Resignation is a Feminist Issue

To live a feminist life is to be a feminist at work. Until I resigned, my own working life had been based in universities: I was a student for around 10 years and I have been an academic for over 20 years. So much of what know is shaped by where I have been located. I carry the university with me; I value the work of the university because I value knowledge and education. I value what it can do: to learn and to engage with others who are learning.  Universities are also institutions that are structured by power relations all the way down. We create feminist programmes and centres because universities, however much they exercise the language of equality and diversity, often do not express those commitments other than in policy.  So yes: most of us with feminist commitments end up working for organisations that do not have these commitments, even when they might appear to have them.  After all we often acquire our commitments to do something because of what is not being done.  To work as a feminist means trying to transform the organisations that employ us – or house us. This rather obvious fact has some telling consequences.  When we try to shake the walls of the house, we are also shaking the foundations of our own existence.

But what if we do this work and the walls stay up? What if we do this work and the same things keep coming up? What if our own work of exposing a problem is used as evidence there is no problem? Then you have to ask yourself: can I keep working here? What if staying employed by an institution means you have to agree to remain silent about what might damage its reputation?

By saying resignation is a feminist issue I am not saying to resign is an inherently feminist act even when you resign in protest because of the failure to deal with the problem sexual harassment. I am saying: to be a feminist at work means holding in suspense the question of where to do our work. The work you do must be what you question. Sometimes, leaving can be staying, with feminism. Sometimes. And not for all feminists: other feminists in the same situation might stay because they cannot afford to leave, or because they have not lost the will to keep chipping away at those walls.

So it is time to tell the story. This is my story: of how I came to resign; how I came to the decision not just to leave my post, but the university system.

This is my story.

It is personal.

The personal is institutional.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, Speaking out, I first learned of the problem of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in June of 2013 from a colleague who had been told by a student who had been harassed. I did not know what to do, so I asked a colleague who told me who to approach in senior management. I am interested, in hindsight, that I was unsure about what to do. It should be the norm that we know what to do. I then learnt from this manager that an enquiry was being conducted about sexual harassment. I was then invited by another academic to a meeting with students in response to the failure of this enquiry. That meeting took place in November 2013. Without any question, what I learnt about what had been going on changed my relation to my work environment for ever. The university would not be the same for me.

I would not have it any other way.

Sometimes you need to know what makes it hard to stay.

As a result of this meeting, which was followed by many other meetings, a new enquiry took place; followed by two more in relation to two other staff members. In two of these three cases, the members of staff left.

Why did what I learnt make the university a place I could no longer inhabit?  I knew sexual harassment was a real problem. There had been serious cases I knew about at both my former institutions in the UK – Cardiff and Lancaster. The reason this was different: I began to realise how the system was working. I began to realise that the system was working.

I began to realise too my own complicity with that system. I had previously known that the centre in which much of the harassment was happening was not a centre with which I could be connected: I found their whole ethos and culture to be incredibly sexist. So I had stopped going to their events, and had my own boycott policy in place: if I was asked to supervise any of their incoming students, or to be involved in a panel or a viva, I would say no, on principle. I thought my principle was a feminist protest. I was wrong. In fact it meant I had taken myself out from the situations where I might have witnessed the harassment and abuse firsthand. I had taken myself away from the students who could have turned to me for support. If it had not been for setting up our Centre for Feminist Research, and being asked to attend that meeting, I could have stayed knowing enough to know there was a problem but not knowing about the problem. I will return to this question of “exiting situations” in due course. We often need to ask ourselves how we didn’t know something once we come to know something.

What I came to realise was: this was not an issue of an individual person whose removal would remove the problem. Indeed the assumption that to remove a person is to remove a problem is often how the problem remains.  This was an issue of institutional culture, which had become built around (or to enable) abuse and harassment. When we talk about sexual harassment as institutional culture we can be referring to how female students are addressed in seminars and social spaces; the use of sexist language within teaching (one academic would keep using the example of woman’s bodies or referred such-and-such philosopher’s “ugly wife”); the use of sexist and racist jokes as a form of bonding especially within social spaces; as well as inappropriate touching. It can involve groping and sexual advances that are unwelcome: that is part of it but the not the start of it. It can involve a highly “intimate” and personal way of inhabiting spaces with students; it can involve the sexualising of college space (for example through the use of pornography in offices); and it can involve putting pressure on students to have sexual relationships (often through the use of drugs and alcohol).  For all of this to be going on at the same time, we are also talking about harrassment as recruitment:  there are penalties for noncooperation (withdrawal of supervision or time) as well as rewards for cooperation (the same people engaging in this behavior are in control of scholarships, for example).

We have evidence that this kind of conduct, conduct as culture, had been in place since the late 1990s. The head of the centre acknowledged to a colleague of mine they had a problem with sexual harassment in 2003. I would argue that knowing of the problem whilst the problem is ongoing is creating and participating in the problem. So this abuse and harassment was going on, whilst people knew about it, for at least a decade, probably longer. It was going on because academic staff had been given permission to conduct themselves in this way. It had been going on despite many students leaving. It had been going on because some of the mechanisms that might have stopped or brought it to the surface had been suspended by the staff themselves. Indeed, staff seemed to use their identity as political radicals to defy rules or conventions. The very regulations that might have helped to protect students were identified by academic staff with management who were then identified as against academic staff (because of their radicalism).

This is how: any complaint became identified in advance as a betrayal of a cause.

Sexual harassment became: part of a cause.

Trying to address this history, trying not to reproduce this history: another cause.

Over this last three years it has been a lot of work not to get very far. And that is also part of the problem: something keeps happening because it is made so difficult to stop it from happening. This is not to say we didn’t anywhere. When I came to understand how the system worked, I began to work with students (and some staff) on how to reopen enquiries that would enable them to collect the evidence, which was there to collect but very difficult to provide (because very system that many students wanted to complain about was the same system that made it almost impossible to complain).

We got somewhere, although the last enquiry did not seem to be conducted with the same conviction and purpose, and I began to sense a withdrawal of institutional will. But it was what followed the enquiries that led me to giving up my own institutional will. Because despite how much the evidence showed that the problem was one of culture and  complicity, there was no public discussion held about what had been happening and what we could learn from it. There was no chance to reflect together as academics on how to develop professional norms that would better protect students from abuse and harassment and misconduct. There were changes made to policies and complaints procedures. But these policy changes were made without talking to academic staff: I only knew about them because of my own involvement.

You can change policies without changing anything. You can change policies in order not to change anything.

Policies do matter but not because changing policies automatically changes the situation. In fact, it was an issue of policy that was one of the most wearing of the issues we dealt with. In the Centre for Feminist Research’s submission to the UK taskforce set up to address violence against women within Higher Education we refer to a paragraph, which was in Goldsmiths’ conflict of interest policy. This paragraph is not unique to Goldsmiths (it is shared by a number of universities). I read this paragraph just after my first meeting with the students:

The College values good professional relationships between staff and students. These relationships are heavily reliant upon mutual trust and confidence, and can be jeopardised when a member of staff enters a sexual/romantic liaison with a student. At the extreme, these liaisons can jeopardise professional relationships and can result in an abuse of power. Problems can also occur when a consensual relationship later becomes non-consensual or a case of harassment. The College does not wish to prevent, or even necessarily be aware of, liaisons between staff and students and it relies upon the integrity of both parties to ensure that abuses of power do not occur.

The policy first offers what I would call fatalism as justification: relationships or “laisons” between staff and students will happen so we will let them happen. Note here how consensual relationships and harassment are separated clearly (and with confidence). We should all know that when there is a power relation, consent becomes an unstable category (those with more power can make not consenting more difficult). Note also the emphasis on personal ethics (confidence and trust), and the assumption of good faith (this is an institutional version of bad faith). The last sentence is the key one: the college does not want to prevent such relationships or even be aware of them. This is what I would call an institutional blind eye, the institution has declared it will look the other way. This blind eye, this act of turning away, is here given official sanction: and it is what gives permission for abuse and harassment to happen. With integrity: no less.

Not knowing: here it is not a matter of chance. If you decide not to know not knowing is willed and it is work.

One colleague said to me recently that he thinks that the reason there has been a reluctance to address this issue more publicly is because of the desire to maintain a distinction between “consensual relationships” between staff and students and abuses of power. Why? Because many academics are in relationships with former students.

We have no room for the past tense on this specific matter. We need to create and share norms of professional conduct now to protect students now. We need to stop romanticising “consensual relationships” between staff and students. To be a lecturer comes with responsibilities. This is one of them: to teach. Having relationships with students not only compromises students (and their learning experience) but the whole class: everyone is affected by it. It should not happen.

So it was very important to change that policy. That it was done, however, in silence replicated the problem that was in the policy: allowing us not to know what had gone on. Changing the policy that turned a blind eye involved turning a blind eye. And although the policy was changed it is worth noting that paragraph stayed online for over a year after we first complained about it (until after the SHHE conference at the end of 2015, to be precise, which I refer to below, when the diversity and equality officer took up the cause to take it down). We had so many communications with so many about getting the paragrah amended or removed: it was exhausting.

The effort over a paragraph embodies the wider effort: so much work not to get very far.

So much work not to get very far.

We did try to get conversations going. Even the conference organised by Anna Bull, Tiffany Page and Leila Whitley on Sexual Harassment in Higher Education (SHHE) that took place in December 2015 ended up feeling like we are talking amongst ourselves. This is not to say the conference was not important: it most certainly was. But you sensed that the people who were not in the room where the ones who needed to be there. The Centre for Feminist Research hosted a panel discussion of Sexism in March 2016: again it did rather feel like we talking to ourselves. Very few academic members of staff were in attendance. The discussion was still important to have. And of course, people are busy. But one member of staff told me they hadn’t come “because it would be too depressing.” And I thought about that: we are not having the conversations because they would get in the way of our happiness. If our happiness depends on turning away from violence, our happiness is violence.

The absence of any discussion of the problem was a reenactment of the problem: that we do not want to know about it is how it keeps being done. At our conference on Sexism, it became clear that this problem was being reproduced. It turned out that there had been more complaints that year from students who had no idea of this previous history (how could they; they had not been told about it; it had been erased). These were not the same  complaints as made before although some similar issues were coming up. But their complaints had been dismissed – or been responded to in a superficial manner – within the centre in which they were studying. And students then said they do not want to proceed with formal complaints  until after they had their final marks. So again: formal complaint procedures don’t get at this problem. The problem is that those with power over others (which is what teachers have – the power to mark, to assess, to value) end up not being questioned because of the power they have over others. This is actually a much bigger problem than sexual harassment or perhaps we should say: sexual harassment is part of a bigger problem. It is about: how academics exercise power often by concealing that power. One of the mantras that kept being used in relation to university students, “but they are adults,” as if being of age means they cannot be abused by those with power. What we seem to be lacking here: an understanding of how power works, which is of course how power works. Power works by removing an understanding of how power works.

Watching histories be reproduced despite all our efforts was one of the hardest experiences of my academic career – well one of the hardest experiences of my life. I just found it shocking. And to complete the story: I originally asked for unpaid leave because doing this work can be demoralising as well as exhausting. But in the course of applying for unpaid leave (and the difficulty of making arrangements in my absence), I felt a snap: I call it feminist snap. My relationship with the institution was too broken. I needed a real break: I had reached the end of the line.

That snap might sound quite violent, dramatic even. Resigning in feminist protest – and making public that you are resigning in feminist protest – does get attention. It can be a sharp sound; it can sound like a sudden break.  In my case, that break was supported by many of my colleagues; but not by all. One colleague describes my action as “rash,” a word used to imply an action that is too quick as well as careless. Snapping is often a matter of timing. A snap can feel like a moment. But snap is a moment with a history: a history can be the accumulated effect of what you have come up against.  And just think: you have to do more, the more you do not get through. You have had hundreds of meetings, with students, with academics, with administrators. You have written blogs about the problem of sexual harassment and the silence that surrounds it. And still there is silence. To resign is a tipping point, a gesture that becomes necessary because of what the previous actions did not accomplish. The actions that did not accomplish anything are not noticed by those who are not involved in the effort. So the action that spills a history, so that it falls out, so there is a fall out, is deemed rash.

Well maybe then: I am willing to be rash.

But of course that my resignation has been supported by many of my colleagues is important. There are now many more people who know something more about what has been happening and who want to be part of a meaningful process of working through the legacy of this history, which is not over, and of changing practices as well as policies. The senior management is now back in dialogue with the students (some of whom are now early career academics) whose activism has been so crucial each difficult and painful step of the way. Maybe we can be cynical: maybe some of these developments only happened because reputation was at risk. I don’t think we can afford to be cynical. We need to find the resources to let us do what we need to do to make a difference; however they come about.


Resigning worked; it broke a seal.

Maybe it is sad it took that. But I am glad I did that.

Of course in leaving I am leaving students that otherwise I would have taught. How is this different to what I did before, when I exited the spaces that would have led me to know sooner what I knew later?  I am leaving, this time, because of what I know. And I need to leave because of what and who stayed.

And I also know: there are many ways to be a feminist teacher. Being employed by a university is one way. I will be exploring others.

Resigning was speaking out. It was saying: this is serious enough that I have had enough.

Resigning was also a feminist hearing. What do I mean by this? Feminist ears prick up at this point. A feminist ear picks up on what is being said, sounds of no, the complaints about violence, the refusals to laugh at sexist jokes; the refusals to comply with unreasonable demands. To acquire a feminist ear is to hear those sounds as speech.  But it is not just that feminist ears can hear beyond the silence that functions as a wall. Once it is heard that you are willing to hear, more people will speak to you. While a snap might seem to make the tongue the organ of feminist rebellion, snap is all about ears. A feminist ear can provide a release of a pressure valve. A feminist ear can be how you hear what is not being heard.

Silence: when you can hear what has not been said.

Because: those who experience harassment often have nowhere to go. A complaints procedure does not help. And when they do speak they are heard as complaining. As I noted in an earlier post, the word complaint derives from plague, in a vulgar sense, to strike at the breast. A complaint: sick speech. Maybe she is heard as speaking from ill-will: not only as being ill, but as spreading infection, as making the whole body ill. If diversity is damage limitation, then damage limitation takes the form of controlling speech, of trying to stop those who speak about violence from speaking in places where they can be heard. To contain damage is to contain those who have been damaged. When she is heard as complaining she is not heard. So those who are willing to hear will end up hearing more and more; you are providing a place to go. Once I began working with students, more and more students got in touch with me. Some of these students did not testify in the enquiries: they just needed a hearing. And so I heard more and more stories of harassment and abuse. This is not a biography of my institution: I suspect at any university if you declare you are prepared to listen to students about their experiences of harassment, you will find more and more students come to find you. This fact: reflects how few places students have to go.

When I resigned, this process that had already happened within my own college, was extended. Resignation offers a feminist hearing because a public action has a wider reach. So many people got in touch with me after I spoke out about sexual harassment with their own stories of harassment and abuse in universities; with their own battles. Telling the story is part of the feminist battle. A feminist ear can be what we are for. The more wearing it is, the more we need to hear.

Our work has to be about giving students more places to go. Right now I feel I can be a better part of this effort from working outside the university system. Otherwise for me: working would be wearing down.

And we can witness that effort acquire momentum. Even a few months ago, when I resigned, I never expected that a story about sexual harassment in universities would be on the front pages of The Guardian, as it was today. That story: it became possible because of the efforts of many including students and former students who still cannot be named.  I thank all of you. I witness the formation of a new group, The 1752 Group that will act as a national task-force to target staff-to-student misconduct and harassment, with a sense of optimism.

We have to embody the changes we are aiming for.

Because there is work to do.

Feminist work.

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No matter how much evidence you have of racism and sexism, no matter how many documents, communications, encounters, no matter how much research you can refer to, or words you can defer to, words that might carry a history as an insult, what you have is deemed as insufficient. The more you have to show the more eyes seem to roll.  My proposition is simple: that the evidence we have of racism and sexism is deemed insufficient because of racism and sexism. Indeed racism and sexism work by disregarding evidence or by rendering evidence unreliable or suspicious – often by rendering those who have direct experience of racism and sexism unreliable and suspicious. This disregarding – which is at once a form of regarding – has a central role in maintaining an order of things. Simply put: that evidence of something is deemed insufficient is a mechanism for reproducing something.

The removal of evidence of something is evidence of something.

And so: our evidence is often evidence of the removal of evidence.

The word “evidence” and “evident” share the same root (Latin: evidens). When we say something is evident, we imply that it is perceptible, clear, obvious or apparent. Something is evident when it can be seen or touched. The word “evidence” carries much stronger implications (and it is the relation between the stronger implications and the weaker ones that needs to capture our interest).  If evident is “to” then evidence tends to be “of.” When we have evidence of something, we have something that can support our claims. Evidence then is something from which inferences can be drawn. I might have some evidence that can support my argument: I might have statistics that indicate the trend that I am claiming is a trend is a trend. Evidence can have the status of exteriority to something (or at least alienability) even when it is indicative of something (for example the way crumbs might be evidence of a late night snack). Evidence: how we can be caught by leaving a trace of an action.  If you are doing something you should not be doing, you might need to be careful not to leave any evidence.

It is important to think of how evidence comes up in a legal sense, to evoke crime, guilt, and punishment. To give evidence (in a court of law) is to provide testimony. Evidence here might be first-hand: you can give evidence because you have direct experience of something. The one who provides evidence might be a witness to a crime. Evidence does carry the weaker implication: you can provide evidence of something because of what was made evident to you. In contrast other evidence might be hear-say: when someone can speak of something because they have been told by somebody else about that something. The implication here is that first-hand testimony is stronger or more direct. She has the evidence because of what she experienced herself. Of course, even first-hand testimony can be identified as weak. This might be doubts about whether someone is telling the truth, or doubts about someone’s capacity to represent accurately what went on. Even something self-evident (usually this phrase is intended to signal the lack of doubt about something) can be deemed not evidence if the self to whom something is self-evident is suspect. Doubts about evidence become doubts about persons who are providing evidence. If she is not credible, it is not credible.  And we say evidence is “just anecdotal” to imply a weakness in how a case is made: a series of first hand impressions might be distinguishable from the evidence generated by systematic research or provided by an expert who is called upon by virtue of their expertise (how expertise becomes a virtue is one way of telling the story of an institution).

Just this short and simple discussion of evidence introduces us to much complexity. In particular, it allows us to register how evidence is often understood as something that relates to objects (to have evidence is to have evidence of something) but also to subjects (someone has evidence of something). Evidence can also be a trace of where someone or something has been. However even a trace can be disputed, even crumbs can be debated: how did they get there? Who left them there? Even: are they crumbs? Evidence has to be spoken of: the crumbs do not speak for themselves. Evidence in this sense becomes a trace of a history that involves how different elements combine to create an event, as well as an interpretation of that combination. The confusion that follows these different registers matters.

I began thinking about evidence in part as a result of doing what I have been calling diversity work in the first sense: the work we do when we try and transform institutions. Working on diversity work as well as working as a diversity worker has helped me to think about how evidence matters. I am going to share one quote from a diversity practitioner that I have shared before (in On Being Included and on this blog), and that I discuss in detail in the middle part of Living a Feminist Life, which returns to, and further develops, the accounts I have offered of diversity work thus far. In this statement, a diversity worker is describing her attempt to change the policy on how many members of appointment panels need to have had diversity training:

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

This is a rather extraordinary description of the stalling mechanisms those of us who work in organisations are familiar with. We learn: you can adopt a new policy without changing anything. We learn: there are different ways you can stop something from happening. If one of these stalling mechanisms does not work, if something is not stalled, another stalling mechanism comes into operation. But what you also learn, which is what I want to explore here, is the status of evidence. Because what is striking is that the diversity practitioner is the one who has evidence; and that she has evidence is because she has, or seems to have, institutional backing. She has evidence the policy has been changed because the policy has been changed. We can hesitate here about the status of evidence in relation to policies. You change policy by providing evidence that you have changed policy. Evidence seems to come before something: minutes record a decision insofar as a decision has been made. And yet evidence is what is required after something. Indeed that is what we mean by a paper trail: we have to leave evidence behind us of a decision that has been made for the decision to have been made. The timing of evidence becomes more complicated than I have thus far implied: evidence is not here simply something past (having evidence of something that has already happened) but is generated in the present to enable a different future (the adoption of a new policy requires evidence before that policy becomes policy).

To have evidence of a policy is not sufficient for the policy to be enacted.  In this example the head of human resources removed the decision from the minutes: you can see here how the removal of evidence of something is an attempt to modify an arrangement. However what is being modified is the record of a modification. We learn how stasis can involve work: to keep an old arrangement you remove traces of the policy having been changed.  The decision was however put back in the minutes. This put back was a result of yet more diversity work: noticing the removal of evidence is evidence of labour. But then: when the practitioner tells her colleagues in meetings that the policy has changed, they look at her “like she is saying something really stupid.” She might as well not have any evidence because as far as they are concerned the policy has not been changed.

The story of a diversity policy that does not do anything is a tantalizingly tangible example of what goes on so often. But even if the story makes something tangible (and that it is so is a result of the labour and testimony of a diversity worker – think of how many tales like this are not told), it shows us how some things are reproduced by remaining intangible. This remaining is “stubborn,” a stubbornness that is not dependent upon an individual (although it can involve individuals) but an effect of how things combine. She has evidence; she can point to it; but it is as if she has nothing to show. Diversity work: you learn that intangibility is quite a phenomenon. Intangibility can be the product of institutional resistance. And that is a philosophical as well as political point because it teaches us that what is not evident to the senses is not simply about the status of an object. The object here is not missing or even withdrawn. The object is right there. And it is there because the right procedures have been followed to make it there. An object that has been brought into existence does not appear. Something is not perceived despite being available or near to hand: you can not notice what is right in front of you without having to make any effort to turn away.

Paper can disappear because the content of the decision that is recorded on that paper is not in agreement with what has “really” been decided, a decision that takes the form of a momentum; a direction that does not need to made into a directive because it is shared. That a policy can be agreed without being followed teaches us that a policy and a direction are not the same thing. Perhaps changing policies is a way of sustaining a direction, because those appointed to do equality and diversity (and appointments are often made to comply with the law) end up spending their time working on policies that do not do anything. As one practitioner I spoke to once said: “you end up doing the document rather than doing the doing.”

Doing the document.

Not doing the doing.

You can see why diversity workers often talk about walls when they talk about their work. Diversity work is a “banging your head against a brick wall job.” As I commented in an earlier post, what makes an institutional wall even harder is that it is not a concrete or actual wall. If there was a wall there, we could point to it. The wall might then provide evidence of itself: a wall as self-evident. Although, to qualify this (as optimism) we have also learnt something is not always perceived even when it is tangible. What makes an institutional wall harder is that unless you come up against it (because of who you are, or what you are trying to do), this wall does not appear. The walls that diversity workers speak about are assumed as phantom walls: in your head not in the world. Racism and sexism are walls in this sense: in the world but assumed as in our heads not in the world.

We have to live with that assumption.

In the world.

What is a phantom for some for others is real.

What is hardest for some does not appear to others.

And so: a policy disappears despite there being a paper trail, despite the evidence, or even because of the evidence.  People disappear too, because of what they make evident, of what they try to bring into view.  There are many ways in which you can end up disappearing. The story I have shared with you is one story of disappearance. And it is not just a policy that disappears in the story.  A diversity worker: she ends up exhausted because despite all her efforts the same thing is still happening. Sometimes you stop because it is too hard to get through. So she might leave, or turn her energy toward something else: a new policy, a new document, a new job.  And: this practitioner left her post soon after I interviewed her, for another post in another university.

What happens to a policy can happen to a person.

People disappear too: because of what they try to make evident, what they try to bring into view.

What is evident, I implied at the start, is often a weaker sense: something is evident to someone. What is evident: a matter of perception. We are now learning: perception matters. The removal of evidence is an institutional process that renders somethings not evident to those who inhabit that institution. It is as if: nothing is there.  No policy, no paper.  Maybe a person appears, but you look at her blankly. What is she waving around! What is she going on about!

The wall that you come up against, that blocks a progression (of a policy or a person), is not encountered by those who do not come up against it.

There; nothing there.

No wonder:

There becomes despair.

When we are talking about sexism and racism we are talking about what is there and not there, where “thereness” depends on how a body encounters a world. In an earlier post I talked about the importance of giving problems their names. I drew on Marilyn Frye’s work on sexism. Frye observes: “like most women coming to a feminist perception of themselves and the world, I was seeing sexism everywhere and trying to make it perceptible to others” (1983: 17). She suggests that making sexism “perceptible to others” becomes a project because many “would not see that what I declared to be sexist was sexist.”  When you describe something as sexist, you are often accused of projecting something (even projecting yourself) onto a situation. You might say, hey, that moment when the man standing next to me is assumed to the lecturer and I am not, that’s sexism. And someone else might say, “no it isn’t, take it easy, lighten up,” as if to say: it is just a coincidence; if you’d arrived at a different moment, things would have fallen differently. Sexism is often denied, because it is seen as a fault of perception; something is sexist because you perceive it that way: you perceive wrongly when you perceive a wrong. Making a feminist case thus requires we can show how sexism is a set of attitudes that are institutionalized, a pattern that is established through use, such that it can be reproduced almost independently of individual will (although hands often appear when things go astray).

And of course: sometimes even the words “sexism” and “racism” allow us to make something evident to ourselves. In Sister Outsider Audre Lorde describes the words racism and sexism as “grown up words” (1984: 152). This means that: we encounter racism and sexism before we have the words that allow us to make sense of what we encounter. Words can then allow us to get closer to our experiences; words can allow us to comprehend what we experience after the event. Sexism and racism: if they are problems we have given names, the names tend to lag behind the problems. Having names for problems can make a difference. Maybe before, you could not quite put your finger on it. With these words as tools, we revisit our own histories; we hammer away at the past.

Feminist and anti-racist consciousness involves not just finding the words, but through the words, how they point, realizing how violence is directed: violence is directed toward some bodies more than others.  To give a problem a name can change not only how we register an event but whether we register an event. Perhaps not having names is a way of turning away from a difficulty that persists whether or not we turn away. Not naming a problem in the hope that it will “go away,” often means the problem just remains unnamed.  At the same time, giving the problem a name does not make the problem go away. To give the problem a name can be experienced as magnifying the problem; allowing something to acquire a social and physical density by gathering up what otherwise remain scattered experiences into a tangible thing. Making sexism and racism tangible is also a way of making them appear outside of oneself something that can be spoken of and addressed by and with others. It can be a relief to have something to point to, or a word to allow us to point to something that otherwise can make you feel alone or lost.  We have different tactics for dealing with sexism and racism; and one problem is that some of these tactics can be in tension. When we give problems their names we can become a problem for those who do not want to register that there is a problem (but who might, at another level, sense there is a problem). You can cause a problem by not letting it go.

The inaugural conference for the Centre for Feminist Research was on sexism. The conference, which had the tagline “a problem with a name,” led to a special issue of New Formations. In that issue we made a collective effort to provide evidence of sexism in part by providing evidence of the difficulty of that effort. In my introduction to the special issue, I described our effort as creating “a sexism archive.” I noted: the sexism archive is full. Our archive is stuffed. Our archive includes not only the documents of sexism; the fragments that combine to record an upheaval. The archive makes the document into a verb: to document is to refuse to agree to something, to refuse to stay silent about something. Bodies are part of this archive; voices too. Our archive is an archive of rebellion. It testifies to a struggle. To struggle for an existence is to transform an existence.

We put all of the traces together, all of the encounters we have had; our wall stories, as I now call them; we are trying to bring something into existence. When I have had experiences of sexism or racism, I often say to myself: for the archive. One time I was invited to contribute to a special issue of the journal Feminist Theory on whiteness. Sunera Thobani (2007) also contributed an important piece critiquing the work of some white feminists. The editors invited those white feminists to respond to her piece.  And so in this same special issue we have a response from a white feminist which exercises violent and racist narratives (I am not going to name her, as I have no interest in a dialogue with those who articulate racism (1))  Some of these narratives: the woman of color isn’t a real scholar; she is motivated by ideology. The woman of color is angry. She occupies the moral high ground. The woman of color declares war by pointing to the complicity of white feminists in imperialism. The woman of color is racist (and we hurt too). The woman of color should be grateful, as she lives in our democracy; we have given her the right and the freedom to speak.

Following academic and social conventions, such as giving authors the rights to respond, or enabling a diversity of viewpoints, translates here into inviting racism onto the paper and into the room.  A woman of colour has to sit (on the page) here: the happy diversity table is the same table as the racism table. I remember thinking: add it to the archive.  By this archive I meant: the archive of racism within feminism. That archive is stuffed too!

Add it to the archive is an expression that allows us to think that an experience however difficult might have use value as evidence (we have somewhere to put it; we have a place for it to go). But of course when I say “add it to the archive” I say so with a degree of skepticism; if that archive is already stuffed, more evidence might be what we do not need.

But is that true? In the opening paper of the issue, Sarah Franklin enters a “bloody document” to our archive, one of her own essays submitted when she was a student that in being marked up by scrawled red ink is marked by sexism. The marker’s outrage in response to a feminist essay teaches us about how sexism is reproduced. This document is useful because of how it makes sexism tangible.  It makes explicit what is often left implicit: the horror with which feminist ideas are received. Franklin describes how to make a feminist critique of one of the male masters of a discipline is to be disciplined for unruly and inappropriate behavior. Her paper shows that attending to sexism means attending to the very mechanisms of reproduction; how some bodies as well as words, concepts or approaches become weeded out (of a discipline or a university), at the same time that others are encouraged and given “places to go.”

Evidence: what you accumulate when you are not given places to go.

This is why: we need somewhere to go with our evidence.

We need feminist deposit systems. Everyday Sexism and Strategic Misogyny are places we can go, virtual sites in which we can insert out stories, so they generate a collective.

Sarah Franklin’s paper was presented at our inaugural conference. The “bloody document” was put up on display. And what was striking was how cathartic it was for the audience to see that “bloody document.” You could hear the groans and exclamations of recognition. It was electric; there was a buzz each time more was revealed. So maybe in some cases: having more evidence is not about getting through (those who are unconvinced are usually very committed to being unconvinced). We are not showing our evidence of sexism to those who are sexist. We are sharing evidence with each other. Because of how slippery sexism and racism can be, even when they are solid (you can slip because you encounter something solid), because so often our experiences of sexism and racism can make us lose confidence, it can be helpful to have evidence presented in such tangible form. It can be helpful for this evidence to be delivered to a feminist collective. That “to” is the “to” that matters. Or maybe a feminist collective is generated by that delivery. Even if you know sexism and racism intimately, to have them displayed in front of you, independently of you and your own body, is to become a witness to how they work as machinery.

Clunk, clunk.

Click, click.

So we might need evidence of what we experience because of what we experience: because so often when you encounter sexism and racism you end up estranged from a world. You can feel that when something is pointed to you, repeatedly, then the problem is you. But having this evidence does not mean you can get through the walls. Evidence of walls does not bring the walls down. I was struck as editor by some reader responses to Franklin’s paper. One person suggested it wasn’t really about sexism; that these disciplinary techniques can be directed to anyone. The marker had himself highlighted and underlined gender pronouns: it was in the material how sex and gender mattered. But using words like “sexism” can still be understood as projection: you have made this about sexism, almost as a way of making this about your own particulars. And that is what happens: sexism and racism are understood as self-referential; how you make something about yourself (as if to say, it could happen to anyone, so that to say it refers to gender is to make gender your own agenda).

What is going on here? Sexism is reduced to something in particular or as being about your particulars. But the argument of the paper was to show how sexism is a technique for reproducing bodies and worlds.  So these responses reduce sexism to x in order then to state that the evidence exceeds x (so it is not about sexism).

Sexism can be reduced to an object that is counted (and thus discounted).

Feminist critiques show how sexism is not reducible to x but becomes part of a wider system that clears the way for some and not others.

So the response: exercises the reduction we challenge.

In some recent posts I have been reflecting on the problem of sexual harassment in universities. It is another problem with a name but a problem that often goes unnamed. I want to reflect on is how evidence – or the lack of evidence – plays such a crucial role in how the problem is reproduced.

There is a lot of evidence of harassment because there is a lot of harassment. In my own college (and this story would be tellable in other colleges) many people knew about the problem – maybe not the scale of it – but they knew enough to know there was a problem (2). That problem was often translated into advice or warnings to incoming female students to be careful of such-and-such professor. Knowing enough is not knowing enough. I called this “not knowing enough” in an earlier post “a partial sighting of walls.” It was partial, perhaps, because people did not want to know the scale of it; they did not want the full view. Or perhaps a fuller view is just hard to have.  In their important analysis of sexual harassment in universities, Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page note how harassment of students (such as groping) can take place in full view of others. As they describe: “The failure of bystanders to object to open displays of sexual harassment can also take a more active form. Specifically, sexual harassment can be normalised through a response to it that makes light of it. When this occurs, sexual harassment is not ignored, but laughed at” (2015: 42). Whitley and Page are giving us an account of the very mechanisms that allow the harassment that is evident not to become evident (even to those who witness it) as harassment, as wrong or a wrong, let alone to become evidence.

There are ways of apprehending things that can reduce the scale of harassment or minimize the damage. Perhaps: to arrive into an organization is to inherit a way of apprehending things. And, sometimes, something that has become increasingly evident is still not acknowledged because to acknowledge it would get in the way of something: your work, your happiness, your relationship to a person who can give you access to resources, your relationship to the institution. Maybe noticing something would demand too much time, too much attention. This is what I mean by the killjoy as testimony. She comes up because she reveals what others do not want to notice.

So I think we can learn: we can have evidence of something without something becoming evident to someone.

But there is more to say.

What happens to a policy can happen to a person.

Enquiries into sexual harassment can be held without finding evidence even when there is evidence. Sometimes evidence is not found because: there is an lack of an institutional will to find evidence. It can be easy not to find what you are not willing to find. Other times evidence is not found because: it is too hard to provide evidence.  Why is it hard to provide evidence? We need to answer this question to get at the problem. When sexual harassment becomes part of a culture, it works to recruit individuals, including those who are harassed (and when you become willing to go along with it, you experience yourself as no longer harassed, which can offer some relief from pressure). Harassment increases the costs of not going along with harassment (whether your own harassment or the harassment of others). Perhaps people around you are saying: this is OK; this is just how things are. So if you do not go along with it, you threaten how things are. Not saying something becomes a social and moral requirement for being part of something: to question or to challenge or to complain is framed as a form of disloyalty that would threaten everybody; everything. Maybe you are told it would damage your prospects to complain: to become a complainer as to lose velocity. Not coming forward might be necessary to moving on or moving up. The nature of sexual harassment makes it hard for anyone to provide evidence of sexual harassment. The more harassed you are, the harder it is to report the harassment. To be in a position to provide evidence requires that you have support.

This is another way that evidence is addressed to a feminist collective. We need to combine forces in order to give evidence of what makes it difficult to be. And we often have to work informally, to create our own support systems. In order to provide evidence of some things you have to bypass the very mechanisms that allow those things to be reproduced. Formal complaints procedures are often: methods for making evidence not appear.

Other times, evidence is provided but it is discounted. We are coming back to an old problem: you discredit the evidence by discrediting the provider of the evidence. We know this is how and why it remains so hard to get justice for victims of sexual assault: the law works to discredit the woman who is the victim by finding in her testimony, or character, or behavior, evidence of another kind, evidence of consent that would render her the criminal: the one who is falsely accusing the man, who would become the victim.  Her evidence is refuting by turning her speech into evidence of guilt, the kind of guilt that is assumed because of sexism: how women are historically understood as unreliable witnesses to their own lives; how women are heard as saying yes, whatever she says, or does; saying yes, when she says no.

Evidence of sexism is eliminated by sexism.

This is a shattering history.

Shattered lives.

How she is perceived as being as a violation of her being.

No wonder, perception matters. It is not simply that we have to show that what we perceive as sexism or racism is sexism or racism. It is not simply that we have to work on perception. Rather, sexism and racism works through perceptions: they are about how bodies are perceived in the first place; how words stick to bodies, a yes, a no; they are about whose way is cleared, who is cleared; whose way is impeded, who is impeded. And indeed: what is often not perceived teaches us how perception matters.

And this has been my own experience of racism. Right now in the UK, post Brexit; there is more attention to racism than we have been used to. We know that racism is not new. We know we are talking about the old when we are talking about racism. We have been here before; and there will be more. That attention is teaching us how much was not noticed before, the ordinary and everyday racism that allows brown and black bodies to be stopped in the streets, here, to be asked where they are from, to be told they are not from here. We have evidence of how racism was not evident to those to whom it was not directed. The evidence might not have amounted to much because of the nerve it touched: a social space can be created by turning away from what (and who) gets in the way.

Racism is reproduced by how racism is not noticed by those who are not at a receiving end.

But when you talk about racism, it is so often dismissed as in your head. Or something you are noticing because you are obsessed, because you have magnified something. So much of our work is working out how to live with the consequences that racism is imperceptible to others.

By others I am referring to: whiteness.

One time during a lecture I shared a quote from my study of diversity work. It was by a black woman talking about what happened when she entered a room for a job interview. She encounters what she usually encounters: a sea of whiteness. They did not expect her. The atmosphere becomes tense. They are fidgeting. Papers are shuffling. Papers: they can tell a story. She can tell they are not expecting her. And she knows when they see her, they see a black woman. Some come to embody what others do not wish to see. She can tell they were expecting a white person to come in. She tries to make them comfortable. Diversity work: when you have to make others comfortable with the fact of your arrival.

A white student comes up to me afterwards and says: how could she know? How could she know it was about race? It could have been something else. So often a question is an assertion in disguise. It is not about race. She made it about race.

When you say racism, they say: it could have been something else. Sometimes you just know when it is racism.  It is as tangible as hitting a wall, that the problem is you; that part of you that makes you the person they do not want or expect, the part of you than makes you stand out from the sea of whiteness. Sometimes you are not sure. And you begin to feel paranoid. That is what racism does: it makes you question everything, the whole world, the world to which you exist in relation. Heterosexism and sexism are like that too: are they looking at me like that because of that? Is that why they are passing us over, two women at the table? You are not sure.

That is what it does: you are not sure.

You are not allowed to be sure.

Sometimes you are sure.

You can be sure and not sure.

I am speaking to an interviewee – a woman of color – about racism. We are talking of those little encounters, and their very big effects. It is “off tape,” we are just talking, recognising each other, as you do, in how we recognise racism in those everyday encounters you have with people who can’t handle it, the idea of it. She says, “They always say to me that you reduce everything to racism.” A similar judgment has been implied to me, or said to me, many times. Why are you always bringing racism up? Is that all you can see? Are you obsessed? Racism becomes your paranoia. Of course, it’s a way of saying that racism doesn’t really exist in the way you say it does.  It is as if we had to invent racism to explain our own feeling of exclusion; it is as if racism was our way of not being responsible for the places we do not or cannot go. It is a form of racism to say that racism does not exist. I think we know this.

But I am thinking more about paranoia, and the good reasons for bad feelings. I guess the problem is that I do feel paranoid even if I know that this paranoia is reasonable. I do have a kind of paranoid anxiety about everything. I am not sure when x happens, whether x is about racism. I am not sure. And because I am not sure, then x is lived as always possibly about racism, as what explains how you inhabit the world you do. Racism creates paranoia; that’s what racism does. Racism is reproduced both by the fantasy of paranoia (it doesn’t “really” exist), and by the effect of the fantasy of paranoia, which is to make us paranoid.

When racism is understood as our creation, we become responsible for not bringing it into existence.

The world becomes evidence when: you are not accommodated. And the evidence you have of not being accommodated is dismissed by those who are accommodated. They like their house. They think it has room. That it is airy. You find it harder to breath.

Air can be occupied.

You have encounters like this: you can tell what is going on from the atmosphere. You recognise it. One time I was in Paris. The conversation was in French. I couldn’t understand what was being said. But I could tell when racism came up. The sound rose up. I glanced at my colleague, and she nodded. The volume switch: evidence of how the intangibility of atmosphere can become solid. An atmosphere can become a wall.

But we can have evidence of racism that exceeds this. We can have evidence of taunts. Graffiti on walls. We can have evidence of beatings.  We can have evidence of murder. We can have evidence of the police killing a black man. We can have video evidence. And still it remains possible for racism not to be seen. Because racism is how the world is seen. It is how blackness is identified as dangerous; it is how a wrong is made a right, it is how even a hand moving is made a fright. When racism is how a world is seen, racism is not seen. We can witness what is at stake here. It is a matter of life and death.

You can be stopped by a perception. You can be killed by a perception.

How you are perceived as being can be what stops you from being.

Evidence of violence can be removed. There is violence in the removal of evidence of violence.

Documents can disappear from an archive because of what they would reveal. In 2011, an archive became public: a collection of documents, 8,800 files to be exact, from 37 former British colonies. They are called the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Migrated Archives. These documents are held at the highly-secure government communications centre at Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire. These documents form a necessarily incomplete archive. We can read that history of incompletion; we can read what has gone missing. Because included in this archive are documents that document destruction; that document how the destruction of documents is willed as policy. We have now access to papers that issued instructions for the systematic destruction of other papers, an instruction made in 1961 by the secretary of state for the colonies. The documents instructed that post-independence governments should not get any material that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government,” that could “embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg police informers,” that might compromise intelligence sources, or that might “be used unethically by ministers in the successor government.” We have a trace in an archive of papers that are missing from the archive, papers that are destroyed because they record the violence of colonial history, violence committed by actors, the state; the monarchy, who have had a hand in the violence, who administered that violence.

If a document can be made to disappear, then an archive is what is not assembled.(3) An archive becomes what we do not have. And then we are stuffed.

Not all evidence of violence needs to be destroyed. Evidence can be retained but the violence is still not seen. Violence is explained away or justified. I have written about the story, The Willful Child. It is a grim story as well as a Grimm story.

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

It is a fable.

It is fiction.

It is fact.

The facts of the matter.

The story is about violence; it is about the murder of a child. She becomes ill, at the will of the God. Her mother, her doctor: they also have something to do with it. A willful will does not obey the will of those who embody institutions (religion, the family, medicine). The fate of those deemed to suffer from ill-will is to become ill. Her arm comes up. The arm keeps coming up. The arm is beaten.  And then, only then, the child has rest beneath the ground. But the story is not told as a story about murder. The story is told from the rod’s point of view.  The child must die because she is willful. Perhaps to survive she must become willful. She must become what she is judged as being.

Her death is punishment for her crime. Disobedience is her crime. It does not matter what the instruction is. She does not do what she is told do.

Doing; being. Not doing; not being.

Being can be a crime. For some, being is a crime.

The story is a warning: do not become the willful child. Willfulness justifies her death as moral, as for her own good. Violence is often justified as a right as well as right. The police are not in the story because the police are the rods. We have the evidence right there. There she is. Her arm is speaking. Her arm is evidence. The arm testifies to a struggle for life, a struggle preceded and followed by violence. Her arm throbs with life, held up in a moment of suspension. The arm is evidence of a resistance that continues despite having been brought down; the arm is how she persisted in coming up.

The evidence disappears by how the story is framed, as she does.

The violence disappears. She disappears.

It is a call to arms.

Resistance: the fight to make violence appear. Resistance: the fight to make her disappearance matter.

The story implies to disobey a command is to go out on a limb. The story implies if you disobey you will be lonely and unsupported.

Evidence of resistance disappears.

We do not.


  1. This is also how transphobic viewpoints are justified: as just another viewpoint to be expressed at the happy diversity feminist table. I refuse that feminist table. For this reason one feminist has recently called my model of dialogue “authoritarian.” If not permitting hate speech on my table is authoritarian, I will be authoritarian. I will be challenging this liberal model of dialogue in a future post currently titled “Speak to Me!”. I will also be giving some suggestions for how you can tell the difference between transphobic  work and critical work on sex and gender (much of that work is by trans scholars and activists). Baby clue: the former tends to rely on “stranger danger” narratives (posing trans women as dangerous to feminism or to society in more or less extreme ways). Racist viewpoints also rest on stranger danger narratives. Those deemed dangerous are endangered by that viewpoint. Simpler: it is dangerous to be perceived as dangerous.
  2. I include myself in that many and in a future post, Resignation as a Feminist Issue, I will discuss how I ended up knowing enough and thus not knowing enough, for too long. Baby clue: I had a policy of boycotting the Centre in which much of the harassment took place (because I had been to a few of their events in which I witnessed the sexist and misogynist nature of the intellectual culture). This policy of withdrawal meant that I actively participated in the stranding of the students who were being harassed and also that I did not witness the harassment. This is how when I first learnt of what was actually going on, I was shocked. My partial sighting of a wall meant the wall did come into full view. I need to learn from this.
  3. Sexual harassment is another “missing archive.” Confidentiality can be used within institutions to make thing disappear, the truth even; so that the institution will not embarrassed by what is revealed, things that might damage the institution. That sexual harassment cases are so often wrapped up by confidentiality, means an archive is precisely what we do not have: we not even have evidence that evidence was presented; we do not have access to papers, materials, which would allow us to know what happened. There are so many missing cases, as I have been involved in this work I have heard of more and more of them.



Franklin, Sarah (2015). “Sexism as a Means of Reproduction,” New Formations, 86: 14-33.

Frye, Marilyn (1983).  The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory.  Trumansburg,New York: The Crossing Press.

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

Thobani, Sunera  (2007). “White Wars: Western Feminisms and the ‘War on Terror.’” Feminist Theory 8, 2: 169-185.

Whitley, Leila and Tiffany Page (2015). “Sexism at the Centre: Locating the Problem of Sexual Harrassment,” New Formations. 86: 34-53.


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Equality Credentials

I resigned from my post at Goldsmiths when I got to a point that I felt I could do more by leaving than by staying. I thought leaving as an action would speak louder than words, and I had been using a lot of words.  A diversity practitioner I once interviewed talked about how we have to use words more, the more we don’t get through. Words become tired; bodies too. She spoke of “equity fatigue.” The more you say the “equity,” the less the word can do. I keep sending out emails, talking to people about sexual harassment. I could sense tiredness around me, eyes rolling again.

As I noted in my previous post, for over three years I have been working with a dedicated team of students and staff on how to get the problem of sexual harassment taken more seriously. The more I worked on the problem, the more I realised how serious the problem was – in my college certainly – and also in the sector at large. Sexual harassment is a social problem. Sexual harassment is a structural problem. Too often the very seriousness of the problem produces a certain kind of institutional fatalism: as if is to say, well it is everywhere, so it is inevitable; or it is everywhere so there is no point challenging it here, as it will just go there.

When a problem becomes general is when we need to challenge that problem generally.  We need to challenge it where we are; wherever we are.

So I have been speaking of the problem from where I am, from here, at the college I have been working at this past 12 years, but this does not mean the problem starts here. It was doing the research project on racism and diversity that led to my book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, published in 2012, which has given me a handle on what was going on. Through this project, I had already begun to understand some of the mechanisms that I watched in operation in the institutional responses to the problem of sexual harassment.  It is like machinery: clunk, clunk.

One of the key mechanisms I want to refer to here is the use of diversity and equality as a credential in a specific sense:  as that which entitles you to credit. I had referenced some of this material in my post on Progressive Racism, which was published on the same day as my post on Resignation. I referred to how activities that signal an attempt to diversify an organisation can be used by the organisation as evidence of diversity.

I have been a member of many race equality and diversity committees: not unusual for a woman of colour academic! So I have plenty of experience of how diversity work can end up being appropriated by the organisations we work on as well as for.  As diversity workers we might labour for something (a new policy, a new document) and these things can provide yet more techniques whereby organisations can appear to do something without doing anything. This is difficult: our own efforts to transform organisations can be used by organisations as evidence they have been transformed.

One of my first experiences of this mechanism: I was a member of a working group that was set up to write our university’s race equality policy in 2001.  Writing the policy happened to coincide with the arrival of a new vice-chancellor at the university. He set up some meetings with members of the university, which took the form of an official address.  I was surprising at one of these meetings, when the vice chancellor with a letter in his hand, referred to the race equality policy that we had written. With an extravagant smile, and waving the letter in front of us (somehow the physicality of this gesture mattered), he talked about the content of the letter, which took the form of a congratulation (or which he gave the form of a congratulation), informing the university that it had been given the “top rank” for its race equality policy. “We are good at race equality” he said pointing to the letter.  It was a feel good moment, but those of us who wrote the document did not feel so good.  A document that documents the inequality of the university became usable as a measure of good performance.

Indeed, as I conducted my research into diversity within universities I became aware of how diversity can be used by organisations as a form of public relations. As I have already noted, most of the interviews I conducted took place after the Amendment to the Race Relations Act (2000), which required all public sector organisations to write and disseminate race equality policies and action plans. This act was followed by many others, and then finally by the Equality Act (2010), which required all of these distinct policies to be brought together in a single document: the Single Equality Scheme (SEC). So over the period of a decade most of the work of diversity workers was about writing documents.  At various points, the Equality Challenge Unit which oversees equality in the higher education section, measured or ranked these documents, as I have discussed, moments of measuring that can be used be institutions that “did well” as a sign they are “doing well.”

But what is being measured by these documents being measured? I asked this question diversity practitioner, who answered: “we are good at writing documents.” I reply, without thinking, “well yes, one wonders,” and we both laugh.  We are wondering whether what is measured through these documents is the degree of competence in writing documents. Organisations are able to translate their writing competence into an equality competence. As this practitioner further describes:

I was very aware that it wasn’t very difficult me and some of the other people to write a wonderful aspirational I was very aware that it wasn’t very difficult me and some of the other people to write a wonderful aspirational document.  I think we all have great writing skills and we can just do that, because we are good at it, that’s what we are expert at.  And there comes with that awareness a real anxiety that the writing becomes an end in itself, the reality is being borne out by say for example, we were commended on our policies and when the ECU reviewed our Implementation Plans last year there were a number of quite serious criticisms about time slippages, about the fact that we weren’t reaching out into the mainstream and the issues hadn’t really permeated the institution and the money implement in certain specific areas.  And it wasn’t that there was hostility, it was much more of this kind of marshmallow feeling.

Being good at writing documents become a competency that is also an obstacle for diversity work, as it means that the university gets judged as good because of the document. It is this very judgment about the document that blocks action, producing a kind of “marsh mellow feeling,” a feeling that we are doing enough, or doing well enough, or even that there nothing left to do.  Marshmallow, a soft, white, gooey, sticky substance, seems a good substance to express how things stop happening by becoming too comfortable.

The orientation towards writing good documents can block action, insofar as the document then gets taken up as evidence that we have “done it.”  As another practitioner describes, “Well I think in terms of the policies, people’s views are ‘well we’ve got them now so that’s done, its finished’  I think actually, I’m not sure if that’s even worse than having nothing, that idea in people’s heads that we’ve done race, when we very clearly haven’t done race.” The idea that the document is doing something is what could allow the institution to block recognition of the work that there is to do.  The idea that the document “does race” means that people can think that race has been done when it has not. The idea that we are doing race is thus how we are not doing race.

So a problem can be reproduced by the appearance of having solved it. I mention this earlier work on diversity here and now for a reason. It helped me to make sense of a statement on Sexual Harassment published by the college on June 3rd in response to the attention given to the problem on social media (an attention that has something to do with an act of bringing to attention). This statement takes the exact form of an assertion of Goldsmiths’ equality credentials: “we take sexual harassment seriously;”  “inclusivity is a defining theme;” “we are the one of the leading providers of taught programmes focusing on gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity.”

The statement refers to various activities as evidence of its credentials. One activity is Athena Swan: which has become reduced to a branding exercise (which is not to say that is all that it is) by being evoked in this way on a statement on sexual harassment. Another activity they reference is the conference on Sexual Harassment in Higher Education (SHHE) that took place in December 2015. The conference was organised by Anna Bull, Tiffany Page and Leila Whitley. They as organisers have just published an important and powerful response to the college’s statement. As they note: “It was because no one was else was willing to organise an event on sexual harassment that we took it upon ourselves. This has been a recurring theme during our time at Goldsmiths: the reliance on the labour and energy of students, rather than a concerted effort by the institution.”An event that was claimed as evidence of what the college was doing came about because of what the college was not doing.

Feminist work in addressing institutional failure can be used as evidence of institutional success. The very labour of feminist critique can end up supporting what is being critiqued. The tools you introduce to address a problem can be used as indicators that a problem has been addressed. The work you do to expose what is not being done can be used as evidence of what has been done.

It is a problem when feminism becomes a performance indicator.

The Centre for Feminist Research was set up recently (three years ago) but draws on long histories of feminist work at the college. A history can fill rooms. That we need to have a centre for feminism is a critique of the structures of the university: we have feminist centres because we don’t have feminist universities (more women professors does not necessarily mean more feminist universities). We have feminist centres because sexism, gender inequality and sexual harassment remain structuring of university environments. In one meeting, the very existence of the Centre is referred to as evidence of the college’s own commitment to equality and feminist values. The Centre became an equality credential. A program developed in response to a problem is assumed to resolve a problem. When the problem is not resolved, the resolution becomes the problem.

The resolution becomes the problem.

The problem is not a rogue individual, nor two, nor a rogue unit nor a rogue institution. But institutions still need to recognise the problem of sexual harassment as an institutional problem. You cannot address a problem until you recognise there is a problem to be addressed.

Of course, my college is much more than these unfinished histories of sexual harassment. The college has many unfinished histories. Of course, there is incredible feminist work, work on race and diversity, and on social justice, that is going on; work that is about opening up the university to others who might otherwise not have been here.  It is this work that makes it hard to leave: I was part of something. But until this history of sexual harassment is brought out into the open, discussed, so that we can learn about how what happened did happen, over such a long and sustained period of time, affecting so many people, causing so much trauma, it must have the attention, the full attention, of the organisation.

It is not the time to be over what is not over.

As Anna Bull, Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page show when sexual harassment becomes invisible so too does the labour of trying to challenge sexual harassment. It is like: coming up against wall after wall. But what you come against is not visible to others.

And if your labour is to expose violence, because that violence is hidden, that labour can even be understood as causing violence, for example, as intending to damage the reputation of an organisation. You might become understand as a vandal, “a willful destroyer of the venerable and the beautiful.” To expose long histories of harassment that have been hidden, that are all the more structural because of how they are hidden, does mean sending out messages that can end up all over the place, because they can take the form of a revelation or scandal. The media can turn your careful accounts of structures into something sensational (I argue in Living a Feminist Life that structures are sensational but in a different sense). Some might not want you to speak out not because they are concerned simply with reputational damage, but because they care for an environment they work in, and they know that words sent out can come back in a different way.

It is a risk we have to take. Because damage limitation does not work. So we have to do the work.

To do this work, we have share the costs of this work. Attending to sexual harassment, listening to those who are affected by it, whose lives are shaped by it, is emotional and hard work. Even when you have understanding, knowledge, it can be undoing and unsettling to listen to those who have been targeted and bullied in the place you work. Sometimes we have an idea of place because of our own histories: a place seems inclusive, radical, open, because that place was open to us, because that’s how it seemed to us. But that is not how everyone experiences that place, which means a place is not the same place. For students who arrived with high hopes but who where harassed by their lecturers, the space was not open and friendly, but hostile and closed. Sometimes we have an idea of a place as happy and stimulating, maybe that is how we experience our feminist spaces, as happy and stimulating. But for students who arrived only to be harassed by lecturers, only to have to spend their time trying not to be caught in a room with them, having to fight for space to breath because of what is said to them, then the spaces they are not happy and stimulating. Listening to students’ experience of harassment did change my idea of the place I worked: how could it not? And this too explains something: the resistance we might have to hearing the stories, our resistance, mine too, might be because of how they challenge our most profound attachments. To hold onto an idea of a place as good might even require not listening to those who have a different idea.  But I think: to make our attachments – to education, to a college, to a project, to equality, to feminism– meaningful we have to listen to those who seem to get in the way. It is the only way.

The killjoy as testimony.

Another way to say this: to work toward an inclusive institution is to listen to those for whom the institution is not inclusive.

Equality is not a credential. Equality is a task. It is what we have to do, because we are not there yet.



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Speaking Out

Colleagues and killjoys,

I have received such overwhelming support and solidarity since I posted about my decision to resign from my post. I just want to thank all of you who have commented and sent me messages.

Resigning was a difficult decision. Sharing the reasons for the decision was important to me: to indicate that my resignation is both an act of feminist protest and an act of feminist self-care.

I am aware that my account was vague and short. I have been asked about the details (as have colleagues of mine): I have been asked to give the story; to tell people about what has happened. I need to say a few words in response to this request. I need to say a few words about why speaking out matters even when there are things we cannot say, even when there is much that we have to leave unsaid.

It was three years ago that I first heard from a colleague of mine about the problem of sexual harassment at the college at which I work. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. I was shocked by the account she gave. At that time it was in relation to one individual who has since left the college after two enquiries. But that conversation led me to other conversations: with management as well as, most importantly, with students. It was the students who alerted us to the scale of the problem of sexual harassment. Since then there have been four enquiries. Before then there had been two enquiries. That is six enquiries relating to four members of staff: at least that I know of.

I mention numbers because they teach us something:  when I talk about the problem of sexual harassment I am not talking about one rogue individual; or two, nor even a rogue unit, nor even a rogue institution. We are talking about how sexual harassment becomes normalized and generalized – as part of academic culture.

We are talking about what we are not talking about.

So when I referred to the “failure to address the problem of sexual harassment” I did not mean nothing has been done. There have been enquiries, after all. But these enquiries have not led to a robust and meaningful investigation of the problem of sexual harassment as an institutional problem. Even when we had policy reviews, and policy changes, the review process was not opened up for a general discussion.

In the last there years many people both within my own college and at other universities have talked to me about their experience of sexual harassment. I began to realize something through these conversations: that there have been many cases of sexual harassment in universities, but there is no public record of these cases. They have vanished without a trace. No one knows about them expect for the people directly affected. How do these cases disappear without a trace? Almost always: because they are resolved with the use of confidentiality clauses. The clauses do something: they work to protect organisational reputation; no one gets to know about what happened. They most often protect the harassers: there is no blemish on their records; they can go on to other jobs. But they also leave those who experienced harassment even more isolated than they were before (harassment is already isolating). They leave silence. And silence can feel like another blow; a wall that is not experienced by those not directly affected (because silence is often not registered as silence unless you hear what is not being said).

And another consequence: we have no way of knowing the scale of the problem.

That we have no way of knowing the scale of the problem is indicative of the scale of the problem.

I will be saying a few words about confidentiality and archives at our conference Archives Matter tomorrow.  When sexual harassment cases are wrapped up by confidentiality, we do not have an archive; we do not have access to papers, materials, which would allow us to know what happened. There are so many missing cases, as I have been involved in this work I have learnt of more and more of them. If we are to create an archive, we have not to follow the directives of an institution. And if we do not follow the directives of an institution we become the cause of the damage we document. The response becomes: damage limitation. If diversity is damage limitation, as I have described in my work on racism, then damage limitation takes the form of controlling speech: trying to stop those who speak about violence from speaking in places where they can be heard.

To contain damage is to contain those who have been damaged.

She is heard as complaining. When she is heard as complaining she is not heard.

The absence of a hearing is reproductive. Silence enables the reproduction of the culture of harassment and abuse. When we don’t speak about violence we reproduce violence. Silence about violence is violence.

There were many students who left in silence. We still do not know not what they would have said if they could have stayed.

Missing documents; missing people. We don’t know how much we are missing.


When there is no official word by an organisation, it is not just that no one knows what happened; no one has to know. You are giving individuals permission not to know. And then the talk becomes contained in pockets: feminist centres like the one we created. These spaces are important: they become shelters; life-lines: places to go.

But the following can also be true:

When we talk they do not have to listen.

And even:

We talk so they do not listen.

And in the last three years we have been working with silence, working around it; trying to break that seal; trying to find ways to get through; trying to get a more general or collective conversation going, a conversation about what happened.

Nothing. Silence. Still.

And from the point of view of those harassed, it is like that history of harassment has just disappeared. And the history of challenging harassment (which often means opening oneself to being harassed all over again) disappears with it. It is as if nothing happened. Those who had a vague idea something was amiss have a vague idea that it has been dealt with. But even if individuals leave, it has not been dealt with.  People remain (often those who had leadership positions); networks stay alive; structures or processes are not put under investigation.

And problems come up again. And complaints are ignored again.

Confidentiality agreements do not mean and should not mean we cannot talk about sexual harassment. They mean we must talk about sexual harassment. We need to participate in this conversation because it is difficult. We have a responsibility to each other; it is the same responsibility we have as educators to create an environment that enables students to flourish; to learn.

There is more. When you do speak out, you are seen as a problem, as if the problem is only there because you speak about it. It is as if the problem would go away if you stopped talking about it. I have described this difficulty before: how exposing a problem becomes posing a problem. And you will find that you accused of disloyalty – of damaging reputation, even of damaging feminism because of what you are trying to say, as if you are bringing everything and everybody into disrepute.

But we must still speak: the silence is what is damaging.

And I want to thank publicly the students I have been working with on the problem of sexual harassment over the last three years. Although there has yet to be a public acknowledgment of what has happened, although many things  have been left in place that should have been dismantled, you achieved so much, and I know many students to come will benefit from your painstaking labour even if some students are still coming up against some of the same things.

I was vague about some things; the same things. I am still being vague. I hope in time and with support we can acquire more precision. We need to leave traces. More traces. Traces of what has happened. We need to talk about what happened to learn how to stop it from happening.

I have added a paragraph on my resignation to my chapter, Feminist Snap, from my forthcoming book, Living a Feminist Life.

Let me share it by way of conclusion, and with thanks.

What I had been asked to bear became too much; the lack of support for the work we were doing; the walls we kept coming up against. That I could resign depended upon having material resources and security. But it still felt like I was going out on a limb: I did not just feel like I was just leaving a job, or an institution, but also a life, an academic life; a life I had loved; a life I was used to. And that act of leaving was a form of feminist snap: there was a moment when I couldn’t take it anymore, those walls of indifference that were stopping us from getting anywhere; that were stopping us from getting through. Once the bond had snapped, I realised that I had been trying to hold onto something that had already broken. Maybe my relationship to the institution was like Silas’s relationship to his pot: if I tried to put the shattered pieces back together I would be left with a memorial, a reminder of what could no longer be.

Resignation can sound passive, even fatalistic: resigning oneself to one’s fate. But resignation can be an act of feminist protest. By snapping you are saying: I will not work for an organisation that is not addressing the problem of sexual harassment. Not addressing the problem of sexual harassment is reproducing the problem of sexual harassment. By snapping you are saying: I will not reproduce a world I cannot bear, a world I do not think should be borne.




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Colleagues and killjoys,

It is with sadness that I announce that I have resigned from my post at Goldsmiths. It is not the time to give a full account of how I came to this decision. In a previous post, I described some of the work we have been doing on sexual harassment within universities. Let me just say that I have resigned in protest against the failure to address the problem of sexual harassment. I have resigned because the costs of doing this work have been too high.

This decision was difficult. The Centre for Feminist Research has been a lifeline and a shelter. We have together created a space within the institution that has been a space to breathe. It has been a space that is not populated by the same old bodies.

I want to thank in particular all the students I have been lucky enough to work with especially those who participated in the Feminist Postgraduate Forum and the Sexism Working Group. I read your letter, and I was filled once again with a sense of hope for feminist futures.

Resignation is a feminist issue.

I hope to write a post with this title once I have had time to reflect on what has happened and what has not happened.

Sometimes we have to leave a situation because we are feminists. Wherever I am, I will be a feminist. I will be doing feminism. I will be living a feminist life. I will be chipping away at the walls.

In solidarity,


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Progressive Racism

In this post I want to do more than simply consider progressive racism as a specific genre of racism that we can document by documenting the form it takes. I want to do more than simply show how racism can be structuring in movements that understand themselves as progressive: the very idea that we need to show this or to convince anyone of this is more than politically naive; it is an instance of how progressive racism functions. In other words, it is progressive racism that makes progressive racism surprising. I want instead to discuss progressive racism as a way of identifying a mechanism that is central to how racism functions.

Racism is at one level conservative: racism already exists. The act of conserving racism is often predicated on a denial that racism exists. What you deem racism they call progress. I still remember one time having a politics lecturer challenge me during a faculty meeting for the implication in my  description for a new course, Gender, Race and Colonialism, that colonialism was “a bad thing” – an implication he heard in my use of the word “implication.” He embarked on a long winded speech about how colonialism represented progress for the colonized (referring to law, language, technology and industry). Others around me, seating at the table, nodded. I could hear them nod! I did not yet have the killjoy resources I needed to speak back to that collective nod. But it was good to be reminded that such views still exist, that they can be assembled at a meeting table at a university. Indeed it is these kinds of views that are much repeated in mainstream press and publications about the imperial past; it is how it remains possible to be proud of empire.

Progressive racism: how colonization and the theft of land, labour, people and resources is understood as being for others.

Critical race scholarship explores how all the fundamental terms that organise human life, including the human as one such fundamental term, are racialised terms. It is the denial of this raciality that allowed some forms of violence to be concealed: for example, empire becoming understandable as the gift of modernity or even as the invitation to others to become human as well to become modern. Empire as gift: becoming modern as the acquisition of debt.Note here that this gift/debt relation is also an active/passive relation. The colonized others become the ones who are indebted (even having land and resources or kin stolen is understood as the acquisition of debt) but also the ones who receive something.  I would argue that the racialisation of the active/passive distinction is central to all racism but acquires particular importance within progressive racism.

Racism is a conservation system that goes all the way down: it gets into the very grammar of sentences; how we creates subjects and objects. To conserve something is to reproduce something. Conservation is then never simply about the past; it is future orientated.  Reproducing racism is essentially how racism is conserved through or by institutions that bind their own conservation to the power of a “some” that, even when it does not appear racial, ends up being defined in racial terms.[1]  To conserve is thus an activity or a series; it is to accumulate or to progress.

Racism as a conservation system is thus also a progression system. Thus: progressive racism is central to the history of racism. After all, the empire itself was understood as progressive, as being about increasing civilization (often identified with happiness): to quote from a historian of the East India Company: The pace of civilisation would be quickened beyond all examples. The courts, the knowledge, and the manners of Europe would be brought to their doors, and forced by an irresistible moral pressure on their acceptance. The happiness of the human race would thus be prodigiously augmented” (cited in my 2010 book, The Promise of Happiness). That empire was justifiable using utilitarian logics (the greatest happiness of the greatest number) teaches us about those logics. Note here how the gift of empire is understood in terms of law, knowledge and ethics; a forced gift that allows civilization to become ours before theirs.

Racism progresses through institutions (courts, knowledge, manners) that are understood as progressive.

So racism is justified as progressive, although the word “racism” would never appear because of this justification (as if to say: it is not racism it is progress).

However much racism depends on the idea of progress, I want to suggest that progressive racism still needs to be identified as a genre before we can generalise from our understanding of how it works. I want to return to some of the findings I shared in my book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012), which was based on qualitative research into diversity and equality work within universities. Progressive racism might be another way of describing what I called in this book educated racism: the kind of racism that exists within educational institutions. This racism tends to be a polite or thoughtful or even critical racism. Many of the diversity practitioners I spoke to for this research came into the higher education sector from other sectors. And quite a few spoke of how they expected their work to be easier in universities: they expected to find people who shared their values because they were educators. They were surprised to find so much resistance to their work within universities. I think this is why the brick wall became a finding of the research. Many of my interviewees spoke of brick walls when describing their work, although it took me some time to recognise the repetition of “wall expressions” within the data. The wall also gave expression to a disappointment of an expectation: that diversity work would be more at home in organisations that have missions that are tied up with commitment to social progress. A genealogy of progressive racism is a genealogy of this expectation. It is the very expectation that diversity and equality are more at home in organisations that are assumed to be more progressive that enables racism to progress.

Organisations can then use equality and diversity as credentials: as if to say, how can we be racist when we are committed to equality and diversity? Let me refer to an article,“Anti-Racism initiatives by Universities are failing to have an effect off campus” to show how this question becomes an assertion. The article begins by reporting on Emma Thompson’s comments in the press about the treatment of her adopted son at Exeter University: “she said Nick Griffin from the BNP would ‘love it at Exeter because of the lack of racial diversity.’”  Her comments were “vehemently disputed by the university.” In the report the welfare officer responds: “Her comments were taken out of context and sensationalised by the media. We do a lot here to promote diversity both on campus and in the community. At Exeter we have just celebrated One World Week, which we tied in with Black History Month.” The response to a challenge of diversity of the University takes the form of a statement of how the university promotes diversity.  Indeed, diversity as a form of good practice (One World Week, Black History Month) is used as evidence that there is not a problem with a lack of diversity.

In the same article, two other representatives of the University are cited: “Overt racism is not a problem on campus, but it can be a problem off campus,” says the welfare officer. “We don’t have a problem with racism here,” says the head of communications for the university, “we take a much more holistic approach, working with the community. But we don’t come at it as a way of tackling racism.” Statements such as “don’t have a problem with racism” make those who report racism into the problem. Note also that the “holistic approach” of “working with the community” is explicitly linked to not coming at “it” as racism.  Racism is not spoken about by those who speak for the university.  When diversity is a viewing point, a way of picturing the organization, racism is unseen. Racism is heard as an accusation that threatens the organization’s reputation as diversity led.  Racism is heard as a potentially injurious to the organization, as what could damage and hurt the organization.  In other words, institutional racism becomes an institutional injury. When institutional racism is talked about as an “accusation” then it becomes personalised, as if the institution is “the one” who is suffering a blow to its reputation. Those who speak about racism thus become the blow, the cause of injury.

Progressive racism is how racism is enacted by being denied: how racism is heard as a blow to the reputation of an organisation as being progressive. We can detect the same mechanism happening in political movements: when anti-racism becomes part of an identity for progressive whites, racism is either re-located in a body over there (the racist) or understood as a blow to self-reputation of individuals for being progressive. This term “progressive whites” comes from Ruth Frankenberg important work on whiteness studies. She argues that focusing on whiteness purely in negative terms can  “leaves progressive whites apparently without any genealogy” (1993, 232).  Kincheloe and Steinberg in their work on whiteness studies write of “the necessity of creating a positive, proud, attractive antiracist white identity” (1998, 34). Indeed, the most astonishing aspect of this list of adjectives (positive, proud, attractive, antiracist) is that antiracism then becomes just another white attribute in a chain: indeed, anti-racism may even provide the conditions for a new discourse of white pride.

In a previous post, I discussed the case of Peter Tatchell. I would describe Tatchell’s work as progressive racism. Let me return to my arguments with this term “progressive racism” as a handle. As I noted earlier in 2005 a book Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality was published which included an article by Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem entitled “Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the War on Terror.” This chapter offered a critique of racism (in particular Islamaphobia) in gay politics, including as an example the work of Peter Tatchell and OutRage. The publishers received complaints about the chapter from Tatchell and his legal team. The chapter has been described by Peter Tatchell as “false and libelous.”  Before a proper discussion about these complaints with the editors or authors, the publisher issued a formal apology to Tatchell, based on a set of counter-assertions about Tatchell and OutRage! These counter-assertions included: that he has never “claimed the role of liberator and expert of Gay Muslims”; “that he is not Islamaphobic”; “that neither he nor Outrage are racist” and “that they have not engaged in racial politics,” and so on. As “counter-assertions” these assertions counter what are assumed to be the “assertions” of the chapter.

Progressive racism gives us a handle on what is going on here. A response to racism becomes a way of asserting one’s credentials as a progressive political subject. In other words progressiveness takes form as counter-assertion. These counter-assertions might also offer an assertion of a given person’s credentials. Counter-assertions are often stronger than countering the original assertion in the form of a negative claim (“I am not racist”); they often make additional assertions in the form of a positive claim (“I am anti-racist”). These responses fail to respond to the actual critique of racism as they take the form of self-recognition (“I don’t recognise myself in the critique of racism”; “I recognise myself as an anti-racist”). Progressive racism recentres on whiteness as a form of political heroism, as if whiteness is what allows us to progress beyond racism.

Progressive racism, I think, amps up whiteness as a way of occupying space. What do I mean by amping up? Progressive racism allows the increase of the power or force of whiteness. It allows a white subject to remain in the position of the one who is active/heroic/giving to the others. If the others do not receive this gift happily, they become ungrateful or mean. Progressive racism helps us to understand how white subjectivity is crafted as heroic in the first place.

Puff, puff; an ego becomes inflated.

Whiteness can then end up taking up even more space. Even anti-racism as a space ends up being occupied progressively by whiteness.

And then: racism becomes an injury to that individual’s reputation as being progressive. 

Progressive racism: how racism progresses through the self-perception of being progressive.

I am reminded of the film Dances With Wolves, which I wrote about in my 2000 book, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. This film could be described as progressive racism. What is progressive about it? Well it is an attempt to offer an alternative to the brutal racism of the classical Western. Here the natives are not presented as a homogeneous mass that threaten the white settler subjects – whose lives and happiness depend on their elimination. They are given names and faces. The film represents the unfolding of the frontier as a violent process of destruction. But the hero remains the white subject. We are encouraged to disidentify from the bad whites by identifying with the good white (the singularity of good whiteness matters here). It is his capacity to overcome his own whiteness, to “go native” as a gesture of sympathy, as being with, as being for, that is the progressive racism of the film.

Progressive whiteness: the power to unmake as well as make the border between self and other.

Progressive whiteness: whiteness unmaking whiteness, molar becomes molecular.

And then he disappears. Whiteness: often disappears. Here whiteness might appear all the more forceful by the narration of that disappearance as a gift.

In other words the white subject’s overcoming of his whiteness becomes a gift to the other. Oh how familiar. Whiteness is often at work through or as overcoming/becoming: the white subject gives by giving up their whiteness.

Progressive racism: how anti-racism becomes another white gift.

Whiteness is exercised in his narrative of self-overcoming; whiteness as gift, right down to the molecule.

And let’s be clear here: White heroism converts quickly into white injury: racism becomes an injury to whiteness.

I want to consider one final example, this time the work of an academic Slavoj Žižek. I have written about racism in Žižek’s work before and I am cautious about writing about it more. I want to treat Žižek words as expressive of a wider logic I am trying to identify – I will not be linking to the lectures or texts I cite as I have no wish to restrict my analysis to the question of whether Žižek is racist or not. I have no interest in that question; for me it is not the right question. One of the reasons I am referring to Žižek’s work is because he has explicitly called for “progressive racism” as a way of responding to racism. In a lecture he identifies progressive racism with making racist jokes (also described in the same lecture as “dirty jokes”) as such jokes can enable solidarity. I assume he means solidarity between those that racism sets apart; it is, of course, usual to think of jokes as a form of social bonding.

In this lecture Žižek contrasts what he calls “progressive racism” to “political correctness,” which he identifies with an institution: Santa Cruz. His discussion evokes the right wing critique of political correctness: that it functions as an imposition of moral norms on the freedom of others, political correctness as taking the fun out of jokes. In doing so he inflates the power of those who challenge speech by evoking political correctness as if it is the hegemony (just as he evokes “liberal multiculturalism” as if it is hegemony – despite the fact that multiculturalism has been sentenced to death by being associated with segregation, terrorism and indeed death by progressive European nations).

It is interesting how “racist jokes” slide into “dirty jokes.” That slide is an old borrowing: if race often works through rendering the other “dirty,” racism is articulated as freedom to be dirty. The desire to tell “dirty jokes” associate racism and sexism with pleasure and humor. To challenge racism  would be to deprive a body of both. The killjoy is a ghostly presence here.

Political correctness might describe the effort to find jokes that do not rest on stereotypes of others. So what makes telling racist jokes progressive? How would a progressive racist joke be different from any other racist jokes? The difference is not in the jokes; the difference is an account of what the jokes are doing. A progressive racist tells racist jokes as a way of challenging racism by enabling solidarity: being with by sharing the butt of the joke.

But, you see, we can all be the butt!

Perhaps a progressive racist joke is a joke told by somebody who is progressive: in the sense of someone whose political ends are progressive. And yet I would argue that not only is the joke the same joke (word for word), but the structure of address is pretty much the same structure of address: the progressive racist would expect the other to be willing to be the butt of the joke by receiving that joke as an expression of solidarity. The person who is not willing to be the butt, would then get in the way of political solidarity (as well as taking the fun out of the joke). Same old, same old. The problem is: inequality exists in the very structure of address; you cannot joke your way out of a structure.

We are not all “buts” in the same way.

This is allowing us to get closer to the mechanism I want to identify: how racism is repeated by becoming part of a progressive agenda. This a little bit like how ironic racism works: by being ironic you get to repeat racism as if the distance enables you not to be what you say. More recently Žižek has written two pieces that rest on what I would call run-of-the-mill racism, the kind of racism that those who think of themselves as progressive would not usually articulate. Although maybe not: given how Žižek assumes liberal multiculturalism as a hegemony, and political correctness as a form of moral hygiene, then racism can easily be articulated as radical and rebellious.

Before I refer to these pieces I want to talk about what I mean by run-of-the mill racism. This is a kind of racism that is not sophisticated, polite, educated or subtle. It is not a racism that is masked or screened by the appearance of being something other than itself. In other words this form of racism reveals itself in a gleeful manner. I am a racist, so! Ha ha! So there! Žižek prefaced a recent contribution by using such a speech act (“I am a racist”), reproduced with qualification (“but I hate my own race even more”). Self-declarations of racism do not mean masking does not occur (see my discussion of speech acts that admit to one’s own racism here).

Run-of-the-mill racism rests explicitly on ideas of superiority. Statements do not necessarily have to say: European culture is superior; we are superior because we are European or white. In other words, what is explicit about such statements is not necessarily that they refer to race. The “we” that is superior might be the left, or what’s left of the left, or what Žižek calls “the radical Western left.”

The “we” is the progressive we.

That left can then be associated with the universal (as that which is beyond race, minor detail!) as what we, if we are to progress,  must enter. The universal: as class, as a class. Don’t enter, don’t progress!

And indeed I would argue that run of the mill racism is often banal: it takes the form of casual background assumption of the superiority of a “we” to which a subject is progressively attached.

This is from a recent article:

The clearest expression of the “desire for the west” are immigrant refugees: their desire is not a revolutionary one, it is the desire to leave behind their devastated habitat and rejoin the promised land of the developed west….But since, for the large majority of pretenders, this desire cannot be satisfied, one of the remaining options is the nihilist reversal: frustration and envy get radicalised into a murderous and self-destructive hatred of the west, and people get engaged in violent revenge.

Racism operates here as an assumption of envy in the other, or even as a desire for the other to be envious: that to be an “immigrant refugee” is to want what the West has. Really? Think about it. Immigrant refugee: even in those two words are are implied narrative, a way of conflating immigration with asylum. Becoming a refugee, fleeing a situation of war and conflict, is understood as “desire for the West.” It is this racism that has structured how state racism works as a security system: that really behind a claim to asylum, a claim of persecution, is a “desire for the west.” It is this racism that allows the figure of the bogus asylum seeker to circulate, as the one who uses asylum as a screen for their true desires (for our jobs, our houses, our benefits, our women, and so on). It is this racism that implies: they want what we have; they lack what we have.

What is striking about Zizek’s comments on “immigrant refugees” is how close they are to the kinds of comments articulated by the Prime Minister, David Cameron. Žižek and Cameron sound quite alike even though some of Žižek’s terms are not used by Cameron who of course has no critique of the violence of global capitalism [2]. But that the racism can be sustained in the name of a critique of the violence of global capitalism is teaching us something; that even this kind of critique can reproduce violence by how it does not locate violence. Both Žižek and Cameron argue explicitly against “multiculturalism,” which they inflate with power (as a hegemony or consensus); they both identify political correctness and/fear of being branded racist as having prevented us from being critical of minority cultures (whilst being critical of minority cultures); they both say the problem is we have been too tolerant, that tolerance has weakened us (although this us is defined differently); they both call for some kind of universalism/ integration in response (entry to a we as the requirement to give up some particulars).

Zizek’s comment on “immigrant refugees” is not obviously a form of progressive racism. This is Zizek sounding a lot like the Tory government. Or maybe we can just keep identifying  how what appears on the right also appears on the left. It is racism that hears in the situation of refugees, those who have to flee their home due to persecution and war, a desire to have what the West has. It is racism that allows the figure of the terrorist to become stuck together with that of the “immigrant refugee.” It is racism that allows terrorism to be explained as a consequence of envy and resentment.

Then: the concern with racism, let’s even call it anti-racism, is identified by Zizek as a problem because it distracts from the universality of class struggle: “In the first half of 2015, Europe was preoccupied by radical emancipatory movements (Syriza and Podemos), while in the second half the attention shifted to the “humanitarian” topic of the refugees. Class struggle was literally repressed and replaced by the liberal-cultural topic of tolerance and solidarity. Zizek is the one naming concern with refugees “humanitarian,” even if he is using quote marks.  When we are talking about the topic of refugees we are talking about the state management of life and death: we are talking about death by policy; we are talking about the distribution of vulnerability to populations. All of this talk is dismissed as a “liberal-cultural topic of tolerance and solidarity.” Indeed talk about such matters becomes what is repressive. Literally; apparently.

To talk about refugees as posing a crisis is to talk about state racism (in other words, we are locating humanitarianism within a history of violence). We are talking about how some immigrants become dangerous; some bodies become foreign. Concern about immigration is usually a mask for racism (“it’s not racist to ask critical questions about immigration”). Even phrases like “anti-immigrant” can be used to mask racism: not all migrants are the object of our concern. The dismissal of concern about brown and black deaths as “liberal-cultural” is racism in action: it is a repetition of the violence that decides whose lives count and whose do not. If the solution is class struggle, then the solution might be the erasure of the facts of blackness, and brownness, a refusal to recognise how structural violence is directed toward those who do not pass into whiteness.

The radical Western left: passing into whiteness.

But we have more to say here. Because Zizek identifies the problem as: our inability to address sexual violence in minority cultures as a result of political correctness.

Mostly through generalization, many on the Left resorted to all possible strategies in order to blur facts. Exhibiting political correctness at its worst, in two Guardian articles the perpetrators were vaguely designated as “Asians.” Claims were made. This wasn’t about ethnicity and religion but rather about domination of man over women. Who are we with our church pedophilia and Jimmy Saville to adopt a high moral ground against a victimized minority? Can one imagine a more effective way to open up the field to UKIP and other anti-immigrant populists who exploit the worries of ordinary people?

What is not acknowledge is that such anti-racism is in effect a form of covert racism since it condescendingly treats Pakistanis as morally inferior beings who should not be held to normal human standards.

In fact, as feminists of colour have shown the racialisation of sexual violence is one of the key ways racism functions. Feminism of colour: dismissable as political correctness. Those who point out how racism is central to how sexual violence and sexual abuse are reported and represented are judged to create the very conditions for fascism. This is a round about way of saying: pointing out racism leads to racism.

Let me return to a previous post to explain what I mean. I noted there how the problem of violence against girls and women in Western countries is rarely denoted as a problem of culture. So if a white man attacks a woman, and if he is put on trial, his whiteness would be inessential or incidental, an irrelevant detail. He would not be vaguely identified as white in the reporting of this kind of case. If a brown man – he might be an immigrant, he might be a Muslim or a “vaguely designated Asian” attacks a woman, his brownness becomes essential: perhaps the violence is identified as originating with immigrants or Muslims or vaguely with Asians. Summary: some forms of violence are represented as intrinsic to some forms of culture (as a cultural problem or a problem with culture); other forms of violence get represented as extrinsic to others (as an individual problem or a problem with individuals). Racism increasingly operates through the idea of “culture” as being what minorities “have.”  Culture here becomes something fixed but only for some cultures (culture becomes their nature). Making violence into a problem of culture is thus a way of racializing violence. Much racism today operates as or through the racialisation of violence.  And as Sara Farris has recently noted “when sexism is racialised and depicted as the exclusive domain of the non-western or non-Christian Other, all women end up losing.”

Another comment:

They are well aware that what they are doing is foreign to our predominant culture, but they are doing it precisely to wound our sensitivities. The task is to change this stance of envy and revengeful aggressiveness, not to teach them what they already know very well.

In fact the idea that rape, sexual abuse and sexual violence is foreign to “our predominate culture,” is how rape, sexual abuse and sexual violence become part of our culture. The idea that rape is foreign is what allows the identification of the rapist as a foreigner. This is “stranger danger” in action, and stranger danger is, as feminists have shown, again and again, dangerous to women, as women are endangered most often at home, by men they know, by familiars not strangers. Progressive racism rests on progressive sexism because of how sexism is assumed to be foreign. Progressive racism: how violence is assumed to originate with outsiders. Progressive racism is intimately tied up with domestic violence.

And, of course, stranger danger is dangerous to those deemed strangers; strangers are endangered by being recognised as strangers. We have a word for this: racism.  There is nothing more dangerous than being perceived as dangerous.

Also note, this narrative that positions sexual abuse as foreign to our culture, also positions that abuse as an attack on our culture. Violence against girls and women, in other words, is positioned as an attack on an us, with this “us” evoking the subject with progressive values. This is a very traditional form of sexism: which understands sexual violence against women to be not really about power over women, or even not really about women. Her wounds are covered up and covered over as a “wound to our sensitivities,” as if violence against her is really directed at us. An us that is: white and male.

Indeed the fact that many progressive centers and movements have covered up and covered over sexual harassment and sexual violence is not coincidental. I know of women who have been told that if they complain about the violence directed against them by self-defined progressive men of the left that they would be betraying the cause. It would be the end of the party! This is why anti-feminism is so central to progressive politics: feminists become identified with the state, as bureaucracy, as a repressive apparatus, as imposing moral norms on those who would otherwise be free radicals. This is why feminism is so often dismissed as moralising. And this is what it means for equality to become understood as a progressive value: so  much abuse and harassment can take place because the assumption of equality enables the abuse of power to be masked (as if having sex with your students is a form of egalitarianism – yes I have even heard this claim).

When we are talking about progressive racism and sexism we are talking then about racism and sexism of the left. If you bring racism or sexism up, especially in progressive circles, you will be judged as suffering from political correctness, or as doing identity politics. You are melancholic: too attached to your own particulars, too attached to yourself. You become me; they we. I have called this melancholic universalism: the requirement to identify with the universal that repudiates you.

We have learnt then a little more about what is meant by repudiation. Although there is more to learn. You have not to talk about racism or sexism as if not talking about them  stops them from existing. If you talk about racism and sexism, then you are deemed as being divisive, ruining the party. You have not to talk about yourself as racialised or gendered subjects. That’s a promise! You have to pass over the details as if they only exist because you insist they exist. You are not supposed to talk about the harassment you routinely experience. Repudiation: what you have to do to progress. If you talk instead of repudiation as a requirement, you become the killjoy, again. You are depriving their bodies of their pleasures. You do not laugh at their dirty jokes. They are not funny; this is not fun.

You are refusing to be saved by white men.

You are ungrateful.

We should be ungrateful; there is nothing here to be grateful for.

[1] This “some” cannot be defined from the start as racial (as being white say) because the law prohibits it. So the “some” might be defined in terms of qualities – the best, the excellent and so on – that ends up being racialised. Racism: so often about how things end up by not appearing to start with racism.

[2] In fact we could easily place some of Žižek’s recent contributions alongside speeches made by David Cameron – the similarities are uncanny and instructive.


Frankenberg, Ruth (1993).  White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis.

Kincheloe, J.L and Steinberg, S.R (1998) “Addressing the Crisis of Whiteness: Reconfiguring White Identity in a Pedagogy of Whiteness,” in J. L. Kincheloe, S. R Steinberg,. N. M Rodriguez and R. E Chennault (eds) White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America. New York: St. Martin’s Press. pp 3-29.


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Queer Fragility

Queer: a word with a history. A word that has been flung like a stone; picked up and hurled at us, a word we can claim for us. Queer: odd, strange, unseemly, disturbed, disturbing. Queer: a feeling, a sick feeling; feeling queer as feeling nausea. When we think of what this word has gathered, we gather around the word.  It is a fragile assembly. To create an assembly we would not begin with queers who are fragile although fragile queers might appear somewhere along the way. Queer fragility: to offer a meditation on fragility and how it can provide a queer connection, an odd, sometimes startling and always sensational connection, between what and who is deemed fragile.

In older uses of queer – queer to describe anything that is noticeable because it is odd – queer and fragility were often companions. A companion is a travelling companion. In one of George Eliot’s essays, “Three Months in Weimar” the narrator describes the sound of an old piano thus: “it’s tones now so queer and feeble like those of an invalided old woman whose voice could once make a heart beat with fond passion.” So: queer and feeble.

Feeble, frail, invalid, incapacitate, falter, weak, tearful, worn; tear; wear; queer too, queer is there, too.

These proximities tell a story. We might get in touch with things at the very point at which they, or we, are worn or worn down; those moments when we break or break down, when we shatter under the weight of history.

Crip, queer: shattering words. Carrie Sandahl teases out the “affinities and tensions” between crip and queer (1993: 26). Crip and queer: both these words have hurtful histories; they are words that drip with insult. They are words that are claimed, becoming pointed; becoming ways of pointing to something, because they keep alive that history: negation as political sensation.

This affinity and tension might be carried by the words themselves. For Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick what makes queer a “politically potent term” is how it cleaves to “childhood scenes of shame” (1993: 4). The potency of queer is what it cannot not bring up. Alison Kafer explores how the word “crip” is charged word. Drawing on Nancy Mairs’ essay on wanting people to wince at the word, she suggests “this desire to make people wince suggests an urge to shake things up, to jolt people out of their everyday understandings of bodies and minds, of normalcy and deviance” (2013: 15). Queer and crip: willful words that work by insisting on what they bring up; a charged history, a shattering history; they are shattering words.

Feminism too: tends to break things when said.

Shattering words. The sound of breaking glass.

A shattering can be evocative: it can bring strong images, memories, feelings, to mind.

After all we began with an evocation: the sound of an old piano evoking the sound of an “invalided old woman.” Could this evocation vibrate with affection? Could a heart beat with passion for what is wavering and quavering? Could we hear in valid, truth coming from strength, the violence of a history that demands something from those who cannot embody something?

Ableism: hearing you sound out of tune, a body as abrasion.

So queer and feeble: attuned to the sound of that sound.

Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation offers a sustained attention to fragility as a consequence of a world that is wearing, of a world that does not accommodate a body; of a world that does not provide a body with a home. Writing about his experience of cerebral palsy, Clare describes climbing up and down a mountain: “my feet simply don’t know the necessary balance. I lurch one from one rock to the next, catching myself repeatedly as I start to fall” alongside his experience of writing “the faster I try to write, the more the pen slides out of my control, muscles spasm, then contract trying to stop the tremors, my shoulder and upper arm painfully tight” (7). Writing, climbing: they are activities, a body doing things, trying things.

In Willful Subjects (2014) I described clumsiness as a queer ethics. Clumsiness is a crip as well as queer ethics; we have to create room for bodies that do not obey commands; that do not move in straight lines; that lose their balance. A body that is less stable is less supported by a ground that is less stable. If a world is organised into straight lines, if there are narrow spaces available to move around in (along a corridor or between that table and that wall), if tools are made for hands that can keep a firm grasp on things, then activities are harder for some to complete than others. Activities can bring you up against walls.

A body that wiggles about: deviating from an accepted path.

Clumsiness: when a world is what you bump into.

And the wall appears in Clare’s text as a place from which you can view a world that is alien: “I watched from the other side of a stone wall, a wall that was part self-preservation, part bones and blood of aloneness, part the impossible assumptions I could not shape by body around” (144). A stone wall: made out of a body that cannot be shaped by an assumption, a body that is not accommodated by a pronoun, he or she, which is at once an expectation of what a body can do and be. That or: violence more.

Clare describes how in this harsh and heavy world his most “sustaining relations” were with stones: “I collected stones –red, green, grey, rust, white speckled with black, black streaked with silver –and kept them in my pockets, their hard surfaces warming slowly to my body heat” (144-145).  And it is stones that Clare picks up, which give another sense of a body. From a shattering, a story can be told, one that finds in fragility the source of a connection.

Picking up the pieces of a life can be like picking up those stones; they are warmed by the heat of a body, finding life in a pocket; they; you, you too.

You too: when a word has been thrown at you, you do not expect to find a shelter there, to gather around. When you do, when you gather around an insult, you are not obeying an order. The word “obey” derives from the word “audience,” to give ear, to listen. You are disobeying by hearing an insult as an invitation to be somewhere. But of course sometimes a word does not provide shelter because of a history of being thrown, of how you are thrown. You do not stay; you hurry away.

In my book, Queer Phenomenology, I concluded  with a discussion of disorientation (1), of queerness as an oblique or slant-wise relation to a straight world. I choose not to call for disorientation because for some being thrown might be what leads you away from a word that is thrown at you. A word can seem like a world when it is not accommodating.

I began my conclusion “Disorientation and Queer Objects” with a quote from Merleau-Ponty.

The instability of levels produces not only the intellectual experience of disorder, but the vital experience of giddiness and nausea, which is the awareness of our own contingency and the horror with which it fills us’ (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 296).

And then I noted:

Moments of disorientation are indeed vital. They are bodily experiences that throw the world up, by throwing the body off its line. Disorientation as a bodily feeling can be undoing, and can shatter one’s sense of confidence in the ground, one’s belief that the ground on which we reside can support  the actions that make a life feel liveable. Such a feeling of shattering, or of being shattered, might persist and become a crisis. Or the feeling itself may pass, as the ground returns, or as we return to the ground. The body might get reoriented if the hand that reaches out finds something to steady an action. Or the hand might reach out and find nothing, and might grasp instead the indeterminacy of air. The body in losing its support might then be lost, undone, thrown.

Sometimes, disorientation is an ordinary feeling, or even a feeling that comes and goes as we move around during the day. I think we can learn from such ordinary moments. Say you are concentrating really hard. You focus, what is before you becomes the world. The edges of that world disappear as you zoom in.  The object – say the paper, and the thoughts that gather around the paper by gathering as lines on the paper– becomes what is given by losing its contours. The paper becomes worldly, which would even mean you lose site of the table. Then, behind you, someone calls out, says your name. As if by force of habit, you look up, you even turn around to face what is behind you. But as your bodily gestures move up, as you move around, you move out of the world, without simply falling into a new one. Such moments when you “switch” dimensions can be deeply disorientating. One moment does not follow another, as a sequence of spatial givens, which unfold as moments of time. They are moments in which you lose one perspective, but the  “loss” itself is not empty or waiting; it is an object, thick with presence.  You might even see black lines in front of your eyes as lines that block what is in front of you when you turn around. You experience the moment as loss, as the making present of something that is now absent (the presence of an absence). You blink, but it takes time for the world to acquire a new shape. You might even feel angry from being dislodged from the world you had inhabited as a contour-less world. You might even return the address with the frustration of: what is it? What is “it” that makes me lose what is before me?

So yes, those moments of switching dimensions can be disorientating. What do such moments of disorientation tell us? What do they do, and what can we do with them?

We can consider how queer politics might involve disorientation, without legislating disorientation as a politics. It is not the disorientation is always radical. Bodies that experience disorientation can be defensive, as they reach out for support, or as they search for a place to reground and re-orientate their relation to the world. So too, a politics that proceeds from disorientation can be conservative, depending on the “aims” of its gestures, depending on how it seeks to (re)ground itself. And, for sure, bodies that experience being out of place might need to be orientated, to find a place they feel comfortable in the world. The point is not whether or not we experience disorientation (for we will, and we do) but how such experiences can impact on the orientation of bodies and spaces, which is after all about how the things are “directed,” how they are shaped by the lines they follow. The point is what we do with such moments of disorientation, as well as what such moments can do, whether they can offer us the hope of new directions, and whether new directions are reason enough for hope.

In Living a Feminist Life, I returned to the question of orientation as a question of fragility (2),  queer fragility. Not to be accommodated is to become fragile: to be less supported by a world is to become more easily breakable. My aim was not to celebrate fragility but to register fragility as a consequence. I wanted to challenge how fragility can be used as a form of anticipatory causality, and thus as a defense mechanism (avoiding proximity to that which is anticipated to cause damage ).

I also wanted to show how fragility is also a way of telling a story about someone or something.

Fragility is generative: the quality assumed to belong to something is generated by the assumption.

So, for queers, it might be assumed you caused your own damage because you left the safety of a brightly lit path. For queers: we deviate from the path we  are supposed to follow. For queers: when damages are returned to you as a consequence of deviation. And we know: if you stayed on that path you would have been damaged in another way. That would have been: not the story usually told.

The brightly lit: dangerous to those deemed dangerous.

For some fragility is understood as caused by your own actions, as what follows an act of deviation.

Just deserts. It hurts.

So: fragility was a thread I picked up from the deviant paths of Queer Phenomenology, although I am not sure I realised this until now. In the conclusion to that book I turned to Sartre’s novel Nausea. A rather queer novel, I would say; still. Nausea could be described as a phenomenological description of disorientation, of someone losing their grip on the world. What is striking about this novel is how much the loss of grip is directed towards objects that gather around: “I must say how I see this table, the street, people, my packet of tobacco, since these are the things which have changed” (9). Here, again, the table appears first in a queer story. It is the things that are gathered in the way that they are, which reveal the disorientation, like an exercising of a ghost.

These these. The story moves on:

Something has happened to me: I cant doubt that any more. It came as an illness does, not like an ordinary certainty, not like anything obvious. It installed itself cunningly, little by little; I felt a little strange, a little awkward, and that was all….There is something new, for example, about my hands, a certain way of picking up my pipe or my fork. Or else it is the fork which has a certain way of getting itself picked up, I don’t know. Just now, when I was on the point of coming into my room, I stopped short because I felt in my hand a cold object which attracted my attention by means of a sort of personality. I opened my hand and looked: I was simply holding a doorknob (13).

We begin with the “me” as the place where something happens, a little strangeness, awkwardness that emerges over time, as if with a life of its own. The becoming strange of the body does not stay with “me.” For if it is my hands that are strange, then it is my hands as they express themselves in a gesture. Such gestures are precisely where my hands meet with objects, where they cease to be apart, but pick things up. So is it my hand or is it the fork that is different? What is so compelling to me about this account of “becoming queer” is how the strangeness that seems to reside somewhere between the body and the objects it is near is also what brings those objects to life, and makes them dance. So the doorknob when it is being what it is there to do (allow the body to open the door) is that – is even “just that.” But when the door knob is felt as other than what is it supposed to do, then it comes to have a tangible, sensuous quality, as a “cold object” or even one with a “personality.”

Perhaps the doorknob, rather like the stone, is warmed by proximity. Attention: can be warming.

The  objects that are gathered as gatherings of history -domesticated objects, such as doorknobs, pens, knives, and forks – are in a certain way overlooked. What makes them historical is how they are overlooked. Seeing such objects, as if for the first time involves wonder, it allows the object to breathe not through a forgetting of its history, but through allowing that history to come alive: how did you get here? How did I come to have you in my hand? How did we arrive at this place where such a handling is possible? To re-encounter objects as strange things is not to lose sight of the history, but to refuse to make them history by losing sight.

Queer objects might be a matter of how we attend to things, or what “things” can do, when they are in touch with other things. We might be talking in other words, of the queer effects of certain gatherings, which “things” appear to be oblique, to be “slipping away” insofar as they are losing their place, alongside other things, or where “things” seem out of place in their place alongside other things.

The object around which I have most gathered these thoughts has been the table. In a way, I have made the table a rather queer object by attending to it, by bringing an object that is often in the background to the front of my writing.  To move the “behind” to the “front” can have a queer effect. We could ask, for instance, whether queer tables are the tables around which queer bodies gather. It is certainly the case that tables can support queer gatherings: the times that we might gather around, eating, talking, loving, living and creating the spaces and times for our attachments. Queers have their tables for sure. Stories of queer kinship are full of tables.

Tables: they are rather queer things.

In Living a Feminist Life, the fragility of things held my attention, the fragility of things, queer things.  A broken jug: it spills. To spill: to cause something to fall from a container, often unintentionally. When we spill we reveal something. We spill the beans when we reveal something that is confidential; when we say something that we are not supposed to say. To spill derives from the word to spoil. The spiller is a spoil sport. This is why I described the feminist killjoy as a broken container. She flies off the handle. When she speaks, she spills. Perhaps it is the family table that she breaks. A queer table is where she ends up. Mopping up the spillage.

To spit is also to spill. Sometimes we encourage each other to spit it out because of the difficulty we have saying something. Words: they too can become queer things. We have to spill what is difficult to reveal.

Spit it out, spill it out.

Racism: when we spill, we spit.

We break open a container. We watch the words spill. They spill all over you.

It is a warming thought. And I think of Cherrie Moraga’s poem “The Welder.” Moraga speaks of heating being used to shape new elements, to create new shapes, “the intimacy of steel melting, the fire that makes sculpture of your lives, builds buildings” (1981: 219).  We build our own buildings when the world does not accommodate our desires. When you are blocked, when your very existence is prohibited or viewed with general suspicion or even just raised eyebrows, you have to come up with your own systems for getting things through. You might even have to come up with your own system for getting yourself through. Snap to it.

How inventive

Quite something

Not from nothing

Something from something

A kitchen table becomes a publishing house

We assemble ourselves around our own tables, kitchen tables, doing the work of community as ordinary conversation. A broken history might be how we got here, but in getting here we are doing something. We create our own support systems.

When we have to shelter from the harshness of a world we build a shelter

The effort required for those shelters to be built, brick by brick; she has a hand in it.


What a shelter

The roots; back to routes. Skelter from skelt: “to hasten, scatter hurriedly.” Scattered; shattered; confusion. The helter?

Just there for the rhyme.

Poetry in motion.

To build from the ruin; our building might seem ruined, when we build, we ruin. How easily though without foundations, without a stable ground, the walls come down. We keep them up; we keep each other up. We might then 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 the building we build. Queer fragility: a quality of what is built. A fragile shelter has looser walls, made out of lighter materials; see how they move; it is a movement.

A movement is what is built to survive what has been built. Queer fragility: how we loosen our hold on things. How we mess things up. How we survive what is messed up.

(1) For an excellent recent discussion of disorientation and its relevance for moral life that draws on feminist philosophy see Harbin (2016).

(2) I discuss the question of fragility throughout Living a Feminist Life though especially in chapters 7 “Fragile Connections” and chapter 8 “Feminist Snap.” My lecture “feminism and fragility” drawn from the book was posted earlier here.


Eliot, George (1884). Essays and Leaves from a Notebook. Edinburgh: Blackwood.

Harbin, Ami (2016). Disorientation and Moral Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kafer, Alison (2013). Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1962). The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith, London: Routledge Kegan and Paul.

Morago, Cherrie (1981). “The Welder,” in Cherrie Morago and Gloria Anzaldúa (eds). A Bridge Called by Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour. Watertown: Persephone Press.

Sandahl, Carrie (2002). “Considering Disability: Disability Phenomenology’s role in Revolutionizing Theatrical Space,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. 16(2): 17-32.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1963). Nausea, trans. Robert Baldick, London: Penguin Books.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1993). “Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel.” GLQ: 1, 1: 1-14.



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Losing Confidence

Losing confidence: it can be a feeling of something gradually going away from you, being eroded. You sense the erosion. You might stumble, hesitate, falter; things might gradually unravel so you end up holding onto the barest of threads. It might be an experience in the present that throws things up, throws you off balance; or a memory of how you lost your way once before that comes back in a flash and catches you unaware. When you lose confidence it can feel like you are losing yourself: like you have gone into hiding from yourself.

Sometimes losing confidence is slow; other times losing confidence is sudden. In the conclusion to Queer Phenomenology I wrote of how disorientation “can shatter your sense of confidence in the ground” (2006: 157). Confidence can indeed shatter like glass. And when your confidence shatters, you are the one who ends up in pieces. In Living a Feminist Life I began picking up some of these pieces. I was writing about how you end up trying to put yourself back together again; how you can feel like a fragment of your former self. When your confidence is shattered it is not just you that feels different: the world appears different, those edges sharper, the wall harder, that ceiling higher; obstacles, those things that are in the way, appear larger, magnified.

Or when you have lost confidence in something or in someone, in a relationship, everything can come into focus; everything becomes significant; when she frowns, or turns away, or does not smile the way you expect her to: is that because she doesn’t want you anymore, is she telling you something? Questions, a wavering, a hesitation: when something gets wrapped up in doubt you can end up wrapped up in yourself. And then perhaps when you are all wrapped up, your anxiety that she is turning away means she turns away: you have left her nowhere else to turn.

Are you then creating a problem by sensing a problem?

The question itself can make you lose confidence.

Sometimes: we learn about something from losing something.

Confidence can be the quality of something that is in the world: a gesture can be more or less confident; we sense the difference from how the arm moves in the air. If to lose confidence is a faltering gesture that gesture has ripple effects. A loss can be passed around, losing confidence in each other, in a situation; a “we” comes to be at the moment we falter.

In an earlier post I reflected on how an experience of violence too can have effects on one’s confidence; you might feel smaller because of what has happened to you; you might try and take up less space. You learn to inhabit your body differently through this expectation that what lies ahead might be shattering. When you sense the world “out there” as a danger it is your relation to your own body that changes: you become more cautious, timid, you might withdraw in anticipation that what happened before might happen again.  It might be your own experiences that lead you here, to caution as withdrawal, but it might also what you have learnt from others. You are taught or told to be careful: to be full of care as to become anxious about the potential to be broken. You begin to learn that being careful, not having things like that happen to you, is a way of avoiding becoming damaged.  And you sense the consequence: if something happens you have failed to prevent it.  Losing confidence might be about the work we have to do to be; a loss of confidence that registers not only as bodily fragility but also in how the world registers as intrusion, as not providing a shelter or home.

Confidence might also involve passing: some have to pass as confident in order to pass through a space; along a street or a corridor. Passing as confident means: appearing as if you are sure you have a right to be there, being upright or firm. You might be putting on confidence like armor, as if you can be defended by appearing to be what you do not feel at all.

Not all of us have to pass as confident to pass through; not all of us have to pass to pass through. 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.  Passing is what you have to do because or when your legitimacy is in question. 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 not women has material life consequences. Juliet Jacques (2014) drawing on Julia Serano (2007) explores precisely this problem: how the passing narrative casts trans women as deceivers or as fraudulent.  But sometimes, as Jacques herself notes, passing might be what you have to do to avoid being harassed. To pass as cis is to pass through without being detected: or to try to. Passing might then require a certain kind of confidence: the creation of an impression of having a right to be where you are; who you are. You experience a requirement to justify your existence in the manner of your existence.

Confidence: a manner of existence. It is not surprising that confidence leads us to the question of manners. Confidence derives from the Latin confidentia “firmly trusting, bold” (com plus fidere). The word confidence rests on faith or trust. To be confident can thus mean to have trust in an expectation.

Confidence could thus be understood as an orientation toward the future even if it is experienced in the present: to be confident in something is to be confident of something: that what you wish to bring about can be brought about. When I am confident in myself I am confident that I can bring something about. Confidence might then be registered as a bodily boldness that carries something forward; it can be the strength of a conviction or the appearance of that strength. To lose confidence can then be to lose strength not because you become physically weaker but because your estimation of what you can do has weakened; you are not sure you can carry that thing; it is too heavy, your arm hurts, you waver; it falls, you fall. Or if you are passing as confident, to lose confidence would be that moment that passing is revealed; to come out as faltering.

We can hear from these simple descriptions how confidence matters. So much feminist work has been concerned with gender as a mechanism for distributing confidence; how girls are less confident in their own capacities than boys. And yet even from this sentence we can see see the problem of “zooming in” on confidence as an explanation of gender and power. It can imply that girls are their own obstacles, in the way of themselves; that if girls were just more confident a problem would be resolved (or even: a hierarchy dissolved). This confidence in confidence could be another way that women are made responsible for what happens to them; as if our task in challenging gender relations is to modify ourselves. We could be confident in what we can do but still not be able to do it; the world can throw something up that renders doing something impossible: possibility is not dependent on confidence alone, even if losing confidence can make something impossible that might otherwise have been possible.

We need to give confidence another kind of embodied history; we need to show that bodies have histories that “go all the way down,” and that histories shape bodies and how they matter (Butler 1993).(i)  Feminist phenomenology teaches how a lessening of confidence happens somewhere between body and world.  Iris Marion Young in her classic essay “Throwing Like a Girl,” describes how women often “lack confidence in their capacity to do what needs to be done” (2005: 34). As she goes on to note: “we decide beforehand – usually mistakenly – that the task is beyond us and thus give it less than our full effort” (34). Confidence even as a mistaken estimation of one’s abilities shapes an outcome; how a body reaches for something determines what can be reached. Because women are less confident, women might go for something with less conviction. When we fail, we have confirmed the estimation, however mistaken.

Gender becomes here a question of estimation, how some end up underestimating what they can do. Perhaps also: how some end up overestimating what they can do.

Under/over: gender as measurement.

We tend to work out how the sex/gender system works from those who register as an error message. Because of course, throwing like a girl is also an expectation: that we can tell girls are girls; that we can tell what girls are like, from how they throw. If a girl throws too strongly, too fast, too far, she is throwing like a boy. Then she becomes a crisis: her confidence would be unfeminine; her confidence would be over-confidence. Women who are confident are often judged as over-confident. In other words lacking confidence becomes an expectation; a lack can be how you are accomplishing something. Girls by throwing badly are performing gender well. Girl is being accomplished because of how she falters (although not all girls become girl). In other words throwing like a girl might be deemed a result of what she lacks, but she is supposed to be lacking; she is supposed to throw the way she does.

Sexism: a system for deciding whose confidence is warranted; whose not.

Sexism: a confidence system.

Sometimes we lose confidence because others do not have confidence in us in the first place. We can lose confidence before we acquire confidence, as if confidence was never ours to have.  This loss of confidence can be mistaken in the sense that: we might be able to do what we are not confident we can do.  Or maybe there is a past tense here: maybe we could have done what we assumed we could not do. Maybe now, given that assumption, given we have lived by it, through it, we cannot do it. A history of underestimation can shape what bodies “do do” and thus what they “can do.” A body can acquire the shape of a loss of confidence; a loss can be reproduced by being inherited.

Because it was assumed I could not, I did not. Because I did not, I cannot.

Feminism: we give a mistake a history. We talk about how it was.

We talk about how an assumption becomes a wall.

A wall: what stops you from doing something; what stops you from being something. A wall can feel internal, like a voice inside your own head that says don’t go there; you can’t do that. Even when a wall feels internal it does not begin there. You might have been told: you can’t do that. You won’t be able to do that. This lack of confidence might be attached to you being a girl, or you just being the being you are; not good enough, not smart enough, or just not, not enough; or too much, it is too much for you, you are too much; that too.  You might be defiant in the face of this lack of confidence. I can do that. I will be able to do that. But if those words are repeated, you can’t do that, you won’t be able to do that; they can become a wavering of your own will, a doubt; an uncertainty. A conviction I can transformed into a question: can I? When she is in question she begins to question herself. And maybe as you begin to question yourself, you don’t put yourself behind yourself to protect yourself from the possibility of not being able to do what you had thought you could do. In other words that mistake might be to protect yourself from the consequences of having faith in yourself. And then you don’t. And then you think I can’t. Your effort acquires the quality of the fragility that is put into the world by an expectation. You waver, you fall. And you confirm the expectation. A confirmation can be the hardening of an idea: it becomes a thing. When you encounter that thing, you become that thing.[i]

I understand how expectations can be encountered as solid things: I have been there. We need to share our stories of being there. I didn’t do as well at school as my sisters. And I would hear my father’s voice echoing across his time: his lack of confidence in my own abilities. One time he said to my sister when she got an A-, it could be worse you could get B’s like Sara. It could be worse: you could be worse; a B student. It is not even the letter, the grade, that matters; but the tone, the disappointment; the disparagement. When someone has a lack of confidence in you, someone who has authority, whose view you are supposed to respect, you can feel crushed. You meet their expectations in the lowering of your own glance; lower, less. Sometimes, we revolt against an expectation. Even then: how you are perceived as being shapes what you come to be: to revolt against something is to be shaped by what you are against.

And: that voice, that voice that speaks with confidence about not having confidence in this person or that person can be taken on by an institution. A voice that says she cannot do this; that lowers a general expectation of the capacities of some; that increases a general expectation of the capacities of others. Gender then becomes a system for distributing confidence in others. This is different from my earlier point: because I am suggesting that estimations of capacities are upheld by others before they are taken on or taken in. An institution too can be a series of gestures: someone can be carried forth by a conviction; an expectation, we sometimes call this reputation; others might be stopped by doubts in their capacities, a faltering that she might inherit, as she questions herself or as she has to work even harder to prove herself.

A perception can become a wall.

A wall can be what you perceive.

In another post I reflected on how sexual harassment works as a wall. You perceive that wall as a thing, but also as a series of actions that are confident; the words uttered in the seminar about her body, they are not even muttered because he is sure of himself; the touching of her body, often in the cold light of day, boldly, as if that touch is right; as if he has a right to touch. But those around you don’t see it. Or they do not appear to see it. You are sure it is wrong, but others do not notice, or they dismiss it, or shrug it off. Maybe you too begin to feel that the wall is inside your own head. It is happening all around you; and yet people seem to getting on with it, you can end up doubting yourself, estranged from yourself.  Note here: institutional confidence is what allows some gestures to become routine. And to lose confidence is to accept those gestures as routine.

Maybe you try not to have a problem. It is because we perceive this wall that we end up having to modify our perception.

This is another way that confidence is distributed. The more a worldview is supported, the less confidence you need to uphold it. There is confidence in the system. If you are trying to challenge that system you might need even more confidence than you would otherwise have needed. You face resistance and ridicule. The walls you come up against don’t even appear to others. The wall you speak of becomes a phantom wall. You have to hold on harder, be firmer in your conviction, because your conviction brings you up against a world. You then need to find others to share your confidence. This sense of confidence refers to trust, to secrets; those things we share that we do not (sometimes cannot) disclose.

Those who I have called affect aliens – those who are alienated by virtue of how they are affected – might need more confidence just to proceed. When you are less supported you have to push harder.

Less supported: we can think here of how actions require grounds. I referred above to a sentence from my book Queer Phenomenology about how disorientation “can shatter your sense of confidence in the ground” (2006: 157). When you cannot be confident that the ground is stable, your step falters. As I tried to describe in this book, this book that started me on some rather wandering trails of thought, by ground we can think not only of a surface upon which we tread but a support mechanism. Whiteness for example could be understood as a ground that supports those who can pass through it or into it. For those who do not pass into whiteness, you falter; your body is not supported. You might be stopped even by a question: where do you come from, as if to say, you are not from here. We learn from how questions fall. The loss of confidence in the ground is unevenly distributed because grounds are uneven: some bodies more than others have their involvement in the world called into crisis. This shows us how the world is more involved in some bodies than others as it takes such bodies as the contours of ordinary experience.

When your being is supported, when you go with the flow, you might not even notice the support system. I am rethinking here a support system as that which enables some to proceed with confidence. A flow is an effect of bodies going the same way. To go is to gather. A flow can be an effect of gatherings of all kinds: gatherings of tables, for instance, as kinship objects that support human gatherings. How many times have you been left waiting at a table whilst others are attended to right away? You don’t know why, but it keeps happening. Maybe it is just what happens, but questions hover like clouds: is it because I am a woman, because we are two women together; because we are lesbians; is it because I am brown? You have been passed over so often you lose confidence that you even know what is going on; but it keeps going on. It is work: having to keep working things out. And you have to become insistent to be the recipient of a social action, you might have to announce your presence, wave your arm, saying: “Here I am!” Arms tire out; bodies too.

You have to get your whole body behind an action.

We can pause here and return to Iris Marion Young’s description of “throwing like a girl.” She suggests that girls do not get their whole bodies behind the action: that is why girls throw less well. But one aspect of her account we could reflect upon is the extent to which it accepts that a girl when throwing like a girl throws in a way that is less good than a boy (in other words the extent to which it accepts the association of femininity and failure[ii]). It might seem obvious that the girl’s way of throwing is deficient: that the boy throws faster and further than the girl. But if we think of how the girl has to put so much energy into accomplishing things, because of the obstacles she encounters, could we not rethink her way of throwing as wisdom: she is saving her energy for more important things? Perhaps then what appears as a lack of confidence is just a sensible redistribution of energy: her action is more faltering, her attention wavering, because she is investing her time elsewhere.

Sometimes a girl throws like a girl because she lacks confidence in her abilities: though, as I noted earlier, this lack also becomes a style of feminine accomplishment. But it is possible that a girl throws like a girl because she deposits her desires, her whims, her wishes, her will, even, elsewhere?

Feminism: where else?

Although of course throwing like a feminist might mean something else entirely. This is a clue to what I mean by this something else: those who identify themselves as feminists are more likely to be perceived as overconfident. We can refuse the underestimation of our collective capacities. But we are not confident about that refusal because we know too well how collective capacities can become objects of institutional desire.

We need to throw our confidence in confidence into crisis. Maybe what confidence is doing depends upon what values we are upholding.

Feminism: it can be about losing confidence (in a world say).

Feminism: it can be about gaining confidence (in a world say).

You lose confidence in the world that rewards you for compliance.  But you also need to acquire confidence in order not to comply with that very world: you have to have confidence that you can survive the experience of challenging the system. And you are learning stuff along the way, about how the system works. And you can become bolder because of how you come to understand the situation. Consciousness can magnify problems, for sure, but consciousness might enable you to have confidence in a judgment: that this is wrong, that this wall is hard.  Feminism can allow you to reinhabit not only your own past and your own body but the world as such. 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 that confidence.

Confidence can be needed to hold onto a view that puts you at odds with those around you. But what about the confidence that allows us to hold onto a view that is shared? Sometimes in order to become a feminist we need to lose confidence in a view that we have been encouraged to hold dear: we might need to acquire confidence that we can go on without that view. Sometimes we need to lose confidence or even our trust in a world that  diminishing what it is we can be. Sometimes a new thought, a starting again, requires losing confidence.

 I once put it like this: to lose confidence is the gift of a new thought.

Feminist confidence: the process through which we validate and support each other in our project of dismantling a world. We have to have a certain confidence to do this kind of work: to use words like “sexism” and “racism” for example.  A feminist movement thus requires that we acquire feminist tendencies, a willingness to keep going despite or even because of what we come up against. We could think of this process as acquiring feminist confidence: to be feminist and do feminism is a bold gesture.  If we tend toward the world in a feminist way, if we repeat that tending, again and again, we acquire feminist confidence. We still have to lose confidence to acquire that confidence.

The acquisition of feminist confidence, to become that sort of girl or woman, the wrong sort, or bad sort, the one who speaks her mind, who writes her name, who raises her arm in protest, is necessary for a feminist movement. But of course being the wrong sort does not make us right. Much injustice can be and has been committed by those who think of themselves as the wrong sort: whether the wrong sort of women or the wrong sort of feminists. There is no guarantee that in struggling for justice we ourselves will be just. We have to hesitate, to tamper the strength of our tendencies with doubt; to waver when we are sure, or even because we are sure. A feminist movement that proceeds with too much confidence has cost us too much already.

We falter with feminist conviction. As we must.


Ahmed, Sara (1996). Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press.

Butler, Judith (1993). Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” London: Routledge.

Dahl, Ulrika (2015). “Sexism: A Femme-inist Perspective,” New Formations, 86: 54-73.

Gatens, Moira (1983). “The Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinction” in Judith Allen And Paul Patton (ed), Beyond Marxism: Interventions After Marx. Sydney Interventions. pp.143-160.

Serano, Julia (2007). Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman in Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Berkeley, CA; Seal Press.

Young, Iris Marion (2005). Female Body Experience. Oxford University Press.

[i] In Living a Feminist Life I stress that we need to think of sex and gender in these terms: as embodied histories (recent attempts to bracket biological sex from history by some trans exclusionary feminists needs to be challenged by feminists). Judith Butler (1993) taught us to think of “girling” as a social mechanism. A baby is born: we might say “it’s a girl!” or “it’s a boy!” Even before birth: we might watch on a screen to see whether it’s a girl or boy, where it is a girl and boy is decided by virtue of the absence or presence of a penis. The attachment to gender rests from the very beginning on phallocentrism: on the penis as the decider of the future, two sexes as two paths; the sexual binary as fate, as fated, as fatalism. Even when we critique the sex-gender distinction, even when we learn from feminist critiques of this distinction (Gatens 1983; Butler 1990), we know that that distinction works often as a form of sequencing: as if from sex, gender follows. We could call this sequencing “gender fatalism,” as implied by the assumption that “boys will be boys.” Sex is thus given as an assignment; homework. No wonder mere description (it’s a girl, it’s a boy!) provides the basis of a task (being boy! being girl!), as well as a command (you will be boy! you will be girl!). To receive an assignment is to be a given a sign: boy or girl. This “or” too is doing something, registering as opposition; one or the other. A sign: what means or denotes something. Right from the very beginning matter and meaning are deeply entangled; it is not matter (sex), then meaning (gender). You are in being assigned x or y also being assigned to a group; an assignment is what you receive from others that will determinate how you are positioned in relation to others. We are more than these assignments right from the beginning. This is after all feminist hope: we do not have to live by other people’s assignments.

[ii] Of course losing confidence does not always refer us back to ourselves. We might lose confidence that we can do something because we don’t have confidence in something or even someone. I remember when I had an old car that would struggle to start on a cold winter morning. I had little confidence it would start. I have no doubt that lack of confidence registered in my desperate effort to get the car to start; that losing confidence might have had something to do with how it would not start. When we lose confidence, our estimation of things can be confirmed. A loss can be a loop.

[iii] See also Ulrika Dahl (2015) for an important queer femme critique of how feminists associate femininity with failure.


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You Are Oppressing Me!

Student activists are increasingly being identified as threats, whether to universities as institutions of knowledge, democracy or freedom of speech. Stories in the media circulate about students liberally using illiberal tactics such as no platforming. As I pointed out in a previous post You are Oppressing Us (this post is really part 2 of that one: an us becomes a me) many of the reported instances of “no platforming” are not in fact instances of “no platforming.” Students are using multiple tactics to challenge who speaks and what is being said. They are exercising their freedom of expression to protest against how others are expressing themselves: by not turning up at events, organizing alternative events at the same time; by turning up and walking out; by not sharing platforms with those whose views or conduct they find objectionable. I would say that the figure of the no-platforming student works to conceal what is worthy of our optimism: that students care about how worlds are being reproduced by institutions such as universities; that they are not passively accepting the terms or conditions of debate but are willing to stand up, to speak out; to fight to change those terms.

The figure of the no-platforming or censoring student,which operates alongside other figures such as the over-sensitive student as I discuss here, circulates not only because of who it demonizes but who it protects. Those who are protected are often those who are represented as censored. Because: when a critique is heard as censorship a critique is not heard. In fact the allegation of censorship is often what is censoring; what stops a critique from staying in circulation.

So we have yet another round of media reports this time about the “no platforming” of the “veteran gay activist” Peter Tatchell by Fran Cowling who is the LGBT officer for the NUS. Tatchell in his own tweets about these media reports uses words like “McCarthyism,” and “witch hunting” (as well as “sectarianism”). He has since written an article in The Telegraph where he uses these terms and in which he describes himself as a “victim.” McCarthyism of course not only refers to the use of unfair allegations to stifle dissent but derives from a specific moment in time: it was about how the State used allegations of communism to stifle dissenting voices by removing persons from their office. This use of words implies: that students are now in the position of the State wielding their power against radicals and dissenters whose own livelihood and personhood is under threat.

Students as the State: Really? Yes, really.

This is yet another instance of what is reported in the press as an example of “no platforming” is in fact not “no platforming” all. The person concerned refused to share a platform with Peter Tatchell. They did not even make a public statement giving a rationale for their decision in which they used the offending words “racism” or “transphobia.”

Now: refusing to share a platform is not “no platforming.” In fact to refuse to share a platform is to give up that platform yourself.

Many of those who say they are no platformed are the same those who have many platforms available to them. In fact we are learning from how many stories are now in circulation about this episode that claims that individuals are no platformed (whether made by the individuals themselves or by others on their behalf) can be how individuals acquires even more platforms.

No platform (as a claim) = more platforms.

So how and why did this story even become a story? The practice of not sharing platforms is commonplace. I have refused to share many platforms with different speakers myself. This is not because I do not or cannot deal with those with viewpoints different from my own. I am a full-time academic, I would not have anywhere to go if that was my reason! It is because sharing a platform requires being alongside before you can position yourself for or against.  It can be a legitimating of a viewpoint as worthy of being debated. Racism is often presented in these terms: as just another viewpoint that can be expressed at the happy table of diversity. I refuse that table. I always send explanations of my decision to event organisers; I always take the time to explain why I do not wish to share a platform with such and such a speaker. I am willing to use the word “racism” in my explanation of my decision when racism is the explanation of my decision. I consider these emails confidential: I  do not want to be in a dialogue with someone about why I do not want to be in a dialogue with someone! Perhaps if some of these emails were shared with that someone, or leaked to a third party, I could end up in trouble; although I am not sure I would because, I suspect, my position (as a professor) gives me some protection; in my experience, at least, words tend to cause more trouble for those who are more precarious.

So this story became a story because emails that were not intended for public circulation were disclosed to the media. There were at least two key moments when a correspondence is turned into a story: when the event organisers shared the emails with Peter Tatchell and his team, and when Peter Tatchell and his team either shared emails or disclosed their content to a media source. My own personal view is that both moments involved parties making decisions that are breaches of the usual ethics that surround the organization of events.

We can tell from the kind of stories that have circulated about how the story came to be a story. The media reports typically frame Peter Tatchell not only as the victim but also as the savior/hero (a “national treasure” in the Guardian article linked above, no less). The various media articles uniformly ask us – the readers, the public – to be grateful to Tatchell for his long years of dedication and sacrifice for human rights. Student activists then appear as spoiled and ungrateful children; willful children, perhaps, whose concerns about, say, transphobia and racism, are interpreted as a screen through which they mask their own will and desires.

It is quite clear that this story is being told from a certain point of view.  We are given the story as a way of being given that view.

The stories read like a PR campaign. Perhaps they read like a PR campaign, because they are a PR campaign.

We are watching the machinery; clunk, clunk.

Tatchell tweets the same tweet to many parties about how the student activist concerned refuses to provide evidence of his “transphobia” and “racism” because there is no evidence to provide.  I want to focus on the question of racism “or the use of racist language” because this is what I work on.  Just as an aside here: that the Guardian article linked above uses the expression “racism or the use of racist language” implies to me that the emails refer to “the use of racist language” (why else this or?). If that is the case, then to represent the story as Tatchell being accused of racism is already misleading or we just say it is leading (it is leading us to hear racism in a certain way). As I will try to show to hear racism as accusatory – as a claim that can be or should be treated as libelous – is to participate in a silencing mechanism.

I want to say before I proceed that I do not consider myself outside the problem I will be describing in the following sections. We can all become the problem. There is no bigger problem than those who think of themselves as a solution. And I know what it is like to be the object of critique. It can be hurtful and it is easy to become defensive. Recently for example a student used the word “transmisogyny,” to describe problems with a panel I was organizing. I immediately felt defensive. I wanted to announce my commitments! As a teacher my first principle is: treat your first reactions as pedagogy.  I learnt from my own defensiveness about how I was participating in something that I did not want to reproduce. Not wanting to reproduce something is no guarantee that you are not participating in something and can even allow you to participate in something (good intentions, in other words, can function as a safety net). Having realized this, I could have approached this student and asked her to enter into a dialogue. I could have asked to learn from her. But transmisogyny can be reproduced by the very expectation that I as a cis woman should be taught by a trans woman about it; that she spend her time on me as well as with me. I have had this happen to me with racism: white people expecting me to teach them.  Diversity work is the work of having to teach others about themselves: it is exhausting and it is what we might call a reproductive mechanism (it reproduces the relation being critiqued in the requirement to critique the relation).

It is still risky to present this example in this way because it can sound triumphant: look at me, see what I have learnt! We cannot make ourselves heroes in our melodrama without losing something, including insight. There is too much difficult work to be done; too much left to do. We can all get things wrong; we need to attend to how we get things wrong when we do.

To write from a position of self-defense in relation to transphobia (as a cis person) and racism (as a white person) is not adequate, if I can be allowed this underdescription of the problem of who becomes the solution.

Now to the purpose of this post: we have been here before.

In the past Tatchell has sent out a challenge to provide evidence of racism or his use of racist language. In the past I have taken up that challenge. I want to share in the remainder of this blog what I have written elsewhere about racism in relation to Tatchell’s work – since 2008 when I posted a comment on a website that was then shared on Alana Lentin’s blog. That comment was then reworked as a section of chapter 5 “Speaking about Racism,” from my book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012) and in an article published in a special issue of Feminist Legal Studies (2011). I then wrote again about the issue of racism in relation to Tatchell’s work in chapter 4 of Willful Subjects. I am going to share parts of this written work here so that it is more accessible to others (I have made some cuts and a few new additions). We need other stories to circulate, ones that counter the story that has been circulating within the press.

My point is not to make this singular instance be what the story of racism in the LGBT movement is about. That is never the point. It is the bigger picture that matters. From instances we learn about worlds.

Whatever you think, I want you to note that there is a long history of challenges made against Peter Tatchell on the grounds of racism: from many activists and scholars including from queers and trans people of color in Europe (some of which I will be citing in this post) and African human rights LGBTI defenders. This history is relevant because it demonstrates a constancy of critical reflection on the kind of work being done.

I would add one final note: in my view the most serious problem derives from the manner of the responses to challenges and critiques and to those who have made them.

Racism and Censorship[i]

 In 2008 I was pleased to write an endorsement of the collection Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality, edited by Adi Kuntsman and Esperanza Miyake. In my endorsement I described Out of Place as “a bold collection of essays that teaches us to think about what happens and can happen at the points where queerness and raciality meet. These meeting points can be startling, powerful, violent, oppressive and enabling. From reflections on forms of violence, terror and security, to considerations of how whiteness coheres in space, from accounts of the life worlds of queers and trans of colour, to critical engagement with debates about methodology, experience and activism, this book brings together some powerful new voices. The landscape of queer and critical race studies might look quite different if we listen well.”  As a queer academic of color based in the UK, it was indeed exciting to have this collection in my hands: to sense the emergence of a new scholarship premised on a will to think sexuality and race together, and to ask hard questions about the complicity of some forms of queer activism with a not-so-new world order based on Euro-American hegemony. My view (then and now) was that this would be a key publication for queer studies and critical race studies in the UK and beyond.

I was thus disappointed in 2009 to hear from the editors that the book was not going to be reissued and that it was now officially out of print. I was concerned to hear that the publishers had received complaints about the chapter by Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem, entitled “Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the War on Terror,” from Peter Tatchell and his legal team. The chapter offers a critique of the work Tatchell and OutRage! as an instance of a wider phenomenon they name  “gay imperialism.” The chapter has been described by Tatchell as “false and libelous.”  We can pause here and consider what the term “libelous” is doing in an act of description. To describe something as “libelous” is to evoke the spectre of the law. A libelous text would not stand up to the weight of the law. Even to describe a book as libelous can be to threaten it with the law.[ii]

Before a proper discussion about these complaints with the editors or authors, the publisher issued a formal apology to Tatchell, based on a set of counter-assertions about Tatchell and OutRage!. These counter-assertions included: that he has never “claimed the role of liberator and expert of Gay Muslims”; “that he is not Islamaphobic”; “that neither he nor Outrage are racist” and “that they have not engaged in racial politics,” and so on. As “counter-assertions” these assertions counter what are assumed to be the “assertions” of the chapter. The apology effectively aligned the publisher with Tatchell, in such a way that the publisher simultaneously aligned themselves against the authors of the chapter of the book they have published. The decision not to reprint the book is now impossible to separate from the decision to apologise to Tatchell.  As Aren Aizura (2009), Johanna Rothe (2009) and Umut Erel and Christian Klesse (2009) have pointed out the book has in effect been censored from existence. Further, the censorship of the book has been directed towards the critique of gay imperialism in particular. Note that censorship as a practice does not necessarily involve an individual actor who is doing the censoring (though it can do). To censor is to delete what is objectionable. The objection to this paper has enabled the deletion of a book.

I had been wondering about how I could respond to these events, when I read the critical accounts of censorship offered by Aizura, Rothe and Erel and Klesse. I was extremely grateful to them and to others for writing about the politics of the apology and for making explicit how racism comes up as a mode of response to critiques of racism. There are huge risks in writing or speaking about racism. Even to exercise the critical vocabulary of racism can generate a set of defenses, such that an exchange ends up being about those defenses rather than about racism (which is how such defenses are successful).  I should also admit I experienced a sense of tiredness – we might call this political fatigue – as I witnessed the events I am describing unfold. The apology as a script seemed familiar: too familiar to be rehearsed; yet so familiar it sounded like a rehearsal. We can learn from how responses to critiques of racism sound like rehearsals. It is as if there is a script that is written in advance; it is as if the very point of the script is to block the critique of racism from getting through.

When I read Tatchell’s own response to the critics, entitled “Academics Smear Peter Tatchell,”[iii] it became very clear that even the critiques of his response to the critique of racism were being blocked from getting through. Tatchell claims that many of his “detractors” were “spreading further smears.” We probably think we know what it means to “spread smears.” “To smear” originally meant to spread or daub with a sticky, greasy, or dirty substance, but has now come to mean “to stain or attempt to destroy a reputation.” So these criticisms of the censorship of Gay Imperialism are read as attempts to destroy Tatchell’s reputation, as a kind of “covering over” with dirt. In fact the critiques that Tatchell is referring to are hard to describe as smears.[iv] Not only that: they actually anticipate the defence made by Tatchell, as they explore the problem of how the critique of racism offered in the original paper had been displaced by being heard as accusatory, as being about individual reputation.  We can note here that Tatchell’s response employed the exact discursive tactics challenged by the critiques by describing the critiques as accusations of censorship: “For defending myself against untrue accusations, I am now accused of ‘censorship.’“[v] In fact the critiques of the censorship of Gay Imperialism did not accuse Tatchell himself of censorship: in different, but related ways, they argue that the book has been censored in part because of the decision by the publishers, which as a decision can be located with the problematic terrain examined by the original article.

Responses to critiques of racism can take the form of counter-assertion (“how can you accuse me of racism,” “some of my best friends are Black”, “I did good work for them,” etc.). These counter-assertions might also offer an assertion of a given person’s credentials. Counter-assertions are often stronger than countering the original assertion in the form of a negative claim (“I am not racist”); they often make additional assertions in the form of a positive claim (“I am anti-racist”). These responses fail to respond to the actual critique of racism as they take the form of self-recognition (“I don’t recognize myself in the critique of racism”; “I recognize myself as an anti-racist”).  To respond to a critique requires not referring what is said or written back to one self but engaging more closely with what is being asserted.  When self-reference happens too quickly (when someone responds by defending themselves against a critique by hearing that critique as an attack on their credentials), the opportunity for an engagement is immediately lost. We could describe the censorship of the critique of gay imperialism as the loss of an opportunity.

[I want to add something here. Note that the assumption that we have to engage with views we oppose misses how engagement does not happen because of how some views are asserted. I have no doubt that engaging with people who cannot respond to critiques of their work is not an engagement but yet another opportunity for them to assert their views. This is why I often refuse some engagements. I regularly talk to people I disagree with if I am confident than an engagement is possible.]

One difficulty here is that responses to racism tend to exercise the figure of “the racist” as the one who can be charged and brought before the law.  The very appearance of this figure is what allows a reduction of racism to an individual person who suffers from a false set of beliefs.  The figure can do a great deal of work: it is relatively easy for someone to respond to a critique of racism by insisting or even showing they are not that figure (unless they are say, a member of the BNP, and even then the new vocabularies of the BNP might allow someone to say something like: “I am not racist, I just love this country”). The reduction of racism to the figure of “the racist” allows structural or institutional forms of racism to recede from view, by projecting racism onto a figure that is easily discarded (not only as someone who is “not me,” but also as someone who is “not us,” who does not represent a cultural or institutional norm).  Critiques of racism are heard as personal attacks on reputation (repeat: “how can you call me that?”), such that one of the biggest accusations you can make is the very accusation that you are accusing someone of racism. As Fiona Nicoll suggests “the very idea of suggesting that someone might be racist has been elevated into a crime to rival (if not displace) racism itself” (2004: 20).  The reduction of racism to an accusation is part of the displacement and thus reproduction of racism. Indeed, one of the best ways you can deflect attention from racism is to hear racism as an accusation. When racism is heard as accusation, public relations becomes the exercise: the response takes the form of a defense of individual or institutional reputation.

Evidence of Racism[vi]

As I noted earlier in the article “Academics smear Peter Tatchell,” we are invited to find evidence of “Islamaphobia, racism or support for imperialist wars or the ‘war on terror’” in the articles that can be downloaded from Tatchell’s website. I decided that the best way I could respond would be to take up Tatchell’s invitation. Reading through these articles, I appreciated just how important a critical response to the material remains in circulation. Many of the articles including: “Their Multiculturalism and Ours”, “Why has the left gone soft on human rights?”; “The New Dark Ages” and “Islamic Fundamentalism in Britain” show serious problems in terms of their liberal employment of racialised vocabularies.  Before I refer to examples from these pieces, however, I want to pause and reflect more on what it means to talk about racism: and in particular what it means to think about how racism operates in language. I will use the occasion of responding to this material as an opportunity to reflect on some of the complex (and not so complex) ways in which racism operates. In doing so, I will be making my own rehearsals: going over or repeating arguments that might seem familiar about how racism works particularly through its re-attribution as a problem of culture. If critiques of racism are not working, are not getting through, then it is indeed time for repetition.

So what about racism in speech? What do we even mean by racist speech? I want to stress here that racism in speech – or even racist speech – does not simply take the form of explicit articulation of ideas of racial superiority (though it can take this form). Indeed, racism in speech often works precisely because such associations do not need to be made explicit.  An example of this can be found in discourses around the “war on terror.”  Politicians can make an explicit argument that “this is not a war against Islam,” as they often do. However in the same speech they might use the term “Islamic terrorists,” indeed that term will be repeated, often in a very casual way. The term can work to associate Islam with terror through the mere proximity of the words. The repetition of the proximity makes the association “essential.”  A repetition of a proximity is an affective mechanism: the word “Islam” become sticky; it comes to carry the value of the words that it is placed near. Saying just the word “Islam” can then be enough to generate terror.  In other words, the stickiness of proximities congeals as attribute, without an explicit act of attribution having to be made (for a discussion of “sticky signs” see Ahmed 2004). Even if an argument is explicitly made that Islam does not equal terrorism, an implicit association between Islam and terror is sustained.

The process of attribution in turn is bound up with the justification of action.  Attributions can be negative (x = cause of terror, oppression) but also positive (x = cause of freedom, modernity). The language of freedom can thus be exercised in justifications of war, as if freedom itself is a cultural attribute: what “we have,” and as what can be given or forced upon others.[vii] This is how a war on terror can be justified as freedom from oppression/violence. Freedom might refer here not only to freedom from oppressive regimes, or freedom understood in terms of its assumed kinship to democratic forms of government, but also the freedom of women and sexual minorities. One of the important contributions of the original chapter by Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem (2008) was to show how the very language of gender equality and sexual freedom can become a technology for distinguishing “the West” from its others, in particular from the Islamic other. Words such as “freedom” become a mode of subject constitution. As Judith Butler also describes “a certain version and deployment about the notion of ‘freedom’ can be used as an instrument of bigotry and coercion. This happens most frightfully when women’s sexual freedom or the freedom of expression and association for lesbian and gay people is involved instrumentally to wage a cultural assault on Islam” (2009: 209).

It is indeed frightening when the terms that have been central to social movements to which we are attached are the same terms used to wage war. We do not need to withdraw our commitment to these terms; nor do we need to assume they are inherently problematic. But we do need to think through the significance of their utility.  Jasbir Puar (2007) has astutely described the forms of lesbian and gay politics that exercise (and even seek to benefit from) an opposition between sexual freedom and Islam as “homonationalism.” We must indeed be critical of any complicity between a minority project and a state project. Queer politics needs to make explicit how the languages of freedom, including sexual freedom, can be mobilized in the war on terror, and can be used to justify the extension of state racism.  Not only does sexual freedom become a cultural attribute of the West, but sexual unfreedom and sexual backwardness becomes an attribute of Islam. If liberation becomes liberation from an attribute, and that attribute is made cultural, then liberation becomes liberation from culture. For queer Muslims or queers from Muslim backgrounds this is familiar: it is assumed in becoming queer you have to be freed (by white queer communities) from your family/culture/tradition.

When governments justify war on the grounds of freedom from oppressive regimes, it helps to recognize that these justifications have a history, to refuse to hear them as “new.” As Gayatri Spivak taught us, the British empire itself was justified in these terms. Her description remains extraordinary for its precision: “white men saving brown women from brown men” (1988: 297). Homophobia too can be exercised as what “the others” need liberating from: we can reformulate her description as “white queers saving brown queers from brown straights.”  The politics of attribution is thus a central mechanism for establishing the moral ground for war. When homophobia is attributed to Islam, it becomes a cultural attribute. Homophobia would then be viewed as intrinsic to Islam, as a cultural attribute, but homophobia in the West would be viewed as extrinsic, as an individual attribute.

When freedom is used as a justification for war and empire, it too can become a cultural attribute: what we have; what we give them; what they must have.  We can learn from how racism can be exercised by or even as the language of freedom. When we are dealing with language and power we are dealing with how power often does not reveal itself: power becomes the capacity not simply to regulate speech but to generate ideas through proximity: freedom would be put near other terms, giving them both value and force.  For example, freedom of speech has recently come to be translated into “the freedom to be offensive.”  These freedoms become qualities attached to some rather than others. My own work on Islamaphobia has examined how “being hurt or offended” by racism becomes seen as the “problem” of Muslims who don’t integrate, such that Islam becomes what offends “our freedom,” what challenges our freedom (Ahmed 2010: 142-148).  None of these associations have to be articulated as a viewpoints, nothing has to be explicitly said.

It might be helpful to point out that homophobic speech can also work like this by a withdrawal from the necessity to articulate a viewpoint: for example, someone does not have to be anti-gay by saying “all gays are pedophiles” or “all gays endanger the well-being of our children,” all they need to do is put the category of pedophilia near to the category of homosexual to create this effect. Or note how if a lesbian or gay person is involved in child abuse, the category of lesbian or gay will often be made explicit in media reporting, which becomes an implicit invitation to make being lesbian and gay part of the problem: but when a heterosexual person is involved in child abuse (much more commonly) their heterosexuality is less likely to be brought up in the description, which allows heterosexuality to disappear from the problem. The way in which problems are presented makes some people and not others into problems. A critical and complex understanding of language and power is needed to get at this mechanism. We must take the time we need to get at this.

I would argue that Peter Tatchell’s writings on Islam and multiculturalism repeat and reproduce many “problematic proximities” between Islam and violence, and thus participate in the culture of Islamaphobia. Haritaworn, Tauqir and Erdem in their chapter show this: they point out how, for example, in one of his articles Tatchell makes six comparisons between the Muslim Council and the BNP, suggesting that the language of these two groups is “barely distinguishable” (2008: 80-81). We learn from the inability to distinguish between these groups: the terms “Muslim” and “fascism” become barely distinguishable in this reading of their terms as “barely distinguishable.”  Even if there is no explicit claim that Muslims are fascists, the repetition of the proximity generates its own claim. The social diagnostics of homophobia translates swiftly into a racial diagnostics. The terms we use can make the translation for us.

Consider Tatchell’s article, “Far Left Collusion with Islamo-Fascism.” The term “Islamo-Fascism” makes exactly this translation. I would describe this term (without hesitation) as a racist term, where the availability of this term as a singular term is a condensation of a history. The proximity between the two words “Islamo” and “Fascism” is signaled in the abbreviation of the dash. It is just a small line that gets us from one to the other. The term “Islamo-Fascism” unsurprisingly was exercised a great deal in official justifications of the war on terror, performing a similar function to the term “Islamic terrorists” that I discussed earlier. The nearness of the words does the work of argument without having to make an argument: Islamo – fascism as Islamo = fascism.

One of Tatchell’s primary motifs about the politics of the left – that they are “going soft” – needs to be challenged. The rhetoric of “going soft” is of course often exercised within mainstream politics (both Tory and Labour): going soft on immigration would be a case in point. For Tatchell the left is going soft on human rights. What can this mean? One has to note that many in the left (activists as well as scholars) have historically been critical of the language of human rights given that human rights often assume the “abstract individual” as the primary subject of politics (an individual who is abstracted from the qualities of some more than others); and given that rights discourse has been used to justify acts of violence. We need as well to remind ourselves of the reasons why anti-racist activists and scholars have been critical of the languages of universalism (see my post on what I call “melancholic universalism” for a discussion of some of these reasons). Note, I am not saying that this is the only way that rights discourse has been used but I am suggesting we need to understand the utility of rights discourse to imperialism. My own view is that rights discourse can be useful for pragmatic reasons: it is a question of how it is used, by whom, and for what purpose. But the idea that the left is going soft on human rights is simply a failure to recognize any of these histories of internal critique.

The construction of “the left” and its failures within Tatchell’s writing does its own work. Another example: the article “Why has the Left Gone Soft on Human rights” suggests that the left’s “perverse interpretation of multiculturalism” has “resulted in race and religion ruling the roost in a tainted hierarchy of oppression.” The implication here is that “political correctness” (which would be a fair translation of this perversity) about “race and religion” have prevented those in the left from challenging sexism and homophobia in minority cultures. What is so odd about the timing of this utterance is that multiculturalism is increasingly and officially being articulated as a problem (what Tatchell is describing is hardly a dominant view). Multiculturalism is officially described as a problem because of how it is assumed to encourage segregation. The so-called failure of integration is easily and often narrated as the failure of ethnic minorities to integrate (not the failure of , say, the white upper classes to integrate).  The failure of multiculturalism in Tatchell’s article is identified with the failure to be critical of minority cultures (for their homophobia, sexism etc.). The problem with multiculturalism becomes not only a problem with minorities, but also because it prevents us from speaking of them as a problem.  In other words, multiculturalism becomes a problem because it prevents “us” from being critical of minorities. We might note a performative contradiction at work here: a viewpoint that we cannot be critical of minority cultures is offered as a way of being critical of minority cultures.

By implication the new minority position becomes the position which critiques minority cultures: the new minority becomes those who are “being hard” on minority cultures rather than “being soft” on them.  Crucial to what I would call “the inflationary nature” of this logic is the argument that racism is taken more seriously than homophobia (“ruling the roost”). I believe homophobia should be taken seriously, but the idea that racism is being taken seriously “over” homophobia needs to be challenged: not only is racism often protected under the banner of freedom of speech; but racism as a set of practices can be concealed by the very discourses of equality that are supposedly signs of racism being taken seriously (for discussion  see Ahmed 2012). And that is just the polite forms of racism.

Furthermore, as Haritaworn, Tauqir and Erdem showed in their chapter, the very narrative that “race and religion” is privileged over sexuality as an axis of oppression becomes a means of suggesting that ethnic minorities are privileged over sexual minorities (2008: 81). Such a narrative immediately constitutes these groups as being in opposition: as if there is no overlap, as if there are no sexual minorities who are also ethnic minorities. Queers of colour can disorder this political order by entering the debate as subjects with our own voices. The idea that race is taken “more seriously” only makes sense from the point of view of those who can inhabit whiteness, where inhabitance is also about the exercise of privilege (a sign of privilege is not noticing one’s privilege).  The experience of racism teaches you the myriad and complex ways in which racism is not visible to those who do not experience it. Much of this experience I would describe as the everyday experience of not being white in a world that assumes whiteness as a norm. To inhabit whiteness as a white person can mean not coming up against race in how you encounter others in everyday and institutional spaces. Put simply (and clearly it is still the time to make this simple point): white queer subjects might be very aware of heteronormativity because of being queer (queerness as estrangement from social and sexual norms) but not be aware of whiteness because of being white (whiteness as an alignment with social and racial norms). Taking racism seriously is what we must aim for, and part of this seriousness needs to be the recognition of what we might call “institutional whiteness.”

In another article entitled “Their Multiculturalism and Ours,” Tatchell suggests that the left has “gone soft” on its commitment to human rights because they are “paralysed by fear of being branded racist.” He then suggests that “allegations of ‘Islamaphobia’ and racism are increasingly manufactured.” Racism becomes here a fabrication, a system of rule, an invention that serves a purpose (by preventing a critique of minority culture). The very idea of racism is identified as a form of cultural paralysis.

Let me step away from Tatchell’s specific article at this point. I would suggest that one of the crudest ways that racism is reproduced is through the denial that racism exists. It then appears as if the ones who bring it up are bringing it into existence. Furthermore, the idea that racism does not “really” exist (in the way they say it does) can become a justification for racism (as if racism is what stops us from being allowed to be racist, for example, by representing such and such a minority as the cause of our problems). Racism is then often enacted in the same speech acts in which it is denied. One of our tasks must be to account for these forms of denial.

Returning to Tatchell’s article, one of his examples is the veil. He refers to the defense of “the veiling of girl children in many Islamic societies” and the attempt to “import this sexist oppression into Britain.” Later in the same article he suggests that “even in the West” people are now saying that “we must accept and respect this cultural difference.” One notes here that there is no engagement with any voices of Islamic feminists in this article.  The assumption that the veil can only signify oppression thus enables Tatchell to take up the position as the one speaking for “the minority in the minority.”  The assumption that Islamic girls concerned are “young and powerless” translates into a moral authority to speak on their behalf. There is no engagement at all with how much speaking for the minority of the minority has been a position of majority privilege historically.  We can return to Spivak’s precision: “white men saving brown women from brown men” (1988: 297). When the other is spoken for, the other does not speak (or as she famously describes”the subaltern does not speak”, which is to say, the conditions are not in place for her voice to be heard).

Now the consequence of my own critique would not be that we cannot attend to the violations of the rights of women or girls in Islamic cultures. As a feminist I think we need to attend to violence against women and girls, wherever it happens. But we also want to ask critical questions about the politics of attention. We might note that the problem of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual violence in “the West” does not come up in the same way, because if it does come up, sexism, sexual harassment and sexual violence are typically identified as about problem individuals not a cultural problem.  The problem of violence against girls and women in so-called Western countries is rarely denoted as a problem of culture.So if a white man attacks a woman, and if he is put on trial, his whiteness would be inessential or incidental, an irrelevant detail. If a brown man – he might be an immigrant, he might be a Muslim -attacks a woman, his brownness becomes essential: perhaps the violence is identified as originating with immigrants or Muslims. Summary: some forms of violence are represented as intrinsic to some forms of culture (as as cultural problem or a problem with culture); other forms of violence get represented as extrinsic to others (as an individual problem or a problem with individuals).

Racism increasingly operates through the idea of “culture” as being what minorities “have.”[viii] Culture here becomes something fixed but only for some cultures (culture becomes their nature). Making violence into a problem of culture is thus a way of racializing violence. Much racism today operates as or through the racialisation of violence.  And as Sara Farris has recently noted “when sexism is racialised and depicted as the exclusive domain of the non-western or non-Christian Other, all women end up losing.”

In “The New Dark Ages: Peter Tatchell Documents The Global Threat of Islamic fundamentalism” the racialisation of violence becomes explicit. You don’t need to read Frantz Fanon to discuss the problem with the use of the very term “the new dark ages” though Fanon, as always would help. The term “the dark ages” derived from Latin was first recorded in 1602 to indicate the decline of the Roman empires. The term however borrowed from long-standing metaphors of light and darkness, signifying truth and falsity, as well as proximity and distance from God. These metaphors participates in a racial history: “dark” has come to signify, as Frantz Fanon (1986) pointed out, the other side of man, the lower side, what is emotional, primitive, behind, beneath, evil. Dark becomes death, illness, decay, loss, incivility, absence. Darkness might seem to acquire these meanings by being detached from the literal referent of dark bodies. But actually in gathering these meanings, darkness becomes all the more sticky: not only sticking to those bodies that can be recognized as dark, but assigning those bodies with negative value. Black bodies become legible not only as not white, but as not being, or as being not.

Let me repeat: we do not need to read Frantz Fanon to discuss the problem with the use of the very term “the new dark ages,” though Fanon as always would help.

What is new about the new dark ages? Tatchell suggests that the “New Dark Ages are already with us: “For hundreds of millions of people in parts of the Middle-East, Africa and South-East Asia, the ascendancy of Islamic fundamentalism has ushered in an era of religious obscurantism and intolerance.” The expression “the New Dark Ages” names the ascendancy of “Islamic fundamentalism” and thus names Islam (we have already noted the problem of proximity: Islam becomes fundamentalism through the repetition of the proximity between the terms).  The rise of Islam becomes identified with the return to the Middle Ages; the collapse of the Roman Empire; and the disintegration of Europe. The  article talks of “the zealotry of the original dark ages in medieval Europe, when Christian fundamentalists excommunicated and scientists as heretics, tortured non-believers, drowned women as witches, and burned sodomites at the stake.” Note here that Christian violence is made into the past, a “making past” that renders Christian violence something that is no longer. The threat of Islam is made dramatic in its presence. Islam becomes associated not only with the threat of an individual death, but with the potential death of civilization. The threat of Islam is thus posed as a future threat by associating Islam with a past that we have left behind.[ix] When a threat is made present, then fighting becomes about a matter of survival.[x]

In another later article, “The Global Struggle for Queer Freedom” Tatchell uses the term “the homophobic dark ages.”  Homophobia itself becomes a sign and symptom of the primitive, of the racial other, of a racial time that “we” have overcome. There is probably no clearer example of how the very use of the language of homophobia can reproduce racism.  We could mention here that more than half the countries that criminalize homosexuality have laws that originated with British colonialism.[xi] We do need to talk about the problem of homophobia – just as we need to talk about sexism and transphobia – but to find this problem elsewhere (introduced by the one deemed foreign) can be a way of not addressing the problem here. Indeed, the appearance of having solved it or achieved it can then be used as evidence of cultural superiority. We give this becoming a word: racism. 

Feel Like An Arm, Act Like A Rod[xii] 

This is already a very long post. If you have got this far, thank you! But I want to share one more set of comments about how Tatchell make use of racist language, from my most recent book, Willful Subjects (2014). In this section I am trying to complicate my own arguments about willfulness. If my book begins with a wayward willful arm that is beaten by a willing rod (that grim Grimm story), I point out in this section how a rod can appear as an arm; how it can be involved in beating the others by creating the impression of being the one beaten.

The example: in 2011 a demonstration against the English Defence League, a far right group with an anti-immigrant and anti-Islam stance, took place in Tower Hamlets, East London. Prior to the march, Peter Tatchell announced his willingness to demonstrate as a gesture of solidarity with Muslims. He wrote the following invitation or request to the queer community: “I urge everyone to support the Saturday’s protest against the far right English Defence League (EDL), as it attempts to threaten and intimidate the Muslim community.” He also indicates his own will to be present under, we might say, the queer sign: “I will be there with a placard reading: Gays and Muslims UNITE! Stop the EDL.”[xiii]

The sign might seem to promise solidarity between willful parts: Gays and Muslims, those whose particular will is not given expressed by the national will (although we can note this “and” assumes the parts as apart: the Gay Muslim disappears in this “and”). In a follow up article, Tatchell refers again to his placard. This time he makes clear that the sign has two sides.[xiv] On the other side is the following: “Stop EDL and far-right Islamists. No to ALL hate.” Let’s think about the two sides of the sign: one says “yes” to solidarity between Gays and Muslims, the other says no to “the EDL” and “far-right Islamists.” On the other side of the sign, the other side of “yes” saying to Muslims is “no” that creates what we can call a problematic proximity between the EDL and Islamism. On the other side “Islam” appears only as “far-right Islamism.”

We realise the significance of these different sides of the placard if we read the narrative. Tatchell uses the occasion of recalling the experience of the march against the EDL (an organization that has an anti-Islam but “gay friendly” stance) to speak out not against the EDL, which recedes or becomes background, but against what he calls Islamic fundamentalism. In fact Tatchell uses the occasion to argue that Islamist goals are “much more dangerous” than that of the EDL. One has to note that Tatchell is adopting here the very language of the EDL.[xv] It is easy to identify the problems with this identification of Islamism as the “bigger threat” in the context of a protest against those who perceive Islam as the “bigger threat.”

But how does one read the insistence on the right to be visible as a gay man in a protest, to carry a queer sign? One could say surely he is right; surely queers have a right to gather whenever and wherever? But travelling under the queer sign can become part of the management of the racial space of the nation. As Jin Haritaworn (2010) has noted in a sharp critique of gay imperialism, the use of kiss-ins near Mosques by mainstream LGBT groups in Berlin shows how what appears as an assertion of a sexual minority can function as the assertion of a racial majority. Travelling under the queer sign becomes a way of occupying political space and of claiming territory as one’s own residence or home. This is how the content of this sign does come to matter: the queer sign is not empty in the sense that it cannot be filled by anybody. The queer sign becomes aligned with the state apparatus, a happy sign, depending on the unhappiness of the Muslim other; it can achieve its status as voluntary stigma by willing the very signs of an involuntary Islamic homophobia. The Muslim others becomes unwilling citizens: unwilling to integrate, unwilling to love the love that is willingly (although conditionally) endorsed by the nation.

We learn that if insistence is a political grammar, it is not always legible.  It might appear that organizing under the queer sign requires willfulness. And yes, sometimes, maybe even often, it does. But sometimes it does not: you might feel like an arm but act like a rod. This is a complicating point: one that I want to complicate my own argument thus far in this chapter. The very assumption of willfulness can protect some from realizing how their goals are already accomplished by the general will. It can be whiteness that allows some queers to accomplish their goals; it can be the unseeing of whiteness that also allows some queers not to see how they appear to others when, for instance, they carry a sign that makes Islam proximate to the EDL; it can be unseeing whiteness that allow some queers not to see how that very proximity can be a threat. What is assumed as a willful queerness can be a willing whiteness. Jasbir Puar’s (2007) important critique of homonationalism could be read as an account of how wayward queers can and do become the straightening parts. This kind of queer politics aims to become part of the nation where partness is achieved by or through the very projection of willfulness onto others.

It is important to describe the racism of this projection. But to describe the projection of willfulness as racism is to be heard as willful. When queers of color talk about racism in queer politics, we become killjoys, killers of queer joy; the ones who are getting in the way of queer happiness. It is then as if: we are preventing ourselves from taking up our seats at the table.

Sometimes, the only possible politics we have available to us is to refuse that seat. I write this post in solidarity with those who have refused that seat.


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

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

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

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

Aizura, Aren (2009). “Racism and the Censorship of Gay Imperialism,”

Butler, Judith(2004). Undoing  Gender.  New York: Routledge.

Erel, Umut and Christian Klesse (2009). “Out of Place: Silencing Voices on Queerness/Raciality”.

Fanon, Frantz (1986). Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto.

Haritaworn, Jin (2010). “Queer Injuries: The Racial Politics of ‘Homophobic Hate Crime,’” Social Justice. 37 (1): 69-89.

Haritaworn, Jin, Esra  Erdem and Tamsila Tauqir(2008) “Gay Imperialism: The Role of Gender and Sexuality Discourses in the “War on Terror,”” with Esra  Erdem and Tamsila Tauqir, in Esperanza Miyake and  Adi Kuntsman (eds.), Out of  Place: Silences in Queerness/Raciality, York: Raw Nerve Books, pp. 9-33.

Nicoll, Fiona (2004). ‘“Are you calling me a racist?”: Teaching Critical Whiteness Theory in Indigenous Sovereignty’, borderlands, 3.2.

Puar, Jasbir (2007). Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times.  Durham:Duke University Press.

Razak, Shareen N. (2007). Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Rothe, Johanna (2009). “Out of Place, Out of Print: On the Censorship of the First  Queerness/Raciality  Collection in Britain.”


[i] This section is drawn from On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012).

[ii]  I am suggesting here that whether or not Peter Tatchell and his team threatened the publisher with the law, their use of the language of libel to describe the article constituted a threat.  Tatchell says they did not threaten litigation: my point would be that they did not need to, whether or not they did.

[iii] All of Peter Tatchell’s writings referred to in this piece can be downloaded from his website: Last accessed August 18 2010.

[iv]  Tatchell in this supplementary response refers directly only to Erel and Klesse: however the article also uses terms like “my detractors” and “my critics” suggesting the object of the response is more generalized, as well as I would suggest anticipatory as a mode of defense (“my critics “easily becomes “anyone” who would agree with the criticisms made in the original chapter).

[v] My argument here does not rest on a semantic distinction between “accusation” and “critique” but a sense that the word “accusation” is heard in a particular way (or is a way of hearing). Indeed the two words “racism” and “accusation” when stuck together tend to conjure up a scene, of an individual subject who is under attack: a sense we might say of injury, of being hurt and damaged.  This distinction between critique and accusation is subtle but affective.

[vi] This section is derived from my 2011 paper “Problematic Proximities: or Why Critiques of Gay Imperialism Matter,” from Feminist Legal Studies. I include a download link to the whole special issue – which contains some important critiques of gay imperialism:

[vii] In the article in The Telegraph linked above, Tatchell refers to “enlightenment values” and John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty in particular. I should add here that the period of the Enlightenment coincided with the expansion of European imperialism and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Many Enlightenment thinkers were deeply racist (think Hegel, think Kant), identifying history and reason with white people; others found ways to reconcile slavery with liberalism (think Locke). We are not rejecting ideas by pointing this out; we are complicating the history of ideas; we are opening those ideas up by considering  histories of  their usage. Even ideas we agree with can be used to support systems we oppose. Also note John Stuart Mill was a utilitarian philosopher. He was also employed by the East India Company, the company which when it was dissolved, became the British Raj (his father James Mills another utilitarian philosopher who wrote the volume A History of British India – one of the most racist and Orientalist body of work you could find – also had a role in this company). This is no mere coincidence: empire was routinely justified using utilitarian logics (maximizing happiness). Also note today this history of European imperialism is routinely recalled as happy history of “giving” modernity (and with it law, liberty, equality) to others rather than a violent history of conquest, invasion and destruction. It is this happy version of the British Empire that is presented in the book, Life in the UK, upon which citizenship tests are based. It is the dominance of this way of telling the imperial story that explains why so many people in the UK can still be “proud” of empire. How we tell these histories really does matter. Recognizing that liberty can be used to justify war and oppression does makes a difference. For further discussion see the chapter “Melancholic Migrants” from my book The Promise of Happiness (2010).

[viii]  Th mechanisms whereby “culture” becomes racialized  are complex; and we have before us a long history of critical work that attends to these complexities. Feminist postcolonial scholars have focused on how “culture” becomes associated with minorities and in particular with Muslim women: see for example the work of Shareen Razack (2007).

[ix] In other words, temporality is crucial to the work of this narrative: Christian/Western/European violence becomes “in the past” as a way of Muslim violence into the present. I would argue that racism in the contemporary context is itself associated with the past, as what we have overcome or left behind. For example, Trevor Phillips during an interview he gave on the BBC to mark the 10th anniversary of the Macpherson report on January 19 2009 says the following: “the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry was a great shock to the system. It shook people out of their complacency and meant that we had new laws and a new attitude and that meant for example that the police have changed their behaviour quite dramatically. Nothing’s perfect, there is still a lot of work to do, but we are in a different place than we were before.” We can notice in this description that the introduction of the language of institutional racism becomes a form of shock therapy that is understood to be the origin of new attitudes and new behavior.  Not only are institutions given psychological attributes in this account, but we have a clear narrative sequence of before and after, in which what comes after the recognition of institutional racism is marked by its difference to what came before.  In other words, the institution in being shocked into recognizing its racism is no longer racist. For Phillips “the we” of the police slides immediately into “the we” of the nation: “we are in a new situation. Britain is a modern diverse country. Britain is the best place to live in Europe if you’re not white.”The “shock” of recognizing institutional racism is what allows recovery from racism and even the emergence of racial equality. For Phillips any racism within an institution is explained as not really “going on” even when it is ongoing: “In many of our institutions, there are still old-fashioned attitudes that don’t really catch up with where modern Britain is at and how British people today feel. That’s the next task that we’ve got to tackle.” Racism becomes in this description about what is ‘old-fashioned’ as if it lingers only insofar as institutions are not expressing what is in fashion. Racism enters contemporary discourses of race equality as an anachronism.

[x] In this respect, the argument made here shares some features with fascist accounts which also position minority cultures as threatening the survival of the nation (see Ahmed 2004). Rather the survival being a matter of kinship and blood, it becomes a matter of the transmission of the right values (including rights, diversity and equality). This is very close to existing government rhetoric about “British values,” which constructs intolerance as other than British values. Othering works now by perceiving the other not as intolerable but as intolerant. With reference to note [ix] , even empire can be used as evidence of British tolerance. Trevor Phillips describes empire as demonstrating the British are “not by nature bigots.” As he puts it: “we mixed and mingled with people very different from those of these islands. Yes: conquest, violence, slavery, settlement, occupation re-described as a party. There is a politics to who is perceived as tolerant and intolerant. When values become attributes of bodies, then values become mechanisms for inclusion and exclusion.

[xi] See:

[xii] This section is from chapter 4, “Willfulness as a Style of Politics,” of Willful Subjects (2014).

[xiii] See:

[xiv] See:

[xv] More recently Peter Tatchell suggested that the problem with UKIP is their lack of support for Gay Pride (otherwise it should be included in Gay Pride). This reveals exactly the problem with “happy diversity” as a politics. UKIP rests on anti-immigration stance even if its racism is more hidden than BNP (though it is not really that hidden!). The inclusion of UKIP would mean that many of us – queer and trans people of colour -would not be included in a Gay Pride event. When racism becomes just another body that can be included in queer space, queer space is made white.

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Feminist Aunties

Where did you find feminism? From whom did you find feminism? My project in Living a Feminist Life was to tell my feminist story: the story of how I became a feminist;  what I have learned from being a feminist. To tell a story can be to find things out; what comes up along the way can teach us about that way.

A story starts before it can be told. When did feminism become a word that spoke not just to you, but spoke you, spoke of your existence, spoke you into existence? When did the sound of the word feminism become your sound? What did it mean, what does it mean, to hold onto feminism, to fight under its name; to feel in its ups and downs, in its coming and goings, your ups and downs, your comings and goings? When I think of my feminist life in this book I ask “from where?” but also “from whom?”

From whom did I find feminism?

I will always remember a conversation I had as a young woman in the late 1980s. It was a conversation with my auntie Gulzar Bano. I think of her as my one of first feminist teachers. I had given her some of my poems. In one of them I had used “he.” Why do you use “he” she asked me gently, when you could have used “she.” The question posed with such warmth and kindness prompted much heartache, much sadness in the realisation that the words as well as worlds I had thought of as open to me were not open at all. “He” does not include “she.” The lesson becomes an instruction. To make an impression I had to dislodge that “he.” To become “she” is to become part of a feminist movement. A feminist becomes “she” even if she has already been assigned “she,” when she hears in that word a refusal of “he,” a refusal that “he” would promise her inclusion. She takes up that word and makes it her own.

I began to realise what I already knew: that patriarchal reasoning goes all the way down; to the letter; to the bone. I had to find ways not to reproduce its grammar in what I said, in what I wrote; in what I did, in who I was. It is important that I learnt this feminist lesson from my Auntie in Lahore, Pakistan, a Muslim woman, a Muslim feminist, a brown feminist. It might be assumed that feminism travels from the West to East. It might be assumed that feminism is what the West gives to the East. That assumption is a travelling assumption, one that tells a feminist story in a certain way, a story that is much repeated; a history of how feminism acquired utility as an imperial gift. That is not my story. We need to tell other feminist stories. Feminism travelled to me, growing up in the West, from the East. My Pakistani Aunties taught me that my mind is my own (which is to say: that my mind is not owned); they taught me to speak up for myself; to speak out against violence and injustice.

My first book, Differences that Matter (1998) was dedicated to my aunt, Gulzar. She told me she was touched by that dedication and that warms me. And in Queer Phenomenology (2006) I wrote about her in to the body of the text. She appeared first very briefly in a description of growing up in a mixed home, a home shaped by more than one heritage; a home that is meeting space between cultures that might ordinarily be kept apart:

The contours of mixed-race spaces are not so smooth in the face of how things arrive. Already there are arrivals that are unexpected, creating rough edges in the contours of this world. Its like you can see the creases, which then means that the cover fails to cover, fails in the act of providing a covering. So objects and bodies disturb this picture, creating disorientation in how things are arranged. Comments made about “our complexion;” letters that described unknown cousins whose names became familiar; visits to Pakistan that open up new worlds, new tastes, and sounds and sensations on the skin; the excitement of the arrival of my Aunt from Islamabad, who they said I was so “alike;” all these experiences of being at home and away were lived, at least sometimes, as wrinkles in the whiteness of the objects that gathered. They gathered, but did not always gather us around. It is not that the disturbances meant that things no longer had their place; it is just that the objects did not stay still, as they came into contact with other objects, whose “color” created different impressions. Color wasn’t just something added, like a tan adorning a white skin, as it redirected my attention to the skin, to how the surfaces of bodies as well as objects are shaped by histories of contact.

In this description is an indicator of something: kinship as a promise of likeness between myself and my Auntie. We might think of this kinship as feminist kinship. Later (as I will come to later) I have thought of this kinship as feminist snap.

I spoke more in this text about my Aunt:

Mixed orientations might cross the line not so much by virtue of what we receive (the proximate objects that are given to us as if they were different sides of our inheritance), but in how we receive the histories that are behind our arrival. It is no accident that when I left home, I felt that this other side of my history became more available to me. I reinhabited the world by going to Pakistan, after I left home. This time in Pakistan reoriented me, allowing me to embrace Pakistan as part of my own genealogy, giving me a feeling of having more than one side to draw from, or even more than one family history behind me. In my own story, this connection to my Pakistani side was mediated through my connection with my eldest Aunt, who did not marry, and who was deeply involved in women’s activism. When we get redirected, we often have people behind us, those who offer us life lines, without expectation of return, helping to pull us into another world.

A feminist auntie as a life line.

Writing my feminist story has allowed me to register how much it mattered to me to have feminist aunties. In Living a Feminist Life, I have brought my Auntie into the story because she was already there. I write in my chapter,”Feminist Snap,” echoing my words from before:

Snap can be a genealogy, unfolding as an alternative family line, or a feminist inheritance. I often think of snap as what I have inherited from my Pakistani aunties. My sister talks of her daughter as having Ahmed genes, and I know exactly what she means; she means she is another point on a line of snappy women. She means: like me, like you, like our Auntie’s, this girl has snap. This girl has snap: maybe she too is a survival story. I think of my own family and the work that had to be done to keep things together, the work that women often did, to hold on when things are breaking up. We might, reflecting back to my discussion in the previous chapter, be haunting by those breaks, even those that we did not live through ourselves. In my family’s case, I think of Partition, how a country was broken up in the after-life of colonialism; how borders became open wounds; how an infection can spread. Family stories were passed down about the trauma of Partition; a Muslim family leaving their home, fleeing to Lahore, a long hard train journey, arriving, creating a new home from what had been left behind by those who, too, had fled.

We might inherit a break because it was survived. A survival can be how we are haunted by a break. When I think of this history of breaking, I think especially of my relationship to my eldest auntie Gulzar Bano. I mentioned in the introduction to this book how my own feminism was shaped by our many conversations. My auntie – who was most definitely snappy – did not marry. The family explanation is that this not marrying was because of Partition. A national break can be interwoven with a life story. Gulzar was deeply involved in women’s activism as well as campaigns for women’s literacy and education in Pakistan. She was a poet, too. Her words were sharp like weapons. When our lives don’t follow the lines provides by convention, we still have people behind us, those who offer us life lines, without expectation of return. Becoming close to my Aunt, with her passion for feminism and for what she calls in our family biography “WOMAN POWER” helped me to find a different political orientation, a different way of thinking about my place in the world. In a conventional genealogy, the woman who does not have a child of her own would be an end point.

Snap, snap: the end of the line.

In a feminist genealogy, life unfolds from such points.

Snap, snap: begin again.

Begin again: it is a promise, a hope.

I hope that I too can be a feminist auntie: at home, or an academic auntie at work.

To be a feminist auntie or an academic auntie is to offer alternatives by how you live and in what you do. To be a feminist auntie or an academic auntie is to work to enable others to speak out and speak against the violence; those that are enacted by individuals, those that are reproduced by institutions that are hostile to those who challenge that violence.

Feminist aunties can be an alternative support system. We need to create our own support systems. The costs of fighting against institutional violence are high.

Last year my Auntie Gulzar died. I feel her presence in her absence; I feel her energy in my hands as they touch the key board. I wrote a poem. I am not a poet. I wrote her a poem when she died because she is a poet.

A poem can be a hand. A poem can weep, too. A poem can be for you.


 “The Words of an Aunt”

A poem for Gulzar Bano

By her loving niece Sara Ahmed


The words of an aunt

Can breathe life

Rummaging away

In the uncertain thoughts

The confused picture

A mind trying to grasp

That which retreats

Until you see things again

Clear and crisp


You asked me once

I don’t know if you remember

You had read one of my poems

The poems of a young girl

Casting words out too quickly

Because she had been taught

What not to attend to

“Sara” you asked me

“Why do you use he?”

“When you could use she?”


And I heard in your gentle question

The word anew

The world anew

He is not she

Nor we

She is she

We too


And I learnt

How to use words again

To register my presence

To sharpen with precision

As a girl, as a woman

To announce

Here I am, here she is

Here we are

Through a word

A world

Through a word


You were my first feminist teacher

Who taught me words could be weapons

How we could crafts worlds

Through words

How we could register violence

In what we send out

In what we do not send out


Your warmth, your wisdom

Was like a promise made

A life that could be lived

By what we refuse

What we seize

You taught me that feminism is a spark

We can be lit up by it

How we claim our minds

As our own

How we reach each other

So that even if we stray

We are not alone


Even though you have left

You are guiding me

The words of an aunt

Shimmering with life

Are a path

A way of following

Without being led

Challenging, finding, holding

A memory preserved

Can be a leaky container

Spilling all over you

The words of an Aunt

How I pick myself up again

How I make my way through







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