Sara Ahmed – Brick Walls: Racism and other Hard Histories

Why I invited Professor Sara Ahmed to the Developing Social Justice Seminar Series

SARAOn 11 March 2015, I had the great pleasure of welcoming Sara Ahmed to MMU to discuss Racism as part of the social justice seminar series.  I first came into contact with Sara’s work when writing my PhD.  She led me to reflect on my time as a policy officer at a local authority. Armed with the McPherson Inquiry (1999) definition of institutional racism, I found a way of championing race equality issues.  What the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry highlighted was collective institutional failings in delivering to the public and the social services department I worked in was concerned that they could also be found wanting.  Therefore, it offered a way to improve the collection of statistics around access to services for the diverse population of the authority in the hope of uncovering any “unwitting prejudice” and putting in steps to address this.  However, the collection of data soon came to replace the other steps of policy development.  When rioting finally exploded in the area, the subsequent report into the role of public authorities cleared health and social services of segregation and lack of cohesion.  There was good work being done by a number of practitioners and specialist teams which deserve recognition.  However, alongside this, the ability to name and demonstrate failings felt like a goal in its own right.  Sara sums this up when she says:

A document that documented the racism of the university became useable as a measure of good performance. (Ahmed, 2004: online)

It was a beautiful articulation of my frustration.

Then, I had the good fortune to hear her talk at an event for the Trafford Rape Crisis centre a couple of years ago where she gave a talk about education and racism.  It was scholarly and considered.  Then she took a break from her script and put her hands on the table and exclaimed something along the lines of: “Just once, wouldn’t it have been nice to be taught by someone with a brown face, just once.”  As a white woman in education this had an immediate impact.  I, too, had never been taught by a ‘brown face’.  Again it was a beautiful articulation of frustration.  However, this time that frustration wasn’t my own, but I knew I also had to own it.

This is why I invited Sara to MMU.

Why Sara Ahmed was fully-booked

Sara coming to MMU was obviously an Event (capitalised to show importance).  Within a few days of tickets being available, I was told that she was ‘selling well’.  Weeks before the event, I was made aware that she was fully-booked.  I can only speculate as to why some speakers within a series of talks garner more attention than others.  However, on the day itself, it was clear to see that Sara had widespread appeal.  People had travelled from across the North West and there was a mix of students, academics and other interested parties.  There were numerous disciplines represented.

Sara was funny, passionate, angry, contained and scholarly.  However, I would characterise the audience response as a “buzz of recognition”.  The most tweeted phrase from the event was “Feminist pedagogy = Rolling Eyes”.

Why She got a Standing Ovation

At the end of the talk and Q&A session, Sara received a standing ovation.  I can’t speak for all the people who chose to stand, but these are my top 3 reasons why I think she deserved it:

Reason #1

Tweet 1aShe began by thanking me. She did this in recognition that the work of hosting is often over-looked and that this is a feminist issue. This was lovely on its own. However, it was also thought-provoking. It has since prompted me to think about the work of hosting, who gets to be a host and who does the work. Derrida (2000) highlights that the ability to host is a product of power. However, this use of power can also provoke the inhospitable, the setting of limits. UK politicians often classify the nation as a host nation, whilst being pretty lousy at throwing a shindig. From the confusing door policy, to the exclusion of guests, to the detention of those who seek asylum and the racist vans, this isn’t a party I would want to be invited to and yet through nationalist rhetoric I am invoked as a host. Good hosting is hard work. It is anxiety-provoking. It is emotional labour. It is also worth it because you end the encounter wiser and happier.

Reason #2

Her critique of organisational and bureaucratic practices provided an articulation that resonates with the current #JusticeforLB and #LBBill campaign.

Tweet 3Tweet 3a

Look at these tweets from the evening.  The concept of non-performativity chimes with the experience of attempting to get the appropriate apology and action from Southern Health.  The Trust can document that it has invested in leadership skills and that this has a direct impact on patient care.  It has won an award for this (http://www.theguardian.com/healthcare-network/2013/oct/25/southern-health-foundation-trust-leadership-award-winner).  The award and the policy work put into achieving it can be mobilised to show progressive leadership.  However, Connor’s family still have to campaign to be given documentation that surrounds the preventable death of their son.

brickwallThe metaphor of brick wall seems to sum up the experiences of Connor’s family.  If Connor had not been learning-disabled, the story of a healthy young man left to drown in a bath would have incited greater outrage.  Instead his name is added to a list of institutional atrocities  and the disabilism of institutional care is left unchallenged.  Disablism is a brick wall that, for those who do not come up against it, is invisible.  It is a wall which others are invested in not seeing

Reason # 3

If MMU were hosting, Sara Ahmed was the guest and she was a great guest who showed an astute awareness of the burden of being a guest. Diversity work within large institutions is often treated as the troublesome guest. You have been invited to the table and that invitation is enough for an institution to say that they have tackled the ‘diversity’ problem. Naming that problem as racism, as sexism, as homophobia, as disablism becomes the guest’s problem. The guest cannot see that it is ‘over’ and was made that way with the invitation. As guests, the diversity worker has to be insistent when it would be preferred if they did not disrupt norms.

Tweet 4Tweet 5

Institutions are too keen to congratulate themselves on their first steps.  Inviting someone to a table is merely the first step.  It is not the whole journey.  Yesterday morning I walked my daughter to school.  These could have been the first steps of a marathon. They weren’t.  I got into my car and drove to work instead.  So, don’t applaud me.  I still haven’t walked the marathon.

Thank you to all the attendees and tweeters (especially those cited here) on Wednesday afternoon.  I hope you enjoyed and found the session as useful as  I did.  And thank you, Professor Ahmed.

References

Ahmed, S. (2004) “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism” Borderlands e-journal Vol. 3. No. 2

Derrida, J. and Duourmantelle, A. (2000) Of Hospitality (Trans. Bowlby) Stanford: Stanford University Press

McPherson, W. (1999) The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry London: HMSO

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