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Institutions of higher education across the country have long talked about diversity and inclusion. Many have established offices of equity or inclusion and hired staff to ensure that the institution is living up to its promise to foster an inclusive culture.

At Michigan State University, inclusiveness is one of the three core values by which we define ourselves, and we have created both an Office of Institutional Equity and an Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives. In my first fall planning letter for the College of Arts & Letters, I wrote:

If the university intends to embody the core value of inclusiveness, we must invest resources and articulate priorities at all levels of the academic mission — from the curriculum, to the faculty, to the culture — that reinforce our commitment to the reality that there is no excellence without diversity.

Yet, when we make diversity an institutional goal, when we profess it as a value and build it into our organizational structures, we can fail to recognize it as a shared task that requires assiduous attention everyday.

When it appears as a priority, inclusion as a lived experience often withdraws.

The manner in which diversity recedes from view as it is institutionally redressed is the focus of Sara Ahmed’s insightful and challenging book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.

She puts it this way: “This book investigates what diversity does by focusing on what diversity obscures, that is, by focusing on the relationship between diversity and racism as a way of making explicit a tendency that is reproduced by staying implicit.” 1

In describing how diversity practices appear in institutional contexts, Ahmed takes a phenomenological approach. Phenomenology requires us to describe carefully the ways things appear in everyday experience so that we are able to trace what disappears from consciousness in the very process by which a given phenomenon shows forth.

In attending to the way diversity appears as an institutional priority, Ahmed is able to call attention to the way justice can recede from view. For Ahmed, diversity work is a kind of phenomenological practice: it requires a critical description of how the ideal of diversity can, in being institutionalized, reinforce structures of injustice the ideal itself attempts to ameliorate.

When things become institutional, they recede. To institutionalize x is for x to become routine or ordinary such that x becomes part of the background for those who are part of an institution. 2

Her phenomenological approach gives us some purchase on how diversity, in becoming a priority, can undermine the very value of diversity we are trying to embody. Ironically, instead of creating a culture of greater inclusion, diversity work can reinforce institutional habits of repression. In creating offices of equity and inclusion, in hiring staff focused on diversity work, and yes, even in speaking regularly and earnestly as a Dean about how there is “no excellence without diversity,” we can cover over the phenomenon of exclusion that continues to condition our relationships with one another.

Ahmed’s book challenges us to consider how these good faith attempts to redress inequity can end up reinforcing the very institutional racism and structural injustice they were designed to remedy.

One reason for this failure, it seems to me, is that such institutional responses can have the effect of suggesting that redressing structural racism is someone else’s job. Once there is an office of diversity and staff hired with job responsibilities that focus on fostering inclusive practices, then somehow we who make up the living reality of institutional life no longer feel the need to consider how our own habits and practices embody a bias we ourselves cannot recognize.

In short, by institutionalizing diversity as a core value, we can fail to live up to the ideal we had hoped to embody.

Embodying Practices of Inclusion

But embodiment is a matter of practice; and to embody the ideals of inclusion we hope to weave into the life of the institution requires the cultivation of habits. Redressing structural injustice is not a problem to be solved, it is an ongoing task that must be taken up anew each day, a commitment that must be intentionally integrated into our relationships with one another.

To speak of “institutional habits” is to risk misunderstanding. First, many of us consider habits behaviors we do without thought. And, of course, there are bad habits, like fingernail biting, and good habits, like regular exercise. Those habits we cultivate intentionally to make our lives better require deliberation and discipline: deliberation because we need to consider what is best from a broad and holistic perspective, discipline because good habits require fundamental changes in everyday practice. Cultivating the habits of inclusion requires discipline and vigilance in our daily interactions. Habits of inclusion are not passive dispositions, but active conditions of character we need to nurture each day in our relationships with one another.

Second, many of us think of institutions as static disembodied organizational structures. But the word “institution” itself points to a more dynamic and active practice of beginning. Here again Ahmed is eloquent:

Institutions can be thought of as verbs as well as nouns: to put the “doing” back into the institution is to attend to how institutional realities become given, without assuming what is given by this given. 3

Emphasis on the verbal nature of institutions invites us each day to initiate the values we want our institutions to embody.

To cultivate the practices of inclusion as a matter of institutional habit involves the deliberate, disciplined, and ongoing attempt to weave a commitment to justice into our encounters with one another each day. It is not the job of one office or one group of people, but a shared commitment to a common task to ensure that we embody the values we hope to institute.

This post has been cross-posted on Medium

  1. Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press. Kindle Edition, location 289–90, p. 14.
  2. Ibid., loc. 392, p. 21.
  3. Ibid, loc. 376, p. 21.