Recently, I finished Dr. Sara Ahmed’s (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life for the third time.* This time was different, though. When I kept trying to sort through why exactly this read-through was different, I thought—as ethnographers are prone to do—about the sociocultural moments in which I have read this book. The more I thought about it, what struck me was that although I read the book at different times, the times also seemed relatively the same. We seem stuck in time. Ahmed talked about this sense of being stuck, of the stickiness of words, attitudes, and behaviors, and of how one can get stuck and how things can stick to someone. This, I thought, was it. This is what was different about this third reading. I felt stuck, and I felt stuck because things have stuck to me.
Let me share a couple stories.
Last week, I came to my Critical and Feminist Pedagogies class (in which we are reading On Being Included) ready to talk with students about the Introduction and first two chapters of Ahmed’s book. My class is fairly unique in that we are all queer. I know this may be the only time in my career this happens, and I know it creates an opportunity for us to convene and talk in ways that we may feel are otherwise foreclosed to us in non-queer spaces. Ahmed wrote in her book about affective weight of entering “seas of whiteness,” and I understand that our sea of queerness provides a haven from the constant cisgender/heterosexual labyrinth through which we as queer people must navigate daily.
We come together and as we talk about Ahmed’s book, we begin to tell stories. We share stories about times when we have run into brick walls. We talk about being perceived as brick walls, and how the perception that we have each been brick walls creates a brick wall toward progressive action on campus. We smile and we joke, not because we are glad that we have these shared experiences, but comforted by the solidarity that we have been stuck because things have stuck to our bodies. Words have stuck to our bodies (e.g., queer, trans*, person of color) and those words have carried with them affects (e.g., angry) and orientations (e.g., nothing is ever good enough). Those words, because they are sticky, get us stuck. They make for a difficult time getting unstuck and being seen as anything other than those words. We feel lifted through sharing. Usually exhausted after teaching an evening class, I go home smiling. At least we are stuck together.
Another story. This time I am in a virtual presentation discussing student protest on college campuses. There is a Twitter feed where presenters are engaging with listeners as they talk. Less than an hour before the presentation, it is released that Sam DuBose’s murderer will not be brought up on charges. I tweet that I hope the presenters will discuss this, that they must discuss this. That to talk about campus protest and unrest without discussing the latest murder of a Black man on a college campus is a gross oversight, in every sense of the word.
The presentation starts and I wait. I keep waiting, and I cry, silently, in my house. Nothing is said. Sam’s name isn’t mentioned. It took 43 minutes—out of an hour-long session—for his name to be brought up, and even then, it was by one of the panelists (not the convener), who is a Black man. I tweet that I am fed up, tired, and angry by the continued disavowal of Black lives, despite the claims made by many in my field that #BlackLivesMatter. I tweet these things publicly because I am not interested in hiding my distaste.
After the presentation, the main presenter, who is a White woman, messages me privately to apologize. She says she is sorry if what she did (by not talking about Sam) upset me, and that she doesn’t want to disappoint me. She says she is committed to “doing better,” and if I want, she would be open to talking with me. I don’t connect back with her.
So here it is…and here we are. Two stories, both about being stuck and things sticking to us. In the first story, we are stuck because things stick to us. In the second story, the main presenter demonstrates the stickiness of wanting to “do better.” That is to say, the desire to “do better” acts as an always already failed promise, or what Ahmed referred to as a “non-performative.” According to Ahmed (2012), a non-performative “is not a failure of intent or even circumstance, but is actually what the speech act is doing” (p. 117, italics in original). By saying one wants to “do better,” one is protected from actually having to do better.
In fact, stating one wants to “do better” has become a bit of a best practice in the field of student affairs. However, as Ahmed (2012) stated, “Commitments to antiracism can be performances of racism: as if to say ‘you are wrong to describe us as uncaring and racist because we are caring and committed to being antiracist’” (p. 145). The White woman couldn’t possibly be racist because she was committed to “doing better.” It’s a cyclical argument, that one is not racist because one says they are not racist. And it becomes even more insidious when taken alongside the public nature of the offense and the private nature of the response. Why was she contacting me privately for something that occurred publically, I thought? Why was she so concerned that I would be upset with her, rather than worried about colluding in anti-Black racism and White supremacy? But I didn’t ask these questions. I was tired. I was hurt. I was sick of being the one to “bring up” these pains, which is also something that both Ahmed (2012) and Henderson (2014) discuss about race and gender respectively.
Over the three times I have read Ahmed’s book, time has marched forward, but I feel stuck in these situations. I am stuck in the repetition of hearing commitments to “doing better” and of being made to be sore because I bring up sore points regarding racism, trans* oppression, and compulsory able-bodiedness (using Ahmed’s language here). I am stuck by being made out to be The Angry One; the angry trans* person, the one who is never satisfied, the one who is always the killjoy. I encounter brick walls, but am encountered by others as a brick wall, probably because I describe the brick walls that I encounter. Ahmed (2012) referenced this when she wrote, “Social categories are sediments: they go all the way down, and they weigh some of us down. They might even appear lighter and more buoyant to those who can float, as if they are ‘above’ them. Perhaps the experience of aboveness creates the impression of overness. Perhaps lightness and buoyancy are affects of privilege—the affective worlds inhabited by those whose bodies don’t weigh them down or hold them up” (p. 181). The students in my class are similarly stuck, and although there is a sense of solidarity and camaraderie in being able to enter a sea of queerness in our classroom, each time we leave class, we walk into brick walls.
And then there is the stuckness of the field of student affairs; a stuckness that is rooted in the phrase I have increasingly grown to groan over: I want to do better.
Here’s the thing: the language of wanting to “do better” acts as a buffer from actually doing better. Saying you want to do better becomes a best practice, and as I have written about elsewhere, best practices may be necessary, but they are wholly insufficient in changing structural oppression. Best practices individualize situations, hiding how systems of oppression (racism, trans* oppression, classism) are embedded in institutional ways. And so people say they will “do better,” but nothing better is done.
And time marches on, without times changing. And so I will go into class today and likely we will share similar stories of being stuck because things stick to us and not others. We will talk about the brick walls we encounter, and how people encounter us as brick walls. We will join in solidarity and have a moment of release.
But what will happen when we leave class this time? What do we do when we keep encountering all these brick walls? What will we do when we are positioned as impatient, angry, and are told we need to appreciate that others are committed to “doing better”? Far from being a tragic tale of being content with malcontent, Ahmed (2012) gave us a clue of what we can do when she wrote what I find to be the most beautiful line of her book:
“Sometimes we have to take the risk of fulfilling the fantasies other people have of us” (p. 179)!
So here’s to fulfilling the fantasy of the angry trans* person, the impatient critical educator, the person for whom “quick fixes” may be quick, but never fix. In honoring Ahmed’s (2012) closing maxim of her book (“don’t look over it, if you can’t get over it” (p. 187, italics in original), I will close this blogpost with my own maxim: don’t talk about doing better, just do better.
*For folks who have not read this book, please do! It is truly one of the best higher education reads I have ever had the joy to complete. It would also make an amazing professional development/office shared read.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.