by Elise Geltman, LCSW
"Diversity is the practice of mixing together different bodies within a common organization and is a prime resource to be capitalized upon by businesses and organizations... Diversity still benefits those in power by taking advantage of the various experiences and vantage points of different racial/gender/sexual backgrounds. Rather than respecting difference and redistributing power based on it, diversity only 'celebrates' difference in order to exploit multiculturalism for its economic value."
I have publicly and privately spoken about my desire to support NCSPP in co-creating an organization that is, among other things, inclusive, diverse, accessible, and vital. In the midst of doing so, each time I spoke I became increasingly aware of the limits and problems embedded in the very language and structure of such desires or initiatives leaving me asking questions such as:
- How do we (can we) talk about difference, diversity, or inclusion without enacting problematic oppressive structural dynamics in the very discourse aimed at attending to and interrupting injustice and inequity?
- What does it mean to say we want or need to be more diverse and what is actually being asked for, why, and for whose benefit?
- How does an organization/agency/program/individual meaningfully (and responsibly!) create and invest in spaces that are equitable? What are the appropriate and effective ways of going about such work?
These questions require us to focus on the negative space around the desire for an inclusive, diverse, accessible organization.
As British analyst Farhad Dalal (2008) notes, a simple desire for diversity "can avoid engaging with the problematics of power differentials between social groupings, and facing the fact that some groups do worse than other groups... the thorny issues to do with power and relations are forgotten in the miasma of celebration of diversity." He says that seeking diversity or inclusion alone "does not take up the subject of oppression and marginalization."
I'd say that the current global reality reveals that we are ambivalent (at best) about taking up systemic oppressions. Dominant culture and systemic oppressions are consciously and unconsciously enacted by organizations, agencies, programs, and individuals. We are all shaped, instructed, and impacted by the existing power structures -- including the historically oppressive power structures of whiteness, maleness, and colonialism (to name just a few). I think we cannot help but identify with the aggressor of systemic oppressions on some level because our success, safety, and survival often depends on it (regardless of which group we belong to). It is disturbing, uncomfortable, and overwhelming to grapple with the parts of ourselves that have been taken over by forces that we do not consciously welcome, ascribe to, or like.
Meaningfully attending to historical oppressions and their impacts takes active, unending work. While the work may be different for people who benefit from systemic power structures and those who are harmed by them, it is work that must be done in order to interrupt external and internal oppressions and promote healing. This is why I return to this topic -- for myself and for our professional community. Without an intentional return to the repressed, we will enact harm upon each other and ourselves.