I’m still mining that Sara Ahmed post on “Self-care as Warfare,” because there’s much to mine.
Today it’s towards the end of the post, when she veers into a realm that feels newly familiar. Or anyway, newly (and nowly...) relevant:
I have read recently some critiques of feminists for calling out individuals for sexism and racism because those critiques neglect (we neglect) structures. Really? Or is [it] that when we talk about sexism and racism you hear us as talking about individuals? Are you suddenly concerned with structures because you do not want to hear how you as an individual might be implicated in the power relations we critique? I noted in my book, On Being Included (2012) how there can be a certain safety in terms like “institutional racism” in a context where individuals have disidentified from institutions they can see themselves as not “in it” at all.
And how interesting: the individual disappears at the very moment he is called to account. He will probably reappear as the saviour of the left. You can hear, no doubt, my tiredness and cynicism. I do not apologise for it. I am tired of it.
I think of the critiques I’ve heard—from both Black and white people (including a few who haven’t read it)—of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, and how she focuses entirely on interpersonal dynamics, and ignores the ‘far more important’ ways (meaning, the ways that really matter, the only ways that matter, etc.) in which racism and white supremacy are entrenched and enacted within institutions, structures and systems. Already for some time now I have known enough to want to say: Okay, that may be true. But why can’t we have both approaches? Why can’t we talk sometimes about the mass incarceration of Black people, and sometimes about how many BIPOC friends you do not have? Why can’t we talk sometimes about Salvini, and sometimes about you and me?
But now, Ahmed—in pointing out this insistence on the individual’s disappearance, in pointing out the safety in terms like “institutional racism”, and in wondering whether you might suddenly [be] concerned with structures because you do not want to hear [or think about] how you as an individual might be implicated—gives us one more way in which these critiques are, if not flawed, then at least pretty awfully (and eye-rollingly) convenient.
But she doesn’t stop there:
Some of the glib dismissals of “call out culture” make my blood boil. I say glib because they imply it is easy to call people out, or even that it has become a new social norm. I know, for instance, how hard it is to get sexual harassment taken seriously. [...] Individual women have to speak out, and testify over and over again; and still there is a system in place, a system that is working, that stops women from being heard.
Calling out an individual matters, Ahmed says, even when the system is also what is bruising.
Maybe sometimes, I think, especially when the system is also what is bruising. Maybe sometimes, it’s the only way to start. Maybe sometimes (because you too, are an individual), it’s the only way, period.
To challenge him is to challenge a system.
And that system—that system that is in place, that system that is working—is moreover a system that presents him, and so many others who are so ‘unfairly’ or ‘unjustly’ ‘attacked,’ ‘targeted’ or ‘vilified’ in this way by a ‘ruthless’ or ‘mindless’ ‘mob’ (or by the ‘witch-hunt,’ as a friend once referred—mind-bogglingly—to the #MeToo movement...), as the ones who have to suffer the consequences of feminist complaint, the ones whose damage is generalised.
As the ones whose damage matters.
(Or anyway, matters more, given that it’s the damage we seem always to end up talking about, when we talk about all this...)
And so, as the victims.
I think of Brock Turner, the white 19-year-old from Stanford who assaulted and raped an unconscious Asian American woman behind a dumpster outside a frat party. At his trial in 2016, Turner faced up to fourteen years in federal prison. The prosecutors asked for six years. Turner’s father, in a letter to the court requesting leniency (because what I know as his father is that incarceration is not the right punishment for Brock), also spoke of time:
As it stands now, Brock’s life has been deeply altered forever by the events of Jan. 17th and 18th. [...] His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.
Guess how many years Turner got?
(Guess how many years a black 19-year-old would have gotten, in his place?)
Brock Turner got six months. In a county jail.
And after serving three of those months, he was released.
In handing down his decision, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky said that “a prison sentence would have a severe impact” on Turner, who, in addition to being a convicted sex offender, is also a former Stanford University student and competitive swimmer.
Guess where Judge Aaron Persky went to school? Stanford.
Guess whether he played a competitive sport there? He did. (He was the captain of the men’s lacrosse team.)
Guess whether Persky is white? He is.
And speaking of impact, I think too, of the victim’s impact statement.
Next I think of how, in the wake of the sentencing, a million people signed a Change.org petition calling for Persky’s removal from the bench, while others took to social media to vent their frustrations. (What some people would now call cancel culture, I suppose.) The campaign and the petition led to a vote, and Persky was in fact removed from office. In response, Persky and his supporters [said] the recall effort [tried] to incorrectly frame his two-decade legal career by a single, controversial case.
“I have heard thousands of cases,” [Persky] said. “I have a reputation for being fair to both sides.”
Oh yes. That both sides thing. I’ve heard that before. And since.
I will tell you something. I watched those very closely -- much more closely than you people watched it. And you have -- you had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. You had a group -- you had a group on the other side that came charging in, without a permit, and they were very, very violent.
I hear that all the time.
I think too, of three years later, when Persky was hired to coach a girls’ tennis team at a San Jose high school. Some people made a fuss (what some other people would now call cancel culture, I suppose), and Persky was in fact fired from that “gig” (as everyone kept calling it). Guess what quite a few white people said about that? Yup.
This is not what our society is all about. To pound on Persky three years after his decision is unfair and unjust. Judges who made a poor decision still have a right to work and readjust their lives – and not be haunted and taunted by others.
And so, like Ahmed says, the individuals they speak of are then presented as the ones who have to suffer the consequences... [...] the one’s whose damage is generalised...
If “he” is damaged “we” are damaged.
This week I watched Claudia Rankine talk to Robin DiAngelo, via the 92nd Street Y, about her new book, Just Us. I had to pay fifteen dollars to watch the talk, and I had to wake up at one o’clock in the morning to watch the talk. (Though as I discovered afterwards, that fifteen dollars also lets me watch the recording afterwards. Which I did. The very next day.) But Rankine has been in my pantheon of pantheons for a while now, and so waking up at one a.m. felt almost right.
Partly it’s that I feel almost proprietary toward her... I had stumbled on Don’t let Me Be Lonely back in early 2014, while doing my master’s, and no one, not even my incredibly-in-the-know professors had heard of her at the time. None of us, at the time, had seen Citizen coming. Or “Situations,” or “The White Card.” Or the Open Letter and the project (and book) that followed it. Or the institute that followed that.
(Though looking back at Don’t Let Me Be Lonely... Maybe we should have seen it all coming.)
But mostly I love Rankine because of the way she holds the space of whatever medium she is in—the page, the stage, the poem (or the response to the poem, or the response to the response). The match, the moment, the madness. The way she holds it for so much longer than you are used to seeing a Black woman or a woman of color hold and question space. The way she makes you feel, if you are a woman of color, that there is time—maybe even enough time—in these encounters, these frictions, this living. To think, to interrogate, and maybe even, to breathe.
Anyway. There is a point in the talk, when DiAngelo and Rankine have just watched (and shown us) Situation 11, the latest in a series of short videos that Rankine co-produces with her husband John Lucas. (The series itself is hard to describe, but here’s one attempt: The “Situations” videos address the complexities of living in a so-called post-racial U.S. by foregrounding the public and private experiences of Black Americans. They combine still and moving images from archival, televised and surveilled sources, and voice-overs by Rankine to address both explicit acts of racism and the insidious racist aggressions that are built into institutional structures and everyday life.)
Situation 11 is about Amy Cooper—the Amy Cooper of what many white people call “the Central Park birdwatching incident.” (Because, I guess, what else would they call it?) In moving outward from Amy Cooper, Situation 11 is also about the ways in which white women weaponize themselves in racialized contexts. (As one white friend of Rankine’s put it: Amy Cooper assumed her role as a piece of high value white property in jeopardy, tapping into what she knows to be a salient catalyst for swift and deadly intervention.)
As most of us know, the video of “the Central Park birdwatching incident” or “birding story” went pretty viral. And as a result (what some people are calling cancel culture, I do not need to suppose), Amy Cooper lost her job as vice president and head of investment solutions at Franklin Templeton, one of the world’s largest investment companies—at last count, holding a combined $1.4 trillion in assets under management.
Maybe it seems, here and elsewhere in this post, that some of the information I’m presenting is irrelevant. Or at least, unrelated. Like the Cooper of Amy’s name and the Cooper of Christian’s name. Like the fact that Amy Cooper is Canadian. What does the amount of money Amy Cooper’s company manages have to do with this? What does this have to do with Brock Turner? What does the response against Brock Turner (and the tut-tutting about that response) have to do with the response against Amy Cooper (and the tut-tutting about that response)?
What does the individual have to do with the systemic?
Both in the session at the Y and elsewhere in an NPR interview, Rankine talks about some conversations she has had with white people, who say to her, “I don’t understand why Amy Cooper lost her job. What she did in the park was not good, it was racist what she said, but it’s too much, that she should lose her job.”
“Oh, you know, she had an altercation with a guy in the park. She shouldn’t have called the police, but she called the police. But now she should lose her job?”
And that, as Rankine says, is what is interesting about the “birding incident.” That for many (maybe even most) white people, the fact that Amy Cooper was willing to weaponize the system in order to create a confrontation that could, possibly, end in Christian Cooper’s death, is not enough...
And she pauses here, long and hard.
...not enough of a narrative, to justify [her] displacement...
What she did was “not good.” But it was “not enough” for her to have to lose her job. And so, conversely, losing her job was “too much.”
For white people it’s too much. It’s too much.
I think of all the ways this “too much” gets talked about. It’s unfair and unjust. People still have a right to work... This is not the right punishment... This is a steep price to pay... This would have a severe impact... It’s too much.
I think again, of how the individuals they speak of are then presented as the ones who have to suffer the consequences... [They are] the ones whose damage is generalised, and centered.
How that is what we seem always, to end up talking about.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[sabato 19 settembre 2020 ore 10:09:26] [¶]
When I first found Sara Ahmed, I didn’t know I’d found her. It was through a post on her blog, feminist killjoys, and at the time I’m pretty sure I only ever read the one post. I bookmarked that post though. And over the years, I remember going back to it at least a couple of times, because in the post, she did something I every-once-in-a-while needed someone to do, with that Audre Lorde quote on self-care.
(What I needed, every once in a while, what I still seem to need every once in a while, is to be reminded that there are in fact some people on this planet who are not using that quote to get people, women especially, to buy some fucking thing or other.)
Anyway. Then, over the summer of 2020, in all that hubbub over that Harper’s Letter, Erica asked if I knew of Ahmed’s blog, because a recent post of Ahmed’s had made her think of me (and yes, I am absolutely saying that here because of how much I [now] consider that a compliment). And so I went and read the post that Erica mentioned. And right away, right away I found some things. Some things especially, for those days of summer lockdown. (Not so different, after all, from those days of spring lockdown. Not so different neither I suspect, from fall lockdown... still to come.)
Like this, on why one writes:
I don’t write to be productive or because I think what I have to say is important. It is not; it is what it is. Continuing with my own projects such as my project on complaint, keeping myself going by keeping them going, is not about “carrying on” or “staying calm” or any of the other truisms that seem to circulate as national nostalgia for a time that never was. For me, writing is about holding on; how I stay in touch with myself as well as with others because some of my other handles are broken. It won’t necessarily always be that way. For me, now, writing is a lead, leading me to others; writing as hearing from others.
But it is the meat and potatoes of the post—when she gets to talking properly, about complaints—that wows me.
In particular, the story she tells of the indigenous woman academic who tried to make a formal complaint, a grievance, after her tenure case was sabotaged by a senior white manager:
I had to send an email to her with the subject line in all capital letters with an exclamation point, my final email to her after 7 months. THIS IS A GRIEVANCE! THIS IS A GRIEVANCE! And her obligation under the university rules and the process is that she has to put it forward. She did not. She did not put it forward.
In particular, the story she tells about what kind of story that is:
A complaint does not go forward because it is not put forward by those who receive the complaint. That capitalized subject heading has much to teach us about how complaints are not heard. You have to shout because you are not heard. If you have to shout because you are not heard, you are heard as shouting. When complaints are heard as shouting, complaints are not heard.
I think of tone policing. I think too, of a young woman working in a United Nations organization, recently sabotaged and naïve enough to keep asking in response, louder and louder as if that is the reason she’s not getting an answer, what can I do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
It was only later that week, when I went to pull up Ahmed’s blog again on the iPad, and as I began to type in the URL, it suggested that very post I’d bookmarked years ago, on self-care. So then I remembered. And of course, then I had to re-read that too. And it was good. All over again, in this summer of 2020, it was so very good.
Among other things, I remembered that this was maybe one of the first places—maybe even before Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough?—that really, properly, connected my dots around neoliberalism, and the ways in which it underpins so much of what has been bothering me in recent years.
For example, about Sheryl Sandberg’s brand of feminism (and whether it’s actually feminism):
Catherine Rottenburg persuasively shows how [Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In] is “simultaneously neoliberal, not only because she disavows the social, cultural and economic forces producing this inequality, but also because she accepts full responsibility for her own well-being and self-care, which is increasingly predicated on crafting a felicitous work–family balance based on a cost-benefit calculus” (2013: 1). Neoliberal feminists do identify as feminists (Sandberg’s first chapter is entitled “internalising the revolution”) but in such a way that feminism is repackaged as being about upward mobility for some women, those who accept responsibilities for their “own well-being and self-care,” a way some women thus distance themselves from others. I have no doubt that we need to engage in critiques of such forms of neoliberalism and accept that feminism can become co-opted as a white woman’s upward mobility fantasy.
Feminism in neoliberal hands becomes just another form of career progression: a way of moving “up,” not by not recognising ceilings (and walls) but by assuming these ceilings (and walls) can disappear through individual persistence.
For example, about the myth of meritocracy and the well-intentioned wonderfulness of unfettered individualism:
Audre Lorde, who is with us today through the words she left for us, gave us a strong critique of neo-liberalism, even if she did not use that term. Her work is full of insight into how structural inequalities are deflected by being made the responsibility of individuals (who in being given the capacity to overcome structures are assumed to fail when they do not overcome them).
For example, to do with the cult of bright-siding, positivity, and happiness:
Indeed, in The Cancer Journals, Audre Lorde offers a powerful critique of how happiness becomes a [neoliberal] narrative of self-care. Faced with medical discourse that attributes cancer to unhappiness and survival or coping to being happy or optimistic, she suggests [that] “looking on the bright side of things is a euphemism used for obscuring certain realities of life, the open consideration of which might prove threatening to the status quo” (1997: 76).
From here, Lorde moves on to a wider critique, as Ahmed calls it (and a rather sarcastic one too, I might add), of happiness as an obscurant:
“Let us seek ‘joy’ rather than real food and clean air and a saner future on a liveable earth! As if happiness alone can protect [us] from the results of profit-madness” (76).
The very idea that our first responsibility is for our own happiness, according to Lorde, must not only be challenged, but resisted.
Likewise the idea that our own resistance is a failure to be responsible for happiness:
“Was I really fighting the spread of radiation, racism, woman-slaughter, chemical invasion and our food, pollution of our environment, and the abuse and psychic destruction of your young, merely to avoid dealing with my first and greatest responsibility to be happy?” (76). I think Audre Lorde has given us the answer to her question [...]: to assume your primary responsibility is to your own happiness might be how you end up not fighting against injustice.
By now I am curious enough about Ahmed—well-on-my-way, really, to being full-on obsessed. I find an interview she did with Guernica in 2017, in which she argues that ideas of happiness are central to the management of populations...
I think of a favorite line from Didion (“Happiness” is, after all, a consumption ethic...), and another from Sontag (“I give thanks to America,” said Ryszard, “a country insane enough to declare the pursuit of happiness to be an inalienable right.”). I have thought these things before. So has Ahmed.
I go back to my email exchange with Erica. I had asked her (after confessing how flattered I felt), what it was in Sara Ahmed’s post that had made her think of me. Among other things, she mentioned a Facebook comment of mine “that almost paraphrased the more famous Sara Ahmed take on being a feminist killjoy — let me find [the] quote: In speaking up or speaking out, you upset the situation. That you have described what was said by another as a problem means you have created a problem. You become the problem you create.”
I cannot remember when or where I made that comment. But somehow. I can absolutely believe that I did.
I go back to the Guernica interview. Early on, Ahmed describes the process of becoming a feminist as a bumpy process; you bump into a world as you begin to realize that it does not accommodate you. You become conscious over time of how things are not what they seem... This notion of bumpiness strikes more than a couple of chords. Not only in terms of what she says, in terms of feminism... But also, it reminds me so much, of what it has felt like in recent years, as I’ve begun to bump up against whiteness. More and more, the small collisions with a world that is not made for, of, and with me (and/or people who are more or less like me)...
That bumpiness is not the only place where Ahmed’s thinking resonates—feels like a stencil I can lay over racism and whiteness the way she lays it over sexism and misogyny. That feeling is all over her writing and thinking. This bit, for example:
Sometimes being a feminist killjoy can feel like you are getting in the way of your own happiness; and if happiness means not noticing the injustices around us, so be it. But that’s not the only way of telling a feminist story, because apprehending the world from a feminist point of view is apprehending more, not less. Living a feminist life helps to create a more complete picture because we try not to turn away from what compromises our happiness. Of course sometimes it can be tiring being unhappy about so many things! But I find joy in the fullness of living a feminist life, though not only, and not always.
If you accepted that there is a kind of “whiteness killjoy” or a “racially aware killjoy,” the same way there is a kind of feminist killjoy, and if you swapped them into this paragraph, look what happens:
Sometimes being a [whiteness] killjoy can feel like you are getting in the way of your own happiness; and if happiness means not noticing the injustices around us, so be it. But that’s not the only way of telling a [racially aware] story, because apprehending the world from a [racially aware] point of view is apprehending more, not less. Living a [racially aware] life helps to create a more complete picture because we try not to turn away from what compromises our happiness. Of course sometimes it can be tiring being unhappy about so many things! But I find joy in the fullness of living a [racially aware] life, though not only, and not always.
See? See what I mean?
Ahmed talks too, about how it can be tiring, always being “on,” as a feminist. And I think, god yes. She talks of the importance of trying, being able once in a while, to turn oneself off—just switch off and watch a movie! In a way you could use permission notes—I put some in my killjoy survival kit. You can give yourself permission to turn off when being on is too hard. This does not always work, mind you. Sometimes, you might be tired, and you just want to watch a feel-good movie, when the killjoy comes up again, which is to say, you become her. You can find yourself questioning and critiquing things again.
I love the idea of permission notes. But the thing is. I don’t think the killjoy comes up again and again, through (or only through) some inability or lapse in your own system, to turn her off or put her to bed. I think she would love to take more naps, that killjoy.
I think of being woken up three and four and five nights a week, at one and two and three a.m., by the drunken revelers that spill out of Babae and Gosh downstairs. I don’t want to be woken up. With all my heart, I want the noise, the people, the inebriated volume of the conversations, to go entirely unnoticed by any of the women—killjoy, brown, migrant, and more—inside of me, trying to get some desperately needed sleep. Especially because I know that once I do wake up, once any of those selves inside me does wake up, it will be really, really difficult for me—for all of us—to go back to sleep again.
How hard I try, on nights like these, to claw back towards my sleepy, unhearing self. She always feels within reach, at least for the first few minutes of every time this happens. But inevitably, the noises intrude further and further into the parts of me that are trying to go back to not hearing them, and it becomes harder and harder not to hear them. Harder and harder for more and more of me, like those dreams in which you are being slowly possessed by a demon spirit, and you can feel the plasmic thing inching further and further down through your head, and then slowly out and across your breastbone, the insides of your arms, your fingers, until you are more it than you.
And so this is what I’m saying. That sometimes, maybe even most times that we try to switch off. It’s not that we switch back on again. It’s that something in the world, something like that same bumpiness Ahmed describes so often, comes and bumps up against our button. Switches us on again.
Like when you are sick of it all and decide to take a walk, sit down on a bench in a park so you can look at, and think about, nothing but trees. And then a man walks up and asks you where you’re from, and whether you have a boyfriend, and whether you would like to be his girlfriend. Or (depending on where you’re from), whether you would like to clean his house.
And if you respond in a way that suggests that this is a problem—a problem of sexism or racism or whiteness or whatever—then yeah, it ends up being, all too often, exactly as Ahmed says. You become the problem.
I go back to the beginning, and to Lorde:
Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.
And so I think about that word, “care.” Sometimes it feels like I have been thinking about that word for years now. And yet, it occurs to me, I have never looked up its provenance. And so I do.
I find, according to Merriam-Webster, that the roots of the word “care” might go all the way back to an Indo-European verb which meant to “make a sound, cry.” This may have led later, to the Old Irish ad-gair, in which “(s/he) accuses, sues,” and the Middle Irish gáir, which is to “shout, cry.”
Also the Greek gêrys which suggests “voice, speech,” and the Middle Persian zryg or zryq, which denotes “sorrow, suffering.”
And finally, in the Ossetic (Iron dialect), either (as zæl-), to “make a sound,” or (as zar-), to “sing.”
It takes me a few minutes (for they are so interesting), to realize that all of these meanings suggest, or even require—in order for them to have meaning, to mean—a single, essential response. Which is that of listening.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[lunedì 07 settembre 2020 ore 09:09:27] [¶]