Sara Ahmed is an independent scholar working at the intersection of feminist, queer and race studies and has interrogated the mainstream discourses of inclusion and diversity in the university which have served to perpetuate racism in the academy rather than address or interrupt it. She builds this critique of institutional commitments to ‘diversity’ most notably in her 2012 book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.
We have used Ahmed’s work to think through the potential of institutional transformation and what gets in its way, she helps us in many ways to recognize and interrogate the ‘walls that come up’ in striving for justice and equity in our universities.
Another great resource for exploring some of Ahmed’s ideas outside of her books and articles is through her feministkilljoys blog, the posts are a more accessible alternative for accessing some of the thinking that informed On Being Included.
Two blogposts which might be particularly helpful are Progressive Racism and Equality Credentials. In Progressive Racism, Ahmed works through a definition of ‘educated racism’ and the figure of the wall, two processes or barriers that we encounter in institutional work:
I want to return to some of the findings I shared in my book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012), which was based on qualitative research into diversity and equality work within universities. Progressive racism might be another way of describing what I called in this book educated racism: the kind of racism that exists within educational institutions. This racism tends to be a polite or thoughtful or even critical racism. Many of the diversity practitioners I spoke to for this research came into the higher education sector from other sectors. And quite a few spoke of how they expected their work to be easier in universities: they expected to find people who shared their values because they were educators. They were surprised to find so much resistance to their work within universities. I think this is why the brick wall became a finding of the research. Many of my interviewees spoke of brick walls when describing their work, although it took me some time to recognise the repetition of “wall expressions” within the data. The wall also gave expression to a disappointment of an expectation: that diversity work would be more at home in organisations that have missions that are tied up with commitment to social progress. A genealogy of progressive racism is a genealogy of this expectation. It is the very expectation that diversity and equality are more at home in organisations that are assumed to be more progressive that enables racism to progress.
And in Equality Credentials Ahmed speaks about leaving her post at Goldsmith’s in protest against harassment and assault as an action “that would speak louder than words”. Ahmed calls out the habit for universities to take up the efforts for transformation as evidence that the transformation has occurred, or that justice has been ‘achieved’.
… 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.
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.
And finally, Ahmed urges us to consider the expertise of those who experience exclusion and various and intersecting forms of oppression in the academy:
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.
Drawing on community knowledge to understand what still needs to be done for inclusion at Concordia has been essential to our work with C-FAR. Our community consultations have been central to shaping our project and collecting and sharing invaluable institutional knowledge and visions for building a more inclusive campus, you can learn more about our first two consultations in our inter-realities and bordered-realities posts.