Sara Ahmed Talks Use, Institutions, And Diversity Work
Written by Ramisa Murshed
What is the role of diversity in large institutions? How does diversity work mold and change an institution? Staff writer, Ramisa Murshed, attended Sara Ahmed’s lecture on how “social justice projects require making usage into crisis” to find out.
As the Diana Event Oval filled up on Monday night with people eager to listen to Sara Ahmed’s lecture titled “The Institutional as Usual: Diversity Work as Data Collection,” Tina Campt, Director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, welcomed the audience and introduced Ahmed, a feminist scholar who, in Campt’s words, “modeled and reshaped what it means to be a feminist activist of color.”.
Ahmed then took the podium and joked about her cold, saying that she hoped that her voice would be able to last through the evening. She then began to define the “institutional as usual,” providing the audience with an anecdote of a diversity worker’s experience with the institution: the diversity worker enters a room to find it occupied by several white males, sharing their memories of breakfast at the University of Cambridge. When the diversity worker, a woman of color, entered the room, the occupants of the room just kept talking to each other as if she was not there. The diversity worker, recalling the event, said to Ahmed, “I realized how far away they were from my world.” Ahmed used this experience to introduce the purpose of her lecture, to think about diversity and universities through use.
She divided her lecture into four parts, the first titled “Uses of Use.” In this section, Ahmed provided the audience with a logical discussion of use. She first defined use as a biography, or a way of telling stories of things. Although certain objects are designed with a specific use, use doesn’t always correspond to function. She referenced used books in discussing how the term “used” is often synonymous with “secondhand,” and how more signs of usage yield a depreciation of value. She even referenced an occupied toilet, explaining that because the toilet is in use, it remains out of use for others because it is occupied, and discussed how things become easier to use the more you use them. Ahmed finished off the first section by tying the creation of a building to the concept of use: “You are more likely to use the stone that happens to fit in the space.”
In the next section, Ahmed introduced the idea of institutional habits. She explained that diversity work was related to changing the institution. She referenced several outside anecdotes about diversity and how people thought about it within institutions and stated that diversity might be used because its existence allows institutions to avoid actually addressing it, such that diversity work is meant to change the institutions, but the institutions are often not willing to change. (A diversity worker described the job as “banging your head against a brick wall.) Applying her discussion of use to institutional habits, Ahmed explained that “a diversity policy can often come into existence without coming into use,” and that a policy becomes unusable by not becoming used. Eventually, environments change as uses change, and use becomes a method of fit. The idea that things are used because they just happen to fit becomes an ideology, Ahmed said. In terms of institutions and the people who comprise them, she said, “Some have paths laid out for them because they already fit a requirement.” And just like use, “for” is before–”When the world is built for some, they come before others.”
The third section of Ahmed’s discussion caused strong emotions to circulate around the room. This section was titled “Occupied,” and discussed more specific instances of institutional habits negatively affecting minorities. She described how complaints against the institution are dismissed and seen as burdensome, and she addressed the abuses of power by more privileged groups within institutions and what complaints can teach us about them. When she began talking about how complaints were typically dismissed, many people in the audience nodded their heads in agreement, as if they had experienced the same exact thing. Ahmed referenced the use of paths again in summarizing her point of this section: “Institutions have no paths for complaints, and we need to give people with complaints somewhere to go.”
Ahmed concluded her lecture with a sort of call to action. She defined diversity work again, but this time as “trying to dismantle the structures that do not accommodate us.” In terms of data collection, diversity work fits in by allowing people to learn from their own experiences. She talked about a personal experience she had, in which she attempted to protest sexual harassment within an institution, but instead was seen as “damage” to the institution. But to that, she responded, “We need more explosions.”
After Ahmed finished her presentation, Tina Campt returned to sit with Ahmed for an interactive discussion and a question and answer session with the audience.
Image via Bwogger