Mission Not Accomplished

By Meryl Altman

On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Sara Ahmed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.

On Being Included
by Sara Ahmed

One of my primary aims has been to describe the physical and emotional labor of “banging your head against a brick wall”. . . . Getting people to the table by not speaking of the wall . . . does not mean the wall disappears.

Sara Ahmed’s valuable new book is something of a departure from her previous work in phenomenology and cultural criticism, which has focused particularly on emotion and “affect” as understood by feminist, postcolonial, and queer theory. On Being Included is a practical book about institutional practices based on qualitative empirical research—a set of semistructured interviews as well as more “fleeting encounters” with “diversity practitioners” at a variety of institutions in the United Kingdom and Australia—and on her own experience as a member of her university’s policy-writing “race equality team” and with a cross-disciplinary, externally funded research project. Ahmed describes her method as “following diversity around” and her goal as providing a thick description of what it means to “do” diversity, especially how doing relates to saying. The experience of working across institutional fault lines with practitioners from human resources was, she says, especially valuable in leading her “to think of words as tools for doing things” and helping her to see that “the presumption of our own criticality can be a way of protecting ourselves from complicity.”

But rather than turn away from theoretical thinking, as one might sigh virtuously and pack up for a committee meeting (leaving one’s “real work” behind in the library), Ahmed brings sophisticated critical insights to the spaces and relationships of institutional life in a lucid, thoughtful voice that will be accessible to readers of all sorts. Social theory, and phenomenology’s focus on the structures of lived experience, help us see that the institution is a process, not a thing, that institutions are “verbs as well as nouns.” And while race, not gender, is her focus here, she draws on black British feminism and on feminist theorists such as Judith Butler who “offer critical insights into the mechanisms of power as such and, in particular, how power can be redone at the moment it is imagined as undone.” This is what we must understand if we are to see why, after decades of “dialogue,” so little about the white privilege of our institutions has really changed. Ahmed’s book is not a how-to guide to “what works.” But On Being Included would be an excellent choice for a faculty-staff reading group about social justice in the academy, because Ahmed provides a rich resource for serious rethinking: “My aim is not to suggest that we should stop doing diversity, but that we need to keep asking what we are doing.”

Ahmed’s own diversity work has occurred within England’s highly unified and regulated system of higher education, in the context of a series of top-down mandated “equality frameworks” enforced through government inspections. Like much other recent British writing on higher education, her book criticizes the “audit culture” that makes equality a “performance indicator,” creating a “tick-box mentality” whereby the energy of practitioners is drained away from doing diversity work to writing reports demonstrating their institution’s success at it. And yet, if we translate “tickbox” as “checklist,” “audit” as “assessment,” and “unified equality scheme” as “universitywide strategic planning process,” US readers may find much that resonates in her account of how “it is as if having a policy becomes a substitute for action.”

Those who are already skeptical of “diversity” as a public-relations marketing strategy—a soft, tactful word that replaces concerns about institutional racism and injustice with cuddly celebrations of the academy as a sort of international food court of the mind, a disguise for the way institutions can be profoundly toxic spaces that reproduce the inequities and exclusions of the wider culture (and add some new ones, just for you)—will find here some confirmation of that view. But Ahmed is more concerned with exploring how those responsible for doing diversity understand and experience what they do. Not surprisingly, diversity practitioners tend to become more connected to, and to speak the language of, the administrators to whom they report instead of maintaining an activist network or vocabulary; they “aim to associate the word ‘diversity’ with the terms that are already valued by organizations,” and to move away from terms that seem “tired.” As one participant in her study says,

This office two and a half years ago, which was when I started here, had been the office of gender equity. It had focused primarily on . . . women’s issues in the staffing area, and a bit to do with improving success for women into non-traditional areas of study and postgraduate studies. . . . They had done some really important work and I certainly don’t mean in any way to minimize or denigrate my predecessor, but I think to be totally frank that it had become a bit dated and it had actually begun to alienate and become marginalized from the business of the university.

Reading this makes me sad. And yet the same workers expressed frustration when policy statements got “buried” or when they encountered what they described as a “brick wall.” Their “ambivalence” seems inevitable, given the sheer oddness of being paid to be an agent of change where change isn’t really wanted, the dual role of representing and protecting the institution while also advocating for a population one has been hired to represent and serve, the paradox that the “appointment of a diversity officer can . . . represent the absence of wider support for diversity.” That doubleness is precisely what Ahmed explores: “I noticed in some of the interviews how accounts of bad practice ‘came out’ gradually: to work for institutions, as practitioners do, can require that you develop a habit of talking in mission talk, what we can call ‘happy talk,’ a way of telling a happy story of the institution that is at once a story of the institution as happy.”

“Happy talk” is easy to mock. But it’s harder to avoid. In starting to write this review, I wanted to identify myself—to speak from my social location, as one ought to do—and found myself writing that I am “a senior faculty member at a small midwestern liberal arts college where we’ve made a concerted effort, through joint administrative and faculty commitment and leadership, to be less white and, all things considered, have not done so badly.” I actually do believe that, smug as it sounds; but how do I know if I’m right? Would colleagues and students of color agree?

Or, when I complain to the web team that “we need more women and people of color on the homepage,” what am I saying? That the website is unrepresentative, or that it is more accurate than I would prefer to believe? More accurate than I want outsiders to realize?

The problem with “happy talk” is not just that it makes one sound and feel like a Stepford wife, but that there are things it just can’t say that need to be said. If “agents of change” are doing their job, they will be pointing out that we are not doing as well as we might think we are—and they then run the risk of being the killjoy at the family dinner table, the ghost at the feast. “Oh, there she goes again. What a downer.”

This will strike a familiar chord for feminists. Ahmed’s 2010 book, The Promise of Happiness, makes a powerful case for how demanding that people be happy can enforce social conformity and silence alternatives. We might think about how the statement, “She wouldn’t be happy here,” in the context of a search, can promote what critical race theorists Philomena Essed and David Theo Goldberg have called “cultural cloning,” excluding some candidates and becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for those who do make it through. Insistence on a personable, clubbable “collegiality” can be part of what makes the academy a toxic space for some. Unhappiness or anger becomes an excuse for defining people as crazy; defining people as crazy is, of course, a very powerful way to drive them crazy. Pointing out that you’ve been excluded leads to your exclusion.

Meanwhile, it is curious to consider how much effort progressive faculty members put into getting a powerful person to say something in particular. “We need the president to make a statement,” preferably a statement close to the one we would write for him. Why does this assume such importance? Ahmed uses J. L. Austin’s speech act theory to look at statements such as “Our institution is committed to diversity” or “We are a diverse university.” Faculty committees carefully weigh every semicolon. Then consultants are brought in to do it all over again. Why? Because we assume such pronouncements are what Austin calls “performative utterances,” speech acts that “do things with words.” But they aren’t: “They do not bring about the effects they name.” In fact, they do just the opposite— “the sign of inclusion makes the signs of exclusion disappear,” leaving behind an exclusion that is harder and harder to talk about.

An important grounding for Ahmed’s book is its phenomenological account of how it feels to be a problem, of “the politics of stranger making; how some and not others become strangers; how notions of fear and hatred stick to certain bodies; how some bodies become understood as the rightful inhabitants of certain spaces.” Some of what she has to tell us about the lived experience of being the only face of color or the only woman in a particular institutional space, asked to serve on every committee, presumed to represent the interests of one’s group and then blamed for doing so, will not come as news to anyone who has been paying attention; but just because a problem has been repeatedly named doesn’t mean it has been solved. On Being Included especially interrogates the language of “welcome” and “invitation,” language many of us are required to use in our job ads, for good and conventional reasons. Insofar as the guests are black, the welcoming institution remains white. One need not be a deconstructionist to see this. But not seeing it sparks those backlash moments of “what more do they want from us?” (They. Us.) In fact, the stronger an institution’s public expressions about diversity and inclusiveness are, the more powerfully crazy-making individual experiences of racism and intolerance, which still occur everywhere, will be.

Many of “us” who care deeply about what has come to be called diversity do so because we see it as restorative justice. But there are any number of other cases that can be made for it—the business case, the public relations case, the “preparing our students to succeed in a global world” case, the “it would be more interesting around here if” case. At the end of the day, having made the case in these various ways, what, if anything, does anyone actually believe? As with any form of activism, we could understand diversity work or antiracist work as a process by which people genuinely change how they think and feel. Or we could approach it in the more outcome-oriented way I associate with Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: the goal of an intervention, or a negotiation, is to get the dean (or whoever) to do the right thing, not to worry about why he or she does it, whether he or she is a good person, or politically correct, or whatever. It is a question of works and not of faith, so to speak.

One practitioner Ahmed interviewed describes herself as “a complete whore when it comes to using any means I can to get the stuff on the agenda to get things happening.” But Ahmed comments,

If a relationship to language is defined in purely instrumental terms, it can actually create a space from which to disidentify from the words being employed. There is a detachment from the words themselves, as they become simply and only a way of doing things. A political question becomes the extent to which we can separate ourselves from the words we use. I regard this question as an open empirical question, one that is always worth asking ourselves, as we work “on” as well as “in” institutions. If we do things with words, then words can also do things to us. We don’t always know what they will do.

I suspect we have learned to describe racism and sexism as “unwitting” or “unconscious” not because we think that’s true (though we may think so) but to provide a face-saving way for people to change their behavior, while masking a deeper problem. And yet, if what we’re working for is a better “campus climate,” getting people to say certain things, or at least getting them to stop saying certain things, is critical. Utterances that bully and shame may not technically be “performatives,” but they certainly do something, often something irreversible.

“Happy talk” may well be a placebo, or even a trap. But a certain kind of unhappy talk, sitting around the (actual or virtual) watercooler grumbling that “this institution should really do something beyond lip service about diversity,” is simply the other side of the same coin—it lets us off the hook of recognizing the agency we do have, for example on searches, or in deciding how to measure what we value for tenure, or in how we treat one another day to day. “If the institution is the racist subject,” Ahmed writes, “then tolerant and liberal academics can easily imagine that they are not.”

Is there anything in between happy adminburble and dispiriting cynicism? Ahmed is very clear that she is not suggesting we stop “doing diversity” or even that we abandon the attempt to get it into the first paragraph of the mission statement. The suggestion is simply that it’s good to know whether, and when, we’re kidding ourselves. But if we assume from the outset that what we say and do is irrelevant, then it, and we, certainly will be.


Meryl Altman is professor of English and women’s studies at DePauw University. She has published articles on metaphor, Sappho, women’s migrant domestic labor, the history of sexuality, and Simone de Beauvoir. Her e-mail address is [email protected].