Readers and peers will know from the onset that I am a big fan of Sara Ahmed. Her books Queer Phenomenology and Living a Feminist Life are texts I return to again and again. My research, my role, my career has turned towards “diversity, equity, inclusion” as buzzwords that flutter around the spaces I engage in.
Her book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012) will give anyone else sharing space with me in engineering academia a lot to reflect about. With her work, and this text, she interrogates how those who embody difference are only different in relation to a centered dominant norm – the straight, white, cisgender, and able bodied man. To be different is to be diverse; to be different is to inherently not belong. Within the institution of academia we are forced to leverage our difference – to exploit it in exchange for a place of belonging. Thus women studying gender, queer folk / LGBT folk studying heterosexism, and people of color studying racial dynamics in engineering education.
A typical goal of diversity work is “to institutionalize diversity.” A goal is something that directs an action. It is an aiming for. However, if institutionalizing diversity is a goal for diversity workers, it does not necessarily mean it is the institution’s goal… having an institutional aim to make diversity a goal can even be a sign that diversity is not an institutional goal… an appointment of a diversity officer can thus represent the absence of wider support for diversity. (pg 22-23)
In the context of this quote Sara Ahmed is reflecting on how the growing work sector around “diversity” itself reflects the institution’s own unwillingness to truly shift power relations and demographic dominance to those categorized as “different.”
The institution itself, she writes, becomes a force of resistance. To argue and work for diversity, there must be a force to work against. To work to reform or institutionalize diversity in the academy means that there is a push against this reformation and institutionalization. To argue for your belonging, there must be a structure which resists your belonging. Thus she writes of diversity work being an experience similar to “banging your head against a brick wall” (pg 27).
The official desire to institutionalize diversity does not mean the institution is opened up; indeed, the wall might become all the more apparent, all the more a sign of immobility, the more an institution presents itself as being opened up.
It may change the face of an the institution – the face is important, the face is the outward image, and the face is what others see. She muses on ‘institutional whiteness’ and how diversity work is involved in the repicturing of the institution. Whether it is an image on a department’s website, the image produced by a new ‘diversity statement’,
Diversity work becomes about generating the “right image” and correcting the wrong one… Diversity becomes about changing perceptions of whiteness rather than changing the whiteness of organizations. Changing perceptions of whiteness can be how an institution can reproduce whiteness, as that which exists but is no longer perceived (pg 37)
In our work in engineering are we changing the institution at the deep structural level, or are we changing its face? Are we removing and restructuring against male dominance, white dominance, and other forms of domination, or are we being embedded into institutions to change the perceptions around dominant groups?
The rest of the text is an excellent analysis of the structural whiteness of institutions, about how whiteness becomes a space and a sea of bodies which resist others entering their space, and how alienation is a given for black and brown bodies in the institution.
Think about the studies we perform in our field – we study women, but do we study the men who exclude and construct our culture? We study the experiences of black students, but when will we critically approach entrenched institutional whiteness? “It is important we do not reify institutions by presuming they are simply given” she writes (pg 39), and for me, I am taking away the idea that whiteness and maleness of engineering is an ongoing project which reproduces itself in everyday interactions. This is not an accident, it is not just something that happened one day, and the fact that diversity work is an ongoing effort can inform our understanding that there is ongoing effort moving in the direction away from social justice.
I highly recommend this text to anyone who is becoming institutionalized as a “diversity worker” or a “diverse engineer” as we reflect on what it means to be included.