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The Space Between Exhaustion and Joy

by Akwugo Emejulu

This text is excerpted from ‘Ambivalence as Misfeeling, Ambivalence as Refusal’ by Akwugo Emejulu in Post45.  

I have been mapping women of colour's activism in Europe over the last 15 years and have been particularly struck by how an expanded emotional lexicon has been adopted by activists across the continent. By "women of colour activists" I mean cis and trans women and non-binary femmes who experience processes of racialisation, minoritisation and gender hierarchies, and who organise and mobilise in public space to advance their interests.1 As public discussions about mental health are slowly being destigmatised, this has also created a space to speak more frankly about emotions and how they are experienced individually and collectively. Activists, of course, discuss and deploy emotions all the time in their work fear, anger and hope are commonly used to mobilise comrades and to persuade the wider public to their cause. However, these rather commonplace emotions in activist spaces have also been supplemented by discussion of exhaustion, trauma, joy, pleasure and the burden of managing others' emotions oftentimes mislabelled as "emotional labour."2 The presence of these emotions and their articulations is not the focus on my concern here; rather, I'm interested in the implications of the comingling of this range of emotions and how the process by which activists might reconcile themselves to oppositional emotions creates new possibilities, new emotional expressions that have material consequences.

Two key emotions have come to prominence over the last five years or so in activist spaces: exhaustion and joy. I have written about how these emotions operate in women of colour activist spaces elsewhere and won't repeat my arguments here.3 However, I want to make a firmer connection between these emotional trends and consider their meaning in relation to misfeeling. It is no coincidence that we see exhaustion and joy explicitly discussed by activists in this unstable political moment. We are still living with the consequences of the 2008 economic crisis the household wealth that was wiped out, the eliminations and privatisations of public services, increases in poverty this precarity which always existed but which was worsened by the crisis and subsequent austerity measures has never been seriously addressed. And now, almost 15 years after the crisis, it seems clear, as was the case with previous crises, that it will never be a policy priority. Precarity is a way of life, especially for the most marginalised groups, women of colour. Added to this institutionalised precarity is the mainstreaming of far-right groups, parties and rhetoric. The successful colonisation of far-right ideology on both the mainstream left and right whether that be in the form of virulent xenophobia and Islamophobia, biological essentialism masquerading as "women's rights" or blanket denials of the existence of institutionalised racism we are in a harrowing moment of revanchist politics.

Given these dynamics, women of colour activists are exhausted. These are exhausting economic and political circumstances which are further exacerbated by the on-going conflicts within multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-class activist spaces in which racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and classism are also reproduced. Seemingly there is nowhere to turn, no safe space for retreat and recovery. In response, activists declare themselves exhausted and burnt out. And who can blame them? And yet, simultaneously, we also see activists insisting on creating moments of pleasure and joy amidst the sorrow, pain and frustration. Joy, the activists declare, like Toi Derricote's poetry declares, is an act of resistance.4 And they're absolutely right. To refuse to be demoralised and disillusioned is a powerful dissenting act. To join together with like-minded others for play, for pleasure, for fleeting moments of happiness is what binds activists together. Joy sustains solidarity and makes it possible to go out again into the unkind world that wants to destroy you. In my research with activists, they have discussed how organising parties for trans migrant women with all the profits from the entry fees and bar sales going directly to their pockets is resistance politics. They say how cooking together and sharing meals, just being in community together is a recuperative act of defiance. Building and sustaining a beloved community, to borrow the old phrase from the American Civil Rights Movement, is a radical act.

The exhaustion of precarity and the far-right backlash. The longing for pleasure and joy. These emotions are co-constitutive in their opposition to each other. Feeling precarious and yearning for happiness cannot be understood outside of one another and the broader socio-political context which sets the terms of feeling in this moment. The fact that activists are feeling exhaustion and joy simultaneously marks a moment of ambivalence that creates new possibilities for being and becoming. These lines of desire, of wanting to feel individual and collective joy are stained by the pain of precarity, exhaustion and disappointment. The joy that is possible is somehow limited but then so is the pain. This is the terrain of ambivalence. We can see here how misfeeling is generated by these oppositional emotions. One can learn from the feeling of ambivalence. Activists understand that the joy they experience is contained and reduced by the violence of precarity. They also learn that the exhaustion and disillusionment they feel has a boundary, that it can be repelled, but not resolved, through collective pleasure. This is joyful pain in which one learns about structural harms from the joys one pursues, and one learns the limits of happiness from the harms that cannot be avoided. The ambivalence generated from these harms experienced while being joyful helps build a politics desirous of something else, of something better: another world in which joy exceeds misery, in which misery need not be the political project of the state. It is in the comingling of these oppositional emotions exhaustion and joy, pleasure and precarity that ambivalence can be harnessed as a defiant feeling allowing activists to dissent and refuse the world as it is and help feel themselves towards building the world anew. 

Thinking about ambivalence as a misfeeling allows us to consider how the violence that women of colour face in this unstable political moment of ruinous austerity measures and a deadly far-right backlash can be combatted and refused through different modes and registers. Considering the emotion work the misfeeling, the refusal to be disillusioned and disheartened when the circumstances demand such emotions from activists is radical. Focusing on joy does not mean that fear, exhaustion, sadness and anger are not also present in women of colour's activism, but rather that joy functions as defiance in the face of relentless harm and contains the possibilities of building alternative feeling rules for women of colour. Precarity and exhaustion are an emotional fact of life for activists but contained within these negative emotions is an education in desire, an emotional transgression against the dominant feeling rules that demand misery and alienation. Holding onto exhaustion and joy simultaneously creates an ambivalent subject yearning to feel otherwise. Deciding what to feel, how to feel, when the world is so dark is the urgent task of this moment. The lesson here is that we do not to make this decision by ourselves we can talk, think and feel together. These collective acts might not resolve our ambivalence, but they create a possibility of breaking out of the dislocation and loneliness of this time, to join with others in our respective ambivalences and consider who we might be, what we might do, and how we might feel in order to bring some beauty to this ugly world.



  1. L. Bassel and A. Emejulu, Minority Women and Austerity: Survival and Resistance in France and Britain, Policy Press (Bristol, UK), 2017.
  2. A. Emejulu, and L. Bassel, Women of Colour Resist: Exploring Women of Colour's Activism in Europe (Coventry, UK: University of Warwick Press, 2021); A. Emejulu, A. and L. Bassel, "The politics of exhaustion," in City: Analysis of Urban Change, Theory, Action 24, nos. 1-2 (2020): 400-406.
  3. Emejulu and Bassel, "The Politics," 2020; A. Emejulu. A. and I. van der Scheer, "Refusing politics as usual: mapping women of colour's radical praxis in London and Amsterdam," Identities (2021), 1-18; F. Sobande and A. Emejulu, "Black Feminist Joy, Ambivalence and Futures," Culture, Theory and Critique (2021).
  4. T. Dericotte, "Joy is an act of resistance," "Special ears," "Another poem of a small grieving for my fish Telly," and "On the reasons I loved Telly the fish," Prairie Schooner 82, no.3 (2008): 22-27. 

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