Introductory remarks made at Sara Ahmed * Closing The Door: Complaint as Diversity Work, October 2, 2019, West End Cultural Centre, Winnipeg, MB.
Thank you. Thank you to Dr. Corinne Mason and Dr. Roewan Crowe for inviting me today, and those who spoke before me [Corinne Mason (Brandon University), Dr. Albert McLeod (Two Spirit Manitoba), Renu Shonek and Carla Taylor (2SQTBIPOC Library)].
I wanted to start by talking about systems.
We’re always talking about how “the system” is broken. We say the system is broken because it is unjust, oppressive, and outright dangerous for marginalized people. But the system is working just as it was intended to.
We see proof of this everywhere: we make home on stolen Indigenous land, yet Indigenous peoples continue to experience disenfranchisement and colonization. In the struggle for their lives, black people have to continually assert that their lives matter. People of colour, racialized immigrants, refugees, and people of Islamic faith continue to be treated as alien. The gap between rich and poor prevails. Transphobic and homophobic rhetoric prevails. People with disabilities and mental illness face stigma. Workers and students are rendered powerless – and of course many of these factors can overlap in one person.
All of these examples result in increased violence, vulnerability, and criminalization.
Dr. Sara Ahmed tells us that a system is working when an attempt to transform that system is blocked. Institutions will boast intentions of diversity, use the language of social justice, and hire certain people to seem progressive. But just because an institution does this doesn’t mean they’re genuinely willing to be transformed. This performativity is exactly why they need to be transformed.
Repeatedly being disillusioned by people and institutions who claim to represent and advocate for oppressed groups is even more devastating than not having had hope in the first place. We see this with the academy, with the non-profit world, and in feminist and queer spaces themselves.
It’s not enough to call spaces safe spaces. It’s not enough to call workplaces inclusive.
Two years ago I was fired from Stella’s Cafe and Bakery without cause. “We’re going in a different direction, it’s not a great fit, so we’re going to end the relationship,” is pretty much what they said.
One year later I received a phone notification reminding me of a selfie I had taken on that day and I reposted it, which spiralled into the collective effort of @notmystellas, an Instagram campaign which sought to hold the Winnipeg chain accountable for sexual harassment, unethical work practices, discrimination and human rights violations.
Ahmed describes documentation as a feminist project. That is what we set out to do. The instagram account reposted anonymous messages outlining people’s individual testimonies of injustice at the workplace.
Ahmed says “we learn about the feminist cause by the bother feminism causes.” It was precisely because of its disruption and inevitable sensationalism that the public paid attention. We quickly climbed to over 11 thousand followers.
As killjoys, we enjoyed getting in the way of happiness. We were empowered and energized by the “collective snap” that had happened and we were so proud when we achieved our demand of having Brad and Grant fired, the two highest managers in the company.
I take great pride in the act of complaining. Whining is resistance.
Ahmed describes rolling eyes as feminist pedagogy. That is, the looks and eye rolls we get as feminists around the dinner table, meeting table, or anywhere else really when we speak – as if our feminism is about ruining people’s fun for the sake of it, being oppositional for the sake of it. And, feminists of color Ahmed explains,“do not have to say anything to cause tension.”
In her book Living a Feminist Life, Ahmed returns to the idea of rolling eyes many times. It reminded me of the ways in which our bodies cope with mistreatment or indulge our own cynicism or defiance. The equation “rolling eyes=feminist pedagogy” is also a killjoy’s resistance. It is often the language we speak to each other – a shortcut to sharing opinions in public spaces or at work.
We roll our eyes as a killjoy strategy, an acknowledgment to ourselves that what we have just witnessed or endured is not okay. We roll our eyes to dismiss someone or something, so as not to internalize it. We roll our eyes in disbelief, in pleasure, in transcendence and euphoria – our eye sockets as portals for escape.
I have been lovingly called an “eyeroll queen,” which I accept fully with honour, along with other labels like “brat,” “bitch,” “dyke,” and in arabic, “ghanouj.”
I adore eyerolling. I adore killjoys. I co-created a zine called Whiny Femmes to create a self-published submission-based platform for femme artists and writers – femme as in queer. This affirmed what I already knew to be true: whiny femmes are killjoys who burst with intuition, criticality, love, and justice.
Feminism is world-building.
When we seek to create change, we discover institutions are resistant to change because they don’t want to be slowed down. Ahmed says “To locate a problem is to become the location of a problem.” In turn, this slows us down. Either the thing we are advocating for is slowed down, we are slowed down, or both. It can lead to things like getting fired, like I did last month.
“It’s not a great fit, so we’re going to end the relationship,” is pretty much what they said (again).
I was naïve in my authenticity, in my assumption that a space that serves queer people would also care about their queer workers. I feel the consequence of being a loudmouth, but it was a risk I took. When I witness others rise unapologetically, my adoration for loudmouths affirms my own. But I also celebrate feminism in all its risk-taking and rebellious killjoy strategies.
Ahmed writes, “We are not all in the same position; we cannot all afford to speak out. Killing joy thus requires a communication system: we have to find other ways for the violence to become manifest. We might need to use guerrilla tactics, and we have a feminist history to draw on here; you can write down names of harassers on books; put graffiti on walls; red ink in the water. There are so many ways to cause a feminist disturbance. Even if speaking out is not possible, it is necessary. Silence about violence is violence.”
By writing about her experience, Sara Ahmed’s labour has added to the long line of lesbian feminists of colour who have written themselves and their communities into being.
I’m so excited – I think we’re all very eager to hear from Ahmed herself – so let me introduce to you our distinguished guest for the evening.
Sara Ahmed is a feminist writer, independent scholar, and Killjoy who works at the intersection of feminist, queer and race studies. Her research is concerned with how bodies and worlds take shape; and how power is secured and challenged in everyday life worlds as well as institutional cultures. Until the end of 2016, Ahmed was a Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London having been previously based in Women’s Studies at Lancaster University. She resigned from her post at Goldsmiths in protest at the failure to deal with the problem of sexual harassment. Ahmed is the author of many notable books including Living a Feminist Life (2017), Willful Subjects (2014), and On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012). Her most recent writing can be found on her blog: feministkilljoys.com.
Please give a warm welcome to Sara Ahmed.
About “Closing The Door: Complaint as Diversity Work”
“This lecture draws on interviews conducted with staff and students who have made complaints within universities that relate to unfair, unjust or unequal working conditions and to abuses of power such as sexual and racial harassment. It approaches complaint as a form of diversity work: the work some have to do in order to be accommodated. Making a complaint requires becoming an institutional mechanic: you have to work out how to get a complaint through a system. It is because of the difficulty of getting through that complaints often end up being about the system. The lecture explores the significance of how complaints happen ‘behind closed doors,’ and shows how doors are often closed even when they appear to be opened.”