On Being Included

book cover

“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.

I was also intrigued by Ahmed’s suggestion that “Data becomes a technology for exposing the gap between official descriptions of diversity and what the organization is doing” (p. 55). In a few places, she describes how documents about (the lack of) diversity at institutions have been taken up as indicators of positive policies and progress. (“What are the effects of measuring race equality documents as indicators of institutional performance on race equality?” p. 100) Further, she discusses at length the difference between saying and doing (see Chapter 4 on performative language). Although Ahmed warns that data can misrepresent (Case in point: She asserts on page 151 that “diversity pride becomes a technology for reproducing whiteness: adding color to the white face of the organization confirms the whiteness of that face.”), her discussion of it as a technology for making gaps apparent inspires me to consider quantitative approaches to measuring the apparency of feminism and resulting effects within the institution. Having just come off the job market, I’m especially excited by the idea of some sort of analysis of the results/reactions to those job searchers who make feminist leanings apparent–of course. More on that sometime down the road!

In all the work I’ve done to focus on parallels between this book and my work with the term feminism, I wonder now if I’m being fair. For example, Ahmed says that “in becoming embedded in performance culture, equality can participate in concealing inequalities” (p. 110). Can I take this sentence and insert other terms and have it still work? Can I say, “in becoming embedded in performance culture, social justice can participate in concealing unjust situations“? From where I sit now, I think that works. The important part, though, is in figuring out how this happens for any term we insert into the sentence.

One effect of this concealing work is the production of rhetorics about a post-feminist, post-race society that we supposedly inhabit. In this construction, feminists and antiracists are “heard as the ones who are oppressive, in our influence or existence, because we point out the existence of oppression” and thus call it into being for those who had managed to make it unapparent (p. 179). Ahmed talks about feeling paranoid, at least partially in reaction to people who accuse her of talking about racism too much. This is a familiar feeling to me, though in relation to misogyny more than racism. It’s difficult to not feel paranoid sometimes, even when you know your so-called paranoia is a reasonable response to an overwhelming, systematic application of injustices. What was new to me, though, was the thought that this paranoia has a very important effect: “I am never sure when x happens, whether x is about racism. I am not sure. If I am not sure, then x is lived as possibly about racism . . .  Racism is reproduced both by the fantasy of paranoia (it doesn’t ‘really’ exist) and by the effect of the fantasy of paranoia, which is to make us paranoid” (p. 156). And, I keep coming back to this, but it’s all so exhausting. Ahmed talks at length about the eye-rolling that the “feminist killjoy” must endure, and I feel that. I’m tired, so tired, of having to be the one who wonders whether it’s about misogyny or racism. And I really haven’t been doing this very long.

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