On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life by Sara Ahmed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. 243 pp.
Article first published online: 22 FEB 2013
© 2013 by the American Anthropological Association
Anthropology & Education Quarterly
Volume 44, Issue 1, pages 106–108, March 2013
How to Cite
Griffith, L. M. (2013), On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life by Sara Ahmed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. 243 pp. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 44: 106–108. doi: 10.1111/aeq.12008
- Issue published online: 22 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 22 FEB 2013
In this book, Ahmed rightly notes that turning an ethnographic gaze upon the very institutions for which we work is a way to make our scholarship applicable and meaningful at the local level. Ahmed conducted open-ended interviews with diversity workers at several universities in the United Kingdom to better understand the nature of their work and its articulation with institutional structures. It is refreshing to read a work on institutional diversity from the United Kingdom, though readers from the United States may find themselves needing additional background on the context of various equality policies Ahmed discusses. This book is primarily about the relationship between institutional diversity and the ability of diversity workers to achieve change through the writing, circulation, and application of policy statements. As such, it has high value for anthropologists researching educational policy as well as diversity practitioners but will be of less utility to those seeking to make their own teaching practices more inclusive and equitable.
We might approach institutional diversity as a way to recolonize a space that has been, for all practical purposes, colonial in its imposition of a white, male, and heteronormative way of knowing; Ahmed's work is full of pithy phrases that give one pause when thinking about the good done by this kind of commitment to diversity. As Ahmed notes, diversity work in higher education is often about changing others' perceptions of the university as a white space rather than changing the university itself. Cynical readers might come away with the interpretation that diversity work is about managing impressions rather than bringing about real change. In such climates, diversity becomes more about celebrating multiculturalism and the goodness of an institution that supports diversity than correcting inequalities. Those who point out continued inequalities are seen as problematic, potentially confirming the stereotype of people of color being angry, stubborn, or even melancholic.
Building on J. L. Austin's work, Ahmed puts forth the idea of a nonperformative speech act in which lip service stands in for the action that would have occurred if the speech act had been a “happy performative.” It is a somewhat cumbersome concept, though Ahmed provides ample evidence for her position. For example, if a university's statement of commitment to diversity were a happy performative, it would bring about greater commitment among its faculty, staff, and students. A nonperformative commitment to diversity, on the other hand, is a false front that creates the impression of commitment without compelling any action. In fact, the statement of commitment may be what deters action because the work appears complete. While others have similarly suggested that institutionalization dulls our awareness of social facts that might otherwise create dissonance and motivate a perceptual transformation, Ahmed's unique contribution is in communicating this through the lens of linguistic and performance anthropology.
Ahmed's phenomenological reading of the institutional body is interesting from a theoretical perspective, but the same could be said more simply about having to overcome the inertia of a university's past decisions and commitments. In fact, if she is writing to an audience of practitioners, it may not need to be said at all as this scenario is far too common. However, her point about the continual pursuit of our will crystalizing into habits is a useful one for thinking about how unexamined inequalities become embedded in our social structure. This argument should also prompt us to ask what responsibility we bear for the current state of inequalities.
Despite having read widely within the field of diversity and higher education, it is rare for a book to so powerfully call to mind my own identities as did this one. As a straight, white woman, I felt called to question my role in diversity work. The burden of answering this question should not fall to Ahmed as a woman of color, but it is one that will arise for a portion of her readership. This may be particularly true when she describes a black caucus at a conference that was “crashed” by four white attendees who had good intentions but nonetheless destroyed the safety of that space as a respite from whiteness. I suggest a critical reading of her commentary on Kincheloe, Steinberg, and Frankenberg's approaches to Whiteness Studies. The goal of this interdisciplinary field is to study whiteness as a social construct that has historically been used to claim superiority over racialized others. Ahmed dismisses the quest for a positive, antiracist mode of embodying our whiteness as narcissistic without providing alternatives. Whiteness Studies should be subjected to critique from an array of scholars; however, criticisms submitted as part of a dialogue rather than condemnation would do more to move the field forward in a productive direction.
This work is most appropriate for an educational anthropology course or unit focused on applied work within higher education. If being considered for the undergraduate level, students should have a strong grounding in performance theory and/or linguistic anthropology before studying this work. Ahmed's text would also fit quite well in an educational leadership course as a primer for future diversity practitioners. It would also be useful for researchers looking for a new theoretical approach to how discourse and documents perform within institutions or, more provocatively, how they fail to do so.