‘Complaint!’ A (Complaint) Collective Book Review: Part III

This post, by Kellie Coretta Golbourne, is Part III of a series of responses to Complaint! by Sara Ahmed (2021: Duke University Press). For the other contributions, click here.

‘Makes me wanna holla, throw up both my hands’

~Marvin Gaye

I remember really hearing that line in my early 20s. It was the first time I realised how often I connected to it. How many times I wanted to holla! How many times I needed to throw up BOTH my hands!! As I read through Complaint! this line was right there next to me.

From a child I was shown that life just ain’t fair, but as a child I was taught to be fair! Weren’t we all? Lessons upon lessons we got.

‘Take turns’

‘Don’t all speak at once’

‘Don’t tell lies’



‘Be fair’

We were constantly told as kids probably because as kids we were not so good at fairness. So, it made sense to me that fairness must be that thing you cracked when you grew up. I believed fairness was practiced and desired. And that all adults have this licked, no? No!

“A complaint can be how you live with yourself because a complaint is an attempt to address what is wrong, not to cope with something, not to let it happen, not to let it keep happening” (p. 163)

As the youngest child in my family and school year, I witnessed a lot of unfairness. And I would always holla, and I would always throw up both my hands. I am too familiar with being the complainer, having the complaint. I still hold some naivety that people want to know that their good intent has missed the mark somehow. So, I have to say something. I have to ring the alarm. That way, amends can be made before any damage is done, no? No!

 ‘Makes me wanna holla, throw up both my hands’

I am naïve. I think people mean well and feel a sense of shame when their goodness is not visible. They can’t mean harm, so I ring the alarm. I blow the whistle to raise awareness of the harm they do not mean to cause. However, ringing the alarm sometimes, most times, reveals an intent more sinister than I could imagine. No one ever admits that no good, no fairness is intended. They lie. So, you pursue truth. And the pursuit is endless. The pursuit is laborious.

“Complaints teach us who has to do ‘more work’ to get through and thus who is spared from having to do ‘more work’ to get through” (p. 234)

‘Makes me wanna holla, the way they do my life’

Years before becoming a student, I worked in an organisation that saw me assaulted by a colleague. I addressed it informally and an apology followed. And then abuse of power followed. And then bullying followed. And then harassment followed. And then undermining followed. The wrong in it, the wrong that was witnessed was not enough for justice. The wrong was not the problem. I was.

The policies and procedures are supposed to be your shield. Your protection. Your guardian. But they are not. Policies deny your connection to protection. They run inside and close the door. Policies and procedures are summed up as follows:

“What is supposed to happen and what does not happen” (p. 30)

“… following the procedures seems to lead to complaints being buried. It is thinking from the experience of complainers, what they have to do, where they have to go, that we can reflect on how procedures become part of the problem” (p. 40) 

I was wrong because I did not want to follow complaint procedures. I was wrong because I did not wish to formalise a grievance. I was wrong so I was punished. I was wrong so I complied with their formal procedures. And once I complied, I was dismissed! And the colleague, the wrongdoer, was offered training. The colleague is still working.

“And when those who complain leave, what or who they complain about remains” (p. 136)

“If ‘he didn’t get away with it,’ he did get away with his post, his pay, his pension as well as, perhaps most crucially, his reputation” (p. 190)

‘Makes me wanna holla, the way they do my life’

“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. 4)

This experienced weighed heavy on me whilst reading Complaint!. You know those moments when words fail. You rely on your senses, what your eyes see, what your nose smells, what your ears hear, what your body feels, what your lips taste…what your lips taste, but cannot articulate. When senses take a second, a third, a twentieth time, you begin to put words together, but not yet sentences. Not enough to make sense of the senses. Angry, tired, maddened, hurt, denied, shocked, shook. Complaint! was awash with words. Words that found every wound and named them. Words that gave me the community, the identity, the power that my wounds had long since stolen. Labour, systemic, planned, violence, silence.

Complaint! provided that understanding of all the pain I couldn’t speak. The stoicism I had to maintain, shove into my stomach, my back and my neck so I could go on. Complaint! made it clear how formal grievances are goodbyes and goodbyes are restorative.

‘Makes me wanna holla, the way they do my life’

I learned though. There are other ways. I can leave scars.

It took me two months to read Complaint!. I am a student, and the semester had started, and the complaints had already started. The complaints had not stopped. The complaints are always there. The complaints are still here. I am a student with intersections. And just being a mature black female has provided a lifetime of complaints. Sometimes I don’t have to say anything to be complaining because I can be a visual complaint. A complaint already scheduled for dismissal. My aversion to complaints procedures and grievance policies was born in my gut. My experience has continued to teach me to put no stock in them. They are maddening. Complaint! confirms this.

“Even if you follow their procedures, it can feel like you are pushing against a current. This is counterintuitive given that procedures are institutional instructions; they are telling you which way to go. You are being told to go in a direction that slows you down” (p. 35)

You know those moments when words fail. You rely on your senses. What your eyes see. What your nose smells. What your ears hear. What your body feels. What your lips taste. What they taste because they fail to articulate.

One might say I’m ‘in the thick of it!’ as said in Chapter 3.

I am in the thick of it.

I’ve been in the thick of it.

Yes it took me two months to read Complaint!. And during that time, I have had complaints procedures flaunted in front of me. No one wants to fix the wrong. They just want me to dance the complaint procedure dance! As if that holds practice to account.  In those two months, I read Complaint! like a warrior. I read it like a play book. I read it like a map, telling me where the traps were laid. There were many traps. Still. The need to complain rises up around me, everywhere, all the time. Suffocating shit everywhere!!

Little seems fit for purpose here. When grades are found to be marked arbitrarily, students (whilst studying) have to fight for changes, only to be told no change will be given. When supervision is offered but not provided, students pay to do their own unsupervised work; producing grades which are found to be marked arbitrarily. Feedback is included in the fee, but its delivery has unicorn-like status. When you ask for clarity, but the lecturer takes offence and hides the clarification between the lines.

“If it takes time, also work, to reach complaint, to recognize something is wrong with a situation, it takes time, also work, to change that situation. The work of recognition can also be the recognition of work, of how much work it will take to get out of a situation” (p. 117)

“Many do not complain as they do not feel they can afford to complain (although, as we have learned, many complain although they cannot afford to complain because they cannot afford not to complain)” (p. 235)

 ‘Makes me wanna holla, throw up both my hands’

I have raised these issues and others to a chorus of nodding heads from the well-intended. I joined action committees and forums and met more nodding heads. Nod and reframe. Nod and redirect. Nods like cups of tea.

“…what can be sorted out by a cup of tea” (p. 184)

“…nonperformative nods” (p. 88)

One head didn’t even bother nodding. I respect that. Its truth. And that they have been standing for student mobilisation for years now, tells me everything about how these heads are deliberate blockages to anything that might identify as student voice, student progress, student agency.

‘Makes me wanna holla, throw up both my hands’

‘this ain’t living, this ain’t living’

I mentioned that Complaint! has been a handbook. I remember going through the book, not wanting it to end yet wanting to gasp for air. Desperate for levity. The stories of complaints were my stories of complaints. 

“To tell stories of complaint, leaky, ghostly, haunting, is to be reminded of what can be inherited from actions that did not seem to succeed. We do not always know where complaints will go” (p. 259)

“Unmade complaints might end up in the complaint graveyard, too, little ghosts, less lonely for getting there, less lonely for being there. I think of little ghosts and I hear little birds, “little birds scratching away at something” (p. 309) 

Complaint! gave me confidence to navigate the formal system, so I could complain outside of the formal system. Complain, without complaining, I think. I can just be a dripping, a presence felt, or a ‘scratching’ that is not silenced by procedures, forums, forms, conversations, meetings. That I can be unbridled, uncontrolled but in control and I can speak up as often as and to whomever I chose. Every time I speak, I leave an impression, a mark, a truth, another viewpoint for consideration. Not to persuade necessarily, but to expose and provoke. Just making scratches, just leaving droplets, just being a presence, just being annoyingly hard to bury and near impossible to forget I was here.

From https://www.deviantart.com/ask–jinx/art/X-wuz-here-417728061

Kellie Golbourne is in her final year of an undergraduate degree in Psychology BSc at the University of East London, and since 2018 has also worked as a Mentoring Project Assistant Intern. Kellie is very active in promoting diversity in the curriculum and identifying potential causes of the degree-awarding gap, has served as a Course representative and was also voted to represent the School of Psychology by the student body. She has been volunteering as a youth mentor in her local community for 15 years and returned to her studies after a rich 30-year employment history in Sales and Marketing. Contact Kellie at u1837623@uel.ac.uk. Tweet Kellie @Kelliequetta1.

For the other contributions to this Complaint! collective review, click here.

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