Facing the Feminist in the Mirror: On Sara Ahmed’s “Living a Feminist Life”
By Mariam RahmaniJune 6, 2017
Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed
Reading this book can be like looking in the mirror. Any feminist, I believe, will relate to Ahmed’s concept of the “feminist killjoy,” a term she developed in previous work to describe a feminist position that refuses to participate in all forms of misogyny, be they outlandish or microaggressively quotidian. Feminist killjoys refuse to laugh when they’re supposed to (e.g., at a sexist joke), refuse to shut up when they’re supposed to (e.g., at a family dinner, or, I will add, at a party with peers and friends). In Ahmed’s case, being a feminist killjoy means resigning from a high-profile post as director of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths in London to call out the injustice and hypocrisy of being a feminist department that condones sexual harassment.
Feminists of color will resonate with Ahmed’s apt classification of the ever-present question “where are you from?” as “polite racism,” a “question” that is really a statement about how you do not belong here (you must be from somewhere else). We — and any feminist worth her salt — will also appreciate her insistence on intersectionality. More than just a trendy term for Ahmed, intersectionality shapes Ahmed’s critique. She consistently centers the body in her inquiry into what it means to live a feminist life. Analyzing an experience from her girlhood in Australia in which she was stopped by police and asked whether she was Aboriginal in a quotidian act of racial profiling, then let go when she said she was not, Ahmed writes: “This is what intersectionality can mean in practice: being stopped because of how you can be seen in relation to some categories (not white, Aboriginal; not middle class), being able to start up because of how you are seen in relation to others (not Aboriginal; middle class, white).” Ahmed thus pushes us to recognize not just our oppression but also our privilege.
Looking in the mirror for some 270 pages can get uncomfortable: what you see isn’t always pretty. “Intersectionality is messy and embodied,” Ahmed observes, citing her privilege as an able-bodied member of the professorial class alongside her experiences of oppression. In discussing her resignation from Goldsmiths, Ahmed openly admits that she had the “material resources and security” to resign, resources that are far from reach for many others. Some of these (though certainly not the cushy salary) are my privileges as well, as the able-bodied daughter of a professor and an aspiring academic myself. In citing her privilege, Ahmed encourages us to do the same, but I wonder what it would mean to do something about our privilege rather than just rehearsing it, a gesture that, by itself, can be disgustingly self-congratulatory. I am not suggesting that such self-flattery is Ahmed’s motive or effect, but I do wish she would tackle this question head on.
Perhaps her response would have something to do with listening to and supporting others. This oblique answer, or what I am interpreting as one, comes in the “Killjoy Survival Kit,” where Ahmed expresses a feminist killjoy’s need for other killjoys, meaning the need to be open to critique. Citing a recent experience at a conference where she was challenged by black British feminists, Ahmed observes that she reacted defensively before considering their critiques and admitting they were right.
Ahmed’s very methodology and style are in many ways indebted to the tradition of black feminism, and this is a debt she consistently acknowledges. Drawing from her life to provide a tour de force exploration of salient ideas from her previous scholarship, Ahmed grounds theory in experience and theorizes from experience. This effort to learn from real life — or as she puts it, “to bring theory back to life” — recalls black feminists like Audre Lorde and bell hooks, both of whom make frequent appearances in Living a Feminist Life. Lorde looms largest in chapter nine, on “Lesbian Feminism,” when Ahmed invokes Lordean erotics to advocate a politics of “being for” and “living for” other women rather than men, while hooks seems channeled in the fluidity with which Ahmed weaves the personal and the scholarly (for her, the two are intertwined; she writes from a decades-long academic career) and in the accessibility of her writing style. The readability of this text, which seems to falter only in its tendency toward repetition, stands in stark contrast to the obfuscation relied on in much of “Theory.” In the very way she writes, Ahmed seems to be productively practicing a politics of refusal: refusing, like feminists before her, to separate the personal and political, and refusing the mind/body binary dominant in Western philosophy. Indeed, the concept of intersectionality might be broadly read as a philosophical turn that puts the body back at the center of epistemology: our bodies limit what we can know and act as a way of knowing.
But, in the context of the anecdote about the conference, Ahmed’s refusal to provide the details of her exchange with the unnamed black feminists doesn’t allow us to learn from them along with her. She writes:
I responded too quickly and became defensive, hearing their voices as part of the same chorus of what I would call more questionable critiques that positioned brown women as gaining position by taking up places that did not belong to them, which used the familiar narrative that women of color use diversity as a career enhancement.
Questionable indeed. But then, if not that, what were these women really saying? What, exactly, were they right about? Perhaps the occlusion is meant to protect the women’s identities or not to bore readers with the play by play of an academic debate, an activity most would find less than thrilling. Yet, the erasure reads as reductive or mythologizing, figuring black women as the matriarchs and disciplinarians of women-of-color feminisms without engaging with their specific ideas or contributions, something Ahmed does so adroitly otherwise.
This is not the only time the author takes too much for granted, assuming that the reader will follow her conclusions without providing her reasoning. She tends to do so at moments of intrafeminist debate: when describing the conference, for example, or when defending trigger warnings. She introduces trigger warnings in the Killjoy Manifesto in the context of a close cousin to the killjoy, the figure of “the oversensitive subject who is too easily offended”:
The moral panic over trigger warnings often evokes this figure, specifically the figure of the oversensitive student who is not attuned to the difficulty and discomfort of learning, as if to say: if we let your sensitivities become law, we lose our freedom.
For proponents of the status quo, alleging oversensitivity is a way of discrediting necessary social critique. Here Ahmed’s analysis is spot on. Who among us has not been accused of being “oversensitive” or “reading too much into it,” as if the project of (racist and sexist) power were not precisely to attempt to instantiate its rule every day in the minutiae of our lives? But when Ahmed uses this argument in blanket defense of trigger warnings, she neglects to engage meaningfully with critiques of trigger warnings and thus fails to engage meaningfully with trigger warnings themselves. Though I am sympathetic with Ahmed’s view that “freedom has become reduced to the freedom to be offensive” — in this United States, this truth might be witnessed in the frequency with which the right invokes the First Amendment on university campuses — I can also see how barring conversations about violence can in fact serve a conservative and oppressive politics. I wish I knew what Ahmed thought more substantially: I am happy to have her act as the killjoy to my killjoying her killjoying the killjoys of trigger warnings (the proponents thereof being themselves killjoys), but I cannot simply take her word for it. Here is one moment we could afford to get messier — and even if we can’t afford it, we must manage it nevertheless.
Ahmed’s willingness to engage the messiness on other occasions is when her text shines, ruthlessly illuminating the politics of the quotidian and, for me at least, intimate memories and fears. In one passage that resonated with me deeply, she writes of the challenges of exposing violence in racialized groups that are deemed violent in Western state and popular narratives — in this case, Muslims. Ahmed’s father is Muslim, and I grew up in a Muslim family. Telling the story of her physically abusive father poses for Ahmed “a feminist of color kind of complication” (I love that phrase, simple and understated). As a fiction writer and a graduate student researching Iranian feminisms, I am often haunted by the ease with which my work might be coopted to reify images of Islam as antifeminist and misogynistic, depictions that support the racist idea that Muslims are antithetical to “Western” values and that ultimately help paint the Muslim as terrorist. And yet, I refuse to be silenced or to let our epistemological limits continue to be defined by racism, if even in the form of self-censorship. It is comforting to me, and I venture, to all of us doing the tricky and sensitive work of women of color feminisms — perhaps of feminisms in general — to know that women like Ahmed continue to work while attending to these dangers. “We must still tell these stories of violence because of how quickly that violence is concealed and reproduced. We must always tell them with care,” Ahmed says, writing with the urgency we all feel. “But it is risky: when they are taken out of hands, they can become another form of beating.” The lesson is that not all tensions can be resolved. We can only continue to chip away at injustice, however slowly and imperfectly, in the hopes that we will someday bring about new, fairer terms upon which to build a world.
As feminists of color do at their best, Ahmed upends the assumption that “feminism travels from West to East.” She cites her Muslim feminist, brown feminist “auntie in Lahore” alongside other Pakistani women as intellectual and political inspirations:
Feminism traveled to me, growing up in the West, from the East. My Pakistani aunties taught me that my mind is my own (which is to say, my mind is not owned); they taught me to speak up for myself; to speak out against violence and injustice.
In my own life, I too have had the privilege of having a series of feminist aunties with snap, another of Ahmed’s gifts to our feminist vocabulary, which she has redefined to suggest some combination of sassiness and killjoying on the one hand, and being willing to break bonds or walk away, on the other. These aunties, my mother’s sisters by blood and by choice, were women with a lot of attitude whose sharp tongues and loud mouths taught my sister and me not to be afraid of speaking up. I also have what I would call a feminist mother (though I am not sure she herself would identify that way — for her, it wasn’t a question of feminism per se, but justice). Ahmed’s conceptualization of snap gave me a deeper appreciation for all the hardness and acerbity that singled my mother out against the backdrop of friendly PTA moms when I was a child.
More than an equal partner in her relationship with my father, my mother worked full-time as a professor and was regarded within our family as the smarter of the two — in terms of book smarts, management capacity, and finances. I now add to that list cooking and cleaning, types of knowledge we didn’t recognize as such then. Like the feminists and diversity workers Ahmed mentions, my mother often laughed or scoffed in the face of sexism and racism. I remember, for example, how she bristled at envelopes that addressed my parents as “Dr. and Mrs.”: quite the opposite, she had finished her PhD and my father had yet to complete his. She is also the reason why I have the privilege (in both senses of the word: the joy and the advantage) of feeling at home in academic spaces, despite their rampant sexism and racism. This experience marks another moment I diverge from the narrative in Living a Feminist Life, an oft-repeated narrative about how out of place women of color feel on campuses. Though calling out continued misogyny on campuses and in curricula is essential, Ahmed, like many feminist academics of color, inadvertently erases histories of pioneering women, such as my mother, whose hard work has helped (at least some of) us claim academic spaces as our own. We might think of my mother and her friends, almost all working professionals in addition to laboring as mothers and wives, as an unvoiced network of feminists doing the work of feminism — making space, claiming space, calling out patriarchy by their way of being — without the label. I want to sing their names and acknowledge what they gave us.
Of course, for my sister and me, being at home in academia came with the understanding that we were not supposed to be, that ours was a contested space. I recall being told that women are always shortlisted for academic hires to create the illusion of diversity, but never actually hired, to maintain the status quo of a white male faculty, or as Ahmed puts it, “white men as an institution.” My mother’s sharp analysis, her snap, was at once a way of awakening us to an injustice and of warning us that to succeed, to merely get what was ours, we would have to not only break with a world, but to break one.
Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life explores the costs and possibilities, the pains and the joys, of such ruptures. Anyone at odds with this world — and we all ought to be — owes it to themselves, and to the goal of a better tomorrow, to read this book. In all its messiness, it’s more than a healthy start.
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