In my book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional life I offered for the first time an analysis that was based on qualitative research: including semi-structured interviews with staff appointed as diversity and equality officers as well ethnographic material derived from my own experience from working in what we could call simply ‘the diversity world.’ I was a text-based researcher by training so talking to people ‘for research purposes’ was new to me. Doing this study was a life changing as well as career changing experience: as all study should be.
When I looked back on this project (as well as the book), I had thought of it as distinct phase of my career as well as research trajectory, or even as a departure or deviation from the work I usually do. But whilst writing Living a Feminist Life I realised that this was not the right way of seeing things. Although the project was the first time I officially conducted interviews, although the book was the first in which examples were quotes from data I had gathered myself, I realised that I have been collecting stories of diversity and equality within universities since my arrival in universities. And I would claim that women of colour are already ethnographers of universities; we are participating, yes, but we are also observing, often because we are assumed not to belong or reside in the places we end up. So much of our collective humour comes from sharing observations about “the natives” within universities – the rather peculiar habits of white heteropatriarchy.
One thing I learnt from returning to the data I collected during this study, was how much my thinking, my theorising, has been shaped by that experience, by listening and learning from those appointing to transform universities. And this in a sense what the study taught me: we learn about worlds from the difficulties we have transforming them. Diversity workers know so much. They know what organisations do not want revealed. They know the gap between what organisations say and what they do.
Diversity work: mind the gap.
After all universities often describe their missions by drawing on the languages of diversity as well as equality. But using the language does not translate into creating diverse or equal environments. This “not translation” is something we experience: it is a gap between a symbolic commitment and a lived reality. Commitments might even be made because they do not bring something about. I have used the term “non-performativity” to describe this: how a commitment can be made to something as a way of not bringing something about.
Equality and diversity can be used as masks to create the appearance of being transformed. We need to challenge this appearance. In making this challenge I draw on my experiences as a woman of colour academic. My inspirations include Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2003) and M. Jacqui Alexander (2005) and Heidi Mirza (2015) who offer powerful critiques of uses of diversity within the academy as a way of building feminist of colour and black feminist counter-institutional knowledge. I am also inspired by the monumental collection, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (2012), which by offerings reflections by women of colour students and faculty on their experiences within the academy gives us tremendous new insights into how the academy works. We need to share our stories of arrival and progression; how we enter, exit, move forward; get stuck.
We need to share our stories of arrival and progression. One time after giving a talk on whiteness, a white man in the audience said, “but you’re a professor?” You can hear the implication of this but: but look at you Professor Ahmed, look how far you have gone! How easily we can become poster children for diversity, how easily we can be “held up” as proof that women of colour are not “held up.” Being a diversity poster child: it can make the world you come up against recede as if you bring it to an end; as if our arrival and progression makes whiteness disappear. If only we had the power invested in us! If only, if only! When women of colour become professors this is not the only kind of reaction we receive. When a colleague of mine, another brown woman, became a professor someone said to her: “they give professorships to anyone these days.” In one case you fulfil the fantasy of meritocracy, a singular brown body becoming shiny happy evidence of inclusion. In the other, when a brown body arrives, her body is not elevated as value. She comes to embody the loss of value: when she can be a professor, anybody can. In one: she becomes a wall breaker: assumed to bring an end to things by virtue of her own arrival. In the other: she becomes a wall maker as if accounting for how her arrival is devalued is to project her own values onto things.
Women of colour as diversity workers: we come up against brick walls. These walls teach us about the materiality of power. I describe brick walls as “the hardenings of history.” Walls: how history becomes concrete. But a wall does not appear to those who do not come up against it. The hardest stuff is what is often not experienced by those whose bodies are aligned with the institutional line: then the world is fluid, mobile. There; nothing there. Flight light, white. There; nothing there. Heavy; brown; down.
One of my aims in writing Living a Feminist Life was to show how diversity work is feminist theory: we learn about the techniques of power from our efforts to transform institutional norms or from our efforts to be in a world that does not accommodate our being.
It was not only that I collected data on diversity work. Rather diversity work is data collection. Walls speak. Sharing our stories is letting the walls speak.
Alexander, M. Jacqui (2006). Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Mirza, Heidi (2015). “Decolonizing Higher Education: Black Feminism and the Intersectionality of Race and Gender,” Journal of Feminist Scholarship, 7-8: 1-12].
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade (2003). Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press.
Muhs, Gabriella Gutiérrez y, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Camren G. González and Angela P. Harris (2006) (eds). Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class For Women in Academia, Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado.