“Diversity is regularly referred to as a ‘good’ word precisely because it can be used in diverse ways, or even because it does not have a referent.” –Sara Ahmed, On Being Included, p. 80
On Being Included is one of those books that took over my life. It seemed like, for a while, I inserted this text into just about every conversation I had. “Oh, that’s similar to what Sara Ahmed talks about when she says … ” Maybe it’s because I want people to associate me with this brilliant author! It’s also partially because this book is really smart about dealing with the ways that terms–specifically, diversity–are taken up within the institution (and she does a neat job of thinking through what institution means) and used to obscure particular kinds of work. Although diversity is the term Ahmed deals with most directly in this text (she also discusses racism later in the book), I found that many of her observations and arguments were also applicable to the term feminism, and I found a lot in this text that helped me to think about my dissertation project.
On the very first page, Ahmed suggests that some terms, like diversity, make possible “the departure of other (perhaps more critical) terms, including ‘equality,’ ‘equal opportunities,’ and ‘social justice’” (p. 1). Because I situate apparent feminism as an approach to social justice, I am particularly interested in the ways Ahmed sees diversity as a term that reduces our use of the term social justice. Also, I might add feminism to the list she offers. So, the question I am left with is this: In what ways might usages of the term diversity prevent us (academics, those within the institution) from making social justice and feminism apparent? And, equally important: What other important critical terms might be obscured by our uses of social justice and/or feminism? This is something I think through a bit in my final chapter, but it’s also a question I imagine I will be asking for some time.
A passage of particular importance to me in thinking about my decision to base my work around the term feminism comes when Ahmed talks about the “political efficacy”–I might say efficiency–of the term diversity. “I arrived to the research presuming that the emptiness of diversity was a sign of its lack of political value and utility. But the political efficacy of this word was related by some practitioners to its emptiness” (p. 79). Ahmed suggests that this emptiness means diversity can be defined in a variety of ways, and this “challenges a world that refuses variety, a world that considers isues onlly from a singular viewpoint. . . . The very lack of referentiality becomes a certain starting point for a critique of how some viewpoints are given a referential function” (p. 79). In advocating apparent feminism, I hope to sponsor the sorts of conversations that Ahmed is talking about, conversations that are inclusive and that critique singular, “objective” presumptions about “empty” terms.