Ahmed’s Good Grief

Institutions separate complainers from one another and from their own support networks. But what if we complained as a collective?

I am a serial complainer within a history-plagued institution: a school that tells a story of being keenly interested in attracting more students and faculty of color; expanding diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; and becoming less overwhelmingly white.1 What is it to be a serial complainer? In my case, it means that I have complained with and on behalf of students who have been sexually assaulted, who have received racist and sexist fraternity invitations, and who have had access to fewer resources than their peers. I have accompanied colleagues in their complaint processes, and I have experienced my own.

As I discuss in Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace (2016), institutions that have trouble preventing sex- and race-based discrimination, harassment, and retaliation (often in the staff and faculty ranks) have no shot at dealing well with sexual assault and other types of violence (often crossing over into the student ranks). Having a formal complaint process burdened by the weight of a deeply risk-averse general counsel—who communicates each step and each action to the administrators in power—means having a complaint process that will always favor the people complained about, and not those who have complained.

My first exposure to the university’s complaint system was when I was placed at its helm for a year. I learned quickly that handwritten notes from the general counsel meant that something wasn’t to be formally documented and that whatever couldn’t be documented usually wasn’t right. I should have known immediately that I wasn’t cut out for a job that did not allow me to be forthright about processes and procedures. Being a serial complainer also means having the privilege and/or the damned foolishness to stick your neck out because you think it is the right thing to do. To speak out against the actions this culture engenders is to complain, to introduce a germ in the system, to attempt to undo almost three centuries of white heteropatriarchy.

But, despite these experiences, it seemed I had more to learn about what it really means—or what it should really mean—to complain. In Complaint!, prolific UK-based author Sara Ahmed reveals that true complaints cannot be contained by mere word or action. What we need to do is seek and implement more creative, enduring solutions to institutional problems of bullying, harassment, and unequal working conditions.

Why do we need to change the way we address complaints? Because, as Ahmed makes clear—and as my own experience has demonstrated—the current system simply doesn’t work. To register a workplace complaint is to express grief and lament, and to go through the institution’s endogamic complaint system is to bring grief upon yourself in a seemingly fruitless effort to effect change. Writes Ahmed, “Complaint seems to catch how those who challenge power become sites of negation: to complain is to become a container of negative affect, a leaky container, speaking out as spilling over.” The exclamation point in the book’s title serves as an exhortation—to do something. “We have to push harder,” says Ahmed, who also winks at her readers by addressing us in the second person: “(Some of you, I expect, are complainers too).”

In this complicit call to readers, I hear a lilting nod to Emily Dickinson. For those among us who have filed formal or informal complaints in the workplace, Ahmed’s latest brilliant work is at once description, explanation, analysis, and consolation.

Ahmed’s book underscores the profound challenges filing such complaints represents, especially for Indigenous peoples, people of color, women, and, quite specifically, Black women. Ahmed analyzes complaint systems and offers radical solutions. She traces the etymology of “complaint” back to grief, and, ultimately, her analysis of complaint becomes the manifestation of the “feminist killjoy” and the “feminist ear,” terms she introduced in 2017’s Living a Feminist Life. In this context—and thinking alongside US Representative and civil rights activist John Lewis’s notion of “good trouble”—I see complaint as good grief, meaning that there can be longer-term communal benefits to articulating a complaint, attempting to hold an institution accountable for its discrimination and faulty systems, and seeking to do so in a collective context.

Ahmed attributes her ability “to fight for something,” “to refuse what has come to be”—and her development of “a sharper sense, a clearer sense, a stronger sense, of the point of that fight”—to the formation of and her participation in a “complaint collective.” She interviews other members of this collective, who offer strategies to undo the inheritance of stagnant, discriminatory structures. These strategies include: writing and recording complaints; sharing the texts and recordings with others in the work environment who have experienced similar hardships and inequities; refusing to meet alone with university officials and therefore building coalitions surrounding complaints; documenting common threads so as to describe department trends and the development of toxic cultures.

Part IV (“Conclusions”), in particular, centers on the formation of collectives and the potential solutions they offer. Ahmed and her colleagues see the group’s “saying” or articulating problems as the first form of resistance: formally documenting the issues and demonstrating the university’s “institutional complicity” in them. The collective, through its activism and visibility, creates a space for less-protected individuals to report abuse to the collective, which in turn documents the events without implicating the person reporting. An additional objective of Ahmed’s complaint collective was to build a website through which individuals in their departments could register a complaint and receive advice regarding it.

The collective acknowledges that complaint activism can expose members to increased precarity—but it also holds that nothing will change without group approaches and strategies to reforming institutional policies and practices. To that end, members continue to make colleagues’ complaints “more public and visible, using pickets and the press,” and to aid colleagues in gathering, documenting, and publicizing evidence.

Ahmed, always original, also suggests that complaint can be creative, or generative. “A complaint can be a poster, a performance, a recital,” she writes.

Institutions separate complainers from one another and from their own support networks.

Ahmed brings great authority and gravity to Complaint!, from her own experiences (she resigned from an institution after they mishandled a series of complaints), her engagement with a “complaint collective” in the UK, and her decades-long scholarship in feminist, queer, and race studies. Black feminism and women of color feminism anchor the book. The author does not flinch at the difficult intersections where one underrepresented or traditionally marginalized group seems at odds with another; instead, she examines the effects of complaint in each area of these intersections, retaining her sharp focus on an analysis of power dynamics.

In the early part of the book, Ahmed sets many ideas in motion, underscoring that the initial harm (verbal and/or physical) that sparks a complaint is then replicated in the process itself. This is because the process—as I can confirm from my own experiences—isolates the complainant as an institutional risk, protecting the defendant to maintain institutional status quo.

Ahmed’s poignant, nuanced wordplay shines throughout the work and especially in Chapter Three, “In the Thick of It,” and Chapter Four, “Occupied.” Complaint is parsed as “dwell[ing] on something negative,” and the word “dwelling” leads Ahmed to situate the notion of complaint in the physical (residence or dwelling). Ahmed draws us into Chapter Three with her alliterative wordplay: “In this chapter I work as slowly and as carefully as I can with the tangles in the testimonies.” She also examines the concept of grooming that emerges in many of the testimonies. US readers will immediately link this concept to cases such as those of Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar, among others, which reveal the importance of the media and the creative arts in delivering what internal complaint systems and the law often cannot or will not.

Author of such important Duke University Press titles as What’s the Use? (2019), Living a Feminist Life (2017), Willful Subjects (2014), On Being Included (2012), The Promise of Happiness (2010), and Queer Phenomenology (2006), Ahmed has demonstrated her deep theoretical knowledge of and innovative approach to a broad range of topics. Each new book enters into conversation with the previous ones, allowing Ahmed to broaden the theoretical base of her oeuvre and to view previously treated topics through a new lens.

The methodology of Complaint! stems from the social sciences, through its analysis of in-depth interviews with people who have dealt in some way with a complaint process, and the author’s ties to the phenomenological tradition link social science methodologies with those of the humanities. Ahmed practices careful close listening, her familiarity with her primary sources strengthened by the fact that she herself transcribed each of the interviews she conducted.

There is an intimacy in the way Ahmed recounts details of the interviews, making clear that she is invested in both the theory of complaint and the hard realities of those who complain. Interviewees demonstrate a willingness to share their experiences and to express sorrow and worry about lost jobs, wages, careers, institutional connections, and friendships. Ahmed’s interviews are radial—for this book, she spoke individually with over 40 different people—but also collective, both in the way she threads together major issues from one interview to the next and in the actual complaint collective that emerged from her work with graduate students. Ahmed views this work on complaint, which is focused on analyzing institutional power, as a form of feminist pedagogy.

I, too, have sought solutions to the doomed-to-fail institutional complaint process. As such, I fully appreciate Ahmed’s insistence on the collective, for it attempts to undo the ways in which institutions (on purpose or as collateral damage) separate complainers from one another and from their own support networks. The complaint collective allows complainants to connect institutional dots, despite management’s push to keep complaints discrete (wholly unconnected, even if they are about the same person or the same department) and discreet (secretive, confidential; to the detriment of the complainant and the benefit of the defendant and institution).

Engaging with colleagues on matters of complaint allows us to share the burden of repeated discrimination and harassment; consult about strategies to combat it; be accompanied in tense meetings in which hierarchies are clearly drawn; understand the problem of how university inaction allows repeat offenders to continue to abuse; and consider public, visible, creative approaches to mapping complaints.

As an example: Many years ago, a physics professor friend and I each wrote and shared with the other a poem a day, over many months, about the discrimination we were experiencing. Those poems made us share, laugh, and cry. More importantly, perhaps, we ended up performing those poems in public spaces of our universities and towns, shedding light on profound institutional problems of hierarchy and discrimination. My friend was eventually successful in bringing the attention of state officials to the problems at her institution.

When I submitted a complaint years ago, my dreamscapes were all walls and doors. Each night featured an individual or a group holding up a wall I was pushing against or closing an open door at the end of a hallway of doors. Ahmed’s interviewees recall time and again this same sense of the individual attempting to combat institutional fatalism, of the David and Goliath story that has very real consequences for the individual. Ahmed draws on the imagery of doors to describe this phenomenon.

Closed doors are linked to a menacing enclosure, a shutting up, a feeling yourself frozen in your own interactions. Readers of Ahmed will see elements of Willful Subjects in this section on doors, in which Ahmed writes, “The force revealed by a complaint is directed against the complainer; his expression, which tells her how she is seen as a naughty child, willful, is how the institution comes to see her.” She adds, “They cannot force her to leave, but they can encourage her to leave.”

What happens behind closed doors is, in effect, the reproduction of abusive cultures and conducts. One of Ahmed’s examples pertains to racism, which, she writes, “is deleted by white people when its acknowledgment would compromise their sense of collegiality with other white people.” This point becomes significant in Ahmed’s reflection on the layered difficulties for people of color who submit complaints. Other metaphorical doors of the complaint process include silence and institutional nondisclosure agreements, salient issues in the #MeToo movement. Ahmed writes, “Behind closed doors: this expression points to how those who complain end up contained.”

Ahmed also laments the threat of “career suicide”: a complaint takes up so much time, she notes, but you can’t put that work on your CV. I have had the privilege to work on complaint as part of my research on gender in the workplace and to claim this on my CV. But this claim always comes at a cost, because it means you are viewed as the complainer, the nag, the hag, the person out of place. Ahmed mentions that one interviewee made a complaint because she was “understood as having already made one.” The door metaphor applies to entry (“getting in”), which can lead immediately to being shown the way out, or to what Ahmed terms “arrival … framed as debt,” especially for employees of color.

Here, as throughout the book, Ahmed skillfully uses the teleological phrasing of “X is Y” and “X can be Y” to create metonymical links from one story to the next and one concept to the next, and from the individual to the collective. Complaint! and its methodologies demonstrate what “complaint activism” looks like. Ahmed concludes by invoking Audre Lorde’s notion of survival and relating it to the sense of haunting from the complaint graveyard. She closes where she began, by crediting decolonial feminist, Black feminist, and feminist of color research with opening the doors.

For any person interested in the dynamics of institutional hierarchies and power and strategies to combat them, my suggestion is to read! Read Complaint!.


This article was commissioned by Carolyn Devericon

  1. This 2017 New York Times article notes my institution, Washington and Lee University, is 88 percent white. Since then, the numbers have improved. See this piece on the university’s decision not to change its name and this op-ed (in Spanish) on race-related iconography at the institution. Yet, while the university moves forward on important hiring and DEI initiatives and touts careful critical thinking as one of the hallmarks of the school’s educational mission, it still fosters a culture that makes racism, misogyny, and heterosexism comfortable stances to adopt.
Featured Image: The W. Martin Johnson School of Art by William Martin Johnson (detail, 1909). Internet Archive Book Images / Flickr (No known copyright restrictions)