Hard. Just one word. It seems to say it. It seems to convey what I have been describing in describing diversity work. In my previous post, “Practical Phenomenology,” I returned to (what might be called) the metaphor of “the brick wall” that I explored at length in my book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. I explored walls at length because the walls were in the data. Diversity workers talked to me about walls. I learnt from diversity workers: from them, with them, as them.
The brick wall is what you come against when you are involved in the practical project of opening worlds to bodies that have historically been excluded from those worlds. An organisation can be a world; a neighbourhood; a street; a home; a nation.
Diversity workers often say: “it is like banging your head against a brick wall.” I believe it is important to describe what this work feels likes. Audre Lorde taught me this: to describe how it feels to come up against a world. I think from describing what this work feels like, we learn not only about diversity workers but about the worlds we are working to transform. I don’t need the terms “practical phenomenology” to make this argument but that was the argument in the terms.
Diversity work is hard work. This sentence has so many meanings, too many meanings.
Hardness can be a quality of things. In physics, hardness refers to the resistance of materials to change under force. That’s such a good description of an institutional brick wall: we have to force, become forceful, apply more force, because it is hard.
A wall is hard; it is made of hard matter. The wall is made like this for a reason: it has to keep standing to keep things standing. Walls are useful borders: they stand up, they keep out; they keep in. A wall is hard: it might be scratched at the surface by encountering an object, say a small hard object, but the object loses from the encounter. The object might splinter and break by the force of what it comes up against. The object might even lose itself. Objection.
Diversity work: scratching at the surface.
An institutional brick wall, I have suggested, is a metaphor. But what does this metaphor mean? For example when I wrote On Being Included, the copy editor suggested I take “tangible” out of my description of walls because the walls I were referring to were metaphorical not literal or actual. The wall is a metaphor she implied (feels like) and was thus not real in the sense of a tangible thing, a thing that is perceptible through touch. But a metaphor (something is like something) of the wall matters precisely to convey how these institutional processes become something that can be touched. A wall is what you come up against. It is a physical contact, a visceral encounter. When I write this, I might not at first be talking of literal walls. A wall is an effect of coming up against. The likeness is the effect. Now we are talking.
And so: what is hard to some does not exist for others.
Some hardness is not then simply a quality of something even when it is experienced as quality, even when we are bruised by an encounter. Hardness is a coming up against things. Maybe it happens: time and time again. Banging your head: we sense that point of this phrase as the sore point of repetition. Hardness has a history. Or hardness is history: history becomes concrete. I come up against a wall if I try and change something that has becoming harder or hardened over time. Literally I mean: a wall as material resistance to being changed by force. The materiality of resistance to transformation: diversity workers know this materiality very well. We live this materiality.
Diversity work puts us in different relation to a world. It is a worldly relation. This is why I think diversity workers are well placed to philosophize about the world, about things, about relations, even if the world does not simply become a thematic, but a problem, a limit. It is a philosophizing that comes out of what we come up against.
The wall: something tangible to some, that can be perceived by touch, by contact, is not even there for others. What one body experiences as solid, for another might simply be air. There; nothing there.
How so? How is this so?
The quality of a thing is the quality of a relation.
This is too simple as a formulation, I know, to describe everything, but it describes something.
Think of the East: not just somebody’s east; not just what is east of the prime meridian (a line drawn there by those who were here) but the East. If we were to assume East-ness as a quality of a thing, we would confuse a thing for a relation. That would not elevate a thing but elevate the subjects for whom the thing has these qualities because of their relation to that thing.
The quality of a relation becomes a quality of a thing.
And: this is a killjoy formulation. I learnt this from being a killjoy: so much of what I learn begins with this experience. So: there is a disagreement. Say two parties disagree; they do not affect each other well. They argue, perhaps. And: she becomes disagreeable. That this becomes her quality teaches us how we can receive qualities by those with whom we are in relation. Yes, rather like things. Qualities can stick; they become sticky. Once a quality is sticky, she is stuck with it. She becomes “known” as disagreeable. When she is stuck with it, she is stuck. Once she is stuck, and there is a disagreement, stickiness becomes quickness. She is quickly assumed as the one behind it.
Another way I have put this: there is a social agreement around who is the cause of disagreement. When things are in agreement, they tend to recede from view. To become a cause of disagreement is to block what is assumed as the flow of communication. There she is: the feminist killjoy. In the way, getting in the way. She stands out; she stands apart.
And so: she has a quality of being disagreeable, a quality that becomes hers. She acquires the quality of a relation when the relation is negation. She too becomes hard, we might say. She becomes no, not. To avoid being the quality of a bad relation (in order not to be a bad relation) she might have to become more agreeable. She might have to soften her character. She might have to become more pliable. I have called this duty “to become agreeable” the happiness duty.
Diversity work is hard. And diversity workers are judged as hard: if we break from the force of what we come against, if we shatter, we have broken ourselves.
Feminism as self-breakage: history enacted as judgement.
If only she had been more yielding! If only, if only!
Feminism: women who are unyielding.
Diversity work is hard work in other senses. To find something hard can be to find something difficult to do. When something is hard, it requires greater effort. Remember my definition of privilege: an energy saving device. Less effort is required for some bodies to stand up. Less effort is required for some bodies to get through. This lessening of effort: a way has been cleared. A way has been cleared to enable a progression. When a way is cleared, you don’t come up against walls. There is not something that gets in the way.
Forward; up. Fast; light.
So they say: they are not there. So they say: you make up walls by bringing up walls. It is not simply a difference of view; it is not simply a different claim to truth. When you bring up walls you are challenging what lightens their load; you are questioning how space is occupied as being for some. You become a threat to the ease of a progression. The walls come up: the materiality of resistance to transformation. So no wonder: they can even turn you into an example of the untruth of what you say. How can there be racism? How can there be sexism? Look at you: look look!
A diversity poster. I am supposed to smile.
I don’t smile.
The walls of perception: how you are assumed to perceive things wrong when you perceive a wrong. We keep bringing it up even when we are accused of making it up.
We have been there before. There is always more.
You keep coming up against it.
Slowed; stopped. Heavy; down.
More effort is required the harder it is. It is a story of depletion. When the wall keeps its place, it is you that gets sore. You keep trying but it is trying.
It is a shattering history; I am shattered by this history. We have to risk being shattered. When it is hard, there is no other way. So we have to find ways to keep going.
Diversity work requires world making; finding spaces to withdraw into, places that are less hard to inhabit. Fragments, those pieces that have shattered: we find each other. We find those who have been shattered; who recognise what we are up against. What and even who. This is hard, but who too.
We become inventive: to survive what we have come to know. And we have come to know.
We know from what we come up against even if we have only scratched the surface.