Invisible Labour   Spring 2016


The Past, Present, and Future of “Diversity Work”

The Past, Present, and Future of “Diversity Work”

The word “diversity” has been on a lot of people’s lips lately, from a plethora of hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite and #WomenInTech, to student protests on campuses across the country, to think pieces in old media and new. It flutters around our institutions, popping up in meetings, showing up on posters, materializing on websites and mission statements and job advertisements. One would think (if one were hopelessly naïve), that this is a great time for diversity — a diversity heyday, the second coming of Obama’s post-racial America, where the scales are finally balanced and accounts put in order. And I guess if we want to think positively, we could say that at least the issue is finally being acknowledged. At least we’ve moved on from the abusive gaslighting of historically marginalized and oppressed people within institutional spaces that take pride in considering themselves progressive. At least there are words where there used to be silence. But I think we can all agree that at least will never be good enough. That appointing diversity administrators and writing diversity statements and hiring diversity candidates is not the solution to the problem, but only a step in the general direction of where the problem is occurring. That inserting women and people of color into capitalist, white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchal spaces does not magically dismantle the very fabric of an institution’s culture. We know this, right?

I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure everyone knows this. And I’m not so sure a complete accounting of the price that “diversity workers” pay has been adequately performed by our arts institutions. And I think what I’m going to get at, where I’m going to arrive, is that no proper accounting is possible, but an attempt must be made, nonetheless — that this is a necessary failure that must be performed. But I’m getting away from myself. Before we can arrive, we must depart. And perhaps the best way to depart is from a place of disorientation, from the position of the infiltrator — lost in this interconnected web of power, history, and erasure.

So, where do we begin? Since we’re lost, since we don’t know where we are, we might as well start with ourselves. As Trinh T. Minh Ha tells us, “The world’s earliest archives or libraries were the memories of women. Patiently transmitted from mouth to ear, body to body, hand to hand.” Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 121 And so what stories does my body have to tell? My body contains the scars of being the diversity within predominantly white institutions. Of being on the receiving end of white erasure. Of the fog that we must travel through, as we grasp our lamps, peering, hoping for answers:

When that white guy in my international relations class said I wasn’t objective, why didn’t the TA say anything?

When my white male friend said that racism wouldn’t be a problem once all the old people die, why didn’t I have the words to disagree out loud?

What am I supposed to say when my favorite white male teacher describes me as exotic in front of the entire class?

Why am I the only one disagreeing when the instructor I am TA-ing for says that artists who foreground their identity in their work are just using it as a bargaining chip to get ahead?

Why, when so many of my peers make artwork about their experiences, featuring their bodies, is my work the only one singled out as solipsistic?

Why does the white male painting professor in my critique think that “universal” is a thing that exists?

Within that fog, we call out, and sometimes, we find one another. We recognize the fatigue in each other’s faces, the furtive glances down the hall before we speak in whispers, the smiles we allow to tumble across our faces over a beer. We find each other, and this is what helps us make it through. And so I am thankful for that: I had others to find. Sometimes I think, perhaps if my mother had someone to find things would have been different for her. Perhaps if she had someone to hand her a Gayatri Spivak essay, or The Fire Next Time, or a book of Audre Lorde poems to go up on the shelf next to her worn copy of Gitanjali, she wouldn’t have needed to quit her job at the World Bank, she would have believed she could make a difference, she would have known that there were people mapping the terrain that she could only experience as a dense fog over a silent minefield.  

And so the finding of one another is how we get started, where we begin to learn how to do the work of diversity. Where we learn to build networks and communities—to show up for each other. And slowly that circle extends, beyond our friends and acquaintances, to our students, to our cities, to our countries. And all of a sudden the work becomes labour, and that’s where things start to get tricky. We advance beyond activism outside of the institution to infiltrating the institution, and our labour gets absorbed or managed by the larger systems that we inhabit. The institution has a history we must acknowledge and a self-serving definition of diversity that we must resist.

Resistance is always most effective when it gets down to the root of things, and when we explore the roots of “diversity” we find it is related to “difference,” but also diverus — turned different ways. Already, I see a tangled patch of brambles called diversity, full of thorns. I’ve lived in those brambles, where every move that you make has a price; it’s a place I didn’t necessarily choose for myself, but a terrain I would defend nonetheless. Difference requires an idea of what it is differing from: to turn a different way requires an expected path, the other must be made “other.” So to re/define diversity, we must first re/define the opposite of diversity: uniformity — from unity, from unitas — one. Who or what is unitas? To answer this question, we have to do some history.

Our arts institutions, whether a gallery, non-profit, academy, university, or museum, are rooted in European imperial history. Every iteration, no matter its geographical location, is a colonial reproduction of a system rooted in white supremacy, Eurocentrism, patriarchy, and cis-heteronormativity. The following are field notes that speak back to the perceived neutrality of these spaces and maps their very real purpose.


The Gallery

The historical rise of the art market cannot be separated from the rise of capitalism as the dominant world system. Capitalism: a system based on the racist, colonialist, and imperialist exploitation of the oppressed through state violence. Gallery art distinguished itself from art funded by the church/monarchy, by catering to the values of the budding class of bankers and merchants produced by this exploitation. Today, galleries function in much the same way, facilitating the exchange of artworks as fetish-objects of late-capitalist consumerism and reflecting the desires of their purchasers (dominated by cis-het-white-male subject positions). Any non-dominant subject position that infiltrates this space must ultimately bend to the desires of the market or risk falling out of the system entirely.

The Museum

Similarly, the encyclopedic museum is also a product of capitalism, and more specifically European cultural imperialism: the desire to catalogue, and thus order, or impose a hierarchy on, the fruits of colonial theft. The practices of museums, from the organization of objects in space to the contents of catalogues, publications, and labels serve to justify European (read as “white” in the U.S.) domination. Even the admission prices, completely inaccessible to the working class, sends a clear message that art is meant to serve the interests of the wealthy. Any resistance by non-dominant subject positions in this space would require a complete reconfiguring of the institution’s intrinsic goals, which is why we see that the few museum professionals that fit this profile are often stuck performing window-dressing for the institution — any gestures they might make beyond this are met with hardline opposition.

Art Education

Art academies and universities have become an integral part of our arts landscape: not only do they produce future artists and support current artists through teaching jobs, fellowships, and speaking fees, but they also incubate art historical and theory projects that resist the capitalist-driven systems of the museum and gallery. Unfortunately, academies and universities are both products of the medieval guild system that had, at its core, the project of excluding certain types of people (women, people of color, lower class people) from art production or scholarship, a project that continues to the present. Attempts to correct this exclusion by including the previously excluded in syllabi, in the student body, and in the make-up of the faculty have been repeatedly thwarted (the court challenge in the U.S. to affirmative action is just one major example of white cultural resistance to this kind of diversity project).

The Arts Non-profit

The art world romanticizes the arts non-profit: the scrappy institution that resists the market and operates outside of academia, the independent pioneer (I use this term intentionally, invoking its relationship to settler colonialism) scouting the terrains of the future or re-examining the past. This will be the hardest one to re/define because we believe in it so wholeheartedly — the dream of a scrappy group of artists pulling together a 501(c)3 application in an abandoned storefront. But this is also the space where the capitalist management of activist projects is most clear. As outlined in the introduction to INCITE!’s The Revolution Will Not Be FundedINCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, “Introduction,” in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (Boston: South End Press, 2009), 1-18., the non-profit as an entity arose as a product of the growth of foundation giving (aka tax evasion) in the aftermath of the industrial revolution and the escalating concentration of wealth into the hands of economic elites. The non-profit industrial complex allows the very rich to utilize capital as a tool to manage radical movements, redirecting activist energy away from structural change and towards ameliorating the surface-level effects of institutional oppression while leaving the mechanisms of oppression intact. We can easily map this onto the arts non-profit, where collectors, high-ranking members of educational institutions and museums, gallery owners, and various members of the cultural elite sit on boards, making funding decisions completely outside the control of the populations they are ostensibly set up to serve. Thus a space that was supposedly set up to exist outside of the pressures of the art market, free from the imperialism of museums, and resistant to the exclusions of academia, ends up reproducing all of the above within a system with close to zero transparency or thought for conflicts of interest.

What I hope is clear from the notes recounted above is that the problem of diversity is not simply a problem of having too many white male bodies occupying space within institutions. The problem is that the institutions themselves are founded on and nurtured by capitalist, white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchal ideologies. The institutions reveal themselves to be mechanisms for justifying and perpetuating these ideologies; they have always been tools designed for a particular purpose. If, by diversity, we truly mean turning a different way, then inserting historically marginalized or oppressed people into these institutions (which is the institutional definition of diversity) can only reproduce trauma and does not ameliorate the historical violence of the institution or dismantle its role in propping up oppressive systems and ideologies. Diverus would require a complete remaking of the institutions, repurposing and refashioning a tool of oppression into a tool of liberation.

The project of this essay is not, however, to discount or minimize the important work that many movements and organizations are doing to diversify faculty, museum staff, and the art world at large. The project of this essay is to begin to map the ways in which this surface-level diversity strategy is the starting point for an entire system of largely uncompensated labour performed by diversity workers within the institution (see the above graphic). By mapping how this work functions, we can begin to recognize how central it is to the future of our arts institutions and imagine how this labor might play into monetary compensation for those who perform it, or how it might be redistributed more equitably within the institution.

The definition of diversity as turning different ways leads us to the definition of diversity workers as those people who interact with the institution in such a way as to produce that turn. (Perhaps they are like stones in the river that may one day become a dam, but it is just as likely, without proper care, that these stones will be worn away and dislodged.) One class of diversity workers is easy to find: the words “diversity” or “multiculturalism” are in their title or job description. Others are less obvious: perhaps they were brought in to “provide a new perspective,” “promote community engagement,” or “facilitate dialogue with diverse communities.” I want to take this definition a step further, though, and suggest that diversity workers — people doing the work of turning different ways — also includes people outside of the institutional structure itself. This definition includes students in universities, visitors to museums, and community members who interface with arts non-profits. All of these people, simply through their presence, perform a kind of “labour of difference” within the institution (the innermost ring of the graphic).     

As diversity workers move through the levels of institutional engagement (see the graphic), the amount of institutional resistance increases, which demands more and more uncompensated, often affective labourFrom the definitions developed by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, affective labour (which is on the rise in developed countries) is labour that produces or manipulates affects (like joy or sadness); think about the labour of taking care of the elderly, professional mourners, or the focus on positive attitudes in office culture. Feminist scholars have argued that this labour was historically placed on women and is thus undervalued in society at large. on the part of the diversity worker. In academia this can range from an inordinate number of students seeking mentorship and emotional support to extra committee work (offering your different perspective in the face of faculty complacency)Audrey Williams June, “The Invisible Labor of Minority Professors”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 8, 2015. http://chronicle.com/article/The-Invisible-Labor-of/234098 and advocacy work in professional organizations (for example: establishing new conferences to fill voids — see Invoice No. 003). Within museums, this might start out in the form of tense interpersonal interactions but evolve into volunteering to lead a workshop addressing racial bias, or crafting institutional action plans that fall outside of one’s job description (see Invoice No. 001). In an arts nonprofit, this labour could include having to tolerate a board member’s racism or sexism, or coming into direct conflict over which artworks or artists are supported, the allocation of resources, and how “community” is defined — in particular in cities where the racial makeup of the art community does not match the racial makeup of the city at large.

We can think of this labour as “invisible labour” — coming out of feminist critiques of the marginalized labour of women — because it is not only largely uncompensated but is in other ways unrecognized by the institution. For instance, service (in the form of sitting on committees, working with student organizations, etc.) is not given much weight in the tenure process, and often diversity workers must sacrifice time and energy that they could spend making work or getting published. This results in performing diversity work that is both hyper-visible (sitting on a committee or organizing a conference) and invisible (as it is not awarded value within the existing systems of the institution). This hyper-visible/invisible contradiction can also be seen in Invoice No. 001 where a person of color interfaces publicly with museum visitors on issues of race/identity and leads workshops on race for museum staff. Would a white male staff member in the same position be expected to perform this labour? He certainly would not perform the same amount of emotional labour when confronting racial bias. Add to this the fact that statistics show this hypothetical white male is paid more than his POC or female counterpart, and it becomes clear that this invisible labour is gendered as female, creating a kind of tax on diversity workers.A tax is a compulsory contribution to the state (in modern terms this usually means money, but what it comes down to is a portion of labour that goes to the state for collective use). By performing uncompensated labour, by working for free in the ways outlined here, the diversity worker is making a compulsory contribution to the institution. They are taxed for being diverse.

And diversity work is taxing. As one friend put it to me when describing his experience working in an institution: “I feel uncomfortable every day.” The invisible labour accrues over time, an ever-increasing weight. The work of diverus is thankless and unending. It is a lifetime and more. There isn’t one day where we’ll wake up and it would all have paid off—there is always just more and different work because undoing thousands of years of cultural corruption doesn’t take a few years, or a decade, or a century. Which is where the accounting and the performance of failure come in. Inspired by feminist critiques of affective and invisible labour, in particular the #GiveYourMoneyToWomen hashtag,This hashtag was started by a group of Twitter activists as a radical response to the gender disparities of capitalism. See: Lauren Chief Elk-Young Bear, Yeoshin Lourdes and Bardot Smith, “Give Your Money to Women: The End Game of Capitalism” in Model View Culture 10, August 10, 2015. I set about attempting to quantify some of the invisible labour that diversity workers I have talked to have performed, to translate this labour into the language of capitalism—the invoice. What became clear to me in this experiment was the ultimate futility of the exercise. How can one put a price on delaying having a second child until the window has passed completely? How do you translate into dollar amounts a fight with a partner? What is the value of our health? Our lives? I am reminded of Grace Hong’s shocking invocation of James Baldwin to “bring out the dead” by naming the black feminists who have died from cancer:

To bring out your dead is to say that these deaths are not unimportant or forgotten, or worse, coincidental. It is to say that these deaths are systemic, structural. To bring out your dead is not a memorial, but a challenge, not an act of grief, but of defiance, not a register of mortality and decline, but of the possibility of struggle and survival. It is shocking to say and impossible to prove that these women suffered early deaths because the battles around race, gender, and sexuality were being waged so directly through and on their bodies. Yet the names bear witness to this unknowable truth.Grace Kyungwon Hong, “The Future of Our Worlds: Black Feminism and the Politics of Knowledge in the University under Globalization” Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 8, no. 2 (2008), 97.

We must face the unknowable truth: the stakes here are life and death. The work of diverus is performed on and through our bodies. For many of us, our bodies are the mark of our differefnce, and the work of diverus requires a constant state of alert for our safety. This state of constant anxiety — of exhaustion, fighting the fight, empathy overload, and advocating for our own and other oppressed communities — drains our bodies, makes us ill. And when these are the stakes, we should reasonably expect that those in positions of power with any degree of empathy would act swiftly and seriously to address these realities. To do nothing, as we face our deaths, is not an oversight or an institutional glitch. To do nothing becomes intentional, becomes what the institution was set up to achieve: the management and ultimate suppression of diversity.

We’re at the point in this essay where I need to offer some hope: a way out, as I like to call it. Unfortunately, all I can really offer are a set of horizons, of directions for further wandering and travel that must take place within the individual institutions themselves. We could think about compensation and redistribution of resources. We could ask, why isn’t service work given more weight in the tenure process? Why is the betterment of the academic community less important than publishing? We could ask: how can we fund artists without having capitalist markets or the non-profit industrial complex as mediators for wealth transfer? We could demand transparency and accountability. But, as a friend suggested, we can also think about the redistribution of labour — expecting our white colleagues to begin to take on some of this labour themselves, even if that labour comprises simply being okay with being uncomfortable. Of listening rather than speaking. Of being careful and considerate in their actions. Of embracing the hard, painful, messy work of decolonization as their own. As Fred Moten said:

The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 140-141.


I’d like to thank the friends who shared their stories and experiences within institutions with me for this essay; they must go unnamed, for obvious reasons. And also to the friends who shared their stories with me over the years, whose clear vision kept me going through the fog. Also thank you to Eunsong Kim, whose writing and knowledge and Skype sessions keep me on the right path. And to my partner, Sean McConnell, who has to bear the brunt of some of that diversity work labour bleeding over into our life together.