter ends up with the Dean. And what did he do?  “The Dean basically told me I should sit down and have a cup of tea with this guy to sort it out.” The response to a complaint about harassment is to minimize harassment as if what occurred is just a minor squabble between two parties, something that can sorted out by a cup of tea, that English signifier of reconciliation.  To formalize a complaint would become a failure, her failure, to resolve the situation more amicably.

Would become, would have become: she did not proceed to a formal complaint.  Her complaint was stopped; he was not.  I say her complaint was stopped rather than she was stopped because she did go on to have a career, she is now a professor. But her experience stayed with her. She describes: “I thought I got a first because of academic merit, but then after this happened I remember thinking but hang on, maybe not, maybe this was some sort of ruse to try and keep me in the institution so he could keep the contact going…it starts undermining your own sense of your academic merit, the quality of your work and all that kind of stuff.” Being harassed by a lecturer damages your sense of self-worth, intellectual worth; leading you to question yourself, doubt yourself. Her complaint was stopped, she was not, but she carries that history with her.

What happened to him?   She tells us: “He was a known harasser; there were lots of stories told about him. I had a friend who was very vulnerable, he took advantage of that, she ended up taking her own life.” She ended up taking her own life; so much more pain, so much more damage at the edges of one woman’s story of damage. He went on; he was allowed to go on, when her complaint, and for all we know there were others too, we do not know how many said no, did not stop him. He has since retired; much respected by his peers; no blemish on his record.  The damage carried by those who did complain or would complain if they could complain, carried around like baggage, slow, heavy, down. To hear complaint is to hear from those weighed down by a history that has not left a trace in the official records.  No blemish on his record, no trace in the official records: the organisation shares an interest in stopping what is recorded by a complaint from getting out.

Shares an interest: a complaint can be stopped because of what is shared.  When an MA student made an informal complaint about the conduct of the most senior member of her department she was told by the convener of the programme “be careful he is an important man.”  Be careful: a warning not to proceed is a statement about who is important. Importance is not just a judgment it is a direction. The more a path is used the more a path is used. The more he is connected the more he is connected.  The more he is connected the more others are invested in that connection. A professor becomes a conductor; information, energy, resources travel through him.  I think of this becoming as institutional funneling; paths become narrower and narrower at the exit points; you have to go through him to get anywhere. Uses of use, a restriction of possibility that has become material, uses of use, a narrowing of the routes, the more a path is used the less paths there are to use: more going through less.

The student did go ahead with a complaint.   In her terms, she “sacrificed the references.” In reference to the prospect of doing a PhD she said: “that door is closed.”  That door is closed: references too can function as doors, mechanisms that enable an opening or closing, how it is made possible for some to progress, others not.  Reference systems are how some are enabled by their connections, how some gather speed and velocity, more and more, faster and faster, “he is an important man.” Many do not make complaints because they feel they cannot afford to lose the references, not complaining as a way of keeping a door open. So much of our political work is the work we do to ensure that making a complaint does not mean closing a door.

Conclusion: A Leak is a Lead

We are willing to be there, in the wear and tear, for as long as it takes. You have to work to keep going, to keep a complaint going.

In giving my ear to complaint, I am learning and listening with hope, to hope. By this I do not mean I feel hopeful or those I have spoken to feel hopeful though we might do; we can do. To persist with a complaint is hopeful despite the negation because you have to insist there’s a point to persist. To persist with a complaint requires a refusal of institutional fatalism, that sense that is just how things are; that abuses of power even when fatal, are inevitable, same old, same old, same old bodies, doing the same old things. You persist because you sense what is possible; that spaces can be freed up when they are inhabited differently. Perhaps this image can be a pointer.

This image teaches us what is possible (3).


The birds could have been treated as trespassers, ejected or displaced. A history of use is a history of such displacements, many violent, displacements that often disappear because of how things remain occupied.

To make room for others so often requires work, hard work, pain-staking work, collective work. To fight for room is to fight for a possibility that has been restricted by use. A complaint: when you have to fight for a possibility. My project on complaint was inspired by my own experiences of  working on multiple enquiries into sexual harassment and sexual misconduct, which is to say my project was inspired by students: this work is for you.

After three years I eventually resigned. I know it has taken me a long time in this talk for me to talk about resignation, although not as long as it took me to resign. And it is still difficult for me to talk about my resignation in public, so please bear with me, the details will be absent, but at least I am present. I resigned because I had had enough, and because I did not want to stay silent about what had been going on. Resignation is another way of saying no to system; you withdraw your labour, your body, yourself. The word resignation can seem to suggest giving up, reconciling yourself to your fate, to resign yourself to something. I hear the word resignation and I hear a long drawn out sigh. But resignation can be how you refuse to resign yourself to a situation. Perhaps you are giving up on something, a belief that you can do the work here, but you are holding onto something, a belief in that work.

What appears to be giving up can be a refusal to give in.

I resigned in part because of the silence about what was going on. To get information out sometimes you need to get out. There is no point in being silent about resigning if you are resigning to protest silence. When I shared my reasons for resigning I became the cause of damage

I became a leaky pipe: drip, drip.

Leaky Pipe

Just loosen the screw a little bit, a tiny, tiny little bit, and more and more will come out. It can be explosive what comes out. We need more explosions. 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 will be filled without reference to what went on before; a blot becomes something to be wiped up: mopping up a mess.

But there is hope here: they cannot mop up all of the mess.

A leak can be a lead. A leak can be a feminist lead.

Mopping up

It might seem that complaints that do not get anywhere disappear without a trace like that unused path:

Hard to find, harder to follow.

Unused Path

But in saying no, we keep a history alive; we do not let go. Even complaints that do not seem to get anywhere lead us to each other.

Feminist memory can become a counter-institutional project; we have to find ways of creating paths for others to follow, to leave traces in places.   We refuse to let a refusal disappear. You hold on by passing a refusal on. An indigenous student made an informal complaint about white supremacy in her classroom: using that kind of term for what is here can get you in serious trouble; she knew that but she was willing to do that. She became in her terms “an indigenous feminist monster,” and she is now completing her PhD off campus.  She said that “an unexpected little gift,” was how other students could come to her: “they know you are out there and they can reach out to you.”  Even what, who, has been binned can acquire a new life.  The complaints in the graveyard can come back to haunt institutions.

It is a promise.

When you are stopped you have to find other methods of getting information out. It is not just that we have exhausted the usual procedures or that we are exhausted by them; though many of us have and are.  We have also learnt that working “in house,” too often ends up being a restoration project, polishing the furniture so it appears less damaged; a labour I have called with reference to the uses of diversity, “institutional polishing” (4). In house, the master’s house: we can remember Audre Lorde: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984). Of course we have limited options, and we use the tools available to us.  Sometimes we do what is required: we might even be willing to be diversity, to smile, to help with the creation of a shinier reflection. But we have to be careful not to lose ourselves in that reflection.

We do not want to polish away the scratches; they are testimony.   Yes those scratches; we are back to those scratches. We can reach each other through what appears as damage, mere scratch and scribble.

Feminism becomes writing on the wall; we were here, we did not get used it.

Scratched wall 3

This post is dedicated to my wonderful colleague and friend Rumana Begum. Thank you for helping me to keep going.


  1. I highly recommend you listen to this brilliant panel. These are the conversations we need to be having and these are the voices we need to hear.
  2. In the book I explore occupation and use in colonial projects with reference to Locke’s restriction of use of the land to agriculture (use is a way of framing an activity such that not all uses appear as uses) and the designation of land as unused or wasted (drawing on Edward Said’s (1979) discussion of Zionism), as well as educational projects predicated on “emptying” the minds of the colonized to create “a useful class.”
  3. In the book I discuss the image under the rubric of queer use. Queer use can refer to how we can use things in ways that were not intended or how things can be used by those for whom they were not intended. I suggest that it is not enough simply to affirm the queerness of use: to queer use is to have a fight on your hands precisely because of how restrictions have become material.
  4. I first discussed diversity as a way of polishing the surface so that organisations “appear happy” in On Being Included (2012) and then more recently in the middle section”Diversity Work” of Living a Feminist Life (2017). In The Promise of Happiness (2010) I also explore polishing in relation to the work of creating the appearance of happy families. Institutional polishing can be related to what Alison Phipps has usefully called institutional airbrushing, where the “impact of disclosure is projected in market terms” (2018, np). By polishing I am referring to the activity of marketing alongside other forms of labour within organisations that is often performed by academic themselves. I will be exploring how professional norms of conduct are predicated on silence and “keeping a lid on it.” My research on complaint is teaching me how academics (including feminist academics) also tend to identify complaints as potential damage to an organisation’s reputation and thus become invested in stopping complaints from getting out.



Felski, Rita (2013) “Introduction,” New Literary History, Special Issue on Use, 44, 4: v-x11.

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

Marx, Karl (1990). [1867] Capital: Volume 1 Trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin Classics.

Phipps, Alison (2018). “Reckoning Up: Sexual Harassment and Violence in the Neoliberal University,” Gender and Education, ISSN 0954-0253.

Risatti, Howard (2007). A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression. University of North Carolina Press.

Said, Edward (1979). “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims,” Social Text, 1: 7-58.


About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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7 Responses to Refusal, Resignation and Complaint

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  2. Clara says:

    Hi! I just wanted to comment and say thanks for a great lecture! A friend of mine emailed me the link. I’m in the middle of a slow complaint process against a professor in med school here in Lund, Sweden, who uses his lectures on neurobiology to spread homophobia, sexism and transphobia (and references a racist researcher). Your lecture was really interesting, thought provoking and inspiring! And I’m excited to read more from you 🙂

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