The Language of Diversity and Inclusion (Part 1)

Amanda and I were fortunate to have the opportunity to speak at the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) conference in Cleveland this month. We were invited as part of a young thought leaders session on diversity and inclusion. Our presentations were a moment to think through the language of diversity, and how we foresee the move toward intersectionality in the field.

I’ve been working through my own frustration with the over-saturation of the terms ‘diversity and inclusion’, intersectionality, and community that are often without the depth of meaning that allow for us to put them into real action.

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Diversity

From its inception has been overly relied upon to do the work of changing our perceptions and the place of people of color within our institutions. A textbook dictionary definition of the root word diverse states, “showing a great deal of variety; very different.” ‘Diversity’ initiatives in this way are shortsighted. The cliche of diversity becomes a burden on people of color that only requires the appearance of change. (i.e. the diversity committee, comprised of all the folks that are “diverse,” diversity does not mean black and brown people, etc.)

 

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Intersectionality

The problem with diversity is it’s uncomfortable, and not in the way doing the work of shifting our paradigms for ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiatives should be. ‘Intersectionality’, as it has been taken up, has become a way to bundle up difference with a bow. Kimberlé Crenshaw, legal scholar, gave us this term in her critical essay “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” in 1989. Knowing the disciplinary origin of this term is important because intersectionality has always been about systems of power and privilege that are enforced upon particular persons in our society. (i.e. doing the work of inclusion should be difficult. If it isn’t, you’re doing it wrong.)

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Community

But as language travels so does meaning, and instead we’ve settled on a definition that sanitizes difference so to not have to critically examine the consequences of power on those differences. Diversity in this ways does not inquire into how to deal with difference but contains it. If we, in museums, are to do the work of intersectionality, we must examine our privilege and power; and it starts with putting meaning into practice. It is how we come to find and know our community.

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It is easy to settle for the community that looks like you, and that you can assume you know; rather than to ask the questions that would cause you to confront your own ignorance. Communities are ever changing, and for that we should never settle.

(Thank you again to AAMD for having us for their centennial conference convening.)

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