When you name something as sexist or as racist you are making that thing more tangible so that it can be more easily communicated to others. But for those who do not have a sense of the racism or sexism you are talking about, to bring them up is to bring them into existence.
When you expose a problem you pose a problem.
It might then be assumed that the problem would go away if you would just stop talking about it or if you went away. The charge of sensationalism falls rather quickly onto feminist shoulders: when she talks about sexism and racism, her story is heard as sensationalist, as if she is exaggerating for effect. The feminist killjoy begins as a sensationalist figure. It is as if the point of making her point is to cause trouble, to get in the way of the happiness of others, because of her own unhappiness. I turn to the question of happiness and unhappiness in chapter 2. But note how the feminist killjoy begins her life as an antifeminist figure: we are retooling her for our own purpose.
Let me retell my story of becoming a feminist by turning to the figure of the feminist killjoy.
I would begin this story with a table. Around the table, a family gathers. Always we are seated in the same place: my father one end, myself the other, my two sisters to one side, my mother to the other. Always we are seated this way, as if we are trying to secure more than our place. We are having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something you consider problematic. At first you try not to say anything.
But they keep saying something. So maybe you respond, carefully, perhaps. You say why you think what they have said is problematic. You might be speaking quietly, but you are beginning to feel wound up, recognising with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up. The feminist killjoy appears here: when she speaks, she seems wound up. I appear here. This is my history: wound up.
However she speaks, the one who speaks as a feminist is usually heard as the cause of the argument. She stops the smooth flow of communication. It becomes tense. She makes things tense. We can begin to witness what is being locked in this dynamic. The problem is not simply about the content of what she is saying. She is doing more than saying the wrong thing: she is getting in the way of something, the achievement or accomplishment of the family or of some we or another, which is created by what is not said.
So much you are supposed not to say, to do, to be, in order to preserve that we. And yet, even if she is not supposed to react this way, her reaction is, at another level, willed. She is after all being wound up by someone who is winding her up. The family is performed by witnessing her being wound up, spinning around. Look, look at her spin! To make her the cause of a tension is another way of preserving the illusion that without her, the family would be civil. I think those of us who have been killjoys around family tables probably know this; how useful we are as containers of incivility and discord.
Whenever we speak, eyes seem to roll, as if to say, well, you would say that. From these experiences we can condense a formula:
Rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy.
Eyes seem to roll wherever you go, whatever you say. In fact, you don’t even have to say anything before eyes start rolling. It can seem as if eyes roll as an expression of collective exasperation because you are a feminist. Becoming a feminist is often about being lodged in a because. She says that because she is a feminist; or, even more strongly, she is only saying that because she is a feminist.
In the introduction, I described how practicing feminism is about developing our feminist tendencies (becoming the kind of person who would be willing to speak out about sexism and racism). We can see now how femi- nism is refuted or dismissed as simply a personal tendency, as if she disagrees with something because she is being disagreeable; as if she opposes something because she is being oppositional. Feminists are then judged as being unable to help themselves, as if to be a feminist is to function on automatic pilot.8 Feminism is treated as a removal from the world rather than engagement with the world. We are talking about how feminists are removed from the world because of the nature of their engagement; how feminist accounts are discounted as sensationalising the facts of the matter.
We can appreciate, then, how the sensations that lead us to feminism are often the very same sensations that follow being a feminist.
Through feminism you make sense of wrongs; you realise that you are not in the wrong. But when you speak of something as being wrong, you end up being in the wrong all over again. The sensation of being wronged can thus end up magnified: you feel wronged by being perceived as in the wrong just for pointing out something is wrong. It is frustrating! And then your frustration can be taken as evidence of your frustration, that you speak this way, about this or that, be-cause you are frustrated. It is frustrating to be heard as frustrated; it can make you angry that you are heard as angry.
Or if you are angry about something and you are heard as an angry person (an angry black feminist or an angry woman of colour), then what you are angry about disappears, which can make you feel even angrier. If feminism allows us to redirect our emotions toward different objects, our emotions can become their objects. We are dismissed as emotional. It is enough to make you emotional.
And then of course the objects we are objecting to are reaffirmed as inappropriate objects for critique or complaint. I remember one time we were talking over the family table about the film Kramer vs Kramer. I remember questioning how the mother is demonised. I make that point, that rather obvious feminist point, which is hard not to make once you have acquired a feminist tendency.
And then: the noise, the noise! “Oh can’t you just let us enjoy this lovely sweet film”; “Oh can’t you see how special the relationship is between the father and son, how cruel she is”; “Oh you are always looking for problems,” and so on. Feminists: looking for problems. It is as if these problems are not there until you point them out; it is as if pointing them out is what makes them there.
We become a problem when we describe a problem.
One time much later than my other killjoy moments over the family table, I was having dinner with my sister and her (then) partner. He began saying things about Aboriginal people and how they would complain about the army moving a rock because it was sacred. He was deeply offensive. I responded. Maybe I used the word racism. I can’t remember if I used that word, but it was on my mind. Racism was on my mind because racism was in the room.
Whatever I said, he became very angry, but an anger that took the form of silence and stares. He sat there, steely faced, for the rest of the dinner, not touching his food. Waiters hovered nervously. We spoke politely around him. When I woke the next morning, my mother called, and she had heard that I had put him off his food. When will you ever learn – I could hear those unuttered words.
Memories of being a killjoy at the table flooded back to me, a burning sensation on skin; recalled as being the one who puts others off their food. You sense that an injustice follows pointing out an injustice. Another dinner ruined. So many dinners ruined. That flooding: it happens. It still happens. Feeling wrong, being wrong; being wronged. If sensation brings us to feminism, to become a feminist is to cause a sensation.
Excerpted with permission from Living A Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed, Zubaan.