Diversity

The BFI diversity standards leaflet says “Our definition of diversity is to recognise

the quality and value of difference.” In a bid to dodge accusations of sanctimonious

political correctness, the preceding paragraph is careful to point out that “diversity

is not just about doing what’s right: it is good for creativity, supports economic

growth, taps into under-served audiences and makes good business sense.” For

them, the argument for diversity is anything but political. It could be – and indeed

it is – about so much other than racial and ethnic exclusion. The pamphlet small

print goes on more soberly later to explain that “The Standards focus on disability,

gender, race and sexual orientation (as they pertain to the Equality Act 2010)”.50

In a similar vein, ACE’s Creative Case for Diversity51 is an energetic, persuasive

and well meaning endeavour to make instrumental and practical arguments for

diversity. One supposes that its reasoning is that no one can reasonably argue against

the economic and creative case for promoting diversity. This seems like a practical

strategy in many ways; why would someone who is constitutionally opposed to

including people who don’t look like them be persuaded by arguments like virtue

or justice? The pragmatic approach seems so much more appealing. And the whole

idea of diversity is after all a powerful metaphor for life itself and healthy ecologies

more generally, borrowed from Darwin’s own observations: the word diversity

appears twenty times in On the Origin of Species (twenty-six times in The Descent

of Man); once with the qualifying adjective beautiful, as in beautiful diversity, and

once as wonderful diversity.52

 

Yet criticism of diversity as a cultural policy too has been steeped in the language and

thinking of evolutionary biology. Goodhart, who uses diversity in its primarily racial

and ethnic sense, in a 2004 essay, criticised diversity on the following grounds, pitting

it against the centripetal forces of social belonging, community and “solidarity”.

 

 On the other hand, the logic of solidarity, with its tendency to draw boundaries,

and the logic of diversity, with its tendency to cross them, do at times pull apart.

Thanks to the erosion of collective norms and identities, in particular of class

and nation, and the recent surge of immigration into Europe, this may be such

a time.53

 

He identified diversity as a threat to social cohesion, in so far as it provoked in

him an anxiety around the “erosion of collective norms and identities” and seemed

counter to evolutionary self-interest.

 

The problem is perhaps that diversity confuses people, for meaning too many

things to too many people. It has, in current usage, become an umbrella term with

varying emphasis depending on the user and their context. So for some, diversity

means disability; for others, class; race; gender; sexuality. But in all these cases

what emerges is the reification of difference. These groups are defined against the

supposed norm – that of the white, able-bodied, middle class, heterosexual man.

And both sides of the divide – for it is in many ways a divide – feel alienated and

misunderstood.

 

Some practitioners don’t accept the umbrella usage for the word diversity. For

Madani Younis there’s an uncomfortable awareness that “Okay, diversity is a

euphemism for the word ‘black’.”54 His use of the term euphemism is indicative

of the perceived shame and lack of sincerity in the conversation. It also points

towards the slippery understanding of diversity reflected in the “Pulse Report”,

which showed professionals using the term to talk about whichever protected

characteristic seemed most relevant to their work; very few had an overview which

brought an awareness of different types of diversity. Interestingly no one suggested

that straight white British men might be considered diverse in any context. If they

were considered at all, it was with hostility, and this too is part of the problem.

Certain usages expose this problem more than others. For example, a number

of comments in the Pulse Survey use the phrase “more diverse” which seems

particularly odd and illogical if one considers that difference is an absolute (you

are either different from something or the same as it – how can we objectively

measure degrees of difference)? Then there is the hidden referent inherent in the

idea of difference, which celebratory narratives of ecological diversity dodge by

focusing on the idea of infinite variation. Here it is not the idea of diversity per

se that is the problem – it is the fact that the idea is layered upon the entrenched

subject positions of a system that privileges a particular perspective or position. The

“I” which measures or discerns difference is invariably white, male, economically

secure, able bodied and heterosexual. And it is from his position of power that he

discerns difference, and defines that which does not look like him as diversity. Thus

diversity becomes a narrative that continues to pigeon hole and limit people who do

not speak from this normative position.

 

You are diverse. You are different. You need special measures to help you achieve

our standards, we are not sure you are good enough, but we are going to help you

join us at the high table because we are good people and that’s what good people in

good societies do. And this narrative of superiority is woven into several diversity

initiatives which seek out and patronise “diverse” talent. Thus ACE’s Change

Makers Programme aims “to provide opportunities for Black, minority ethnic and

disabled leaders to gain the skills, knowledge and experience required to compete

on merit when future senior leadership positions become available.”55 As if they did

not already compete on merit. The problem of underrepresentation is parked firmly

at the feet of the “diverse” who have up until now lacked the “skills, knowledge and

experience” to be senior leaders. Unconscious bias and institutional prejudice has

no part in this account of their exclusion.

 

While critics like Mirza claim that the diversity discourse aimed to dismantle

establishment cultural policies,56 other thinkers and professionals argue that

diversity has been co-opted by the establishment. In his work, psychoanalyst

and Group Analyst Farhad Dalal makes the argument that diversity has become

a disingenuous box ticking exercise that does nothing to tackle institutionalised

systems of prejudice and inequality. Instead, he argues that the differences enshrined

by the idea of diversity reify the cultural and racial other and facilitate further

exclusion while pretending to create more equal conditions.57

 

Dalal confronts the questions around quality and excellence head on, by advocating

for greater not less discrimination. He critiques a system of thinking that alienates

subjects from their deeply held values in order to accommodate an ‘other’ who seems

not to measure up to their standards. He argues that in the long run, such a system

can only breed resentment and anger. If accommodating you means disavowing

the very heart of who I am, I can never be at peace. To apply this idea to cultural

organisations: if an organisation values quality and excellence it can’t be asked to

compromise these. Racism lies beneath the failure to imagine that excellence won’t

exclude people who aren’t white, but the obligations of diversity monitoring rarely

allow for this.

 

In all these discussions, diversity features as a noun and a verb that encapsulates an

endeavour and a desired state of being. It is both the process and the goal. We want

diversity, and to get it, we will embrace or ‘do’ diversity. But the confusion arises

when anyone considers what doing diversity really means.

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