What’s the Use?

I have been away from my blog for such a long time! Over the summer I revised my manuscript What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use, which I sent back to my publishers at the end of August. I have been working on the uses of use since 2013. The project has been with me through thick and thin. I put my use folder away whilst I working on Living a Feminist Life and engaged in the institutional battles that so informed the tone and timbre of that text. I picked up my use project again in 2016, and it did feel like I was picking up some rather shattered pieces.  I have picked up so much by following use around. All being well, the book should be out in late 2019, with Duke University Press, my publisher-companion. Together we are creating a killjoy library!

Since then I have been transcribing interviews for my complaint research. I have been listening and learning. That is my task. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility as a care-taker for the stories I have collected. I had been expecting to be sharing new posts on complaint by now but I realised I needed more time to process all I am hearing. I need to sit with and to be with the stories. So I am giving myself more time. I hope to post new work on complaint on this blog in December of this year. My first post will be on warnings.

This term I will be giving two lectures on Queer Use and three lectures from my research into complaint. Details are here.

In the meantime, I am sharing a few words drawn from my introduction and conclusion about the question that is the title of my book.

What’s the Use?

 The title of this book is a use expression, one that seems to point to the pointlessness of doing something. This expression often has an intonation of exasperation. What’s the use, what’s the point? Said in this way, “what’s the use” operates as a rhetorical question, what we ask when we have reached a conclusion; there is no use. I imagine hands flung in the air expressing the withdrawal of a commitment to some difficult task. I hear a drawn out sigh; the sound of giving up on something that had previously been pursued. We might be more likely to say “what’s the use” when the uselessness of something had not been apparent right from the beginning; when we have given up on something that we had expected to be useful such that to become exasperated can point not only to what, that which is now deemed pointless, but also to who, those who had assumed something had a point. It seems appropriate to ask about use, what it means to use something or to find a use for something, with such a moment of exasperation; a moment when we lose it, rather than use it.

“What’s the use, what’s the point of saying that?” This is the question asked by a character Peggy in the last segment of Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Years, first published in 1937. Peggy is having what we might call a feminist killjoy moment; she is interrupting a family gathering with this question, posed sharply, pointedly. Her Aunt Eleanor has already suggested to Peggy the she should enjoy herself: “‘But we’re enjoying ourselves’ said Eleanor, ‘Come and enjoy yourself too’” ([1937]2012, 264). Peggy does not obey her command. She seems alienated from happiness by making happiness into a question: “What does she mean by ‘happiness,’ by ‘freedom’” Peggy asked herself, lapsing against the wall again” (265). Happiness for Peggy seems unjust: “How can one be ‘happy,’ she asked herself. In a world bursting with misery” (266). She is listening to scraps of conversation, to laughter bubbling away at the surface. Perhaps she can hear what is being said because she does find happiness convincing. It is then that she asks the question, “What’s the use, what’s the point of saying that?”  Once she asks this question which she addresses to her brother (the discussion is about him), she is overwhelmed by bad feeling: “She looked at her brother. A feeling of animosity possessed her. He was still smiling but his smile smoothed itself out as she looked at him. ‘What’s the use, she said facing him. You’ll marry. You’ll have children. What’ll you do then? Write little books to make money” (268). Peggy flounders; describing her own words as “personal” when “she had meant to say something impersonal” (268). The question of use becomes a personal question; a question about how a person lives their life. Once Peggy has started on this path, she has to keep going: “‘You’ll write one book, then another little book,’ she said viciously, ‘instead of living differently, differently’” (268).

Her utterance is too sharp; she regrets it. This wrinkle in the smile of the occasion is passed over; the conversation is smoothed out again, which means Peggy’s question is passed over, just as she is. This question “what’s the use” is often articulated by Woolf’s characters at the moment they seem to be losing it. It is a question posed by sisters, such as Peggy, who are interrupting the flow of a conversation about the lives of men. Or it is a question posed by wives, such as when Mrs Flushing asks Wilfrid in The Voyage Out “What’s the use of talking? What’s the use —?” Once talking is replaced by a dash, we might think of the dash as anything, “She ceased.” She ceased implies not only that she stops talking but that she stops being. The wife becomes the one who ceases; for whom the questioning of use is a questioning of being. One thinks here also of Mrs Dalloway, who also watches herself disappear in becoming wife, becoming mother (Woolf [1925] 1996). Mrs Thornbury follows Mrs Flushing by also asking a question to Wilfrid not to his wife, “because it was useless to speak to his wife.” To become useless: not to be addressed. Perhaps to be defined in relation to men, as sisters, as wives, is to be deemed useful to them, but not to others.

When you question the point of something the point seems to be how quickly you can be removed from the conversation. Maybe, she removes herself. The question “what’s the use?” allows Woolf to throw life up as a question, to ask about the point of anything by asking about the point of something. It is question Woolf poses to herself, a question she poses about her own writing. In a letter to Margaret Llewellyn Davies, Woolf writes: “My dear Margaret what’s the use of my writing novels” (cited in Bell 1972, 29). The question of use matters to a woman writer as a question of confidence, a question of whether the books she sends out can enable a way of “living differently” to borrow Peggy’s terms. It implies that that some things we do, things we are used to or are told to get used to, are in the way of a feminist project of living differently. The woman writer is trying to craft an existence, to write, to make something, in a world in which she is usually cast as sister or wife.  It is not surprising that when the world is not used to you, when you appear as unusual, use becomes what you question.


We might challenge how functionalism becomes fatalism; how (for some) for is treated as before, how some are given an end before they even begin. But in challenging how the requirement to be useful can be imposed upon us, we open up a conversation about usefulness and how it might matter. I think again of Audre Lorde who especially in her later work spoke often of her desire to be useful to others. She speaks too of her desire for her own death to be a useful death (1988, 53). She writes of how she thought about death, about how to die (as well how to live): “rather than just fall into death any old way, by default, according to someone else’s rules” (53). Not falling into death, not going the same way others are going, as things have gone before, requires asking questions. Usefulness here is about asking questions about how to do something; how to be something. She notes that you have no choice; mortality is the condition of having to die. But mortality acquires a different meaning for those whose existence is not supported: “We have all to die at least once. Making that death useful would be winning for me. I wasn’t supposed to exist anyway, not in any meaningful way in this fucked-up whiteboy’s world” (53).

Usefulness might matter more for those who are not “supposed to exist.” Usefulness becomes then a political address; a way of facing outwards, toward others. Audre Lorde teaches us that we need to keep the question of use alive not because use does not matter but because it does. What’s the use? I noted in my introduction how this question can sound like exasperation, giving up on the point of something. I considered how for Virginia Woolf that question, what’s the use? however difficult, throws everything into question. To make use a question is to inherit a feminist and queer project of living differently. Asking the point of use might be an address to. To be useful can be a way of addressing a world; a multiple plural to, to that faces many directions; to that can animate a life, too.

Animation: queer use as the work you have to do to be. The more you are blocked the more you have to try to find a way through. The less support you have the more support you need. We might become each other’s resources, we prop each other up, because we understand how diminishing it can be to have fight for an existence, to have to fight, even, to enter a room. Perhaps the harder it is to be, the more use you have for use.


Bell, Quentin (1972). Virginia Woolf: A Biography. Hogarth Press.

Lorde, Audre (1988). A Burst of Light, Essays. Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books.

Woolf, Virginia  [1937]  (2012) [1937] The Years and Between the Acts. Wordsworth Classics.

————————  [1925]  (1996). Mrs Dalloway. Wordsworth Editions.






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Refusal, Resignation and Complaint

I am sharing the last lecture I presented this academic year. I gave the lecture as part of the third Colonial Repercussions symposium curated by Nikita Dhawan for Akademie der Künste, June 23-24, 2018. It was helpful to share my work on diversity, complaint and use and to stretch myself somewhat by thinking of the hope of “no.” It was a delight to listen to reflections on colonial repercussions and planetary humanism by black feminists, feminists of colour and postcolonial scholars including Angela Davis and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. You can listen to the presentations here. I have resisted the temptation to add to the lecture – I am sharing what I presented. You can listen to more detailed presentations from my research into “the uses of use” here  and from complaint here.

Whilst in Berlin I also read from Living a Feminist Life for a stand-alone event organised by Iris Rajanayagam for xart splitta. I want to thank all of those attended and especially those who shared some of their own experiences during the discussion.

Over the next two months I will be taking a break from my blog as I complete the finishing touches on my book, What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use.

I wish all you killjoys out there the hottest of feminist summers!

No! Refusal, Resignation and Complaint, Lecture presented by Sara Ahmed at Colonial Repercussions conference, Berlin, June 23 2018.

On March 10 2014 a panel Why Isn’t My Professor Black? took place at University College, London with Black British scholars William Ackah, Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, Deborah Gabriel, Lisa Amanda Palmer, Nathan Richards and Shirley Tate (1). Why isn’t my Professor Black: what a necessary and urgent question! At the end of the panel, a member of the audience asked another necessary and urgent question about the UCL’s continued use of Francis Galton’s name. Galton as you probably know coined the word eugenics described by him as a science of improvement. Galton bequeathed funds to UCL (then London University) for a Professorship as well as Department of Eugenics.  The UCL has removed the word Eugenics (they replaced it with genetics) but they have kept Galton’s name. The provost of the UCL at the panel justified the continued use of Galton’s name by saying “in my defence, I inherited him.” A use can be explained and defended as inheritance.

There has since been a wider and meaningful discussion of the role of Galton’s legacy at UCL.  This questioning of a legacy was represented to the wider public as the Galton Must Fall Campaign. Whilst we might support such a campaign if it did indeed exist there was no such campaign; it was in fact invented to discredit the questioning of a legacy as censorship and vandalism.  When it was pointed out that such a campaign did not exist, the newspaper made some small amendments clarifying that such a campaign “has yet to materialise.” What is clarifying is how discrediting works. To discredit the questioning of a legacy is to discredit the questioner. Even posing a question or making a history questionable is framed as vandalism, “a willful destruction of the venerable and beautiful.” A judgement can be turned into a project.  If questioning what is received as inheritance is understood as damaging institutions, we need to damage institutions.

So much of the work we do is dealing with the consequences of the work we do.  In my lecture today I want to talk about “no” as work : as the work you have to do in order not to reproduce an inheritance. We might think of no as expressive. The word express comes from press. It implies something that is squeezed out.  To get a no out you have to do more than say no; a no needs somewhere to go. My talk will be concerned with we can call diversity work, the ordinary and painstaking work of working on institutions so they are more accommodating. I will be talking today specifically about working on universities: although I am no longer at a university I am still working on it. It might seem like an odd choice for an event on utopianism, desire and hope, to be talking about doing this kind of institutional work; the kind that often does not seem to get us very far. But for me it is from our small efforts to make room that we register the full force of what we are up against. Maybe what I will be offering today is a killjoy utopianism, a willingness to inhabit what seems negative as an insistence that worlds can be otherwise. We are willing to be there, in the wear and tear, for as long as it takes.

I will be drawing today on arguments from a book I have recently completed, What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use. In the book, I follow use around, the way I followed happiness in The Promise of Happiness, and will in Willful Subjects. And I have followed use right back into the university, as a way of thinking about how universities are built. We might recall how the use of Galton’s name is justified as inheritance. I will also be drawing on data I collected in project on diversity, first presented in my book, On Being Included as well as new material from my current research on complaint in which I have been talking to students, academics and administrators about their experience of making complaints within universities.

Uses of Use

To transform institutions requires becoming conscious of how they are built. We can think of this consciousness as consciousness of use. So I am start with use.  To start with use is to start small: use is a small word with a lot of work to do; Rita Felski has described use as “work-man like” (2003, 5).  Use when used as a verb can mean: to employ for some purpose, to expend or consume; to treat or behave toward; to take unfair advantage of or exploit; to habituate or accustom. Use is a relation as well as an activity that often points beyond something even when use is about something: to use something points to what something is “for.” Some objects are made in order to be used.  What they are for brings them into existence. Even if something is shaped around what it is for, that is not the end of the story. As Howard Risatti notes in A Theory of Craft:

 Use need not correspond to intended function. Most if not all objects can have a use, or, more accurately be made useable by being put to use. A sledgehammer can pound or it can be used as a paperweight or lever. A handsaw can cut a board and be used as straight-edge or to make music. A chair can be sat in and used to prop open a door. These uses make them “useful objects” but since they are unrelated to the intended purpose and function for which these objects were made, knowing these uses doesn’t necessarily reveal much about these objects (2007, 26).

Use can correspond to intended function, but use does not necessarily correspond to an intended function. This not is an opening. I am not so sure if uses are quite as unrevealing about things as Risatti implies at least here. I am being told something about the qualities of a sledgehammer that it can be used as a paperweight. That a sledgehammer can be used as a paperweight tells me about the heaviness of the sledgehammer. Something cannot be used for anything.  Use is a restriction of possibility that is material. Nevertheless there is something queer about use; intentions do not exhaust possibilities.

Risatti implies that use makes something usable. Use also makes something used. Wear and tear usually means a depreciation of value.  I think of the surface of a table, worn, scratched.  Marx suggests that when a table is exchanged, it ceases to be a mundane object, “an ordinary sensuous thing.” To use the table is to bring it back to earth.

We can think of the marks left by use not as the erosion of value but as testimony.

The table testifies to a history.

scratched top of an old wooden table

Marx discusses wear and tear in relation to machines: “The material wear and tear of a machine is of two kinds. The one arises from use, as coins wear away by circulating, the other from non-use, as a sword rusts when left in its scabbard” ([1867] 1990, 528).  Machinery intensifies rather than saves labour: you have to get the most of the machine before it wears out, a wearing that is passed on to workers, wearing out as passing on and passing out; used as used up.

A worn thing might eventually break.  When something breaks from use it might be taken out of use, rather like this cup, which has lost its handle.

It is a rather sad parting.


When we think of something in use, we might think of a sign on a door:  occupied.

This sign tells us that the toilet is in use.

Occupied toilet

It tells us that we cannot use the toilet until whoever is using the toilet is finished using the toilet. Use often comes with instructions that are about maintaining personal and social boundaries.   

Or take this image of a post box.


There is a sign that politely asks the would-be poster not to use the post box by posting a letter into the box. In the previous image the toilet was occupied because it was in use. In this case the post box is out of use because it is occupied. Although of course from another point of view, it is in use. The post box has provided a home for nesting birds. Intended functionality can mean who something is for, not just what something is for. Which means that: something can be used by those for whom it was not intended. A change of function does require a sign, “please do not use,” to stop what would be usual, that is, to stop a person from posting a letter through the box.  The sign, we assume, is temporary. That box will come back into use as a post box when it ceases to be a nest.

Back into use: use can involve comings and goings.  Take the example of the well-trodden path. The path exists in part because people have used it. Use involves contact and friction, the tread of feet smooths the surface; the path is becoming smoother, easier to follow.

The more a path is used the more a path is used.

Used Path 2

How strange this sentence makes sense.

Without use a path might disappear, becoming overgrown, bumpy; unusable.  Like this path; we know it is a path because of a sign.

But you can hardly see the sign for the leaves.

Unused Path

A path can appear as a line on a landscape. A path can also be a route through life. Heterosexuality can be a path; an easing of a passage, a clearing of a way forward. To deviate from that path can be hard. When it is harder to proceed, when a path is harder to follow, you might be discouraged; you might try and find another route. Think of how you can be dissuaded by perpetual reminders of how hard something would be. Deviation is hard. Deviation is made hard.

So much is reproduced by the requirement to follow. In the academy you might be asked to follow the well-trodden paths of citation; to cite properly as to cite those deemed to have already the most influence.  The more a path is used the more a path is used.   

The more he is cited the more he is cited.

Used Path 2

A path is kept clear through work; occupation depends upon erasure; such and such white man might become an originator of a concept, an idea as becoming seminal, by removing traces of those who were here before. When use leaves traces in places, occupation can involve the removal of those traces (2).

On Being Stopped

Diversity work is the work of trying to transform institutions by opening them up to populations that have hitherto been excluded; diversity work as deviating from the well-used paths, as not going the way things are flowing.   And yet at another level diversity seems to be a rather well-used path, an arrow even, which can be an instruction and thus a direction:

Go that way!

Diversity Arrow

The ease with which diversity travels might be why diversity work is hard work.  One diversity worker describes diversity as “a big shiny apple”: “it all looks wonderful but the inequalities aren’t being addressed.” The word diversity might be used more because it does less.  Diversity can be a sign of the difficulty of getting through.  This practitioner described her own work thus “it’s a banging your head against a brick wall job.”  

A job description becomes a wall description.

Wall Job

If you keep banging your head against the brick wall, but the wall keeps its place, it is you that gets sore. What happens to the wall?   All you seemed to have done is scratched the surface. This is what diversity work often feels like:

Scratching the surface, scratching at the surface.

Scratched wall 3

Let me share with you an example of an encounter with an institutional wall. The example is from a practitioner who developed a new policy on appointments.   This is the story:

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

A decision has been made. That decision can be overridden by the momentum of the past:  the past becomes a well-worn path, what usually happens still happens.  Note that the head of human resources did not need to take the policy out of the minutes for the policy not to come into effect.   I have called this dynamic “non-performativity,” when naming something does not bring something into effect, or when something is named in order not to bring something into effect.

The wall: that which keeps standing. The wall is a finding.   Let me summarise the finding: what stops movement moves.  If we witness the movement we might miss the mechanism.  I think this is important as organisations are good at moving things around: creating evidence of doing something is not the same thing as doing something. In our example, what stopped something from happening could have been the removal of the policy from the minutes; it could have been the failure to notice this removal; but it wasn’t. It was the way in which those within the institution acted after the policy had been agreed.   Agreeing to something can be another way of stopping something from happening.

A diversity policy can come into existence without coming into use.  I noted earlier how a sign is often used to make a transition from something being in and out of use, such as in this case of the post-box. Institutions are also postal systems.  Maybe the diversity worker deposits the policy in the post-box because she assumes the box is in use.

The post-box that is not in use might have another function: it might stop the policy from going through the whole system.


The policy becomes dusty, rather like Marx’s rusty sword; from rusty to dusty. A policy can become unusable by not being used.

Consider too all the energy this practitioner expended on developing a policy that did not do anything. The story of how the wall keeps standing is the same story as the story of how a diversity worker becomes shattered; as she says “sometimes you just give up.” 

Maybe she ends up feeling used up, limp, spent rather like this tube of toothpaste; with nothing left to give.


Or maybe she flies off the handle, to recall that broken cup.

The expression flying off the handle can mean to snap or lose your temper.


Another practitioner describes: “you know, you go through that in these sorts of jobs where you go to say something and you can just see people going ‘oh here she goes.’”  We both laughed, recognising that each other recognised that scene. The feminist killjoy, that leaky container, comes up here; she comes up in what we hear. We hear each other in the wear and the tear of the words we share; we hear what it is like to come up against the same thing over and over again.  We imagine the eyes rolling as if to say: well she would say that.  It was from experiences like this that I developed my equation: rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy.

A wall can be what you encounter because of what you are trying to do. Making a complaint can also involve coming up against walls. If a policy appears to create a path, a path can be how you are stopped from getting though. Complaints procedures are often pictured as paths, as flow-charts;

flow, flow, away we go, arrows, which give the would-be complainant a route through.

Flow chart

I spoke to an administrator about her work in supporting students through the complaints process:

So your first stage would require the complainant to try and resolve it informally, which is really difficult in some situations and which is where it might get stuck in a department…And so it takes a really tenacious complaining student to say, no, I am being blocked. So you can imagine that something on paper that looks very linear is actually very circular a lot of the time and I think that’s the problem, students get discouraged and get demoralised and feel hard done by, and nothing’s getting resolved and then they are in a murky place and they can’t get out.

A complaint is not simply an outcome of a no, a complaint requires you to keep saying no along the way. And what is required to keep a complaint going – such as confidence and tenacity – might be what is negated by the very experiences that led you to complain.

Complaints can be stopped by the use of warnings.   A warning can function like a singular exclamation point; we know what they are telling us to do from how they are used:

Stop! Danger ahead!

Exclamation Point

One student describes: “I was repeatedly told that ‘rocking the boat’ or ‘making waves’ would affect my career in the future and that I would ruin the department for everyone else. I was told if I did put in a complaint I would never be able to work in the university and that is was likely I wouldn’t get a job elsewhere.” Complaining is framed as self-damage as well as damage to others, ruining a department, no less. This student describes how the pressure not to complain was exerted : “In just one day I was subjected to eight hours of grueling meetings and questioning, almost designed to break me and stop me from taking the complaint any further.”   You don’t have to prevent people from doing something you just make it harder for them to do something.

Remember: deviation is hard. Deviation is made hard.

Complaints can be stopped by the appearance of being heard. An academic describes what followed when students made a complaint about the behaviour of professors at research events. A meeting is set up: “they said they would have an open meeting but it was just about calming [the students] down.” The example of the diversity policy that did not come into use implied that an organisation can say yes to a new policy when there is not enough behind that yes to bring something about.  Perhaps an organisation can allow a no to be expressed when that no has nowhere to go.  Venting is used as technique of preventing something more explosive from happening: you let a complaint be expressed in order that it can be contained.  Once the students have vented their frustrations, getting the complaint out of their system, the complaint is out of the system.

This mechanism functions like a pressure relief valve that releases enough pressure so that it does not build up and cause an explosion.

Pressure Valve

If you do keep going with a complaint where do they end up? Thus I have received numerous accounts of complaints that are lodged and still nothing happens. Perhaps complaints sit there, rather like that diversity policy.

The post-box becomes a filing cabinet; a complaint is filed away.

Filing Cabinet

Files can also function as bins; how things are discarded. One student describes: “it just gets shoved in the box.” Another student describes: “I feel like my complaint has gone into the complaint graveyard.” A filing cabinet as a graveyard, maybe there is a ghostly promise in that.  When a complaint is filed away or binned those who complain can end up feeling that they too are filed away or binned.

Closing the Door

Sometimes a complaint is registered because of who you are not. A not can also be about where you have to go. You might end up on a diversity committee because of whom you are not: not men, not white, not cis, not straight, not able-bodied. The more nots you are the more committees you end up on!  Even you agree to be on the committee they can still find you disagreeable. A woman of colour academic describes:  “I was on the equality and diversity group in the university. And as soon as I started mentioning things to do with race they changed the portfolio of who could be on the committee and I was dropped.” I noted earlier that diversity might be used more because it does less. The word race might be used less because it does more.  The word race carries a complaint; race as a refusal of the smile of diversity. Any use of the word race is thus an overuse. She added : “whenever you raise something, the response is that you are not one of them.” Not one of them: a complaint seems to amplify what makes you not fit, picking up what you are not. Perhaps a not is heard as shouting, as insistence, a stress point, a sore point.

A complaint: when “a not” becomes an exclamation point.

Exclamation Point

A complaint can be how you are received.  A complaint can be what you have to make because of how a university is occupied. She told me how she set up writing group in her department and how the meetings become dominated by senior men:  “What I found in each of the meetings were senior men who were bullying everyone in the room.” The bullying took that form of constant belittling of the work of more junior academics as well as postgraduate students:  “The first session someone was being just really abusive about someone’s PhD saying it was rubbish.”  Racist comments are made: “I’m from London and London is just ripe for ethnic cleansing.” She described how people laughed, how the laughter filled the room. She commented on these comments: “These were the sorts of things being aired.” These were the sorts of things; sentences as sentencing; violence thrown out as how some are thrown out.

Aired: even the air can be occupied.

She decides to make a complaint because she “wanted it recorded,” and because “the culture was being reproduced for new PhD students.”   A complaint becomes a recording device; you have to record what you do not want to reproduce.  She gathered statements from around twenty people in her department. A complaint can be a feminist collective. A complaint can be evidence of a no that is shared.  A meeting is set up in response to her complaint.   At that meeting she was described by the head of human resources as “having a chip on her shoulder,” as if she complains because she has a personal grudge. She adds: “they treated the submission as an act of arrogance on my part.” It is as if she put a complaint forward as a way of putting herself forward; a complaint is treated as self-promotional. Her complaint goes nowhere.  When those who try to stop a culture from being reproduced are stopped, a culture is being reproduced. She describes the department as a revolving door: women and minorities arrive only to head right back out again; whoosh, whoosh.

You might have to get out because of what you find out when you get in.

Revolving Door

Doors are not only physical things that swing on hinges (though they are that) they are mechanisms that enable an opening or closing. Diversity is often represented as an open door; minorities welcome, come in, come in; diversity as a tag-line, tag along; tagged on.

Come in, come in: I think back to our post-box.  

There could be another sign on that post-box: “birds welcome.”

Birds Welcome

The sign, “birds welcome” would be a non-performative if the post-box was still in use because the birds would be dislodged by the letters, the nest destroyed before it could be created. I suggested earlier that use is a restriction of possibility that is material. You can use paper for some things and not others because of the material qualities of paper. Restrictions can also become material through use. The letters in the box, the words that are thrown out; they become materials, they pile up; they stop others from making use of something. What is material to some, leaving you with no room, no room to breathe, to nest, to be, can be what does not matter to others because it does not get in the way of their occupation of space; it might even enable their occupation. You can stop others from using a space by how a space is being used, by what a space is being used for; for as door.

A door can be what stops you from getting in. A door can also be what stops you from getting out.  I am speaking to an academic about the first complaint she made when she was a student. One of her lecturers on her course had been making her feel uncomfortable. One time she enters his room:

And then one afternoon, I went into his office to talk to him about something, it was an office a bit like this but without any glass, with a door that opened inwards and opened on a latch, and he pushed me up against the back of a door and tried to kiss me and I pushed him away, it was an instinctive pushed him away, and tried to get out of the room and it was a horrible moment because I realised I couldn’t actually, it was very difficult to operate the latch.

A door without glass, solid, can’t be seen through, a door as what you are pushed against, the latch that won’t upon, getting stuck, trying to get out; the work you have do to get out. She did get out of his room, but it was hard. Behind closed doors; harassment happens there, out of view, in secret. A door is shut on her. The same door is shut on a complaint. She submitted an informal complaint, a letter, detailing the assault. Where does her complaint go? Her letter ends up with the Dean. And what did he do?  “The Dean basically told me I should sit down and have a cup of tea with this guy to sort it out.” The response to a complaint about harassment is to minimize harassment as if what occurred is just a minor squabble between two parties, something that can sorted out by a cup of tea, that English signifier of reconciliation.  To formalize a complaint would become a failure, her failure, to resolve the situation more amicably.

Would become, would have become: she did not proceed to a formal complaint.  Her complaint was stopped; he was not.  I say her complaint was stopped rather than she was stopped because she did go on to have a career, she is now a professor. But her experience stayed with her. She describes: “I thought I got a first because of academic merit, but then after this happened I remember thinking but hang on, maybe not, maybe this was some sort of ruse to try and keep me in the institution so he could keep the contact going…it starts undermining your own sense of your academic merit, the quality of your work and all that kind of stuff.” Being harassed by a lecturer damages your sense of self-worth, intellectual worth; leading you to question yourself, doubt yourself. Her complaint was stopped, she was not, but she carries that history with her.

What happened to him?   She tells us: “He was a known harasser; there were lots of stories told about him. I had a friend who was very vulnerable, he took advantage of that, she ended up taking her own life.” She ended up taking her own life; so much more pain, so much more damage at the edges of one woman’s story of damage. He went on; he was allowed to go on, when her complaint, and for all we know there were others too, we do not know how many said no, did not stop him. He has since retired; much respected by his peers; no blemish on his record.  The damage carried by those who did complain or would complain if they could complain, carried around like baggage, slow, heavy, down. To hear complaint is to hear from those weighed down by a history that has not left a trace in the official records.  No blemish on his record, no trace in the official records: the organisation shares an interest in stopping what is recorded by a complaint from getting out.

Shares an interest: a complaint can be stopped because of what is shared.  When an MA student made an informal complaint about the conduct of the most senior member of her department she was told by the convener of the programme “be careful he is an important man.”  Be careful: a warning not to proceed is a statement about who is important. Importance is not just a judgment it is a direction. The more a path is used the more a path is used. The more he is connected the more he is connected.  The more he is connected the more others are invested in that connection. A professor becomes a conductor; information, energy, resources travel through him.  I think of this becoming as institutional funneling; paths become narrower and narrower at the exit points; you have to go through him to get anywhere. Uses of use, a restriction of possibility that has become material, uses of use, a narrowing of the routes, the more a path is used the less paths there are to use: more going through less.

The student did go ahead with a complaint.   In her terms, she “sacrificed the references.” In reference to the prospect of doing a PhD she said: “that door is closed.”  That door is closed: references too can function as doors, mechanisms that enable an opening or closing, how it is made possible for some to progress, others not.  Reference systems are how some are enabled by their connections, how some gather speed and velocity, more and more, faster and faster, “he is an important man.” Many do not make complaints because they feel they cannot afford to lose the references, not complaining as a way of keeping a door open. So much of our political work is the work we do to ensure that making a complaint does not mean closing a door.

Conclusion: A Leak is a Lead

We are willing to be there, in the wear and tear, for as long as it takes. You have to work to keep going, to keep a complaint going.

In giving my ear to complaint, I am learning and listening with hope, to hope. By this I do not mean I feel hopeful or those I have spoken to feel hopeful though we might do; we can do. To persist with a complaint is hopeful despite the negation because you have to insist there’s a point to persist. To persist with a complaint requires a refusal of institutional fatalism, that sense that is just how things are; that abuses of power even when fatal, are inevitable, same old, same old, same old bodies, doing the same old things. You persist because you sense what is possible; that spaces can be freed up when they are inhabited differently. Perhaps this image can be a pointer.

This image teaches us what is possible (3).


The birds could have been treated as trespassers, ejected or displaced. A history of use is a history of such displacements, many violent, displacements that often disappear because of how things remain occupied.

To make room for others so often requires work, hard work, pain-staking work, collective work. To fight for room is to fight for a possibility that has been restricted by use. A complaint: when you have to fight for a possibility. My project on complaint was inspired by my own experiences of  working on multiple enquiries into sexual harassment and sexual misconduct, which is to say my project was inspired by students: this work is for you.

After three years I eventually resigned. I know it has taken me a long time in this talk for me to talk about resignation, although not as long as it took me to resign. And it is still difficult for me to talk about my resignation in public, so please bear with me, the details will be absent, but at least I am present. I resigned because I had had enough, and because I did not want to stay silent about what had been going on. Resignation is another way of saying no to system; you withdraw your labour, your body, yourself. The word resignation can seem to suggest giving up, reconciling yourself to your fate, to resign yourself to something. I hear the word resignation and I hear a long drawn out sigh. But resignation can be how you refuse to resign yourself to a situation. Perhaps you are giving up on something, a belief that you can do the work here, but you are holding onto something, a belief in that work.

What appears to be giving up can be a refusal to give in.

I resigned in part because of the silence about what was going on. To get information out sometimes you need to get out. There is no point in being silent about resigning if you are resigning to protest silence. When I shared my reasons for resigning I became the cause of damage

I became a leaky pipe: drip, drip.

Leaky Pipe

Just loosen the screw a little bit, a tiny, tiny little bit, and more and more will come out. It can be explosive what comes out. We need more explosions. Organisations will try and contain that damage. The response in other words is damage limitation. This is how diversity often takes institutional form: damage limitation. Happy shiny policies will be put in place, holes left by departures will be filled without reference to what went on before; a blot becomes something to be wiped up: mopping up a mess.

But there is hope here: they cannot mop up all of the mess.

A leak can be a lead. A leak can be a feminist lead.

Mopping up

It might seem that complaints that do not get anywhere disappear without a trace like that unused path:

Hard to find, harder to follow.

Unused Path

But in saying no, we keep a history alive; we do not let go. Even complaints that do not seem to get anywhere lead us to each other.

Feminist memory can become a counter-institutional project; we have to find ways of creating paths for others to follow, to leave traces in places.   We refuse to let a refusal disappear. You hold on by passing a refusal on. An indigenous student made an informal complaint about white supremacy in her classroom: using that kind of term for what is here can get you in serious trouble; she knew that but she was willing to do that. She became in her terms “an indigenous feminist monster,” and she is now completing her PhD off campus.  She said that “an unexpected little gift,” was how other students could come to her: “they know you are out there and they can reach out to you.”  Even what, who, has been binned can acquire a new life.  The complaints in the graveyard can come back to haunt institutions.

It is a promise.

When you are stopped you have to find other methods of getting information out. It is not just that we have exhausted the usual procedures or that we are exhausted by them; though many of us have and are.  We have also learnt that working “in house,” too often ends up being a restoration project, polishing the furniture so it appears less damaged; a labour I have called with reference to the uses of diversity, “institutional polishing” (4). In house, the master’s house: we can remember Audre Lorde: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984). Of course we have limited options, and we use the tools available to us.  Sometimes we do what is required: we might even be willing to be diversity, to smile, to help with the creation of a shinier reflection. But we have to be careful not to lose ourselves in that reflection.

We do not want to polish away the scratches; they are testimony.   Yes those scratches; we are back to those scratches. We can reach each other through what appears as damage, mere scratch and scribble.

Feminism becomes writing on the wall; we were here, we did not get used it.

Scratched wall 3

This post is dedicated to my wonderful colleague and friend Rumana Begum. Thank you for helping me to keep going.


  1. I highly recommend you listen to this brilliant panel. These are the conversations we need to be having and these are the voices we need to hear.
  2. In the book I explore occupation and use in colonial projects with reference to Locke’s restriction of use of the land to agriculture (use is a way of framing an activity such that not all uses appear as uses) and the designation of land as unused or wasted (drawing on Edward Said’s (1979) discussion of Zionism), as well as educational projects predicated on “emptying” the minds of the colonized to create “a useful class.”
  3. In the book I discuss the image under the rubric of queer use. Queer use can refer to how we can use things in ways that were not intended or how things can be used by those for whom they were not intended. I suggest that it is not enough simply to affirm the queerness of use: to queer use is to have a fight on your hands precisely because of how restrictions have become material.
  4. I first discussed diversity as a way of polishing the surface so that organisations “appear happy” in On Being Included (2012) and then more recently in the middle section”Diversity Work” of Living a Feminist Life (2017). In The Promise of Happiness (2010) I also explore polishing in relation to the work of creating the appearance of happy families. Institutional polishing can be related to what Alison Phipps has usefully called institutional airbrushing, where the “impact of disclosure is projected in market terms” (2018, np). By polishing I am referring to the activity of marketing alongside other forms of labour within organisations that is often performed by academic themselves. I will be exploring how professional norms of conduct are predicated on silence and “keeping a lid on it.” My research on complaint is teaching me how academics (including feminist academics) also tend to identify complaints as potential damage to an organisation’s reputation and thus become invested in stopping complaints from getting out.



Felski, Rita (2013) “Introduction,” New Literary History, Special Issue on Use, 44, 4: v-x11.

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

Marx, Karl (1990). [1867] Capital: Volume 1 Trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin Classics.

Phipps, Alison (2018). “Reckoning Up: Sexual Harassment and Violence in the Neoliberal University,” Gender and Education, ISSN 0954-0253.

Risatti, Howard (2007). A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression. University of North Carolina Press.

Said, Edward (1979). “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims,” Social Text, 1: 7-58.


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The Time of Complaint

Two years ago today I shared my reasons for resigning from my post. I resigned in protest at the failure of my college to address sexual harassment as an institutional problem. I resigned because the costs of doing that work were too high. And I have been thinking as I have been listening to those who have been involved in the time-consuming, life-consuming, process of making complaints about time; about the time of complaint. It takes so much time to get a complaint through the system, which is why so many complaints end up being about the system. And it takes so much time to recover from making a complaint, especially when, and when “when” is often it does not seem special, you encounter those walls; you do not get through.

It has been two years since I made the reasons for my resignation public. And I still have a sense of rage and injustice, also tiredness and sadness, from doing that work with others and from knowing what was left undismantled despite that work. It might be receding – I don’t wake up every morning writing furious letters in my head. But I still have those letters handy: it is almost as if they are there waiting in the background, ready to come out. I just have to read something, notice something, perhaps a passing reference to what happened, or yet another appropriation of the work we did, and those letters start writing themselves again.

And: you can find it upsetting that you still find it upsetting.

If the work of complaint takes time, it takes time to recover from the work of complaint.

A willfulness maxim: don’t get over it when it is not over.

It is not over.

And what makes it “not over” is not just about how you feel; it is not just about how a complaint has etched its way into your consciousness like wrinkles; time given form as expression. It is not over because what you complained about is not over.

If you complain about harassment you are harassed. Harassment is a means by which a complaint about harassment is stopped. Those who are not stopped from complaining are often harassed all the more.

It is thus hard to untangle the slow time of complaint from the slow time of harassment.  So many of the accusations that have been hurled against me in public as well as in private have been hurled against many other feminists. We can share accusations: you are a bully, the real harasser, a feminazi; you are punishing and puritanical. You are accused of wanting their jobs for yourself. You are called neoliberal feminists if you use internal disciplinary procedures, as colluding with management; you are accused of conducting a vigilante campaign or a witch hunt when you have exhausted those internal procedures.

If you try to stop harassment you come up against what enables that harassment. The accusations that are thrown out; they might seem pointless and careless but they are pointed and careful. They are part of a system; a system works by making it costly to expose how a system works.

I think it is important for us to share this: that the harassment does not end just because a complaint has ended, however a complaint has ended. I still receive hate mail because of my involvement in a complaint about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. You can refuse to open letters, you can discard comments posted to your blog, you can ignore messages received, but that work of refusal is still work. You can even be affected by the work you do in trying not to be affected. It has taken me a long time to be less affected by doing this work. Even if you understand and can explain where these communications come from, they can be wearing. You can feel worn. When I left my post I did experience a loss of confidence, a sense of no longer being sure of myself or others. If confidence can be taken in time, restoring confidence takes time.

The time it takes to recover from a complaint; the time it takes to make a complaint; so much time taken. But remember the time of not complaining about harassment is the slow time of harassment; the time it takes to complain is time worth taking.

About time: so many of my interviews with those who have made complaints have been about time. I have learnt that the time taken to make a complaint can be used to disqualify a complaint. One member of staff made a complaint about bullying from her head of department. The experience of bullying had been devastating, and she suffered from depression as a result. It took her a long time to get to the point where she could write a complaint. She describes what happened once she was able to put her complaint in, “I basically did it when I was able to, because I was just really unwell for a significant period of time. And I put in the complaint and the response that I got was from the deputy VC. He said that he couldn’t process my complaint because I had taken too long to lodge it.” A complaint: it can take too long.

And we know this: some experiences are so devastating that it takes a long time to process them. Which might mean that: the more devastated you are the less likely you are to get through.

The experiences that lead you to make a complaint can stop a complaint from being recognised as a complaint.

Time can be used as a tool: if organizations can disqualify complaints because they take too long to make, organizations can also take too long to respond to complaints. One student described how the university took seven months to respond to her complaints, and then another seven months to respond to her response to their response to her complaint: “it is my theory they been putting in the long finger and pulling this out, dragging this out over unacceptable periods of time, to try and tire me out so that I will just give up.”  Exhaustion can be not just the effect but the point of a complaint process.

Exhaustion as a management technique: you tire people out so they are too tired to address what makes them too tired.

When the organisation takes a long time, you are left waiting. One member of staff who complained about bullying used this analogy: waiting for the next response to her complaint was like waiting for a bill to come through the door. You do not know whether the next bill will be the one that breaks you. You don’t know, so waiting can feel like breaking. The longer it takes to receive a response, the longer you are on high alert; anxiety about what might happen can be enough to make a complaint impossible to sustain.

At other times, everything might seem to speed up: you are behind; you can’t catch up. I spoke to two students who made a complaint about sexual harassment. They talked of how slow the organisation was to respond to their communications at every step of the process but how they themselves were still expected to be quick: “they gave us a tiny time-scale” and “short-deadlines.” They described how: “that’s not part of the procedure they are just making it up as they go along.” Deadlines, however made up, can be how you are stopped: if you do not make it in time you do not make it.

The slow time of waiting; the fast time of deadlines: too slow, too fast. Other times you have a sense of coming up against the same thing; the time of repetition, round and round. Sometimes also: up and down.  At times you might feel like you are getting somewhere, you might feel encouraged, but then, something happens or nothing happens; nothing is something.

Round and round, up and down.

I think back to the time it took for me to realise that I had to leave. I have called that realization snap: the moment you realise what you cannot do, that something has broken, a bond to an institution, or a belief that you can make an institution more accommodating. If snap can be experienced as a moment, the moment you do not take it anymore, that moment has a history. It was quite a long time after the enquiries took place that I realised I had to leave. What I found most difficult was the silence, the very loud silence that felt rather like calm waters over a sunken ship. As the ripples lessened, as if nothing had happened, as if the enquiries had not even taken place, as if not talking about it meant it was gone, I knew my days were numbered.

You can realise you have to leave. But it can still take time to leave.

I first asked for unpaid leave. I wrote to my head of department in March 2016: “It is my preference to make it under the category of ‘special leave’ and to put on the form that the reasons for taking the leave are to help me deal with the corrosive effects of working for three years on sexual harassment cases at the college. I know the form goes nowhere but in a file but it strikes me that everywhere we are asked not to name the problem, so at least on my own form I can name the problem. And it is true: it is the reason.” I put the reason on the form. What happens: it is not that nothing happens.  I get leave. But the form is filed away.

My leave is agreed but there is no mention of the reasons.

No mention of the reasons for leave are the reasons for leaving.

Leaving: maybe that too was something that took time before it could took place, something that happened, gradually, slowly.

We can exit a situation as we begin to realise that our efforts to transform a situation are not getting anywhere.

The time it takes to make a complaint; the time it takes to leave.

I think back now to those three years, draining, how they were draining. I think of myself as breaking a little each day, each day in my own way.

Mostly when you are involved in a complaint you are still doing your other work, as a student, as a teacher, an administrator. You are doing the work of complaint alongside doing your work.

Alongside, side-by-side.

One time just after I testified in one of the enquiries I had to go and give a lecture on the idea of race. It is always emotional to give this lecture; an idea is not abstraction; you can embody an idea. This time I am shaking. Everything pours out.

Words: they can spill out, shattering.

Another time just before I testified at another enquiry, I saw someone who I had heard stuff about; I knew his role in what happened. I feel physically sick. Another time I see him at an event. A colleague told me I turned white. It takes a lot to turn a brown girl white.

I feel sick.

In my last proper day at work we had a departmental meeting. A caring and well-meaning colleague got my resignation on the agenda – he got sexual harassment on the agenda. It is mentioned along with another item. The other item is picked up. I hear it being passed over. I hear sexual harassment being passed over. I rush out the room and I am sick in the toilets.

I now think of that vomiting as a feminist act: all that came up, all that I refused to digest.

Guts can be feminist friends.

We are supposed to cope, and if we don’t cope, we are not supposed to admit to not coping, because that would be a sign of weakness; being unprofessional.

I can tell you this now, with confidence: I did not cope. I could not cope. I would not cope.

They will you give you words to explain the act of not coping. I have been learning from listening to complainers how the term “vicarious trauma” is floated around very quickly when large scale enquiries into problems such as sexual harassment take place. I would not deny that it can be traumatizing to hear about other people’s trauma. But you hear what that diagnosis might be doing in an institutional setting. It can be used to imply a complaint is like an infection, spreading from body to body, organically: how she infects herself, how she infects others; complaining as not only not coping, but as being too easily affected by others. A complaint becoming a complaint in another sense: as a bodily condition, an ailment, an illness.

You can sense the utility of such a frame: it allows the institution to disappear.

Making complaints requires we give other explanations for why we make complaints.

What I found difficult to cope with was not what I learnt from students, however hard it was to hear what happened to many of the students I spoke to, but what I learnt about the institution from its response to the harassment. What was hard was the complicity, the silence. The institutional response to harassment – don’t talk about it, turn away from it, protect our reputation whatever the cost – was how the harassment was enabled in the first place. To be silent was to be part of the institutional silence.

Why should we cope with this? Why would we cope with this?

We are supposed to cope; to hold ourselves together. What if holding ourselves together is how the information is held? What if coping is containing? What if the very techniques for coping with violence are the same techniques for reducing the significance of violence?

A complaint: when we let out, spill out, what we are supposed to contain.

A complaint: when we transform what we do not cope with into a protest at what we are supposed to cope with.

Not coping: it can feel like a failure; you can feel like a failure. It can feel like you have lost the handle. Maybe we need to fly off the handle. And maybe not coping is an action. And maybe not coping is how we create a collective. That collective might be fragile but it is also feminist and furious.


These thoughts are dedicated to my complaint collective. Thank you.

We carry what matters with us.


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I am sharing the introduction I gave for a panel discussion Confrontation? Doing Feminist and Anti-Racist Work in Institutions. I have amended it slightly and added a few observations I didn’t have time to include on the day. I learnt so much from the panel and from the combined reflections offered by Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Heidi Mirza, Lola Olufemi and Monica Moreno Figueroa. Together they asked us to think about who does the work of confronting institutions (and who does not) and also to consider how those who end up having to confront institutions are often those who have already been made precarious by institutions. We talked about the exhaustion of doing this kind of work, and how making lasting political change might involve small steps taken over a long time. We reflected too on the importance of not allowing institutions to swallow us up and of developing our own survival strategies, which might include taking breaks or holding on to our friendships and relationships that matter to us and that exist outside of the institutions in which we work. We reflected on how confrontation can sometimes operate as a masculinist style of doing institutional or political work; and how there are different ways of doing that work not all of which will be recognised as confrontational.

I want to thank Leila, Tiffany, Heidi, Lola and Monica: they reminded me that however hard it is to try to transform institutions we find each other by doing the work.

Introduction, “Confrontation? Doing Feminist and Anti-Racist Work in Institutions,” May 1 2018, Cambridge University.

I am pleased to introduce and chair our panel on Confrontation? Doing Feminist and Anti-Racist Work in Institutions. To start off I want to say something about why we have made confrontation our leading question in opening up a discussion about doing institutional work. Being in an institution can be hard work especially when institutions are not built for us. It might be the work you have to do to get here or to enter a room because you do not have the right background or the right body. It might be the work you have to do to stay in the room because of what you find when you arrive. So much feminist and anti-racist work is the work of trying to transform institutions so they are more accommodating. That work includes the work we have to do to show what we already know; how difficult and hostile institutions are or can be; how white, how male-dominated; how racist, how sexist and so on.

Institutions do not always reveal themselves. I remember when I first became head of Women’s Studies at Lancaster University in 2000 and I began to attend faculty and university meetings. I began to hear how whiteness was justified. I already knew the university was white; I was I had got used to that whiteness even though it was wearing. But I began to hear how senior managers defended the whiteness of the university. These conversations, or perhaps we should call them defences, were happening because the Race Relations Amendment Act was about to come into force. The university was going to have to deal with the question of race: a conversation can be compliance. In one meeting a senior manager said we could not do anything about whiteness as whiteness is just about geography. In another meeting a Dean said race was too difficult to deal with. I was the only person of colour at that meeting and a newbie killjoy: I did not quite have the confidence at the time to confront him. But I sent him an email saying no, you are reproducing the problem by making it something that is too difficult to deal with. A no can become a career trajectory. I ended up on the newly formed race equality committee and from that point on I was always on such committees; diversity committees became my institutional house, where I ended up hanging out. We often up on such committees because of who are not: not men, not white, not straight, not able-bodied, not cis. The more nots you are the more committees you end up on!

And yet it is wearing: the work you have to do in order to be accommodated can make it even harder to be accommodated.

It is interesting to me now that it was trying to confront whiteness that led me on that path. Yes the diversity path might be difficult and it can slow your progression, and it can be how others are freed from that requirement to do the institutional work. But it also an interesting path: you find out a lot about institutions when you follow this route. The conversations we had as a group of academics and administrators have stayed with me; conversations about what words to use, what words not to use in writing a race equality policy.

We learn from where our words end up. We learn too from where documents end up. Our race equality document ended up being ranked by the ECU (Equality Challenge Unit) as excellent (along with many other documents I would add). And the university was able to use the policy as evidence that it was good at race equality. I will always remember the experience of being at a university meeting – we had a new vice chancellor and he was enthusiastic about equality as new vice chancellors tend to be. He waved the letter and said well done, we are good at equality. That an organisation can be, to use Heidi Mirza’s (2017) powerful terms “hideously white” and be judged as good at race equality was a very important political lesson. Policies can be useful because they create an impression of doing something without necessarily doing anything. It was a disheartening process but I learnt from it: when you confront the institution with what it has failed to do, you can still end up being used as evidence of what has been done.

Of course people of colour are often used as evidence; we appear in their brochures so they can appear diverse. And we are supposed to smile. Just by not smiling we are perceived as being too confrontational. Or to use certain words, words such as racism, whiteness, white supremacy, can mean being heard as confrontational and as intent on causing damage. In fact you don’t have to say or to do anything to be judged as confrontational. To be a person of colour in white institutions is to become “the race person”: you are always given this assignment. Confrontation can then be how you are received; you can be heard as confrontational, whatever you do or say, because of what you bring up by turning up. You have to try hard not to appear confrontational when that is how you already appear: diversity work can be the work you have to do to counter how you appear.

My own experience of doing diversity led me to a research project in which I talked to diversity practitioners about their work. One practitioner spoke to me about not using terms that were in her terms “more confrontational,” to enable her to have more conversations with more staff across the university. So she used the word diversity because it was a happier, lighter and more positive word. She sensed she could travel further by indicating in advance what she was not willing to confront. Different practitioners had different strategies; another practitioner refused to use the word diversity because she understood it as a “cop out,” a word that was so light that it would allow institution to pass over what inequalities that she wanted to address.

I learnt so much from listening to practitioners about strategy, about how we do the work we do. And there is a lot of work to do. We have assembled a panel of those who are “doing the work” including the work of trying to transforming Cambridge. This work can be exhausting – “a banging your head against the brick wall job” as one practitioner described to me – equality work as wall work. But given what we come up against, the work also requires creativity and persistence. I think it is important we value the work for what it teaches us. So I am going to introduce you to the panel by naming just some of the institutional work each member of the panel has been doing. I introduce Dr Monica Moreno Figueroa who is Senior Lecturer in Sociology here at Cambridge, who is leading the Decolonizing Cambridge initiative and is also one of Cambridge’s two Race Inclusion Champions; I introduce Lola Olufemi who is Women’s Officer at CUSU and has also been centrally involved in Decolonizing Cambridge as well as other campaigns such as Breaking the Silence, on preventing harassment and sexual misconduct. The remaining panellists were all members of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths. I introduce Dr Tiffany Page who is now a lecturer in Sociology at Cambridge and a founding member of the 1752 group, a research and lobby group working to end sexual misconduct in Higher Education; I introduce Dr Leila Whitley who is visiting Cambridge Sociology from University of Konstanz where she is a post-doctoral researcher working on “the displacement of harm,” how institutions turn the harm caused by sexual assault into harm against institutions and who is also on the Advisory Board of the 1752 group; and I introduce Professor Heidi Mirza who is an Emeritus Professor and has been creating spaces for Black British feminism wherever she has been including the Institute for Education and Goldsmiths.

The CFR is somewhat of a shared thread and I want to say a little about the work we did because if we pull that thread we end up here. The CFR was set up in 2013, which happened to be the same year I was asked to attend a meeting with students about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.(1) The same year: I think the energy and the feel of the CFR was shaped by the immediacy and urgency of what became a shared and collective project, a project that was led and shaped by students activists: a project of trying to bring an end to harassment, misconduct and bullying that was here, not over there, somewhere else, but here, in the same place we were working. The CFR became a kind of feminist shelter, a place to go to recover from the fight we had on our hands, which was a fight, even, to recognise that there was a problem, and that it was an institutional problem; to have a conversation about the problem.

A feminist shelter: so much of our work is the work of supporting each other given what we are trying to confront.

Looking back on this incredibly intense period I realise again the significance of what might seem obvious: the harder it is to get through the more you have to do.

And the harder it is to get through the more conscious you have to become about how you will be received. I will give just one example. We drafted a letter to the Warden, which was a call for action, which was eventually sent on September 30 2015. I was looking at the first drafts of the letter. What is interesting if unsurprising was how the more confrontational language was gradually edited out. So an early draft contained the sentence, “This constellation of abusive practices and associated complicities constitutes an institutional culture and we have not seen enough leadership to challenge that culture.” In the version that was eventually sent, that sentence was removed. The references to leadership that remained were as follows: We are writing this letter to call for strong leadership to challenge the problem of sexual harassment”; “We urge that the college respond by taking leadership in the campaign against sexual harassment at Universities.  In fact, it would be a much greater risk to college’s reputation as a progressive and critical institution if this opportunity for leadership is not seized.” We removed the description of leadership in terms of failure for strategic reasons; we wanted the letter to be more appealing. So what remains is an appeal to leadership that uses the terms that were already used by the university as a measure of its own success (“a progressive and critical institution”).

We all probably have experience of doing the work of editing out our more confrontational language. Wouldn’t you love it if all of our first drafts could be housed together: a “first draft archive” would be a killjoy archive for sure! We do this work of editing out the more confrontational language because we sense the less confrontational we are the further we will get. If we edit words out of letters, what else do we edit out? Can what be who: who gets edited out in that process? Does it work: do you go further by being less confrontational? Can you use their terms to acquire the resources and then use the resources to confront the institution in your own terms? Or if you receive resources from the institution does it become more difficult to confront the institution because you have something to lose?

These are life questions, institutional questions; these are our questions. Sometimes doing the work of confrontation is too much to sustain, in other words, the work can get in the way of living a feminist life. Another way of trying to confront an institution is to leave it. When I resigned from my post I resigned in feminist protest and because I had “had enough.” These reasons are the same reason; if you protest because of what you have had to put up with a protest is how you signal what you are no longer willing to put up with. I needed to give out a signal. There is not much point in being silent about why you are protesting when you are protesting silence.

When I shared my reasons for resigning from my post – in protest at the failure of the institution to address sexual harassment as an institutional problem – I quickly became the cause of damageI became a leaky pipe, drip, drip. Organisations will try and contain that damage. The response in other words is damage limitation. This is how diversity often takes institutional form: damage limitation. Happy shiny policies will be put in place; holes left by departures filled without reference to what went on before. Indeed there is often a blur of activity after an exposure of a problem. One academic who participated in a collective complaint about a culture of harassment at her former university describes how: “[the university] now has a very nice patch on its intranet telling staff what happened and it all looks cleaner than clean because of all the action they have taken in the past six months and frankly they haven’t addressed the situation at all.” Cleaning up, a complaint becomes a mess, something to be mopped up and away often by the appearance of doing something. Even new complaint procedures, however important, can be used in this way: as evidence of what is being done; as a distraction from what is not being done.

But there is hope here: they cannot mop up all the mess. When you lift the lid, more and more come out. It can be explosive, what comes out. Of course this is why professional norms of conduct are about keeping a lid on it; silence as institutional loyalty, silence in case of institutional damage.

And yes much of this data if released would be damaging to an organisation’s reputation. If it would be, it should be. No wonder it is hard to release that data. To release that data often requires using alternative methods, because following the usual procedures is often how we are stopped from getting information out. And so we might: write names of harassers in books; distribute leaflets; gather in protest to reclaim spaces that have become unavailable because of how they are used. We often end up doing this kind of work because we have exhausted the usual procedures. To use alternative methods has costs: those who use such methods are often disciplined for not working in the right way.  I have examined public statements and confidential letters that assume this disciplinary form: where not following the usual procedures has been identified as damaging organisations and even in some cases as damaging feminism. One letter written by a feminist academic to me, for instance, stated that rather than making a public disclosure a better route would have been to call a meeting with other women professors in order to avoid “a fall-out which damages us all now and in the future.” We have a problem when another meeting is imagined as a solution. If there is a fall-out, it is because stuff needs to come out.

The implication is that any damage to the institution would be damage to “us all.”

Is this the risk of the institutionalization of feminism: becoming us all?

I want to learn from the fact that it is even possible that some feminists would recommend not speaking out about the role of the institution in enabling and participating in harassment. Personally: I would think of this work as part of our job description. It might be that for some feminists to become part of an institution requires loyalty, expressed as the need to protect the organisation from anything that could damage its reputation. Or a concern might be that if feminist projects are resourced by an institution to speak out about the institutional violence would be to compromise those resources.  So a feminist project ends up being defending the organisation from being compromised. Or a concern might be that if the information gets out, it will become inflated possibly by being taken up by third parties in a sensationalist way, thus allowing others to overlook the feminist work being done within that institution.

I do want to understand the concerns.

But I still think we have a problem.

We have a problem when silence about violence becomes a way of holding onto feminism.

And problems can be pedagogy: by not confronting a problem a problem is reproduced. Too often working in house ends up being a restoration project, polishing the furniture so it appears less damaged. I have called this work with reference to uses of diversity “institutional polishing.” In house, the master’s house: we can remember Audre Lorde (1984) warning, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Of course we have limited options, and sometimes we have to use the tools available to us, chipping away at the walls the best we can. Sometimes we do what is required: we might even be willing to reflect the good image the institution has of itself back to itself, talking about the institution as being critical and progressive for instance. But you have to be careful not to lose yourself in the reflection.

We have to be careful not to lose ourselves in the reflection.

Today we want to talk as openly as we can about doing the work, feminist and anti-racist work, the work of exposing the problem, of becoming the problem, about what it feels like; the risks and the compromises; to talk about what we might find and what we might lose along the way (and what can be who, who we might find, who we might lose). If one way of stopping confrontation is to increase the costs of confrontation, then to do the work, the work that can be characterised as confrontational because of what it refuses not to reveal, requires finding ways to share these costs. Today’s event is also a launch for a new network, which we are describing as a counter-institutional feminist network, FFF. It came out of our experiences of fighting for feminism. The network is open to anyone who in fighting for feminism has to fight against institutions; anyone who has had to confront what others do not want revealed.

What we fight against can be how we are for; what we are for; feminism as for.

Thank you.

(1) This work was led by students and began much earlier than 2013 when a number of members of staff became involved in the project. So much of the collective labour of trying to bring an end to harassment and bullying is invisible and is performed by students and early career academics. We need to recognise and value this work as well as consider its costs.


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

Mirza, Heidi (2017). “‘One in a million’: A journey of a post-colonial woman of colour in the white academy,” in Deborah Gabriel and Shirley Anne Tate (eds).  Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of colour surviving and thriving in academia. Trentham.

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Notes on Feminist Survival

I am sharing some words I gave recently at a vigil. There are no notes or references; these are spoken words. I will have more to share soon.

Solidarity with my fellow killjoys, with those marching for a different life.

Notes on Feminist Survival, On the Occasion of the Reclaim the Night March, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, March 11 2018.

As I am speaking to you in a chapel it seems right to begin with Lorde. She is often where I begin. Audre Lorde in her extraordinary poem “A Litany of Survival,” speaks of those who were “never meant to survive,” those for whom survival requires creativity and work, those for whom survival is politically ambitious. Let me share a few lines from this poem:

For those of us who live at the shoreline

standing upon the constant edges of decision

crucial and alone

for those of us who cannot indulge the passing dreams of choice

who love in doorways coming and going in the hours between dawns

Through the art of light description Lorde evokes for us a “those of us,” a those of us who live and love on the edges, in doorways, shadows, those of us who fall like shadows fall; the fallen; those for whom coming into full view would be dangerous, those for whom survival might require not coming out in the full light of day.

We can begin to hear a claim: that survival for some requires crafting a life from shattering experiences, the kind of experiences that might leave you fragile, close to the edge, “at the shoreline.” It is because we are fragile that we have to fight – sometimes for life. Lorde insists that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” She is speaking from her own experience of battling with cancer, of being given a prognosis that her cancer had spread to her liver.  She compares battling cancer to living with anti-black racism, a comparison that is deeply effective, teaching us how racism can be experienced as an attack on the body. Lorde refused not to fight for life.

It is rebellious to fight for life when you have been given a deadly assignment.

Feminism: we are fighting for our lives. And we are fighting against a system. A system can be upheld by violence. It might be the violence that follows being seen as a girl or woman, why are you not smiling love, comments thrown out as how you are thrown out; or physical or sexual violence at home or on the streets. The violence does things; you might retreat from the world, taking up less and less space, you might feel less, that you worth less. It might be the violence that follows not being legible as woman: are you a boy or a girl, the question that drips with hostility; the violence that insists you must be legible as one or the other. It might be the violence that follows not getting it right, not acting like you should, not walking right, not speaking right; not liking the right things because that is not what girl or a boy is supposed to like, or to be or to do, a violence that punishes deviation from a norm.

Deviation is hard. Deviation is made hard.

Violence hovers around the deviant. You stand out from what is around and about.

When you are black or brown in a sea of whiteness; you become noticeable.

It might be the violence of having insults thrown at you or being asked, again and again, and questions can be wearing, for some to be is to be in question: Where are you from? Where are you really from? The questions are assertions in disguise: as if to say brown, black, is not from here, not here, not.

It might the violence that follows being seen as women together, lesbians, as if by not being in relation to men you are not being at all. It might be the violence of how you become understood as causing the violence directed against you as if by being who you are you have provoked that reaction. It might be the violence of how when you point out violence you are understood as causing the loss of something, harmony or peace, the way when women of colour point our racism we are heard as being divisive. It might be the violence of having to point out that rooms are inaccessible because they keep booking rooms that are inaccessible, of having to fight just to enter a room. It might be the violence of how much work you have to do to make it possible to exist, until you feel your existence is nothing but work.  It might be the violence of not being able to turn to anyone to escape violence, because you are poor, or because you fear they will take away your children; or that you would be forced to leave because do not have the right papers. Intersectionality can mean this: how structures intersect; how vulnerability to violence is distributed unequally. bell hooks calls it what it is “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”

Those who experience the violence of a system are those who know that system most intimately. We know so much from when we stopped, from what we are not allowed to do or be. Those who are enabled by a system often will and do deny its very existence. So much of our struggle is a struggle to expose the violence of the system. I want to think of that struggle to expose violence as snap, what I call simply feminist snap. We probably all have had experiences of snapping; snapping is an everyday experience even if we do not snap every day. Feminism too is everyday; feminism is what we are doing by living our lives in a feminist way. A snap often comes from what is wearing. Maybe you are trying to put up with it, the constant belittling of your existence, sexist jokes, racist jokes, they are not funny, so we do not laugh. We cannot always afford to express ourselves: sexism and racism can make it costly to name sexism and racism. But it is constant and you are getting tired, annoyed, frustrated, not snapping can be hard work; not challenging what undermines your existence can undermine your existence. But then you reach a point, when you just can’t take it anymore, you have had enough, in the end it can be something small that is too much and you snap.

Snapping can be what comes out when you have had enough but it can also how you are heard. In my work I have explored, reclaimed, and affirmed the figure of the feminist killjoy, the one who gets in the way of happiness or who just gets in the way. The feminist killjoy is snappy: she is heard as shouting however she speaks, because of the point she makes, the words she uses, words like sexism, words like racism, just to make these points, use these words, is to be heard as shouting, abrasive, as if by opening your mouth you are breaking something. If pointing out racism and sexism is to cause unhappiness, we are quite willing to cause unhappiness. We become mouthy when they don’t like what comes out of our mouths.

And sometimes, we do need to break something, an idea of who we are, or who we will be, in order to make our lives possible.  We might have to break a bond, it might be a family bond or a bond to a person or some we or another. A bond can be violent. What can make living with violence hard is how hard it is even to imagine or think the possibility of its overcoming; you might be isolated; you might be materially dependent; you might be down, made to think and feel you are beneath that person; you might be attached to that person, or believe that person when they say they will change; you might have become part of that person, have your life so interwoven with that person that it is hard to imagine what would be left of you if you left. And in spite of all of that, there can be a point, a breaking point, when it is “too much” and what did not seem possible becomes necessary. She fights back; she speaks out. She has places to go because other women have been there.

A bond of fate, a fatal bond. Gender can be a fatal bond.

No wonder that leaving a situation of violence can feel like snap: a bond of fate has indeed been broken.

She has places to go; we have places to go because others have been there. It is important when we gather together as women and non-binary people to think of the history that precedes us and that make it possible for us to be here; to keep up the fight, to reclaim the night. I think of Black feminists and feminists of colour scholar-activists working in the UK who made it possible for me to be here, Gail Lewis, Avtar Brah, Heidi Mirza, Ann Phoenix, to name a few, there are so many more because so many came before, I think of my mother Maureen, my sisters Tanya and Tamina, my auntie Gulzar Bano, a Muslim feminist who was the first woman who talked to me about feminism, she was also a poet who taught me what you could do with words; my partner Sarah and my dog Poppy. All of us: we all bring others with us. We bring our histories with us, each of us, different histories that have allowed us to be in this room, and a room can be what you inhabit but it can also be an activity; to make room with each other, for each other. There are so many who are not with us. It is right for us to mourn our losses, to count our losses, to express our grief for those who did not make it; who were taken too soon, far too soon.  I think of Saba Mahmood, who died yesterday; a feminist of colour academic, a comrade. I thank you for all you gave us, all you left for us: I thank you for your words, wisdom and warmth. Feminists of colour working in the academy; we have paths to follow because of what you created.

A vigil: to stay awake with a person who is dying; to mark or to mourn, to make a protest, to pray; to count our losses, to count her as loss, or, to borrow the name of a recent campaign in response to police violence against black women, can I acknowledge here the important work of Kimberle Crenshaw and Andrea Ritchie, to say her name.

To say her name; to say their name. We have to fight to bring violence to attention. Feminist snap can also be thought of as an alternative communication system. Sometimes it is too risky to expose the violence of the system. It can be hard, for instance to speak out about violence that happens in Universities. I left my own post at a university because I was not willing to be silent about sexual harassment, because I did not want to reproduce what was not being addressed. When you are precarious it can be even harder to make a complaint about violence; you might not feel you have a secure enough footing. When speaking out is too risky, we have to find other ways for the violence to become manifest. We might need to use guerrilla tactics, and we have a feminist and queer history to draw upon; you can write names of harassers on books; graffiti on walls, turn bodies into art. Or to evoke a recent action by feminist direction group Sisters Uncut, we can put red ink in the water so that the centre of a city seems flooded by blood. They cut, we bleed. The riskier it is to snap, the more inventive we become. We have to occupy the building, stop the traffic; point out how business is usual is violence as usual.

Snap to it: a gathering can be snap. Feminism, queer and trans histories are histories of those who have combined forces, gathered in protest, just as we are doing; we are part of that history. We keep a history alive by gathering in this way; we receive energy from others, those who came before us. I think of the Stonewall riots. An interview with Sylvia Rivera has been recently released in which she discusses what happened on that day. Say her name: Sylvia Rivera as a trans woman of colour tends not to be remembered in how those events are remembered. In her account, snap comes up.  It was a day like other days for those who gathered at the bar, gays, dykes, sex workers, drag queens; a racially diverse army of the willingly perverse; an army that is used to living with police violence; an army for whom violence is usual. Rivera says: “This is what we learned to live with at that time. We had to live with it.” But something happens on that day. “We had to live with it until that day.  And then, I don’t know if it was the customers or it was the police. It just [snaps fingers], everything clicked.”  The snapping of fingers, that sound, snap, snap, allows Rivera to convey the sensation of things falling into place, when suddenly, or it seems sudden but it took a long time, a collective comes out with a “no,” a collective that is fragile, fabulous, full, furious:  “Everybody just like, Why the fuck are we doing all this for?   Oh, it was so exciting. It was like, Wow, we’re doing it. We’re doing it. We’re fucking their nerves.”

A snap can be catchy, igniting a crowd, all those years of frustration, pain, all that is wearing, coming out, getting out, claiming the freedom to be what they have tried to stop you from being. It is electric, snap, snap; sizzle, so much comes out when you tip something over. To make snap a part of how we tell the story of political movements is to show how exhaustion and rebellion can come from the same place; how those who are exhausted by the violence of a system come to revolt against that violence, how even when snap comes from sap, from being tired out, from being depleted, snap can reboot; snap can boost.

Snapping, that moment when the pressure has built up and tipped over, can be the basis of a revolt, a revolt against what we are asked to put up with. We fight for what is necessary.  If we started with Lorde, we can end with her too. Audre Lorde often spoke of what is necessary. Poetry she suggests is not a luxury but necessary; as necessary as bread. Possibilities are necessary. Audre Lorde often spoke of how she started writing because of a need to create what is not there. She said “what I leave behind has a life of its own.”  Writing was for Lorde an unflinchingly optimistic gesture, an optimism that comes out of rather than at the expense of a profound recognition of the difficulty of survival. She also spoke of motherhood as a kind of black feminist optimism: raising Black children “in the mouth of a racist, sexist suicidal dragon,” raising children with the hope that their dreams “will not reflect the death of ours.”

So that their dreams will not reflect the death of ours: we have to fight not to reproduce an inheritance, but that fight might also be how we keep holding onto a dream, passing it on so that it lives after we are gone.  We fight because we dream for a more just world. Perhaps then it is the very struggle against injustice that gives us the resources we need to build more just worlds. These resources might include a certain willingness to cause trouble, to kill joy, yes, to be misfits and warriors, but they also involve humour, laughter, dance, eating and drinking, all the ways we have to nourish ourselves and each other. We have to do what we can, when we can, to use Lorde’s words again, to be “vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make a change.” A vigil can be vigilance, observant, attentive; vigilance as persistence. By asking us to be “vigilant for the smallest opportunity for change” Lorde is addressing you directly: do what you can, when you can, where you can.

We are addressing each other too. When we speak to someone, we open the possibility of a return address; to and fro. Feminism: to and fro, a dialogue, a dance, a chance, what we have to do to be.

Thank you.




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Opening the File

I have just completed the first twenty interviews for my complaint project (1). I have spoken to students, former students, administrators, junior academics, senior academics and retired academics. I have heard about ableism, ageism, classism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism, racism, sexual harassment, and sexual misconduct. I have been given many accounts of bullying and abusive behavior. I have listened to people who have been devastated by their experiences; I have heard accounts of depression, stress and illness. I have heard from people who have lost their jobs, houses, partners; I have heard about experiences of becoming isolated from friends and colleagues as a consequence of making a complaint or of supporting those who have made complaints. I have heard from people who left the academy as a consequence of their experiences.  I have spoken to those who made complaints only because they were leaving their jobs or programmes – I will return to the relationship between being able to complain and leaving in due course. I have spoken to those who decided not to go ahead with formal complaints, and I have learnt so much from their reasons. I have spoken to those who have had formal complaints procedures used against them because they have challenged, or have been understood to have challenged, those with authority within institutions. I have heard harrowing accounts of institutional violence, of how just how much weight can and will be thrown against those who try to identify a problem, or who are perceived in some way as being a problem, whether they made formal complaints or not.

It has been a privilege to receive these accounts. I understand my task as being to give these complaints somewhere to go, to be an ear, to learn as to learn to hear. I will be thinking as I go along how best to take care of them.

In the research I have decided not to separate student complaints from staff complaints (the latter are usually called grievances). This means I am pulling together what is filed apart. Filing together has become key to my method. Many of those I have spoken to have shared with me their confidential files. I will return to files. They matter.

I have learnt from how much I have learnt by listening to people’s experience of the complaint process. By this I mean: I have learnt how making a complaint means acquiring wisdom, what I would call institutional wisdom. To make a complaint is to learn how organisations and departments that appear on the surface to be committed to equality and progressive values turn out to be deeply hierarchical and traditional once you dig deeper; that a complaint often requires digging deeper tells us something. When you make a complaint you often learn about the gap between how some people represent themselves (as being, say, progressive or feminist) and how they act; you learn so much from who gives you support and who does not (2). I am thus not generating data on complaint but receiving data that has already been collected by those who are making complaints. It is like being offered a series of snap-shots of institutions; zooming in on what is usually passed over.

As I have been doing the research, I have been revisiting my own institutional history, thinking about how I would assemble my own complaint biography; the times I did speak out, the times I didn’t. I have been remembering experiences I had in my first academic post. I remember especially one term when I was still a junior lecturer in Women’s Studies but was acting head of department. Until that term I had an impression of this organisation as a friendly and feminist space. Well if Women’s Studies was a feminist bubble, becoming head of department meant that bubble burst. I began to attend faculty meetings. I shared some more of these experiences in the introduction to On Being Included (2012), experiences of hearing how senior managers talked about race in faculty meetings (for example saying whiteness was just about geography). These were experiences of becoming a complainer, firing off emails; you can’t say that, you are reproducing whiteness by naturalizing whiteness. In fact it was making a complaint that led to me ending up on the race equality committee.  And complaint followed being on that committee, complaints about what you cannot do under the rubric of diversity.

I attended another meeting in the top room of the fanciest building on campus. I remember going into that room and seeing all these paintings of white men on the walls. They were modern in style but traditional in content. I remember women coming around in uniforms serving tea and cakes. But the thing I really remember: the secretary and the chair of the board engaging in sexual innuendo throughout the meeting. I remember people laughing. I remember feeling so shocked in part by how it seemed to be business as usual. Sexual jokes, sexual banter; portraits of white men, former VCs reminded you of who the university is for, women serving coffee: yes my feminist bubble had burst. All these different elements combine; thick, becoming wall.

It is not that a complaint is the only way we take such snap-shots of institutional life. I didn’t complain then; I didn’t say anything, though perhaps I expressed my feelings in some way, a no as sinking into the chair, as trying to disappear. A complaint might be how you begin to recognise something through the gradual forming of a no, until you can come out with it. It is through opposing something that it becomes clearer; when we are in agreement so much recedes.

Sometimes to do the work we have to do we put what we encounter to one side. One woman senior manager I spoke to attended a meeting with other senior managers. She was the only woman around the table; she was used to this; you get used to this. She is doing her job as they are. But then one man makes a sexist and sexualizing comment. She described how the comment became a bonding moment between men: how the atmosphere in the room changed, laughter, interest, as if they had been brought to attention. After expressing her feelings to me, of rage, alienation, disappointment, also of sadness, she said: “you file it under ‘don’t go there.’” And that is what we do, often, to keep going, filing as how we put to one side what is hardest to handle so that we can do our jobs.

I have been thinking about this: our everyday ways of coping with stuff and how much that requires putting things to one side. I think sometimes in the past I have tried to put whiteness in a file, to imagine it wasn’t there, all around, as surround. And then of course something happens and what you knew was there becomes all the more there; it can hit you all the more, what is there, the more you try not to notice what is there.

Complaint as noticing: in making a complaint you zoom in on such experiences, such as the times you are told that the university is not a place for someone like you. I don’t think you make those experiences bigger than they are – though you will be told you are doing just that; you will be told not to make such a big deal of it. It is more that you refuse to file those experiences away (even if you have filed them before): you refuse to reduce their significance, to make them smaller than they are. I am not saying that a complaint reveals everything about an institution or that what comes into view is the whole view. But a complaint often brings into view what an organisation does not want revealed. When you complain you refuse not to reveal something. This is why a complaint can feel like something spilling out, out of files, out of containers.

Files: they are part of institutional life.  And there are many files in a complaint. If we follow complaints, we might end up in files. Files themselves have their own journeys: they might travel, be passed around from person to person or between departments; they might be stationary, and end up in a cabinet. Although a file is supposed to be how you can locate an item, filing as the ordering of documents so they are handy, filing often seems to be how things go missing. I have learnt of one case where a file that contained all the documents from a large scale enquiry into sexual harassment mysteriously went missing; I have been tempted to call this phenomena strategic inefficiency. A history can go missing; missing files, missing cases, and also then: missing people. We do not know how many are missing. One academic described their experience of complaint as surreal in part because of how documents seemed to travel in mysterious ways, suddenly appearing in files without an explanation of how they got there.

Files: things are not always as they seem.

Files could be thought of as houses as well as housed: they contain documents; they might be stored in cabinets. If diversity work is often “doing the document,” to quote from a practitioner, so too is complaint. One student began her testimony by showing me a folder of all her complaint documents: it was full; it was stuffed. Others have sent me copies of documents before we talked. These documents are often long, just as many accounts shared with me have been long; a complaint biography is long and messy because a complaint is long and messy. One student told me her formal complaint was as long as her MA dissertation. Think of the work of this; think of the time this took. One academic who wrote a 64 page complaint, which did not go anywhere, understood her complaint as its own kind of achievement. She said: “I am very proud of that complaint, it was a lot of work, a huge amount of work, and even though it didn’t go anywhere, I am still happy that I made it…. Just having this clear chronology of what happened was helpful for my mental health, and for understanding what went down. I am glad that it exists for me, and that if any questions are raised I have it and also that I did lodge a grievance, I had a go, I did try, and for the record that matters to me.” A complaint can be a record of a struggle, and records can have uses whatever happens.  After all, difficult experiences are difficult to recall; writing a chronology can be a way of remembering. And even if the complaint does not get anywhere, it does not mean a complaint does not reveal to the one who made it that they made it.

But when a file becomes a destination we have a problem. If a complaint is filed away the problem that the complaint addresses has not been addressed. Many have shared with me a sense of despair that their complaints end up in files. One student who made a complaint about disability discrimination suggested it “just gets shoved in the box.” Perhaps a file becomes a bin: to be filed as how something is discarded. I spoke to another student who decided not to proceed with a formal complaint about sexual harassment. She said she did not want her complaint to “become a note in his file.” Some complaints are not made because people do not want their experiences to be noted and that’s it, to be filed, and that’s it. If the file is the destination of many complaints, files might need to form     part of our explanation of why many complaints are not made. (2)

And: when a complaint is filed away or binned those who complain can end up feeling they too are filed away or binned. We need to remember that a complaint is a record of what happens to a person, they often come about because of difficult, painful, and traumatic experiences. Complaints are personal. Complaints are also institutional records; they are records of what happens in an institution. Complaints are institutional. The personal is institutional. To file a complaint can mean to become alienated from your own history, a history that can be difficult, painful and traumatic.

And yet complaints are filed. What would happen if we opened the files? What would come out? And by “opening the files” I am thinking not just of the files lodged in institutions but our own files, we might call them mental, I think they are material; the places we have deposited some of our most difficult experiences.

Opening the files could be thought of as enabling a conversation between complaints. Confidential files are usually kept apart. When we open them together what will we notice? A complaint could acquire a companion: perhaps these folders, files, and documents, will talk to each other. Perhaps they will have something to say to each other. In placing what is filed apart together we can assemble a shared history; we can listen for patterns and resonances. Of course even when we put them together they cannot be released. To research complaints requires that we maintain the confidentiality that surrounds them. We have to have the conversation as best we can; we have to show what complaints know whilst removing any traces that could identify sources.

Feminism is what is possible when those with a complaint speak to each other, learn from each other. It is a collective feminist task: opening files, pulling out documents, pulling out memories. What comes out is what the project is about.

1) I am expecting to do 5-10 more interviews. I have also collected a number of written testimonies.

2) Support will be a key concern in the project: I will ask how support can be provided and what we learn from the failure of support to be provided.

3)  I will address in due course why developing new complaint procedures is important but also why better procedures won’t necessarily get at the problem. What I have learnt thus far is that the work of containing a complaint is the same work as the work of reproducing culture. We have to understand the problem otherwise the solution will be the problem given new form.


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Diversity Work as Complaint

In my previous post I suggested that making a complaint can be a form of diversity work. You might have to complain in order to progress within an organisation. When a complaint is necessary in order for you to progress, a complaint can be an obstacle to your progression. I have spoken to many academics who have made complaints because they did not receive a promotion and who understood not being promoted as a result of structural impediments such as ableism, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. A structure can be what slows you down.  And note that to make a formal complaint is to enter into a difficult and time-consuming project. You can be slowed down even more by having to address what slows you down (1).

A complaint is also diversity work in the sense that a complaint teaches you about an organisation; you learn about the culture of an organisation from how a complaint is treated especially if a complaint is about the culture of an organisation.

I think we can also reverse my formulation: diversity work as complaint. I have been using diversity work in two senses: the work we do to transform an institution and the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution. These two senses can meet in a body: those who do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution are often given the task of transforming these norms. A complaint is another way these senses of diversity work meet; it is what you are doing when you challenge the norms that govern institutional life either as an explicit task you have given yourself or by virtue of how you appear.

A complaint can be a catalogue of instances. You are sent a “calls for paper” in advance of it being circulated. It refers only to white men. This is not unusual; it is business as usual. You point it out as usual. You have to keep saying it because they keep doing it. A concerned response, yes, you are quite right, we will amend it. The “calls for paper” is then circulated. It still only refers to white men. You are at a meeting with staff and students. You are the only woman of colour professor at the meeting. This is not surprising: you are the only woman of colour professor in the department. And you are the only professor not referred to as professor. If you were to ask to be referred to as professor, you would be heard as being self-promotional, as insisting on your dues. You are giving a talk on whiteness. A white man is in the audience and responds, but you’re a Professor. You can hear the implications of this but, but look at you Professor Ahmed, see how far you have come. How easily we can become poster children for diversity, how easily we can be held  up as proof that women of colour are not held up. You are giving a talk on racism. A white woman comes up to you afterwards and puts her arm next to yours. We are almost the same colour, she says. You wouldn’t know you were any different from me, she says. It is as if talking about racism creates a difference that would not otherwise be there. I do not say anything. I have let my arm do the talking. You are invited to give a lecture at a university. The lecture is advertised as part of the university’s diversity programme. They do not advertise it as a research event, despite being asked to do so a number of times by the woman of colour who invited you. Diversity and research are treated as two different tracks, such that in doing diversity, or being diversity, you fall off, you might even be pushed off, the research track, the track that leads further up the organization, the track that eases and enables a progression.

These examples are more than a catalogue of instances. They are a catalogue of the university. They teach us how a university is built. We become diversity workers, when we try to dismantle the structures that are not built to accommodate us.  We also become complainers. Asking for women and people of colour to be added to a reference list or a syllabus is heard as complaint, using words like whiteness or racism is heard as complaint, asking to be referred to by the right title is heard not only as self-promotional but also as a complaint; indeed a complaint is often heard as self-promotional.

Complaint: a word can bring up a history. The word complaint derives from old French, complaindre, to lament, a lament, an expression of sorrow and grief, from Latin, lamentum, “wailing, moaning; weeping.” Wailing, moaning; weeping: as feminists of colour, we are often heard this way, whatever we say, however we say it; hysterical, killjoys, over-reacting, sensitive, easily hurt, angry, as if we do not get over it because we have not got over ourselves. A complaint can be how diversity work is registered whether or not a complaint is made. One time at a reception a white male professor (who was also a senior manager) came up to me and asked me rather crossly why I was always “going on” about being a feminist killjoy. He murmured something about there being lots of women in senior management at the college (he didn’t mention that all the senior management were white). The implication was: there was nothing to complain about; we should be happy and grateful for the support given to our own progression.

Summary: complaint as ingratitude.

In an earlier post, Feminist Complaint, which I wrote before I began my project on complaint, I noted how to be heard as complaining is not to be heard. Listening to those who have made complaints has allowed me to understand more about how complaints are heard. I am beginning to appreciate how hearing as such is a mechanism: how a complaint about an organisation is heard as how an organisation works. A complaint can be considered a technology of hearing. I want to pick up here up on four key terms from my earlier post on complaint as diversity work: firstly complaints are heard as negative, as whining or moaning about a state of affairs that you could just as easily accept. This is how a complaint is a killjoy genre: no wonder I am writing about complaints! Secondly (and relatedly) a complaint is heard as destructive even if those who make complaints understand themselves to be contributing to a conversation or to be involved in a shared process of culture change. We learn so much from this: any attempt to modify something is judged as trying to destroy something. A complaint might be teaching us about the investment in things staying the same or being as they are. Another crucial aspect of how complaints are heard is magnification: a complaint is heard as calling for more than is being called for. Once heard this way, a complaint can be dismissed as too extreme to be considered as part of a constructive process (2). A complaint can then be treated as self-referential, as being about the complainer. A complaint becomes the expression of a failure to be properly integrated into the culture of an institution.

How does considering complaint as a technology of hearing help us to make sense of the work of diversity work? Let’s take “decolonising the curriculum” as an example. Decolonising the curriculum usually involves staff and students in conversation with each other about what is being taught and what is not being taught. It involves trying to reflect on how histories of colonialism shape the syllabus by informing decisions about the syllabus. But when treated as complaint, decolonising the curriculum is understood as 1) a failure to appreciate history 2) an attempt to destroy what is of inherent or universal value 3) a will to bring to an end what or even who already exists 4) as coming from militant students (in particular from BAME students) who by complaining are demonstrating that they are not integrated properly and who are promoting themselves by imposing their own agenda upon others.

If this sounds familiar it is because it is familiar.

Take for example the coverage of the SOAS decolonising the curriculum project. The SOAS campaign is a good example of diversity work; of how questioning what is taught is about thinking about the history of an institution;  breathing life into that institution. A helpful post describing the campaign begins with the history of SOAS itself: “the School of Oriental Studies began as a colonial project in 1916 to deepen Europe’s understanding of the Global South. “Africa” was eventually added to the schools name in 1938. With the 100th year of SOAS coming up, it’s important to assess the colonial origins of the institution and look ahead to the ways in which the school is developing.” The post further describes: “One of the key aspects of this campaign is for us to examine the ways in which Western philosophy puts a specific conception of Man at the centre. This enables the myth of ‘universal truth’ as being a body of knowledge that has dictated the current colonial structure of the world we live in today.”

Oriental studies: one might think here of Edward Said’s Orientalism. For Said “the Orient is an integral part of European material civilisation and culture…a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and styles” (1978: 2, emphasis Said’s). A university can be a supporting institution; where ideas circulate and are held. We can think of how that support can work as a referencing system; Orientalists who have the authority and expertise cite Orientalists. A citational chain is created. Just take the work of James Mill, a utilitarian philosopher. After he published his History of British India, he was offered a role in the East India Company (his son John Stuart Mill also had an administrative role in the company). How did Mill become an authority on India? He tells you himself: “A duly qualified man can obtain more knowledge of India in one year in his closet in England than he could obtain during the course of the longest life, by the use of his eyes and ears in India” ([1818] 1997, 4). Mill considers himself an authority on India because he had never been to India. He learns about India from other books written by Orientalist scholars; knowledge becomes a system of references in which the others are the objects, not subjects, spoken about, not spoken to. I think of that closet in England as a container technology; how empire is “at home” through the restriction of the circulation of knowledge about “the others.”

We acquire knowledge about knowledge from learning this history. We learn so much about utilitarian philosophy from the history of the East India Company, for instance. How is the project of decolonising the curriculum represented in wider public discourse? It is certainly not framed as learning more from more. Let’s take this article from The Telegraph. It describes the campaign as follows:  “students at a prestigious London university are demanding that figures such as Plato, Descartes and Immanuel Kant should be largely dropped from the curriculum because they are white.”  This framing is very useful: it demonstrates for us how hearing complaint works. The students asked for no such thing; they did not ask for any philosophers to be removed from the syllabus (let alone “because they were white”). They asked for more philosophy from outside the West to be included; and they asked for more discussion of the colonial contexts that shaped eighteenth and nineteenth century European philosophy.  Asking about, say, the role of racism in Enlightenment philosophy teaches us more not less about that philosophy.  When you don’t put racism in brackets (as if what Kant had to say about Africa had nothing to do with his universalism or his educational or moral philosophy), you learn more about philosophy as well as the world.

Decolonising the curriculum is a chance to learn more about a history that is not simply behind is. But that is not how the work of decolonising the curriculum is framed; it is framed as a willful attempt to damage what should be revered.  A complaint about a canon is framed as the failure to revere the canon. Indeed a complaint teaches us about what (and who) becomes an object of reverence.

We learn also: it can be made compulsory to revere something.  A complainer has to refuse this compulsion.

One academic I interviewed described what she called “a culture of not complaining” in her former university. This might not sound much like academic culture: surely academics complain rather a lot? Maybe they complain about somethings but not others. Maybe you are allowed to complain about the weather or even bad management; a complaint can then become a bond; when a grievance can be shared it is allowed to be expressed. Maybe complaining is permitted when it creates a sense of sharing something, however negative. But what if you want to complain about what is being shared? This academic explained the “culture of not complaining” as being a result of what she called “a legacy project.” She spoke of how her colleagues described the institution’s history as what you would come to respect if you were there long enough.  The would-be-complainer is positioned as a kind of newbie: a complaint is implied to be a result of someone not having been in an organisation long enough to appreciate its history. A complaint becomes a symptom of impatience: as if with patience you would have eventually come to revere that which you question.

Speaking of questions: even asking a question about the value of something can be heard as attempting to destroy its value, like chipping away at a statue, or as being a result of what you have failed to appreciate. Questions can be heard as complaints when there is so much you are not supposed to question. This is how students who question what they are being taught are heard as being destructive, as if questioning is itself a form of impertinance.

The history of empire too is a kind of legacy project. So often empire is evoked today as a moral project just as it was during the period of imperial expansion; empire as a gift, as bringing others into modernity, as bringing law and order and railways, not a history of violence and conquest, of the appropriation of labour, that is, of people; and of land and resources. Even to speak of empire in less than glowing terms is deemed to compromise a legacy. In my book, The Promise of Happiness (2010) I considered the figure of the melancholic migrant as the one who is deemed to compromise the nation because of the failure to let go of memories of racism, as if memories of racism (rather than racism itself) are what stops participation in the national game. A complaint is framed not only as a result of the failure to be integrated but as being what would prevent a future integration; a complaint as what you must give up to get on or to get along.

Those who try to offer another kind of account of the history of empire are discredited. To be less than positive about the legacy of European imperialism is to be heard as being negative. Negation becomes property; as if complainers are being negative because they have a negative being. We are back to how complaint is judged as self-expression and thus as self-promotion.  When we ask for more people of colour to be added to a syllabus, we are often heard as talking about ourselves, as if we are only concerned with being missing ourselves, or with being added ourselves. Identity politics is used whenever those deemed strangers, as not belonging, question how worlds are constructed whether what is questioned is a building, a syllabus, a meeting, or a programme.

And if a critique is heard as being about those who make the critique, the object being critiqued disappears. Or a critique is heard as a willful act of trying to destroy that object. You just have to say that a canon might not be the simply expression of quality or worth, and they hear relativism as if you are going to teach Shakespeare alongside a cereal packet (how could you do that to Shakespeare!). You might ask for more philosophies from outside the West to be taught on the syllabus, and they hear you as calling for the removal of white philosophers; they make use of white as an adjective as if it attaches simply to who. You can hear how being heard as making a complaint matters: to hear a complaint is to hear somebody as trying to destroy something, complaint as vandalism, but also trying to bring an end to somebody, as censoring who, as leading to less of who. In fact students are asking for more not less; more context to what is taught, more to be taught than the narrowness of the world as seen from a viewing point, a point that disappears as point by being treated as universal.

We need to make explicit what is at stake here: when decolonising the curriculum is treated as vandalism, those who call for decolonising the curriculum are treated as vandals, and they are singled out and targeted and disciplined as such (3). How diversity work is heard as complaint is really about this: the disciplining of those deemed complainers, the attempt to make them pay for having complained at all.

And so: a complaint also becomes about the cost of making a complaint.

I want to return in conclusion to what we learn from Said. To study Orientalism is to study not only how others are viewed but the power relations at stake in the production of that view. At one point Said does share the stakes of his study. He notes: “Much of the personal investment in this study derives from my awareness of being an “Oriental” as a child growing up in two British colonies. All of my education, in those colonies (Palestine and Egypt) and in the United States, has been Western, and yet that deep early awareness has persisted. In many ways my study of 0rientalism has been an attempt to inventory the traces upon me, the Oriental subject, of the culture whose domination has been so powerful a factor in the life of all Orientals” (1978, 25, emphasis added). To inventory the traces is to register how domination works; how domination impresses upon those who, as subjects, have been rendered objects.

When the objects dare to speak?

How are they heard?

As complaint; as complainers; as complaining.

(1) I will be addressing complaint in relation to promotion in due course. I have gathered some rather extraordinary testimonies that have deepened my understanding of how power works through relative speed: how some are enabled to progress more quickly; how others are slowed down.

(2) Please note that I am not assuming that what is heard as extreme (or as more extreme than it is) is extreme. Such judgements are often dependent upon the norms that complaints are challenging. Also note the implication of my argument for an understanding of censorship. A position or viewpoint can be censored – can cease to be expressible in certain forum – by how it is heard. Indeed censorship can happen by identifying a viewpoint as censoring as we can witness in how decolonising the curriculum is framed as an attempt to censor – to stop philosophers from being taught – even when no one involved in the campaign articulated such a view.  Following complaints is teaching me the mechanics of how the most dominant can represent themselves as the most censored.

(3) We can witness how the framing of decolonising the curriculum as vandalism involved the singling out and targeting of BAME student activists in the more recent media reports of decolonising the curriculum at Cambridge. Listen to Lola Olufemi for her powerful reflections on these techniques, and also for how she relates the task of decolonising the curriculum to the work of feminist killjoys.



Mill, James [1818] (1997). History of British India, London: Routledge.

Said, Edward (1978). Orientalism. London: Routledge.


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Complaint as Diversity Work

I am listening to those who have made complaints (1).  I am learning about institutions. Indeed what is striking is just how much my study of complaint follows on from my earlier study of diversity work.

I want to make being stricken an opportunity for thought.

How and why would complaint bring me back to the data I collected on diversity work?

In the introduction to On Being Included (2012) I reflected on my experience of conducting interviews with diversity practitioners. In the UK, diversity practitioners are typically housed in human resources departments; though some universities do have separate units for equality and diversity. Diversity workers often have to speak in the language of their employment; diversity as human resource. I noted how most of my interviews started with that language; happy talk of diversity as what the university is doing even being. But over the course of the interview, the happier languages wore out, and a quite different picture of the institution came into view.

I am still learning from the time it took for what was wearing to be shared.

Being a diversity practitioner means you are in effect appointed by an employer to transform the employer. It is a difficult position. One practitioner described the job as a “banging your head against the brick wall job.” Even if you are appointed by an institution to transform the institution, it does not mean the institution is willing to be transformed. In fact, many practitioners encounter resistance to their work; diversity is work because of that resistance. You have to find ways to get through because you are blocked. This is why I called diversity workers institutional plumbers; they have to work out where the blockage is or what stops something (for example a new policy) from moving through the system.

A wall is what you come up against because of what you are trying to do. The data I collected was thus full of walls; although it was not until after I completed the research that I noticed them.

Starting with complaint is starting from a different point. I have noted that a complaint is not a starting point, but it is how my conversations start. So the interviews are not about the happy languages wearing out. They are full of what is wearing right from the beginning.

Stories of complaint are often stories about the exhaustion of a process. Indeed, “exhausted” is even referenced in policies: “After the internal University processes have been exhausted, complainants have the opportunity to have their complaint independently reviewed by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA).” When the processes have been exhausted a person probably has been too. One interviewee described her complaint as an “energy zapper.”

I noted in earlier posts how a complaint about harassment can lead to more harassment. The more you complain about bullying the more you are bullied. Much of the behaviour that surrounds a complaint is not supposed to happen; it is not the official procedure. Many institutions have what I would call complaint pride, which is rather like diversity pride: about how an organisation would like to appear. Complaint pride takes the form of statements about wanting to learn from complaints; complaint pride is expressed as being willing to listen. I wonder if a fantasy of an open ear might operate in a similar way to a fantasy of an open door, as if anyone can get in when in fact they cannot.

The gap between what is supposed to happen and what does happen is densely populated. Diversity workers inhabit that gap. A complaint inhabits that gap too, which is to say, those who make complaints know all about what is not supposed to happen.

If a complaint is a record of what is wearing, it does not mean that in making a complaint someone is already worn down. Sometimes you might complain because you are tired of putting up with something that you do not think should be happening at all. Or you might make a complaint because you have a sense of optimism about how things could happen differently. One student talked of how she participated in a group complaint because she wanted to be part of a constructive process. She describes how they wanted “a positive outcome for the community.” She noted: “I think there’s this assumption that when you put in a complaint in an academic setting everyone is very convivial.” An experience can be what leads you to give up an assumption. An academic spoke of how she made a complaint because she was enthusiastic about her new job; because she had a sense of what she could do by bringing a problem to attention. She described herself as “bright eyed and bushy tailed,”  at that point, before things started to unravel. Even if you think of a complaint as constructive, it does not mean a complaint is received that way. In fact my research thus far has shown that complaints tend to be treated as destructive. A complaint biography often involves the experience of the costs of how you are treated.

Another academic described to me how she participated in a complaint because she “wanted to help” the institution deal with a problem that had already been recognised because there had been other cases in which the problem came up. But the complaint was still treated as a problem; just as it had in the other cases. This is important because the organisation had developed new procedures as a result of earlier cases. The conduct surrounding the complaint had not been changed by a change to the procedure (2). A wall can be a matter of conduct. Conduct refers not simply to behavior; conduct derives from “leading.” Conduct is how a group is directed.

A complaint teaches about institutional direction because a complaint is often treated as misdirection by the institution. Another way of saying this: to locate a problem is to become the location of a problem. Diversity work: becoming the location of a problem. The accounts of becoming the problem in this study are descriptions of institutional violence. One person spoke of how “the viciousness started to kick in.” The institutional response to complaint is to treat the complaint not necessarily as malicious (although many complaint policies do in fact include warnings about malicious complaints) but as being motivated in some problematic way: as if the complainer has some other agenda such as a desire to target others or to damage the university or to elevate themselves. Simply put: the efforts to stop a complaint include attempts to discredit the complainer. Indeed many of those I have spoken to have spoken of how they became the complained about; a complaint can be redirected to the complainer; as if she says something is wrong because something is wrong with her (3).

The figure of the complainer has an institutional life. This figure circulates in advance of a complaint. In fact many warnings about complaint evoke the risk of becoming the complainer. As Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page have noted, “When a woman files an objection to sexual harassment she becomes in the language of the institution a woman who complains, and by extension a complainer” (2015, 43). This extension can be costly: to become a complainer is to be slowed down.  Or at least that is how complaints are framed: as a slowing down. The frame has uses. Warnings about the costs of making a complaint cam function as attempts to stop a complaint from being made. As one interviewee describes “at every stage it was about stopping the complaint from going any further.”

No wonder I was reminded of my earlier project on diversity work: walls come up because of what you are trying to do.  The organisation might appear to be warm and inclusive. Making a complaint often means coming to know just how much that inclusion is a fantasy.

A complaint: things are not as they appear.

I have also been learning how organisations will do what they can to cover over a complaint often by using reports and techniques that appear to be about redressing the situation (4). For example a department commissioned a review after an enquiry, which had been initiated by multiple complaints about harassment. The review presented the department as a warm and inclusive environment. The person who wrote this review did not talk to the students who made the complaints. You can preserve a fantasy of the department as inclusive by not included those who would challenge that fantasy.

Maintaining a view of the institution as inclusive might mean not including those who do not share this view.

Erased from memory, a complaint can become like an unused path; it is harder to follow, becoming faint, becoming fainter, until it disappears. You can hardly see the sign for the trees. A complaint can be covered by new growth; new policies; new statements of commitment; action plans, reports.

Unused Path

I have more stories to collect; more paths to follow, however faint.

And: writing about complaint now feels right. More and more complaints about sexual harassment and sexual violence are coming out.  We know that the suppression of complaints is an effect of work, concerted and combined work by multiple parties. When the suppression fails, a complaint gets out; an invitation is made too, to others to share their complaints, too. That invitation can be pressure: it can hard to get it out; to speak out; not all of us can do it. I write this post in dedication to those who have experiences they would complain about but cannot complain because of their experiences.

And as you would expect, when complaints come out, the techniques for dismissing complaints become routine; talk of a “sexual inquisition”; critiques of moral panics and puritanical feminists; attempts to discredit those who complain; as if this about fashion or revenge or fragility or hurt.

You have to persist with it: a complaint requires dealing with the consequences of complaint.

Feminism: living with consequences.

A complaint: when a collective is necessary to bring something about.

Complaint as diversity work: what we have to do to dismantle the structures that do not accommodate us.

We are with you; we hear you.

Feminism is about giving a complaint somewhere to go.

Who knows what else will spill out when we do not keep a lid on it.

(1) So far I have completed 10 interviews and have collected 9 written statements. I have also had many informal conversations about complaint that are informing my work.

(2) I am not suggesting that changing procedures does not matter, but rather that a change to procedure has to involve a conversation about why the procedure needs to be changed that involves all staff and students; it needs to be understand as part of a culture change rather than as culture change.  Non-performativity helps me to describe how a procedure can be changed in order not to bring something else about. What is required is much harder work than a change to procedure.

(3) See note 1 on the misuse of complaint from my post, Cutting Yourself Off. If a person of colour makes a complaint because of racism, a person of colour can be complained about because of racism. My aim will be to address this complexity whilst recognizing that complexity can be misused (I called this “the misuse of the misuse of complaint”) as another way of discrediting those who make complaints because of an abuse of power (as if their complaint masks a will to power).

(4) In On Being Included (2012) I explored how techniques to redress racism – such as race equality policies – can be used as techniques for concealing racism. We learn from this: techniques used to redress inequalities can be used by those who benefit from inequalities.



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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The Figure of the Abuser

The figure of the abuser is useful.

In my previous post,  I mentioned how when members of staff are identified as harassers they quickly become strangers, even foreigners, as inexpressive rather than expressive of the values of the organisation. An organization can then articulate the following statement as if it was performative: “we do not tolerate sexual harassment.” Organisations are only called upon to make such statements because they have tolerated sexual harassment: when their tolerance threatens to come out, it has to be denied. Everyone knows that these statements are only made because they are empty and have no force; even those who make them.

The figure of the abuser as a stranger or foreigner is thus useful to an organisation, as well as a profession. It is useful to the system to present an abuse of a system as an aberration or an exception. An abuse of a system is part of the system. Those who abuse power can do what they do because of how they are enabled; networks can come alive, contacts can be drawn upon, because of who is already there; what is already there.

Simply put: some can get away with ensuring they get their way. Already.

My project on complaint is not specifically about sexual abuse, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct although these problems come up because of what is brought up. Many complainants are making complaints about abusive behaviour. My project is about listening to those who challenge a system. In making a complaint, you might not think of yourself as challenging a system. But a system is what you come up against because you are making a complaint. This is why those who make complaints become diversity workers even if they did not think of complaining as diversity work from the outset.

The idea that the abuser is a stranger is part of the wider discourse of stranger danger. Stranger danger is dangerous. It is dangerous to those who are recognised as strangers, so often people of colour, black and brown bodies; those who are passing by at the edges of social experience; those who are deemed to be loitering, lurking, lacking a legitimate purpose. It is dangerous to be seen when you are seen as dangerous.

Stranger danger is also dangerous because it locates danger in the outsider: most who are endangered are endangered when they are home, because they are at home. They are most endangered by those with whom they have ties; by intimates not extimates; friends and family not strangers.

We can think of institutions as homes; places where we reside, where some are assumed to belong and others not. The location of danger in an outsider is how the institution appears as safe and protective when it is not. And abuse can usually happen because of ties that already exist, because of intimacies and connections, which means: those who abuse the power given to them by organisations might not appear as such because an abuser is assumed as a stranger.

The figure of the abuser is also useful to those who abuse power. In fact, many abuses of power are enabled because an abuser does not appear.

I think we need to know from this.

Feminism: knowing from this.

My study of complaint has already taught me so much about how power works. It has taught me how abusive behaviour is understood as a way of framing a situation (rather than as a situation). Those who identify an abuse are understood as having a point of view.  That might seem generous; but in fact it is not. Abuse is narrated as a conflict between sides; your side; my side. It is a way of neutralizing the situation because sides are assumed to be equal; to become a side is to be given the right to be treated as equal.

The idea of sides is how dominance becomes a view.

The one who is identified as abusive is understood as having a point of view. So in one case in my study, a head of department refused to discipline those identified as abusive because he said it would be “taking sides.” The abusive behavior I should add included threats of physical violence made because a complaint had already been made: comments included “grasses get slashes.” Such comments are in effect defended by being treated as a side, as what you cannot come done upon without affirming one person’s point of view over another’s.

An abuse of power becomes not simply a point of view but is enabled or reproduced by being treated as a point of view. I would add: the presentation of abuse as point of view is how domination works in general. Domination does not work by appearing as domination. Domination works by presenting a dominant view as just another view (that someone has the right to express). This is why the socially and politically dominant present themselves as discursively marginal: as having to fight a consensus to articulate a viewpoint. This is how fascism works, how fascism comes to have a hold: by articulating itself as a viewpoint that has to be fought for alongside other viewpoints. Fascism becomes dominant at that very moment it is given legitimacy as “just another point of view,” which liberal institutions must defend in defending themselves.

Hear from this: a refusal to listen to a complaint can be part of a liberal defence.

Those who abuse power are the same those who appear as portraits on the wall. I mean by this: those who abuse power already have a portrait; get closer, and you can see their point of view. They are benevolent; they feel bad; they are complex: they didn’t mean anything by it; they are full of meaning.  It is because of past abuse that we have already been given such portraits of abuse, that is, a world can be built from that point of view; to be sympathetic to such a viewpoint is to support how sympathy has already been allocated.

The complainers become unsympathetic; mean. When too much threatens to come out, other words will quickly get floated about: words like panic; words like punishment (1). He is implied to be a victim of a moral consensus; of identity politics; feminism; even neoliberalism. One person testified “my complaint was called neoliberal.” This was a complaint about sexual harassment by a member of staff.

What a calling. You can hear the implication: as if complaining is colluding with management; becoming an administrative accomplice, behaving like a consumer or even a market (2).

Those who complain about power are assumed to be holding the power. This inflation of the power of those who challenge power is how power is defended; he becomes a minority.

How could they; how mean, how lacking complexity! It is much queerer than that!

Hey: it isn’t that complicated, and it isn’t that queer. Unless you take the universal as point of view, which is how something, somebody, appears complicated.

Our task is to make it simple because we have learned to disguise something by complicating something.

Power: withholds itself by holding itself. This is how abuses of power can happen even when someone does not appear to have that much power: it can just be implied that you received that scholarship as a favour. An implication of debt can be sufficient to make someone indebted. An implication is still enabled by a position. Those who abuse the power given to them by virtue of a position speak eloquently in the language of favours; of what they can do for you if you do this for them.

The for is presented as equal, sweet, nice, honey, stick to me, honey: do this for me, honey, because I did this for you, honey.

An abuse of power might only be experienced as abuse (or harassment) when you do not go along with something. Maybe you could not start with this not. The very word  “unwelcome” is used as definitional in sexual harassment: an unwelcome advance. If you are a student, it can be hard not to welcome the professor. Your advancement might depend on being welcoming. Here’s the professor; hello professor. Everyone else seems to accept it: so what do you do?

You might hesitate. And then you might be persuaded to be more welcoming. Abuse often works through techniques of persuasion: of trying to persuade someone to enter into something. If you are persuaded, you might receive some benefits; it might even work for some time. But being persuaded often involves becoming a stranger to oneself; you only have to persuade yourself when you are not persuaded. Making a complaint in such a situation is very painful and difficult; identifying an abuse of power often means feeling complicit for not having identified it before.

A complaint can feel like guilt.

That is how power works.

When complicity is required a use is an abuse.

And: those who abuse power often present themselves not as forceful or as dominating but as needy. This is another reason it can be hard to make a complaint or to identify an abuse as an abuse: because of the sympathy you are asked to feel and that you might even come to feel. Those who abuse the power given to them by organisations often create a portrait of themselves: they might create the impression of being a victim of a hostile organisation, as in need of protection, or they might present themselves as suffering, and in need of love and affection. The creation of an impression of being needy is how a complaint is judged in advance as unkind; as hurting someone who is already fragile, as depriving someone of what they need to survive.

A complaint: it would topple him over.

The dominant are always near the edge.

How could you; how would you.

In making a complaint, you become unsympathetic.

We need to become unsympathetic.

We need to topple the system.

This post is dedicated to the students fighting fiercely to topple the system.

I hear you. I am with you.





(1). I have learned that to make a complaint about an abuse of power is viewed as a desire for punishment and as a failure to mediate; as a refusal to “talk through differences.” In reflecting more on the problem of how a complaint is perceived as punishment, I hope to return to my engagement with the literature on restorative justice from the conclusion of The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004).

(2). See my post, Against Students, for some relevant observations on the use of the figure of the consuming student.

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Cutting Yourself Off

Talking to those who have made complaints about abuses of power within universities has already taught me so much.(1) Complaint is feminist pedagogy. Listening to those who have been through a complaint process – not all of whom have been able to complete that process – has taught me what might seem obvious (and the obvious is often obscured by being obvious): the reasons making a complaint is difficult are the same reasons that making a complaint is necessary. A complaint brings you up against the culture of an institution; and a complaint is often necessary because of the culture of the institution.

In my first post on complaint, I offered the framework of a “complaint biography” as a way of addressing the life of a complaint in relation to the life of a person or group of persons. A complaint biography is not simply what happens to a complaint; a story of how a complaint comes about, where it goes, what it does, how things end up, that is, it is not simply about the institutional life (and death) of a complaint. The idea of a “complaint biography” is a recognition of how a complaint in being lodged somewhere, starts somewhere else; a complaint comes from someone, who is living a life that is compromised in some way by or in the institution in which they are doing their work; a complaint might be the start of something, things follow because a complaint has been lodged, but it is never the starting point. How would you give your own complaint biography? So many incidents, so many encounters, are often recalled, times you said something; times you did not say something. Those who lodge a complaint might have made complaints or might not have made complaints before; the decision to make a complaint is a difficult one, and sometimes people decide not to make a complaint or to make a complaint because of their past experience of having made a complaint or not having made a complaint. I am learning how complaints are often about timing.

In my first post I drew on a small fragment of a complaint biography; the experience of a woman who as a postgraduate student become the target of sexism and sexual harassment by male postgraduate students. And I tried to show how her complaint biography did not begin at the moment she decided (with a group of other women postgraduate students) to make an official complaint; it began much earlier, before she said anything, in her experience of not going along with what was being said and done. When the male students began to articulate sexist statements, calling female staff and students “milking bitches,” there was an expectation that everyone would laugh. She does not find it funny. She does not have to say anything to show something. She describes: “it felt like my reaction to it was out of kilter with everyone else. It felt really disconnected, the way I felt about the way they were behaving and the way everybody else was laughing.” By not laughing, by not going along with it, she is targeted. You become an object of harassment when you experience behaviour as harassment: “you start to stand out in that way; you are just not playing along. I got a sense then, the only way I can explain it is he decided to come after me a little bit.”

The experience of a situation as something to be complained about is an experience of coming apart from a group. I want to think of the violence of this situation. The violence of such utterances is what you are required not to notice in order to participate in the group. You have to laugh – and laugh convincingly – in order not to stand out. You can stand out by just experiencing violence as violence. And then the violence you fail not to experience as violence is redirected towards you; the violence that was already in the room is channeled in your direction. This is probably why some laugh; to avoid the channeling. Laughing could thus be considered a form of institutional passing; a way of avoiding standing out, of trying to slide by undetected. The problem of passing is that if someone fails to pass, those who have passed are still participating in what has left someone stranded.

Being stranded is part of the experience of complaint; a sense that you have been cut off from a group that you had formerly understood yourself as part of; you come apart; things fall apart. Cutting yourself off can also be a judgement made about the complainer: as if you have caused your own alienation by not going along with something. This is how a complaint teaches us about culture; we learn what is required to participate in something. A complaint teaches us about we; how a bond becomes a bind. Those who complain are often judged as causing the problem they identify by failing to be part of a we.

This is why complaint is pedagogy; we are learning about the conditions of social membership. Take two related instances. Take the case of a queer child. A queer child might be cut off from the family, either by an act of being disowned (yes this still happens) or by just not being able to participate in the family in the same way when family life renders heterosexuality a shared routine. When the queer child is disowned – or tolerated – the child might be understood not as being cut off, but as having cut herself off: as having willingly gone in the wrong direction. This is what I would call queer snap, as if you have cut yourself off by not following the straight line. Note here that act of willing misdirection is often judged as a kind of willful destruction: snap, snap, as if you are cutting up the family by living your life in a different way. We might indeed have to cut ourselves off from a group that decides our desires are cutting ourselves off from a group.

Or consider what happens when a woman of colour talks about racism within a feminist community. She understands herself as part of that community; though she might also have a sense of not being part in the same way as white women. Some of the issues that matter to her are not treated as feminist issues. But when she speaks of racism within feminism, or even just talks about why racism is a feminist issue, she is heard as being divisive. She is deemed to cause a division by naming a division. This means that: those who are not part of something (because of racism) are supposed to pass over what makes them not part of something (because of racism). And then: if you bring racism up you are understood to bring racism into existence. Even to name a problem is to become disloyal: as evidence that you were not really part of something; that you did not have your heart in something (2).

A complaint can indeed be treated as a form of disloyalty; a disloyalty not only to a department or institution but to some we or another. Individuals within a group then experience the requirement to justify their behavior as an imposition from someone who is judged to have made themselves an outsider by virtue of creating such a requirement. Being targeted because you are identified as the source of a complaint (sometimes wrongly) is common. That targeting can come from official sources (in other words, those who communicate with the complainer during a complaint procedure can target or bully the complainer to try and stop a complaint from going further) and also unofficially, from peers who understand themselves to be loyal to a we and threatened by the complaint insofar as they have an allegiance to that we.

My opening example was about sexist conduct. I am thus suggesting that accepting sexism might be a requirement in becoming part of a department or cohort. Even if a sexist utterance is made by an individual, it has a life or a career, somewhere to go, because of how it is picked up by others. When there is a pick up, the utterances are held, often by the institutions in which they are made. We might call this institutional sexism.

Institutional sexism and institutional racism exist even after institutions are committed to gender and race equality. We learn from this too: universities have official commitments to equality that ought to stop the use of sexist and racist language. A policy can be about what ought not to exist. I noted in my lecture, Institutional as Usual, that something can come into existence without coming into use. The idea that something should not exist, or even that something does not exist because it should not exist, might be how something remains in use. What is used more is often framed as prohibited (what is not supposed to exist), which is how racist and sexist utterances can be made as if they are rebellious. The “norm as rebel” is how the “norm is norm.”

An official response to what is not supposed to happen but is a norm often takes the form of denial.

The student describes what followed her experience:

I think the staff member knew I was deeply upset by it. I pretty much left the table.  And he (the staff member) followed me out and started a conversation, and this is when probably in hindsight it started to get difficult, in that staff member started to lean on me; immediately he said to me, oh you know what he’s like, he’s got a really strange sense of humour, he didn’t mean anything by it, and the implication was I was being a bit over-sensitive and that I couldn’t take a joke, and that I need to sort of forget about it and move on.

A complaint: leaving the table. As I noted in my earlier post, that there is an effort to stop the student from complaining about the situation in the situation. She is told not to say anything; not to be over-sensitive, not to do anything, not to cause trouble. This is how banter is used; to justify use as if words can be stripped from a history, such that to hear a wrong is to hear wrongly, to impose something on somebody. A use is sustained by a fantasy that a use can be suspended. The staff member in warning her not to complain, by leaning in this way, positions himself with the harasser, treating the verbal onslaught as joke, something she should take. Indeed, when she refused the instruction not to say anything by making a complaint, the complaint sent out an alert; when the students who had conducted themselves in this way found out from the head of department that a complaint had been made, they initiated a violent campaign (including threats of physical harm) to those they thought had initiated the complaint.

Cutting yourself off is a judgement. It can also be a punishment.

In another case, a student talked of how she had participated along with a number of other students in a complaint about harassment from a member of staff. These students were accused by other students not only of cutting themselves off from the cohort but of depriving other students of what they needed for their education:

We were accused of having caused the disruption in their studies. They valued their desire to have him as a professor over those who were suffering psychologically because of his harassment. I was told I should have consulted the whole class before going ahead with a complaint. We needed to be in “solidarity” with those whose education was now being disrupted, not the other way around.

To complain about harassment is to be judged as cutting yourself off from a collective. And then you are cut off from that collective. In other words, what follows the action is what gives confirmation to the judgement. Note that the other students are not disputing that the harassment happened. The implication is that to be loyal to your peer group is to accept the harassment as part of the deal.

The deal: you have to get used to it, or get out of it. Those who complain refuse that deal.

This implication is not only that a complaint is a standing apart but those who complain do so out of self-interest as opposed to group interest. (3) It is this implication that we need to interrogate further: how group interests are assumed to coincide with the acceptance of abuses of power.

In cases when a member of staff is recognised as having abused power (and in all the cases I know of such recognition only happens after a long and painful battle for recognition, most often led by students) another version of cutting off occurs. The member of staff is quickly re-positioned as a stranger, even as a foreigner, as not expressing the values of the organization; rather than as being enabled by what the organisation enabled.

We need to think about what organisations enable; who they enable. A woman of colour academic told me how she set up a reading group and a writing group in her department. Those groups quickly became occupied by senior men: “What I found in each of the meetings were senior men who were bullying everyone in the room.” Those who have power can influence and direct discussions often by undermining the confidence of others: “The first session someone was being just really abusive, about someone’s PhD saying it was rubbish.” A racist comment is made: “I’m from London and London is just ripe for ethnic cleansing.” She described how people laughed, how the laughter filled the room; again, laughter as holding. As she puts it, “Those were the sorts of things being aired.” These are the sorts of things; a sentence as a sentencing; violence thrown out can be how you are thrown out.

She decided to make a complaint because she “wanted it recorded” and because “this culture was being reproduced for new PhD students.”  She gathered statements from around twenty people in her department who shared her objections to how the space had become occupied. A complaint can be a feminist collective. Even then she was described by the head of human resources as “having a chip on her shoulder.” She adds: “they treated the submission as an act of arrogance on my part.” A feminist we can be heard as me; as how she is getting ahead of herself. A complaint is treated as self-promotional. Even when we combine our forces, it is hard to get through (4).

Many of those I have spoken to thus far have talked of how a complaint is treated not only as potential damage but as actual damage: as damaging the reputation of a university, damaging the reputation and life chances of an individual person if an individual person is the object of complaint, and also as damaging projects, “ruining the department” or “spoiling the student experience.” If a complaint is treated as damage, those who complain end up having to pay high costs. This is another way cutting yourself off works: a warning about costs. I will return to warnings in future posts. A warning works by trying to dissuade the would-be complainer by declaring in advance what the costs of the action will be: when cutting yourself off is a warning, you are being told that you will not receive the benefits you would otherwise receive (such as references, funding). If you proceed with a complaint, it is then as if you are damaging yourself or depriving yourself of the connections you would need to progress (5). And: if you proceed with a complaint and it is damaging, it is then understood that you brought that damage upon yourself.

A warning is a projection of a future. It is a future that no-one wants: institutional death (6); the end of the line. A warning is thus also a threat: do this and that will follow.

A complaint also involves an interpretation of the past. One student who participated in a complaint with other students about misogyny in her peer group describes how “cutting yourself off” is used to explain their complaint. She gives an account of a meeting with the head of department: “She said even before you put in this complaint, and now you’ve put in this complaint, you’ve really separated yourself from this department. She said even by having a knitting club (and men and women were in the knitting club) that was already a sign of separating yourselves from the department. She said what do you want, do you want your own women’s space, trying to make it was some kind of militant feminism. Obviously it was a feminist project but what we asking for was equality and safety and people to feel welcome in that space.”

Past activities are swept up as symptoms of some having “separated themselves”: as if some complain because they are not better integrated into a department. Even a mixed knitting club can become a sign of a subversion-to-come. I think we need to hear what is at stake in how complainers are identified as militant. One way a complaint can be dismissed is by magnifying the demand; a demand for “equality and safety” is treated as wanting to bring an end to what or who already exists, or as separatism, as not wanting to share a space or a culture. This is how a complaint is treated as vandalism; “a willful destruction of what is venerable and beautiful.” (7)

A complaint is thus framed as a failure of integration: as not being willing to put aside your differences, as a failure to love, a professor say, or a department, or a university. Integration can mean in practice the expectation that you should put up with forms of behaviour that negate your existence.

Integration, that heavy word, is often used, overused, to describe a national project. It is the migrant or the would-be-citizen who has to integrate; those who are deemed to “come after.” Coming after means having to accept what is understood as national culture or even just culture. In other words, culture becomes priority; it is how some are given priority. As we know national culture in the UK is often articulated through the language of diversity and equality. We are getting to the heart of the matter here. Diversity and equality are not just ideals the nation has or is supposed to have; they are ideas we have of the nation. What is in existence is not always in use. In fact, integration can really mean: not being able to identify how a we has already failed those ideals. To speak of racism or sexism, to name the harassment committed by those who have been given priority, becomes a failure of integration. And racism, sexism, harassment: they are directed more toward those who identify them more. You just have to say words like racism and sexism and you will be heard as making a complaint. We know what follows such a hearing.

Inequality masked as equality: complaints reveal a mask and threaten to show an image of we that a we is not willing to consider. In the accounts I have been collecting, the mask has been slipping. Complaint as feminist pedagogy.



(1) I am aware that I am using “abuses of power” as a shorthand here and will be explaining rather than assuming what I mean by this expression in the study. Thus far I have heard about complaints relating to sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, racism, classism, ableism and ageism as well as sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, sexual harassment and bullying. I have also heard stories in which an abuse of power occurred because of a dispute that did not seem, in the first instance, to do with an abuse of power. My project is framed around the university, as a body I know, to show how complaints are embedded within the institutions in which they are lodged. In my work I have understood the institutional as a form of directed human traffic (we can call this social traffic, the way we are directed toward the more used paths). If a complaint is “in” an institution we also need to recognise that complaints about abuses of power might still tend to go in the direction of social traffic: this mean that a complaint might be more likely to be successful, or get uptake, if a person has more power (if a complaint requires being convincing there’s a politics to whose more convincing). This also means that those with more power can use complaint as a technique of power. This is complicating and I will address the complications, but we need to be very careful. A related example: recognising that equality can be used as a technique of audit culture (ticking boxes) does not mean dismissing equality; however people (including governments) can use that use as a dismissal. The misuse of complaint could also be used to dismiss those who have to complain if they are to have any chance of inhabiting a space or progressing within an organisation. Given that responses to complaints tend to amplify the power of the complaint and of the complainer (these responses are defences) these uses of the misuse of complaint can constitute another misuse of complaint. Yes: it is complicated! We need to take much feminist care in handling this.

(2) In The Promise of Happiness (2010) I explored how investment in racism (rather than racism itself) is narrated as the primary obstacle to inclusion. I am now realising how my earlier argument could be understood in terms of complaint (as what you must give up in order to participate in the national game). I wrote then: “The figure of the melancholic migrant is a familiar one in contemporary British race politics. The melancholic migrant holds onto the unhappy objects of differences, such as the turban, or at least the memory of being teased about the turban, which ties it to a history of racism.  Such differences become sore points or blockage points, where the smooth passage of communication stops. The melancholic migrant is the one who is not only stubbornly attached to difference, but who insists on speaking about racism, where such speech is heard as labouring over sore points. The duty of the migrant is to let go of the pain of racism by letting go of racism as a way of understanding that pain.” Complaint could also be understood as labouring over sore points.

(3) In my work on happiness and the will, I have noted how those who challenge social norms are often judged as putting themselves first, as acting like individuals in opposition to a collective good. There is much to learn from this. I am still trying to learn from this.

(4) A number of the complaints I have learned about are collective complaints; when a group works together to put a complaint forward. I will return to collectivity and complaint in future posts.

(5) Note the shift here from complaint as self-promotional to complaint as self-damage. In both cases, complaint is made self-referential. I am developing the argument I made in the chapter, “Feminist Snap,” from Living a Feminist Life (2017), where snapping is understood as self-harm, as depriving yourself of what you would need for a good life.

(6) If this seems somewhat dramatic, one of the common ways of describing complaint is as a form of career suicide. I will return to this description in later posts. Please note being threatened with institutional death does not inevitably lead to institutional death. But it does mean that feminists need to participate in the institutional life of those who have been threatened with institutional death (by supporting those who are cut off from official networks). However my research thus far has taught me that there is no guarantee that feminists will do this work. Some students and staff who have made complaints have relayed to me their shock at not being supported by other feminists within the organisation. I will come back to this issue, but I have some thoughts derived in part from my own experience of this problem:  If we want to transform institutions we have an institutional project, which might also be a diversity project, a feminist project. We use the more used path. Even if we proceed on a path in order to disrupt it we can end up not disrupting it in order to proceed. This paradox is often presented as a utilitarian choice, a fantasy choice, join or die, which is another version of get used to it or get out of it. Join is a nice word; to join as to be part of something. Being seen as choosing not to die, choosing not to have your projects cease to be (the double negative), choosing your projects (turned into a positive), can mean you sign up to so much when you join up. When you sign up it becomes harder to speak up; or speak out about the violence of the institution, without compromising your own projects. The imperative to join can have deadly consequences: you might not speak out about the abuse of power within your own institution because to speak out would drain resources from your projects; it would be to lose it, not use it. This is my view: if we are silent about abuses of power within institutions where we do our feminist work, to enable us to do that work, feminism is not working. We need activism here. We need dismantling projects here.

(7) I will discuss how decolonizing the curriculum is treated as vandalism in a future post.

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