Let’s hear it for diversity!

George A Spiva Centre for the Arts Diversity MaskGeorge A. Spiva Art Centre/ Diversity Mask

Let’s face it, diversity is a good-news story. Diversity in our workplaces or government policies and frameworks not only brightens the day, but it actually means quite a lot for people who have often been marginalised, to be included. For immigrant and refugee women, diversity in the labour force can translate into enjoyable and productive working lives. Diversity in publishing and the media can mean that readers have access to wonderfully important stories, and immigrant and refugee women have a voice. Diversity in education can mean that learning becomes both accessible and more meaningful for students from immigrant and refugee communities. Culinarily speaking, diversity adds to general enjoyment in life. I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the monotonous days of white-bread, cheddar cheese and lettuce sandwiches for lunch. These days we revel in the diverse gourmet choices we have, from sushi to quinoa, and everything in between.

But (even good-news stories can come with a reluctant ‘but’) diversity can have a down-side. Diversity, and the happy story that goes with it, as the feminist scholar Sara Ahmed has shown, can sometimes be understood as existing outside of the broader context of power relations. Diversity can be interpreted as a benign, horizontal difference which, while promoting the wonderful aspects of inclusion and acceptance, is not necessarily accompanied by any effective mechanisms for positive change. In the absence of real transformative initiatives within organisations that improve conditions for marginalised people, the very focus on ‘diversity’, can have the effect of cutting off diversity from other strategies that challenge inequities more directly, and in fact, may even take the place of such programs.

Diversity and structural change can end up as two sides of a coin. You can’t see both sides at once. Smiling colourful faces on organisational websites don’t always mean that organisations are ensuring that migrants and refugees are getting a fair go. In fact, such a public image may mask the reality that these same organisations tend for example, to reserve management positions to the usual white (and/or) male suspects, while promoting ‘diversity’ among the rank and file.

So we celebrate diversity, and will always promote its happy story. But next time you come across a diversity policy or statement, try flipping the coin over to see whether that diversity is supported by structural change initiatives. Do workplace policies include equal opportunity or affirmative action initiatives? Are there programs in place to value the skills and capabilities of immigrant and refugee women, and to facilitate their promotion and advancement in the workforce? Is funding equally allocated to government policy initiatives to address diverse needs and address structural inequities? If the answer is a resounding yes, now that is a good news story.