We need an emic approach to creating more inclusive departments.
First published February 7 2019 in Anthropology News.
In December 2018, I called the founder of a diversity management organization to ask about a meeting where he pitched a university diversity research center to a white male faculty member. While the meeting generally went well, he said that “there was a black woman there, [and] she wasn’t buying any of it.” When I asked why, he said, “She just didn’t want to make any money. She kept pushing social justice, social justice, social justice.” He told her, that would not work. We’d had numerous conversations in his organization about how the best approach to implementing diversity took on a “business case,” or an economic rationale for doing diversity. He and other diversity professionals believe that tying diversity to profit ensures that programs are not cut from the budget and that this strategy incentivizes employees and executives to do year-to-year diversity work. Recognized as part and parcel of the neoliberalization of the academy, faculty members—especially left-leaning ones—resist these diversity logics. In the spirit of creating alternatives to capitalism that also recognize the importance of advocating for institutionally marginalized students, I suggest that we ask: What does diversity and inclusion mean to our departments and to our schools?What does diversity and inclusion mean to our departments and to our schools?
The truth is that academia is transitioning to a neoliberal model, and this transition has for people of color been a mixed-blessing, as it has also facilitated the incorporation of marginalized communities’ needs into everyday bureaucratic operations. Many departments now employ traditional corporate practices, such as diversity marketing, formal mentorship and “sponsorship” programs, and the auditing of department cultures. For some departments, inclusion has meant creating department programming, including potlucks and holiday parties. Recognizing the (corporate empirically tested) value these practices have for decreasing turn-over and increasing work engagement, I wrote an opinion article for faculty and graduate student leaders, titled “Diversity Audit (A Short How To Guide),” where I tailored a few diversity management practices to an academic setting. Here, however, I want to focus on a critical issue that, when overlooked, enables us to slip into the business and neoliberal logics of diversity. This means asking ourselves, why are we working toward diversity? What does diversity mean to our department? Then, coming to an agreement and a plan.
Rather than impose—or assume—definitions of diversity, which can lead to ineffective diversity programs, I suggest that we take the time to unpack and agree upon what diversity means to the community we claim to serve. For example, how does the anthropology department at your university define diversity? Who are the diversity subjects that “need attention”? This would mean investigating how students and faculty see themselves and how they make sense of their social positioning within the department and university, in addition to developing well-formulated questions about community needs, taking measure of institutional resources, and developing strategic long-term plans. Diversity’s success, for instance, could be measured in terms of higher graduation rates, mental-health wellness, tenure rate, and research productivity.
This needs-attention model draws on corporate culture audits, as well as on applied anthropological research methodologies. However, we should also step back and reflect on the basic value of conducting anthropology. Whereas corporate auditors often take an etic approach to diversity management in academia by pushing the business strategy, anthropologists can take an emic approach to diversity by taking the time to understand their communities to create ground-up strategies for institutional change. In her how-to-do-applied-anthropology textbook, for instance, Sam Ladner provides an example of two Starbucks locations, located across from one another at an intersection; one was financially successful and the other less-so, but with a steady stream of loyal customers. After an audit, headquarters closed the less financially successful store. The community was hurt and aggrieved, Ladner said. An important hub for various community groups suddenly vanished, directing a blow to solidarity and a sense of belonging. The lesson for us here is not to fear audits, but to use them to advance important social values. In other words, rather than exclusively organize defensively against neoliberalist agendas, we can act affirmatively toward the community that we want to see enacted.
As useful as the business/social justice binary is, before assuming that our actions fall in line with the latter we need to define it empirically. In doing so, we cannot forget the contributions that women of color have done to extend our understanding of institutional inequalities and historical oppression. Beyond anthropologists, this includes the notable works of Kimberle Crenshaw, Chandra Mohanty, Ida B. Wells, Gloria Anzaldúa, Angela Davis, and more recently, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Michelle Alexander, Sylvia Winters, and Lisa Lowe—just to name a very few (please add more in the comments). To move beyond critique, I ask us to heed the advice that Robin D.G. Kelley gave at the San José American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting. Paraphrasing Dr. Martin Martin Luther King Jr., Kelley said that we cannot wait to create social change; we need to bend the moral arc towards justice. This needs to be a community—rather than pseudo-corporate— effort, driven by the hope that we will see its rewards in the future.Diversity and inclusion is a neoliberal artifact, but this does not mean that it cannot be a tool for revolutionary change.
Diversity and inclusion is a neoliberal artifact, but this does not mean that it cannot be a tool for revolutionary change. Through an emic approach to the organizations where they work, anthropologists can and should take advantage of institutional openings that enable them to shape organizational practice and culture. Some questions to begin an inquiry could include, What is keeping and pushing out students and faculty from your department? How does this intersect with race, gender, class, and ability? How can diversity and inclusion help us create radical change? I do not believe that revolution is intrinsically anti-institutional; rather, if revolution is to be sustainable, we need practice. Thus, I ask anthropologists, especially those of us who know a lot about critique, but little of alternatives, to heed this advice and to put anthropological methods to good. Do contact me, if you would like to discuss and strategize.