Feminist Shelters

As the year 2015 draws to an end, I am having some quiet days working on my book, Living a Feminist Life. I think I am doing what you might call the finishing touches. So that means: a bit of polishing, tidying things up (but leaving enough mess to show signs of labor!); moving things around. Moving text around a manuscript is rather like moving furniture around a room: just a little move, here or there, of this or that, and everything can feel different. The book is almost ready to go into production. At least: I think it is! I will miss working on it: I have learnt so much from writing it, from presenting from it, and from this blog which has been a companion text I have been feeding with thoughts alongside it. Even when the book has gone off to the next stage of its life (there are still quite a few more stages before it is out and about) I will keep writing this blog. A feminist killjoy: her work is never over!

Writing the book has been like: trying to build a feminist shelter. I often think of books as houses. They are built out of stuff. They create room for us to dwell. And I think of citations as bricks. When citations become habits, bricks form walls. I mentioned in one of my earlier posts that I have adopted a very strict citation policy in Living a Feminist Life. I do not cite any white men. And by “white men” I am describing an institution, as well as the mechanisms for reproducing an institution. White men: a citational relational. This is I know a very blunt citation policy. How imprecise! We could have a long conversation about whether such-and-such author is or is not part of the institution we can call “white men.”  I did not have time or space for these conversations: at least not here, not now. Sometimes we need to be blunt to change a habit. I am willing to be blunt.

This book is a deliberate departure from my other work:  I wanted to re-orientate my writing by what or who I was not citing. I have always been conscious of the politics of citation. I have always been aware of how worlds are built around citational habits; of how a body of work acquires consistency by which bodies are left out from that body. This was from an endnote in Queer Phenomenology (2006):

This is especially true for disciplinary lines or the lines that accumulate to produce formations of knowledge. Sometimes I get amazed when people say they are not aware of the work done by feminist, black and postcolonial scholars on questions relevant to general debates within cultural studies or philosophy. How can you not know, I want to ask. How can they not be cited, I protest. What I have learnt is that “non knowing” about certain things is an effect of the lines people have already taken, which means they “attend” to some things only by giving up proximity to others, which is at the same time giving up on certain futures. Such a “giving up” is not conscious or even a loss that can be made present. We do not know what follows from the lines that we have not followed as an effect of the decisions we have taken.  Given that some lines more than others are lines of privilege (following such lines is “returned” by reward, status and recognition), then the loss of certain futures becomes a political loss and a necessary site of political struggle.  So point to such exclusions we must!

I always hope to do more than point to exclusions. I also want to acknowledge my debts through citation. Citation is feminist memory. It is how we leave a trail of where we have been and who helped us along the way. But this time, in this book,  I have a citation policy. And that has made quite a difference.

I don’t think I was in a position to have this policy for other projects. I needed certain materials to make certain arguments. In The Promise of Happiness (2010) I needed to place the figure of the feminist killjoy in relation to the history of happiness, to make sense of how she appears; in Willful Subjects (2014), I needed to place the figure of the willful subject in relation to the history of the will for her too to make sense. But once these figures came up, they gave me a different handle. They acquired their own life. Or should I say: my writing was able to pick up figures because of the life they already had. These figures have quickly became a source of new forms of connection. They are, after all, how I have been organizing this blog (one more than the other, but one comes with the other).  And since I have begun this blog, I have received communications from many students including not only undergraduates and postgraduates but also high school students about their own experience of being feminist killjoys and willful subjects. I have learnt so much from these communications. In a genuine sense, the book comes out of them. I will be addressing this book to feminist students. It is intended for you.

Whilst writing the book I have been thinking more about what it means to be a feminist in the academy and of how we enact feminism in how we relate to the academy. I mentioned in my contribution to an event that took place at Goldsmiths in 2013 on Judith Butler’s work, how, when I was doing my PhD, I was told I had to give my love to this or that male theorist, to follow them. This would not necessarily take the form of an explicit command but often through a nudge, an apparently gentle but increasingly insistent questioning: are you a Derridean; no, so are you a Lacanian, no, oh, ok are you a Deleuzian, no, then what? If not, then what? Maybe my answer should have been: if not, then not!  I was never willing to agree to this restriction. How willful!

Willfulness is a shared feminist resource. Not to agree with this restriction required the help of other feminists. If we can create our paths by not following, we still need others before us. By not citing white men in this book I gave myself more room to attend to this “before.” So: I cite the many women who have contributed to the intellectual genealogy of feminism, including work that has been too quickly (in my view) cast aside or left behind; work that lays out other paths, paths we can call desire lines, created by not following the official paths laid out by disciplines. These paths might have become fainter from not being traveled upon; so we might work harder to find them; we might to be willful just to keep them going by not going the way we have been directed. In Living a Feminist Life I aim to cite as many feminists of color as I can (though I could always cite more!) who have contributed to the project of naming and dismantling the institutions of patriarchal whiteness.  I consider the book primarily as a contribution to feminist of color scholarship and activism; this body of work is where I feel most at home; it is where I find energy as well as resources.

Citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings. My citation policy has affected the kind of house I have built. I realized this not simply from writing the book, from what I found about what came up in how the words piled up, but also from giving presentations.

Let me explain: in some of my previous work, as I note above, I have built a philosophical edifice by my engagement with the history of ideas (not only that – I follow words out of the history of ideas and into everyday lifeworlds – but including that). We cannot conflate the history of ideas with “white men” though if doing one leads to the other that teaches us something about where ideas are assumed to originate.

 Seminal: how ideas are assumed to originate from male bodies.

I now think of that philosophical edifice as like a timber frame around which a house is being built. In this book I have not built a house by using that frame. And I have felt much more exposed. Perhaps citations are feminist straw: lighter materials that, when put together still create a shelter but a shelter that leaves you more exposed. That is how it felt writing this work and speaking from it: exposed. It is like being in the wind; being blown about, more or less, depending on what I encounter. The words I sent out danced around me; I began to pick up on things I had not noticed before; I began to hear resonances. I began to wonder how much I had in the past built an edifice to create distance.

Sometimes we need distance to follow a thought. I know that. Sometimes we need to give up distance to follow that thought. I am realizing that.

Here is a link to the last lecture I gave this year “Self-Care as Warfare: Fragility, Militancy and Audre Lorde’s Legacies” (1). You can hear the exposure, I think, in the sound of it. I am stumbling when talking about stumbling. It is not surprising that we come to feel what we are speaking about when we are speaking about it. I still have much to learn from this. I am glad of the opportunity to learn from this.

A few sentences from the lecture:

Perhaps from fragility we can think of other ways of building feminist shelters. We might think of fragility not so much as the potential to lose something, fragility as loss, but as a quality of relations we acquire, or a quality of what is we build. A fragile shelter has looser walls, made out of lighter materials; see how they move. A movement is what is built to survive what has been built.  When we loosen the requirements to be in a world, we create room for others to be.

Wishing all feminist killjoys all the best for 2016! May you keep shattering things! May you keep chipping away at those brick walls! May you make room for yourself and others to be!

[1] This lecture took given at Kent University on December 10th 2015. I am always grateful for the opportunity to speak about, with, and to Audre Lorde, so my sincere thanks to Stella Bolaki and Sabine Broeck for the invitation. The event was to launch their wonderful edited collection, Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies published this year. I  highly recommend it!


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Melancholic Universalism


What do I mean by “melancholic universalism”? Melancholic universalism is the requirement to identify with the universal that repudiates you. I can imagine this statement might not make immediate sense: surely, the universal does not repudiate anyone; surely, for the universal to be “universal” it includes everyone.

Not so sure.

I would say: the universal is a structure not an event. It is how those who are assembled are assembled. It is how an assembly becomes a universe.

The universal is the promise of inclusion that has become heavy or weighed down by the way the promise has been send out and about: to promise is to send out as I explored in my book The Promise of Happiness (2010). The promise of the universal is what conceals the very failure of the universal to be universal. In contemporary theory this paradox of the promise that conceals its own failure (any failure becomes failure to live up to the promise) has led to the reinvention of universalism as formalism: the universal as pure or empty form, as abstraction from something or anything in particular.

But remember: abstraction is an activity. To abstract is to drag away. The very effort to drag the universal away from the particular is what makes the promise of the universal a particular promise; a promise that seems empty enough to be filled by anyone is how a promise evokes someone.

It is the emptiness of the promise that is the form of the universal; it is how the universal takes form around some bodies that do not have to transform themselves to enter the room kept open by the universal.

The universal: what a drag. The universal is drag; in drag.

Formalist universalism: how universalism stays up. I talked about universalism as a theoretical brick wall in my book, Willful Subjects (2014). That is to say: universalism is a wall that exists in the world of “theory.” In the fourth chapter I described how those lodged as particular can dislodge the general. Assembling a willfulness archive gives us another way to challenge the formalist universalism of philosophers such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, which rests on more and less muted critiques of “particularism” and “identity politics.” The latter for example argues in relation to St. Paul thathis universe is no longer that of the multitude of groups that want to ‘find their voice,’ and assert their particular identity, their ‘way of life,’ but that of a fighting collective grounded in the reference to an unconditional universalism” (2003: 10). Žižek is not necessarily making an argument in his own terms here; but the use of quote marks works to create a caricature of identity politics that is familiar both from his own writing and more general consensus. We need to challenge this consensus. Perhaps some have “ways of life” because others have lives: some have to find voices because others are given voices; some have to assert their particulars because others have their particulars given general expression.

I was using the language of the general will rather than universalism here. General: to generalise. Universal: to universalise.

And: no matter how convincing feminist and anti-racist critiques of universalism (of how the white man becomes the universal subject) universalism seems to come back up, right up, straight and upright, very quickly. I have also called this mechanism a “spring back mechanism.” An order is quickly e-established because the effort to transform that order becomes too exhausting. Universalism: when you push against it, you become pushy.

Back to the same thing.

Same old, same old.

The following two descriptions are from two endnotes of Willful Subjects (2014):


As Judith Butler describes with characteristic precision: “Hegel is clearly exposing what happens when a faction sets itself up as the universal and claims to represent the general will, where the general will supersedes the individual wills of which it is composed and, in fact, exists at their expense. The ‘will’ that is officially represented by the government is thus haunted by a ‘will’ that is excluded from the representative function. Thus the government is established on the basis of a paranoid economy in which it must repeatedly establish its one claim to universality by erasing all remnants of those wills it excludes from the domain of representation” (2000: 22). The universal is haunted by the will whose exclusion it both demands and conceals. Perhaps Willful Subjects has given this ghost a history.


I would extend this critique to Badiou’s formal universalism resting on set theory. If this book was read as a willful subject who was returning Badiou’s address, the book might say: hey I am not part of your set! We can use our particulars to challenge the very form of universality, which is only empty insofar as it extends from some particulars and not others whilst “emptying” the set from the very signs of this extension (the universal is an emptiness that cannot receive other particulars – just like the emptiness of the French secular nation based on laicité cannot accommodate the particularity of the veil). My argument extends over a century of feminist challenges to universalism. We have to keep up the challenge as the critiques of universalism do not seem to get through: I would describe universalism as a theoretical brick wall, which is to say a wall that exists in the actual world of theory. I realised what is at stake in Badiou and Zizek’s work for those of us who want to dislodge the universal, which I have primarily addressed in terms of the general will, when I read John D. Caputo’s introduction to an edited collection on St. Paul and the philosophers in which he lavishes praise on both. Caputo writes: “Each segment of identity politics creates a new market of specialty magazines, books, bars, websites, DVDS, radio stations, a lecture circuit for its most marketable propaganderizes, and so on” (2009: 6). He then states “cultural identity” fits “hand in glove with the ever-proliferating system of global culture” (6). We must challenge these kinds of caricatures of identity politics which not only assume identity as in the hand of the market (almost as if identity is created to express the will of the market) but also for its gross under-description of what is stake in challenging the universal. We might note the irony that Zizek and Badiou might not need to create a so-called “segment of identity politics” to guarantee their own lecture tours (indeed the critique of identity politics is probably more profitable and more inductive to the logic of capital; their critiques have mobility as they participate in “giving hand” of the right of some to occupy space).  I would also suggest that the willingness to attribute agency to capital is part of rather than a critique of capitalist agency. I would also remind readers that markets do have their own hands (the myth of the invisible hand is the capitalist myth) and the markets are supplemented by hands. If the markets don’t want what is otherwise socially and politically valued, then ideology becomes a retainer: the use of ideological reasoning over the market was evident in the cutting of courses with high student numbers in universities in the UK. The hands of management will become visible only at some points; but they are always at work. The Universalist philosophers are handy: they grab the universal with two hands.

We can begin to see in these descriptions why I now want to describe universalism as melancholic. Not all universalism is melancholic. That is precisely my point: that the universal is distributed. Some embody its promise; others embody the failure to live up to the promise.

Universalism becomes melancholic when you are required to identify with the very promise that you fail to embody.

You can break a promise without making a promise.

This history: broken promises.

But then: universalism is how some of us can enter the room. It is how that entry is narrated as magical; as progress.  It is how universalism becomes the requirement to be grateful for what you have to give up.

Feminist uses of universalism are usually melancholic: you identify with the universal even though it has been predicated on the universalising of a subject whom you cannot be.

No wonder: I find feminist universalism depressing! It is depressing.

We have been here before: male universal, female relative; women understood as female relatives. Sexism is predicated on universalism; racism too.

Universalism: how some are understood as being in relation.

In his exceptional book Melancholia and Moralism Douglas Crimp offers an analysis of gay conservatism as melancholic that I am drawing upon here (2004: 13). Conservative gays identify with the family even though the family repudiates them and their desires. Note the question of identification is not simply at the level of sharing an ideal: it is also a form of work (and emotional labour). You try to be as close to the thing (that is the source of your rejection) as you can be. You try and demonstrate that you are normal even when your desires take you away from the normal. The normal is certainly formal. You assume that this approximation might be rewarded with recognition: oh, you too, you are just like us; after all, you are just like us. You mime in the hope that those you mimic become approving of you; that they might register your becoming with approval. This approximation is often vain or in vain. You are repudiated, still. You fail to be what you aspire to be.

You are putting yourself close to the very scene of your own rejection.

And: scenes of rejection follow.

To be rejected by the universal whose promise is not extended to you: melancholic universalism.

Rejection; dejection.

Melancholic universalism is also an activity: but I want to use it to describe something other than a conscious effort to be like or proximate to the thing that rejects you. I want to describe it as a requirement or a compulsion: you must identify with the very thing that rejects you in order to be in the world at all. The all registers here as necessary for being. Of course we don’t always do what we must do. But the effort not to identify with the universal comes with great cost: you are identified as doing “identity politics,” too attached to your own particulars.  Your very existence is then explained as an over-attachment to existence; as coming at the cost of the universal, to those whose entry into the room is not barred by the how of their appearance.

In one of the notes above, I refer to the example of the veiled Muslim woman, as the one who cannot be accommodated by the universal. She must transform herself in order to enter the room. The white man can stay wearing what he is wearing: a suit say, a tie, say. The white woman too can wear what she was wearing. Her clothes; they are particular, yes, preferences, choices, but she does not have to give them up.

Some differences become idiosyncratic. Welcome; come in, come in.

An aside: whiteness is often performed as idiosyncrasy. Differences: individuated, quirky, not expressive of anything other than yourself. This is how: when white people are violent they are usually described as loners. Their deviation from the promise is exceptional.

Whiteness: universal. To leave this universal for those who have already entered it: to become a loner.

Those who don’t enter it: to become relative, or a relative.


Brown: relative. Brown: you can enter the universal if you give up your relative.

And so: only some differences become attachments that must be given up. Other differences are welcomed by the very requirement that some differences are given up. For those who have to give up something to enter something: your entry is melancholic.  You are giving up the very thing that renders the room not open to you even when the room is understood as open to you.

I first offered reflections on this theme in my book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion published over 10 years ago in 2004. It was in the chapter on love. I referred specifically to the work of Julia Kristeva.  Let me share what I wrote then:

Kristeva responds to the “problem” posed by immigration in the following way:

First there is the interior impact of immigration, which often makes it feel as though it had to give up traditional values, including the values of freedom and culture that were obtained at the cost of long and painful struggles (why accept [that daughters of Maghrebin immigrants wear] the Muslim scarf [to school]) (1993: 36).

The bracketed sentence evokes the figure of the “veiled/ Muslim woman” who comes into play as a figure that challenges the values that have become felt as crucial to the nation (including the values of freedom and culture). These values are what the nation as love object can give. She becomes a symbol of what the nation must give up to “be itself”, a discourse that would require her unveiling in order to fulfil the promise of freedom for all. It is not surprising that Kristeva poses the following question, which is clearly a rhetorical question: “Is it possible that the ‘abstract’ advantages of French universalism may prove to be superior to the “concrete” benefits of the Muslim scarf” (1993: 47). Kristeva implies that the right to wear the scarf (with its multiple meanings) may give the Muslim women less than the rights afforded by entry into the abstraction of the idea of the nation. Modernity is understood as an empty form of universalism, one that does not take the shape of particular bodies, and as such can allow others into the community of strangers as long as they give up the visible signs of their “concrete difference.”

The argument moves from the national idea to a “national ideal” via an analogy with the ego ideal. The “Muslim scarf” is not only “not” the idea of freedom “won” as the freedom of the nation, but it also challenges the image the nation has of itself: “The involves a breach of the national image and it corresponds, on the individual level, to the good image of itself that the child makes up with the help of the ego ideal and the parental superego” (1993: 37). The trauma of the Muslim scarf for the French nation is here like the trauma of “failing” to live up to the ego ideal, an ideal that depends on love and identification with the parent. Hence the nation becomes depressed when it is faced with the scarf and this shame and depression is what is used by the right wing discourse of anti-immigration: “Le Pen’s nationalism takes advantage of such depression” (1993: 37). The implications is that the task of the radical might not be to celebrate the right to the scarf as this would sustain the psychic conditions that enable anti-immigration and nationalism to flourish as a politics. However, Kristeva does not make this argument explicitly. Instead, she suggests that “we must not be ashamed of European and particularly French culture” (1993: 38). First, the presence of the veiled other causes the depression and shame of not living up to the national ideal. Second, the imperative is not to feel shame about French culture. In other words, the juxtaposition of these two arguments implies that the “the Muslim wish to join the French community” [i](1993: 37) might also depend on the elimination of the source of national shame: the concrete difference made visible by the veil itself. The argument suggests that by eliminating the veil, which stands in for concrete difference, the abstract national idea can be returned to an ideal that is enlarged by the appearance of others. Under such conditions, national pride or love, rather than shame and depression, would be possible, and it would not depend on aggression or hostility towards others.

However, the argument that the national idea is abstract (and the difference of the Muslim woman is concrete) breaks down. The intimacy of the national idea with an ideal image suggests the national idea takes the shape of a particular kind of body, which is assumed in its “freedom” to be unmarked. The ideal is an approximation of an image of “Frenchness,” as an ideal that is deferred, but which nevertheless depends on being inhabitable by some bodies rather than others. The Muslim woman must give up her concrete difference in the interests of the national ideal, in which freedom takes the form of a particular kind of body (a particularity that is given value precisely insofar as it is represented as abstract-able or detach-able from particular bodies). Such an ideal is not positively embodied by any person: it is not a positive value in that sense. Rather, it accrues value through its exchange, an exchange that is determined precisely by the capacity of some bodies to inhabit the national body, to be recognisable as living up to the national ideal and as passing through the ideal. But other bodies, those that cannot be recognised in the abstraction of the unmarked, cannot accrue value, and become blockages in the economy; they cannot pass as French, or pass their way into the community. The veil in blocking the economy of the national ideal is represented as a betrayal not only of the nation, but of freedom and culture itself  -as the freedom to move and acquire value. Hence the veil cannot be integrated into the national ideal – as part of the story of the nation as a love object – and stands for an unassimilable difference. She becomes the unlovable object that cannot be incorporated or “had” and whose loss cannot be grieved by the nation.

Love for the nation is hence bound up with how bodies inhabit the nation in relation to an ideal. I would follow Kristeva by arguing that the nation is hence an effect of how bodies move towards it, as an object of love that is shared. Or more precisely “the it” of “the nation” as an ideal or loved object  is produced as an effect of the movement of bodies and the direction of that movement (the loved object is hence an effect of “towardness”). As a result, the promise of the nation is not an empty or abstract one that can then be simply filled and transformed by others. Rather, the nation is a concrete effect of how some bodies have moved towards and away from other bodies, a movement that works to create the very affect and effect of boundaries and borders, as well as allows the “approximation” of what can now call the character of the nation (“likeness”). In Kristeva’s text, moving towards the abstract promise of the nation requires moving away from the veiled woman, as a sign of a difference that cannot be inhabited by those who already inhabit the national ideal. This “limitation” shows how the ideal is not empty, but is already an effect of the privilege for some bodies to inhabit spaces as hosts (bodies-at-home), and hence to decide who gets let into the body of the nation, either through intentional acts of legislation or policy formation, or more everyday and inter-corporeal forms of encounter.

End of quote.

I think melancholic universalism is one way of describing what I was accounting for in this book.

And of course: universalism is so often written in the language of love.

Melancholic universalism: describes not just or only the affective state of those who are required to identify with what repudiates them but those who insist on the universal that repudiates others.

The insistence is the promise.

Melancholic universalism is another way of describing the promise of happiness; how depression is associated with concrete difference, and how some differences become concrete and not others. That wall again: it is hard again. It comes up for those who are not accommodated. For those who are accommodated there is no wall at all.

Enter; easy, look, easy, just do it.

The universal as a slogan.

This is from a note in The Promise of Happiness:

The nation as it were becomes the universal through being imagined as the bearer of the promise of happiness. It is no accident that V. S. Naipaul’s (1990) identification with universal culture proceeds through asserting the ideality of happiness: “It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don”t imagine my father”s Hindu parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.” (np) The universality of happiness is one that is shaped around particular bodies: it cannot admit fanatics who appear outside the horizon of the human. I would describe Naipaul’s identification with universality as melancholic; it cannot grieve for the loss the grandfather who can appear only as the one who does not understand happiness, who suffers from what we might call “happiness illiteracy.” Nor can it cover over his inability to inhabit this universal given the family has already left its trace.

I think I would now give an account on slightly different terms: I would describe Naipaul’s description as an expression of what is required: to enter the room, to enter the universe you have to “give up” the parts of you that cannot be accommodated.

Remember: brown becomes universal if you give up your relatives.

You announce your departure from the parents of your parents: from Hinduism, from fanaticism, from culture as custom.

That announcement is how you enter the room

of the universal:

by giving up part of your own history retold as fanaticism or “identity politics.”

How fitting; the universal is fitting.

An elastic band can snap; this is a stretch.

A stretch: how you try and avoid  a snap.

There is grief in this position: of that there is no question.


Butler, Judith (2000). “Restaging the Universal” in Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and

Slavoj Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. London: Verso. 11-43.

Caputo, John D. (2009) “Introduction: Postcards from Paul: Subtraction Versus Grafting” in John D. Caputo and Linda Martín Alcoff (eds). St Paul among the Philosophers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1-26.

Crimp, Douglas (2004). Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Kristeva, Julia (1993). Nations without Nationalism, trans. L.S.Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press.

Naipaul, V.S. (1990). “Our Universal Civilization,” New York Times.

[i] We might note how this narrative constructs the French as “not Muslim” and the Muslims as “not French”, at the same time as it transforms migration into a wish to inhabit “the nation”. Hospitality and love are here constructed as opening the nation to others only insofar as they give up “being not us”, so “becoming us” whilst “not being us”.

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Sexual Harassment

Today we held an event on Sexual Harassment in Higher Education at Goldsmiths. I was pleased to offer the following comments, which I have decided to preserve in the form in which they were spoken:

We need to talk about sexual harassment.  We need to talk about sexual harassment here. And by here I mean here: at Goldsmiths, in universities, in the UK. Not there: over there; but here. Too often: sexual harassment is understood as somebody else’s problem. Or if it is recognised as a problem that problem is located in the body of a harasser, a rogue, whose removal is assumed to remove the problem. The problem remains.  And then those who talk about how the problem remains become the problem because they become reminders of that problem. To remind is to show how sexual harassment is enabled by an institution. It is to show how sexual harassment is reproduced by an institution. It is to show how sexual harassment becomes a culture; how it works as a network, a web of influences; a set of practices that  we are supposed to accept as how things are because that is the way they were.

But if we talk in this way, if we speak of sexual harassment as organisational culture, we threaten the organisation’s reputation. Those who are damaged become the ones who cause damage.  And the institutional response can take the form of: damage limitation. There are so many ways those who speak about harassment, whether their own harassment or the harassment of others, are silenced: you don’t even need to sign a confidentiality agreement to be warned of the consequence of your actions. And then, too often, the ones who are harassed end up being removed or removing themselves: if the choices are “get used to it,” or “get out of it” some quite understandably “get out of it.”

The problem goes on as if it is been deal with, when it hasn’t been dealt with.  We need to make sense of how a problem is not dealt with by the appearance of being dealt with; and how the struggle to expose sexual harassment often leads us to a stalling situation. To make sense of this I want to return to some of the data I collected in a study of diversity and equality in universities that I undertook in the early 2000’s. In this study I interviewed diversity practitioners, those appointed by organisation to diversify them, which often means in practice, those appointed to write the documents and policies that would give expression to an organisation’s commitment to equality and diversity. Practitioners become aware of how much commitments are not followed through. One practitioner described her job thus: “a banging your head on the brick wall job.”

A job description becomes a wall description.

I want to give you one example of an encounter with an institutional wall. I am going to read it out, because you can hear in the story what we are up against .

When I was first here there was a policy that you had to have three people on every panel who had been diversity trained. But then there was a decision early on when I was here, that it should be everybody, all panel members, at least internal people. They took that decision at the equality and diversity committee which several members of SMT were present at. But then the director of Human Resources found out about it and decided we didn’t have the resources to support it, and it went to council with that taken out and council were told that they were happy to have just three members, only a person on council who was an external member of the diversity committee went ballistic – and I am not kidding went ballistic – and said the minutes didn’t reflect what  had happened in the meeting because the minutes said the decision was different to what actually happened (and I didn’t take the minutes by the way). And so they had to take it through and reverse it. And the Council decision was that all people should be trained. And despite that I have then sat in meetings where they have just continued saying that it has to be just 3 people on the panel. And I said but no Council changed their view and I can give you the minutes and they just look at me as if I am saying something really stupid, this went on for ages, even though the Council minutes definitely said all panel members should be trained. And to be honest sometimes you just give up (On Being Included, 124-125).

We learn so much from this example. We learn: you can change policy without changing practice; changing policy can even be a way of not changing practice. We learn too: the director of human resources did not need to take the decision out of the minutes for that decision not to bring something into effect. I have called this dynamic “non-performativity,” when naming something does not bring something about or even when something can be named in order not to bring something about.  Taking the decision out of the minutes could have been what stopped something from happening. But because it didn’t stop it, something else did.  

The wall is a finding: what stops movement moves.

This example of the diversity policy that does not do anything is a tantalisingly tangible example of what goes on so much and so often. But that it is tangible, that I can share the story with you here today, is a consequence of diversity work and of the labour of a diversity worker, of her blood, sweat and tears. It is a story of how the diversity worker becomes an institutional killjoy; we can imagine the eyes rolling when she points out the policy. To be a killjoy one does not have to speak in a certain way; she can be quite reasonable; she might even have backing. They hear you as killjoy because they do not want to hear what you have to say.  No wonder this story is a story of her exhaustion, of being worn down by coming up against the same thing; the story of how she gives up is a story of how the wall keeps standing.   

But to those who do not come up against it, the wall does not appear: the institution might seem as happy as its mission statement, as willing as its equality statement.

This example has stayed with me as I have been involved in an effort to challenge the problem of sexual harassment in universities. That has been an experience of coming up against wall after wall. A wall can come up to prevent students from making complaints in the first place. Students are actively discouraged from making complaints: if you complain you will damage your career (this can work as threat, you will lose the very connections that enable you to progress); or if you complain you will damage the professor; or if you complain you will ruin a centre or collective (often aligned with something critical and progressive). Another wall comes up once complaints have been made. Complaints are heard as an injury to the professor’s reputation as what stops him from receiving the benefits to which he is assumed to be entitled. Complaints about sexual harassment are not made public as a way of protecting the organisation from damage.  We are back to this: damage limitation.

Notice here: so many complex things are going on at the same time, which combine to stop sexual harassment from, as it were, coming out. It is not that this activity is coordinated by one person or even necessarily a group of people who are meeting in secret, although secret meetings probably do happen. All of these activities, however complex, sustain a direction; they have a point. A direction does not require something to originate from a single point: in fact a direction is achieved through the alignment between points that do not have to meet. Different elements combine to achieve something that is solid and tangible. If one element does not hold, or become binding, another element holds or binds. The process is rather like the cement used to make walls: something is set before it hardens. Perhaps when people notice the complexity, the movement, the inefficiency, the disorganisation, they do not notice the cement; how things hold together; that things hold together. Then when you say there is a pattern you are heard as paranoid as if you are imagining that all this complexity derives from a singular point.

 To try and bring someone to account is to come up against not just an individual but histories, histories that have hardened, that stop those who are trying to stop what is happening from happening. The weight of that history can be thrown at you; you can be hit by it. The word harass remember derives from the French harasser “tire out, vex”.  When you speak of harassment you can end up being harassed all over again. Harassment is a network that stops information from getting out by making it harder to get through. It is how someone is stopped by being worn down.  A policy disappears despite there being a paper trail, despite the evidence. A complaint disappears because it is evidence. And: people disappear too, because of what they make evident, of what they try to bring into view.

So: when we talk about sexual harassment we are talking about those who do not appear. We are talking about missing women. And we are talking about missing critiques, missing conversations; you are not even allowed to talk about it. We are having a conversation now about what and who is missing.

Of course when we talk about sexual harassment as a wall it is assumed as a problem of perception: “you were willing”; “he didn’t anything by it”; “don’t be so upright”; “we’re all adults here”.  A wall comes up in this reframing of walls as immaterial, as if there is nothing getting in your way other than you, as if it is you just getting in the way of your own progression.

A wall comes up when you talk about walls.

Sexual harassment works – as does bullying more generally – by increasing the costs of fighting against something, making it easier to accept something than to struggle against something, even if that acceptance is itself how you end up being diminished; how you end up taking up less and less space.

And: it is because we perceive this wall that you might end up having to modify your perception (this is what it means to get “used to it”). You might feel you cannot afford to become alienated from those around you; you might lose access not only to material resources (references, scholarships, courses to teach), but you might lose friends; connections that matter. You risk losing warmth. And as you feel colder, maybe you begin to feel that the wall is inside your own head.  It is happening all around you; and yet people seem to be getting on with it; you can end up doubting yourself; estranged from yourself. Maybe then you try not to have a problem. But you are left with a sickening feeling. A feminist gut knows something is amiss.

Because all around you there is a partial sighting of walls, a partial sighting that is at once a justification; “oh he’s a bit of a womanizer”; “oh yeh I was warned about him”; “oh yeh that was the booze talking”; there might even be a smiling, a joking, there might even be a certain kind of affection. This affection is structured as an appeal to students whose concern is bordering on disclosure: let it go; let him off. A culture is built around this affection which is to say: harassers are enabled by being forgiven, as if their vice is our virtue. And those who know it is wrong even when they try to persuade themselves otherwise, even when they try to minimize a mountain of abuse, can feel all the more wrong, can feel the full force of it, when the wall finally does come into view: she is not ok, I am not ok, this is not ok: “how could I let this happen?” Guilt; shame; they can leak out, getting everywhere. We have to go through these difficult painful feelings Heidi Mirza describes so well. Perhaps sometimes we just can’t do this; it means being prepared to be undone, and we just don’t know if we are ready to put ourselves back together again.

Or sometimes we don’t confront sexual harassment because of our interests. Maybe someone else is being harassed; and you can see it: you might turn away; look away, because you are benefiting from an alliance with someone; you want to keep that alliance.  You might then be angry with those who are harassed because they threaten your alliances by revealing the harassment. You cannot be angry with the harasser because he is who you wish to be in alliance with. Alliances are crucial to the mechanics of sexual harassment; sexual harassment is an alliance. In addition the organization too might try not to see things; maybe they think we have to retain him because of his reputation; maybe we need him for the REF. There is a collective or institutional will not to notice what is assumed to get in the way of our interests.

I need to say a little more. I began by saying that we need to talk about sexual harassment here and that by here I meant at educational institutions especially those that identify as progressive and critical.  I have used the terms “critical sexism” and “critical racism” to describe this: the sexism and racism reproduced by those who think of themselves as too critical to be sexist or racist. There is more to it. Many academics who identify as progressive or radicals, position themselves as working against the institution, against the requirements, say, of audit culture, and managerialism.  Then how quickly: equality as such becomes identified as the requirements of a managerial system, that is, as a way of managing unruly bodies and desires. Noncompliance with equality even becomes articulated as political rebellion.  For example one academic describes the “strictures on sexual harassment” as an “old Victorian moral panic.” Feminism becomes translated as moralism; those who challenge sexual harassment are understood as imposing moral norms and social restrictions on otherwise “free radicals.” So much harassment is reproduced by the framing of the language of harassment as what is imposed on a situation (as if to use this word is to be mean, to deprive a body of its pleasures).

I think moralism is useful as a charge because it carries another implication: that feminism masks its own will to power. Whenever we challenge what is being assembled, who is being assembled, we are assumed as wanting power: as wanting their courses, their centres; even their students, for ourselves.  This can circulate as rumour and innuendo, implying that the feminists only object because they want what they object to. Sexual harassment is fundamentally dependent on anti-feminism especially when sexual harassment begins to be challenged, when a “no,” is repeated, when a “no” acquires more force.

There is more to say here. Think of all those rules, those procedures we have for safeguarding the interests of parties including students, a population that is precarious by virtue of its position (dependent on passing through the gates of academy; you have to pass examinations to pass through). I am referring of course to record keeping: record keeping can be suspended by being identified as yet more bureaucracy: as if to say, “fuck you.”  The suspension of regulations: methods for ensuring there is no record, no public memory, ways of stopping us from knowing what is going on; how things keep going on.

We are up against history; walls. This tendency to suspend the regulations actually informs so much academic culture. It is business as usual.   I would say that in describing how sexual harassment becomes part of a culture we are remarkably close to describing academic culture. So we might have advertised the job but we know who are going to employ, his mate, his friend, his contacts. Academic networks, boy’s clubs; men’s rooms: they exist at this moment of suspension, those informalities that allow the same bodies to keep getting through. Equal opportunities becomes a loop, a hoop, something you almost do, or you appear to do; but really when you hire someone you are looking for “kind of person you can take to the pub,” to quote from someone on an interview panel, someone who is relatable, like me, who can participate in this, with me. Sexual harassment as a system cannot be separated from the ongoing problem of how a privileged few reproduce a world around their bodies. The sexism in academic citation – the removal of any texts or traces of female authors from books, from courses, from histories – is part of the same system. I still remember a white male professor give a lecture on power, something a lot of feminists have written about, when the only time he referred to any women was when he mentioned fancying Kate Winslet. Sexism in citation and sexual harassment – how women are made objects not subjects– is part of the same system. The trouble with this system: it works.

We need to recognise sexual harassment as an institutional problem as well as a means through which the academy itself becomes available only to some. Sexual harassment is an access issue; it is a social justice issue. We also need to survive this system because of how it is working. And as we know: testifying to a traumatic experience is a traumatic experience. Sexual harassment is traumatic, for those who are on the receiving end, for those who testify, for those who listen; who bear witness. We need to give the pain somewhere to go.   Which means: we need to create support systems so that we can share the costs of bringing the problem to attention. Feminism is itself such a support system, and I would include here feminist knowledge; coming to an understanding of how a system works is one way we survive that system. And: we need to share accounts of what we come up against so we don’t feel like we are doing this work on our own. Which also means: we need to create shelters, refuges, pockets in institutions in which we can breathe.  

My comments today are dedicated to all the students who, at considerable risk, have testified to sexual harassment here.  You have helped to create these pockets. Our task is now to expand them. Thank you.

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Women of Colour as Diversity Workers

In my book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional life I offered for the first time an analysis that was based on qualitative research: including semi-structured interviews with staff appointed as diversity and equality officers as well ethnographic material derived from my own experience from working in what we could call simply ‘the diversity world.’ I was a text-based researcher by training so talking to people ‘for research purposes’ was new to me. Doing this study was a life changing as well as career changing experience: as all study should be.

When I looked back on this project (as well as the book), I had thought of it as distinct phase of my career as well as research trajectory, or even as a departure or deviation from the work I usually do.  But whilst writing Living a Feminist Life I realised that this was not the right way of seeing things. Although the project was the first time I officially conducted interviews, although the book was the first in which examples were quotes from data I had gathered myself, I realised that I have been collecting stories of diversity and equality within universities since my arrival in universities. And I would claim that women of colour are already ethnographers of universities; we are participating, yes, but we are also observing, often because we are assumed not to belong or reside in the places we end up. So much of our collective humour comes from sharing observations about “the natives” within universities – the rather peculiar habits of white heteropatriarchy.

One thing I learnt from returning to the data I collected during this study, was how much my thinking, my theorising, has been shaped by that experience, by listening and learning from those appointing to transform universities. And this in a sense what the study taught me: we learn about worlds from the difficulties we have transforming them. Diversity workers know so much. They know what organisations do not want revealed. They know the gap between what organisations say and what they do.

Diversity work: mind the gap.

After all universities often describe their missions by drawing on the languages of diversity as well as equality. But using the language does not translate into creating diverse or equal environments. This “not translation” is something we experience: it is a gap between a symbolic commitment and a lived reality. Commitments might even be made because they do not bring something about. I have used the term “non-performativity” to describe this: how a commitment can be made to something as a way of not bringing something about.

Equality and diversity can be used as masks to create the appearance of being transformed. We need to challenge this appearance. In making this challenge I draw on my experiences as a woman of colour academic. My inspirations include Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2003) and M. Jacqui Alexander (2005) and Heidi Mirza (2015) who offer powerful critiques of uses of diversity within the academy as a way of building feminist of colour and black feminist counter-institutional knowledge. I am also inspired by the monumental collection, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (2012), which by offerings reflections by women of colour students and faculty on their experiences within the academy gives us tremendous new insights into how the academy works. We need to share our stories of arrival and progression; how we enter, exit, move forward; get stuck.

We need to share our stories of arrival and progression. One time after giving a talk on whiteness, a white man in the audience said, “but you’re a professor?” You can hear the implication of this but: but look at you Professor Ahmed, look how far you have gone! How easily we can become poster children for diversity, how easily we can be “held up” as proof that women of colour are not “held up.”  Being a diversity poster child: it can make the world you come up against recede as if you bring it to an end; as if our arrival and progression makes whiteness disappear. If only we had the power invested in us! If only, if only! When women of colour become professors this is not the only kind of reaction we receive. When a colleague of mine, another brown woman, became a professor someone said to her: “they give professorships to anyone these days.” In one case you fulfil the fantasy of meritocracy, a singular brown body becoming shiny happy evidence of inclusion. In the other, when a brown body arrives, her body is not elevated as value. She comes to embody the loss of value: when she can be a professor, anybody can. In one: she becomes a wall breaker: assumed to bring an end to things by virtue of her own arrival. In the other: she becomes a wall maker as if accounting for how her arrival is devalued is to project her own values onto things.

Women of colour as diversity workers:  we come up against brick walls. These walls teach us about the materiality of power.  I describe brick walls as “the hardenings of history.” Walls: how history becomes concrete. But a wall does not appear to those who do not come up against it. The hardest stuff is what is often not experienced by those whose bodies are aligned with the institutional line: then the world is fluid, mobile. There; nothing there. Flight light, white. There; nothing there. Heavy; brown; down.

One of my aims in writing Living a Feminist Life was to show how diversity work is feminist theory: we learn about the techniques of power from our efforts to transform institutional norms or from our efforts to be in a world that does not accommodate our being.

It was not only that I collected data on diversity work. Rather diversity work is data collection. Walls speak. Sharing our stories is letting the walls speak.




Alexander, M. Jacqui (2006). Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual  Politics, Memory, and the Sacred, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mirza, Heidi (2015). “Decolonizing Higher Education: Black Feminism and the Intersectionality of Race and Gender,” Journal of Feminist Scholarship, 7-8: 1-12].

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade (2003). Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Muhs, Gabriella Gutiérrez y, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Camren G. González and Angela P. Harris (2006) (eds). Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class For Women in Academia, Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado.





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Feminist Consciousness

Well, I didn’t plan to stay away from my blog for such a long time! But when I was rewriting Living a Feminist Life over the summer, I did leave my blog behind. I seemed to find it hard switching between blog and book: it seems to be one or the other.

Other reasons: I have had the best hap ever. In July a little puppy came into my life. She has changed my life as I knew she would, as I knew she should! Her name is Poppy and she has as much attention as I can give her. I am quite sure she will end up in my “Killjoy Survival Kit.” She’s wriggle her way right out of it. Wriggling is in there, too.

So, just to get back to my blog, I am sharing part of a new section I wrote in the first chapter of my book ‘Feminism is Sensational,’ which develops an earlier post of the same name, as well as the post ‘Feminist Hurt/Feminism Hurts’. In the chapter this section is followed by another called ‘Problems with Names,’ which develops an earlier post of the same name.

The blog: a step on a feminist trail.

The section is called ‘feminist consciousness’.

When did you begin to put the pieces together? Perhaps when you put the pieces back together you are putting yourself back together. We assemble something. Feminism is DIY: a form of self-assembly. No wonder feminist work is often about timing: sometimes we are too fragile to do this work; we cannot risk being shattered if we are not ready to put ourselves back together again. To get ready often means being prepared to be undone.

In time, with work, things begin to make more sense. You begin to recognise how violence is directed: that being recognized as a girl means being subjected to this pressure, this relentless assault on the senses; a body that comes to fear the touch of a world. Maybe you learn from that, from what that repetition does; you realize retrospectively how you came to take up less space. You might express feminist rage at how women are made responsible for the violence that is directed against them.  Feminism helps you to make sense that something is wrong; to recognise a wrong is to realise that you are not in the wrong.

Becoming feminist: how we redescribe the world we are in. We begin to identify how what happens to me, happens to others. We begin to identify patterns and regularities. Begin to identify: this sounds too smooth. It is not an easy or straightforward process because we have to stay with the wrongs. And think about feeling: to direct your attention to the experience of being wronged can mean feeling wronged all over again.

We need to attend to the bumps; it is bumpy. You had already sensed something amiss. Maybe it was an uneasy feeling at first. As Alison Jaggar describes “Only when we reflect on our initially puzzling irritability, revulsion, anger, or fear, maybe we bring to consciousness our ‘gut-level’ awareness that we are in a situation of coercion; cruelty; injustice or danger” (1996: 181). A gut has its own intelligence. A feminist gut might sense something is amiss. You have to get closer to the feeling; but once you try to think about a feeling, how quickly it can recede. Maybe it begins as a background anxiety, like a humming noise that gradually gets louder over time so that it begins to fill your ear, cancelling out other sounds. And then suddenly it seems (though it is not sudden) what you tried not to notice is all you can hear. A sensation that begins at the back of your mind, an uneasy sense of something amiss, gradually comes forward, as things come up; then receding, as you try and get on with things; as you try and get on despite things. Maybe you do not even want to feel this way, feeling wrong is what brings a wrong home. Attending to the feeling, might be too demanding: it might require you to give up on what otherwise seems to give you something; relationships, dreams; an idea of who it is that you are; an idea of who it is that you can be. You might even will yourself not to notice certain things because noticing them would change your relation to the world; it would change the world to which you exist in relation. We have to stay with the feelings that we might wish would go away; that become reminders of these things that happened that made you wary of being at all.

Perhaps there is just only so much you can take in. Perhaps you take in some things as a way of not taking in other things. As I have been putting a sponge to my own feminist past, I remembered another conversation. It was with a teacher of mine at university, Rosemary Moore who taught the first feminist classes I took: Nineteenth Century Women’s Writing in 1988; Twentieth Century Women’s Writing in 1989. I hadn’t thought about this conversation for a long time; though it is probably not true to say that I had forgotten it. I asked her whether my essay for the course had to refer to women or gender. Her answer was that it didn’t but that it would be surprising if it didn’t. Why did I ask her this question? I had come to University hoping to study philosophy. I was especially interested in what I called “scepticism,” philosophies that proceeded by doubting what is, as a way of questioning what’s what. Sadly, philosophy at Adelaide University was pretty much straight analytical philosophy and scepticism was dismissed as self-refuting in the first lecture of Philosophy 101. To study the kind of work I was interested in I ended up in the English Literature department because there they taught what was referred to as “theory.” And I choose the women’s writing courses not because I was interested in “feminist theory” (even though I was passionate about feminism) but because I was interested in “critical theory.” I was interested in how we know things, in questions of truth, in perspective and perception, in experience and subjectivity. I wanted to ask how I know what I see as green is what you see as green; those sort of questions were my sort of questions.

Yes: I chose Women’s Writing because I wanted to do Critical Theory! Our teacher was engaged with and by psychoanalysis. If we began there (Lacan’s “The Mirror Phase,” was one of our first assigned readings), that wasn’t what kept my attention. It was 1980s feminist literary theory and from there, feminist philosophy of science and feminist epistemology. I ended up writing my first feminist essay for that course.[i] So why did it happen this way around: from critical theory to feminist theory given I thought of myself as a feminist and had been such an outspoken feminist growing up? I think there was only so much feminism I could take in. I had thought to be philosophical or to ask questions about the nature of reality, was not to do feminism: that feminism was about something particular not general, relative not universal, that feminism was about questioning and challenging sexual violence, inequality and injustice and not the nature of reality as such. I did not understand that feminism was a way of challenging the universal. I did not appreciate how questioning sexism is one of the most profound ways of disrupting what we take to be given and thus learning about how the given is given. Feminist theory taught me that the universal is what needs to be exploded. Feminist theory taught me that reality is usually just someone else’s tired explanation. So if in my introduction to this book I suggested that feminist theory is what gets you there, to the classroom, we might note how feminist theory can be what gets you out of there. By this I mean: I thought I wanted to be in the theory class, feminist theory taught me that “that” was not the class for me. Feminism is my theory class.

We learn also: how recognising sexism or racism here can be a way of not recognising it there. A location can be a reduction. Becoming feminist involves a process of recognising that what you are up against cannot be located or reduced to an object or thing (which could then be discarded so we could start up again). The process of recognising sexism was thus not smooth or automatic. Even though I find it hard to remember not being a feminist, it is important to remember that I had multiple false starts. There was so much I resisted: I could take feminism in only bit by bit. Maybe there was only so much I could take in because it meant recognising that I had been taken in. You can feel stupid for not having seen things more clearly before. You have to give up on a version of yourself as well as a version of events. And maybe we need to remember: how hard it is to acknowledge that a world is not accommodating you because of the body you have. I didn’t want feminism to be everywhere, as I didn’t want to encounter these limits; I wanted there to be places to go where I could just leave my body behind.

If becoming feminist is not a smooth process, if we resist what we encounter because it is too much to take in, this is not to say when we do let go it is just difficult. When you begin to put the pieces together, it can feel magical: the wonder of the clicking moment, when things that had previously been obscured begin to make sense, when things fit into place. You blink and the world reappears: clarity can feel magical. Reading feminist theory was like a series of continuous clicks. And later, teaching Women’s Studies was such a delight as you participate in other people’s clicking moments: what a sound it makes; how important it is that this sound is audible to others.

Finding feminism can be empowering as it is a way of reinhabiting the past. It is personal. There is no question: it is personal. The personal is structural. I learnt that you can be hit by a structure; you can be bruised by a structure. An individual man who violates you is given permission: that is structure. His violence is justified as natural and inevitable: that is structure. A girl is made responsible for his violence: that is structure. A policeman who turns away because it is a domestic: that is structure. A judge who talks about what she was wearing: that is structure. A structure is an arrangement, an order, a building; an assembly.

We need structure to give evidence of structure. To catalogue instances of violence is to create a feminist catalogue. I think one of the reasons I find the project Everyday Sexism so important and compelling is how it shows that the cataloguing of instances of sexism is necessarily a collective project.[ii] The project involves the creation of a virtual space in which we can insert our own individual experiences of sexism, sexual violence or sexual harassment so that we show what we know: that this or that incident is not isolated but part of a series of events: a series as a structure. These recent feminist strategies have revived key aspects of second wave feminism; we are in the time of revival because of what is not over. Consciousness-raising was also about this: reaching a feminist account, as an account for oneself with and through others, connecting my experience with the experience of others. We need a deposit system to show the scale of sexism. When there is a place to go with these experiences – and feminism is about giving women places to go – the accounts tend to come out: a “drip, drip” that becomes a flood. It is like a tap has been loosened, allowing what has been held back to flow. Feminism: the releasing of a pressure valve.

Feminism can allow you to reinhabit not only your own past but also your own body. You might over time in becoming aware of how you have lessened your own space give yourself permission to take up more space; to expand your own reach. It is not necessarily the case that we take up this permission simply by giving ourselves permission. It does take time, to reinhabit the body, to become less wary, to acquire confidence. Feminism involves a process of finding another way to live in your body. We might learn to let ourselves bump into things; not to withdraw in anticipation of violence. Of course I am describing a difficulty; I am describing how ways of resolving problems can enact the problems we are trying to resolve. We know we are not responsible for resolving the problem of violence; changing how we relate to the world does not change the world. And yet in refusing to withdraw, in refusing to lessen how much space we take up, in insisting on taking up space, we are not receiving the message that has been sent out. In order to put the pieces together you cannot but get the message wrong, the message that makes a wrong a right. No wonder then, as I explore later, to become a feminist is to be perceived as “in the wrong.”

As we begin this process of putting ourselves back together we find much more than ourselves. Feminism in giving you somewhere to go allows you to revisit where you have been. We can become even more conscious of the world in this process of becoming conscious of injustices because we had been taught to overlook so much. A world can flood once we have let it in, once we have unlocked the door of our own resistance. Feminism too can become a flooding experience: one book read that leads to another, a trail that leads you to find feminism, more and more feminism, new words, concepts, arguments, models: patriarchy, phallocentrism, rape culture, the sex-gender system, intersectionality. In finding feminism you are finding out about the many ways that feminists have tried to make sense, already, of the experiences you had, before you had them, experiences that left you feeling all alone are the experiences that lead you to others. I will always remember that feeling; a sense that there are others like you “out there,” that you are not on your own, that you were not on your own. Your own difficult history is written out in words that are sent out. I often thinking of reading feminist books as like making friends, realizing that others have been here before.

Even if you still feel pain, frustration and rage, even if you feel these feelings more as if you have given them more attention, they are directed in a different way. Knowledge is this achievement of direction. Your feelings are directed neither at some anonymous stranger who happened upon you (or not only), nor toward you for allowing something to happen (or not just), but toward a world that reproduces that violence by explaining it away.

[i] Though one funny detail: I spelt patriarchy wrong throughout! Patriarchy became patriachy. Maybe that was a willful desire not to get patriarchy right!

[ii] See the website: http://everydaysexism.com/.


Jaggar, A. (1996). “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology” in A. Garry and M. Pearsall (eds), Women, Knowledge and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy, New York: Routledge.

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Against Students

I want to begin by explaining the title of this post. What do I mean by “against students”? By using this expression I am trying to describe a series of speech acts, which consistently position students, or at least specific kinds of students, as a threat to education, to free speech, to civilisation: we might even say, to life itself.  In speaking against students, these speech acts also speak for more or less explicitly articulated sets of values: freedom, reason, education, democracy. These values are identified as requiring the reproduction of norms of conduct that students are themselves failing to reproduce.  Even if that failure is explained as a result of ideological shifts that students are not held responsible for – whether it be neoliberalism, managerialism or a new sexual puritanism – it is in the bodies of students that the failure is located. Students are not transmitting the right message or are evidence that we have failed to transmit the right message. Students have become an error message, a beep, beep, that is announcing the failure of a whole system.

In describing the problem of how students have become the problem, I will be analysing some recent writings that seem to be concerned with distinct issues even if they all address the demise of higher education and involve a kind of nostalgia for something that has been, or is being, lost. I have made the decision to quote from these texts without citing the authors by name: I wish to treat each text as an instance in a wider intertextual web and thus to depersonalise the material. Some of these texts do cite each other. And they all by evoking the figure of the problem student (who travels through this terrain with an accumulating pace and velocity) participate in the making of a shared world.

By “problem student” I am in fact referring to a number of related figures: the consuming student, the censoring student, the over-sensitive student and the complaining student. By considering how these figures are related we can explore connections that are being made through them: connections between, for example, neoliberalism in higher education, a concern with safe spaces, and the struggle against sexual harassment. These connections are being made without being explicitly articulated.  We need to make these connections explicit in order to challenge them. This is what “against students” is really about.

One of my concerns in Willful Subjects (2014) was with the politics of dismissal: I was interested in how various points of view can be dismissed by being swept away or swept up by the charge of willfulness. So: what protestors are protesting about can be ignored when protestors are assumed to be suffering from too much will; they are assumed to be opposing something because they are being oppositional. The figures of the consuming student; censoring student, over-sensitive student and complaining student are also doing something; they are up to something. These figures circulate in order to sweep something up.  Different student protests can be dismissed as products of weaknesses of moral character (generated by a thing called “student culture” or “campus politics”) and as the cause of a more general demise of values and standards.

Let’s begin with critiques of neoliberalism and higher education. These are critiques I would share: I too would be critical of how universities are managed as businesses; I too would be critical of the transformation of education into a commodity; of how students are treated as consumers. I too am aware of the burdens of bureaucracy and how we can end up pushing paper around just to leave a trail.

I want to think about here is how critiques of neoliberalism can also involve a vigorous sweeping: whatever is placed near the object of critique becomes the object of critique. For example, my empirical research into the new equality regime taught me how equality can be dismissed as a symptom of neo-liberalism, as “just another” mechanism for ensuring academic compliance (see Ahmed 2012).  Theresa May justified a withdrawal from some of the stated commitments in the Equality Act (2010) by arguing the law “would have been just another bureaucratic box to be ticked. It would have meant more time filling in forms and less time focusing on policies that will make a real difference to people’s life chances.” Practitioners talked of how academics would use similar arguments: that these forms and procedures are just another “box to be ticked,” in order to dismiss the more general relevance of equality to their work (“a real difference”). They can then enact non-compliance with equality as a form of resistance to bureaucracy. Equality becomes something imposed by management, as what would, if taken seriously, constrain life and labour. Whilst we might want to critique how equality is bureaucratised, we need to challenge how that very critique can be used to dismiss equality.

We sense the vigour of the sweep.

How convenient.

Let’s look at a specific instance. In a recent article, one professor laments the demise of the university. He conjures an ideal image of academic life: and not necessarily one that is a past although it lingers or seems that way. He evokes Oxbridge: a time and a place where professors and dons are the ones who get to decide what they are doing and how they spend or allocate their time and resources. He writes: “It is the dons who decide how to invest the college’s money, what flowers to plant in their gardens, whose portraits to hang in the senior common room, and how best to explain to their students why they spend more on the wine cellar than on the college library. All important decisions are made by the fellows of the college in full session, and everything from financial and academic affairs to routine administration is conducted by elected committees of academics responsible to the body of fellows as a whole.”[1]

It is interesting that the specific decisions referred to are how to justify the amount of wine being consumed (not whether the wine being consumed can be justified), gardens being planted, and portraits being hung, rather than the content of courses being taught. This ideal world of “don democracy” is then contrasted to the bureaucracy of corporate academia:  “Instead of government by academics there is rule by hierarchy, a good deal of Byzantine bureaucracy, junior professors who are little but dogsbodies and vice chancellors who behave as though they are running General Motors.” One has to comment here on the problematic assumption that “don democracy” or the elite system of Oxbridge is not itself “rule by hierarchy.”

The critique progresses: “In any case, the vast increase in bureaucracy in British higher education, occasioned by the flourishing of a managerial ideology and the relentless demands of the state assessment exercise, means that academics have had little enough time to prepare their teaching even if it seemed worth doing, which for the past several years it has not.” Academics no longer have the time the old dons had. We might want to point out that the time evoked as having been lost is a time that most academics would not have had; that there was always an economy of time (some academics might have had more time because others had less time). In this bleak world: “All professors are transformed into managers, so students are converted into consumers.” Here the students arrive as those who are converted into consumers, having previously come up as those to whom the dons had to explain why they spent more money on wine than books.

The following sentence brings up our first figure, the consuming student, as a problem: “One result of this hot pursuit of the student purse is the growth of courses tailored to whatever is currently in fashion among 20-year-olds. In my own discipline of English, that means vampires rather than Victorians, sexuality rather than Shelley, fanzines rather than Foucault, the contemporary world rather than the medieval one. It is thus that deep-seated political and economic forces come to shape syllabuses. Any English department that focused its energies on Anglo-Saxon literature or the 18th century would be cutting its own throat.” Even if the “hot pursuit” of the “student purse” is behind the demise of a discipline, it is the students who want the wrong things who determine what is being and not taught, who have caused the loss of the right things (vampires, sexuality, fanzines; the contemporary world rather than Victorians, Shelley, Foucault, the medieval world). Indeed, the repeated use of “rather than” implies that bad objects put in place because of what is “in fashion” with “2o year olds” have toppled the good objects put in place by old dons or departments. And it is implied that not following “whatever students want” would amount to the death of a discipline (“cutting its own throat”).

What a sweep!

Even my own relatively limited knowledge of what is taught in departments of English Literature would lead me to question much in this narrative. But what interests me here is: how so much is brought up so quickly in order to be dismissed so quickly as a product of neoliberalism, of the transformation of universities into markets.

Note the placement of the word “sexuality” in this list. We can guess what this word is doing on the wrong side of the “rather than” (even though Foucault, a historian of sexuality, is on the right side[2]). The emergence of sexuality (and its studies) can be treated as a product of the marketization of higher education. In other words sexuality becomes yet another bad object brought about because of what students want.

We need to challenge this assumption that some subjects only come into existence because universities are “in hot pursuit” of the “student purse.” We know the strong critiques of curriculum  made by those working within departments that led to the diversification of the curriculum. We know of the work of “chipping away” at the walls that are sometimes called canons. We know of the long histories of feminist and queer activisms that led to sexuality as well as gender being taken up as legitimate subjects within the academy.

If we don’t know, we should know.

These histories of labour and activism are “swept away” by the assumption that such subjects only come into existence because of the “student purse.” It is this activism that enabled a challenge to some of the decisions made by departments as well as dons about what is of value; decisions that solidify as canons. These decisions are often protected by assumptions of universality, which is a way of making a decision “indefensible” (the usual sense of indefensible is unjustifiable – I want to make this mean “that which does not need justifying”). The various subjects made possible through the labour of political critique and activism are dismissed in the flourish of a “rather than,” as simple expressions of the wanton nature of the market (that monstrous body).

The figure of the consuming subject, who wants the wrong things, a student who is found wanting, is hard at work. She is how: an idea of universal knowledge or universal culture can be so thinly disguised as a critique of neoliberalism and managerialism. She is how: an academic world can be idealised in being mourned as a lost object; a world where dons get to decide things; a world imagined as democracy, as untroubled by the whims and wishes of generations to come.[3]

We have an understanding of how: when students are being critical of what we are doing, when they contest what is being taught, they can be treated and dismissed as acting like consumers. In other words it is when students are not satisfied that they are understood as treating our delivery as a product. Critique as such can be “swept away” by the charge of consumerism. Students become the problem when what they want is not in accordance with what academics want or what academics want them to want: students become willful when what they will is not what academics will or not what academics will them to will.  What seems to be in place here is what Paulo Freire (1970) called the “bank model” of education in which teachers deposit knowledge into the bodies of students like money into a machine. Rather ironically, students are more likely to be judged as acting like consumers when they refuse to be banks.

Luckily I would say: don’t bank on it.

The figure of the consuming student has something to say to other figures such as the censoring student. I now want to return to an earlier post “You are Oppressing Us.” I referred to one letter that mobilised the figure of the censoring student (this letter has since been supplemented by yet more letters – one of which even equates alleged “no platforming” in the UK with various acts of extremism around the world). This letter speaks of how some have been stopped from speaking on campuses because they articulate viewpoints that are out of line with the views held by students (who are treated as remarkably consistent, as body or thing, and I am partly tracking what is achieved by this consistency). The figure of the censoring student exists in close relation to that of the consuming student: both work to create an impression that students have all the power to decide what is being taught as well as what is not being taught, what is being spoken about as well as what is not being spoken about; and that this power is at the expense not only of dons and departments, but also politicians, journalists and other public figures.

Students: they keep coming up as having all the power.


Yes, really.

I noted in my previous post how the letter relies on flimsy evidence because it is assembled around a desire for evidence. Indeed the instances of apparent censorship (translate: student protests) seemed to generate more discourse and discussion rather than preventing discourse or discussion. When students who protest against such-and-such speaker become censors, those who wrote and signed the letter become the ones who are silenced, whose freedoms are under threat. So much speech and writing is generated by those who claim they are silenced!

But we can still ask: what is the figure of the censoring student doing. By hearing student critique as censorship the content of that critique is pushed aside. When you hear a challenge as an attempt at censorship you do not have to engage with the challenge. You do not even have to say anything of substance because you assume the challenge as  without substance.

In the first instance, critique and contestation (“they want the wrong courses!”) is dismissed as consumerism; in the second instance, protest (“they don’t want the right people!”) is dismissed as censorship.

Sweep, sweep.

Beep, beep.

Error message.

Another figure comes up, rather quickly, at this point: she is often lurking behind the censoring student. This is the over-sensitive student: the one who responds to events or potential events with hurt feelings. She also comes up as someone who stops things from happening.  We can refer here to a number of recent pieces that I would read as a moral panic about moral panics. Many of these pieces refer to US college campuses specifically and are concerned with the introduction of safe spaces, and trigger warnings.

The figure of the over-sensitive student is invested with power. The story goes: because students have become too sensitive, we cannot even talk about difficult issues in the classroom; because of their feelings we (critical academics) cannot address questions of power and violence, and so on. A typical example of this kind of rhetoric: “No one can rebut feelings, and so the only thing left to do is shut down the things that cause distress — no argument, no discussion, just hit the mute button and pretend eliminating discomfort is the same as effecting actual change.” Or another: “while keeping college-level discussions ‘safe’ may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision.” Here safety is about feeling good, or not feeling bad. We sense what is being feared: students will become warm with dull edges, not sharp enough in wit or wisdom.

The moral panic around trigger warnings is a very good pedagogic tool: we learn from it. Trigger warnings are assumed as being about being safe or warm or cuddled. I would describe trigger warnings as a partial and necessarily inadequate measure to enable some people to stay in the room so that “difficult issues” can be discussed. The assumption that trigger warnings are themselves about safe spaces is a working assumption (by this I mean: it is achieving something). Indeed what I have said is  rather misleading because the assumption that safe spaces are themselves about deflecting attention from difficult issues is another working assumption. Safe spaces are another technique for dealing with the consequences of histories that are not over (a response to a history that is not over is necessarily inadequate because that history is not over). The aim is to enable conversations about difficult issues to happen: so often those conversations do not happen because the difficulties people wish to talk about end up being re-enacted within spaces, which is how they are not talked about. For example conversations about racism are very hard to have when white people become defensive about racism: those conversations end up being about those defences rather than about racism. We have safe spaces so we can talk about racism not so we can avoid talking about racism!

The very techniques introduced to enable the opening up of conversations can be used as evidence of the closing down of conversations. Anyone with a background in Women’s Studies will be familiar with this: how we come up against stereotypes of feminists spaces as soft, cosy, easy, which are the exact same sexist stereotypes that make Women’s Studies necessary as a feminist space. The very perception of some spaces as being too soft might even be related to the harshness of the worlds we are organising to challenge.

The idea that students have become a problem because they are too sensitive relates to a wider public discourse that renders offendability as such a form of moral weakness (and as being what restricts “our” freedom of speech). Much contemporary racism works by positioning the others as too easily offendable, which is how some come to assert their right to occupy space by being offensive. And yes: so much gets “swept away,” by the charge of being too sensitive. A recent example would be how protests against the Human Zoo in the Barbican, about how racism is disguised as art or education, are swept up as a symptom of being “over-sensitive. According to this discourse, anti-racists end up censoring even themselves because they are “thin skinned.”

So much violence is justified and repeated by how those who refuse to participate in violence are judged. We need to make a translation. The idea that being over-sensitive is what stops us from addressing difficult issues can be translated as: we can’t be racist because you are too sensitive to racism.

Well then: we need to be too sensitive if we are to challenge what is not being addressed.

We might still need to ask: what is meant by addressing difficult issues? It is worth me noting  that I have been met with considerable resistance from critical academics when trying to discuss issues of racism, power and sexism on campus. Some academics seem comfortable talking about these issues when they are safely designated as residing over there. Is this “there” what allows “difficult issues” not to be addressed here? In fact, it seems to me that it is often students who are leading discussions of “difficult issues” on campus. But when students lead these discussions they are then dismissed as behaving as consumers or as being censoring. How quickly another figure comes up, when one figure is exposed as fantasy. If not over-sensitive, then censoring; if not censoring, then consuming. And so on, and so forth.

My own sense: our feminist political hopes rest with over-sensitive students.

Over-sensitive can be translated as: sensitive to that which is not over.

All of these ways of making students into the problem work to create a picture of professors or academics as the ones who are “really” oppressed by students. This is what it means to articulate a position or a view “against students.” One US professor speaks of being “frightened” by his liberal students. He blames so much on “identity politics.” And indeed so much is blamed on identity politics: that term is used whenever we challenge how spaces are occupied. It has become another easy dismissal. We are learning here about professors (their investments, emotions and strategies of dismissal) more than we are learning about students.

And this is where it gets hard, and this is where I write with a sense of political urgency. There is another body of work that is “against students”: work on sexual harassment. This body of work intersects with the work on trigger warnings and safe spaces: they imply that a concern with safety and survival is creating the vulnerabilities that are then used to justify the regulation of the behaviour of academics or faculty. Indeed these literatures generate the figure of the professor as potential or would be victim: the one who is endangered by the very construction of students as vulnerable. One article states: “I was writing about an academic culture that misunderstands power, inflates vulnerability, and infantilizes students.” I have read other articles that suggest that when students talk of harassment it is assumed that professors must be guilty of coercion: “an enunciation of an accusation is all it should ever take to secure a guilty verdict.” The implication here is that it is easy for students to complain about professors who harass them (“enunciation” – as if an accusation is a word that can be thrown carelessly into a world); and that complaints are automatically registered as guilt, as if an offense is only committed because a student is offended. The figure of the over-sensitive student slides into the figure of the complaining student whose “hurt feelings” are treated as sufficient grounds for complaint.

Let’s pause here. I want to state what many feminists know too well: it is very difficult to address the issue of sexual harassment. And: it is very difficult to address sexual harassment within universities (particularly the harassment of female students by male academics).[4] The difficulty of addressing something is often a consequence of something. Since I have been engaged in diversity work on campus I been contacted by staff as well as students from a number of different universities about their experiences of sexual harassment. And I have learnt just how pervasive sexual harassment is – as well as just how much harassment is normalised in or even as academic culture. I have heard how academics justify their behaviour as their right: a female professor told me about one academic in her former institution who had multiple sexual relationships with his female students. When a complaint was eventually filed, he justified his conduct as a “perk of the job.” I have heard sexist excusing of sexist behaviour: “ah yeh he’s a bit of a womaniser,” “a yeh he’s one for ladies.” I have heard how much sexism (as well as racism) is defended as “just banter.” And I have learnt of the countless ways in which female students are told that to enter the university requires accepting and expecting this kind of conduct. And yet despite sexual harassment being widespread (this “despite” is probably misplaced) it is rarely publicly discussed, sometimes because of confidentiality clauses attached to the resolutions of specific cases; and sometimes because, I suspect, a frank discussion of the problem would require challenging entitlements that some do not wish to challenge.

We are so far away from the picture created by the figure of the complaining student (who wields her power over academics) that it is or should be striking. I have been in touch with students from many different universities who have made complaints – or tried to make complaints – about sexual harassment as well as other forms of bullying. I have learnt of the myriad ways in which students are silenced. Some students are dissuaded from proceeding to formal complaints. They are told that to complain would damage their own reputation, or undermine their chances of progression; or that to complain would damage the reputation of the member of staff concerned (and if they do proceed with complaints they are often publicly criticised as damaging the reputation of the member of staff); or that it would damage the reputation of departments in which they are based (with a general implication being: to complain is to be ungrateful). Students have reported how their complaints are “sat on,” how they have testify again and again; or how they are doubted and ridiculed by those they go to for advice and support.

And: because students who complain about harassment are silenced the problem of sexual harassment within universities is constantly and grossly under-acknowledged (as much violence against women is under-acknowledged). The picture of the complaining student whose accusation becomes truth is so far from the truth that there should be a public feminist outcry. We need a public feminist outcry.

I want to pause on one piece of writing (addressing the US context). It is written in the same kind of jokey tone that characterises the first article I engaged with, and has a similar nostalgia for a time past; a mourning for a freedom that has been or is being lost. Here it is not neoliberalism that signals the beginning of the end (of dons and their delightful democracy), but what the author calls “the prohibition,” a moment in time when freedom from restriction becomes the restriction of freedom [5]. The introduction of new laws around “consensual” sexual relations between staff and students is described as the rise of a feminist moralism and puritanism, based on a misunderstanding of the fluid or dispersed nature of power (the author cites Foucault; yes, he comes up again, indexed weakly, again). It is worth noting that the words “moralism” and “puritanism” are constantly being mobilised in anti-feminist writings. These words are useful because they allow a critique of power to be reframed (and dismissed) as an imposition of moral norms. We could consult for example Ray Filar’s smart challenge to an anti-feminist diatribe in which the word “moralism” is used 9 times. It is an exhausting repetition! And these are often the words used by harassers themselves, as if to refuse an advance is to be moralising about an advance (she says “no” because she is a prude, say). If you refuse an advance, or if you dare to call repeated and unwanted advances “harassment,” you are being moralistic.

Surely, not, you might say.

On academic describes “strictures on sexual harassment”  as well as “political correctness” as “the old Victorian moral panic.” In this piece of writing, sexual harassment is referred to twice and both times as a kind of moralism that restricts freedoms that would otherwise be enjoyed (sexual harassment as  intending that restriction). The use of “political correctness” implies that new norms and rules about appropriate behaviour in the workplace are simply a mechanism of policing the flow of play and desire. The feminist killjoy appears here: as if the problem of sexual harassment only comes up because she brings it up; as if feminists only object because they want to prevent the enjoyment of others.

We have looped back to one of my starting points: how equality is dismissed by being identified with managerialism, with the imposition of moral norms from the top down (feminism is then aligned with management, as a technique for managing unruly bodies, just as feminism can be aligned with the market, as a consequence of unruly bodies). Not surprisingly: the techniques for dismissing feminism are the same techniques for justifying male power. In an earlier blog, I commented on how challenging sexual harassment is understood as imposing restrictions on those who would otherwise be “free radicals.” Of course what has to be remain unsaid here is this: the freedom of some rests on the restriction of the freedom of others. So much harassment is justified and reproduced by framing the very language of harassment as an imposition on freedom. And so much violence (such as domestic violence) is not called violence because it is understood as a right and a freedom: “it is not violence, it is not force, I have a right (to your body).”

We are up against history; walls.

And let’s be clear here: when sexual harassment becomes embedded in or as academic culture, then we are talking about how some women do not have access to universities even after they have applied and been admitted. Sexual harassment is an access issue. Sexual harassment is an equality issue. Sexual harassment is a social justice issue. We are talking about women who have to exit the institution to survive the institution.

We are talking about missing women.

I have become more and more aware of what we are talking about.

Of who we are talking about.

We could and should refer to the important blog, Strategic Misogyny, which collects stories of harassment within universities. We need to hear these stories; to listen to their collective wisdom. Different posts describe in detail what harassment can feel like, and what it can do. And we learn: how power might function by not being dispersed. We are reminded when we read these posts of the immense power that academics have over students: they grade student essays and exams; they have discussions about students in meetings that are closed; they sit on committees that decide funding; they have access to confidential files that hold personal information. It is very important to recognise “power over” as a modality of power. We should not neutralise a situation by assuming its neutrality.

And it is in this context that we must question the constant exercising of the language of consent (and its companion “will”): if the person who is asking for your consent holds power over you (in effect a power to decide a future, whether a door is open or not) what does it mean to give or withhold consent? I am not saying here that that all consent is coercion, but that consent in the context of asymmetrical relations of power is not a stable ground for establishing whether or not an abuse of power has occurred. It is because some have power over others, to open or close that door, that we need boundaries, rules and norms.  So much abuse of power within universities is justified by the illiberal use of the liberal language of will and consent. As I argued in Willful Subjects (2014) some might become willing when the costs of not being willing are made too high. Being unwilling might mean being expelled from a group that would allow you to access the resources necessary for your survival let alone progression. Being unwilling might mean being called frigid or (worst still) a feminist. These names have costs. Becoming willing might be a way of avoiding these costs.

We have a sense here of what is going on here. Challenges to sexual harassment within universities can be swept up and swept away, as if the challenges are themselves the products of managerialism or neoliberalism: as just another way that academic freedoms have been restricted; as just another way academic dissent is punished.

The power embedded in a historic situation is reversed.

We have a sense of what is at stake here. Critiques of neoliberalism and managerialism have become useful tools for those who abuse the power they have by virtue of the positions they are in. Those who are accused of harassment can argue, or at least imply, that students who challenge their practices are acting like consumers, being censoring, over-sensitive, or just complaining. They can position themselves as victims of managerialism as well as marketization. A critique of neoliberalism can be used to imply that those accused of harassment are the ones who are paying its costs.

This is how: harassment can be justified as an expression of academic freedom.

That is where we have got to; this is what we are up against.

We need to support, stand with, and stand by, those students who are fighting to survive hostile institutions.

It is our job.


Ahmed, Sara (2014). Willful Subjects. Duke University Press.

——————— (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.  Duke University Press.

Coward, Rosalind (1985). Female Desires: How They Are Bought, Sold and Packaged. Grove Weidenfield.

Freire, Paulo [1970]  (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed Continuum Publishing: New York.

[1] I shuddered when I read this. One of the hardest experiences of my academic career was attending a wine evening at a college in Cambridge. I remember sitting there as expensive bottles of wine were opened, one after the other, thinking “austerity,” realising in the pit of my stomach, what “tightening our belts” allowed some not to give up. Note also how critiques of neoliberalism might be masking elitism: a hatred of “the masses,” and a perception that standards are lowering because of the widening of participation.

[2] I think the “fanzines and not Foucault” operates as a cultural contrast: Foucault is a serious and heavy scholar, fanzines are silly and light. This distinction is gendered.

[3] Interestingly one white male academic when asked about “decolonizing the university” during an Occupy event was reported to have something like “this is education not democracy: we get to decide what we teach.” He helpfully reveals to us how the democracy often defended is an illusion: what is being defended as democracy is often despotism.

[4] There is a growing and important literature on the problem of laddism within universities in the UK. See for example this very helpful workshop provided by Alison Phipps: https://genderate.wordpress.com/ladculture/.

[5] This period of “freedom from restriction” is described as a boozy and fun period when students and staff could have sex with each other without worrying about the consequences.  I found myself wanting to reach for Rosalind Coward’s classic Female Desires (1985) – an early debunking feminist critique of the myth of sexual freedom.

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Some Striking Feature: Whiteness and Institutional Passing

I was very pleased to participate in a conference Disrupting Visibility: The Politics of Passing co-hosted by the Centre for Feminist Research on Friday. It was a wonderful event – I learnt so much from the papers I listened to. I also gave a lecture, which I am sharing here. I have just added some notes and references – otherwise, this lecture is pretty much as I presented it, which please note means that it is not a polished piece!


“Some Striking Feature: Whiteness and Institutional Passing,” presented at Disrupting Visibility: The Politics of Passing, Friday June 12th 2015, Goldsmiths.

With thanks to Morganne Conti and Linnete Manriques for their work in organising this event on passing and for the opportunity for me to speak as part of it. I really enjoyed returning to the question of passing. I say “returning” because one of the very first academics events I spoke at back in 1995, 20 years ago, in Women’s Studies at Lancaster University was a Day School on Passing. I prepared a paper subtitled “Passing through Hybridity” (1). Since then the theme of passing has often come up in my work; in fact, I had not realised until I began working on this paper how often passing has come up. Just to be brief : passing as white as a way of passing into a community in Strange Encounters (2000);  the figure of the bogus asylum seeker as the one who “passes by” in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004); passing over what is given as familiar in Queer Phenomenology (2006), passing as happy in The Promise of Happiness (2010); institutional passing in On Being Included (2012); and most recently, passing as willing as a way of being willful in Willful Subjects (2014). But even if passing keeps coming up, albeit in different ways (I will try and show how some of these ways are related), I have not foregrounded passing as a thematic nor returned to some of the classic literatures on racial passing since that conference. It can be a curious experience: going back to a once-familiar place you haven’t been to for a while; you find things you didn’t notice before. Becoming a stranger is how a landscape can become alive with detail.

What I will be sharing today then are some rather scattered thoughts on passing rather than a formal lecture. I will firstly return to some of the classic literature on racial passing, before offering a more phenomenological account of passing as lived experience, and then will turn to the question of institutional passing. And in conclusion I will relate my passing thoughts to a politics of willfulness.

Passing Figures

And I want to begin in a rather odd place, well odd for me because it is not where I would ordinarily begin. It is a quote from Freud’s essay on the Unconscious, first published in 1911, which is where I get the title of this lecture:

Their origin is what decides their fate. We may compare them with individuals of mixed-race who taken all round resemble whites, but who betray their coloured descent by some striking feature or other, and on that account are excluded from society and enjoy none of the privileges of white people ([1911]2013: 53).

The “them” in this quote refers to instincts, and Freud is describing how instincts have a hybrid origin, how they are part of the preconscious and unconscious systems in his typography of the psyche. Freud is making use of the figure of the mixed race individual who does not and cannot pass because that figure is handy.  Just as a side note, we could think more of how racism comes up so often in European thought as an aside, a way of supporting an argument, a set of background assumptions that can be mobilised quickly because they are already in operation. This quote from Freud might be familiar to those of you working on postcolonial or critical race studies: Homi Bhabha (1994) draws on it in his account of mimicry as colonial governance; Sander Gilman (1995) in his discussion of Jewishness and assimilation.

This statement seems to be offered as a statement of confidence that those of dubious origins cannot pass; that they will betray or reveal themselves.  But perhaps this belief that difference will be revealed by “some striking feature” rests on an anxiety that the others could pass their way into whiteness without being detected. In other words, a belief system can operate as a defence system: as if the belief that another cannot pass is sufficient to stop another from passing. And note what is being defended here: society as the distribution of privileges or benefits; whiteness as means of distributing privilege or benefits.

We can understand how Freud’s statement helped Bhabha formulate his model of the colonial mimicry: the other must resemble the colonizer but is never the same as the colonizer: “almost the same but not quite” as “almost the same but not white.” his “almost” is defensive: it must be assumed that we can tell the difference because otherwise the other could pass for us and even take our place. Bhabha draws on a quote from Macaulay’s Minute on Education (1835) about the purpose of colonial education which would be to create an elite Indian population who would transmit colonial values for the colonizer. Such a population would be: “Indian in blood and colour but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (cited in Bhabha 1994: 124). Macaulay is precisely not talking about the creation of a racially mixed population, although as I am sure many of you will know this was the policy in other colonial contexts including Australia (the guiding Eugenic assumption being that racial mixing would eliminate traces of Aboriginality from the population). Rather Macaulay assumed that Indianness could and should be eliminated culturally because it would always leave a trace biologically. To borrow Bhabha’s terms the Indian elite would become Anglicized not English; resembling not being.

In situations of proximity between those historically understood as “different races,” and let’s give that proximity its name, colonialism, difference becomes a defence: an assumption that we can always “tell the difference,” that race as such is a tellable difference.  The figure of the passing mixed-race individual thus became a site of anxiety, particularly in the United States in the early twentieth century. One of the famous texts to tell the story of what became known as the tragic mulatto whose passing as white prefigures her passing into death is Nella Larsen’s novella Passing, first published in 1929. In one scene, two light skinned African American women Irene and Clare are observing each other. They are seated at a table in a restaurant reserved for whites; they are both passing successfully, which means not only that neither of them realises that the other is passing but that they also do not realise they know each other; passing provides a cloak of anonymity.

Irene observes and I imagine her speaking back to Freud: “White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot. They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro. No, the woman sitting there staring at her couldn’t possibly know” (7-8). The account is pedagogic : the desire to tell the difference is what organises the science of raciology, which is itself a detection system: a search for evidence that treats the bodies of racialised others as testimony. Every bit of the body becomes a revelation.  A system based on such “silly rot” still has to be survived. What we learn as well from this novella is that “the striking feature” becomes what is feared or anticipated by the passing subject herself: to experience oneself as passing is to fear being detected or caught out for not being as one appears. And this novel reminds us how that “striking feature” can also be delayed, a threat of what is to come, of who is to come: the fear that one’s own darkness will be revealed on a future child, a child who might inherit the darkness, a child who would become the striking feature that betrays the passing individual’s dubious origins to return to Freud’s own mythic confidence (“their origin decides their fate”). This fear of betrayal –that we will betray ourselves or be betrayed by others – is central to the experience of passing. We do not have to assume we are not what we appear to be, to fear the consequences of being found not to be as we appear.

What I am suggesting here is passing is a matter of who is already found to be suspicious. Passing reopens a history that has not been closed. We can learn here from Harryette Mullen’s brilliant paper, “Optic White: Blackness and the Production of Whiteness,” first published in 1994, which considers the African American literatures on passing. Mullen reflects on what she calls “the usual mechanism of passing,” which involves the active denial and erasure of African ancestry by individuals and the gradual but violent process of assimilation (72). When passing succeeds, a population can disappear without  a trace. But she also considers how “the logic of passing” is intrinsic to “the logic of slavery” because of the construction of Blackness as a “facsimile or counterfeit of white” (73). Mullen refers to the passing subject as like “a counterfeit bill that is passed into circulation but that may be withdrawn at any point it is discovered to be bogus. The inherited whiteness is a kind of capital which may yield the dividend of freedom” (76). Light skinned African Americans who pass thus acquire the value of whiteness, they may even temporarily possess this value (and note how freedom is explicitly tied to capital), but this possession is insecure; they may be dispossessed at any moment.

This idea of the passing subject as like counterfeit money is extremely suggestive: it shows how passing is not only an act of fraud (counterfeit money passes itself off as real money) but is an attempt to defraud a system that itself depends on abstraction and exchange. Or to make use of Judith Butler’s (1990) account of drag in a different content: we can show how money is itself a drag. The counterfeit bill fraudulently reveals that the origin in being copyable is a copy. Fraud is here another way of thinking about the act of dispossession: somebody without authority puts something in circulation that passes for what those with authority (here the State) assume as their role and right to put into circulation.

Note the word “bogus” in this quote. I was struck myself that the word “bogus” actually derives from counterfeit money, a bogus was a “spurious coin” and the word is assumed to derive from slang for the counterfeit’s apparatus: that is, from the machine that makes such coins through creating impressions. Just to quote from one early usage of the bogus machine: “One bogus or machine impressing dies on the coin, with a number of dies, engraving tools, bank bill paper, spurious coin, &c. &c. making in all a large wagon load, was taken into possession by the attorney general of Lower Canada” (Online Etymology Dictionary). So much material is required to make counterfeit money!  And just to add to our queer etymological wanderings, it is always delight to wander with words, the word “spurious” implies sham, “not proceeding from the source intended,” and refers to the illegitimate child, as the one who has dubious origins because their arrival has not been rendered as legitimate by law (outside wedlock). A coin would be spurious and bogus when it does not originate legitimately; a person too. Words are allowing us to make connections. Note also that bogus can refer to a coin and to a machine for making coins: passing machines, passing as machinery.

Think of the figure of the bogus asylum seeker.  We can begin to understand how asylum as such become fraudulence: those who claim asylum are assumed to be bogus, to be passing their way into the nation through fraud, unless they demonstrate otherwise; every asylum seeker is understood as a singular impress created by a machinery that is intended to defraud the whole system.

In these instances passing is understood as a deliberate willful act of fraud; a way of falsely receiving benefits. The welfare recipient and the asylum seeker are both passing figures in this sense.  You have to demonstrate that you are not passing for what you are not (that you are what you claim you are) in order to take up residence within a nation or to receive any benefits.  The effort to establish that you are not a fraud has life consequences: a system becomes a hammer directed against those who are perpetually being rendered dubious because of their origins, because their bodies, their story, their papers, are not in the right place. To be judged as passing is to inherit a demand to establish one’s legitimacy to those who decide the criteria for legitimacy. We sense what we know: this system is wearing; it works by being wearing.

The figure of the passer is thus generated by a system as a mechanism for legitimating itself; it is how legitimacy is legitimated. Those who pass (by going undetected) both trouble the system and are how a system is justified as necessary. Some might have to pass to survive and that very survival is narrated as a way of falsely accruing benefits. Sometimes passing is really about dealing with the consequences of being perceived as passing, that is, having an act of survival interpreted by others as an act of fraud.

Within communities that are rendered illegitimate, we might call these communities “passing communities,” those individuals who successfully pass might also acquire the status of being shadowy and untrustworthy, because by passing they might access resources that are not available to those who do not or cannot pass, including whiteness as such, whiteness as resource. This shadowy circulation is difficult and our task should not be to resolve but to explain that difficulty.

A Phenomenology of Passing

I have suggested that passing comes up for those whose bodies, whose papers, are not in the right place. I now want to shift gears slightly, and try and think of passing through the lens of phenomenology: that is by thinking of passing as a field of perception. Freud’s own description of the mixed race person who cannot pass is precisely about how difference is assumed as perceptible; difference from whiteness as what is striking, difference as what creates a strong impression.  To offer a phenomenology of passing would be to give an account of how something becomes striking. When something is striking it becomes an object of consciousness; it acquires clarity, edges that are crisp, are more or less crisp, against a background that is blurry.  To pass is to pass into a background.

When things are where they are supposed to be they are in a certain way overlooked. You know that vase that appears on the mantelpiece. You might notice it when it is missing. It becomes striking in its absence; in not being in the right place, you can be struck by its being. What happened to the vase? Where is the vase? It is the beginning of a story.  Or maybe another vase has been put there in the place of the vase that is missing. You don’t notice it at first, you are busy occupied, but then you notice something is “not quite right,” strange, different. The thing out of place: it registers as intrusion; a sensory intrusion. That is not my vase, what happened to my vase? It is the beginning of another story: a story perhaps of a broken vase; of something being covered over, a story of guilt, even.

What is registered by consciousness is what disagrees with an expectation of how things should appear. A body can be what is disagreeable in this sense: a body appears all the more striking, when a body is not expected to appear, or when a body does not appear as a body is expected to appear. In my book Strange Encounters (2000) I drew on Mary Douglas’s definition of dirt as “matter out of place” to think of strangers, as “bodies out of place.”  Some bodies stand out: they do not recede into the background. To become a stranger is not to pass through. When passing fails something is revealed. Freud misunderstood this something. It is the beginning of a story: who are you; where are you from; what are you doing here?

Passing can thus refer not only to passing as or for but also passing into or to pass through. When we speak of passing as white we might mean to pass into a community or to pass through a neighbourhood. When whiteness becomes background to pass is not to appear, that is, not to appear “not white.” When you do not pass as white, you might be stopped. Not to pass as white is when a body registers as sensory intrusion.

I have written of experiences I had growing up not white in a white neighbourhood in Australia.  There was one time a police car pulled up beside me as I was walking down a street just near where I lived. One policeman asked me “are you Aboriginal?” It turned out there had been some burglaries in the area recently. To be seen as Aboriginal is not only to be seen as out of place but as a threat to those who are “in place:” proximity as crime against person and property. I answered the question with a no. If I had not given that answer, the question would, I have no doubt, led to further interrogation. But I was allowed to pass through. In other words being able to pass was a form of racial privilege: if I was brown, I was a brown settler. Being a brown settler is still being a settler.

Race is a complicated address. The second policeman then asked, and the question had the intonation of a quip, “or is it just a sun tan?” Here colour becomes it (is it, it is all about it). Colour becomes something that has to be explained or explained away. A tan explains colour as domesticated colour; bronzed not brown. A tanned woman would be a woman who acquires colour in the way other Australians do: her colour might even be an expression of national character, of what we do in our leisure time.

I remember so many comments when I was growing up about being sun-tanned, often superficially admiring or positive comments: oh how lucky you are to brown so easily, how lucky you are; how I wish, look at me, with my burnt pink red white skin.

How I wish, wish, wish


When admiration is given as compensation it is not admiration. The effort not to be sorry can be a way of being sorry.

Oh dear

But lucky you, dear

Such comments should be grouped together as polite racism, a genre that works to deflect attention from race as if race as such is an embarrassment, something that could not or should not be brought up in polite society. Such speech acts could thus be translated: your colour is not a stain on your being; we will give you the benefit of the doubt by assuming you are white underneath or at least we will pretend you white underneath because it would be harder, hard, not to pretend.

Whiteness: when colour is something that is acquired

Becoming brown not being brown

Becoming not being (2)

Polite racism works to create “presumed whiteness.”  In other words, it is more polite to presume you are white. In order not to disappear you have to make your brownness or blackness into an assertion. You might have to be assertive just to be. Or: you might have to become willingly, wilfully, some striking feature.

More is at stake in how I was able to pass by or pass through in this encounter. I also think by speaking in the voice I have, with the voice I had, I identified myself as being middle-class, as being someone who belongs in this neighbourhood, as someone they were policing for, not against. This is what intersectionality can mean in practice: being stopped because of how you can be seen in relation to some categories (not white, Aboriginal), being able to start up because of how you are seen in relation to others (white, middle-class).  No wonder: intersectionality is messy and embodied.

In a wonderful dialogical paper, Ruth Frankenberg and Lata Mani reflect on postcoloniality as a politics of location; on how individual trajectories are shaped by histories of colonialism. In her riff, Lata Mani (writing as a feminist from India who was then working in the United States) addresses two moments of arriving at her university after hours. In the first, a white male professor opens the door, and refuses her entry : “he cannot let anyone in off the street, god knows what you might do” (1993: 296). In the second, a Filipina woman at work cleaning the corridor opens the door: “she looks up at me, smiles and without a word opens the door for me” (296).

Anyone: riff-raff.

Someone: smile, come in.

Intersectionality: stopping, starting, anybody, in, somebody, out.

Intersectionality: stopping and starting.

In one moment you are not allowed in because of how you are seen (you are a stranger, you are brown, you could be anybody). In another moment you are allowed in because of how you are seen (you are a professor, you are brown but you are someone). Depending on who encounters who, a door is closed or opened. And of course it is the Professor who holds, as it were the door, to the institution; who decides who can reside there, who can be legitimately employed there, not the cleaner.

Depending on who encounters who; passing comes up when you do not pass through. Of course some professors are assumed to be passing as professors. When some of us are professors, we are treated like temporary residents; we have to be allowed in because we are not from. Pierre W. Orelus’s reflects on how as a professor of colour he is often met with surprise. He writes: “after I formally introduce myself in class, I have undergraduate students who ask me, in a surprised tone of voice, ‘Are you really the professor?’ I sometimes overhear them asking their peers ‘Is he really the professor’” (2011: 31). Really: really? Are you sure? Orelus compares this mode of questioning, this sense of curiosity and astonishment, with the questions typically asked of immigrants about “funny accents.” Being asked whether you are the professor is another way of being made into a stranger, a body out of place. Being asked “where are you from?” or “where are you really from?” is a way of saying you are not from here.

Brown, black: not from here, not here, not.

When we are talking about passing we are talking about doors. For some to pass through the door, to enter a room, requires being given permission by those who are holding that door. A door is not just a physical thing that swings on hinges, but a mechanism that enables an opening and a closing. Some have to pass when this mechanism is working.

Some: not all. This is why it does not work to say “we are all passing,” even if we are all in some ways passing because we are all, in a profound sense, temporary residents. A category too can be a dwelling: as that which gives residence.  We might say, for instance, all women are passing as women: we pass into or through the category “women” by being assigned her or assigning ourselves as her. But if you do not constantly have your legitimacy thrown into question, if you are not asked whether you are a woman, constantly, repeatedly, if you do not have the door shut in your face when you try and enter that room, then you do not have to pass as women in the same way.

Trans women may have to pass in a way that some cis women do not: because of this constant questioning of legitimacy. To pass would not necessarily mean here to pass as women, as if trans women are not women: although the perception of trans women as fraudulent women has material life consequences (and passing we have already learnt is a matter of consequence). Juliet Jacques in one of her excellent pieces published in The Guardian, drawing on Julia Serano, explores precisely this problem: how the passing narrative casts trans women as deceivers. But sometimes, as Jacques herself notes, passing  might be a way of avoiding being harassed, and it might require a certain kind of confidence: the creation of an impression of having a right to be where you reside. Another way of saying: some have to assertive just to be.

Passing can be the experience of the requirement to justify your existence in the very manner of your existence.  Sometimes whether or not you are asked a question you feel questionable. Maybe you have been questioned too many times; you come to expect it, you become to live your life as a question. You become a question mark.  I am walking with my girlfriend. “Are you a boy or a girl?” they ask her, a question that drips with mockery and hostility. A question hovering around gender: not being housed by gender, being unhoused by gender. Once you have been asked these questions, you might wait for them, waiting to be dislodged changes your relation to the lodge. Other times I have been asked when we enter a local shop “is she your sister?”  Who is she, is it a way of saying, what is your relationship? A relationship can be questionable. Sister: a way of seeing or not seeing lesbian? Sister: a way of evoking an intimacy without naming it; sister as euphemism? Recently a lesbian couple were asked by their newly arrived neighbours: “what are you?” A relationship becomes “some striking feature.”

Heterosexuality too: can be quite a blur.  When things are aligned, we have a straight line. An alignment is often what you do not see. Think of tracing paper: when the paper is lined up you see one set of lines. It is all clear. Move one piece of paper, just a bit, a tiny, tiny bit: the whole picture is thrown into disarray. Blink. You turn up at a hotel with your girlfriend and you say you have booked a room. A hesitation can speak volumes. This reservation says your booking is for a double bed, is that right madam? Eyebrows are raised; a glance slides over the two of you, catching enough detail. This time you both appear as women. But something else is not right, then; something else, brings the picture into disarray. Are you, sure madam? Yes that’s right; a double bed. You have to say it, again; you have to say it, again, firmly. Some have to insist on what is given to others. In previous work I have offered a formula:

Rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy

When you are known as a feminist, you do not even have to say anything before eyes roll. You can hear them sigh “oh hear she goes.” I now have another formula.

Raised eyebrows = lesbian feminist pedagogy

The raising of eyebrows: lodged as a question: Really, are you sure?  This happens again and again; you almost come to expect it, the necessity of being firm just to receive what you have requested. One time after a querying, are you sure madam, are you sure, madam, you enter the room; twin beds. Do you go down; do you try again? It can be trying. Sometimes it is too much, and you find other ways of huddling. Questions follow you, wherever you go. Perhaps a following can be a promise. Those whose being is in question are those who can question being.

Institutional Passing

A social arrangement might be what does not appear. We learn then that a background is also an action: whiteness for instance is being accomplished by not being revealed. To disagree with an expectation of what should appear is to get in the way of an accomplishment.

Institutions can be built around bodies, for bodies, as Nirmal Puwar shows in her wonderful book Space Invaders (2004). For some to arrive is to fit.  We learn this too from the literatures on class and passing, for example from the work of Annette Kuhn (1995) and Valerie Walkerdine (1997). The bourgeois body is attuned to a set of requirements: a way of speaking, holding the body; what you refer to, who you defer to.  Attunement seems like magic when it works. You are expected to go there, Oxbridge say, so you have already been taught how to be there before you get there.  An institution is like an old garment: if it has acquired the shape of those who tend to wear it, then it becomes easier to wear if you have that shape.  You do not have to pass because you do not have to think about it, you just pull it on; you just move on. Easier to wear: this is why I think of privilege as an energy saving device. Less effort is required to be or to do. But if you arrive into these institutions with dubious origins, you are not expected to be there, so in getting there you have already disagreed with an expectation of who you are and what you can do, then an institution is the wrong shape; the jumper does not fit. You fidget to try and make it fit, but fidgeting shows all the more that it does not fit. Kuhn describes how as a working-class girl in a grammar school she feels “conspicuously out of place” (111). And indeed, she describes this sense of being out of place by giving us a biography of her school uniform; how by the time her ill-fitting uniform came to fit, it had become “shabby” and “scruffy.”

When there is a not a fit, you become a misfit, to use Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s (2011) important terms. You might feel like a fraud; it is all left hanging. It is probably the frauds who are our best hopes for transformations: we can only loosen the requirements to be in institutions by failing to meet them. But it is hard, painful, to fail to meet them. Garland Thomson explores how disabled subjects become misfits because or when they are not accommodated by institutions. Not to be accommodated is not to be able to pass through or by. For some to pass would require making adjustments; the pavement might have to be adjusted to support the passing through of those in wheelchairs; a podium might have to be adjusted to support those who are not the right height; a time-table might have to be adjusted to support those with child care responsibilities, and so on.  To pass through can become difficult given how spaces are organized; a space can be what “gets in the way” of a forward progression.

By progression I am not speaking of upward mobility, but just the very capacity to get through or to move along or to reside or take part or to do some ordinary thing (go the toilet, get a cup of coffee and so on). We might note that diversity is often understood and dismissed as being about career advancement. Diversity becomes another way of falsely receiving benefits. As we know: some do not have to advance themselves to advance; they are advanced by virtue of their membership of a social group. An institution can be what eases a progression. This is why, this is how: the judgment of being motivated by a desire for upward mobility tends to falls on those whose progression is not eased by an institution. Tends to fall, we call it a tendency.

Institutions: how history becomes concrete. What then do I mean by institutional passing? Institutional passing might include the effort not to stand out or stand apart (although the effort not to stand out can be what makes you stand out). When you are perceived as demanding (a space has to be modified to accommodate you) you might end up trying not to make too many demands. Institutional passing might be what end up doing when or even because you cannot pass for what you are not because of the body you have, your history, or for whatever reason. Perhaps you pass by not speaking about yourself as a minority: as if by passing over being not, you would be less intrusive to those who are; or as if by passing over “not” being white, able bodied, male, straight, cis, you would “not” be “not” in quite the same way.

I know so many “not’s;” too many “not’s.” No wonder we get lost.

Passing here would be about trying to be less noticeable (although you only have to try to be less noticeable because you are noticeable). To think about the work of institutional passing, I want to draw on some of the data on diversity work I discussed in my book, On Being Included (2012). As we know diversity is often offered as an invitation, it might be a tagline, minorities welcome. Come in, come in. We are back to that door, that mechanism that enables some to decide who is let in, who is not. But just because they invite you it does not mean they expect you to turn up. What happens when a person of colour turns up? Oh how noticeable we are in the sea of whiteness : “When I enter the room there is shock on peoples’ faces because they are expecting a white person to come in. I pretend not to recognize it. But in the interview there is unease because they were not expecting someone like me to turn up. So it is hard and uncomfortable and l can tell that they are uneasy and restless because of the way they fiddle and twitch around with their pens and their looks. They are uncomfortable because they were not expecting me – perhaps they would not have invited me if they knew l was black and of course l am very uncomfortable. l am wondering whether they are entertaining any prejudice against me.” They are not expecting you. Discomfort involves this failure to fit. A restlessness and uneasiness, a fidgeting and twitching, is a bodily registering of an unexpected arrival.

I pretend not to recognise it. Passing is work; it is the effort not to notice the bother caused by your own arrival. There is pretence involved; this is not about pretending to be something you are not but pretending not to notice you are not what they expect. The body that causes their discomfort (by not fulfilling an expectation of whiteness) is the one who must work hard to make others comfortable. You have to pass by passing your way through whiteness, not by becoming white, but by minimizing the signs of difference.  As another woman of colour describes: “I think with a person of colour there’s always a question of what’s this woman going to turn out like… they’re nervous about appointing people of colour into senior positions….Because if I went in my Sari and wanted prayer time off and started rocking the boat and being a bit different and asserting my kind of culture I’m sure they’d take it differently.” Some forms of difference are heard as assertive, as “rocking the boat.”  Some forms of difference become legible as willfulness and obstinacy, as if you are only different because you are insistent (on being different). The pressure not to “assert your culture” is lived as a demand to pass or to integrate. Note how this pressure can be affective: you experience the potential nervousness as a threat; you try and avoid the nervous glance by not fulfilling its expectation.

Indeed, the consequences of racism are in part managed as a question of self-presentation: of trying not to fulfil a stereotype, an idea of who you are, an expectation of how you will be:

Don’t give white people nasty looks straight in their eyes; don’t show them aggressive body positions. I mean, for example I am going to go and buy a pair of glasses because I know the glasses soften my face and I keep my hair short because I’m going bald, so I need something to soften my face. But actually what I am doing, I am countering a stereotype, I’m countering the black male sexual stereotype and yes, I spend all my time, I counter that stereotype, I couch my language behaviour and tone in as English a tone as I can. I am very careful, just very careful.

Passing would here be about “toning it down.” Being careful is about softening the very form of your appearance so that you do not appear “aggressive” because you are already assumed to be aggressive before you appear. The demand not to be aggressive might be lived as a form of body-politics, or as a speech politics: you have to be careful what you say, how you appear, in order to maximize the distance between you and their idea of you. The experience of being a stranger in the institutions of whiteness is an experience of being on perpetual guard: of having to defend yourself against those who perceive you as somebody to be defended against.

Institutional passing can also require working on one’s own body in an effort to be accommodating. You try to make others comfortable with the fact of your own existence. The effort to rearrange your own body becomes an effort to rearrange the past. This past is not only difficult to budge; it is often what those, to whom you appear, do not recognise as present. Institutional passing can involving minimising signs of difference from institutional norms. Or institutional passing can involve maximising signs of difference from a set of expectations about what those who are different from norms are like.  Institutional passing would then include the work you do to pass through by passing out of an expectation: you try not to be the angry person of colour, the trouble maker.  You have to demonstrate not so much that you are not a fraud, but that you are not that kind of minority. The killjoy too appears here as the one that we must give up; institutional passing as appearing to fulfil the happiness duty, softening our appearance, smiling. Of course when we pass as happy, we are not happy. And sometimes we refuse to give up the killjoy; we claim her, stake a claim to her; we might even profess to be her!

To pass might require passing over the words that register that histories of injustice are not over. Not to pass over words such as racism is to encounter the wall of racism. I am speaking of racism in a seminar. Someone comes up to me afterwards and puts her arm next to mine. We are almost the same colour, she says. No difference, no difference.  You wouldn’t really know you were any different to me, she says. The very talk about racism becomes a fantasy that invents difference. She smiles, as if the proximity of our arms was evidence that the racism of which I was speaking was an invention, as if our arms told another story. She smiles, as if our arms are in sympathy. I say nothing. Perhaps my arm speaks by withdrawing.  I turn to this willful arm by way of conclusion.

Conclusion: Willful Passing

You will remember I began with Freud and his use of the figure of the mixed race person as the one who will not pass as white because of “some striking feature or other.” Perhaps we can think of willfulness in these terms: a striking feature, a strong impression, a failure to recede or to become background. In my book on willfulness I began with a story about a willful child. It is without question a rather striking story. It is a Grimm story. Let me share it with you:

Once upon a time there was a child who was willful, and would not do as her mother wished. For this reason God had no pleasure in her, and let her become ill, and no doctor could do her any good, and in a short time she lay on her death-bed. When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her arm came out again, and stretched upwards, and when they had put it in and spread fresh earth over it, it was all to no purpose, for the arm always came out again. Then the mother herself was obliged to go to the grave, and strike the arm with a rod, and when she had done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath the ground.

What a story. The willful child: she has a story to tell. My book opens with this story, with this figure of the willful child, the one who disobeys; the one who is punished, who is beaten into the ground. It is a story of a child but also of an arm: the child’s willfulness is inherited by an arm, an arm that keeps coming up, until it too is beaten down.  It is a story of an arm but also of a rod, as that which gives expression to the will of a sovereign, a will that is not deemed a willful will, a will that is deemed necessary to eliminate the willfulness of others.

The willfulness of others. Willfulness is typically defined as: “asserting or disposed to assert one’s own will against persuasion, instruction, or command; governed by will without regard to reason; determined to take one’s own way; obstinately self-willed or perverse.” To be called obstinate or perverse because you are not persuaded by reason? Is this familiar to you? Have you heard this before? The rod is how the will of some is implemented as reason. The rod equals reason. We can hear why, we can hear how, willfulness is understood as a character fault or flaw, a way of dismissing disobedience as brute impulse and perversion; we can hear why, we can hear how, willfulness provides the basis of a feminist, queer and anti-racist revolt.  You might have to become what you are judged as being to survive that judgment; to become obstinate, to keep coming up; to keep speaking up, when there is a concerted and indeed collective effort to bring you down.

I am bringing this story up again because this story is also an institutional story. It is a story that circulates within institutions. It offers a warning, a threat: speak up, and you will be beaten. The story is also an invitation to those who might be at risk of identification with the wayward arm: become the rod as a way of avoiding the consequences of being beaten. Become the rod: too much violence is being abbreviated here.  And: the willful child comes up whenever there is a questioning of institutional reason: whenever, say, sexism or racism are shown to be institutional not personal, she comes up, as if to say, speak up and her fate will be yours. There are many within institutions who cannot afford that fate; there who many who cannot raise their arms in protest even when the will of the institution is exposed as violence, even when that violence is directed against this many.  A politics of willfulness is about giving support to those who are willing to expose the will of the institution as violence, we need to become our own support system, so that when she speaks up, when she is, as she is, quickly represented as the willful child who deserves her fate, who is beaten because her will is immature and impoverished, she will not be an arm coming up alone, she will not be an arm all on her own.

We know the consequences of becoming willful, becoming that striking feature; we are reminded of these consequences constantly. We live these consequences. This is why refusing to pass or not passing cannot become a political requirement without imposing another set of unjust demands. We have to support too those who cannot come up, speak up, not demand they come up; speak up. And we should not assume silence implies an agreement. And after all passing can be how we dislodge an impression. I call this: passing as willing in order to be willful. You might smile, say yes, you might appear to agree, trying not to cause trouble because then, only then, you get closer to those who you wish to dislodge. Just think of this: an arm can be passing. Just think of this: how when a teacher asks a room full of pupils, how the arms come up then, right up, as if to say yes, we have the answer, I have the answer. An arm can be raised when the arm says “yes.” The willful arm too can pass as a willing arm; an arm can appear to be in agreement without being in agreement.

Passing helps us to get through undetected. Sometimes, we have to get through as we have work to do. We have to be fraudulent to expose the system itself as fraudulent: the counterfeit money that is no different from legal tender but for the fact that it is sent out by the wrong machine (3). When the arms are raised in agreement; the arms can strike.  Something is striking not only when it creates a strong impression, but when it causes something to stop or be arrested.  When an arm goes on strike it stops working; it aims to stop the whole body from working.

We have a system when things are working. There are many ways to do the work of stopping things from working. Sometimes we pass by refusing proximity to willful subjects. We appear to lend our hand to the masters, to hear their wish as our command, but things are not always as they appear. Sometimes we refuse to pass and we become willful subjects. We act in agreement with the strength of her impression. Our hands curl into fists. Audre Lorde once said “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984). In that unflinching “will never,” is a call to arms, do not become the master’s tool! Whichever way we do the work of dismantling, of bringing that house down, brick by brick, it is the arms that labour away. When the arms become “some striking feature,” we become an army.  We become an army, with so many striking features, bits and pieces of bodies, all over the place, in the wrong place. The arms, the arms: they strike; the arms, the arms; they rise up; the arms, the arms; they do not give up.



Ahmed, S. (2000). Strange Encounters; Embodied Others in Postcoloniality. London: Routledge.

—————- (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press.

————— (2006). Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press.

—————- (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Duke University Press.

—————– (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press.

—————– (2014). Willful Subjects. Duke University Press.

Bhabha, Homi (1994). The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge.

Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Frankenberg, Ruth and Lata Mani (1993). “Crosscurrents, Crosstalk: Race, ‘Post-coloniality’ and the Politics of Location,” Cultural Studies, 7(2): 292-310.

Freud, S. (2013) [1911]. The Unconscious. London: Karnak Books.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie (2011). 2011). “Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept,” Hypatia: A  Journal of Feminist Philosophy. 26(3): 591-609.

Gilman, Sander (1995). Freud, Race and Gender. Princeton University Press.

Kuhn, Annette (1995). Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination. London:Verso.

Larsen, Nella (2004). [1929] Passing. New York: Dover Publications.

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

Mullen, Harryette (1994). “Optic White: Blackness and the Production of Whiteness,” diacritics, 24: 71-89.

Orelus, Pierre (2011). Transnationals of Color: Counter Narratives Against Discrimination in Schools and Beyond. New York: Peter Lang.

Puwar, Nirmal (2004). Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Oxford: Berg.

Walkerdine, Valerie (1997). Daddy’s Girl: Young Girls and Popular Culture. Harvard University Press.

1. Parts of this spoken paper were published in the sixth chapter “Going Strange, Going Native” of my book Strange Encounters (2000). This chapter included sections on “consuming strangers” (drawing on bell hooks’ discussion of “eating the other”), “becoming strangers” (drawing on a reading of the film, Dances with Wolves), and “passing for strangers” (which begins with a reading of John Griffin’s Black Like Me). I mention this here as in the third section I consider “passing for black” as well as “passing for white.Despite the fact that our conference happened after the case of Rachel Dolezal had already begun to be discussed as a case of “passing for black” this case did not come up in any of the panel discussions I attended and I did not bring it up myself. I think there was too much to process. I do hope to read more of the work of Black feminists on the complexity of the situation (the lecture was written before the story broke but I have been following it as much as I can). So these are some of my reflections on “passing for black” published 15 years ago in case they are relevant or helpful: “passing for black has become an increasingly powerful individual and national fantasy. Passing for black is  enabled by ‘adopting’ elements of black culture, a process of adoption which then fixes or freezes those elements as indicators of what it means to be black. In Sunderland’s sympathetic account of white women who pass as black, she emphasises how these women imagine and project what it means to ‘be black’. To quote from one of her interviewees, ‘And I find that very much about black people. You know, I think, um. I just find warmth there.’ While Sunderland clearly supports this representation of the white self through claiming affiliation with black culture – for her this indicates a shift towards a recognition of mixed identities – we can be more cautious. Not only is there a fetishising and exoticising of blackness at stake, but we also have the recreation of the white subject as the one knows the difference, even if that difference is no longer seen as external to the white self or community….Passing for Black is a technique of knowledge insofar as it remains tied to the narrativisation of the white female subject’s knowledge of herself through her sympathetic incorporation of others….One can consider how such individuated acts of passing legitimate the national fantasy of multiculturalism, in which one passes for strangers by adopting or assuming their style” (2000: 132-133). For those interested the Sunderland piece I was referred to is this one: “You may not know it, but I am Black; White Women’s Self-Identification as Black,” Ethnos, 1-2: 32-58

2. In Strange Encounters (2000) I offered an analysis of how the becoming/being distinction is a racialised distinction (as a way into a critique of philosophies of becoming). Whiteness is becoming (movement, light, flight) insofar as blackness is posited as being (stasis, dark, weight). Some have to be so others become.

3. It is worth noting here that security systems, or anti-counterfeiting measures, also require the invention of means for “telling the difference” by making difference of origin more legible or material (holigrams, multi-colored bills, embedded devices such as strips, microprinting, watermarks and inks whose colors changed depending on the angle of light). Differences are generated by the very system that requires them. The implications for theories of authorship (and or as machinery) seem obvious.

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A Campaign of Harassment

It has been difficult to witness: the launching of a systematic campaign of harassment against a student at Goldsmiths, Bahar Mustafa, who is currently Welfare and Diversity Officer for the Student Union. I am writing this post to express my solidarity with Bahar Mustafa. I also want to use the occasion to try and make sense of what has been going on: to ask why and how this story came to circulate the way that it did. One of my standpoints is that doing diversity work – the work of trying to transform institutions often by opening them up to populations that have not previously been accommodated – gives us insight into the very mechanisms of power. We learn how things are working from what happens to those who challenge how things are working.

I will not be citing any of the materials written against Bahar directly apart from the original story and one sentence from a petition. I have no wish to elevate these materials by analysing them as if they offer coherent arguments (they do not). Nor would I engage with anyone directly who has participated in this campaign because it needs to be named for what it is: harassment.  And by ‘harassment’ I mean something quite precise. The word ‘harass’ derives from the French harasser ‘tire out, vex’ possibly from Old French harer ‘stir up, provoke; set a dog on.’ The campaign against this student is aimed to provoke or stir up trouble precisely by attempting to wear down and tire out not just this student but all those whom she comes to represent: BME people, women and queers who are not willing to accept their place.

This post is my case.

I will try and account for what we might call the inflationary logics at stake; how these materials through amplification and distortion, work to create a profile that has little trace of any origin. The details of the situation were quickly discarded as the details did not matter. Reality did not matter. The story is about the creation of a profile of the ‘feminist student radical’ as the one we can dismiss (or who in fact should be prosecuted) because she threatens ‘our place’ with this ‘our’ being premised on a weak identification between unnamed students who could not attend an event and endless audiences who are (encouraged to be) outraged on their behalf. Rather like the earlier case discussed here, which exercised the figure of the censoring student, a profile is created, which rests on flimsy evidence, because it allows a dismissal of the challenge made over who has the right to occupy space by those who are being challenged. (1)

The original story posted by a student at Goldsmiths in Tab opens with the line: ‘The event says “if you are white, please don’t come”’ (2). Of course, events don’t speak for themselves. I think we learn how the event is given the status of a subject. The reporter wants a subject who can be written against. He then writes: ‘it was supposed to a gathering to celebrate racial unity and protest against inequality. So imagine the horror when organisers of an anti-racism event BANNED men and white people from attending.’ In the first instance, the implication is that a request has been made by the event itself (‘please don’t come’). In the second, this request from an event becomes a ban from the organisers. The reporter then uses a screen capture of a facebook status update, written very casually, as is the usual style of facebook updates, asking men and white people not to come to the event but also suggested that people invite ‘loads of BME Women and non-binary people.’ (3) Already: what a muddle. Within one short paragraph, we have clear evidence of an inflationary logic: a request for a group of people not to attend an event has become a BAN against those people attending. It is this word ‘ban,’ which is a clear distortion of the wordage in the quoted material (that is, the evidence provided by the story), that is then picked up and put into circulation and recited endlessly.

Pick it up; amp it up.

Now: we need to be precise. To ban someone is to forbid them from doing something. The request made was quite self-evidently not a ban; it was not written in that language. In fact the request is worded as an appeal to a group of students not to attend something (hence the use of the word ‘please’). I think the use of the word ‘ban’ is strategic not only because it allows a narrative to be put in place (white people and men are being prohibited from doing something they wish to do) but because it then allows an association with the organisers of an event and the law: a casually written informal facebook status update is translated into an official policy or mandate.

Before I move on I want to pick up on another part of that appeal or request that has not been mentioned much in the coverage: to invite ‘loads of BME, women and non-binary people’. I know exactly what is being registered by this double appeal: we want more of some and less of others. I can translate this for those of you who are not following: this is ‘really’ a request not to have an event dominated by white men. Why make this appeal? Because so many events, including diversity and equality events, end up being dominated by white men not only in a numerical sense (sometimes not in a numerical sense) but because that group tends to be more dominating in how they occupy spaces (including conversational space). Indeed I have even attended events set up for BME people that end up being dominated by those who identify as white, and  who often take up all the space because they are keen to demonstrate their knowledge (whitesplaining), or their anti-racist credentials.

Let’s slow the argument down. The original article adds: ‘there is a huge difference between holding exclusionary ‘BME only’ events and the long-standing culture of open to all events which cater specifically toward BME and female students’.  A contrast is set up between events that are exclusionary and events that are ‘open to all’ but that cater specifically for BME and female students. What does it mean to cater for BME and female students in an open event? What would such catering would be? What if BME and female students want events that cater for them by being organised by and for them? Who can decide what it means to be catered for? Surely those being catered for?

Of course the event we are talking about was not ‘BME only’ (the language of ‘banned’ has allowed that to become background assertion) but we can put that point to one side.

Let me state what should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about equalities. This story should not even be controversial! Since changes to the equalities legislation (dating as far back as 2000 with the Amendment to the Race Relations Act) equality and diversity have been understood as positive duties under law. Universities as well as other public institutions no longer simply have a negative duty to fight discrimination but a positive duty to create a more equitable environment. Many universities have in the last 15 years set up networks for minority students and staff as part of their diversity and equality policies. My own college has been a bit slow off the mark: but we are hoping to set up such networks for staff. Why do we do this? Because such networks enable us to redress already existing inequalities within the sector. How so? It is quite simple really: they enable staff and students who have been disadvantaged because of their membership of a social group to share experiences; to support each other; to build relationships and connections that help them to navigate their way through institutions that are, to put it mildly, not organised to ease their progression.

As I have been exploring on this blog, power often works through or as a support system: the existing networks that enable some people to progress more easily than others not because of what they do but who they are (this ‘who’ is an ‘institutional who’). Equality work thus often involves the creation of alternative support systems. Much equality work has been about organising BME student and staff groups, women’s groups, LGBQTI groups as well as events that cater specifically for these groups: and it has been so for a long time.

None of this is radical or new.

How does this case become newsworthy, then?

For this story to become a story, to be newsworthy, certain words have to acquire a function: white people/men have to be understood as having been banned in order to reframe event as ‘exclusionary’ and in various articles as ‘separatist’. Of course the word ‘separatist’ is sticky; in the UK, all-white events and spaces, which are common, are rarely described as separatist; BME communities who ‘live amongst themselves’ usually are. Separatism is a word that tends to fall on minorities rather than on elite or privileged communities who use walls, capital, tradition or habit to restrict their spaces/keep them white.

We learn from how things tend to fall.

We call it a tendency.

Perhaps we do have to explain why BME groups and women’s groups are necessary. The work of explanation can take a lifetime: it can be exhausting because you are ‘having to explain’ the necessity of these groups to those who have no experience of why they are necessary.

When I was based in Women’s Studies, I would receive letters that basically stated: Women’s Studies is sexist. Why isn’t there Men’s Studies? Why? Because the University is Men’s Studies: because the traditional disciplines have defined their objects (and organised their canons) by generalising from men’s experience.

The project of Women’s Studies is not over until Universities cease to be Men’s Studies. The project for Women’s Studies is not over.

Note what is going on then: a space set up for a group not represented by a university is judged as excluding those who are already represented by the university. The judgment of exclusion is a mechanism for concealing how exclusions already operate.

It is not sexist to have Women’s Studies. Sexism is why Women’s Studies is necessary.

It is not racist to have BME groups. Racism is why BME groups are necessary.

But you might say: what about critical and progressive white men, those who want to be part of this struggle for equality? Being part of the struggle means knowing when to step back. I would not hesitate to step back if there was an event on equality or diversity that was for a minority group that I was not part of. Why is that so hard: there are so many events and spaces that I can go to?

The difficulty some people have in ‘stepping back’ is what is being performed here. In an earlier post on critical racism/critical sexism I mentioned an example of a male student who spoke endlessly in seminars about how men occupied too much space. He was able to see the problem ‘over there.’ He was critical; he understood how sexism can work as a way of occupying space. But he was not able to see that he was himself enacting the very thing he was describing. He was re-enacting the problem in or by the very act of seeing the problem ‘over there’. This example teaches us how the mechanisms of power can be obscured even when we (think we) have identified how they are working. It also teaches us why having spaces for those for whom a problem can never be given the status of something ‘over there’ is necessary. Because otherwise, when you create spaces to challenge power, you end up watching what you are trying to challenge being re-enacted right in front of you. Those who think of themselves as critical and progressive, or those who think of themselves as having some intrinsic right to be wherever they wish to be, are often those whose entry into the room would be at the expense of the participation of others.

I have been calling this problem ‘progressive racism’ and ‘progressive sexism’: how racism and sexism progress through those who identify themselves as progressive (4).

I can describe this because I have come up against this myself.


When we work and study in spaces that are organised around those who you are ‘not’ it is wearing. It might be an experience of harassment. It might be that male tutor who says something inappropriate about your body in class; or the ways in which a tutor addresses the question about theory to the male students; or how the core course has all set readings by male authors. It might be the way other students giggle because your surname is ‘funny’; or having European thought represented as the only thought; or the feeling of being visible or standing out in a sea of whiteness, or how when you are the only student of colour in the classroom (which you often are), everyone looks at you when race comes up as if race has nothing to do with them. Diversity work is the documentation of these experiences. It is the weight of these experiences; it is how they wear you down; how they encourage you to take up less space. Diversity work is also about how we can endure what we document. It is thus about the creation of spaces, networks and events that give us a break, a relief from this labour of being in environment that does not accommodate your being. This is what is meant by ‘safe spaces’: it does not mean no debate and is certainly does not mean spaces that are cosy: it means being able to talk about difficulties with those who can recognise those difficulties. I have used the idea of ‘brick walls’ to explain this: unless you come up against them, these walls do not appear. We need to space to talk about walls with those who have also encountered these walls.

Some diversity work, not all of it, is about organising spaces in which those who share an experience of discrimination by virtue of their membership of a social group can share those experiences. Some diversity work, not all of it, is about organising inclusive spaces in which we struggle with others who identify with the struggle regardless of their membership of social groups. We have to have both; the former does not mean we don’t have the latter, but the latter without the former will get us back to the very place we are trying to challenge. And note: how hard it can be to have those spaces organised around, with and for those who share your experience as a member of a social group that has been disadvantaged. Those who are advantaged often won’t even let you have that!

When we fight not to reproduce the institution, when we challenge power within institutions, we do become, we will become, the object of hostility and derision. Those who object to harassment are harassed all the more. So much harassment is directed against those who challenge harassment. And that is what we are witnessing here: it a campaign of harassment not only against one student but against all students who are fighting for a university that is not organised by, for, around ‘white men.’ And this is why so many of the materials that protest that it is racist to have BME spaces or sexist to have women’s spaces are also making use of violent racist and sexist words and images. This is why people can tweet against students such as Bahar as if they are tweeting for equality, whilst hurling racist and sexist insults, and making death threats. This is why many of those who are protesting supposedly against racism can recirculate racist narratives like ‘go home.’

This is why; this is how.

In fact even the language of anti-racism then become part of the racist vocabulary. Those who are ‘banned’ identify themselves as progressive (they want to attend an event on equality). They are then quickly identified as the victims of racism as well as sexism (white men are excluded). These two modes of identification are related: it is what we could call ‘racist anti-racism.’ In the petition against Bahar, we saw those two modes being articulated as or in one sentence. It is a reference to one case, that of Lee Rigby. Sisters Uncut in their important statement for solidarity for Bahar Mustafa very astutely pick up on this sentence: ‘white people attacked in our streets by radicals.’ Here the racism of the campaign against Bahar comes out. Whiteness is reasserted as ownership: ‘our streets,’ and we can hear behind this, ‘our groups,’ ‘our universities,’ ‘our nation.’  Of course it is always the others who presented as dangerous: as endangering what we assume as ours.

Whiteness is reasserted as ownership.


I have now come to the hardest part. Of course, the story was amped up (it was already amped up in the original reporting): the student concerned was put under more and more scrutiny. There is a desire to find evidence to support a belief. And of course, as you would expect, more evidence is found: of a vicious feminist and racist plot against white men.

The story is build around the desire for this evidence.

The most telling evidence was the use of a hashtag #killallwhitemen. Surely there cannot be more evidence than that? Of course there could still be even more ‘amp up’: the use of the hashtag recirculated as a command (#killallwhitemen becomes a speech act ‘kill all white men’ as Amanda Hess shows very well in her reflections on ‘ironic misandry’) such that the student can end up being represented on social media as ‘planning a genocide.’

I think we have learnt from this, if we needed to learn from this, that it is not a good idea to engage in Valerie Solanas style feminist humour on social media (5). We do need to become conscious of how words can sound when they are taken out of context.

But let me do some more explanatory work.

I once wrote a post called ‘white men.’ In this post I argued that ‘white men’ is not only institution, but a set of mechanisms for reproducing an institution. I received a number of responses on twitter that in writing this post I was calling for the murder/death/end of white men. You will note I called for no such thing: in fact if anything the only time I appeal to white men as individuals is to call upon them not to reproduce the institution ‘white men’ through citational practices.

This accusation was not new to me. Feminists who oppose institutions are often accused of violence, and even murder. The institutions we challenge are the same institutions that are upheld by some as necessary for life: family, marriage, and so on. Those who challenge the institutions deemed necessary for life are often those assumed to be willing death.

The basis of some feminist humour, whether you wish to justify it or not, is to redeploy stereotypes of feminists. The murderous feminist is one such stereotype. This hashtag (which was certainly not originated by the student being targeted) was an ironic redeployment of that stereotype. Of course the risk of redeploying a stereotype – to expose the fallacy behind it – is that you will encounter the very thing you expose.

We are encountering that thing.

The figure of the killjoy is premised on a similar conversion. She too begins as a stereotype: that feminists are against happiness; that feminists talk about sexism to mask their unhappiness; that feminists kill joy because they are joy less (6). We convert that very figure into a source of energy. We are quite prepared to kill some forms of joy. I have no doubt it would be and should be harder to redeploy the figure of the murderous feminist. Because, of course, we are not calling for violence. We are calling in fact for an end to the institutions that promote violence. Much violence that is promoted by  institutions is concealed by the very use of ‘stranger danger’: the assumption that violence only ever originates with outsiders, the obscuring of domestic violence, violence that happens ‘at home.’

I don’t think we can redeploy this figure without ending up where we started. But we do need to be clear how she started.

Let’s go back to where we started. We are witnessing how power works: power works by increasing the costs of fighting against power. It works by demonstrating these costs often through the systematic targeting of an individual: look what happens to her; it will happen to you.

The message of the campaign is a threat.

And this is also why: diversity work is about sharing the costs of fighting against power.

And this is also why: solidarity matters.

  1. I hope to write a post ‘against students,’ where I will  place these figures alongside each other (and also discuss how some of the critiques of neo-liberalism in higher education rest on another figure of the ‘consuming student,’ whose desires and wants for the wrong programmes are assumed to have caused the demise of the university).
  2. The student is a former member of UKIP.
  3. Because Women is capitalised, I think this should read: ‘BME, Women and non-binary people.’
  4. I hope to write a blog on ‘progressive racism’ in the near future.
  5. This is a reference to Valerie Solanas’s Scum Manifesto (1967).
  6. See my book, The Promise of Happiness (2010) for longer discussion.
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It is not the time for a party

It is devastating. We need to be devastated. A party based on a system of class loyalty has been given permission to rule. A party: how a few reproduce themselves by convincing many they are the many. How a party assumes human rights can be abolished by the act of abolishing an act. A party that is Eugenicist: how a few reproduce their fortune by reproducing themselves; how the few justify their good fortune as deriving from work, or effort, or good will, or character, rather than inheritance; how a few who benefit from the exploitation of many present many as those receiving benefits; how many are ruled by holding onto a distinction created by the rulers between the deserving and the undeserving, assuming that by trying to be more deserving they will be less unsafe.

Eugenics becomes a social policy: how you can eliminate others by making it harder for them to exist. Drawing on Francis Galton’s own terms, eugenics is the reproduction of the conditions that enable the reproduction of those deemed “men of a high type.”

What conditions.

A party: how some are left for dead.

Capitalism (I won’t add racial as an adjective here, all capitalism is racial as well classed because it depends on making moral distinctions between higher and lower beings) is identity politics: how the identities of some are posted because those identities secure access to a world; how the identities of some disappear by being registered as universal.

No wonder that any politics based on asserting one’s particulars against the universal is called identity politics!

Capitalism is identity politics.

Capitalism is how “the others” become labour to be used, or useless; how others become usable is how others become expendable; how others become expendable is how others become killable. Capitalism is how “the others” become those who have to be welcomed to be at all: capitalism is Neighbourhood Watch generalised into a system (that is Neighbourhood Watch extracts its particular logic from a general system – as I tried to argue in my book Strange Encounters (2000)): it is how the others become loitering, those who here, there, without a legitimate purpose, whose proximity registers as crime; or whose arrival is deemed to endanger property or to lower the value of a neighbourhood; it is how the strangers are those whose entry is understand as damage, whose entry is unlawful; whose life becomes unlawful; whose death becomes lawful. The figure of the bogus asylum seeker and what they used to call in the Australian press the “dole bludger” are “stuck together” to use the terms I introduced in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004). By sticking together these figures, through their adherence, we have the effect of coherence: a national body is reproduced around “some bodies,” as the “who” who must be defended.

We can understand why and how willfulness too has utility as a judgment: willful beings are those for whom being is willful, those who are judged to falsify their personhood as persecution with the intent of receiving benefits.

It is a system from which only a few benefit.

It is the party.

Capitalism is identity politics: how the few become the universe/universal; it is how the universal is handy because it makes others into the hands, helping hands, those who have to help reproduce the very system that reproduces their own subordination, or risk becoming unhandy hands, who are grasping at something that is not theirs.

It is time for us to curl our hands into fists. We should not be handy.

It is not the time for a party.

It is a time to be angry. We cannot separate a feeling from what a feeling is doing. To be angry is to enact your relation to a world: anger is action because anger is reaction.

I have written about anger often. I need to write about anger some more.

When I wrote The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004) I spoke on anger as key to feminism, in particular, to black feminist and feminist of colour scholarship and activism. I wanted to challenge some of the critiques of “wound culture” within some feminist theory. Let me share some of these words.


The response to pain, as a call for action, also seems to require anger: an interpretation that this pain is wrong, that it is an outrage, and that something must be done about it. But it is precisely the intimacy of pain and anger within feminism that Wendy Brown critiques as a form of resentiment. Following Nietzsche, Brown suggests that resentiment:

produces an affect (rage, righteousness) that overwhelms the hurt; and it produces a site of revenge to displace the hurt (a place to inflict hurt on the sufferer who has been hurt). Together these operations both ameliorate… and externalize what is otherwise unendurable (Brown 1995: 68).

Brown sets up an opposition between reaction and negation as responses to injury, and an action which she suggests earlier might wish to ‘forget’ the injury, or indeed the history of that injury in the pursuit of a different kind of future (Brown 1995: 56). She hence assumes that all forms of reaction necessarily lead to the fetishisation of the wound. However, I would suggest that there is no “pure action,” which is outside such a history of “reaction,” whereby bodies come to be “impressed upon” by the surfaces of others. This is important as it suggests that if feminism is an emotional as well as ethical and political response to that which it is against, then what feminism is against is not exterior to feminism, and indeed may give that politics its edge. If anger is a form of againstness, then it is precisely about the impossibility of moving beyond the history of injuries to a pure or innocent position. Anger then does not necessarily require an investment in revenge; “being against something” is dependent not only on how one reads what one is against (for example, whether violence against women is read as dependent on male psychology or on structures of power), but also on what form of action are felt to be possible given that reading.

More broadly within feminism, of course, the passion of anger has been seen as crucial. Nowhere is this clearer than in the work of Audre Lorde, specifically in her critiques of racism against Black women. As she writes so powerfully:

My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger ignoring it, feeding it, learning to use it, before it laid my visions to waste for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing… Anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification…. Anger is loaded with information and energy. (1984: 127)

Here, anger is constructed in different ways: as a response to the injustice of racism; as a vision of the future; as a translation of pain into knowledge; as being loaded with information and energy. Crucially, anger is not simply defined in relationship to a past, but as opening up the future. In other words, being against something does not end with “that which one is against” (it does not become “stuck”on the object of either the emotion or the critique, though that object remains sticky and compelling). Being against something is also being for something, but something that has yet to be articulated or is not yet. As Lorde shows us, anger is visionary and the fear of anger, or the transformation of anger into silence, is a turning away from the future (1984: 127). For Audre Lorde, anger involves the naming of various practices and experiences as racism, but it also involves imagining a different kind of world in its energy (Lorde 1984: 127). If anger pricks our skin, if it makes us shudder, sweat and tremble, then it might just shudder us into new ways of being. Anger might just enable us to inhabit a different kind of skin, even if that skin remains marked or scarred by that which we are against.

We do not all respond with anger, and to be angry is to assume that something is wrong. However, it is not necessarily the case that something is named or felt to be the cause of anger: there are moments of anger where it is unclear what one is angry about, and all these moments do not necessarily gather together to form a coherent response. Or as Carol Tauris puts it, “There is no one-to-one correspondence between feeling angry and knowing why” (1982: 18).  But feminism also involves a reading of the response of anger: it moves from anger into an interpretation of that which one is against, whereby associations or connections are made between the object of anger and broader patterns or structures. This is what allows an object of knowledge to be delineated. The object is not then the ground of feminism (it does not come first, as it were), but is an effect of a feminist response.  Anger is in this sense creative; it works to create a language with which to respond to that which one is against, whereby “the what” is renamed, and brought into the feminist world.

This process is dynamic – as can be seen by the different ways feminists have named that which they are against (patriarchy, sexual difference, gender relations or hierarchy, phallocentrism). Indeed, different feminisms construct the “object” of anger quite differently, in ways that are in tension, although they may share some similarities. So the attachment implicit in the response to anger is not simply about the creation of an object (and to create is not to create something out of nothing, but to produce a name out of a set of differential relations), as the object always fails to be secured. Not only have feminists created different names for that which they are against, but they have also recognised that what they are against does not have the contours of an object that is given; it is not a positive entity. This is implicit in the very argument that gender permeates all aspects of social life and that it is in this sense “worldly.” Anger hence moves us by moving us outwards; while it creates an object, it also is not directed simply against an object, but becomes a response to the world, as such. Feminist anger hence involves a reading of the world, a reading of how, for example, gender hierarchy permeates all aspects of sociality, is implicated in other forms of power relations, including race, class and sexuality, and is bound up with the very construction as well as regulation of bodies and spaces. Anger against objects or events, directed against this or that, moves feminism into a bigger critique of what is, as a critique that loses an object, and hence opens itself up to forms of possibility that cannot be simply located in what is. When feminism is no longer directed towards a critique of patriarchy, or secured by the categories of “women” or “gender” feminism is doing the most “moving” work. The loss of such an object is not the failure of feminist activism, but is indicative of its capacity to move, or to become a movement.


You are against what is; it is a movement.

Anger always comes up: how could it not when you are opposing a world that opposes your being? Anger came up again in The Promise of Happiness (2010) where I was interested in the figure of the angry woman of colour. I wanted to give her a hearing. Let’s hear from her again.


Of course, within feminism, some bodies more than others can be attributed as the cause of unhappiness. We can place the figure of the feminist killjoy alongside the figure of the angry woman of colour explored so well by writers such as Audre Lorde (1984a) and bell hooks (2000). The angry woman of colour be described as a kill joy; she may even kill feminist joy, for example, by pointing out forms of racism within feminist politics. She might not even have to make any such point to kill joy. You can be affectively alien because you are affected in the wrong way by the right things. Or you can be affectively alien because you affect others in the wrong way: your proximity gets in the way of other people’s enjoyment of the right things, functioning as unwanted reminder of histories that are disturbing, which disturb an atmosphere. Listen to the following description from bell hooks: “a group of white feminist activists who do not know one another may be present at a meeting to discuss feminist theory. They may feel bonded on the basis of shared womanhood, but the atmosphere will noticeably change when a woman of color enters the room. The white women will become tense, no longer relaxed, no longer celebratory” (2000: 56).

It is not just that feelings are “in tension,” but that the tension is located somewhere: in being felt by some bodies, it is attributed as caused by another body, who thus comes to be felt as apart from the group, as getting in the way of its organic enjoyment and solidarity. The body of color is attributed as the cause of becoming tense, which is also the loss of a shared atmosphere (or we could say sharing the experience of loss is how the atmosphere is shared). As a feminist of color you do not even have to say anything to cause tension. The mere proximity of some bodies involves an affective conversion. To get along you have to go along with things which might mean for some not even being able to enter the room.  We learn from this example how histories are condensed in the very intangibility of an atmosphere, or in the tangibility of the bodies that seem to get in the way. Perhaps atmospheres are shared if there is an agreement in where we locate the points of tension.

To speak out of anger as woman of color is then to confirm your position as the cause of tension; your anger is what threatens the social bond. As Audre Lorde describes: “When women of Color speak out of the anger that laces so many of our contacts with white women, we are often told that we are ‘creating a mood of helplessness,’ ‘preventing white women from getting past guilt,’ or ‘standing in the way of trusting communication and action’” (1984: 131).  The exposure of violence becomes the origin of violence. The woman of color must let go of her anger for the white woman to move on.

The figure of the angry woman of colour is also a fantasy figure that produces its own effects. Reasonable thoughtful arguments are dismissed as anger (which of course empties anger of its own reason), which makes you angry, such that your response becomes read as the confirmation of evidence that you are not only angry but also unreasonable!  To make this point in another way, the anger of feminists of color is attributed. So you might be angry about how racism and sexism diminish life choices for women of color. Your anger is a judgment that something is wrong. But then in being heard as angry, your speech is read as motivated by anger. Your anger is read as unattributed, as if you are against x because you are angry rather than being angry because you are against x. You become angry at the injustice of being heard as motivated by anger, which makes it harder to separate yourself from the object of your anger. You become entangled with what you are angry about because you are angry about how they have entangled you in your anger. In becoming angry about that entanglement, you confirm their commitment to your anger as the truth “behind” your speech, which is what blocks your anger, stops it from getting through. You are blocked by not getting through.


Blocked by not getting through.

Walls. They come up again.

Walls: how history becomes concrete.

Walls: how some can progress by blocking others, including those who aim to unblock the system.

How about this: what is unendurable is externalHow about this: capitalism generates an assumption as a ruling logic: that in being resentful or angry we have made something external internal.

I have been thinking about anger because I have been feeling angry. When we are too angry to write, we must write. We can write from our anger, about our anger, with our anger, through anger. I described in Willful Subjects (2014) how the figure of the willful subject becomes, rather like the killjoy, a container of violence: as if violence comes up because or when we speak up.  We have to spill out from our containers. Our words must spill. Bodies: too.

Of course our willfulness is diagnosed as moral weakness. Or course our anger is judged as passive and weak. Of course we are understood as being unreasonable when we refuse their reasons. Of course they call us mindless when they don’t like the content of our minds. Of course our protests are framed as riots. Of course when we oppose something we are being oppositional. Of course when we point out oppression we are being oppressive. Of course when we revolt against a violent system we are described as violent. Of course we will be judged as putting ourselves first when we don’t put them first. Of course we are assumed to be attached to our own injuries when we point out that injuries are present. Of course we become killjoys when we express unhappiness about how the happiness of a few rests on the unhappiness of the many.

Of course, of course, of course: this is the logic of the course.

This is the party. It is not the time for a party.

Seize the judgement; take it on; fight; hold on.

It is a movement. Watch us spill. Watch us roll.

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Becoming Unsympathetic

What does it mean to call upon another’s sympathy? What are we doing when we are being sympathetic?

Think of sympathy and we tend to think of a situation. Whether or not sympathy is called for might depend upon that situation. We might want someone to be sympathetic to our situation. A call for sympathy might be a call for recognition, a call to someone, so they can make sympathetic noises, the right kind of noises, those “hums” and the “ha’s” that we might hear as sympathetic. Becoming sympathetic might describe a pedagogy: learning how to respond well to another person’s situation as an attunement to how they feel, becoming “in tune” as acquiring an ability to say or do the right things; to know what are the right things to say or do. It might mean knowing when to be quiet or not, to hold or not, to leave or not, even to be helpful, or not. This sympathetic knowing might require a certain kind of intimacy with a person, a capacity to pick up what they asking of us in the flicker of a passing expression, as well a less intimate knowledge: knowingness about situations and what they demand of us. More than that: empathy, compassion and sympathy are modes of being that are about how we respond to a situation of being with someone whose situation is not one that we are in: this being with, but not in, requires that we take care, that we be careful. We might not in hard times have the time to ask the question of how to respond; the necessity of a response, means that sympathy can exercise its own grammar, becoming words that are sent out, that hover, as if they do not come from us, as if they have a life of their own.

Given the scene I have just pictured, one might assume that sympathy is something we need in some situations more than others, situations of sadness or loss, where the comfort of another might be a condition of bearability (I say “might be” as sometimes when one is sad being comforted can be unbearable.) Indeed the condolence card has routinized sympathy as a kind of habit of loss: a habitual response to loss that congeals into an object, the card itself, which can then stand in for sympathy, and even take its place. But of course sympathy does not only refer to a response to situation of sadness. We can question the routinisation of sympathy as a mode of responding to loss. Thinking of feminism as situation, we might challenge one of the primary narratives of sympathy as a gift: sympathy as what some feminists give to others who are suffering from a situation that we are not all in (for further discussion, see the first chapter of my book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004) on “the contingency of pain”).

Returning to the etymology of sympathy, we learn the sympathy derives from  syn- “together” and pathos “feeling.” Sympathy suggests to have a “fellow feeling,” but also to be “affected by like feelings,” such that one person’s feelings are in accordance with another’s. It is this relationship of feeling to accordance that intrigues me: not simply the feeling of accordance but the accordance of feeling. The history of the verb “to accord” is suggestive. The word drives from the Latin word “cordis” or “heart”: to accord is to be of one heart. Perhaps sympathy not simply as a feeling that is sent out, but as a demand that you return feeling with like feeling: that you agree with your heart. We can under how sympathy which seems as a feeling to be about extension (when you are sympathetic to others you extend your feelings to others) can also be about restriction. You might be sympathetic to the extent that you can be in accordance with others.

Maybe you are more kind to those you feel are more of your kind.

One time someone told me that she felt “especially sad” for the honeymoon couples who lost their lives in the South Asian Tsunami in 2004. She did not mean to be unkind to those she did not mention. She did not mean to say that some losses mattered more; rather she just meant to say that she could relate to some losses more because she could relate to some lives more: she could imagine going there, on her honeymoon, with that promise of happiness. Relating to the suffering of others creates a category of “less relatable” others. Sympathy is involved in the creation of the “less relatable,” as well as the “relatable.” Or, to borrow Judith Butler’s (2004) terms, sympathy can create a distinction between more and less grievable lives.

Another time I read a piece of writing that was about a survivor of rape speaking of what she needed to survive her experience. She wrote of the importance of having women only spaces: how spaces for women who have survived that experience might be necessary to surviving that experience. I have much sympathy with this sentiment. But then she created a category of “women” that was about women she could relate to defined not in terms of women who had shared this experience of sexual violence, but women who were not trans women, whereby this “not” was defined in terms of biology (1).  The restriction of relatability becomes a restriction of sympathy. But to question the restriction of relatability would be to become unsympathetic, unkind.

Is this restriction of sympathy to kind unkind? Do we need to give a feminist history to the unkind, or to write an unkind history? I will return to these questions.

Sympathy can be given as a mode of restriction. This was a central argument in my book, The Promise of Happiness (2010), even though I did not put the argument in quite these terms. When we think of sympathy, as I have noted, we tend to think of suffering. But we can be sympathetically happy: we can be happy when others are happy. I have called this “conditional happiness”: when we make our happiness conditional on the happiness of others. Sometimes the conditionality of happiness can be a crisis: we might be made happy by another’s happiness but not made happy by what makes another happy.

Perhaps we can think of sympathy too as conditional. To rephrase an earlier point: the conditions under which feelings are shared might be the conditions under which sharing is restricted. In his approach to moral sentiments, Adam Smith describes: “it gives us the spleen… to see another too happy, or too much elevated, as we call it, with any little piece of good fortune. We are disobliged even with his joy; and, because we cannot go along with it, call it levity and folly” ([1759]2000: 13, emphasis added). For Smith, to be affected sympathetically would be dependent on whether the other person’s emotions appear “suitable to their objects” (14).

I want to think about how the conditions of sympathy – whereby one’s sympathy is given on condition that another person’s emotions are deemed appropriate – are social conditions. We have a revealing moment in the film The Waitress (2007, directed by Adrienne Shelley). Jenna, an unhappily married woman, arrives at a doctor’s surgery and says she is pregnant. The doctor responds sympathetically by offering her his congratulations. His sympathy is not in response to how she does feel (miserable) but rather how she should feel (happy). She is alienated by his sympathy, even though that sympathy is in accordance with an everyday judgment (that pregnancy for married women is a happy event). The waitress is alienated by virtue of her response to being pregnant, such that to be in sympathy with her response of alienation (to offer your condolence) would be to share her alienation: “poor you stuck with him.”

A feminist utterance can be in sympathy with an alienation from happiness. Affect aliens sympathise with alien affects.

We can be alienated by sympathy when sympathy is given in accordance with an expectation of how we feel rather than what we feel. When others expect sympathy from you, they might also be expecting your feelings to be in accordance with theirs. No wonder that in living a feminist life we tend to become unsympathetic. Say someone is getting married. You do want them to be happy. But weddings don’t make you happy: you do not believe in them. But if you you don’t go along and participate in this happy occasion, you would be the one judged as being selfish, as putting your own beliefs before the happiness of others. How could you! Note that people often appeal for you to be happy for them (and to do something with them) when they know are not happy about something. This requirement to suspend your beliefs in order to preserve the happiness of others is an everyday requirement. We learn thus: so much happiness is in accordance with a set of beliefs.

In exploring in The Promise of Happiness (2010) how and when conditional happiness becomes a crisis I offered a reading of Mrs Dalloway and also the film The Hours (based on Michael’s Cunningham’s novel (2002, dir. Stephen Daldry). I have shared the reading of the former on my blog before. I now want to return to my reading of The Hours. The film places three generations of women alongside each other, and follows their life on a single day: a day in the life of Virginia Woolf, of Laura Brown, an unhappy housewife living in the 1950s as she bakes a cake and reads Mrs. Dalloway, and of Clarissa Vaughan who is organizing a party like Mrs. Dalloway, for her ex-lover and friend Richard, who is dying of Aids.

In my reading I focused on Laura Brown our unhappy 1950s housewife. She is reading Mrs. Dalloway.  She explains to a friend  why she relates to Mrs Dalloway, “because she is confident everyone thinks she is fine. But she isn’t.” To be confident is to convince the world of a happiness that does exist; it is to pass as happy with what does exist. It is to say: like you, I am not fine, like you, my life is about maintaining the appearance of being fine, an appearance which is also a disappearance.

To become attuned to unhappiness can be to become attuned to what others do not hear. Feelings of sadness can slip, and stick; they can get all over the place. Laura tries to bake a cake.  She cracks an egg. To bake a cake ought to be a labour of love. Instead, the film reveals a sense of oppression that lingers in the very act of breaking the eggs. Objects that promise happiness can become terrifying: they can haunt you in their emptiness. Not only do such objects not cause your happiness, but they may remind you of your failure to be made happy; they embody a feeling of disappointment. The bowl in which you crack the eggs waits for you. You can feel the pressure of its wait.  The empty bowl feels like an accusation.  Feminist archives are full of scenes of domesticity, in which domestic objects, happy objects, become alien, even menacing.

In one very poignant scene in The Hours, when Laura’s family gathers around the table, having their own party with the cake she has finally baked, the promise of happiness is evoked. Her husband is telling their child the story of how they met. He says: “I used to think about bringing her to this house. To a life, pretty much like this. And it was the thought of the happiness, the thought of this woman, the thought of this life, that’s what kept me going. I had an idea about our happiness.” As he speaks, tears well in Laura’s face. Her sadness is with his idea of happiness. Laura explains to Clarissa at the end of the film how she came to leave her husband and child: “It would be wonderful to say that you regretted it; it would be easy. But what does it mean. What does it mean to regret when you had no choice. It is what you can bear. There it is. No one is going to forgive me. It was death. I choose life.” A life premised on “an idea about our happiness,” for Laura, would be unbearable. Such happiness would be death. She does not leave this life for happiness. She leaves this happiness for life.

For Laura, to leave happiness is to leave everything behind her; it is to cause unhappiness for those who are left behind, an unhappiness which is inherited by her child, who we learn by the end of the film, is Richard. And it is Clarissa who in The Hours cares for Richard and attends to his unhappiness who has to pick up the pieces of the happiness that Laura has shattered. Clarissa: who ends up (like Mrs Dalloway), organizing a party for her friend, worrying (like Mrs Dalloway) that her parties are trivial. Clarissa (like Mrs Dalloway) tries desperately not to be sad; to use the happy occasion of the party, its celebration of Richard’s award as a writer, to stop herself thinking about the sadness of his imminent death; to avoid being overwhelmed by grief.

The film might in its dramatization of the unhappiness caused by Laura, the woman who cannot bear the idea of happiness, withdraw its sympathy from her plight. I think it does.  Perhaps we can learn from this withdrawal of sympathy. If the one who leaves happiness must cause unhappiness to those who they leave, then they must refuse to be sympathetic: they must not return feeling with like feeling (happiness with happiness, love with love) if they are to escape from the very obligation to return.  In other words, to give up happiness is to become unsympathetic. That Laura’s act is only narratable as unkind, violent as well as mean, as the cause of suffering that cannot be repaired, shows us just how hard it can be to give up on the idea of happiness because that idea is also bound up with the impulse to care for the happiness of others.  There are many, I think we know this, there are many who stay in situations of unhappiness out of fear of causing unhappiness, out of fear of losing sympathy, of becoming unsympathetic.

It is hard to leave happiness for life. There is always a gap between becoming conscious of what is lost by living according to an idea of happiness and being able to leave happiness for life, a gap where things happen, where lives are lived and lives are lost. Not only is there sadness in recognising gender as the loss of possibility but there is also the sadness of realizing that recognising such loss does not necessarily make things possible. After all Clarissa in The Hours spends her time, as she did in Mrs Dalloway, caring for the happiness of Richard: it is her relationship with Sally that suffers, which does not have her attention. In the end it is Clarissa’s daughter who is sympathetic toward Laura. We learn from this inter-generational sympathy: perhaps its takes more than one generation to reproduce a feminist inheritance, where we can acquire sympathy (a sympathy for affect aliens as an alien sympathy) toward those whose acts are publicly remembered without sympathy, as causing unhappiness to others.

A killjoy too: she has become unsympathetic. She is deemed as compromising the happiness of others. She is deemed as stealing their happiness because she is unhappy.

She, too.

Me, too.

We, too.

The angry woman of colour: she too comes up as unkind, as mean, as unsympathetic. As always, Audre Lorde’s words are my teachers. Lorde describes: “When women of Color speak out of the anger that laces so many of our contacts with white women, we are often told that we are ‘creating a mood of helplessness,’ ‘preventing white women from getting past guilt,’ or ‘standing in the way of trusting communication and action’” (1984: 131).  These quoted utterances are from letters that Lorde has received from white women. They share a thread. When women of colour speak of racism, we are stopping something, we are getting in the way of the promise of reconciliation, the promise that we can get on, move on, get along. We shatter the possibility of feminist community: how mean. An unkind history, a history of how feminism is assumed to belong to some kinds of women; not others.

We have to shatter some possibilities. Happiness, even.  Break a thread, even.

The freedom to be happy can become: the freedom to avoid proximity to whatever compromises your happiness. Caring for happiness can become: the freedom not to care about unhappiness. Perhaps we need to turn away from any happiness that is premised on turning away from suffering. To be touched by this suffering would not be premised on feeling the other’s suffering. The sympathy of fellow feeling, which returns feeling with like feeling, which is kind to kind, is a way of touching that touches little, almost nothing. To walk away from the paths of happiness would be a refusal of indifference, a willingness to stay proximate to the unhappiness of others, however we are affected.

(1) There are many “biologies,” or many uses of biology.  When biology is used to stabilise a distinction between kinds, biology becomes mastery: a science of kinds.


Ahmed, Sara (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.

——————— (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press.

Butler, Judith (2004). Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence,  London: Verso.

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

Crossing Press.

Smith, Adam [1759] (2000). The Theory of Moral Sentiments New York: Prometheus Books.

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