Feminists at Work

It can be overwhelming: how much feminist work there is left to do. We might need to give ourselves permission to be overwhelmed, to stop as well as to start up, to take a break from the work even if we need to keep doing that work. I stopped. In the early days of the new year and new decade, I started up again. I have gone back to work, to my feminist work. I have been working closely on complaint, working with my transcripts, reading, listening, learning; reflecting on how hard some people are willing to fight, some people do fight, in order to build environments in which they can do their work. It is my task for this year, to bring together the material I have collected from listening to complaint, to gather and to hold the data, to let it spill. As I expect to be immersed in this task for some time now, I thought I would share a lecture I gave at Malmö University last year when accepting an honorary doctorate. I share the lecture in the form I gave it, though I have not included all the images. You can also see a video of the lecture with the powerpoint slides incorporated here. Thanks so much to Camilla Lekebjer, Rebecka Lettevall and Kristin Järvstad for all the work you did to make my visit possible and for the warmth of your feminist hospitality. On the occasion, I was surrounded by feminist, queer and anti–racist activists some of whom I knew personally (a special thanks to Ulrika Dahl and Asynja Gray for being my special guests!), and some of whom I did not. We need to surround each other, as we do this work; we need to surround each other in order to do this work.

Killjoys, misfits, trouble-makers; willful wanderers and woeful warriors: we fight for room to be as we wish; we wish for room in which we did not have to fight to be.

In solidarity and with affection,


“Feminists at Work: Complaint, Diversity, Institutions”, Lecture given at Malmö University, October 17 2019, by Sara Ahmed

To live a feminist life is to be a feminist at work. To be a feminist at work requires working on as well as at institutions. I have called the work of working on institutions diversity work: the work we have to do in order to be accommodated or the work we have to do because we are not accommodated. In my lecture today I want to retrace some of the steps in my own journey as a feminist of colour scholar and as a diversity worker. I will ask what it means, what it does, to be “on it,” and how being “on it,” trying to transform institutions, ends up being the work of complaint. A complaint can be what you have to make but a complaint can also be how you are heard. When we challenge how diversity is happily claimed by organisations, as a sign of what they are already doing, as I do think we need to do, we are heard as complaining; as being negative; destructive; obstructive. We become killjoys at work.

I first picked up the figure of the feminist killjoy by placing her where I had received this assignment, at the family table. You can be a killjoy because of what you bring up wherever you meet up. You might be identifying the sexism of a much loved film, or questioning how heterosexuality is presumed as the future of a child, or challenging how colonial occupation is transformed into a national holiday. And it might be assumed that you are saying this, doing this, even being this, because you are unhappy or because you are trying to stop others from being happy. If the feminist killjoy gets in the way of happiness, to claim this figure is to be willing to get in the way.  We become killjoys at work, institutional killjoys, when we get in the way of institutional happiness or when we just get in the way.

To be a feminist at work is to inherit the effects of other feminists at work. It is important to recognise that some of us can only be here, at universities, because many before us fought for us to be here. And we created feminist programmes such as Gender Studies; feminist centers, places to do our work because of how the university was already occupied when we got here. In these programmes, on them, some of us still end up as killjoys, getting in the way of feminist happiness or just getting in the way.

Many of my own experiences of being a killjoy at work have been a result of pointing out racism on feminist programmes.  I think of Audre Lorde in 1978 turning up at an event to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex. She agreed to speak; she does speak, on a panel, “The Personal is Political.” But she finds that the panel on which she is speaking is the only panel at the conference in which black feminism and lesbianism are represented. Lorde takes a stand; she makes a stand. She uses the time and the space she has been given to make a critique, perhaps a complaint, about the time and space Black feminism and lesbianism has been given.   That critique was to become one of her best-known essays, “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”  In that essay Audre Lorde asks a question, “What does it mean when the tools of racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that patriarchy?”  Lorde tells us what it means by showing us what it does.  When a feminist house is built using the tools of “racist patriarchy,” the same house is being built, using the same doors ; doors can be the master’s tools, how only some are allowed to enter; how others become trespassers, or if they are allowed in how they end up in a little room at the back of the building. Doors are not just physical things that swing on hinges, though they are that, they are mechanisms that enable an opening or a closing. When a path is not available to us, a door becomes a figure of speech; we say “that door is closed.”

Some openings, feminist conferences, end up being closed. Lorde stresses that those who are resourced by the master’s house will find those who try to dismantle that house “threatening.” Even an attempt to open up a space to others can be threatening to those who occupy that space.  In my new book on the uses of use What’s the Use, I use this image as an image of queer use: how things can be used in ways that were not intended or by those for whom they were not intended.

Birds Nesting

I think of these birds rather affectionately as our queer kin; they turned a small opening intended for letters into a door, a way of getting in and out of the box. Of course, the post box can only become a nest if it stops being used as a post-box; hence the sign “please don’t use” addressed to would-be posters. I am aware that this is a rather happy hopeful image. Queer use is rarely about just turning up and being able to turn a box into a nest or a room into a shelter: to queer use, to enable some to take up residence in spaces not built for them, often requires a world-dismantling effort.

I am not going to be talking about queer use today, though I will return to the image of the post-box that has become a nest.  I want instead to focus on diversity work and complaint as world-dismantling efforts.  My own work builds upon work by Jacqui M. Alexander, Heidi Mirza, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Malinda Smith, Shirley Anne Tate and Gloria Wekker, as well as many others, who have offered powerful critiques of diversity in the academy as a way of building black feminist and feminist of colour counter-institutional knowledge. There is no doubt that doing this kind of work, trying to open institutions up to those who are not accommodated, can be frustrating, exhausting and shattering; we come up against walls, doors that appear open end up being closed. This work is also how we come to know what we know; we know so much about institutions from our efforts to transform them.

Doing Diversity

How do you end up as a diversity worker? We all have our stories to tell. Sometimes we end up on the diversity committee just because of who we are not: not man, not white, not cis, not able-bodied, the more nots you are the more committees you are on! We can end up being given diversity as a task because we are assumed to be diversity, to bring diversity with us.

My own story of becoming a diversity worker is hard to separate from my own story of being a feminist at work. When I became director of Women’s Studies as a relatively junior academic, I began to attend faculty meetings. I was the only person of colour at these meetings.  It is important to note that I noticed this: whiteness tends to be visible to those who do not inhabit it. And during the discussion of one item at a faculty meeting on equality the Dean said something like “race is too difficult to deal with.”  I was a feminist killjoy in training at this point, and did not quite have the confidence to speak out during this meeting. So I wrote an email.  I said that saying that race is “too difficult” is how racism gets reproduced. I was asked to join the new committee set up to write a race equality policy. You speak up and the diversity committee is where you end up.

There can be a problem with who ends up on such committees. There can be a problem with who does not end up on such committees. We can still learn from being on them. We talked about words like diversity, racism; we talked about the different associations those terms had for us. And we crafted a policy that made use of critical vocabularies, naming whiteness as an institutional problem, for instance. I have since then found policies interesting as a way of telling stories about institutions; who writes them; how they are written; where they do and do not go. What happened to our policy was how I first began to identify the mechanism I would later call “non-performativity.” The Equality Challenge Unit ranked the policy as “excellent.” The university was able to use the document as evidence of being good at race equality: as if to name something is to bring it about.  Non-performativity: when naming something does not bring it about, or when something is named in order not to bring it about.

A document that documents racism becomes usable as a measure of good performance. However much that experience led me to recognise my own complicity, or perhaps because it led me to recognise my own complicity, the conversations we had on that committee stayed with me. Complicity can be a starting point: if we are on it, we are in it. We are implicated in the processes we identify; we can identify processes because we are implicated in them. In my subsequent study of diversity, I collected stories by talking to diversity practitioners, those who are given the task of diversifying institutions. Diversity practitioners know all about what policies do not bring about. You can still make use of such policies to show how organisations are not doing what they are saying. Diversity practitioners have to make do with what is available to them. Perhaps diversity itself becomes a tool. One practitioner observes : “I would say that the term diversity is just used now because it’s more popular.  You know it’s in the press so why would we have equal opportunities when we can just say its diversity.”  We can “just say its diversity” if diversity is “just used now.”  Use becomes a reason for use, the circularity of a logic transformed into a tool.

The word diversity might be “just used now,” because of its affective qualities as a happy or positive term. Another practitioner described diversity as a  “big shiny apple,” “It all looks wonderful but the inequalities aren’t being addressed.” Diversity can be a way of appearing to address a problem. This practitioner described her job thus: “it is a banging your head against a brick wall job.”  A job description becomes a wall description. If you keep banging your head against the brick wall, but the wall keeps its place, it is you that gets sore. And what happens to the wall?  All you seemed to have done is scratched the surface. This is what doing diversity work often feels like: scratching the surface, scratching at the surface.

So many of the stories I shared in my book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, as well as in the middle section of Living a Feminist Life, were stories of how much diversity workers have to do because they did not through. One story in particular has traveled with me. A diversity worker managed to get a new diversity policy agreed after multiple attempts to block that policy; for example, the head of human resources removed reference to the policy from the minutes of the meeting.  After the policy was agreed, her colleagues blank her when she refers to the policy. Blanking is an activity: you treat someone or something as if they do not exist because they do; when they do. There are many ways to stop something from happening. This is why I called diversity workers institutional plumbers. You have to work out where things are stuck; how they are stuck, because they are stuck.

The Work of Complaint

How we arrive at our research questions matters. If becoming attuned to how racism was talked about, or not talked about, led me on a path to study diversity, it was my participation in a series of enquires into sexual harassment and sexual misconduct that led me to study complaint. These enquiries were prompted by a collective complaint lodged by students.  A collective complaint is created by a complaint collective: it can take a collective to keep a complaint going. I learnt so much from the work they had to do to keep that complaint going. Since then I have interviewed students, academics and administrators about their experience of the complaint process.

Making a complaint can also require becoming an institutional plumber. It is because complaints often get stuck in the system that complaints end up about the system. On paper it can seem is if making a complaint is a rather linear process ; indeed procedures are often represented as flow-charts; with paths and arrows, which give the would-be complainant a clear route through. The clarity of a procedure can be used to indicate a commitment.  One university writes that complaints will  “assist in identifying problems and trends across the University.”   They then write that complaints will : “form the basis of positive publicity, in demonstrating that identified issues have been resolved.” Organisations use complaints procedures like how they use diversity; as a way of appearing to address a problem. When complaints record a problem they can be quickly folded into a solution; a record of how universities have resolved something; resolution, dissolution. Resolutions can be problems given new form.

Listening to those who have made or tried to make formal complaints has taught me that the gap between what is supposed to happen and what does happen is densely populated.  This gap is where my study is located:  I am minding the gap. I spoke to one 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…. If something bad has happened, and you are not feeling that way inclined, you can understand why a student would not have the tenacity to make sure that happens ….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.

If a procedure exists in order to clear a path, that path can be blocked at any point.   A complaint is not simply an outcome of a no, a complaint requires you to keep saying no along the way.  This practitioner acknowledges that what is required to proceed with a complaint (confident and tenacity) might be what is eroded by the very experiences that lead to complaint (“something bad has happened,” “not feeling that way inclined”).

I suggested earlier that diversity work can often feel like scratching the surface. Making a complaint can also feel like scratching the surface. Let me share with you a description from an early career lecturer. She made a complaint about how the university handled her sick leave which turned into a grievance into how she had been treated as a neuroatypical person by her university:

It was like a little bird scratching away at something and it wasn’t really having any effect. It was just really small, small; small, and behind closed doors.  I think people maybe feel that because of the nature of the complaint, and you are off work so they have to be polite and not talk about it and so much of their politeness is because they don’t want to say something. And maybe [it is] to do with being in an institution and the way they are built; long corridors, doors with locks on them, windows with blinds that come down, it seems to sort of imbue every part of it with a cloistered feeling, there is no air, it feels suffocating.

It was like: note this it. A complaint, as something you are doing, can acquire exteriority, becoming a thing in the world; scratching away; a little bird, all your energy going into an activity that matters so much to what you can do, who you can be, but barely seems to leave a trace; the more you try, the smaller it becomes, you become, smaller; smaller still. A complaint is made confidential as soon as it is lodged, so all this happens behind closed doors, a complaint as a secret; a source of shame, what keeps you apart from others. A complaint becomes a magnifying glass: so much appears, so many details are picked up by an attention; the building, the  long corridors ,  the locked doors ,  the windows with blinds that can come down , less light, less room; you cannot breath; cloistered; suffocating.

Complaints can allow institutions to be registered all the more intensely; you acquire a sense of the institution through an experience of restriction. That sense is not always about things becoming clear.  If complaints happen behind closed doors, those doors are also closed to those who make a complaint. One lecturer who complained after being harassed by a professor in her department describes :

It is like being trapped in some kind of weird dream where you know you jump from one section to another because you never know the narrative. I think that’s the power that institutional abuse has on you.

Making a complaint can feel like becoming a character in somebody else’s story; what happens to you is dependent on decisions that are made without your knowledge or consent. Making a complaint about harassment can often feel like being harassed all over again, becoming subjected, again, to another’s will.

The gap between does happen and what should happen can be what you fall through; how you fall through.   Remember “mind the gap” is familiar to us as advice and a warning And warnings are useful because they introduce notes of caution predicted not on abstract rules but on someone’s own health and safety. Those who are trying to make a complaint are frequently warned about the consequences of complaining.  A 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.  The flip side of a warning is a promise, a promise that if you don’t complain, you will go further. What you are told you need to do to progress further or faster in a system reproduces that system. One academic describes not complaining as the default : “the default academia thing, the university thing: it will be fine, if we do wait, don’t make a fuss.  A default is what will happen if you do not change the setting intentionally by performing an action.   Not complaining is thus about not performing an action or altering the setting; not complaining as how things are set.

Warnings articulate a no, don’t get there. Complaints can also be stopped by a yes, by a nod, by the appearance of being heard.  An academic brings a complaint to her line manager: “I would say he’s a yes man. So whenever I’d talk to him he would say yes but I knew the yes was definitely not a yes; it was a ‘we’ll see.’” Perhaps a yes can be said because there is not enough behind it to bring something about; we are back to the non-performative, given bodily expression as a nod, yes, yes, nod, nod.  She describes yes saying as a management technique: “this weird almost magical thing that happens when you speak to people in management when you go in there and you kind of ready for it, and you are really fired up and you kind of put your complaint, your case, your story to the person, and then you sort of leave as if a spell has been cast, leave feeling like ok something might happen and then that kind of wears off a few hours later and you think oh my gosh. It is like a slight of hands, almost like a trick, you feel tricked.” The feeling that something might happen is what is being achieved; to be left with a sense you are getting somewhere is how you end up not getting anywhere. A yes can stop a complaint from progressing by diffusing the energy of the one who complains.

Another method of stopping a complaint is to declare a complaint “not a complaint” because it does not fulfill the technical requirements for being a complaint. A member of staff made a complaint about bullying from her head of department. The experience of bullying had been devastating, and she suffered from depression as a result. It took her a long time to get to the point where she could make a complaint:

I basically did it when I was able to, because I was just really unwell for a significant period of time. And I put in the complaint and the response that I got was from the deputy VC. He said that he couldn’t process my complaint because I had taken too long to lodge it.

Some experiences are so devastating that it takes time to process them. And the length of time taken can be used to disqualify a complaint. The tightening of the complaint genre – a complaint as the requirement to fill in a form in a certain way at a certain time – is how many struggles are not recorded.

If organizations disqualify complaints because they take too long to make, they can also take too long – in accordance with their own procedures – to respond to complaints. One student described how the university took seven months to respond to her complaints, and then another seven months to respond to her response to their response to her complaint:  “it is my theory they been putting in the long finger and pulling this out, dragging this out over unacceptable periods of time, to try and tire me out so that I will just give up.” It can seem exhaustion is not just the effect but the point of a complaint process. Exhaustion can be a management technique: you tire people out so they are too tired to address what makes them too tired.

I have used the term “strategic inefficiency” to describe how organizations have an interest in stopping or slowing complaints. We might think of inefficiency as annoying but indiscriminate, affecting everybody, everything. Listening to those who have complained has taught me that inefficiency can be discriminatory. An international student was waiting for her complaint to be processed whilst her visa was running out:  “Ten days before my visa was about to run out I applied for a new visa. And they were like how can we give her a visa she is on probation. You have to have good standing to get a visa and they were like this complaint thing is open.” For students and staff who are more precarious because of their residential, employment or financial status; the longer a complaint is kept open the more you could lose. There is a connection between the discriminatory effects of inefficiency and the efficiency with which organizations reproduce themselves as being for certain kinds of people, those whose papers are in the right place, those who are in the right place; those who are upright, straight, able; well-resourced, well-connected.

A complaint can go through the system and still nothing happens.    Perhaps complaints end up in a filing cabinet; filing as filing away. One student said of her complaint: “it just gets shoved in the box.” Another student describes: “I feel like my complaint has gone into the complaint graveyard.” When a complaint is filed away or binned or buried those who complain can end up feeling filed away or binned or buried. We need to remember that a complaint is a record of what happens to a person. Complaints are personal. Complaints are also records of what happens in an institution. Complaints are institutional. The personal is institutional.  One academic researcher shared her complaint file with me: “One of the things I talked about in those documents, I am very open, I was under such stress and trauma that my periods stopped….That’s the intimacy of some of the things that go into it, bodily functions like this.” A body can stop functioning. A body can announce a complaint. That body is in a document. And that document is in a file. And that file is in a cabinet. To file a complaint can mean to become alienated from your own history, a history that is often difficult, painful and traumatic.

Complaint as Diversity Work

A body can announce a complaint. It is worth remembering here that a complaint can be an expression of grief, pain or dissatisfaction; something that is a cause of a protest or outcry, a bodily ailment as well as a formal allegation. We are learning how the latter sense of complaint as formal allegation brings up these more affective and embodied senses. With bodies in mind, we can think about the work of diversity and complaint together; to show how they are part of the same work. If walls came up in my research into diversity, doors have come up in my research into complaint.   I have already noted how complaints happen “behind closed doors.” If complaints provide data, that data is kept under lock and key. Doors can be about who is locked out as well as what is locked in. You might not be able to open the door because the door is too heavy or too narrow. As Aimi Hamraie describes in Building Access: “Examine any doorway, window, toilet, chair or desk…and you will find the outline of the body meant to use it” (2017, 19, emphasis added). They usefully name this outline “the normate template” (19). Those who don’t assume the shape of the norm know the norms; norms become walls: what hits you is what stops you from entering.

A disabled academic has to keep pointing out that rooms are inaccessible because they keep booking rooms that are inaccessible. She has to keep saying it because they keep doing it . “I worry about drawing attention to myself. But this is what happens when you hire a person in a wheelchair. There have been major access issues at the university.”  She spoke of “the drain, the exhaustion, the sense of why should I have to be the one who speaks out.” You have to speak out because others do not; and because you speak out, others can justify their own silence. They hear you, so it becomes about you; “major access issues” become your issues.  A complaint might be necessary because you do not fit the requirements of an organization, because you are a misfit to use Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s important term. She describes being a person with a disability in an ablest institution as like being a “square peg in round hole.”  You can also be a misfit given what has become routine. An organization that organizes long meetings without any breaks assumes a body that can be seated without breaks. If you arrive and cannot maintain this position, you do not meet the requirements. If you lay down during the meeting, you would throw the meeting into crisis. A social justice project might require throwing meetings into crisis.

 Perhaps because organizations are trying to avoid such crises, misfits often end up on the same committees (otherwise known as the diversity committee). We can be misfits on these committees. 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.” Certain words carry a complaint, you just have to say words like race or racism and you’ll be heard as complaining.  Given that people of colour just have to turn up to bring race up, we can be heard as complaining without even saying anything. A complaint can be how you are received as much what you send out. If you do raise something, you end up confirming a judgement that has already been made. She describes: “whenever you raise something, the response is that you are not one of them.” A complaint seems to amplify what makes you not fit, picking up what you are not; a complaint as foreign, a complainer as a foreigner, not from here, not here, not.

A structure: when the same things keep coming up. But if you keep having the same problem, you can be made to feel the problem is you. A lesbian academic describes:  “if you have a situation and you make a complaint, then you are the woman who complains, the lesbian who complains.  And then of course you get witch-hunted, you get scapegoated, you become the troublesome uppity woman; you become the woman who does not fit; you become everything the bully accuses you off, because nobody is listening to you. And you don’t like to hear yourself talking like that but you end up being in that situation, again. You can hear them saying, ‘oh there you go.” A diversity practitioner had said something similar to me: she only had to open her mouth in meetings to witness eyes rolling as if to say “oh hear she goes.” Both times we laughed: it can be relief to have an experience put into words.  The feminist killjoy comes up here; she comes up in what we can 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.

Sometimes we do laugh; we need each other so we can laugh. In that laughter is also a groan of recognition. To be followed by rolling eyes is after all to be followed by eyes. A trans student of colour complaints about sexual harassment and transphobic harassment from their supervisor who kept asking them deeply intrusive questions about their gender and genitals. Questions can be hammering; for some to be is to be in question. The questions were laced in the language of concern, concern for the welfare of the student predicated on judgments that they would be endangered if they conducted research in their home country; racist judgments are often about the location of danger “over there.” But when they complain, what happens : “People were just trying to evaluate whether he was right to believe there would be some sort of physical danger to me because of my gender identity… as if to say he was right to be concerned.” The complaints process can lead to a reiteration of yet more intrusive questions, questions that make a concern right or even into a right. So much harassment is enacted as a right to be concerned. We have a right to be concerned (as “citizens”) about immigration; we have a right to be concerned (as “adult human females”) about sex based rights. A right to be concerned is how the violence of scrutiny is masked, a violence premised on suspicion that some are not who they say they are, that some have no right to be where they are, that some have no right to be.

When you complain about what you come up against, you come up against what you complain about. What complaints are “about” is how some end up “out.”   A woman of colour described her department as a revolving door: women and minorities enter only to head right out again: whoosh, whoosh. You can be kept out by what you find out when you get in.  Getting in can be how you are shown the way out.

And yet, we can think of how diversity is often figured as an open door, turned into a tagline; tag on, tag along; minorities welcome, come in, come in!  One university transformed the “open door” into a project of attaching photographs of Black and minority ethic staff and students to door panels across the campus. BME students and staff are pictured not even as going through the door but as on the door.

Remember the post-box that became a nest?   There could be another sign on the post-box: “birds welcome”.

Birds Welcome

Diversity is that sign: birds welcome, minorities welcome: come in, come in!  Just because they welcome you, it does not mean they expect you to turn up. That sign would be a non-performative if the post-box was still in use because the birds would be dislodged by the letters, a nest destroyed before it could be created. Comments, jokes, questions, who are you, what are you; what are you doing here, where are you from, where are you really from function as letters in the box. They pile up until there is no room left, no room, no room to breathe, to nest, to be. This is why diversity work is work: it is not enough to open the door. For some of us to be in the room requires stopping what usually happens in that room, the usual is the structural in temporal form; otherwise some of us would be, as it were, displaced by the letters in the box.

Doors can be closed because of what you refuse not to bring up. When an MA student indicated she wanted to make a complaint about bullying and sexual harassment by 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 can be a statement about who is important. The student went 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, 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 cannot afford to lose the references.  Power can work through what might seem a light touch: all you need to do to close that door is to write a less positive reference. The mere lift of a supportive hand can function as the heaviest of weights.

The actions that close doors are thus not always perceptible to others.  For those deemed dependent on doors being opened, those who embody diversity, whose mere entry is understood as debt, doors can be shut at any point.  A door can be shut because you are told that a door will be shut. A trans lecturer considered making a complaint after not getting a promotion and goes to their union. They are told: “because I was trans I would never be promoted.” Perceptions can be doors: how you are perceived as being as how you are stopped from progressing. This is not to say that we are always stopped; you have to work harder to get through the doors of perception. When a black woman told her white head of department, “I would like to work towards becoming a professor,” her head of department “just laughed in her face.” That laughter can be the sound of a door slammed.  Some of us in becoming professors become trespassers; you are being told you need permission to enter by being told you do not have permission.

A door can be shut after you enter. A door can be shut because you enter. I am listening to an indigenous woman academic. She told me how she could hardly manage to get to campus after a sustained campaign of bullying and harassment from white faculty, including a concerted effort by a senior manager to sabotage her tenure case as well as the tenure cases of other indigenous academics. When you are harassed and bullied, when doors are closed, nay slammed, making it hard to get anywhere, it can be history you are up against; thrown up against. Complaints take us back; they take us back further still, to histories that are still:

There is a genealogy of experience, a genealogy of consciousness in my body that is now at this stage traumatized beyond the capacity to go to the university….. So there’s a legacy, a genealogy and I haven’t really opened that door too widely as I have been so focused on my experience in the last 7 years.

To be traumatized is to hold a history in a body; you can be easily shattered. There is only so much you can take on because there is only so much you can take in. We can inherit closed doors, a trauma can be inherited by being made inaccessible, all that happened that was too hard, too painful to reveal.  Decolonial feminist work, black feminist work; feminist of colour work is often about opening these doors; the door to what came before; colonial as well as patriarchal legacies; harassment as the hardening of that history, a history of who gets to do what; who is deemed entitled to what; who is deemed entitled to whom. A complaint can be necessary: what you have to do to go on. But you still have to work out what you can take on. She went on by taking them on:

I took everything off my door, my posters, my activism; my pamphlets. I smudged everything all around the building. I knew I was going to war; I did a war ritual in our tradition. I pulled down the curtain. I pulled on a mask, my people we have a mask…and I never opened my door for a year. I just let it be a crack. And only my students could come in. I would not let a single person come in to my office who I had not already invited there for a whole year.

In order to survive institutions we need to transform them. But we still need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform. Closing a door can sometimes be a survival strategy; she closes the door to the institution by withdrawing herself, her commitments, from it. She still does her work; she still teaches her students. She uses the door to shut out what she can, who she can.  She takes herself off the door; she depersonalizes it. And she pulls down the blinds and she pulls on a mask, the mask of her people, connecting her fight to the battles that came before, because, quite frankly, for her, this is a war.

Our battles are not the same battles. But there are many battles happening behind closed doors. Behind closed doors: that is where complaints are often found, so that is where you might find us too, those of us who embody diversity; and what we bring with us, who we bring us, the worlds that would not be here if some of us were not here; the data we hold, our bodies, our memories; perhaps the more we have to spill, the tighter the hold.

Complaint Collectives

The more we have to spill, the tighter their hold.  When organizations can’t stop a complaint from being made, there is an effort to stop a complaint from getting out. Non-disclosure agreements are the tail end of a much longer process of containing complaints.  I think of filing cabinets as institutional closets; complaints are buried here because of what they could reveal. One student who made a complaint about sexual harassment describes, “The scale of the response was so extreme in a way compared to what we were complaining about. Now on reflection I guess it was because there were hundreds of complaints they had suppressed that they did not want to have a lid lifted on it.” To suppress is to contain as well as to keep secret. The more information is suppressed, the more there is to spill. This is why so many norms of professional conduct are about keeping a lid on it; silence as institutional loyalty; silence in case of institutional damage. A wall can be built from silence. And those walls can also be built around feminist spaces. Many have relayed to me how feminist colleagues, often senior feminists, often senior white feminists, were among those who told them to “keep a lid on it.” When feminists keep complaints “in house,” treating the data contained by a complaint as a secret, as what must be kept secret, they have become not the birds nesting, but the letters in the box, treating complainers as trespassers; complaints as messy matter, as straw, not as part of a nest but as “matter out of place.”

Sometimes we have to “lift the lid” to make complaints matter, to make a mess. When I make the reasons for my resignation public, I shared information, not very much, but enough; that there had been these enquiries.   I became a leak: drip, drip. Organizations will try and contain the 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, wiped away; as if they are mopping up a mess.

But there is hope here; they cannot mop up all of our mess. A leak can be lead. A leak can be how we leave traces of ourselves behind.  Sometimes you hold on by passing a refusal on. A postgraduate student made an informal complaint about white supremacy in her classroom: using that term for what is at the university, can get you in serious trouble; she knew that but she was still willing to do that. She became in her terms “a monster,” an indigenous feminist monster, and is 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.” A complaint in taking you back can point forward, to those who come after who can receive something from you because of what you tried to do, even though you did not get through, even though all you seemed to have done was scratch the surface.  Yes, those scratches: we are back to those scratches.  They seemed to show the limits of what we accomplished. They can also be what we leave behind. They can be testimony: a complaint as writing on the wall; we were here; we did not disappear. The complaints in the graveyard can come back to haunt institutions.

I shared the image of a complaint graveyard with one person that had been shared with me by another. She said:

You have to think about the impact of doing this. Because having yet another complaint, it means that you give more credibility to the one who comes after you. When you talk about haunting you are talking about the size of the graveyard. And I think this is important. Because when you have one tombstone, one lonely little ghost, it doesn’t actually have any effect; you can have a nice cute little cemetery outside your window, but when you start having a massive one, common graveyards and so on, it becomes something else; it becomes much harder to manage.

We can and do form complaint collectives. We can and do become harder to manage. But we do not always assemble at the same time or in the same place. You might feel like a lonely little ghost: gone; gone away; a stray. Your complaint might seem to have evaporated like steam, puff; puff. That complaint can still be picked up and amplified by others. You might not be able to hear it now; it might not have happened yet.  But each complaint gathers more, a gathering as a gathering of momentum; the sounds of refusal; little ghosts, little birds, scratching away at something.  We gather, becoming that momentum. Thank you.


About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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3 Responses to Feminists at Work

  1. ksb30 says:

    Thanks for this! It reminds me of medical training and the inherent conflict of interest built into the relationship between a trainee doctor and their supervisor. It is very difficult to bring up issues when they occur as you are dependent on your boss to open the door to the next stage of your training.

    When complaints are raised they often seem to boomerang back onto the person raising the issue or get lost in the system.

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