Killjoy Truths

I write this post in solidarity with Palestine. I express my solidarity as a feminist killjoy, in my own terms, on this blog. To express solidarity with Palestine is to be a killjoy, wherever we are. We get in the way because of how we mourn, or who we mourn, becoming a problem because of what we point to or because of the violence we refuse to pass over, the violence of colonial occupation, the violence enacted right now against people in Gaza by the Israeli state.

We are willing to get in the way.

I write this post as a no, made all the louder because of how it is shared with so many others, all over the world, no to the Israeli state, no to those standing in alliance with the Israeli state, no to those who justify the violence unleashed against Palestinians, no to the dehumanising rhetoric that has its own colonial history allowing that violence to be enacted, legitimated, by not being seen.

To see the violence can be to unlearn how it is not seen. To see unseen violence is to be a killjoy at work.

I often use killjoy as an adjective: not just as a way of being someone doing things but as a way of describing what we are doing.

Killjoy Solidarity: solidarity in the face of what we come up against.

Killjoy Solidarity: the solidarity we need to face what we come up against.

Such solidarity would not be safe in abstraction, warm and fuzzy, a way of feeling something without doing it. It would be a call to action and to attention, keeping at the front of our consciousness the reasons we need to be in solidarity, the violence, the material realities of suffering, ongoing colonial occupation, the brutality of state racism.

I learnt this from Audre Lorde: sometimes we have to stop what we are doing to register the impact of violence, violence as structure not an event. In an interview with Adrienne Rich, Lorde describes how she was listening to the radio in her car, and heard about the acquittal of a white police officer who had murdered a black child. She says she had to stop the car to get her feelings out. That expression took the form of a poem called “Power.”  Lorde took it in, the violence of the police in, the violence of white supremacy in, to get it out, to get it to us.

I was going to write something else today. Then I couldn’t. I had to stop what I was doing to write this instead, this post, this killjoy truth, a solidarity statement with Palestine. I write this statement as a feminist and queer scholar of colour based in the UK, whose family are from Pakistan, brown Muslims who had to leave their home in the midst of the violence they called Partition, to express my killjoy solidarity with those fighting for the lives, for Palestinian liberation, right now.

Right now, there are many of us protesting even though some of us have been prohibited from doing so. Our governments are trying to stop us from assembling, from expressing our solidarity with you, from chanting for your freedom, from waving your flags. To protest is also to protest those who try to stop us from protesting, who are complicit in the violence being enacted against Palestinians.

We refuse. Collectively. We are saying no to that.

For me, killjoy solidarity is a killjoy truth, a term I introduce in The Feminist Killjoy Handbook. This is the last truth in that book.

Killjoy Truth: The More we Come up Against, The More we Need More

The more we need more. The more we need each other. We need to become each other’s resources.

I also call killjoy truths hard worn wisdoms: it is what we know because of what keeps coming up. Our exhaustion with something is how we know so much about it – trying experiences as a revelation of structure.

A killjoy truth is also what is hard to know, what we might resist knowing because of what we sense we would have to give up. There are so many ways we can “not see” violence even when it is being directed at us, let alone when it is directed toward others. We can inherit ways of not seeing violence – dismissing words or actions as small or trivial, explaining violence away: it didn’t mean anything, he didn’t.

We have to open the door.

I think of a conversation I had with a woman of colour. She was being harassed by her supervisor. At one level, she knew what was happening: killjoy truths are often those we first feel in our bones. Bones can guide you. So, she knew enough to know to keep the door of the office open during supervisions. But it was hard to admit what he was doing. She feared she would “take [herself] down by admitting to the violence he was enacting.” To admit can mean to confess a truth and to let something in. To admit violence can feel like killing your own joy, getting in the way of your own progression.

So, she closed an actual door. But, she also closed the door of her consciousness, trying to handle the situation by shutting out what he was doing. When handles stop working, the truth gets in. It can be a shattering. It can hit you. It is harder to see what takes longer to see. And, if to admit something is how it becomes real, it can feel like you are the cause of it. It can also require work: to recognise the situation you are in as harassment is to realise how much you will have to do to get out of it.

Killjoy truths can be what you have work to admit yourself.

Killjoy truths can be what institutions refuse to admit about themselves.

A complaint can be the effort to make the institution admit it, let it in. But then: you come up against the institution. So often: you end up out.

Hence all the doors in these stories. Those who are stopped see what stops them. Doors, also blinds. Another person I interviewed described the architecture of the university: the doors with locks on them, windows with blinds that come down, the narrow corridors. The architecture of power. I think of one woman who was physically assaulted by her head of department. She complains but he is cleared of wrong doing. How? In the report the violence is described “on par with a handshake.” On par, equals equal.

The violence of an action is removed by how it is described. 

Description as a blind.

It is not that we don’t see the violence because the blinds are down.

The blinds come down because the violence is seen.

Unseen violence is not simply violence that is not seen. Unseen violence is an action. You have to unsee something because it is seen. A complaint can be an effort to make the violence seen, to bring it out. A protest, also, can be an effort to bring the violence out, to make it public by creating a public.

Killjoy truths: what are revealed to us when we try and reveal the violence. We learn how that violence remains unseen, behind closed doors, covered by the materials, the blinds we might call ideology, from what happens when we say no to it, when we complain or protest.  If you raise the blinds, or try to, or open the door, or try to, revealing a violence that many are invested in not seeing, you become the cause of it. That’s how killjoys often appear: as if they are the cause of the violence they reveal.

Sometimes, what we shut out, so that we can do our work, so that we can focus or function, is what institutions shut in. That’s how our truths, killjoy truths can end up under lock and key, in the institutional closets we sometimes call filing cabinets. We become killjoys at work when we work to get these truths not just out of ourselves but institutions. If the truth would damage the reputation of an institution, we need to be willing cause damage. I call that a killjoy commitment.

The nation too has many closets; the British empire, also. It is well known that the British government ordered the destruction of  thousands of documents from its archives, records of colonial crimes that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government” or that could “embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg. police informers.”

Killjoy Truths: What they do not want revealed.

They removed evidence of violence. A removal is successful when evidence of the removal is also removed. I sometimes call this polishing, empire as world-polishing, empire as a polished story, told by removing the violence.

Perhaps that’s why our stories matter so much. We become the evidence. Our bodies, our memories, our stories, colonial archives. And so, they try and contain us, to stop us from expressing ourselves. Our killjoy truths: in expressing them, we shatter the containers.

There are many ways that state violence, colonial violences are made to disappear from view, not seen.

We see the blinds come down.  We see them see it. We see how they stop seeing it.

I think back to my career as a feminist of colour academics, the blinds I have seen coming down. I shared this story in the handbook:  It is my first year as a lecturer in Women’s Studies. I am in the top room of the fanciest building on campus. We are seated around a large rectangular table. The meeting is for the approval of new courses. I am there because I have a new course on Gender, Race and Colonialism being considered.  Most of the courses are approved without much discussion. When my course comes up, a professor from another department begins to interrogate me, becoming angrier as he went on. And he went on. I was there, seated at the same a table as he, a young woman, a person of colour, the only brown person in the room. The word in the course description that triggered his reaction was the relatively uneventful word “implicated.” That I had used that word was a sign, he said, that I thought that colonialism was a bad thing. He then gave me a lecture on how colonialism was a good thing, colonialism as modernity, that happy story of railways, language and law that is so familiar because we have heard it before. I think of this as a killjoy encounter not because I spoke back in response to what he said when he said it, I did not, but because I could hear from his reaction that what I was doing, was speaking back, refusing to tell that story, that happy story, of imperial progression.

Not to tell that story, the happy story, is to be positioned as stealing not just happiness but history.  We know we are supposed to gloss over these histories, the violence that led us to be here. We smile for their brochures; smiley, happy, shiny brown faces.

Or we don’t. We learn from how we are received when we don’t gloss over the violences that make it hard to be here. Perhaps it is not surprising, given what I learnt that I ended up out of it: the institution, that is.

That killjoy truths are shut out by institutions because of what they would reveal about them is how some of us are shut out.

We are shut out for truth telling.

And so, we assemble to bring these truths out. We come out with it. We come out with them. That’s why they are shutting the door. They don’t see it like that. They won’t use the words to describe it – the Nakba, genocide, ethnic cleansing- as if without the words to describe what is happening it is not happening. We use those words, Nakba, genocide, ethnic cleaning because that is what is happening.

A shut door

To the truth.

What else is being shut out? Who else?

Shutting the door to the violence enacted against the Palestinian people by the Israeli state is also shutting the door to other violences, shutting the door to our complicity, the complicity not just of present governments, but past governments. The injunction not to speak of the violence being enacted against Palestine and in Gaza is the same injunction not to speak about the violence of British imperialism, that history that is present. Those of us living and working here whose families came from former British colonies, know this injunction, we recognise it, because we know what follows failing to meet it.

I think back to the professor who heard a no in use of the word implicated. We make no the implication of our work.

We say no to that. We take it out.

We have to remove the polish from the picture, not be the polish in the picture.

We remove the polish of the past or from it. I suspect most of us living and working in the UK are not taught by schools about the role of British imperialists in determining what happened in and to Palestine. We most likely are not taught about past deals made by government officials, premised on utter disregard for Palestinian people, the Sykes-Picot treaty of 1916, the Balfour declaration signed on November 2 1917.  I borrow the word disregard from others. Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud describes how he heard the name Balfour, as a child growing up in a Gaza refugee camp,  because the anniversary of the declaration was a day of shared protest. He concludes: “While Balfour cannot be blamed for all the misfortunes that have befallen Palestinians since he communicated his brief but infamous letter, the notion that his ‘promise’ embodied – that of complete disregard of the aspirations of the Palestinian Arab people – is handed from one generation of British diplomats to the next, the same way that Palestinian resistance to colonialism is also spread across generations.”  The late Palestinian scholar Edward Said described the Balfour Declaration thus “made by a European power … about a non-European territory … in a flat disregard of both the presence and wishes of the native majority resident in that territory.” In “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims,” Said summarises this history for us with characteristic precision, “Imperialism was the theory, colonialism the practice of changing the uselessly unoccupied territories of the world into useful new versions of the European metropolitan society. Everything in those territories that suggested waste, disorder, uncounted resources, was to be converted into productivity, order, taxable, potentially developed wealth.” He notes that the Zionist attitudes about “the Arab Palestinian natives” were “more than prepared for in the attitudes and the practices of British scholars, administrators, and experts who were officially involved in the exploitation and government of Palestine since the mid-­nineteenth century.”

When we hear how Palestinian people are being talked about now, it is history we hear, our history. “Human animals.” “Not a humanitarian crisis.” Not ethnic cleansing” because they are “not humans.” “Not civilians.”

A people as a target.

The violences committed by Hamas were barbaric. I deplore these actions, and mourn for lives stolen. But the brutality of those actions cannot be used to obscure the violence that came before them, nor the violence that has come after, how that brutality was used to justify more violence against a people already fighting against brutality. We have to refuse to shut the blinds on this history, the ongoing violence of settlement and displacement, how violence is used to remove Palestinian peoples from what they have left of their land. We need to see the violence of an open-air prison that is Gaza, of fences, and borders, and police. We need to see the violence of not having what you need, food, water, electricity, medical supplies.  We need to see the violence of having nowhere to go, shelters, when bombs fall as well as the violence of bombs that fall. Or if we don’t see it, what we need to see, we commit ourselves to learning. Solidarity requires giving attention to what demands it, the violence of colonial occupation.

Killjoy Truth: We see in the violence that is seen, the violence that is not.

We see the violence of how people turn away from the violence, turn away from those who suffer the consequences. We will not turn away. Solidarity also means being willing to keep opening that door, to the hardest most painful truths, the violent colonial histories that are kept present, violence that is still.

I write this post also in deep admiration for Palestinian people, for your resilience and resistance, and with rage against the world that demands it.

#FreePalestine #KilljoySolidarity

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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2 Responses to Killjoy Truths

  1. Rory Allen says:


  2. roy williams says:

    Thanks for this post. It’s a story that needs to be told, over and over, till people start paying attention to it. And afterwards (if there ever is one) there will surely be more truths that need telling. I was one amongst many who fought against Apartheid in South Africa. But aluta continua, there too.

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