After Complaint

I have been listening to stories of complaint. I have been collecting complaints.  To collect can mean to go to a place and bring somebody back or to bring things together from different times or places. To bring somebody back, to bring us together, to collect complaints is to create a complaint collective. One student said toward the end of sharing her story, “another straw to the bale.” I replied, “it’s a stuffed bale.” Complaint! is stuffed full of our stories. Those who complain about abuses of power, about inequalities and injustices, have so much to say because we have so much to do. I am now speaking “after complaint,” by which I mean after the book, not the work, the work of complaint is, of course, ongoing. The book itself came after so much, after my experience of supporting students who complained, after leaving my post, my profession, because of what happened when we complained, after listening to many of you talk about your complaints and the work you do. Despite all these afters, I still feel that I am in complaint, that complaint has remained present, that the time of complaint is now, urgent and necessary.  I have not, I will not, leave complaint behind. And yet, it is hard for me to think about complaint without thinking about leaving. What happens to us, and to our complaints, when we leave the institutions in which we made them? What happens if we cannot leave, if we cannot open a door or walk down a corridor without a sharp reminder of what happened there, of what happened then?

I am speaking to a woman about her experiences as a postgraduate student. She is no longer working in the university sector, what happened when she complained about sexual harassment by another student, led her to see that the university as it was, was not what she wished it to be, was not where she wished to work. We are getting ready to leave the conversation. And, she said to me, “I know that you get it. And I know you will do something with it.” I am still moved by her trust. I said to her “It’s a shared project.” And then I said, “Even if you leave, I left too, that kind of experience you take with you, wherever you go.” And then she said, “it never leaves you.” And then she said it again, with a different, stronger, emphasis, “It will never ever leave you.” Complaints, some of them, those that lead you to confront the institution, don’t leave you, not now, not ever, never.

Many of the stories of complaint I share in the book are in one way or another stories of leaving. A senior lecturer said, “I can’t leave and they know that. I am not employable elsewhere. I don’t have monographs. I haven’t been Head of Department.” Her story was a story of not being able to leave because the experiences that led her to complaint, being bullied by her head of department, and her experience of complaint, watching him get away with it, stopped her from being able to do the kind of work that might have given her that option. Some people only complain because they are leaving or because they know they can leave, which tells you what they know about complaint. One postgraduate student said, “I would never want to file a complaint without knowing I could leave. Retaliation is real. People can do stuff to you whether it is recorded or not.” So much of what happens when you complain, so much that is real, is hard to evidence. You could end up with nowhere to go without anyone knowing how or why that happened. Or maybe they are not going to let you leave. Another postgraduate student said, “it was a three-hour meeting that was just trying to shut us down. The line I really remember was ‘we are not going to leave until we get this sorted’ because we were treated like unruly girls who needing disciplining.” They are going to make you sort it out by treating you as the ones who need to be sorted out. Or maybe when you complain you watch them trying to make you leave. A professor said, “And that’s what they wanted: they wanted to take me out totally, so that I would leave, tail between my legs.” Taking you out can be what a complaint ends up being about A senior lecturer said, she could hear them saying something without saying anything, “oh be gone from here, ‘you problem,’ you leave, get out and then you take that with you.” They want you to leave on the assumption that the problem will go away when you do.

If we leave, and some of us leave, we take our complaints with us. But the problems don’t go away when we do. We become recorders, even when we are gone, we can tell you what is going on. In my conclusion I describe complaints as our noisy companions. We can become our complaints, and perhaps also each other’s. Today, I want to reflect back on the research with you, speaking after the book but not after the work. I will interweave stories from my own experience of complaint, with stories from the research and from sharing the research.

When?

I want to open with the question of when, the question of time, of timing. When does a complaint begin? How to begin the story of complaint?  How to tell that story?  On paper, this is the institutional story, a complaint is pictured as a flow-chart, with straight lines and pointy arrows, giving the would-be complainer a clear route through.

Things are not always as they appear.  I suggested in the book that if we were to picture a complaint it would more like this, it’s a mess, a tangle, you can get in, but you can’t work out how to get out.

Perhaps if this is a picture of complaint, it is also a picture of time and also of a life, what a life can become in the time of complaint. A complaint is like a bag that gets heavier in time, the longer it takes the more it weighs. One student who complained about harassment from a professor described, “it is my theory they have 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.” Time can be used as a tool, to tire us out, so that we will retire our complaints. Or it might be the time a complaint takes is time as some of us don’t have. I think of how an international student made her complaint at the same time 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.” The more precarious you are, the more you risk losing your footing. A student with a chronic illness described how “the complaint hinged on them not giving me the time. I said you should have given me more time, more than a week, to do all this paper work. You can’t then get pissed off with me when I don’t do the paperwork and moreover you can’t do that for a PhD student who is registered disabled.”  The ableism that leads you to complain, not being given the additional time you need can be reencountered when you complain, not being given the additional time you need. The failure to recognise that some of us have less time, or that some of us need more time, can be how a door is shut. That is why if the book is about institutions, it is about who is missing from them.

What if the door, one of the central motifs of the book, is also telling us about time?  The image on the front of Complaint! is called Double Doors, by the artist Rachel Whiteread. Here is a description of the work, “Look carefully—this work is more complicated than it seems. These are not doors; instead, they capture the space created by doors. Whiteread made plaster casts of both sides of two doors, then assembled the casts back-to-back. The finished work combines the spaces on either side of a threshold—fusing entrance and exit into one solid form. The pale doors suggest the ambiguous emotions attached to coming and going and, in the way they resemble funerary slabs, maybe even the fleeting passage of life.” I love how her doors are an assembly, evoking time as well as space, passing, passing through, passing by, passages, comings and goings. I think it matters that the doors resemble “funerary slabs,” doors pointing to graves, doors telling us about who is departed.

It was very early on in the research that I noticed how doors kept coming up, actual doors, doors with difficult to use handles, revolving doors.  A student who made a complaint about the conduct of a professor on her MA said of the prospect of doing a PhD, “that door is closed.” That is quite an ordinary expression. I noticed the door in the expression because of how doors had already come up. We often make use of doors to explain what we cannot do, where we cannot go, a future can be shut like a door. That doors are everywhere in complaint is telling us something about complaint. We are more likely to notice doors when we can’t open them. Doors can be the master’s tools, to evoke Audre Lorde, how some get in, how other’s become trespassers.  When complaints are made confidential, they happen “behind closed doors.” That expression can refer to the actual doors that are closed so someone can tell their story in confidence. It can also mean the process of keeping something secret from a wider public. In the book then, I am opening a door, trying to let out or express something that has been kept secret.

It can take time to open the door.  A postgraduate student is being harassed by her supervisor. She’s a queer woman of colour: she is from a working class-background; she is the first person in her family to go to university. She has had to fight really hard to get here. She knows something is not right, she is feeling more and more uncomfortable: he keeps pushing boundaries, wanting to meet off campus, then in coffee shops, then at his house. She tries to handle the situation, “I tried very hard to keep all of the meetings on campus, and to keep the door open.” She keeps the door open; an actual door at the same time as she closes other another kind of door, we might call this door the door of consciousness. She describes “I thought I would take myself down by admitting to the kind of violence he was enacting.” Take myself down: to admit to violence can feel like becoming your own killjoy, getting in the way of your own progression.  To admit can mean to confess a truth as well as to let something in.  Note how doors can hold a contradiction, keeping the office door open is an admission of a truth that she handles by not letting it in.  But handles can stop working,

I was sitting with another colleague at another lunch another day and he started texting me these naked photos of himself and I think I just hit a critical mass of like, I just can’t handle it anymore. I said just look at this, and she was just like, you know like, completely speechless…. And then like it suddenly started to seep into me, into her, in this shared conversation about like, how horrible and violent that I am having to receive these things, right, and so that basically put a process in motion.

For a complaint to come out the violence has to get in. And when the violence gets in, it gets not only into her but into her colleague; into the conversation, into the room in which they are having that conversation. This is why even when complaints are directed toward something, they are hard to contain.

The time of complaint does not feel like a straight line, complaints go everywhere, they get everywhere.  Complaints can queer time as well as space, you end up all over the place. Complaints can follow you home.

You can open the door of consciousness, also your life, and then what? Opening a door is never completed by one action. You might admit what happened, but then when you try and share the story, as she did, you will hear more doors being shut. She goes to the office responsible for handling complaints, “they were like, ‘you can file a complaint. But he’s really well loved by the university, he has a strong publication record, you are going to go through all of this emotional torment.’ It was even proposed that he could counter sue me for defamation of character. The line was essentially, you can do this, but why would you.”  A warning that a complain will have dire consequences, that to complain is to hurtle toward a miserable fate, can take the form of institutional fatalism: statements about what institutions are like, what they are as what they will be, who they love, who they will protect. In the end she does not file a formal complaint, she knew what she was being told: that she wouldn’t get anywhere, it wouldn’t get anywhere, because he was going somewhere. The door shut on her complaint is kept open for him. That is how doors, tell us about time, the time of repetition, what we keep having to do, the points we keep having to make.

Doors can be shut by appearing to be open. Consider how diversity is often figured as an open door, come in, come in, minorities welcome.  Just because they welcome you, it does not mean they expect you to turn up.  One university turned the “open door” of diversity, we can call this door the diversity door, into a project of attaching photographs of Black and minority ethic students and staff to door panels across the campus. BME students and staff are pictured not even as going through the door but as on the door.  A woman of colour described her department as a revolving door, women and minorities enter only to head out again, whoosh, whoosh. We can be kept out by what we find out when we get in. Maybe diversity too is a tale about time, comings and goings, how when some of us enter, we quickly leave again.

I think back to that complaint procedure, that flow chart, flow, flow, away we go.  So often when we try and follow procedures, use policies, we encounter an obstruction. One academic made a complaint about bullying by her head of department did so in part as her university had developed new policies and complaint procedures, only to realise “they did not mean what they said.” She describes them as “window dressing.” Complaint procedures can be rather like diversity, then; window dressing, door dressing. I spoke to two students who made a complaint at an institution that had developed new complaints procedures intended to create a more positive welcoming environment for the complainer. That was not what they experienced, “The tone was horrendous. It was basically like ‘tutt’ stop it (accompanied by hand gesture), that sort of attitude; like that tutt if you could make that noise it was in there somewhere.” When you make a complaint, you hear that “tutt, tutt,” as if you are an irritating fly they are trying to brush away, a complaint as what they will away, a complaint met by a go away. What comes at you is not revealed to others.  Escalation of force is not only a consequence of a complaint; it is often used as a method to stop complaints. It is not just time that becomes heavy, you feel the weight of an institution come down on you. Escalation can also be used to discredit those who complain. An international student, described escalation as “a deliberate strategy. Because it is so extreme, people think that either the person is saying something is being extreme and therefore irrational and a drama queen, or the person has done something and they are not saying that was so extreme that elicited the extreme reaction.”  What is not revealed to others is often what is most harmful and violent about the complaint process. And then you can be the one who appears extreme, making something out of nothing.

When we complain we often experience what does not appear, and what appears is not what we experience.  We mind a gap, we find a gap, we fall right into it. An early career lecturer is returning after long term sick leave. She is neuroatypical and she is not given the time she needs to return to work, to do her work, “there are like four channels of complaint going on at the same time. But interestingly none of these people seem to be crossing over. You duplicate the complaint at different times, emails, phone calls, occupational health; the union. It is generating all this material and all this paper work but actually nothing seems to shift. It’s just a file, actually.” You have to keep telling the same story because different people are not talking to reach other, falling into the gaps can mean more and more work. Making a complaint can mean going over and over something, the same point, a sore point. All that work, all those conversations, all that time, and the complaint ends up in a file.

A file, a filing cabinet. Another student described where her complaint ended up as “the complaint graveyard.” Perhaps a filing cabinet is another door, a funerary slab, where a complaint goes to die. But even if our complaints end up in files, which means we too end up in files, bits and pieces of our lives can be the details in a document, they are not only there.  Our bodies store what institutions file away. One senior academic describes “you have a lot of strain and mental anguish which comes out in different ways, and the way that mine came out was in my back. That was when I started having this really bad back problem.” The less backing you have, the more weight you have to bear.  A back can bear the burden of the weight of a complaint. A back can tell the story of what is required to do this work. Our bodies tell the time of complaint.

The time it takes, the time we are in. I was finishing this book in the time of a pandemic. The times you are in, the work we do in the times we are in. I was interviewed recently by Adrija Dey for Wasafiri. She asked me about the pandemic, and in answering her question, I mentioned filing cabinets. Let me share what I said,

I finished Complaint! at a time of mass trauma and loss. I have no doubt that the affective reality of our times is in the book, how could it not be? To write in some situations we need to let them in. I wrote this book with a sense of urgency and responsibility. In the introduction I write that I did not want to become a filing cabinet; we have too many of them already. I did not want the stories that had been shared with me before the pandemic to sit with me, to pile up, during it. I wanted, I needed, to get them out, to give these stories of complaint, these complaints, somewhere to go. Writing this book was thus very orientating. It gave me a focus, a rather fierce focus at that. I had a sense of a point and a purpose. But it became painful and hard when I sent the book in. I felt its absence deeply.

I still do.

Where?

When I think of the where of complaint, I think first of where I worked.  Mostly when you are involved in a complaint, you are still at work; you are still doing your work. The work I did was to support a collective complaint that had already been put forward by students.  I first met with the students in our department’s meeting room. They told me what had been going on, and for how long. It was so much to take in. When I think about leaving post, why it became necessary, I think of that room.  I would keep entering it, because it was my department’s meeting room, a much-used room. I would keep going by it, because it was the first room on the corridor after the administrator’s room; I went by it to get to my office. We would have other meetings in that room, academic meetings, papers shuffling, papers and persons being rearranged. The room was occupied by a history that felt as tangible as the walls. I could not just turn up at the same old meetings, doing the same old things.

I think too of my office. Just after the meeting with the students, a feminist colleague came to my office. I told her some of what the students told me. She burst into tears. She said something like, “after all of our work this still happens.” There is so much feminist grief in this still, that the same things happen, still, despite everything, all that work, feminist work, our work, to try to change the culture of sexual harassment. We need time, also space, to express this grief, to turn it out, and, sometimes, to turn it into complaint.

In the weeks following that first meeting, more students came to talk to me. They came into my office. In an endnote in chapter 6, a little hidden, but it is there, I quote from a student “we’re all concerned that your office has become something of an emergency drop-in centre for women in various states of crisis. I hope you’re alright”. We share the work we share concern. The students did not come to me because I had any special training or skills. I didn’t and I don’t. They came to me because I was willing to listen.  They came because they had so few places to go. I became a feminist ear because of the failure of the institution to listen to their complaints, to take them seriously. To become a feminist ear is to find a way to get the complaints moving again.   I am grateful that the students I worked with became my complaint collective and that they, Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Alice Corble, with support from Heidi Hasbrouck, Chryssa Sdrolia and others, wrote about what they did, how the “moved something,” in one of the conclusions to the book.

We gave each other room. We give each other room. As I did the research, I was conscious of rooms, how to give a testimony is to give it from somewhere. I talked to a student when she was at work. She was in a room, a seminar room.  And she started telling me about a very difficult meeting that took place, to use her words, “in this exact room.” Being “in this exact room,” the same room, it matters. You end up telling the story of complaint in the same place you made the complaint.

Immanence, we are in it, even when we are trying to get out of it. Complaints can make us more conscious of what we are in, of the rooms we are in. Earlier I described the experiences of a neurotypical lecturer whose complaint that she needed more time took so much time, generating all this material that ended up in a file. Let me share with you her description of what it feels like to do this work,

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.

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 becomes a magnifying glass: so much appears, so many details are picked up by an attention; the geography of a place, the building, the long corridors, the locked doors, the windows with blinds that come down, less light, less room. To fight for room can be how you become more conscious of what little room you have.  I think of those birds scratching away and I think of diversity work, described to me by a practitioner as a “banging your head on the wall job.” When the wall keeps its place, it is you that ends up sore. And what happens to the wall? All you seem to have done is scratching the surface.  Scratching can give you a sense of the limits of what you can accomplish.

A sense of the limits of what you can accomplish is a sense of the institution. Note how a complaint becomes a magnifying glass: so much appears, so many details are picked up by an attention; the geography of a place, the building,  the long corridors,  the locked doors,  the windows with blinds that come down, less light, less room.  She also said, “I was just frightened and I just allowed myself to go through it very privately and I hit all those doors along the way, and just came out very guarded by it.” That there are so many doors in these stories is telling us something; you notice doors when you hit them rather than going through them. A door becomes part of the story, her story, as well as the story of her complaint, behind closed doors, how she goes through the process privately, hitting the doors, how she becomes guarded. Doors tell us not only about when of complaint but the where of it, the immanence of complaint, how complaints are made in the institutions they are about, how they are stopped by those same institutions.

The environment in which you make the complaint becomes part of the problem. Complaints about hostile environments are made in hostile environments. Many harassment policies use this term for the creation of a work culture that is undermining and degrading to a person or persons. In the UK, the term “hostile environment” has since been used by government as the name of a policy on illegal immigration. The use of a term that was already definitional of work place harassment for policy teaches us how harassment become a national policy.  The category of “illegal immigrant” is a racializing category; you can be brown or black and born here and still be told to go back, go home, yes that was a message sent out on a van; racial harassment as a national policy, the right to interrogate those who appear not from here.

You might open the door only to find a hostile environment otherwise known as the diversity committee. A woman of colour 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.” You just have to say race to be heard as a complainer, dropped for being too negative, unhelpful. If you are dropped from a diversity committee for mentioning things to do with race, diversity is a way of not mentioning things to do with race. Another time, she is writing a paper for a special issue of a journal on decolonizing her discipline. She receives feedback from a white editor, “the response of the editor was ‘needs to be toned down, not enough scholarly input to back up the claims they are making.’ Basically, get back in your box, and if you want to decolonize, we’ll do it on our terms.” Being dropped from the diversity committee for “mentioning things to do with race” is continuous with being told to tone it down on the decolonizing special issue. The more we refuse the instructions, the more they are issued, don’t use that word, tone it down, remove yourself from your text; cite right, cite white.

She also told me about a conversation she had with her head of department. She is trying to explain to him why students of colour do not feel they can make complaints about racism,

He said he was sympathetic because of Brexit and started talking about Muslim students being attacked on the bus. I said the department is reproducing a culture that isn’t inclusive no matter how sympathetic you are. If you had an experience on the bus you are not going to come back to the department and tell them about it, are you, if it’s the same department where when you have a cup of tea, the white people go to a different part of the room.

It seems a complaint about racism can be received sympathetically if racism is elsewhere, outside, on the streets, in the bus. The Head of Department’s statement of sympathy, his performance of sympathy, is directed toward racism that is over there. But seeing racism there can be how you don’t see it here, how you enact it here (white people going to different parts of the room). Racism can be what stops a complaint about racism.

Complaints about hostile environments are made in hostile environments.  A trans student made an informal complaint that their department “had made it a hostile environment for [them] as a trans student.” The complaint came about after the student had questioned the department’s sponsoring of a trans-hostile group on campus. The student was asked to attend a meeting in which the complaint was treated as “a difference in opinion on this topic.” They said, “[It was] as if I was having some kind of tantrum for not getting my way rather than it being a fundamental issue about existence.” Their complaint went nowhere—it did not get uptake or initiate a formal process. A student who was part of the trans-hostile group made a countercomplaint about the trans student for harassment and bullying. Her complaint was directed against an individual who made a complaint about an environment. And her complaint got uptake; a disciplinary process was initiated and was dropped only at the very final stage. Whether or not a complaint gets uptake can depend on the extent to which the environment of the institution in which the complaint is made is made part of the problem. When you make the environment part of the problem, your complaint becomes more of a problem.

What then about the environments in which I shared this material? One time, pre-pandemic, I gave a lecture in person. Students came up to me after. They told me about the students who could not be there because just the week before there had been a town hall meeting in that same lecture theatre, a town hall meeting, which had been very difficult, very painful. The people I was trying to reach, those who had been through it, what I was trying to describe, would not be there because of where I was saying it. Now, each time I speak, I think of this, just now, I think of this, all of the people who cannot be with us because of what we are trying to address and where we are trying to address it. I think of the where of complaint and I think of who is not here.

Why?

Why complain? I didn’t ask those I spoke to this question, but many in giving me stories of the complaints they made answered this question. A Black woman professor describes:

It was something I had to do because of my politics. A wrong had been done. I had to make sure it had been put right even at my own personal expense it turned out. I’d still do that again. I’d do it for another person, not for me, if the same thing happened I would do it again.

For many complaints don’t feel like something you could do, or even as a choice you make, but what you have to do, given your politics, your commitments. She would complain again not for herself but for another person despite what happened to her; perhaps even because of what happened to her.  You do not want those who come after to go through what you went through.

To intervene in something wrong requires noticing it. You have to keep noticing it when it keeps happening. Noticing can be about recognising how universities are occupied by many histories that can leave some with no room. A woman of colour explained to why she made a complaint about bullying and harassment from senior white men. She described how the senior white men belittled the work of students and more junior colleagues, how they kept making sexist, ableist and racist comments. This is one comment “I’m from London and London is just ripe for ethnic cleansing.” She described how people laughed and how the laughter filled the room.”  She commented on these comments, “These were the sort of things being aired.” Even the air is occupied.  She decided to complain because “she wanted it recorded, “and “the culture was being reproduced for new PhD students.” You have to record what you do not want to reproduce.

This is why I think of complaint as non-reproductive labour, the work you have to do to stop the reproduction of an inheritance, to stop the same things from happening.  She gathered statements from around twenty people in her department. A complaint can be a collective. 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,” “they treated the submission as an act of arrogance on my part.” A grievance is heard as a grudge, a “we” turned into a me.  She added, “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 complainer becomes a stranger, a trespasser, a foreigner, not from here, not really from here, not. A stranger can be dismissed. She explains what happens, “it was all swept under the carpet and exactly the same things continued.”  When those who try to stop a culture from being reproduced are stopped, a culture is being reproduced. The disappearance of the complaint, and the complainer (she left the department), creates the impression that reproduction is smooth and seamless. But the complainers, we know what is under the carpet; how much gets brushed away to keep things as they are.

In sharing complaints, I am making complaints. I have thus come up against the exact same mechanisms I was describing, I have heard that sweep, sweep, that whoosh whoosh.  One time, I was about to give a lecture in a university, and I was sent a direct message on twitter. It was a warning that the person who had invited me, was using the invitation as a screen and that he himself had been the object of many complaints about sexual harassment. The message came to me just before the lecture. I went ahead with it, against my killjoy judgement, because I did not want to let people down, those who were coming to listen. After the lecture, there was a dinner. The professor began speaking to me, leaning on me, telling me how teaching was erotic, how students wanted to have sex with the professors, so what could they do. I felt the hand of a feminist colleague on my arm, not a disciplining hand, but a hand that said, I know you need to get out of here. I got out of there. I felt sick at how I had let myself be used like that.

Mind you, as a scholar of colour, I am used to being used by organizations.  We are often invited to speak to institutions of whiteness about diversity, because whatever we say, however critical we are, they know we will go away again, whoosh, whoosh.

Another time I gave a lecture that included a discussion of nodding as a non-performative, nodding as appearing to agree to something, nodding as a way of not bringing something into effect. The lecture was funded centrally so there were a number of senior managers in attendance. They were seated toward the front of the lecture theatre. Afterwards some students came up to me (thank you to all the students who come up to me!). They had been seated behind the senior managers. The students observed that the senior managers had been nodding throughout my lecture including nodding during my discussion of nodding as non-performative.  The students were at the tail end of a long and difficult complaint. And they told me that the management had enacted the same tactics that I was describing in the lecture. Nodding can be about recognising a problem insofar as the problem is safely construed as being somewhere else or as coming from someone else. If you can nod at the critique of nodding, then you can appear to recognise the problem of appearing to recognise a problem.

Our critiques of non-performative gestures can be received by non-performative gestures. A woman of colour I interviewed, described how white feminists would constantly refer to my work, claiming it, even the critiques of whiteness, as if they were not implicated in it. She joked “We can ask them to put on a non-performative badge. That’s you, we are talking about you!” Even then, they would probably nod, and not get it.  I appreciated reading, Helena Lui’s critique of this white feminist gesture: “Have you heard of Sara Ahmed? You’d love her!’ This laboured pronouncement from white scholars can feel like another violence. It is as though we, as women of color, are seen as one and the same. Professing their love for Ahmed is as though they are professing love to me, all while closing the door of academia in my face.”  An empty gesture, a laboured pronouncement.

We can be invited, cited, as individuals, but remember sometimes they find it hard to tell us apart, and still have doors shut upon us. They claim our work as a way of not doing the work. Another woman of colour who wrote to me about complaints and she and her colleagues had made. She said “There’s another man on my campus who has been the subject of complaint from women who has a “feminist killjoy” sign on his door. When one of the women he had harmed told him that seeing the sign on his door after everything he had done made her uncomfortable, he filed a civility complaint against her to the chair. I don’t know how any of this is possible.” I don’t know it is possible. But we need to know that it is possible.  I think of how feminist killjoy can end up as a sign on a door. Those who abuse the power can and do use the terms we have to critique that abuse of power, our terms becoming screens, assertions of their right to occupy time and space. We can say, you are doing this, appropriating the feminist killjoy for your own ends, and he might look over his shoulder, assuming you are talking about someone else, or if he does see himself, defend himself, so that we become uncivil, the problem for pointing out the problem, all over again.

It is not just that those of us who embody diversity end up on the door. Our critiques of diversity end up on the door. My book Complaint! could end up on that damn door, that funerary slab. Or it could end up in a complaint file. A student attended one of my lectures in which I had shared our stories of complaint. She wrote to me some time after,

One of the worst parts was the tribunal at the end, where we were cross-examined by my supervisor’s lawyer, without any guidelines in place to regulate what could be asked. This turned out badly for many reasons. However, what I thought might be of interest was that me and the other complainants were asked by the lawyer, suspiciously, if we read ‘feminist theory’(!) and specifically whether we’d attended your lecture xxx on complaint. The implication was that we’d somehow all got together after the lecture and workshop to plot a complaint, although the process had in fact begun far earlier. The university team had to collect other people’s tweets about your lecture and work to demonstrate that my tweet was not unusual.

Attendance at a lecture on complaint can be used as evidence against a complainant. We know it can because it was. We are learning the different ways complainers are made into strangers, trespassers, complaints as originating with outsiders, and not with those who are having to do the work because of what happened in the institutions in which they work. A complaint is used as evidence of a feminist plot. I can be a feminist plot. A lecture can be a feminist pot. A book can be. You can be. We can be.  Feminism is often treated as infection, what causes a complaint to spread. Yet doors are used to stop complaints from shared, to stop us knowing about each other, or learning from each other. It takes a political movement to open those doors. What is represented as an organic process is often dependent on political work. We have to organise because of what we come up against, and then we are dismissed because we organize. How we are dismissed is evidence of the work we need to do and why we are doing it.

 If it takes a political movement to open the doors, it takes a political movement to survive the consequences. We are that movement. When I think about why, why I did this research, that movement that comes to mind. Why is who, who I am writing to. I am writing to you, you know who you are, those who complain for a more just world.  Audre Lorde once said that for some “survival is not an academic skill.” For some surviving the academy is not an academic skill.  I think of the writing, that helped me survive the academy, to find my way through it, work by Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Aileen Moreton Robinson, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, bell hooks, thank you bell, Gloria Anzaldua, Avtar Brah, Gail Lewis, and many others. We have so many behind us, so many to carry with us, to what we need to do.  

We need to transform institutions to survive them. But we still need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform. I am writing to those for whom survival is a project. We end up having to push hard against institutions, to organise, to form collectives, because of how our complaints are stopped from getting out or how we are stopped from getting through. And those who do most of this kind of work are often those who are most precarious, the least supported. I wanted to thank you, acknowledge you, the work you do.  I still do.

Conclusion: Complaint Collectives

Earlier I suggested that opening the door is not completed by one action. We have to keep opening it, because of how it keeps getting shut. A shut door can be a wall.  When I think back to my experience of complaint, what was hardest about it, I think of silence.  Silence can be loud, when you know what is not being said. Silence can be a wall. I think how hard we had to work to try and get an acknowledgement by the universities of what was going on, all these enquires into sexual harassment that showed how sexual harassment had become normalised, part of the institutional culture. I think of our efforts over three years to try and get the university to acknowledge the problem of sexual harassment. We could not even get an acknowledgement in public that these enquiries had taken place. It was like they never happened, which was, I have no doubt, the effect they were looking for.  The first mention in public of these enquiries was a post on my blog shared just after my resignation. That it telling you something about why I resigned. The university treated my resignation and posts as a leak, making a mess, causing damage.  But, it was not just the university that treated my disclosure as damaging. A feminist colleague described my action as “unprofessional,” because it caused “a fall-out which damages us all now and in the future.”  We are learning what it means to be professional. To be professional is to be willing to keep the institution’s secrets, to keep a lid on it,  which in this case meant to keep the enquiries secret, what they revealed secret, the harassment, secret, how it was institutionalised, secret.

Silence is not just something enforced by management or marketing departments, silence can be performed as loyalty, turned into a duty by our own colleagues, including our feminist colleagues, silence to protect professors, silence to protect resources, silence as promotion, how you maximise your chances of going further or getting more from the institution. And if complaints get out, particularly if those complaints relate to the conduct of senior members of a university, that silence is converted very quickly into discourse, letters of defence, letters upon letters, defences of colleagues, defences of procedures, of departments, of disciplines, of universities.  Some of the most difficult material in this book is about collegiality, that warm and fuzzy zone of good relation, how collegiality is used to close the door on complaints and those who make them. One student described “they have each other’s backs.”

Backs can be doors. We are up against it. The more we come up against it, the more we need more.  The more we need more. When we launched the book, we assembled as a complaint collective. It was so important to gather as a collective, to bear witness to the labour of complaint, each other’s labour, our labour. I then had a series of conversations about the work of complaint with complaint activists, which mostly happened behind closed doors. Sometimes we use doors to shut the institution out. I think of the testimony shared with me by 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 can take us back further, 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 traumatised beyond the capacity to go to the university. 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 traumatised 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. Earlier I used the expression “the door of consciousness,” to describe how we sometimes shut violence out, perhaps because it is too difficult to deal with, perhaps to hold onto something we fear losing, perhaps to focus or function. 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.

Closing the door can 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 depersonalises it. She pulls down the blinds. 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.

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 for whom the institution is not built; 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 have, our bodies, our memories, perhaps the more we have to spill, the tighter the hold. A door, a funerary slab, a filing cabinet. Sometimes, to get it out, the complaints, the data of them, in them, we have to be inventive. I learnt so much from the creativity of student led complaint activism. I think of all the different actions in the book – students who performed their complaints, who turned complaints into posters, or put them on leaflets or as expressed them as graffiti on walls. I think of how complaint can be how we find out about earlier complaints, how complaint can be a way of communicating in time. One researcher who complained about harassment and bullying from her married mentors received a secret letter in her post-box from someone who had complained about them earlier. I think of how a student who complained about the failure of her university to make reasonable accommodations finds documents on a fax machine, about earlier cases about other students. She speculates that a secretary had released those documents, an act of sabotage, an act of solidarity.

We meet in an action without meeting in person. I think of the lecturer who described her complaint as a little bird scratching away at something. She resigned and turned her resignation letter into a performance, “I wrote a two-page letter and it was really important to me to put everything in there that I felt so that it was down on paper. I asked for a meeting with the Dean. I read the letter out in a performative kind of way just to have some kind of event.” She gets it down on paper. She performs it.  She still wanted to do more: “I just thought I am not the kind of person who would put my resignation letter on the wall, but I just wonder what it is that made me feel that I am not that kind of person because inside I am that kind of person, I just couldn’t quite get it out.” That is what complaints are about; how we help each other get it out, how we get our letters on the wall.  The year after I left, students put words from my work on the wall.

Yes, they were taken down. But they cannot stop them from having been there.

I think of the when of complaint, also where, also why, I think of how our complaints have many lives, after-lives, and how complaint collectives do not always assemble in the same time or place. The academic who described her complaint as a little bird scratching away at something, came to a lecture in which I shared her testimony. She wrote to me, “it was only after the lecture that I realised how undignified these complaint processes are, and how yes, my dignity was stripped. In my dealings with the union, they had advised me at the time that my dignity at work had been breached, but that word did little then for me, as it felt like another procedural piece of jargon – but when I felt a swell of pride at the lecture, indeed, when I felt a sense of dignity about it all, I realised that this must have been somewhat lost.” Words can lose meaning, doing little for us, becoming empty. In forming complaint collectives, we find that the words make sense, or change sense, in time. We reclaim them, yes, our dignity was breached, yes, that is not how it should be, not for us, not for anyone. If we lost something of ourselves in the work, we find ourselves there too, also each other, however weary, however worn, we said no, we had a go. Little bird, scratching away, what you left behind, others can find, scratches, dents in the wall, our names, our words, our work. Complaint can feel like a lot of work not to accomplish very much. Only so much can matter so much. Only so much can be more than you know. Thank you.

(1). I gave two slightly different versions of “After Complaint” as virtual public lectures in 2022. It was challenging and emotional to give this lecture and I have decided to share it now in written form rather the present it again. This is a modified version for my blog.

 

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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2 Responses to After Complaint

  1. Ellen Mayock says:

    Thank you for this, Professor Ahmed, and for the amazing book. Here’s a review I wrote of it: https://www.publicbooks.org/university-complaint-process-sara-ahmed/

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