You Pose a Problem: A Conversation with Sara Ahmed

Photo of Sara Ahmed by Sarah Franklin.

Who hasn’t had a boss, supervisor, or mentor worth of complaint? The first person I worked for, who was white, was in the habit of calling me “weak.” Her boss’s boss, also white, one day gave a company-wide address during which he called someone, a childhood friend, by an ugly racial epithet. When I complained about his speech, I was told there was no recourse: that’s simply how my boss’s boss’s boss was. No one felt the need to specify exactly what this meant. They just invoked some vague idiosyncrasy to explain away his bad behavior, which might otherwise be confused for something sinister—heavy and historical and violent—something that could, if it were named, prove to be a liability. I repeated my complaint twice: first at a mandatory “diversity and inclusion workshop,” during which employees were encouraged to share grievances, and then again after I had decided to quit, during my exit interview with HR. Both times, my complaint, once spoken, seemed to disappear. But complaints, according to the feminist scholar Sara Ahmed, never really go away. If you are the complainer, they tend, as she puts it in her newest book, Complaint!, to “follow you home.” 

Sara Ahmed was born in Britain in 1969 to a Pakistani father and an English mother. Soon after, the family moved to Australia, where Ahmed grew up before returning to the U.K. to complete her doctorate. She is the author of eleven works of nonfiction, the earliest of which are totems of feminist postmodernism, affect theory, and queer phenomenology. Her most celebrated contribution has been the figure of the Feminist Killjoy, who shares a name with Ahmed’s popular blog, which she began writing alongside her 2017 work, Living a Feminist Life. “When you expose a problem,” she writes in that book, “you pose a problem.” Being a Feminist Killjoy is a matter of identification; it is also, as Ahmed describes on the blog, what she does and how she thinks, “my philosophy and my politics.” 

In Complaint!, Ahmed collects oral and written testimony from dozens of people who have experienced sexual abuse, racist harassment, or bullying within universities, and have chosen either to go through the institutions’ formal grievance procedures, or to challenge those procedures altogether. Though all her interlocutors work in academia, I felt throughout that I could be reading about any other scene of institutional life. The stories Ahmed tells will be familiar to anyone who has attempted to seek redress (or merely recognition) from an institution trained against them. Over and over, complaints are either discouraged before they’re made, or welcomed in the abstract but deemed not credible in practice. Meanwhile, the ugly qualities of the incidents complained about often attach themselves to those complaining. They are both diminished and demonized: one the one hand, their concerns are deemed inconsequential—they’re trying to make something out of nothing—and on the other, they’re presented as malicious and threatening, as if they have the power to singlehandedly take the whole institution down.

Complaint! is among Ahmed’s most personal works. In tandem with On Being Included, her 2012 study of diversity initiatives, it mounts a compelling case against the longterm viability of institutional life as it’s currently configured. For over twenty years, Ahmed was employed as an academic, first as Professor of Women’s Studies at Lancaster University and then as Professor of Race and Cultural Studies and Director of the Center for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, from which she resigned at the end of 2016. Her resignation was an act of protest against the institution’s culture of sexual harassment and thus, as Ahmed wrote on her blog, a “feminist issue.” She had begun the research that comprises Complaint! before resigning, but doing so allowed the work to find new life, traveling beyond the closed doors and brick walls of the university, into the wide-open field of public discourse. 

INTERVIEWER

There was a lot of media coverage of your departure from academia, but I’m curious to know more about your early relationship to it. What promise did the university hold for you as a young person?

AHMED

Being brought up in a middle-class environment, I was always told the university was where I would go. I was, originally, very interested in fine arts. I painted a lot of macabre, expressionist paintings, and I got into art school, but my father said it wouldn’t lead to a proper career, so I wasn’t allowed to go. I was also a philosophical child, so it then seemed obvious to choose the humanities.

I came to academia with a lot of hope, interest, and enjoyment. I still remember the sense of wonder—that it was possible to stay a student, to stay in a place of learning, to be surrounded by learning. I didn’t really know what an academic job was, but I loved writing essays, doing the research, and going to the library. While I was doing my PhD, I realized that being a lecturer was something that was possible for me. It just so happened that there was a job opening in Women’s Studies at Lancaster. I didn’t have any publications, but they interviewed me, and they hired me, partly, I think, because I was so enthusiastic. I was very lucky. It was a permanent job in one of the largest women’s studies programs in Europe, and I was in an incredibly supportive feminist environment. I was so moved to be part of that. It wasn’t that I didn’t experience the other side of academia—the narrowing of what counts as knowledge, the ways in which what appears to be an open and inclusive environment can actually be a hostile and difficult one for people who don’t fit. I became aware really early on of the gap between what appears to be the case and what is the case. But it was still the promise and interest in learning that took me there, and that stayed with me. It was a lot to give up, when I did resign.

INTERVIEWER

So many people seem to go into academia with the idea that it will be a kind of refuge for their wonder. I’m curious how hopeful you feel that scholars can continue to find intellectual nourishment there.

AHMED

I don’t really use the language of refuge. I don’t know that universities can be places where you can go to have breathing space, given the kinds of pressures academics are under, and given the extent to which these institutions rely on precarious staff. All that makes it much, much harder to fight for alternatives. At the same time, the most inventive academic work comes from those who occupy precarious positions. A lot of the really important work—in Black studies, in gender studies, in women’s studies—comes out of a battle with institutions for something. When people become more secure and better resourced institutionally, they also tend to become more conservative and more willing to do, as I call it, the work of institutional polishing—play by the rules, make the institution look good—because there are those benefits attached.

INTERVIEWER

In the early years of your academic career—when you focused on postmodernism, postcolonialism, queer phenomenology, affect—you were, essentially, producing theory. But with On Being Included and Living a Feminist Life, your research and methods shifted; they began to resemble something like sociology. And those books weren’t purely descriptive or analytical—they also formed part of the real-life work you were doing to try to change the institution you inhabited. What occasioned that shift?

AHMED

For a while, I had been doing work on race and strangers—who gets seen as a body out of place within neighborhoods—but eventually I turned my attention to the university itself. Lancaster was an incredibly white institution, and I’d already been aware of that, obviously, as one of the very few academics of color employed there. But I began to hear the justifications of that whiteness in faculty meetings; my ears were filling with the sounds of institutional machinery. I became director of Women’s Studies, and we were precarious—we were fighting to keep our autonomy, and I could begin to feel the withdrawal of the institution’s support. I could tell we weren’t going to have a future. So I was getting a little desperate.

By chance, a colleague in the management school, Elaine Swann, had gotten funding to do research on diversity in further education. She asked if I wanted to work on the project with her, and I said yes, primarily because it was a way of bringing money into the Institute. It was pragmatic, really, but then once I began the research, it changed everything. I ended up being involved with this group that was writing a race equality policy. Writing that policy was my first hard institutional lesson. We brought what I thought of as a critical language into it, but the university was able to use the policy—which was about articulating racism in the institution—as evidence of how good it was at race equality. What I learned from that was how easily we can end up being interpellated. It’s not only that there’s a gap between statements about inclusivity and diversity and what actually happens; it’s also that we end up working to create the appearance of what isn’t the case.

INTERVIEWER

I was so compelled by your point, in On Being Included, that the term diversity “can be used as a description or affirmation of anything”—that it’s often seen “as a ‘good’ word precisely because it can be used in diverse ways.”

AHMED

I like to call diversity practitioners institutional plumbers: you have to work out where something gets stuck, and how to get it unstuck. And in working that out, you have to become quite inventive. There’s a way in which “diversity” can be emptied of its more antagonistic content—i.e., the entire point of it—but that emptying can also be used strategically. I was very conscious of how administrators in charge of diversity initiatives would try to maximize the distance between themselves and the complainers. They were not going to be using the language of racism, those so-called “negative” words that are about rendering the institution accountable for reproducing violence. Sometimes people use words like “diversity”—friendlier, happier words—because they’re just trying to get things unstuck. They think that word might enable certain people to be at the table with them.

When I was researching Complaint!, I became more aware of the limits of that strategy. If we have to give up so much of our language—and ourselves—to get people to the table, then it might be that the table keeps its place. A lot of people talked to me about how when they tried to make complaints, it was often the diversity agenda that would be used against them—as if they weren’t doing this the right way, as if they weren’t being appealing enough, as if by even using certain words they were trying to make life difficult for other people, including other minoritized staff.

Still, it’s not always clear, in the context of people’s actual lives, how to complain effectively. It might be, for instance, that you have a complaint to make about how racism enables your white peers to get more research time. But you’re already the only person of color in the department, and so in order to give yourself any chance of getting what you need, you might try not to appear like a troublemaker. That kind of institutional passing isn’t about identifying with whiteness or with power, and it’s certainly not about using happy language in order to get somewhere: it’s just about trying to be safe. So, we can move between the registers: we can sometimes refuse to be positive because it takes too much out of us, and we can decide not to be negative, because that takes too much out of us, as well.

INTERVIEWER

In Complaint!, you write, using Audre Lorde’s famous phrase, that “complaints procedures could… be understood as ‘the master’s tools.’” At the same time, as you point out, making a formal complaint can be politicizing, since it shows the complainant how the institution systematically devalues her grievances. Do you think that trying to change things at a university by complying with the procedures they’ve laid down is always likely to be a losing game?

AHMED

Formal complaints can sound just like the master’s tools—bureaucratic, dry, tedious—but they’re also where you actually come to hear and learn about institutional mechanics: how institutions reproduce themselves.

To use the Lordeian formulation, the effort to rebuild the master’s house so that it can accommodate those for whom it was not intended cannot be purely understood as a reformist project. It is, potentially, revolutionary. Much of the work of revolution comes from what you learn by trying to build more just worlds alongside other people. It’s the sociability of complaint that leads it in a direction similar to a protest: you find your co-complainers, the people who get it, who have been there, your comrades. Some people cannot survive these institutions; some people do not survive them. It is a fundamentally life-affirming task to build institutions that are not dependent on the diminishment of the life-capacities of others.

At my former university, a group of students put together a collective complaint, anonymously, about sexual harassment and misconduct. The fact that people need to work collectively is often a measure of what we’re up against. I could hear how these students were being talked about by others in the institution, I could hear how complainers were pathologized: accused of moaning about minor matters, and of being unwilling to let the institution recover from––that is, cover over––the problems they were trying to address. When you make a complaint about harassment that’s endemic to a university, you’re pitting yourself against people who don’t want that problem to be recognized. People are put under so much pressure to stop their complaints. They’re told it will end their careers, that it will end the careers of the people they should be in allegiance with and depend upon, that it will end everything. There’s some truth in those dire predictions. When bullying and harassment are institutionalized, it’s really hard to challenge them without challenging everything. And so, everything can begin to fall apart.

Through the collective, you can assemble and laugh and eat and drink, and remind yourself that the institution isn’t everything. The collective is what enables you to keep going. I am so grateful to Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Alice Corble (with support from Heidi Hasbrouck, Chryssa Sdrolia and others) for writing one of conclusions of Complaint! about the work they began when they were students. I am grateful that their collective became ours.

INTERVIEWER

I was so compelled by that story of the students in the anonymous collective, how once they recognized that their formal complaints against a particular professor would go unaddressed, they decided to inscribe all the library copies of his books with an acknowledgement that the author had been accused of sexual abuse. It made me wonder when complaint needs to cross over into sabotage: is it possible to actually change an institution without stealing from it, disfiguring it, vandalizing it?

AHMED

There are a few different instances of what we might call sabotage in the book, which come from people’s often quite inventive approach to getting information out. When complaints pass through a formal inquiry, the information is usually contained. Universities will use the language of confidentiality—the need to protect the identities of those who make complaints—to justify that containment, and there is some truth to that. But confidentiality is also misused. It becomes a way of keeping secrets. In my research, a lot of people talked about ending up in a file: the file is put away in a cabinet, and the cabinet is in a room, and the door to the room is locked, and that’s that. It might be that you’re at an event surrounded by peers, and maybe you signed a confidentiality agreement, or the institution that’s hosting the event is the institution in which the thing happened—there’s a restriction on what you can say about what went on. So the file isn’t just the papers locked up somewhere in the institution––the file becomes you. You have to keep it closed. And that weighs you down, it holds you back. It can be incredibly painful to know what happened, to know what you went through, but still you can’t say it, you can’t get it out.

And so, a lot of the instances of vandalism and sabotage are about what you have to do to get the story out. The institution has ways of handling these histories of violence to make them disappear, just like the family can contain the violence that’s happened inside it as a skeleton in the closet. A lot of the work of complaint is releasing the story of that violence into a wider world and seeing what happens to it.

INTERVIEWER

There’s often a kind of onomatopoeia at work in the language you use to describe the circuitous processes people have to go through to complain. In both Complaint! and On Being Included, you sometimes seem to mimic, stylistically, that sense of claustrophobia. Your sentences can feel like a closed loop, in which the same phrases keep iterating—but then they shift such that a new possibility is illuminated. In other words, they model a way out. I wonder if your prose style has shifted as your ideas have been taken up—through Feminist Killjoys and your recent books—by readers outside academia?

AHMED

I think my writing began to change before that. It kind of changed when I wrote Queer Phenomenology (2006), which in a way is, of all my works, the most located in a philosophical tradition. I became interested in “the table” in Husserl’s philosophy, which was only a passing reference for him. I was supposed to pass over it, because the point of the table was to point elsewhere. But I became totally fascinated by it. I got a tape recorder, and I started reading out what I was thinking about the table: I picked up the table, I felt the table, and my thoughts weren’t words so much as sounds. My writing became more and more about sound, and then, as I was writing the blog and Living a Feminist Life, it just got looser.

I don’t think it was a conscious decision, but once it happened, I became more interested in writing itself and in what I was doing with it. With the blog, you’re reaching people in a different way. You’re not dependent on the infrastructure of the university—the classroom or the seminar. We’re so used to it now, but back then it was still relatively new to me, the idea that I could write something and it would be out there, and I could get a response from someone straight away. There was some connection between the loosening of my writing style—trying to get at the affect and the sound of the thing I was describing—and feeling more directly connected to readers.

INTERVIEWER

Are there other people who have influenced you as you made that transition, loosening your attachment to the genre of academic writing?

AHMED

I’m working on The Feminist Killjoy Handbook right now, in which I have a chapter about the feminist killjoy as a poet. I use a very simple expression, “to let loose.” To let loose is to express yourself. It can even be about losing your temper. But it can also just mean to loosen one’s hold. Lauren Berlant taught me a lot about loosening a hold on things. They had an incredible way of creating room in the description of an attachment to something, which I think is really hard to do. And my aunt, Gulzar Bano, who is a feminist poet, taught me something, too. She wrote poems that were angry, on one level, but also very, very loving. When I think about both Gulzar and Lauren, I think about how the tightness or narrowness of words—of pronouns, say—can be experienced as giving you no room. You have to experiment with combination. There’s a connection between moving words around and opening lives up.

There’s one line in Audre Lorde’s “Power,” a very difficult and painful poem, about power lying loose and limp as an unconnected wire. I’m interested in the idea of language as a connected wire. You keep it going so that something can pass through. It could be electricity. When I think of electricity, I think of snap, snap, snap, sizzle. You have to let the violence in to get it out, to express it. In an interview with Adrienne Rich, Lorde talked about writing that poem after stopping the car because she heard about the acquittal of a white police officer for the murder of a black child. She had to stop the car, she said, otherwise she was going to have an accident. She had to stop the car, and a poem came out. She had to stop the car to get the poem out. That’s the connection, I think, between my auntie, and Lauren, and Audre—the absolute willingness to register the impact of violence, so that that registering is also the creation of a possibility for being otherwise.

INTERVIEWER

Practically everyone I know who earns their living within an institutional setting has considered leaving it. Most don’t. The idea of escape becomes difficult to separate from the hardships it might bring: reduced access to funds, community, and so on. But it seems as though your resignation acted as one of those possibilities for being otherwise. You’ve written that it enabled you to find a role that institutional life had inhibited, to act for others as a “feminist ear.” Could say more about that, the communities or modes of communicating that opened themselves up to you once you made your exit?

AHMED

[laughs]

INTERVIEWER

Or maybe they haven’t!

AHMED

Maybe they haven’t. It’s a good question! I wouldn’t ever want to under-describe how difficult it is to leave. But for me, it didn’t feel like a decision: it was something I had to do. I just couldn’t do it anymore. And I had this idea that I could become a writer and work independently. It would be very difficult for me, now, to get a job in the UK. I don’t think I quite understood that when I left. But resigning changed how I could do the work. I didn’t realize at first how much it really mattered to people that I had resigned. It led people to me, and it led them to feel that speaking to me wasn’t speaking to the institution. I was somewhere else, in my little cottage in the middle of Cambridgeshire, and being out meant all the stories could come out with me. I don’t think I could have written Complaint! if I’d stayed in the institution.

There’s a lot I miss about being part of the university. We created solidarity in the Center for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, and I really miss that. That space had a sense of urgency. We weren’t sitting around talking about, I don’t know, affect theory—which is not to say it’s not interesting to sit around and talk about affect theory! But it was a different set of conversations that together felt like an emergency. We were trying to change the conditions of our own material possibilities. I miss my course on race, which I’d taught every year since I became an academic in 1994. I miss the students. But wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, you’re missing something. You just have to decide what you’re willing to miss. And missing all that has given me so many other opportunities to share, to communicate, and to think with people outside of those institutional spaces. So I’m willing to miss it.

Maya Binyam is a contributing editor at The Paris Review.