I resigned from my post at Goldsmiths when I got to a point that I felt I could do more by leaving than by staying. I thought leaving as an action would speak louder than words, and I had been using a lot of words. A diversity practitioner I once interviewed talked about how we have to use words more, the more we don’t get through. Words become tired; bodies too. She spoke of “equity fatigue.” The more you say the “equity,” the less the word can do. I keep sending out emails, talking to people about sexual harassment. I could sense tiredness around me, eyes rolling again.
As I noted in my previous post, for over three years I have been working with a dedicated team of students and staff on how to get the problem of sexual harassment taken more seriously. The more I worked on the problem, the more I realised how serious the problem was – in my college certainly – and also in the sector at large. Sexual harassment is a social problem. Sexual harassment is a structural problem. Too often the very seriousness of the problem produces a certain kind of institutional fatalism: as if is to say, well it is everywhere, so it is inevitable; or it is everywhere so there is no point challenging it here, as it will just go there.
When a problem becomes general is when we need to challenge that problem generally. We need to challenge it where we are; wherever we are.
So I have been speaking of the problem from where I am, from here, at the college I have been working at this past 12 years, but this does not mean the problem starts here. It was doing the research project on racism and diversity that led to my book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, published in 2012, which has given me a handle on what was going on. Through this project, I had already begun to understand some of the mechanisms that I watched in operation in the institutional responses to the problem of sexual harassment. It is like machinery: clunk, clunk.
One of the key mechanisms I want to refer to here is the use of diversity and equality as a credential in a specific sense: as that which entitles you to credit. I had referenced some of this material in my post on Progressive Racism, which was published on the same day as my post on Resignation. I referred to how activities that signal an attempt to diversify an organisation can be used by the organisation as evidence of diversity.
I have been a member of many race equality and diversity committees: not unusual for a woman of colour academic! So I have plenty of experience of how diversity work can end up being appropriated by the organisations we work on as well as for. As diversity workers we might labour for something (a new policy, a new document) and these things can provide yet more techniques whereby organisations can appear to do something without doing anything. This is difficult: our own efforts to transform organisations can be used by organisations as evidence they have been transformed.
One of my first experiences of this mechanism: I was a member of a working group that was set up to write our university’s race equality policy in 2001. Writing the policy happened to coincide with the arrival of a new vice-chancellor at the university. He set up some meetings with members of the university, which took the form of an official address. I was surprising at one of these meetings, when the vice chancellor with a letter in his hand, referred to the race equality policy that we had written. With an extravagant smile, and waving the letter in front of us (somehow the physicality of this gesture mattered), he talked about the content of the letter, which took the form of a congratulation (or which he gave the form of a congratulation), informing the university that it had been given the “top rank” for its race equality policy. “We are good at race equality” he said pointing to the letter. It was a feel good moment, but those of us who wrote the document did not feel so good. A document that documents the inequality of the university became usable as a measure of good performance.
Indeed, as I conducted my research into diversity within universities I became aware of how diversity can be used by organisations as a form of public relations. As I have already noted, most of the interviews I conducted took place after the Amendment to the Race Relations Act (2000), which required all public sector organisations to write and disseminate race equality policies and action plans. This act was followed by many others, and then finally by the Equality Act (2010), which required all of these distinct policies to be brought together in a single document: the Single Equality Scheme (SEC). So over the period of a decade most of the work of diversity workers was about writing documents. At various points, the Equality Challenge Unit which oversees equality in the higher education section, measured or ranked these documents, as I have discussed, moments of measuring that can be used be institutions that “did well” as a sign they are “doing well.”
But what is being measured by these documents being measured? I asked this question diversity practitioner, who answered: “we are good at writing documents.” I reply, without thinking, “well yes, one wonders,” and we both laugh. We are wondering whether what is measured through these documents is the degree of competence in writing documents. Organisations are able to translate their writing competence into an equality competence. As this practitioner further describes:
I was very aware that it wasn’t very difficult me and some of the other people to write a wonderful aspirational I was very aware that it wasn’t very difficult me and some of the other people to write a wonderful aspirational document. I think we all have great writing skills and we can just do that, because we are good at it, that’s what we are expert at. And there comes with that awareness a real anxiety that the writing becomes an end in itself, the reality is being borne out by say for example, we were commended on our policies and when the ECU reviewed our Implementation Plans last year there were a number of quite serious criticisms about time slippages, about the fact that we weren’t reaching out into the mainstream and the issues hadn’t really permeated the institution and the money implement in certain specific areas. And it wasn’t that there was hostility, it was much more of this kind of marshmallow feeling.
Being good at writing documents become a competency that is also an obstacle for diversity work, as it means that the university gets judged as good because of the document. It is this very judgment about the document that blocks action, producing a kind of “marsh mellow feeling,” a feeling that we are doing enough, or doing well enough, or even that there nothing left to do. Marshmallow, a soft, white, gooey, sticky substance, seems a good substance to express how things stop happening by becoming too comfortable.
The orientation towards writing good documents can block action, insofar as the document then gets taken up as evidence that we have “done it.” As another practitioner describes, “Well I think in terms of the policies, people’s views are ‘well we’ve got them now so that’s done, its finished’ I think actually, I’m not sure if that’s even worse than having nothing, that idea in people’s heads that we’ve done race, when we very clearly haven’t done race.” The idea that the document is doing something is what could allow the institution to block recognition of the work that there is to do. The idea that the document “does race” means that people can think that race has been done when it has not. The idea that we are doing race is thus how we are not doing race.
So a problem can be reproduced by the appearance of having solved it. I mention this earlier work on diversity here and now for a reason. It helped me to make sense of a statement on Sexual Harassment published by the college on June 3rd in response to the attention given to the problem on social media (an attention that has something to do with an act of bringing to attention). This statement takes the exact form of an assertion of Goldsmiths’ equality credentials: “we take sexual harassment seriously;” “inclusivity is a defining theme;” “we are the one of the leading providers of taught programmes focusing on gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity.”
The statement refers to various activities as evidence of its credentials. One activity is Athena Swan: which has become reduced to a branding exercise (which is not to say that is all that it is) by being evoked in this way on a statement on sexual harassment. Another activity they reference is the conference on Sexual Harassment in Higher Education (SHHE) that took place in December 2015. The conference was organised by Anna Bull, Tiffany Page and Leila Whitley. They as organisers have just published an important and powerful response to the college’s statement. As they note: “It was because no one was else was willing to organise an event on sexual harassment that we took it upon ourselves. This has been a recurring theme during our time at Goldsmiths: the reliance on the labour and energy of students, rather than a concerted effort by the institution.”An event that was claimed as evidence of what the college was doing came about because of what the college was not doing.
Feminist work in addressing institutional failure can be used as evidence of institutional success. The very labour of feminist critique can end up supporting what is being critiqued. The tools you introduce to address a problem can be used as indicators that a problem has been addressed. The work you do to expose what is not being done can be used as evidence of what has been done.
It is a problem when feminism becomes a performance indicator.
The Centre for Feminist Research was set up recently (three years ago) but draws on long histories of feminist work at the college. A history can fill rooms. That we need to have a centre for feminism is a critique of the structures of the university: we have feminist centres because we don’t have feminist universities (more women professors does not necessarily mean more feminist universities). We have feminist centres because sexism, gender inequality and sexual harassment remain structuring of university environments. In one meeting, the very existence of the Centre is referred to as evidence of the college’s own commitment to equality and feminist values. The Centre became an equality credential. A program developed in response to a problem is assumed to resolve a problem. When the problem is not resolved, the resolution becomes the problem.
The resolution becomes the problem.
The problem is not a rogue individual, nor two, nor a rogue unit nor a rogue institution. But institutions still need to recognise the problem of sexual harassment as an institutional problem. You cannot address a problem until you recognise there is a problem to be addressed.
Of course, my college is much more than these unfinished histories of sexual harassment. The college has many unfinished histories. Of course, there is incredible feminist work, work on race and diversity, and on social justice, that is going on; work that is about opening up the university to others who might otherwise not have been here. It is this work that makes it hard to leave: I was part of something. But until this history of sexual harassment is brought out into the open, discussed, so that we can learn about how what happened did happen, over such a long and sustained period of time, affecting so many people, causing so much trauma, it must have the attention, the full attention, of the organisation.
It is not the time to be over what is not over.
As Anna Bull, Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page show when sexual harassment becomes invisible so too does the labour of trying to challenge sexual harassment. It is like: coming up against wall after wall. But what you come against is not visible to others.
And if your labour is to expose violence, because that violence is hidden, that labour can even be understood as causing violence, for example, as intending to damage the reputation of an organisation. You might become understand as a vandal, “a willful destroyer of the venerable and the beautiful.” To expose long histories of harassment that have been hidden, that are all the more structural because of how they are hidden, does mean sending out messages that can end up all over the place, because they can take the form of a revelation or scandal. The media can turn your careful accounts of structures into something sensational (I argue in Living a Feminist Life that structures are sensational but in a different sense). Some might not want you to speak out not because they are concerned simply with reputational damage, but because they care for an environment they work in, and they know that words sent out can come back in a different way.
It is a risk we have to take. Because damage limitation does not work. So we have to do the work.
To do this work, we have share the costs of this work. Attending to sexual harassment, listening to those who are affected by it, whose lives are shaped by it, is emotional and hard work. Even when you have understanding, knowledge, it can be undoing and unsettling to listen to those who have been targeted and bullied in the place you work. Sometimes we have an idea of place because of our own histories: a place seems inclusive, radical, open, because that place was open to us, because that’s how it seemed to us. But that is not how everyone experiences that place, which means a place is not the same place. For students who arrived with high hopes but who where harassed by their lecturers, the space was not open and friendly, but hostile and closed. Sometimes we have an idea of a place as happy and stimulating, maybe that is how we experience our feminist spaces, as happy and stimulating. But for students who arrived only to be harassed by lecturers, only to have to spend their time trying not to be caught in a room with them, having to fight for space to breath because of what is said to them, then the spaces they are not happy and stimulating. Listening to students’ experience of harassment did change my idea of the place I worked: how could it not? And this too explains something: the resistance we might have to hearing the stories, our resistance, mine too, might be because of how they challenge our most profound attachments. To hold onto an idea of a place as good might even require not listening to those who have a different idea. But I think: to make our attachments – to education, to a college, to a project, to equality, to feminism– meaningful we have to listen to those who seem to get in the way. It is the only way.
The killjoy as testimony.
Another way to say this: to work toward an inclusive institution is to listen to those for whom the institution is not inclusive.
Equality is not a credential. Equality is a task. It is what we have to do, because we are not there yet.
Thank you for your strong, powerful, inspiring voice.
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This will be a major digression from sexual harassment in the academy. I’d like to make a point with regards to diversification in UK universities.
Institutional diversity as is the case in all universities in the UK is not only a public relations requirement but also a financially beneficent choice made on the part of the institution. By not providing any source of grants or scholarships to international students (non-EU) who pay £13000 a year for a three year PhD program (vs. the £4000 home and EU students pay) , they not only use students as good-on-paper statistics and tools of diversification. They also exploit the international students as a much more (x3) profitable resource. They will only be allowed to attend the school or enter the country if they hold the necessary financial means – a point that completely contradicts the so-called “diversification” project.
My activist & diversity work in the institution gets appropriated all the time. So, I don’t get adequate funding for my research centre because the fact that I exist, however underfunded, proves that diversity exists and so I don’t have to. Yes. This happens all the time. The bigger question is, how do we make our diversity work appropriation-proof? My gut feeling is that, weirdly, remaining outside of institutional funding structures keeps us safer. But that can also lead to burnout, bitterness, health issues, and unsustainability. My research into feminist media collectives in 70’s/80’s Canada revealed that the few groups that still exist prioritize a kind of fellowship and communal self-care. So I think that’s crucial…
Reblogged this on Philosophy for Now and commented:
“Equality is not a credential.”
“…to work toward an inclusive institution is to listen to those for whom the institution is not inclusive.”
-Sarah Ahmed, formerly of Goldsmith’s University
Standing in solidarity.
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I was a student there in the late 1980’s. Relationships between students and staff were common at that time, it was an accepted part of the culture, and the power imbalance had long term consequences for many, some of them very serious (suicide). I’m happy to talk to you, if it will help. I was appalled when I saw your post, I really hoped things would have changed by now. Email address supplied.
Powerful statement! As a student, I am delighted to see that there are teachers/profs who stay true to themselves, I wish you all the best for your future.
I strongly believe that the members of staff responsible for cases of sexual harassment should be NAMED by someone. Screw the legal reasons. Their names should not remain silent.
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Yes to all of this.
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I just found your blog. What you write about is what we call Mulletry. Athena Swan, the endless tick-box online courses, heads nodding. Consensus.
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This article opened up my idea of institutionalized racism and sexual harassment. The irony presented throughout this blog helps to further illustrate how universities deal and explain equality. As a young girl going to college in less than a year, it does give me hope that some university employees are calling out ironic behavior and trying to genuinely make a change instead of using equality as a credential. I never realized how some universities use different bills and equality groups, made to point out inequalities on campus and in the employees, as credentials to say they are now equal. They ignore the task and use the organization as an illustration they are “good” at feminism or race relations.