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anti-racism Arrow vol 5 no 3 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 3, 2005


The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism [1]

Sara Ahmed
University of London


This paper explores institutional speech acts that declare organisations as being diverse and as committed to racial equality. It offers a simple thesis: such speech acts are non-performatives; they do not bring about the effects that they name. The paper draws on an analysis of policy documents, experience of writing equality documents, and interviews with diversity practitioners based in universities in the UK. By exploring different kinds of institutional speech acts (commitments, performances, descriptions), the paper concludes non-performatives can still do things; they may even do things that fail to bring into effect what they name. In other words, practitioners use such speech acts to expose the gap between what organisations say they do and what they do.


1. In this paper, I reflect upon institutional speech acts that make claims about an institution, or on behalf of an institution. Such speech acts involve acts of naming: the institution is named, and in being 'given' a name, the institution is also 'given' attributes, qualities, and even character. By speech acts I include not just spoken words, but writing, as well as visual images, all the materials that create the impression of institutional interiority, as if an organisation has feelings, thoughts and judgements. They might say: 'the university regrets', or just simply 'we regret'. More specifically, in this paper, I examine documents that are authorised by institutions (such as race equality policies, which are often signed by say the Vice Chancellor on behalf of an institution), make claims about the institution (for instance, by describing the institution as having certain qualities, such as being diverse), or point towards future action (by committing an institution to a course of action, such as diversity or equality, which in turn might involve the commitment of resources). In other words, I want to explore speech acts that authorise and describe an institution as being diverse and as committed to equality.

2. I will argue such speech acts do not do what they say: they do not commit a person, organisation or state to an action. My argument is simple: they are non-performatives. To define what I mean by non-performative, I will draw on John Austin's classic account of performative speech acts. For Austin, a performative refers to a particular class of speech. An utterance is performative when it does what it says: 'the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action' (1975: 6). Conditions have to be in place to allow such words to act, or in Austin's terms, to allow performatives to be 'happy'. The action of the performative is not in the words, or if it is 'in' the words, it is 'in' them only in so far as the words are in the right place to secure the effect that they name (that they are uttered by the right person, to the right people and in a way that takes the right form). Given this, as Judith Butler argues, 'performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate "act", but, rather as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names' (1993: 2).

3. I want to suggest that non-performative speech acts work by not bringing about the effects that they name. For Austin, failed performatives are unhappy: they do not act because the conditions are not in place that are required for the action to succeed (for example if the person who apologises is insincere then the apology would be unhappy). In my model of the non-performative, the failure of the speech act to do what it says is not a failure of intent or even circumstance, but is actually what the speech act is doing. Such speech acts work as if they bring about what they name. Or to be more precise, such speech acts are taken up as if they are performatives (as if they have brought about the effects that they name), which has its own effects. My paper will be structured by taking up three specific forms of institutional speech acts: commitments, performances and descriptions.

4. Secondly, in this paper, I want to suggest that the non-performativity of institutional speech acts requires a new approach to the relation between texts and social action, which I will be calling 'ethnography of texts'. Such an approach still considers texts as actions, which 'do things', but suggests that texts are not 'finished' as forms of action, as what they do depends on how they are taken up. To track what texts do, we need to follow them around . If texts circulate as documents or objects within public culture, our task is to follow them, to see how they move, as well as how they get stuck. So rather than just looking at university documentation on diversity for what they say (although I do this, and such close readings are important and necessary), I also ask what they do, in part by talking to practitioners who use these documents to support their actions. This paper hence draws on interviews with diversity and equal opportunities officers, or staff from personnel units with responsibility for diversity at ten universities in the UK, an analysis of policy documents, as well my own participation in discussions about diversity at a policy level.[2]


5. In the UK, we have had a proliferation of documents on race equality; we might even say that race equality is increasingly being documented or turned into documents. The circulation of race equality documents in the public sector is a direct result of the Race Relations Amendment Act (2000) in the UK (henceforth RRAA), which requires all public bodies to have and enforce a race equality and action plan. This is an important piece of legislation: race equality now becomes a positive duty; something that organisations must do. The first specific duty under the Act for higher and further education organisations is that they must write a race equality policy. The RRAA has fascinated me partly as it has generated a huge amount of documentation: the documentation is, as it were, one of the objects of the act, what it 'points' towards.

6. Such documents function as statements of institutional commitment. My own experience of writing such a document as part of a race equality team was instructive. In working on this policy, we tried to bring a critical language of anti-racism into the wording of the document. This meant that in the document we identified inequalities and racism as the history behind the document: in other words, we took up 'diversity' and 'equality' as terms within the document given they do not describe the institution.

7. I was taught a good lesson, which of course means a hard lesson: the language we think of as critical can easily 'lend itself' to the very techniques of governance we critique. So we wrote the document, the University was praised for its policy by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) [3] and the vice-chancellor during a meeting with staff congratulated the university on its performance: we did well. It was a 'feel good moment', but those of us who wrote the document did not feel so good. A document that documented the racism of the university became usable as a measure of good performance. Having a good race equality policy got quickly translated into being good at race equality. Such a translation works to conceal the very inequalities that the documents were written to reveal. The document becomes a fetish object, something that has value, by being cut off from the process of documentation. In other words, its very existence is taken as evidence that the institutional world documented by the document (racism, inequality, injustice) has been overcome, as if saying that we 'do it' means that's no longer what we do.

8. Such documents function as statements of commitment to race equality: commitments are often made in the first sentences of the policies. Having a race equality policy, or even having a 'good race equality policy' is about making public an institutional commitment. The documents are read as signs of commitment and in turn they seem to 'commit' the institution to doing something. Or do they?

9. Let me quote from the opening paragraphs of two race equality policies:

The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 (RRAA 2000) places a requirement on a wide range of public authorities, including all Further and Higher Education institutions, to promote race equality in a proactive way through all their functions and to publish a Race Equality Policy. This Race Equality Policy has been published to inform all xxx staff and students and all other partners of our institutional commitment under the requirements of the RRAA 2000. xxx recognises that by embracing diversity it can achieve its ultimate goal to become a 'world class University' and pursue excellence in research, teaching and clinical service.

xxx values its diverse community and is opposed to racism in all its forms. The xxx is committed to the fair and equal treatment of all individuals and aims to ensure that no-one in the xxx community is disadvantaged on the grounds of race, cultural background, ethnic or national origin or religious belief.

These are certainly interesting documents to read in terms of how they show the different ways in which the University is imagined as a subject with a commitment to race equality. In the first one, the policy begins with law: it hence frames the institutional commitment in terms of compliance with law. In a way, then, the document names its commitment by framing that commitment as a requirement. The commitment, in other words, is named as a way of being subject to law. We commit insofar as we are required to do so. Commitment here is literally 'under' the law. We might note that whilst this institutional commitment is named, it is not named as a commitment to something; we are simply committed to whatever the law commits us to do.

10. The second quote seems to take us further, insofar as it names racism, and declares the organisation as 'being' opposed to racism. At the same time, this also functions to bring the organisation into the policy as being anti-racist, a self-declaration which can ironically participate in the concealment of racism within the university. Declaring a commitment to opposing racism might function as a form of organisation pride: anti-racism, as a speech act, might then accumulate value for the organisation, as a sign of its own commitment. A university that commits to anti-racism might also be one that does not recognise racism as an ongoing reality or, if it did recognise such racism, would be more likely to see that racism as coming from 'strangers' rather than 'natives'. It is as if the University now says: if we are committed to anti-racism (and we have said we are), then how can we be racists? Declarations of commitment can block recognition of racism, whilst the recognition of racism can function as a declaration of commitment, which then retrospectively undoes the recognition of racism. Such speech acts work by how they block rather than enable action. In other words, the failure or the non-performativity of antiracist speech acts is a mechanism for the reproduction of institutional authority, which works through the concealment of the unfinished work of racism.

11. In one newspaper article about racism experienced by international students at Royal Holloway, 'Anxiety in the UK' (2005), we can see exactly this mechanism at work. Students from Korea complained about racism experienced on campus, and about the failure of the College to respond adequately: 'Students, particularly east Asian students, feel fearful of these attacks and are deeply concerned that something should be done. But, they have no proper channels of complaint and are worried that too much noise would have a negative effect on their status at college'. The article shows us the multiples ways that racism can affect the experiences of Black and Asian students: it can involve direct violence, and also affect how students respond to such violence, fearing that reporting racism would lead to further marginalisation. But the response of the College to this report was to deny the students charges: 'the spokeswoman said: "This could not be further from the truth. The college prides itself on its levels of pastoral care"'. In other words, organisational pride, and the self-perception of being good blocks the recognition of racism. Organisational pride prevents the message getting through, as a pride in being good at hearing messages. Such a speech act does exactly what it says that it does not do: it refuses to hear complaint in the moment it says that it does hear complaint. If colleges have pride in their policies of pastoral care and anti-racism, then they also fail to hear about racism. Being committed to anti-racism can function as a perverse performance of racism, as if the speech act is saying: 'you are wrong to describe us as uncaring and racist because we are committed to being anti-racist'. Anti-racism is functioning here as a discourse of organisational pride.

12. As I have suggested, many of the race equality documents function as statements of commitment, and take a simple form 'we are committed to ...'. Such statements of commitment might work to block rather than enable action, insofar as they block recognition of the ongoing nature of 'what' it is the organisation is committed to 'opposing'. However, we can still ask the question, what do statements of commitment commit institutions to do?

13. When asking practitioners about this process of writing race equality policies, I ask specifically about statements of commitment. What do they (or do they) commit the university to do? In the following exchange between me and three members of the personnel department of a university, we can see the hesitation that follows such a question:

It's a statement of commitment clearly as many of them are. Do you feel that the statement itself commits the university to something?

I would say yes but don't say why.

Yes it does, but my angle I suppose, is that you have to have reminders, examples, arguments all the time.

And I think it's a good working document that people can take with them.

But people don't like being told to read it.

Yes they don't like it.

We don't like being told we have to tick these boxes.

It is true, but it exists and I think it's a reference document and people will go back and read it if they wanted to find out something. But people don't want to be told to read it.

14. If we took statements of commitment as performatives, we would say that they commit you to something. But such performativity is far from taken for granted by practitioners. The first response is that the statement of commitment does 'commit', but for unknown reasons. This uncertainty is itself telling: for it suggests that commitment is in some way mysterious; it would need to be explained. In other words, the commitment does not simply follow the letter of the document. The word 'commitment' does not do what it says. The second respond also is a 'yes', but a qualified yes: the statement of commitment does commit, but has to be supplemented by other forms of institutional pressure (reminders, examples, and so on). In other words, the commitment is not given by the document, but depends upon the work generated around the document. It is interesting that the next intervention begins with a further qualifier, a 'but': 'but people don't like to be told to read it'. If the statement of commitment does not necessarily commit the university to doing anything, then practitioners have to keep up the pressure; it is this pressure that can mean that documents don't work. This is a telling pressure for diversity workers: we have to put pressure on the document because it doesn't work, and the pressure on documents is what makes them not work. The compulsion to read the document means that it loses rather than gains currency. If people are required to read it, then they 'don't like it'. Indeed, the following utterance moves from 'they don't like it' to 'we don't like being told to tick boxes'. The commitment itself becomes a 'tick' in the box. Now commitment is usually described in opposition to the tick box; a tick box approach to diversity would be where institutions do what the process demands they do, but are not 'behind' the action. For commitment to become a tick in the box is to suggest that 'being behind' can itself be a matter of institutional performance. We can 'look' as if we are committed by what we say that we do: we create an illusion of the behind.

15. The final utterance re-describes the statement of commitment as a 'reference document' that people can use. This document then exists insofar as people refer back to it, as something that can help them to do things. Such documents by implication can only work if they are not obligatory: if people do not have to use them, then they might work. What this sequence of utterance shows is not only how documents of commitment are perceived as not commitments in and of themselves but how this lack of commitment in the document - which means that we have to be committed to them to make them work - is what makes them less likely to generate commitment in others.

16. We can ask where commitment is located if it is not 'in' the statements of commitment, or in the people behind generating such statements. Why does commitment seem to matter so much to diversity and equality work, if it seems always not to be where it should be? I asked this question to one diversity practitioner:

Oh that's hard. I think you cannot not have them, if you don't have them, well to me as a practitioner it's a starting point, again it's whether that gets fitted into practice. Commitments can't come without other actions. So the commitment to me is about what the institution believes in and what it intends to do - it can't stand alone it has to come with how you're actually going to do it. I think if they weren't there then, well I refer to them quite a lot as well know, if you're trying to, let's say there's an issue that's come up and somebody is not, maybe there's an issue and perhaps they're racist in what they bring up in their practice or something like that and it's good to refer back to these documents, but actually you're an employee of the university and the university has made a statement about this. So in terms of watching the other members of staff and in my own experience, I've used it for that.

The sentence 'commitments can't come without other actions' is instructive. It suggests that commitment is an action, but it is an action that does not act on its own, but depends on other actions, or on what is done 'with it'. Commitment might be, in other words, a technology that can be used or deployed within specific settings. The work of commitment is how you act on the action: it is about what the action allows the practitioner to do. The statement of commitment is also described as a reference point, something you can use, when challenging how people act within the institution. In other words, the statement of commitment does not commit the institution to anything, but allows the practitioner to support her or his claims for or against specific actions. The statement functions as a supporting device.

17. So although statements of commitment can block action by constructing the university or organisation as 'already committed' or behind race equality, they also can within specific settings support other actions, precisely given this illusion of being behind. Practitioners use such statements to challenge people within the organisation, by showing they are 'out of line' with the direction of the organisation, even if this line is itself imaginary and does not direct institutional action. Documents do not simply have a referential or descriptive function: it is not simply that they describe principles that a university already has. Indeed, in a way, the documents might even perform a lie, insofar as they represent the university as if it has principles that it does not have. But this can be a useful lie : by producing the university as if it was a subject with such principles, the documents then become useable as it allows practitioners to make members of the university as well as 'the university' itself as an imagined entity, subject to those principles. Statements of commitment then might do something, not in and of themselves, but because they enable the exposure of a gap between what organisations say they do, and what they do do: indeed, they might 'do something' insofar as they fail to describe what organisations do.

Performing Equality

18. So what work are these documents doing in their failure to bring about the effects they name? We could argue that such documents are forms of institutional performance. They are ways in which universities perform an image of themselves, for sure, but they are also ways in which universities perform in the sense of 'doing well'. We return to my own experience of writing a diversity document: the document that documents racism becomes usable as a measure of good performance. What does it mean for 'equality' and 'diversity' to be seen as measurable in the first place?

19. The RRAA is often described as moving beyond compliance, as involving an emphasis on good practice. Joyce Hill, the former Director of the ECU suggests:

The word that we are very wary of is the word compliance and really as a group we've more or less vetoed its use haven't we, tacitly at least. We'd far rather talk about meeting the requirements of or fulfilling the requirements of something. Because compliance does sound very much like a kind of minimalist tick box approach, look over your shoulder; see whether you can be done for not doing something as it were. Whereas as our approach is very much yes, of course, to meet the requirements of the legislation that's the very least one can do, but to do that in a spirit of understanding what the legislation is really there for and to tackle the what it is really there for and not just what it actually literally says. So that you move into fulfilment, I feel, rather than compliance. So you move into the area of good practice and set standards which are in the good practice zone rather than the compliance zone. Although you set up your good practice zone in such a way that it embraces the compliance, wouldn't you say that's our general kind of tack? And consequently I think the word compliance is then an unhelpful word to use because it's the sort of minimalist cop out phrase.

This distinction between 'meeting the requirements', 'fulfilling the requirements' and compliance is crucial to the argument. To fulfil the requirements one would not only comply, as such compliance would be a 'minimalist cop out phrase'. By implication, the cop out of compliance does comply with the law, 'as the very least one can do', and might even meet its requirements. So the law does make possible a 'tick box approach' even if the spirit of the law takes us beyond such an approach. I would even describe the 'tick box' as a spectre behind this law: the tick box is what we want to avoid in interpreting the legislation, and yet it is also what the legislation requires or even puts in place. Moving beyond compliance becomes a matter of compliance, but one that takes us into a different zone, described by Joyce Hill as the 'good practice' zone.

20. In other words, the positive duty to promote race equality becomes associated with being good at race equality: here, going beyond the tick box becomes a matter of institutional performance. And yet, good practice is clearly a term used within a tick box approach, insofar as 'doing well' is presumed to be something that can be ticked, measured, distributed and shared. An anecdotal example mentioned by a number of practitioners is of a university that had as its target that one hundred percent of its staff be diversity trained, and then put diversity training on line so it could meet its target. Having met its target, online diversity training becomes a form of good practice.[4]

21. Good practice and the tick box can thus be seen as operating in the same zone rather than different zones: after all both are implicated in what Jill Blackmore and Judyth Sachs describe as 'the performative university': 'one that focuses on measurable and marketable consumer satisfaction' (2003: 141). Diversity and equality become 'things' that can be measured, along with other performance outcomes. A good example of this process can be taken from the ECU's toolkit on communications, 'Good Talking: The Higher Education Communicators Equality and Diversity Toolkit', which includes the following as an example of 'general good practice: 'University of Southampton has produced institutional equality and diversity gifts and novelties that are in great demand'.[5] For diversity novelties to become a sign of 'good practice' is clear evidence of how diversity is being repackaged, as if it was a property of objects that can be passed around. So an organisation even gets a tick for its novelties.

22. The Act signals a shift within the public sectors towards seeing equality and diversity as performance indicators, as things that can be measured. Heidi Mirza (2005) has described this shift as the 'bureaucratisation of diversity'. Indeed, the RRAA has encouraged the shift towards seeing diversity and equality work as itself auditable. Audit culture not only measures performance, but it depends upon the reliability of such measurements. It also associates good performance with accountability, efficiency and quality as assumed 'goals' for organisations (Powers 1994: 1). Race equality would be something that can be measured, such that 'doing well' would become an indicator of institutional good performance: in other words, race equality would be a sign of accountability, efficiency and quality: if we are doing 'it' well, or can be seen to be doing 'it' well, then we are doing well.

23. Practitioners expressed mixed-feelings about equality and diversity becoming auditable. Some suggested that to audit equality and diversity would be a good thing, as universities only take seriously the activities that are audited, and that are attached to financial returns or penalties. As one interviewee describes: 'I think it would be useful in the HE [Higher Education] sector because it wouldn't have been done, just thinking about how they could operate and how they've been lagging behind, it was the push, you know you had to do it'. Audit becomes here a 'stick', which would compel action, as a compulsion which energises, or which creates an institutional drive. Others suggested that audit would not necessarily work, given how audit culture involves an awareness of audit. As one director of personnel describes:

an audit can establish if we have gone through processes, it can't really determine whether we are altering culture here. It can perhaps show whether we are reaching various targets, say you know, the same teacher of leadership staff who come from various backgrounds over time. But the trouble is when dealing with audit you tend always to respond in terms of process you know, we've done this report, we've got a plan out and all that sort of stuff. And I could see that you could get a rough idea if universities were putting effort into diversity by doing that, but the trouble is that in universities we've got an audit aware culture in administrations. And so people are practiced at how to show auditors that processes are being gone through.

24. So if diversity and equality were audited, then universities would be able to show they have gone through the right processes, whatever processes they actually have. In other words, you can become good at audit, which would mean the Universities who 'did well' on race equality would be simply the ones that were good at creating auditable systems.

25. It is not that you audit something that is already in place. To audit is to create a system, for example, by generating documents that are auditable. As Michael Powers argues audit culture is what 'makes things auditable' (1994: 33). Or, as Chris Shore and Susan Wright describe in their excellent account of audit in higher education: 'The result has been the invention of a host of "auditable structures" and paper trails to demonstrate "evidence of system" to visiting inspectors' (2000: 72). The document would be the paper in the trail. The auditable document 'refers back' to the terms set up the audit itself. For instance, benchmarking works by generating documents that refer back to the benchmarks, producing a family of documents around the terms. It is not then that diversity and equality are simply 'in' the documents: rather they are terms used by documents, in reference to terms that have already been made. When we measure such documents, we might then be measuring how their terms correspond with other terms, such as those set up the act itself. What does it mean for the correspondence of terms to be taken as measures of good performance? What is being measured when diversity becomes a measure of institutional performance?

26. I asked this question to one diversity practitioner, whose university received an excellent rank for their race equality policy and she suggested that: 'we are good at writing documents'. I reply, without thinking, 'well yes, one wonders', and we both laugh. Our wonder is sceptical: we wonder whether what is being measured is institutional competence in producing documents rather than what the university is doing in terms of race equality. As this practitioner further describes:

I was very aware that it wasn't very difficult for me and some of the other people to write a wonderful aspirational document. I think we all have great writing skills and we can just do that, because we are good at it, that's what we are expert at. And there comes with that awareness a real anxiety that the writing becomes an end in itself, the reality is being born out by say for example, we were commended on our policies and when the ECU reviewed our Implementation Plans last year there were a number of quite serious criticisms about time slippages, about the fact that we weren't reaching out into the mainstream and the issues hadn't really permeated the institution and the money implement in certain specific areas. And it wasn't that there was hostility, it was much more of this kind of marsh mallow feeling.

This is a fascinating statement about the politics of diversity as an institutional performance. The practitioner describes her skill and expertise in terms of writing a 'wonderful aspirational document'. Being good at writing documents becomes a competency that is also an obstacle for diversity work, as it means that the university gets judged as good because of the document. It is this very judgment about the document that blocks action, producing a kind of 'marsh mallow feeling', a feeling that we are doing enough, or doing well enough, or even that there is nothing left to do.

27. Many practitioners and academics have expressed concerns that writing documents or having good policies becomes a substitute for action: as this practitioner goes on to say, 'you end up doing the document rather than doing the doing'. The work that goes into doing the document ends up blocking other kinds of action. Or, we could make an even stronger argument: the orientation towards writing 'good documents' can block action, insofar as the document then gets taken up as evidence that we 'done it'. As another practitioner describes, 'Well I think in terms of the policies, peoples views are "well we've got them now so that's done, its finished" I think actually, I'm not sure if that's even worse than having nothing, that idea in peoples heads that we've done race, when we very clearly haven't done race'. The idea that the document is a doing is what could allow the institution to block recognition of the work that there is to do. The system of awarding organisations for their performance on diversity and equality not only risks concealing forms of inequality and racism, but also supports forms of organisational pride, which reorientate the politics of diversity work away from challenging how institutions constitute their identity and towards a promotion of that identity.

28. Such promotional work means that diversity is now described by some as being about 'R and R', that is, about risk and reputation. Or we could say that diversity involves promoting organisations through re-making their image. In one of my interviews, we discussed a research project that had been funded as part of the University's commitment to race equality, which is described as 'perception data' (data that gathers how people perceive an organisation). This research project was a target met by the University under its action plan, so of course it is already a tick. What did the research reveal? Take the following exchange:

OK yes. It was about uncovering perceptions um, about the xxx as an employer. ... xxx was considered to be an old boys network, as they called it and white male dominated and they didn't have the right perceptions of the xxx in terms of what it offers and what it brings to the academia. I think most of the external people had the wrong perceptions about the xxx.

And I mean, quotes, there were such funny quotes like librarians they were sitting there with their cardigans you know. Um, and things like that, they were shocking reports to read really about how people, external people, perceive the xxx so we have to try to achieve you know, we have to try to make the xxx an attractive employer.

29. The politics of diversity and equality has become about what we could call 'image management': diversity and equality work is about generating the 'right image', and correcting the wrong one. According to this logic, people have the 'wrong perception' when they see the organisation as white, elite, male, old-fashioned. In other words, what is behind the shock is a belief that that the whiteness is 'in the image' rather than 'in the organisation', or is an effect of what it does. Diversity and equality work hence becomes about changing perceptions of whiteness rather than changing the whiteness of organisations. A good performance would then be about being perceived as a diverse and equal organisation that is committed to diversity and equality. The perception itself would be the achievement; it would be taken up as a sign of good performance. The perception then becomes taken up as if it is a description: as if being perceived as diverse is what 'gives' the organisation such qualities.

Describing Diversity

30. Race equality documents hence work as if they are descriptions: they describe organisations as not only as having certain principles, but also as having certain qualities, characteristics and styles. They are often accompanied by images; which give organisations 'faces' by adopting the diverse faces of their inhabitants. Through such images and documents, organisations are constituted as if they have these qualities. One of the most obvious features of organisational self-descriptions is the use of the word 'diversity'. In other words, diversity enters such documents not only as something the university is committed to, but as a quality the university already has, by virtue of the kinds of staff and students that already exist within the organisation.

31. Take the following opening sentence from a race equality policy: 'The University values the richness of the diversity of its students, staff and members of the local communities in which it operates'. The discourse of valuing diversity is of course mainstream, and hesitates between discourses of economic value (the business case for diversity) and moral value (the social justice case). This model of diversity reifies difference as something that already exists 'in' the bodies of others (we are diverse because they are here). Their difference becomes our diversity. It is this model of diversity as something others bring to the organisation which we can see at work in the use of visual images of diverse organisations: images of 'colourful' happy faces, which show the diversity of the university as something it has embraced.[6]

32. How do practitioners mobilise the language of diversity? How does the institutional desire for diversity relate to what practitioners do? Many practitioners are very critical of how diversity is used by their organisations. As one practitioner put it: 'I think the concept of diversity, in the way that it is now used in equality, rather than diversity as a word, which I don't really think it has much relationship to, I think it's used as a complete and utter cop-out. I think it's a dreadful concept'. Indeed, this practitioner felt so strongly about 'the cop-out' of diversity that she refuses to describe herself as an equality and diversity practitioner, even though her job title involves both terms. She goes on to describe 'diversity' as a cuddly concept that extends the university's self-image as being good:

So now we'll talk about diversity and that means everybody's different but equal and its all nice and cuddly and we can feel good about it and feel like we've solved it, when actually we're nowhere near solving it and we need to I think have that, well diversity as a concept fits in much better with the university's idea of what its doing about being the great benefactor.

33. We could describe diversity as a politics of feeling good, which allows people to relax and feel less threatened, as if we have already 'solved it', and there is nothing else to do. I ask another practitioner why she thinks that the word 'diversity' is appealing. She argued that diversity appeals because 'it obscures the issues... It can, diversity is like a big shiny red apple right, and it all looks wonderful. This is an example actually a member of staff came up with in my focus group about gender issues, she says but if you actually cut into that apple there's a rotten core in there and you know that it's actually all rotting away and it's not actually being addressed. It all looks wonderful but the inequalities aren't being addressed'.

34. Again, the suggestion here is that the appeal of diversity is about looking and feeling good, as an orientation that obscures inequalities, like the obscuring of a rotten core behind a shiny surface. As such, diversity as a term has a marketing appeal; it allows the University to sell itself, by presenting itself as a happy place, a place where differences are celebrated, welcomed and enjoyed. Diversity becomes a form of organisational pride. Not only does this rebranding of the university as being diverse work to conceal racism, but it also works to re-imagine the University as being anti-racist, and even beyond race: as if the colours of different races have 'integrated' to create a new hybrid bronzed face.

35. And yet, this practitioner also acknowledges that there are some benefits to diversity, in the sense it can 'start to engage people'. It is given how diversity might make people feel good, that it can be a useful term, as it allows people in: once they are 'in', by implication, then we can do different things, or even use a different set of terms. In other words, the word equality, which is associated with the law, might be less useful, as people turn away from it, are threatened by the work that it asks them to do. If we use the word diversity, we might have a better change of 'getting through'. So it is precisely how diversity might work to conceal racism that might make it a term that can do things. In other words, what makes diversity useful is how it is appealing. If words do things, what they do depends on how they are being used, and how they can hook people, or bring them 'in'. Indeed, most practitioners describe their work as a question of 'what works', of using whatever language works for the different audiences they speak to. Diversity work is strategic, even if it has certain political principles behind it. Diversity is used by practitioners because it's a 'cuddly' term, which allows people to engage more easily with this kind of work. Some practitioners are positive about the term 'diversity' for the very same reasons others are critical of the term. As one interviewee describes:

I think for me with equality, as I said there is some legal framework and I think sometimes over-emphasised. There's a tension really because you need to make people aware of the legality, but you want to go beyond that don't you. You don't want it to be about compliance, so for me, I actually think diversity is actually a far more positive word than equality so for me it's about celebration. Whereas equality feels a bit more about oh you know meetings, legal requirements almost, I don't know that just personal.

36. Here diversity is something positive; it is about celebration, or even can be celebrated. This is why it is a useful term. Equality on the other hand evokes compliance and the law. It is hence no accident that diversity is described as having an energising effect. For many practitioners the question becomes then not so much whether to use the term diversity, but how to use that term. If the success of the term is that it can be detached from the history of struggle for equalities, then its success might paradoxically depend on being reattached to those very same histories.

37. At the same time, in order to be heard, practitioners also work by attaching the word 'diversity' to the other words that are taken as key to the organisation's strategic mission, whether it be excellence, internationalism or widening participation. In other words, it is the proximity of the term 'diversity' to the self-image of organisations that allows the term to accrue value. Take the following quote:

For me I think that the, well certainly, our aim in the diversity project is to help the organisation to see how diversity will help meet the strategic plans. So how can diversity help make us top ten in 2010? What will thinking about diversity enable a head of a school that is already very successful to be more successful. That would be my real aim and to live our vision for race, which is excellence through diversity.

Organisational pride gets translated into diversity pride, by attaching diversity to the pursuit of excellence. As this practitioner goes on to describe, 'xxx is very much, well you know it really does want to build a reputation and to be seen to be at the front, even if that's a bit risky'. Doing diversity is not so much here about putting diversity in front, but about putting the organisation in front, and making 'diversity' what follows.

38. In following the word 'diversity' around, we can see that it gets embraced by organisations insofar as it is proximate to the ideal images organisations already have of themselves. To add 'diversity' to a mission statement, hence does not necessarily add anything, other than to just put an educational mission in different terms. And yet, that word still has baggage, and still gets associated with people who 'look different'. As Nirmal Puwar points out, 'In policy terms, diversity has come overwhelmingly to mean the inclusion of people who look different' (2003: 1). Ironically, the hope of putting diversity into university documentation is that this word will keep these associations, however problematic they may be. The point would not be to constitute racial others as the origin of diversity, as what adds colour to the white face of the university. Rather, insofar as diversity signifies the presence of racial others, then it might point also to how organisations are orientated around whiteness, around those who are 'already in place'. The happy smiling face of diversity would not then simply re-brand the university, but point instead to what gets concealed by this very image: the inequalities that are behind it, and which give it its surface appeal. In other words, the strategy of associating diversity with organisational pride is that the word might yet work to challenge the ideal image of the organisation. It is pride, after all, which is the condition for possibility for being shamed, for exposing the gap between ideals and actions.

39. If we consider the politics of describing diversity we can see that such descriptions create fantasy images of the organisations they apparently represent. The document says we are diverse, as if saying it makes it so. In a way, our task must be to refuse to read such documents as performatives, as bringing into effect what they name. That is not to say that such documents do not matter, or that they do not do anything. They do things, for sure. Indeed, this non-performativity is what makes them useful as tools; they can be used by practitioners precisely insofar as they fail to describe or produce what is 'on going' or 'going on' within organisations. In other words, by putting commitments in writing, as commitments that are not followed by other actions, such documents can be used as supportive devices, by exposing gaps between words and deeds. This is not to say we should not be critical in the hope invested in such documents. We must be critical. At the same time, we must also consider how such documents circulate, how they move around, how they get stuck. Following documents around begins with an uncertainty about what these documents will do. They might, at certain points, even cause trouble.


Sara Ahmed is Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She works at the intersection between feminist theory, critical race studies, postcolonial theory and queer studies. Her publications include: Differences that Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism (1998); Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (2000); The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004) and Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006). She is currently writing a book on happiness, as well as a monograph based on her ethnographic research on diversity work, provisionally entitled: Doing Diversity: Racism and Educated Subjects.


[1]. This paper was originally published by Merideans: Journal of Woman, Race and Culture (2006). Thanks to the editors of this journal for their permission to reproduce the paper in a revised form. The paper develops the thesis on 'the non-performativity of anti-racism' originally made in Ahmed (2004).

[2]. This research was undertaken as part of a wider project assessing the turn to diversity within the learning and skills sector (including adult and community and learning, and further education), as well as higher education. I was co-director of this project with Elaine Swan, and the project team includes Shona Hunter, Sevgi Kilic and Lewis Turner. My own study was based in higher education, and involved ten interviews with diversity practitioners in Australia (see Ahmed 2006) and ten interviews with diversity practitioners in the UK. This paper draws only on the UK data. As a small study, the data cannot be seen as representative, although it includes a broad spectrum of different kinds of institutions, including old and new universities, urban and rural, and universities from the North and South of England, as well as Scotland.

[3]. The Equality Challenge Unit oversees all equality issues for Higher Education in the UK. See:

[4]. The very desire for good practice could even be a means through which racism becomes concealed from view. In other words, the very desire to hear about 'happy stories of diversity' is what allows organisations not to hear about racism. Our experiences of researching diversity under the auspices of the Centre for Excellence in Leadership (CEL) were instructive. CEL - which trains leaders in the Further Education sector and also funds research into leadership - is what I call a 'diversity proud' organisation. Their funding of our project was often cited as an example of their 'commitment' to diversity. Our experience of doing this research showed how commitment to diversity can convert very quickly to hostility towards diversity workers, especially those who talk about racism. Not only were we continually targeted with criticism (through informal modes of communication), but an attempt was made to discredit our findings. By not fulfilling the terms of their commitment (by refusing to tell 'happy stories of diversity') we became a bad object within the organisation. This experience mirrored many of the accounts from diversity practitioners across the sectors. Diversity proud organisations tend to see discussions of racism as a threat to their reputation as 'being committed' to diversity.

[5]. See:

[6]. It is worth noting here the powerful critiques of the 'turn' to diversity within higher education offered by feminist and critical management scholars. Such critiques have suggested that 'diversity' enters higher education through marketisation: the term is seen as 'coming from' management, and from the imperative to 'manage diversity', or to value diversity 'as if' it was a human resource. Such a managerial focus on diversity, it has been argued, works to individuate difference and to conceal the continuation of systematic inequalities within organisations such as universities (Kandola and Fullerton 1994: Lorbiecki 2001; Kirton and Greene 2000, Deem and Ozga 1997: 33, Benschop 2001: 1166, for summary, see Ahmed and Swan 2006). For these scholars, amongst others, the institutional preference for the term 'diversity' is a sign of the lack of commitment to change, and might even allow universities to conceal the operation of systematic inequalities. We can ask, in light of these critiques, what does the word 'diversity' do?


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© borderlands ejournal 2006





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