Notes for Radical Diversity

Notes for Radical Diversity

Helsinki Art Museum (HAM), Helsinki

In November 2019, I was invited to talk about diversity within the art and cultural scene of Helsinki, to the curatorial staff at Helsinki Art Museum, Helsinki.

The following is the prepared text of the talk and workshop:

Thank you for inviting me to talk about Diversity.

Although this term and its implied meaning are far-reaching into my own work and practice, there are essentially three positions that I can take:

  1. One, a position that comes embedded into the nature of my own research-based practice as an artist, where I create participatory archives and archive-based projects to examine collective histories of memory and identity within the framework of violence, conflict, & trauma.

  2. Two, my work as one of two Artistic Directors of Museum of Impossible Forms, and the nature of the work we do as a cultural space in Kontula, forming and sustaining micro-communities around decoloniality, postcoloniality, intersectional feminism, queer theory and norm-criticality – through regular and ongoing projects.

  3. Three, as a doctoral student at Aalto University working towards generating a conception of Performativity within the contexts of online spaces and once awareness is generated of the reciprocal relationship between us and the archives we create, to use that awareness to create politically conscious future archives – which again feeds into my practice.

Now that this, my short introduction is done, my speculations about ‘Diversity’ as a term will interweave these varied roles as Artist, artistic Director, and Doctoral researcher.

I always think it's good to think about how you arrive at the work that you do. There's always a story to the combinations that we bring to our work and to the world. And I would like to thank the Helsinki Art Museum for inviting me to share my notes on Diversity and to acknowledge that you are involved in creating a cultural vibrancy in Helsinki and Finland, and to thank you all for being a part of this effort.

Stepping back to square one, “What is Diversity?” – Is it a collection of different or diverse objects, things, or people? Is our conversation about these, objects, things, and /or people in of itself, without context? If not, what are the contexts through which we must view the term diversity?

Exercise 1:

Make a group of 4 persons per group and ask them to identify 1 thing that connects them to each other, and 1 thing that sets them apart.

(similarity) and (difference)

Diversity is the collective negotiation of our differences and similarities.

Write down at least 3 types of formulations of Diversity that you are aware of – for example, Gender diversifies the human and non-human subject into male, female, genderqueer etc.

Going back to your groups of 4, discuss why they are a legitimate form of diversity exemplifying your situation or your situatedness.

Discuss as a whole group.

Diversity vs. Critical Diversity: A History

The term diversity is usually traced back to the mid-1980s, when demographic projections in the Workforce 2000 Report published by the Hudson Institute showed that by the year 2000 the US labour force would become more heterogeneous, with new entrants comprising significantly greater numbers of women, racial minorities and immigrants than ‘native’ white men. The report urged policymakers and organizations to address this growing diversity if the US was to maintain its economic dominance in the 21st century. The notion of diversity revolutionized the understanding of differences in organizations, as it portrayed them for the first time in the history of management as strategic assets, which if well managed, could provide a competitive advantage. From a resource-based view of the firm, diversity was conceptualized as a set of rare, valuable and difficult to imitate resources. Companies properly managing diversity would attract and retain skilled workers in an increasingly diverse labour market, better service increasingly diverse markets by matching diverse customers with a more diverse workforce, improve organizational learning and creativity through employees’ exposure to a wider range of perspectives, and increase organizational flexibility in increasingly turbulent contexts. Such understanding opened the way to including, next to gender and race/ ethnicity, a broader variety of identities that could potentially contribute to the bottom line, such as age, sexual orientation, disability, obesity and even functional background, personality, attitudes and value orientation. Diversity served as an umbrella concept under which any individual characteristic could be subsumed, diminishing the risk of inter-group conflict between the majority and minorities.

The business rationale at the core of diversity has often been used to explain the popularity of this notion within the US business world and later, its diffusion to other western countries. The business rationale also informed much of the academic research on diversity, which focused on understanding the effects of a variety of identities on groups’ processes and outcomes. Developing such understanding was considered both by academics and practitioners as the necessary first step to proper diversity management.

For instance, Cox and colleagues (1991) studied the effect of ethnic composition on cooperative and competitive behaviour in groups, while Jehn and colleagues examined how group’s informational diversity (education and experience), gender, ethnicity, age and diversity values (differences in perception of the groups’ real task, goal, target omission) affected both group performance and workers’ morale and commitment (1999).

Critical Diversity

Whereas research on Critical diversity is relatively recent, studies of the position of specific socio-demographic groups in organizations date back to the 1970s. Preoccupied to show that organizations are not the meritocracies we like to believe they are, scholars documented how inequality in organizations was structured along with gender and racio-ethnic lines and investigated the underlying mechanisms that produced it. Within the gender literature, a few women scholars investigated the social mechanisms marginalizing women in the workplace. Through organizational ethnography, Rosabeth Moss Kanter showed how gendered roles, relative numbers, network structures and sex-specific reward systems kept women in subordinate professional positions. Cynthia Cockburn analysed how key technical competencies were constructed as masculine to exclude women from new professions emerging from technological innovation. Ruth Cavendish examined how class, gender and imperialism shaped the gendered division of labour, while Aihwa Ong examined how modernization has affected the lives of Malay women and how they resisted oppression in the new economy. These few significant works contributed to the emergence of the vast literature on gender in organizations that examines the complexity of gender in organizations from a wide variety of theoretical approaches. In the field of race studies, some early pieces called attention to the silencing of race as an organizational phenomenon and how race operated as an organizing principle. Alderfer and colleagues (1980) approached race relations in organizations as a multi-level issue of power differences in groups, organizations and societies. Omi and Winant (1986) showed how an ethnicity-based paradigm that emphasized the nature of ethnic identity and the impact of ethnicity on life experiences influenced theories on race in organizations to the point that the core question centred on the lack of assimilation of ethnic minorities in the workplace.

Whereas these early studies drew from a sociological paradigm to better understand how gender and race/ethnicity operated as principles of organizing, later ones mostly drew on a social psychological paradigm to understand the specific constraints faced by women and ethnic/racial minorities in the workplace. Typically, scholars investigated the impact of race/ethnicity or sex on artwork and career-related outcomes such as access to mentoring and networks, satisfaction, performance evaluations, promotion opportunities and income. They found extensive evidence of unequal treatment of female and black/ethnic minority employees, with negative effects on their work satisfaction and careers. These unfavourable outcomes were generally explained in psychological terms, as the effect of prejudice and discrimination. For instance, social identity theories explain discriminating behaviour as resulting from the need of human beings to classify themselves and others into groups to reduce the complexity of the social world and better anticipate social behaviour. Such classifications are commonly based on traits such as skin colour and sex, which are readily available to perception. Prejudice and bias arise from ethnocentrism – human beings’ need to evaluate their own group more positively than other groups in order to build a positive self-identity. Other social psychological theories such as homophily and the similarity-attraction paradigm rather explain discriminatory behaviour by positing that individuals tend to interact more frequently and to like others who are similar to them.

This later research has, till today, played an important role in documenting persistent inequality along the lines of gender and racio-ethnicity in the workplace. Through hard data, it makes visible the ‘inconvenient truth’ of unfairness and discrimination causing vertical segregation and the glass ceiling. Yet, the predominance of social psychological approaches has also resulted in a narrow understanding of the processes leading to inequality, namely, one that largely overlooks structural, context-specific elements.

Exercise 02

15 minutes

What are the forms of Diversity (Critical or otherwise) are you in contact with, either personally at home or in your social circles, professionally through your work, at the Museum, In Finland or the World in general?

Critical diversity can be defined as the equal inclusion of people from varied backgrounds on a parity basis throughout all ranks and divisions of the organization. It especially refers to the inclusion of those who are considered to be different from traditional members because of exclusionary practices.

Within cultural spaces in Helsinki, the question of diversity means equivalent inclusion within institutions and organisations such as universities, museums, galleries and unions, of members of different genders, ethnicities, nationalities, and cultural backgrounds – to adequately represent the society that these organisations aim to represent.

Diversity is embedded within other discourses, and cannot be studied in isolation understood without proper inquiries into other fields of knowledge, primarily:

  • Diversity of Identity
  • Diversity of Gender and Sexual orientations
  • Diversity of Racial / Ethnic Minorities Discriminations
  • Diversity of Power relations, and the recognition of privilege, oppression, and Hegemony
  • Diversity of Intersectionality within Feminism
  • Diversity of Radicalised, Marginalised and Other Bodies / Communities
  • Diversity as Transnational multiculturalism

Exercise 03:

15 minutes

What do you think is the role of the Museum?

What do you think is the role of the Museum in creating a responsible representation of these diversities that you are familiar with?

What does Critical Diversity as a field of practice do?

Critical diversity literature has developed on the ground of three fundamental points of critique towards the diversity literature and, specifically, the social psychology theories on which it relies.

First, a number of scholars have pointed to the problems deriving from a positivistic ontology of identity underlying these studies. Identities are conceptualized as ready-made, fixed, clear-cut, easily measurable categories, ready to be operationalised as the independent variable to explain the specific phenomenon under study. Such an unproblematic approach naturalizes identities into objective entities, rather than acknowledging their socially constructed nature. It reduces individuals to representatives of a social group distinguished by a common socio-demographic trait, the repository of 'true’, essential identity. Furthermore, it has been argued that comparisons are not made between groups, but by taking white, heterosexual, western, middle/upper class, abled men as the term of reference, and measuring other groups’ difference from this norm. Despite the ambiguity of the term ‘diverse’, which refers to the heterogeneity in a group, in the comparison, it is actually the other that becomes the object of study and that is discursively constituted as marginal, from the vantage point of a dominant identity.

Second, social psychological approaches have often been criticized for their tendency to downplay the role of organizational and societal contexts in shaping the meaning of diversity. In some cases, studies have examined how specific contextual elements, such as the type of task, task interdependence, time, and diversity perspectives moderate the relation between diversity and group outcomes such as performance or cooperation and conflict. However, the assumption remains that identities are predefined and the focus is rather on which identity becomes salient in the categorization process, neglecting the role of context in shaping the meaning of identities itself.

Finally, a third related point of critique concerns the inadequate theorisation of power. The micro-lens of social psychology leads to an explanation of identity-based power inequality exclusively as the result of individual discriminatory acts originating in universal cognitive processes. Such acts remain disembedded from the greater context of historically determined, structurally unequal access to and distribution of resources between socio-demographic groups. The diversity literature goes even further than the literature on minorities in that it does not merely neglect power dynamics, but rather takes a clearly managerial perspective – and thus the perspective of the more powerful party in the employment relation – on differences. As the main aim is to better understand the working of diversity in order to manage it properly and leverage it for increased performance, differences are approached instrumentally, as a potential source of value that needs to be activated by virtue of the employment relationship.

Critical diversity has focused on addressing these concerns. A first group of studies analyses the discourses through which specific identities and diversity are constructed in distinct ways by actors in specific social, historical and, more rarely, organizational contexts. Either focusing the analysis on the textual aspects of discourse or linking discourse to the wider social context from which they emerge, these studies show that members of specific socio-demographic groups are defined in essentialist terms, as representatives of a specific socio-demographic group lacking fundamental work-related skills (or, more rarely, as having additional skills).

A growing body of literature investigates minorities’ active engagement with societal and/or organizational discourses of diversity in their own identity work, specifically attempting to construct positive, empowering professional identities. From a similar agent-centred perspective, others have examined how diversity practitioners constantly negotiate the meaning of diversity in their jobs, struggling to balance the business case and equality rationales in order to be heard by key stakeholders, effectively advance equality, and maintain a meaningful professional identity. Together, these pieces show that discourses, while powerful, never fully determine identity. Individuals neither simply step into ‘prepackaged selves’, nor are mechanically put into them by others once and for all. Despite their subordinate positions, subjects continuously engage, as agents, in identity work to construct, maintain and/or disrupt (multiple) identities favourable to them, challenging inequalities.

Within the gender and ethnicity literature, the identity work of those in positions of power has also increasingly become the object of investigation. Men’s identity and masculinities are no longer unmarked within organizations. Analyses have shown how constructions of work and masculine identities mutually inform each other, conferring status, powers and authority on men in work contexts. As a result, men’s powers and authority, social practices and ways of being have been questioned and problematised. In similar logic, there is a growing interest in the notion of whiteness in organization studies. Scholarship on the formation of white identities, ideologies and cultural practices has been a project mainly driven by US scholars inspired by the pioneering work of DuBois(Nkomo, 2009; Twine and Gallager, 2008). In organization studies, two theoretical pieces on whiteness by Grimes (2001) and Nkomo (2009) draw attention to the need to interrogate whiteness and shed light on how whiteness informs both practices within the discipline of organization studies and the language and terminology white scholars commonly use. In an empirical study of how whiteness informed the professional struggles of the white South African Society of Medical Women, Walker (2005) examined the ways white women doctors could gain access to the medical profession during the apartheid thanks to their white race, showing the inextricable link of Race to gender identities and patriarchy.

Yet another promising approach to diversity in organizations draws on intersectionality studies. Today a burgeoning concept, intersectionality was originally developed in black feminist studies to understand the oppression of black women through the simultaneous and dynamic interaction of race and gender. Applied to organizations, intersectionality allows connecting multiple work identities to wider societal phenomena, leading to a more fine-grained analysis of the processes of identity construction and the underlying power relations. Although the importance of intersectionality is widely recognized, relatively few empirical studies have applied this concept to organizations.

Other critical scholars have re-proposed a critical sociological lens, theorizing how specific socio-demographic identities function as principles along which inequality is structured in organizations. For instance, Essed (1991) developed the concept of everyday racism that integrates the macro and micro dimensions of racism to account for the processes that incorporate racist notions into the daily practices of organizing. Nkomo (1992) noticed how Race could be developed as a productive analytical category when organizations are analysed as sites in which race relations interlock with gender and class relations played out in power struggles. Calás and Smircich (2006) and Alvesson and DueBilling (2009) discussed how gender shapes organizations and organizing, while Acker (2006) proposed the notion of ‘inequality regimes’ to conceptualize interlocking practices and processes that result in continuing inequalities in all work organizations.

Finally, some journal special issues and volumes have been dedicated to advancing our understanding of diversity and equality within highly heterogeneous demographic, historic, social, institutional and geopolitical contexts including examples of the specificity of diversity management and its very meaning and practice in several countries across the globe. Many have problematised and challenged the wholesale export of the US-centred conceptualization of diversity and diversity management to other countries. In an early piece, Jones and colleagues (2000) examined how a US ‘model of difference’ and diversity management did not apply in Aotearoa/New Zealand, a country lacking equal opportunity legislation comparable to that of the US and where the Maori have a specific status as indigenous people. Omanovic examined the re-interpretation of the notion of diversity within the Swedishsocio-historical context characterized by specific conflicting interests, while Risberg andSøderberg (2008) studied diversity management in the Danish cultural context, showing how it significantly differed from the US and British multicultural societies. Drawing from transnational, feminist anti-racism, Mirchandani and Butler (2006) proposed to go beyond the inclusion and equity opposition by reconceptualizing relations of gender, class and race within the ever-present context of globalization. Mir et al. (2006) called attention to the need for theoretical perspectives that examine individuals’ embeddedness in local racialized, class-based and gendered hierarchies within the broader process of the globalization of labour and capital.

Exercise 04:

15 minutes

How do you think that the Museum – as a cultural organisation and an institution for pedagogical change – creates an adequate responsible representation of these diversities? or who is the Museum targeted for?

Happy Diversity

In light of prevailing discourses on homogeneity and anxieties about cultural differences, the concept aims to emphasise the positive sides and inevitability of heterogeneity and the constant need of mutual adjustment and adaptation. The moral panic about immigration and ethnic diversity also inspired scholarly discourses that, conversely, celebrated the growing hybridity and diversification of cultures and identities. Recently, in Dutch-speaking Belgium and the Netherlands, anthropologist Steven Vertovec’s concept of “super-diversity” is also increasingly being employed by anti-racist civil society organisations and some of the more alternative media and grey literature. The prefix ‘super’ seeks to grasp the contemporary proliferation of new conjunctions and interactions due to globally expanding mobility, yet also the necessity of understanding ethnicity in conjunction with a range of other social variables and with social inequalities.

However, diversity has also become a highly fashionable concept, ranging from popular calls to protect biodiversity, to diversity management courses and special training schemes. Many organizations have campaigned for creating a new inclusive image, which includes the token woman or ethnic or racialised minority person. Diversity is turned into a commodity in advertising: think of the Benetton ‘two-tone’ marketing campaign which displayed beautiful, smiling people of a variety of ‘races’ in “a sort of pluralistic celebration at the global temple of consumption”. Diversity is widely seen as a positive quality and is increasingly being recognised as an important value in a variety of contexts and a goal for all sorts of institutions. Yet, we join more critical voices who warn that the ease of diversity’s adaptation in commercial, institutional and policy language may be a sign of the loss of its critical-emancipatory potential.

Although contemporary anthropological understandings of socio-cultural diversity are far more dynamic than some of its older and more recent essentialist conceptions one might find that in both ethnocentric and multiculturalist discourses today,in recent years, the “turn to diversity” has come under heavy criticism and it remains problematic in many respects. One of the dangers of diversity discourse or what Lentin and Titley call the “politics of diversity”, the “institutional and broadly managerial deployment of diversity as a dimension of integration governance”, is that both individuals and groups (most often minority groups), are reduced to their diversity, such as their culture, ethnicity or religion against an unmarked norm (such as white, western, secular, able-bodied...) that remains unquestioned and out of view. White normativity and implicit assimilationist assumptions in diversity discourse reduce minority groups to “add-ons” of the dominant culture, that can add flavour to a white centre.

Secondly, “good diversity”, or “happy diversity” talk, even among the most politically engaged individuals, may underplay or even mask the role of power and privilege. Feminist theorist Sara Ahmed, for example, in her study of the experiences of diversity practitioners in higher education, shows how there is a paradox between the official language of diversity and the experience of those who “embody” diversity (Ahmed, 2012). Racism may be obscured when diversity becomes institutionalised and is used as ‘evidence’ or the ‘solution’ to the problem of racism. Diversity is likely to become “a diversity without oppression,'' one that “conflates, confuses and obscures the deeper socio-structural roots and consequences of diversity”. Yet, it is not only the widespread colour-blind rhetoric and neglect of everyday racism that needs our attention (Essed, 1991). Uncritical postmodern celebrations of cultural hybridity and of immigrants as the cosmopolitan hybrids par excellence in some scholarly work have also been criticised for sidestepping profound global inequalities.

As Ahmed (2012) notes, feminists of colour have offered some of the most cogent critiques of the language of diversity, and there is a whole genealogy of inspiring anti-racist, postcolonial, decolonial and transnational feminist thought that can be drawn upon which would be impossible to summarise here. A gender-critical perspective, and more precisely, a feminist intersectional perspective has proved to be very useful in foregrounding the relationship between power and difference. Yet, Ahmed also warns against a one-sided “happy” understanding of intersectionality, she says:

We can ask: what recedes when diversity becomes a view? If diversity is a way of viewing or even picturing an institution, then it might allow only some things to come into view. Diversity is often used as a shorthand for inclusion, as the ‘happy point’ of intersectionality, a point where lines meet. When intersectionality becomes a ‘happy point’, the feminist colour of critique is obscured. All differences matter under this view. (Ahmed, 2012, p. 14)

Ahmed’s plea is therefore not to stop doing diversity, but question what we are doing with diversity. She pleads, for instance, for critical evaluation of institutional diversity measures as to their intention to structurally challenge the institutional whiteness of academia or to merely change perceptions of whiteness. Intersectionality can help to remain sensitive to the “actual power by which the diversity discourse is paradoxically structured and reproduced” as well as to the systematic inequalities and privileges that tend to be obscured by the current managerial focus on diversity. Critical whiteness studies and critical race studies have similarly contributed to the exposing of the privileged unmarked norm, as have disability studies, deafness studies, and earlier, LGBTIQ studies for other forms of so-called neutrality and privilege. These fields all emerged in the wake of the very first feminist critiques of the academy, its numbers, its knowledges and its institutions, and it is our hope we will see some of this emerging work taking place in the Dutch-speaking context of this journal soon. In conclusion, adding diversity to gender to us seems a good strategy, as is adding gender to diversity, if alone for reminding us of the importance of the intersectional critique of the relationship between difference and power.

Exercise 05:

20 minutes

Who is included in the Museum? or Who enters the Museum on a regular basis

Who is not included? or what diverse communities that exist in Helsinki do you not see enter the Museum?


What can be done to change this?

Why has it not been done before?