I may not have planned this book club very well. I chose this book first because it was the one I had been looking forward to the most. However, I have a feeling that I would have appreciated it more after reading a few “Rah, rah! You go girl and climb to the top of the capitalist ladder!” tomes.
Because oh dear, this is dense. Despite its title (and Ahmed’s original intent), this is not a mainstream self-help book for activists. It uncovers problems and doesn’t fix them. That’s more intellectually honest, of course, but as someone looking for pearls of wisdom to share with clients, I’m left mumbling “well now what?” to myself. I had a similar reaction back in my college days when I had to wrestle with critical theory, and my 10+ years out of the college classroom have not whetted my appetite for the weird punning and creative use of punctuation in this field.
However, if critical theory is your jam and/or you are willing to take your time and be thoughtful, there’s a lot to learn here. When it comes to being feminist in the workplace, it’s useful to look at how Ahmed looks at the figure of the feminist in the world: willful, the killjoy. Basically, drawing from her theory, to be feminist in the workforce means that you have to be a pain in the ass – you have to be uncomfortable and make other people uncomfortable.
“When you speak as a feminist, you are often identified as being too reactive, as overreacting, as if all you are doing is sensationalizing the facts of the matter; as if in giving your account of something you are exaggerating, on purpose of even with malice.” (Chapter 1)
I agree with Ahmed, but you probably don’t need a career coach to tell you that this strategy will be challenging to your long-term employment. There isn’t much appetite for being uncomfortable, within the social justice movement or without. And telling the truth, whether it’s about sexism or racism or the faultiness of a project plan, will be uncomfortable.
Her section on “diversity work,” draws this out even more, including how institutions (in most of her examples, university departments and committees) contain discomfort by defanging feminism – feminism without discomfort, to Ahmed, just isn’t feminism: “a fantasy of inclusion is a technique of exclusion.” (Chapter 6) If you find yourself doing this kind of labor in your organization, in a formal or informal way, you will particularly enjoy this section, although it may also have you quitting and dropping out of society. Which frankly, is a legitimate response to the world somedays.
In the spirit of a book club, I’m going to take a brief break to drink some wine. In the meantime, talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic:
How do we balance being a willful feminist killjoy with keeping a job (and actually doing what we’ve been hired to do)? When you have you been willful-and-proud on the job? How have you reacted when others have been willful?
But before we collect our coats and take too long to say goodbye, let’s have a round of applause for this line: “If feminist critiques of racism and sexism are knee-jerk, we might need to affirm the intelligence of feminist knees.” (Chapter 6)
Next month (well okay, in two weeks): Weird in World That’s Not: A Career Guide for Misfits, F*ckups, and Failures