Racism and diversity in institutional life
Sara Ahmed. Durham, NC & London, UK: Duke University Press, 2012; 256 pp; ISBN: 978-0-82235-221-1, cloth $79.95 USD; ISBN: 978-0-82235-236-5, paper $22.95 USD.
Review by Samira Farhoud
In most contexts diversity is seen as something positive and desirable, but Sara Ahmed complicates and problematizes such assumptions. In her recent and very interesting book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, she “follows diversity around,” explores the term’s genealogy, and interrogates policies and practices related to “diversity regimes.”
Her findings are based on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews with “diversity workers” and “diversity practitioners” in British and Australian universities wherein “institutional whiteness” is common. As her title implies, she looks at underlying issues of discrimination and racism in the institutional life of higher education. In fact, she argues that talk and policies of “diversity” often act as a mask for persistent problems of discrimination that need to be addressed.
Ahmed is professor of race and cultural studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and she has published extensively on questions of difference, otherness, strangeness and racism. She is therefore well qualified for reflection on diversity and race issues, although she acknowledges that it was interesting to be both an insider and an outsider as she took her research in various university settings. Ahmed has also been a “diversity practitioner” on equality and diversity committees in two universities and she seamlessly weaves her own experiences into her analysis.
On Being Included is well structured and presented, and at 187 pages of text it is substantial and scholarly without being excessive. Despite drawing on feminist and other theoretical approaches, including Gilbert Ryle and Clifford Geertz’s “thick description” approach, the book remains accessible. It’s actually a good read.
Moreover, there are 30 pages of extensive endnotes, a useful eight-page index, and an impressive 14-page list of references for anyone who wants to delve further into the numerous issues raised. All of these sections — plus the five chapters, introduction and conclusion — are listed in the table of contents.
Brick walls, however, are not listed. Yet there are the two interesting images of brick walls in the book: one in a small figure on page 27 and the other in a two-page spread on pages 188–189, immediately following the end of the text (and preceding the “Notes” section). “Wall” and “brick wall” also get numerous entries in the index, so the topic is clearly important.
What Ahmed is getting at is the fact that diversity workers often come up against “brick walls” in doing their jobs to promote inclusion, equality and social justice. A number of her interviewees said they experienced institutional resistance in their respective universities and felt they were “banging their head against a brick wall.” (pp. 26, 156)
Ahmed writes about “institutional flows,” and how diversity practitioners sensed they were going against the flow — and hitting the proverbial wall — in trying to address issues of racism or discrimination. The wall symbolizes institutional immobility and an institutional “no.” (pp. 129, 176) Furthermore, the wall is invisible to some — wilfully or otherwise — while diversity workers come up against it and become conscious of it. (p. 174)
This is why she describes diversity activists as being in complicated and messy situations, based on 21 interviews and her own experiences. (pp. 7, 10) They want to get universities — as institutions — to acknowledge, discuss and act on issues of racism and diversity. However, university officials and colleagues often see practitioners as angry troublemakers stuck on or obsessed with racism, when everything has already been resolved through “diversity policies” and “equality regimes.”
In other words, practitioners insist on bringing up unpleasant subjects or topics, and when they do so, they sense that institutional representatives are saying — through body language or rolling their eyes — “here they go again.” (p. 62)
For diversity workers the problem is that diversity policies and documents are just words. They want to turn the words into action whereas university officials point to the existence of a policy and say or imply “we have a diversity policy, all is taken care of — what’s your problem? Move on, put it behind you.” (pp. 62–63) Why can’t you enjoy our diversity policy as “a sweetness”? (p. 70)
This is where “diversity” serves as a mask, covering up ongoing or residual problems of discrimination. Here the term “diversity” is used problematically to cancel out other “noise,” including the noise of racism, otherness or strangeness. (p. 61)
Ahmed points out that in the UK, many new equality regimes and laws have been announced since the enquiry into the 1993 murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, which led to the publication of the Macpherson Report of 1999 (pp. 8, 44–47). These include the Race Relations Amendment Act (2000), the Disability Discrimination Act (2005) and the Equality Act (2010).
What is more, universities and other public sector institutions then began to write their own documents to comply with the new laws and acts. Words followed more words, and yet diversity practitioners continue to uncover issues of racism and, in trying to act to address them, encounter brick walls.
At one point Ahmed muses that diversity workers might try to turn the wall into a table, “turning the tangible object of institutional resistance into a tangible platform for institutional action,” (p. 175) but ultimately, diversity workers have to “become insistent to go against the flow.” (p. 186) To turn the words and platitudes of diversity policies into action and performance diversity practitioners have to become the obstruction — they have to become the brick wall.
In other words, they must obstruct the institutional flow and upset the “sweetness” or “happiness” of diversity policies to get university officials to act on instances of racism and discrimination. Ahmed says, “We might need to get in the way if we are to get anywhere.” (p. 187)
Her views will surely find sympathy with many members of faculty involved in equity issues on Canadian campuses.
Samira Farhoud is assistant professor of French in the department of romance languages at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick.