AT THE TABLE
In her excellent book On Being Included, Sara Ahmed writes about a familiar type of family gathering. She describes inhabiting space as a “feminist killjoy,” a figure that sets eyes rolling around a table. It goes like this: a family member says something offensive or problematic. The one who speaks as a feminist responds, maybe quietly, maybe excitedly. The situation escalates, it is now wound up, an argument perhaps. The person who responds, the feminist, tends to be perceived as the cause of all the trouble. The dinner is ruined. Someone is at fault.
Ahmed notes, “Institutions also have tables around which bodies gather. Some are at home in these gatherings more than others. The diversity practitioner, rather like the feminist killjoy, is heard as an obstacle to the conversational space before she even says anything. She poses a problem because she keeps exposing a problem. Another meeting ruined. The tiredness of the terms is thus an institutional tiredness – it is the resistance to hearing the words that slows them down. If the institution has ears, then they are blocked: the words do not get through…embodying diversity can mean being perceived as threatening no matter what you say or do.”
I am interested in the tables of institutions and the people who gather there. These are the places that decisions are made, power is held, dynamics are repeated or transformed. Those that have been designed to facilitate participation and democratic involvement are especially of interest to me. As a Board member, Finance Committee member, and brand new chair of the Intersectionality Committee, I recognize that there are endless ideas and thoughts that could be welcomed, silenced, understood, dismissed, incorporated, and provoked in these places.
“Diversity evokes the pleasures of consumption,” Ahmed notes, including “the bodies of others, by adding spice and color.” As such, the term “diversity” is often swallowed or incorporated into existing institutional dynamics. As Gloria Anzaldua notes, diversity can be “treated as a superficial over-lay that does not disrupt any comfort zones.” It is often viewed as a more positive, even palatable concept that seems to describe a somewhat gentle effort to change a place, process, or group. This term has come up repeatedly around the table during Board of Directors meetings in the last twelve months. “Diversity” is something we’ve heard and said in the wake of the distressing and urgent Race to Equity report released last year. It is something that we talk about moving towards, but why?
The term “diversity” is not one that I prefer, although I recognize that others do. To me, the word obscures various systemic inequalities because they tend to be perceived as “too negative.” I agree with Ahmed when she writes that “diversity can allow organizations to retain their good idea of themselves. It also creates the individual as the proper object: if diversity is what individuals have as individuals, then it gives permission to those working within institutions to turn away from ongoing realities of institutional inequality.” But why care so much about a word?
Changing institutional norms is serious business. When the Board of Directors speaks about taking action to directly address findings from the Race to Equity report, it is evident that many sitting around the table are unsure about this kind of work. This blend of concern, trepidation, and desire for change sits next to the struggles, questions, and anger of others who are also Owners of this cooperative institution, and community members in which this institution is situated.
The frustrations that have surfaced can sometimes be challenging to describe by those who experience them. Sometimes they appear as microaggressions, sometimes they are glaringly overt actions or reactions, sometimes they seem to be barely perceptible prejudices. Oftentimes, the repercussions of racism, sexism, ableism, classism and other systemic forms of oppression are invisible to those not directly affected. Obstacles that are incredibly visible and restrictive to particular individuals often demand a great deal of energy and patience to simply move through. This effort is then compounded by the energy it takes to describe these obstacles to other individuals who are not directly restricted, people who don’t perceive them or aren’t oriented to seeing them. Oftentimes, these very real obstacles are then dismissed as imaginary, individuals are deemed “too sensitive” or “too angry,” and those affected must once again summon the energy to continue repeating this disempowering process. This is often called normal.
There are many ways to potentially address, critique, attempt to dismantle suchnormative systems of power, oppression, valuation. The analysis of intersectionality offers up something more textured and complex than what is often pursued as “diversity work.” The term refers to the interactions of various identities within systems of inequality. According to Wikipedia, “Intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and belief-based bigotry, do not act independently of one another. Instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the ‘intersection’ of multiple forms of discrimination.” These theories owe a lot to the work of women of color feminists who have called attention to compounded realities regarding the distribution of power.
One aspect of an intersectional analysis looks at the ways that “either/or” thinking can heighten experiences of injustice. Looking through this particular lens may mean putting a number of concepts on the table, even if they initially seem to compete with each other. This allows for a multiplicity of valid viewpoints and can lead to smarter, more nuanced decision-making. By locating interrelated experiences, there are more opportunities for people to dissect power and connect in new ways.
POLICY & PRACTICE
The Intersectionality Committee at Willy Street Co-op has a lot of work ahead of us. The charter that has been approved by the Board of Directors includes a critical examination of policies and processes within the Co-op, surveys of staff and Board members, the development of educational options, and a plan to craft new policies to be voted on by the full Board. Upon approval, these policies would ultimately be interpreted (put into practice operationally) by the General Manager. To apply to be a part of this Committee, Willy Street Co-op Owners can fill out the form here.