Review: On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life

On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Sara Ahmed. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. Pp. x + 243.

What is the opposite of being included? For Sara Ahmed, it means being excluded or out of place. Ahmed’s book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life takes a critical look at how higher-education institutions seek to provide that “place” of inclusion via their incorporation of diversity. Ahmed makes it clear that at the center of this examination of diversity is the issue of race and the inclusion of racialized bodies into academia as an act of both legal compliance and possibly performative commitment.

“Are you Aboriginal?” (2). This simple but charged question posed to Ahmed by two police officers vividly captures the affective mood of intrusion, exclusion, and policing that govern the text. In her introduction, Ahmed reveals that her book was inspired by a brush with racial profiling in her hometown of Adelaide, Australia. Ahmed lived this moment as “an experience of not being white, of being made into a stranger, the one who is recognized as ‘out of place,’ the one who does not belong” (2). Ahmed contrasts this aggressive ordeal of being singled out for her race with the uncomfortable occurrence of being included because of her race as part of a “race equality group” at Lancaster University. This latter encounter with “diversity” drives Ahmed’s book into its analysis of institutions, institutional racism, and the process of inclusion.

The strength of On Being Included lies in the ease with which Ahmed uncovers, deconstructs, and names that which seems so routine and normalized within academia. In part, this awareness stems from Ahmed’s research, which focuses not only on her own encounters with diversity but also on her interviews of diversity practitioners across universities in the United Kingdom and Australia.

At the center of Ahmed’s project is the concept of the university as an institution, which she discusses at length in Chapter One. Ahmed finds that universities are not stable but in a continuous process of being “instituted” via practices such as recruitment and employment. One of the results of these practices is the overwhelming presence of white bodies within academia as administrators, students, and faculty. Via this continuous process of assemblage and reproduction, whiteness becomes the norm. In this manner, the white body appears unmarked and invisible within the university system while the minority body is always a stranger and marked as other. Ahmed explains that institutional whiteness came uncomfortably to the fore with the passing of equality legislation such as the British Race Relations Amendment Act (2000), the Equality Act of 2006, and most recently, the Equality Act of 2010. These laws prompted many universities to “institutionalize” diversity via the creation of diversity offices, committees, coalitions, and the hiring of practitioners of inclusion.

These laws serve as a backdrop for Ahmed as she explores the role of the diversity practitioner within academia. In her interviews with various diversity officials, one of the main images that kept cropping up in conversation was that of the university as a brick wall. Indeed, many diversity practitioners expressed that they constantly felt like they were coming up against a brick wall in their attempts to introduce diversity into institutional culture. For Ahmed, this phrasing emphasizes the uncomfortable intimacy between the university, minorities, and diversity officials within the largely white space of the academia.

In Chapter Two, Ahmed explores how despite its resistance to “diversity,” the institution has come to appropriate the term. Ahmed begins by explaining that the word diversity has come to replace more contentious ideas such as “equal opportunity” and “anti-racism” (52). Indeed, Ahmed finds that this term is currently used precisely because it is ambiguous – it can mean almost anything. Ahmed notes, “The absences of an agreed-on meaning for diversity can mean that it can be defined in quite different ways” (79). Many diversity practitioners admit that its lack of negative connotations allows them to reach more individuals, establish more conversations, and enact more institutional cooperation. Thus, diversity’s “positive affective value” becomes a useful tool that allows diversity administrators to chip away at the brick wall of academia (67).

But Ahmed also notes that some diversity officials approach the term with suspicion. One reason that some diversity practitioners dislike the term is because of its connection to the recent “corporatization” of the university (52). For many practitioners of inclusion, administrators circulate the term diversity because it increases the market value of the institution by giving it a “diverse” image. This use of diversity rhetoric is problematic because it can create what Ahmed calls the “lip service model of diversity” (58). According to one diversity worker, the term “allows people to get away with thinking ‘oh everybody’s different,’ and really kind of ignoring barriers which are oppressing” (71). For Ahmed, the positive halo of diversity is a double-edged sword: it lessens institutional resistance but allows for the university to ignore actual issues impacting inclusion such as recruiting minority students and providing them with support systems. Indeed, this positive “enjoyment of diversity” by the university can even lead to the symbolic consumption of minority bodies by the institution (69). Ahmed explains how the “cultural enrichment discourse of diversity” can be used as bell hooks says to “liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (69). For Ahmed, the affective value of diversity is important to consider especially when examining the communities and worlds it assembles.

In Chapter Three, Ahmed further explores the connection between diversity and the current performance culture prevalent in academia. Ahmed begins her chapter by discussing Jean-François Lyotard’s description of “use” within the institution. As Lyotard says, “The question (overt or implied) now asked by the professionalist student, the State, or the institutions of higher education is no longer ‘Is it true?’ but ‘What use is it?’” (84). This question of utility is the crux of Ahmed’s discussion of diversity as a performance within the academia. According to Ahmed, universities can simulate the appearance of diversity simply via the creation of “documents” such as mission statements and equality policies.

While these official papers do sometimes provide the opportunity for increased collaboration and can increase awareness, they can also be used to create a paper “trail” (97). This creation of papers for the sake of documentation aligns directly with audits set in place by organizations such as the British Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU). These associations “measure” diversity by examining institutional race equality policies, processes, and plans. Based on the results of these audits, universities are then ranked in terms of who is “doing” diversity well and who is not.

In Chapter Four, Ahmed explains that this audit system is problematic in that it can result in documents replacing action, what she terms the “tick box” approach (113). This question of genuine rather than empty performance of commitment is central to diversity officials, whom Ahmed describes as constantly attempting to reach “hearts and minds” of those in academia (113). Ahmed explains, “For diversity workers to reach the heart and minds of an institution would mean … that diversity becomes part of how the institution feels and thinks” (113). For these professionals of inclusion, commitment beyond mere compliance is their goal for individuals within the university, particularly those with power and influence such as senior leadership. These “diversity champions” are instrumental in changing the “habits” of the institution by giving diversity greater currency within academia and creating assemblages around the issue of inclusion.

Ahmed notes that diversity practitioners “start with the commitment of leadership because this commitment is more likely to affect a sense of commitment in others” (133). However, this “affective model” of diversity has its downsides. For Ahmed, the location of diversity within individuals or even within groups such as diversity committees often fails to translate to institutional commitment. Rather, these individuals and units “allow the refusal of a more collective sense of responsibility” (136). As with the documents mentioned in Chapter Three, this model of diversity can potentially replace meaningful institutional commitment. Despite this possibility, Ahmed ends her chapter by reiterating the importance of the diversity practitioner to push the university from “lip service” to genuine commitment.

Throughout her book, Ahmed exposes the ways in which the discourse of diversity obscures real change via performances of commitment and compliance. In her final chapter and conclusion, Ahmed examines the inability of diversity to produce change by examining the missing piece of the puzzle: racism. Unlike the term “diversity,” which is readily accepted and circulated by the institution, “racism” is avoided, denied, and met with outright hostility.

Ahmed expands the scope of her archive to the realm of cultural studies to make a powerful point about racism and the racialized bodies who experience it. For these marked individuals, racism becomes a burden they have to deal with and let go in order to be included into the “fold” of white institutional culture (183). Ahmed explains, “People of color are asked to concede to the recession of racism: we are asked to ‘give way’ by letting it ‘go back.’ Not only that: more than that. We are asked to embody a commitment to diversity. We are asked to smile in their brochures” (163). This request to “embody” diversity can result in the problematic archiving of people of color by academia as a sign of compliance. Ahmed says, “Bodies of color provide organizations with tools… We become the tools in their kid. We are ticks in the boxes” (153). Although Ahmed sees the potential of diversity work to transform institutional culture, she urges people of color and practitioners of inclusion to keep working to break down the walls of exclusion and inequality in academia. Ahmed ends with the following words: “Don’t look over it, if you can’t get over it” (187).

Victoria Ruiz Hernández