Reading Guide: October 2020 Meeting

Reading questions for "On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life" by Sara Ahmed

Sara Ahmed book cover
Image of book cover of “On Being Included” by Sara Ahmed

General questions:

Are you a diversity practitioner?  If so, how do you practice?  Do you mostly create documents?  Do you work on hearts and minds?  If not, in what ways are you one?  Do you want to be?

This book discusses diversity at institutions, particularly higher education.  How can having a diversity policy become what Ahmed calls “a substitute for action?” (11)

How is institutional power related to diversity work?  Importantly, why is an intersectional view critical to understanding how diversity operates in a given institution?

Institutional Life:

The book opens with the question of what is an institution?  How is whiteness part of the ongoing process of institutionalization?

Explain Figure 1, on Page 27.  It’s a picture of a brick wall, with caption “A job description.”

When discussing the operations of institutions, Ahmed underscores how “circulation systems” are critical to the success of diversity work.  Describe how what she means by this and how it relates to the need to “follow diversity around” to understand its functionality.

In her discussion of institutional whiteness, Ahmed argues, “Diversity becomes about changing perceptions of whiteness rather than changing the whiteness of organizations” (34).  Discuss how diversity work can end up reproducing whiteness.

The Language of Diversity: (as a reflection of “the priorities, values, and commitments of an organization”)

The first paragraph on Page 59, in Chapter 2 “The language of diversity,” describes the ways that “diversity becomes about saying the right things.” How does Ahmed feel that diversity has been appropriated by institutions?  Does this “affective value” offer any benefits to the diversity practitioners she interviews (64)?

How does the creation of a body with authority to speak on diversity create problems for diversity, and exacerbate the problems which were supposedly being addressed?  What is a “lip service” model of diversity? (58).

Ahmed describes “being global” as “being good diversity people” (77). Is your institution “global”?  How does her discussion of diversity strategies reveal how diversity can be used in multiple ways by different institutional actors?  (see page 73, and section “Diversity Strategies”.)

Equality and Performance Culture

Chapter 3 offers a description and critique of equality and performativity—specifically how “equality can be treated as an institutional performance and as contributing to the optimal performance of an institution” (85). How can diversity practitioners undercut this element of performativity?  Is it ever useful?

On page 91, Ahmed says “The uneven distribution of responsibility for equality can become a mechanism for reproducing inequality.”  Apply to your institution, your unit, your life.

Pages 92-93 offer a view into the life of an institutional document.  How can documenting diversity become a substitute for actually doing diversity work? How have you been involved in this process?  Was the document you worked on “friendly” (see page 96).  Did it get stuck?

How can equality “audits” both advance and hamper diversity work?  Is it possible for diversity to become a “unit of measurement?”  (see 97-104)

Commitment as a Non-Performance

Chapter 4, “Commitment as a non-performative,” explores the ways that commitment can be empty and devoid of action, as if the commitment to action is itself the action.  How have you witnessed this in the units you lead, in the units you’re a part of?

In your work, have you produced a document as a product of a requirement?  Follow that document around.  Did it all have the intended affect?  What was the intended affect?  Was that everyone’s view of the document who worked on it with you?

Ahmed writes about institutional will on Page 129 “The will is made out of sediment.  What has settled and accumulated over time.  No individual actor needs to make this wall into an object of will.  No individual has to block an action that is not continuous with what has already been willed.”  Explain institutional will.  How is your will, *your* will, institutional?  How do you work to clear the sediment, or ride on top of it?  What do you think it means to subvert institutional will?

What are some signs of institutional commitment to diversity?  What does Ahmed mean when she writes, “Diversity work plays what we could call a catch-up game, working in the gaps between what institutions say and what they do.  Diversity workers thus work with as well as in the gap between words and deeds” (140).

Speaking about Racism

The book’s last full chapter is “Speaking about Racism.” How did this chapter resonate with your experience?  How was it very different?  State three short lessons you learned.

On page 156, Ahmed writes “To use the language of racism is to risk not being heard.”  How have you not been heard?  How have you not heard others?  How have you changed the ways you approach discussions about race in the last 6 months?

Page 160 contains a discussion of being careful.  How do you cause others to have to be careful around you?  How does colonization play a part in racism at your institution, or in your lived experience?

On page 168, Ahmed writes “The happy signs of diversity become legible as signs of overcoming racism.” How do institutions use diversity to avoid discussing and making racism visible?

Page 174, in the conclusion, states “Diversity workers … become conscious of “the brick wall” as that which keeps its place even when an official commitment to diversity has been made.”  She continues: “Perhaps diversity workers aim to transform the wall into a table, turning the tangible object of institutional resistance into a tangible platform for institutional action.”  How have you seen others at your institution use the wall as a table?  Be inspired.  Plan one action in your work.

Page 182:  “An account of diversity as a phenomenological practice is an account of how racism is reproduced by receding from view, becoming an ordinary feature of institutional life.”   When racism recedes, what comes into view instead?

From Ahmed’s perspective, can diversity work ever succeed?