Differences are diverse
Why a Critical Diversity Blog?
This blog has several beginnings. One is the pandemic situation in which we are currently studying and working together. This situation has thwarted our plans to hold a series of workshops on discrimination at the Berlin University of the Arts. We didn’t think of a direct substitute, but chose a different strategy: to gather contributions and experience reports here on this blog, and thus to see and show what is going on at the moment on questions of diversity and anti-discrimination at the Berlin University of the Arts and beyond. The blog is a platform for questions and problems, for debates and projects.
The second beginning, further in the past, is the foundation of the AG Critical Diversity at the UdK Berlin. Its aim is to formulate a diversity policy fulfilling a task assigned to (Berlin) universities. There is a danger that such a diversity strategy, once written down, will either be passed, or pass away. In other words, it could happen that with the formulation of the diversity strategy, the issue could be considered as settled. But for a university to become truly non-discriminatory, a broad exchange is needed, a process: what kind of diversity do we want, who speaks for whom and how could the measures that are considered urgent be implemented at all? These are difficult questions. Many initiatives at the UdK Berlin are concerned with these questions, with many having been launched by students. Everyone should have their say here.
Inequality and discrimination are particularly pronounced under the conditions of the pandemic: In homes that are to become offices and classrooms, the division of labour often follows traditional gender regimes; many activities that are the most essential remain the most defenceless and poorly paid; discrimination against elderly or disabled persons and persons with chronic illnesses becomes apparent as soon as the prevention of infection is called into question. And if anger and blame always affects people, who are not perceived as white and/or not German, it should finally be clear to everyone what racism is. All of this is especially relevant to an art university, and it is what drives us. Herein lies the third and most urgent starting point of this Critical Diversity Blog.
So what does diversity mean?
Diversity is first and foremost a descriptive term that indicates that societies are heterogeneous structures. The closer one looks, the more it becomes apparent how heterogeneous or diverse each group is. Basically, each individual is diverse in themselves, because each person is made up of a complex interweaving of different dimensions such as gender, skin colour, national and ethnic cultural affiliation, social origin, religion and worldview, sexual orientation, physical, mental and psychological condition and age. This list can be supplemented.
The fact that differences are becoming more and more differentiated is what makes the concept of diversity so blurred, but it is also its potential. For, in this perspective, distinctions turn out to be changeable and fluid (like the contours on our blog.) Categories can also become irrelevant or controversial (like the term “race” in the German constitution.) This changeability indicates that we are not dealing with the description of natural conditions, but with social and cultural distinctions made by people. Distinctions have a history; creating differentiations is always a social and cultural act. Such acts are carried out in everyday life in a casual and permanent way, through glances, language and gestures, or through accesses that are granted or not – sometimes they are violent acts. For differences are diverse: they can either be associated with advantages and privileges, or with discrimination and exclusion.
To avoid any misunderstandings: not every disadvantage or criticism is a form of discrimination. Discrimination against a person or a group occurs when they are treated worse than others in similar situations because certain characteristics or behaviours are attributed to them (for example: the police assume or actually look for a “migrant background” when a crime is committed.) In addition, discrimination overlaps and sometimes intensifies. An intersectional perspective therefore calls for a comparison of class and gender or race and education or disability, age and financial resources.
Diversity is also an emancipatory concept. Indeed, the emphasis on diversity means that social participation, personal expression and freedom of movement are equally available to all. In a society in which an entire cultural history of racialization is attached to Black bodies, trans-persons constantly have to deal with the two-gender model, and anti-Semitism grows in strong leaps, the realization of equal access and equal opportunities is not yet in sight.
Why “critical” diversity?
In so-called diversity management there is a tendency to ignore issues of discrimination, not to perceive them. Such a view of diversity leaves behind struggles and matters advanced in social movements since the 1960s, in the feminist and gay-lesbian, anti-racist and Crip movements that are part of the history of the concept of diversity. Diversity becomes a multifaceted picture, and also an economic resource in global competition. In such approaches, however, the mobility of identity comes to a standstill.
Instead, we speak of critical diversity. For the critique of power relations and discrimination is the prerequisite for becoming a diversity-sensitive institution. Any diversity strategy must take into account the existing forms of discrimination, stereotyping and degradation, from exclusion to violence, that individuals and groups experience inside and outside the institution. For structural inequality can only be reduced if it is perceived. Diversity can only be recognized where there is sensibility and respect for differences. Discrimination can only be dismantled where there is an awareness of the interplay between disadvantage and advantage. In short: developing diversity always means pursuing anti-discrimination.
At an art university, specific questions come to mind: How is teaching organized, how does a class function? Who listens, who speaks? Which language? Who is considered “suitable” or “gifted”? Under which criteria? How does one get into (and out of) the art university? What role does appearance play? And gender? Can everyone move independently in and between the buildings? And, on a content level: to which art or music, to whose knowledge and skills do we refer? What and who is left out? Exchange is central to an open university, but diversity is much more than internationalization. Pictures showing students of different skin colors look good in university marketing, but that is not enough. How many professors of color are there actually? What about the representation of migrant students and instructors?
In order to be able to counteract discrimination on an individual and structural level, the institution must come to terms with itself, with its standards and expectations, with its (colonial and gender) history. This does not only concern the “affected”. It is neither their task to explain again and again that they are discriminated against and how, nor to develop answers or solutions against discrimination. However, without diverse voices in the process of questioning, the institution is bound to reproduce its existing structures. Everyone is called upon to deal with the limitations of their own perspective, the blind spots and possibly unacknowledged bias. It is a process that affects every individual.
The Critical Diversity Blog offers a forum for this discussion. It works all the better, the more contributions and reports of experience from members and guests of this university come together here. After all, this is about the UdK Berlin’s examination of its implicit and explicit norms, its hidden curricula, and what works and does not yet work on the way to a more diversity-aware and discrimination-critical art university.
Kathrin Peters for the AG Critical Diversity
Thanks to Juana Awad, Maja Figge, Annika Haas, Claudia Hummel and Naile Tanış
Translation: Juana Awad
Sara Ahmed: Living a Feminist Life, Duke University Press 2017
Paul Mecheril: Prekäre Verhältnisse. Über natio-ethno-kulturelle (Mehrfach-)Zugehörigkeit, Münster 2003.
Steven Vertovec (Hg.): Routledge International Handbook ofDiversity Studies, 2014.