Often, when we point out ways in which we are marginalized or oppressed, we are told that we’re being a “killjoy,” or that we’re “lecturing people.” But how are we supposed to make change unless we point out things that are unfair and annoying? By Kristen Cochrane.
We still don’t know the full story of why eminent cultural studies scholar and professor Sara Ahmed resigned from her prestigious post of director of feminist research at the Goldsmiths, University of London. All we know is that she resigned because of the university’s alleged failure to tackle sexual harassment within universities at large.
Ahmed is a queer woman of color who prolifically makes public statements on the intersections of how these identities inform her experience. On her website, feministkilljoys, she wrote that she would like to make a forthcoming post with the title, “resignation is a feminist issue.” So what does she mean by that?
In much of her work, Ahmed points out how our culture privileges happiness to the extent that we sound like a “feminist killjoy,” an “unhappy queer,” an “angry black woman,” or a “melancholic migrant” when we have grievances with how we are unfairly treated as a result of belonging to one of these identities. You’ve probably seen examples of this while hate-reading the comment section of a “feminist” article (i.e. an article in which a real-life, recurring problem is being questioned, like sexism!), where commenters feel they are being “lectured” by the writer. But when these detractors get angry and call us “feminist killjoys,” what they’re forgetting is that we’re also killing our own joy by talking about how our experiences differ from those people of more privileged identities.
It is mentally, physically, and I would even say sexually taxing to be female. (How many of you have had second thoughts about something that a partner did in bed that could be read as degrading because it was sexist, racist, or identity-charged, even if they didn’t intend it to be offensive?) And yet, some men also feel nervous to feel sexually free, because they are paying for the sins of other men who have left emotional, physical, and sexual scars on women’s bodies and bodies of women of color. These scars then become part of our cultural unconscious, causing us fear each other, and ultimately hindering our ability to live free and meaningful lives. And while I can’t speak for identities that are not my own, it is widely known (but often denied) that women who aren’t white, who aren’t straight, and who aren’t middle-class (or higher) face further oppression and stigma in countless facets of life. But I don’t need to be telling you this.
The term Race Battle Fatigue has been used to describe the specific exhaustion of not only being subjected to racialized aggressions and microaggressions, but also of having to defend your claims that these things are even happening. A similar cultural fatigue arguably happened with feminist consciousness-raising after the fervent era of identity politics in the 1990s. Gen Ys, do you remember talking about feminism in high school? I don’t. I remember arguing with one of my dad’s colleagues and saying that I didn’t need feminism. While he didn’t scold me for my apathy to feminism, I always remember him nudging me, gently asking me why I felt this way (in a non-mansplaining way that I’ll never forget). In hindsight, it’s not that I “didn’t need” feminism; it’s that feminist theorizing and activism had gone out of fashion in the early 00’s—the passion of the 90s third wave had worn people out. Feminism was not “cool” again until the 2010s. And while some will argue that feminism is still not cool, when something starts being commodified by corporations (as feminism is now) it’s generally a sign that it has reached peak cachet.
But serious feminist inquiry and practice is exhausting, and literally depressing. It’s called activist burnout, and it’s a significant intersection between the oppression that gender and mental health issues can cause.
Sara Ahmed is a popular figure on Twitter amongst consciousness-raising circles that reckon with gender, sexuality, and race, among other intersections of identity. These tweets reflect her grievances in a poetic and incendiary fashion.
In her book The Promise of Happiness, Ahmed writes about how much we privilege happiness, and how we insist that happiness is crucial to our existence. But what about when we can’t be happy, especially in light of marginalization and oppression? Ahmed claims that happiness has been used as a tool to justify sexism, racism, and other discriminatory practices. In other words, we are told to just “think positive!” or brush off any identity-charged grievances or issues we have (e.g. if your boss is sexually harassing you or complimenting you on your “exotic” skin color, you should just be flattered, so goes the argument of justifying sexism, racism, etc.). In turn, we become unhappy when we have to fight these oppressive practices, which we often feel compelled to do, because being treated like garbage based on something you can’t change is kinda not cool.
So when we decide to resist the mechanisms of oppression, we are not only being killjoys to ourselves, but to other people. But we shouldn’t be seen as killjoys! Actually, isn’t it weird that we feel forced to always be happy? Whenever I’m not happy, I assume that I’m depressed. Then I wonder if I’m a depressive, or if society has just insisted that if we are not 24/7 happiness robots, then there is something pathological or wrong.
Like the above-mentioned race fatigue, Ahmed claimed that at Goldsmiths, she experienced “equity fatigue.” It doesn’t mean fatigue of wanting equity or equality, but it’s a fatigue of utterances being repeated and nothing being done about it. Ahmed wrote the following on her website in light of her resignation:
“I resigned from my post at Goldsmiths when I got to a point that I felt I could do more by leaving than by staying. I thought leaving as an action would speak louder than words, and I had been using a lot of words. A diversity practitioner I once interviewed talked about how we have to use words more, the more we don’t get through. Words become tired; bodies too. […] The more you say the ‘equity,’ the less the word can do. I keep sending out emails, talking to people about sexual harassment. I could sense tiredness around me, eyes rolling again.”
This is not an essay or a thinkpiece on sexual harassment in universities. This is a statement on sexual harassment and sexual violations that occur at micro levels (e.g. domestic abuse) or in institutions (systemic abuse). Even writing in an inflammatory way, which I have done in this essay, will likely be considered a killjoy essay. But if we follow Ahmed’s argument, being a killjoy is a way of processing the pain and hurt that affects marginalized identities. Processing then becomes a condition of possibility for change and for healing. It’s like being in therapy—it’s not fun to be told what you’re doing wrong in life, but it’s arguably necessary to move forward and change the ways we experience life.
Ahmed has emphasized that thinking about negative feelings and experiences is not a “backwards orientation.” Instead, we need to think of the “melancholic subject,” like the unhappy queer, the feminist killjoy, the angry black woman, or the melancholic migrant, because this is how we make actual progress. For Ahmed, these are the important people who “[refuse] to let go of suffering, and who [are] even prepared to kill some forms of joy, as offering an alternative social promise.”
So keep killing joy, if that’s how people see it—it’s better than using happiness as a placebo to keep us constrained within problems that routinely affect us for the worse.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and graduate researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her academic research is currently on queer Latin American cinema, but she also writes about art, sexuality, and life stories. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE.