This post, by Dona Henriques, is Part II of a series of responses to Complaint! by Sara Ahmed (2021: Duke University Press). For the other contributions, click here.
Thank you, Sara Ahmed, for writing Complaint! Helping me to revisit, re-live and be re/lived through my past, present and future relationships with complaints. You’ve inspired me to write a series of posts on my personal reflections and this here is the first. It’s grounded in my experience of education as a black woman.
I began my career working with children and young people as a youth worker in East London. I went on to work as both a primary and secondary school teacher. By the end of my career I had held substantive leadership roles including, Inclusion Leader, Deputy Headteacher, Educational Consultant and Head of School.
At the beginning of my career, the young people that I served on the streets and in youth centres were already the complained of, the Other, disadvantaged by poverty, class, and race. They complained too of being othered; being left behind, left out, policed, having their complaints go nowhere and ending up in the filing cabinet of lost things.
At various points in my professional career, I have interacted with the machinery and machinations of complaints as the hearer / adjudicator / institutional gatekeeper. At other times as the subject, subjugated and folding, reforming to accommodate my pain and trauma neatly into my black body, already the site of repetitive creasing in multiple acts of institutional conformity.
The complaints you cite Sarah, have their own specificity in time and place, but they could also have occupied my time(s) and my place(s).
Hearing the complaint
As a teacher I remember listening to the complaints of children, complaints of unfairness, of being left out, being left behind, hurt by words, being hurt physically, pre-empting the hurt, they were sure was to come just because…
Also, in that educational space held the complaints of adults against complaints of unfairness, of being left out, left behind, being hurt by words, being hurt physically by the children, often pre-empting, and predicting the hurt that was to come because…
“We can pause here and consider the different meanings of complaint. A complaint can be an expression of grief, pain, or dissatisfaction, something that is a cause of a protest or outcry, a bodily ailment, or a formal allegation” (p. 16)
So I heard complaints, and, looking back I didn’t always listen deeply or clearly hear the hurt beyond the hurt, the fear of what would be or even could be the consequence(s) of the complaint for the complainer.
We had rules / policies / procedures and a culture that covered how everyone was to be protected and have their complaint resolved, because, well…this school space was one of kindness, openness, care, and respect, right?
No-one was to be harmed.
We had the structures in place – processes, steps and stepping-stones, a pathway well-trodden, bearing the faded footprints – ‘the ghosts’ of complaints past leading to this place.
I invite you on my reflexive journey – reflexive is a word I cannot use without the image of the Sankofa bird appearing in my mind’s eye – so really this is my Sankofa Praxis. The form is fluid – words, thought fragments, pupil wisdoms, images, song lyrics, always seeking to bring forward what is at risk of being left behind or left out of my experience of complaints.
Sankofa is an African word from the Akan tribe in Ghana. The literal translation of the word and the symbol is “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” The word is derived from the words: SAN (return), KO (go),FA (look, seek and take).The Sankofa symbolizes the Akan people’s quest for knowledge among the Akan with the implication that the quest is based on critical examination, and intelligent and patient investigation.
Come into my office, take a seat, do you need some time,
are you okay, just start from the beginning,
just to be clear I am just listening, I may make some notes at this stage nothing formal,
I am sure this can be resolved,
I will have a word with…
I am sure this can be resolved
to your satisfaction
you want to complain
that’s a different conversation
A different form, I need to take some notes, something formal.
An Institutional Mechanic and her Office.
As I retrieve the complaints I have been present at, in and beyond – I start with my office – I have had many offices throughout my career and everything in that space could bear witness to complaints. I have had soft seats, round tables, hard seats, long tables, cushions, curtains, artwork, artefacts, blinds, boxes of tissues, water, tea, open windows, fan heaters, aromatic scents, flowers, and always confectionary to sweeten, subdue and soothe.
Picture the mechanic. Black, Female, Bespectacled, adorned with an African Headwrap. Not the usual mechanic. Not the usual office.
“…a space in which the norms of whiteness are reinforced and reproduced” (Bhopal, 2018: 85)
In my early career I did not think I was a mechanic of whiteness, I was a crusader, I was an exception to the rule, a black leader (female was the predominant gender). A black female leader was a novelty thirty years ago, sadly, still a novelty thirty years on. Hopeful, as I navigated the complaints of my pupils and parents that I knew what it was to be othered, unheard and un-championed. That was not about to happen on my watch.
Model Policy for Complaints:
A concern may be defined as ‘an expression of worry or doubt over an issue considered to be important for which reassurances are sought’.
A complaint may be defined as ‘an expression of dissatisfaction however made, about actions taken or a lack of action’ (UK Department for Education, 2020).
However, I was one of the leading mechanics, I knew how the system of complaints worked, the actions to be taken. Even better, I had been trained- to be seen to have acted, silently navigating the slippery surface of culture over ethos, practice over policy and institutional reputation over public complaint.
Stay, stall, sweeten, soothe, and subdue.
“…a simple point: to complain about an abuse of power is to learn about power” (p. 37)
In that office or any one of my offices over the years I heard complaints, I saw and bore witness to the hurt of my pupils who struggled to understand ‘why?’. The parents who spoke of teachers’ behaviours toward their children but more often it was the words, or the silence – ‘the blanking’ referred to Chapter Two of Complaint! Here Sara speaks to this as ‘erasure’ and the first lessons that black and brown children learn about who are the powerful, who can speak but more importantly who is heard.
The psychological harm embedded in the persistent, recurring acts of institutional violence situated in the classroom, in the playground, while their child lined up, waiting for books to be marked, dinners to be served, praise to be dispensed as life-affirming confetti from the lips of indifferent teachers.
“Behind closed doors: harassment happens there, out of view, in secret” (p. 183)
Children’s complaints are not adult complaints, they have little or no power in the institution.
But. Children’s complaints are adult complaints.
“Those who make a complaint are frequently warned about the consequences of complaining” (p. 71)
Teachers often warn those that are complaining to stop and desist because of time, ‘it’s eating into teaching’ my teachers would often say – ‘I need to just get on!’
They complained as their mentor, head of year their Headteacher. The teachers complained mostly to pre-empt any challenge to their practice, my appraisal was important, but their complaints had to be heard first.
The school discourse is often heard as an admonition to children against being a complainer. I have asked children to stop complaining and ‘try to get along’ or ‘how do you think he/she/them are feeling’ or ‘just walk away’, ‘don’t worry, sit down, let’s start the lesson’.
Throughout Chapter Two of Complaint! I am reliving and retrieving, replaying those moments, those throwaway warnings in the guise of concern, as highlighted by the phrase ‘rocking boat’, I hear the refrain from ‘Guys and Dolls’ (1955) playing away and how children are taught, conditioned, reconditioned, reshaped, so the ‘ship’ of the classroom, the site of a multiplicity of complaints, remains afloat.
“Beware, beware you’ll scuttle the ship
And the devil will drag you under
By the fancy tie ‘round your wicked throat
Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down
Sit down you’re rockin’ the boat”
As I leave my office, I carry with me the voices, hopes, dreams and fears of not only my teachers, but the pupils – who taught me what it is to be. The wisdoms that I shared with the adults in those education space so they could be better spaces. Wisdoms for all the ‘offices’ in my future.
I am again in an office. not any of the physical spaces that I had previously inhabited or made habitable. I am now part of an OFFICE, of something larger than me, focussed on Equity in Higher Education. Better prepared, knowledgeable, I know about the black female body at work. I know how the signs, sites, and the sight of what a complaint is, or what really a complaint is really saying about the culture, ethos, and practices within my institution.
Thinking now of how I can make the policy not just match the practice but be better. Do better. Act.
“…have a plan, to be prepared, psychologically and practically” (Kinouani, 2021: 128).
A complaint is never just a complaint.
When we meet again, I will speak on how I stopped being a mechanic and became an engineer.
Bhopal, K. (2018) White privilege: The myth of a post-racial society. Policy Press.
Guys and Dolls (1955) Directed by Mankiewicz, J.L., Samuel Goldwyn Productions.
Kinouani, G. (2021) Living While Black. London: Ebury Press.
UK Department for Education (2020) Best practice guidance for school complaints procedures 2020. Accessed January 11th, 2021.
Dona Henriques is currently working as an Equity Curriculum Intern in the Office of Institutional Equity Intern at the University of East London. A recent Psychology Masters graduate, she retired from teaching in 2019 after thirty-five years of working with children and young people in primary, secondary and youth and community settings as a Senior Leader. She has worked at UEL on the Widening Participation programme, New Beginnings, where she achieved her Fellowship in 2020. Her current role is a curriculum review examining inclusivity and diversity to address the recruitment, retention, and success of black and brown students in the School of Architecture, Engineering and Computing. Contact Dona at email@example.com. Tweet Dee @DonaAol.
For the other contributions to this Complaint! collective review, click here.