Sara Ahmed, On Being Included
We are going to read “On Arrival”, Sara Ahmed’s introduction to her 2012 book On Being Included. Although the chapter does not discuss field of politics in terms of what goes on in elections or legislatures, Ahmed’s discussion of diversity can help us understand politics because she is concerned with power, and, in particular, institutional power. Start by watching the video above, in which Ahmed discusses power, interests, and institutions. Power, Ahmed explains, “works through presuming that the interests of one group are the interests of all groups”, which requires “hiding that these are the interests of one group as opposed to all groups, so that when one person speaks […] it appears that they’re speaking for everybody when actually they’re only speaking for somebody.” This means that “what’s at stake is the power of who’s speaking.” Asking “who’s speaking?” is an important question in the study of political representation, especially for those of us who are interested in the representation of marginalized groups. Ahmed also reminds us that politics are connected to “everyday life”. That is, politics are not just about what happens in legislatures and during elections, but impact our intimate lives, our workplaces, our educations, and our access to resources. Further, Ahmed’s explanation of universalism is important for understanding politics, wherein men’s interests have tended to stand in for everybody else’s.
In the excerpt you’re going to read, Ahmed introduces her book on diversity. Ahmed offers an important critique of diversity, because she explains that people who are identified as ‘diverse’ come to do the work of having to make institutions more diverse. Ahmed’s work reminds those of us invested in anti-racism and feminism to be cautious about appeals to the language of “diversity”, such as Justin Trudeau’s refrain that “diversity is our strength!” What is wrong with talking about diversity? Ahmed argues that “diversity” can become merely a descriptor, meaning that the term itself doesn’t do any analytical or political work. In this way, ‘diversity’ is different from the language of ‘anti-racism’. Whereas ‘diversity’ describes the composition of a group, ‘anti-racism’ implies a critique (of racism) and an end goal (ending racism). Ahmed encourages us to think about ways of doing ‘diversity work’ that transform institutions.
As you read:
- Think about who gets identified as ‘diverse’, and who is perceived to be ‘normal’.
- Reflect on your own experiences: have you ever had to be the ‘diversity’ person? What does it feel like to have to speak for your entire gender, your race, your nation, or your religion? Do you feel like, as a ‘diverse’ person, you have to do the work of ‘adding diversity’ to the conversation? Have you ever felt like you’ve become ‘stuck’ to a category, like race or gender? What does that feel like?
- Ahmed is interested in how some people come to be “understood as the rightful occupants of certain spaces”. Think about how it is that some people have come to be perceived as ‘normal’ politicians, whereas others are noteworthy — ‘strangers’ — because of their ‘diversity’.
Find the Ahmed reading here. You are responsible for reading Chapter One, “On Arrival”, but pages 1-5 and 12-17 only.
Next, you will read Nirmal Puwar’s article, “Thinking about Making a Difference”. Puwar focuses on the British political context, but her argument that ‘diverse’ bodies become “space invaders” in political institutions is helpful for understanding the issue of political representation in Canada and the United States, too. Whereas feminist studies of political representation tend to ask: “do women and racialized minorities make a difference?”, Nirmal Puwar argues that the very presence of women and racialized minorities is important in institutions that have traditionally been dominated by white, able-bodied men. In this sense, they are “space invaders”, disrupting spaces that have been set up for particular subjects.
As you read:
- Pay attention to Puwar’s big point about the ways that women and racialized minorities disrupt space, as “space invaders”.
- Identify two or three examples of ways that non-white, non-male bodies are ‘space invaders’ according to Puwar.
- Identify what Puwar means when she says that women’s and racialized bodies become “amplified”.