Sara Ahmed: The Politics of Complaint


Left: Catie Byrne / Right: Dr. Sarah Ahmed

Catie Byrne
Features Editor

On Wednesday, UNCG’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program presented, “Institutional as usual: Sexism, Racism and the Politics of Complaint,” a talk by feminist scholar, Dr. Sara Ahmed, about the ways in which complaining can work to subvert institutionally sanctioned racism, sexism and sexual harassment in university settings.

In introducing Ahmed, Dr. Mark Rifkin, the Department Head of Women’s and Gender Studies at UNCG, described Ahmed’s dedication to her feminist principles guiding her decision to leave her position as the Founding Director of the Center of Feminist Research and Professor of Race and Cultural Studies, at Goldsmiths, University of London, in 2016, as an act of protest against the university’s failure to address its problem of sexual harassment.

Ahmed, Rifkin said, is the author of eight books, like “Differences that Matter: Feminism and Postmodernism,” “Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality,” “The Cultural Politics of Emotion,” “Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others” and most recently, “Living a Feminist Life.”

Ahmed began her talk with a tongue-and-cheek description of racism and sexism experienced as a professor and woman of color in the university setting.

“You’re at a meeting with staff and students, you’re the only woman of color professor at the meeting, that’s not surprising; you’re the only woman of color professor in the department and you’re the only professor not referred to as ‘professor.’ If you were to ask to be referred to as ‘professor,’ you’ll be heard as being insistent, and even, as self-promotional,” said Ahmed.

Ahmed further described a series of racial microaggressions related to her experiences in the university system, contextualizing these experiences as existing within a system not built for the women of color professors which inhabit them.

Asserting antiracist pedagogy as a person of color within this system, and doing diversity work, Ahmed said, is to be seen as “making complaint.” And making complaint, she repeated, is seen as an act of “self-promotion.”

Ahmed then shifted her talk to a project she is working on about “complaint,” with regard to those who choose to speak up against the abuses of power they have experienced within the university system.

“I was inspired to do this project by working with students on multiple inquiries into sexual harassment and sexual misconduct,” Ahmed said, “which is to say, my project was inspired by students.”

Ahmed then delved into what she believes it means to make a complaint as it relates to the concept of use and diversity work. “Use often comes with instructions that are about maintaining social and public boundaries… A diversity policy can come into existence, then, without coming into use… A complaint can become necessary because of an occupation,” and occupation, Ahmed said, relates to access of use. “You can be stopped from using a space by how others are using a space.”

Ahmed then relayed a story from a female academic about her observations of male academics bullying others in the room, and occupying a space for themselves, Ahmed said, through degrading others through offensive jokes and banter. A complaint then, Ahmed said, “can become necessary because of an occupation.”

In order to illustrate the way offensive jokes create a state of occupation, Ahmed utilized the metaphor of a cup of water.

“When laughter fills a room like water in a cup, laughter is holding something. And it can feel like there is no room left. To experience such jokes as offensive is to become alienated not only from the jokes, but from the laughter that props them up, and gives them somewhere to go.”

When someone decides not to play along with the joke, Ahmed said, a complaint is registered, even without having said anything, because the space the joke occupies, is disrupted. And those that cannot laugh, Ahmed said, “cannot occupy those spaces.”

Ahmed then connected the concept of an occupation of space to the university as an institution which occupies space that makes it difficult for people to file complaints.

“A complaint can teach us about the continuity of abuses of power with the use pattern of an institution. And by use pattern, I am referring to the ways in which a university is occupied,” said Ahmed.

Ahmed closed her talk with comment to the importance of complaint as a form of disrupting the institutional university systems which produce and allow racism, sexism and harassment.

“If talking about sexism and racism damages institutions, then we need to damage institutions,” said Ahmed.

For more information about Sara Ahmed, visit her website at, her blog at or find her on Twitter @Saranahmed.

Categories: Blogs, Features


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