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Lifting the Lid: Sara Ahmed on Complaint, Diversity, and Institutions

A student makes a complaint that a professor or another student has sexually harassed her. A professor attends a writing workshop, finds that his colleagues are making racist and sexist jokes, and decides to file a formal complaint. They are ignored or left to wander through obscure bureaucracy; they are sometimes threatened with punishment or retaliation; in most cases they exhaust themselves trying to be heard.

How can educational institutions call themselves diverse or actively champion diversity when it is so hard for someone to say “I do not feel welcome here” and be heard? How should institutions committed to creating diverse, welcoming environments act when they receive complaints that critique their behavior?

Sara Ahmed, an independent feminist scholar and writer, examined how complaints function in educational institutions in her February 15 talk, “Diversity Work, Feminism, and Institutions.” As part of the UC Davis Forum on the Public University and the Social Good, Ahmed shared data she collected on how British institutions handled–or more often, suppressed–complaints about a lack of diversity. How institutions respond to complaints often reveals how they protect the status quo even while performing diversity and reform. By attending to how complaints operate within the university, Ahmed argued, we can see how power works and “dismantle the structures that are not built to accommodate us,” she says.

Ahmed has been following the concept of complaint around the university, to see how it operates. Since resigning from her position as a professor at the University of London in protest of the university’s failure to address sexual harassment, she has heard hundreds of stories of complaints registered, ignored, or silently handled from students, staff, and professors. In the process, she has learned how institutions work to manage and silence complaints, and that many complainants left or were shut out from the university. She wove these stories throughout her talk, demonstrating that meaningful diversity work means taking these complaints seriously in order to thoroughly transform an institution.

Ahmed argues that making a complaint records what feminists do not want to reproduce: institutionalized sexism, racism, classism, and cultures of discrimination that subtly signal “this institution is not built for you.” Recording these instances of when students or staff are wronged is not often in a university’s best interests, however. The 21st-century university wants to be perceived as diverse, and can view a record of its failures to be welcoming as a threat.

That’s precisely why complaints matter, notes Ahmed. They point to where the system is failing those whom it should be serving. Although it is common for institutions to frame those who make complaints as the problem, universities should see complaints as opportunities to make meaningful, if painful, change. “I’m doing the work of complaint because I care about the university,” Ahmed said, “and because I want it to be open to populations for whom it could be transformative.”

First-generation college attendees or minority students, for example, are often strongly invested in the university’s inclusive promise, yet the first to bear the brunt of institutionalized discrimination. Without existing networks of support among teachers and administrators, and often navigating university bureaucracy entirely on their own, these students have no one to hear their complaints when the system fails them. Many students, understanding that they need recommendation letters and the goodwill of professors to succeed, “do not make complaints because they do not feel they can lose the references and connections,” Ahmed said. “Withdrawing support can be enough to stop someone from going somewhere.”

In some cases, the presence or creation of diversity statements can even be a tool to contain complaint. Ahmed calls this concept “non-performativity”: when naming something doesn’t bring it into effect, or when something is named in order to not bring it into effect. Diversity policies and training, a common feature of modern universities, can be used in this way. A university can say, “We have a diversity policy and we welcome students,” without actually doing anything to make the institution more diverse or make students feel more welcome.

Over time, institutional inaction wears people down. Ahmed discussed exhaustion as a management technique, nothing that institutions can “tire people out so they are too tired to address what makes them tired.” What knowledge do we lose, what new ideas disappear when people give up because their complaint is not heard?

When faced with the mechanics of an institution that seems bent on operating as it always has, what can feminists do? What can those committed to functional diversity within a university do to change the way institutions operate?

Lift the lid on complaints, recommends Ahmed. Feminist killjoys (a name drawn from Ahmed’s blog) in universities can stand in the way of the usual order of things. They can say “no,” and continue to voice complaint, and publicly support those who make complaints. “Our professional norms are often about containing,” reminds Ahmed, noting that “silence is framed as institutional loyalty.” So speaking up, making records of complaints, and gathering accurate data about complaints are all ways of practicing what Ahmed calls “feminist memory: finding ways to leave traces in places.”

Ahmed closed by reminding listeners that over time, complaints leave a trail pointing to where feminist work must be done: “They cannot mop up all the mess.”

Video of the full talk is available here.

This event was sponsored by the following:

  • Office of the Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor
  • Feminist Research Institute
  • College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences
  • Cultural Studies Graduate Group
  • Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Diversity
  • College of Biological Sciences
  • School of Law
  • School of Medicine Office of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion
  • Institute for Social Sciences
  • Community and Regional Development Program
  • Center for Regional Change
  • Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies Department
  • American Studies Department
  • English Department
  • Critical Theory Designated Emphasis
  • Performative Studies Graduate Group
  • Comparative Literature Department
  • Anthropology Department

–Samantha Snively, DHI Humanities Correspondent and PhD candidate in English literature

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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