Reflections on Sara Ahmed’s “Closing the Door: Complaint as Diversity Work” Lecture

hUManities Blog, Long Exposures

Author of Living a Feminist Life (2017) and On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012), Sara Ahmed is an Australian scholar who has gained worldwide renown in the field of feminist studies for her work on complaint. Ahmed resigned from her position as a Race and Cultural Studies professor at Goldsmiths, University of London in 2016 in protest of the university’s failure to seriously address the issue of sexual harassment on campus. Since then, Ahmed has been working as an independent scholar, specializing in the field of complaint, about which she has written and continues to write extensively. Her research draws on her own experiences on committees where she worked with or on complaints, and is also based on interviews she has had with people who have suffered from various kinds of injustice or harassment within educational institutions.

On Oct. 2, 2019, Winnipeg’s resident feminist killjoys -sponsored by feminist activists and scholars from the U of W and the U of M (including the University of Manitoba’s department of Women’s and Gender Studies, and Institute for the Humanities), were proud to host Ahmed as she gave a keynote lecture at the West End Cultural Centre, and there was a huge turnout for the event. Her work has resonated with many different marginalized peoples: people who have faced discrimination within institutions because of their race, gender, sexual orientations, or disabilities, to name a few. Her talk, entitled Closing the Door: Complaint as Diversity Work, was no exception, and she left many of us with a lot to ponder. The wide range of topics she discussed would take much more than one simple blog post to elaborate upon, but I hope to share at least a few of her many insights.

Complaint as diversity work, Ahmed explained, refers to “the work we have to do because we are not accommodated; the work we have to do in order to be accommodated.” She began exploring this by first discussing institutional mechanics. An institutional mechanic is “what one has to become in order to get a complaint through the system.”

She emphasized the ways in which institutional procedures for handling complaints are non-performative: they “come into existence without coming into use.” These procedures give the appearance of taking action without ever actually taking action or making meaningful progress. They are even more destructive in their ambiguity, since complaint procedures can actually stop a complaint from going forward or from ever truly being addressed, while they operate under the guise of being addressed. As Ahmed put it, “you can change how you address the problem without actually addressing the problem.”

Another facet of the non-performativity of institutions in addressing issues of discrimination, harassment, etc. is in the “coercive diversity” practised by these institutions, wherein these structures of discrimination, harassment, inequality and intolerance still exist, but are painted over with a façade of inclusivity. Diversity has now become a buzzword in mainstream Western society, and it is used profusely by institutions. People can be employed simply as “diversity hires,” as though to meet a quota or to prove to the world that these institutions are open to and accepting of all people. It is to present and preserve a certain image; to jump onto the diversity bandwagon, so to speak, and thus appear more appealing to the general public. This is nonperformative because the structures of power and the discourses that sustain inequality, hierarchy, discrimination or harassment still exist behind the mask. The oppressed party comes to stand in for a supposed lack of oppression; their body is meant to paint the institution in a positive, inclusive light.

Ahmed also described the confusing, unhelpful and often traumatic experience of going through the complaint procedure. For instance, the messy, tangled web of paperwork or steps one must take seem designed to discourage the complainer from the very outset of the complaint process. One becomes confused; “you don’t know what is happening, though you know this isn’t what is supposed to happen.” Far from providing comfort, certainty or reassurance that some action will be taken to address these serious issues, the complainer comes away feeling even more harassed by the very procedures put in place to address their harassment.

In the process of complaint, walls come up at almost every turn, walls which the complainers must labour hard to fight against. Ahmed described diversity work as scratching the surface of these blockades. The exhaustion felt by those pushing against these walls is soon realized to be the point of the complicated complaint processes, rather than merely an effect.

Confusion also takes the form of responses to these complaints, wherein the “yes” of the institution isn’t actually a “yes,” but more like a “we’ll see.” This gives the feeling that something might happen, and this false, illusory “yes” actually stops the complaint from moving forward. 

Apart from these methods of discouragement, Ahmed also discussed how people can be deterred from “rocking the boat” by warnings about the effects that complaints can have on one’s career. Many, including Ahmed herself, have faced the struggles that come with complaints and can attest to how making complaints can halt one’s career. This only makes it more difficult and discouraging for people to find the courage to speak up or fully go through with the complaint process – the fear of losing a livelihood or career one has already worked hard to attain, and that one might even be passionate about.  Complainers can even be accused of damaging the reputation of others: of the individual being complained about, the department in which either party works, or even the reputation of the institution as a whole.  In finding the courage to speak out about the physical, psychological or emotional trauma inflicted on a person, that person is then made to feel like they are the ones inflicting damage – on themselves or on the institution, and the damaging characters within them. This powerful combination of victim-blaming and accusations of self-sabotage was described by Ahmed as “complaint framed as self-damage…as closing the door on yourself and your career.”

Bringing this idea home to our universities, it is important to remember that complaints in educational institutions can affect the residential, professional and financial standing of either students or faculty who complain. It is not something one enters into lightly. One of the most empathetic parts of Ahmed’s lecture and her writings on complaint is how she always reminds us that there is only so much one person can take, and that one is justified in either choosing or not choosing to complain. She reminds us of the physical and mental toll that complainers have been through in their various situations, and acknowledges that not everyone may feel comfortable or ready to talk about these issues. She points out that “to traumatize is to hold a history in the body. There is only so much we can take in.”

Some go through very traumatic incidents that may take them a long time to deal with. Coupled with this, the added fear of losing one’s job and the effort involved in the complaint process lead many to choose not to complain. Ahmed thoughtfully acknowledges that their feelings and reasons for complaining or not complaining are valid. She also notes that a body can even stop functioning properly as it is beset with worry, anxiety and feelings of self-doubt, disillusionment or futility, as a result of the ordeal they have gone through; the stressful confusion of the complaint process, the probing and questioning; the bravery in the very act of bringing their complaints to the surface, and finally dealing with the fallout after they have complained. Ahmed emphasized that “the personal is institutional,” and that “diversity work is the work we have to do to survive the work we have to do.”

Ahmed also described modes of resistance against these insidious walls. You start to stand out by not playing along, by not laughing at inappropriate, discriminatory jokes, by not being “okay” with behaviour or speech that denigrates or that is offensive, by not seeing it as all “harmless fun.” Just by refusing to partake in laughter, one is set apart, alienated – you are killing their joy. Some bodies kill the joy simply by entering the room, for instance racialized or queer bodies; sometimes the joy is killed when a word is brought up like “race” or “racism,” and by simply using these words, one can be seen as a killjoy. The word itself “carries a complaint.”

Sometimes efforts are made to stop a complaint even as the inciting incident is occurring. Preventive measures are coded into social interactions, and they are designed such as to make you doubt yourself, your own interpretation of the situation as violence being done to you. A woman who is offended by sexist comments is told she is being “too sensitive,” and is dubbed as “being unable to take a joke.” The victim of bullying is prevented from even being able to identify themselves as being bullied; before the complaint has even fully formed itself or before the incident is even over, she is cast as a complainer, a killjoy or as unreasonable for reacting to something unacceptable. The pressure to “be okay” with things that are not okay is implicit, the person is being silenced without having even taken action. This is what Ahmed describes as “harassment in an effort to stop you from identifying harassment as harassment.”

In the process of complaining, one becomes a misfit. Misfits often end up on the same committees, a committee of outcasts, of “others” who are not within the dominant group. Feminist killjoys laugh together, out of a recognition of affinity, a shared struggle, a common bond over the labour involved in breaking down or at least chipping at these walls. Laughter can act as a coping mechanism, laughter can also act as a bond of kinship between oppressed parties who recognize and sympathize with one another’s struggles, who see the walls and laugh ironically at the obvious mechanisms used to prop up these walls.

As Ahmed has said famously, the one who brings up the problem is seen as embodying the problem; they become the problem, simply for speaking up about it. Similarly, reconciliation is pushed by institutions onto individuals as a way of hushing up complaints. A complaint, in this case, starts to represent your failure to resolve a situation more amicably. The complainer is seen as stubborn for refusing to let go of something they shouldn’t have to let go of; they are suddenly painted as the enemy or the one at fault for refusing to forgive and forget. Reconciliation then becomes not a friendly gesture but a hostile one, a forceful and oppressive one, which codes one’s unwillingness to comply as their being unreasonable.

Ahmed also described how the closing of doors can be the turning of backs – the institution turning their backs on your complaint, by having each others’ backs. When complaints are filed away, the ones who complain are also filed away, discarded and forgotten. The closing of doors can also be the refusal/ withholding of valuable references, leading to further closed doors with regards to career or further educational opportunities. The closed door can be the refusal of support. A door can be slammed in your face by the way someone laughs in your face or belittles you – the closed door of people not taking you seriously enough, a closed door of communication. All of these contrast the “open door” policy that is the rhetoric behind diversity hires. 

On Support:

Ahmed stressed the importance of creating collectives, such as the one which was present that evening to hear her lecture. She proudly declared that her fellow complainers are her “guides,” her “feminist philosophers” and her collective. Creating collectives is important because one finds solidarity in the similarity of situations; complainants may be facing similar problems or coming up against the same kinds of walls, even though their individual situations or complaints vary. Ahmed emphasized that one cannot do everything by oneself, which is why it is important to find one’s “people”. In supporting people who complain, one must be willing to stand by them in public, not just behind closed doors. Finally, support can entail giving people information, or not pressuring them to complain or talk about their problems; it can involve standing by them and not letting them face institutions alone or even just listening.

As previously mentioned, there was a huge turnout to Ahmed’s lecture, and it seems her work has been well received by the Winnipeg community of feminists, activists, queer people and people of colour. A reading group was organized a week before the main event by 2SQTBIPOC to discuss some of Ahmed’s works prior to her talk. The small gathering was held in the Revolution Wellness Centre, which is also home of the newly founded 2SQTBIPOC library. Reading Ahmed’s work on complaints against institutions in such a decidedly non-institutional space, a space designed for people who have had trouble fitting into institutions, and people who have themselves complained and carried the labour and consequences of complaint with them was quite significant. Some things that were discussed included:

  • The idea of happiness as a political construct, as described in Ahmed’s article “Feminist killjoys”; happiness as something that is prescribed to us by the society we live in;
  • Queer people as the “other” others; marginalized even further within the already marginalized group that is “people of colour;”
  • People who complain as “killing the joy” of the dominant whiteness of institutions;
  • Shrinking of oneself as a result of constantly having a gaze on you, as a member of a minority; having to make yourself smaller to make others more comfortable, or to make them trust you. How oppressive institutions want you to be passive, to be silent, to not push back, and the politics around being angry;
  • The importance of creating feminist spaces; safe little pockets or alternative spaces, and the difference between a collective and an institution
  • The ways in which institutions “listen” when they have something to lose; how they jump onto the diversity bandwagon, co-opting it to mask institutional whiteness; how diversity has become mainstream, a buzzword
  • How you have to become the institution when you complain;
  • Community capacity involvement based on radical love and action as an alternative to reliance on institutions to solve problems;
  • The equal validity of either opting out of academia or other institutions, creating other kinds of spaces OR taking on the labour of complaint and conflict. Both complaining and not complaining are valid;
  • Tracing the transformation of language regarding social inequality: from “race relations” to “multiculturalism,” to “diversity,” then “equity;” and stated the goals of “liberation” and even “abolition” as the next tiers of progress.

At a workshop held with Ahmed on Oct 2, members of the community further discussed concerns, such as the issue of guilt and inadvertent complicity in processes or institutions that foster an atmosphere of inequality. Ahmed sympathized with community members who found themselves becoming implicated in the institutions they were trying to critique. For instance, one may feel guilt as a feminist about what kind of space you’re making within these institutions A question of complicity arises when racist judgments or stereotypes benefit you, e.g. help you in getting a job, or when people of a certain colour are coded as “hard workers.” What happens when the act of you doing your work makes you identify with the institution you’re trying to work against?

There is a hierarchy present that puts you in a bind, because you need the job. These are routes to having a livable life, that one cannot escape. After all, we are all entitled to a livable life: a stable job, a source of income to support us, but one cannot help but feel guilty when your job reinforces these institutions and helps build and sustain these walls. In these situations, it is vital to have a consciousness of how these dynamics work. Talking about them doesn’t always solve things, but it  gets them out there, in the open.

We talked about how being a feminist means being a feminist at work, political work is intertwined with intellectual or physical work, not separate from it, and how diversity work is the work you have to do to be. Some people always have to fight for existence or recognition. Ahmed herself has had to face questions like “Are you really the prof?” or “Where are you from?” when trying to do her work as a professor. For some people, to be is to be in question.

We also considered some deterrents used by institutions against complaints: warnings, bribery, removal of funding, nondisclosure agreements, the appearance of hearing. Ahmed was even told, upon her resignation, that her work exposing the university’s inaction would undermine the feminists at Goldsmith’s; she described the dismay one feels upon realizing that many of those involved in blocking complaints are themselves self-professed feminists.

In her parting words after the lecture, Ahmed described speaking out as “becoming a leak: drip drip. A leak can be a lead. A leak can be a feminist lead.” She notes that dialogue is possible by connecting stories, tales and trails. She further emphasized that in the process of complaint, even when it yields nothing fruitful or all the back doors and labyrinths of the institution’s complaint procedure lead nowhere, one still passes a complaint on. The scratches on the wall become a testimony: “We are here, we did not disappear.” These complaints and complainers can come back to haunt institutions. Your “no” can be picked up and amplified by others, eventually reverberating into a loud roar of refusal. Scratching on the wall becomes both a sound one makes and a mark one leaves.

To learn more about Ahmed, visit her website: https://www.saranahmed.com/

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