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Branded diversity is a scam, even if we like to pretend it’s a sign of progress

Sara Ahmed is a scholar who interrogates diversity and explains how institutions actually don't care to be any better.

If you think the frequent use of the word “feminist” is a stale sprinkle of progressive branding, you would probably appreciate the prolific works of Sara Ahmed, an independent scholar and feminist writer working at “the intersection of feminist, queer and race studies.” 

Based in the UK, Ahmed is a writer, researcher, and teacher of feminist scholarship. She is the author of pivotal titles such as The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, and her most recent book, Living a Feminist Life. In her own words, Ahmed describes her research as “concerned with how bodies and worlds take shape; and how power is secured and challenged in everyday life worlds as well as institutional cultures.”

Ahmed implicates the structural crucibles of institutions that condone and disguise racial, sexual, and queerphobic violence. Author of On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Sara Ahmed recounts and analyzes two seemingly oppositional phenomena: the widespread popularity of ‘diversity and inclusion’ amongst institutional branding, and the fact that white supremacy lives on quite comfortably within these same institutions. Having had the ability to leave its institutional restraints, Ahmed no longer works at the university—but the university remains her field.

How can it be that everyone appears to love people of color and women now, and all aspects of identity shiny and progressive, but pesky stuff like racism and misogyny seems to… continue about its day?! Why isn’t America fixed after Starbucks closes for a day of Anti-Defamation League (which SUCKS by the way) “racism is BAD” trainings?

Sara Ahmed offers some direction for these questions. In On Being Included, Ahmed uses her own history in ‘diversity work’—formal programs employed by universities and other institutions that theatrically and bureaucratically address issues of racism and abuse systemic in the workplace. Though she works within the context of the university, Ahmed’s analysis are applicable to really any industry.

The university, media, Wall Street, this awful freakin’ government—these are all labyrinthian systems thought to be permanent and inevitable. Their similar patterns of racial exploitation, sexual abuse, straight white cis males at the top—these are all footprints of the world in which we live. Something becomes popular, becomes background or normal or institutional, because it reproduces the same old social relations via structural violence.

‘Diversity,’ in the sense that it could be anti-racist, is directly oppositional to the banality of white supremacy. Diversity workers, those who have been solicited to solve the problems of racism at their designated institutions, regularly describe banging into a “wall” when attempting to create genuine material results. The institution’s job is to stay the same; it desires no change. And it heaves the Sisyphean labor of ‘enacting diversity’ onto marginalized workers, not those privileged enough to reap the benefits of the status quo.

Up until the end of 2016, Ahmed was a Professor of Race and Gender Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. Ahmed resigned from her post as a full-time professor, a role that is scarcer everyday in the neoliberal academy. Announcing her decision in one of her regular blog posts, Ahmed refers to past descriptions of anti-sexual harassment work at universities. “Too often,” she writes, “sexual harassment is understood as somebody else’s problem. Or if it is recognised as a problem that problem is located in the body of a harasser, a rogue, whose removal is assumed to remove the problem. The problem remains.”

As Ahmed describes, sexual harassment continues to be an issue constantly identified and documented by complaints, but is intentionally left without consistent, systemic protections and consequences. Like racial abuse, patriarchal violence is usual. ‘Safe space’ has been a controversial word before, but the university has always been a safe space. In fact, all institutions are safe spaces for the violent policing of marginalized bodies. By definition, the institution is most cuddly and loving a space to patriarchy, whiteness, heteronormativity, capitalism, and so on. If it hurts masses of people, your board of trustees has a hard on for it.

Ahmed continues to study the university, “whilst exploring the question of how to live a post-institutional feminist life.” Currently, Ahmed is working on a “complaint” project. Inspired by her work supporting students through inquiries into sexual harassment and sexual misconduct, Ahmed is analyzing student testimonies in a probe of “what it means to identify and challenge abuses of power.” You can keep up with Ahmed’s blog feminist killjoys, or follow her on Twitter.

Let her teach you this: be skeptical of seemingly progressive institutions. They have little desire for change but only thrive in reproducing old patterns. Even if they use feminist hashtags and WoC in advertisements and brochures.