On words: “inclusion”

A few days ago, I posted an idea on Facebook that I’ve been toying with. I felt it was a bold statement that spoke about power in a way that isn’t often talked about and about a word I hear frequently. Here’s the post:

The post garnered more traction than most of the thoughts, photos, videos, and shares I usually put up.

Two people asked a question kinda like this: if this isn’t the right word, what is something like this that we can do to achieve a similar purpose?

I hear that. There’s an underlying theme in inclusivity that I can get behind in the context of histories of marginalization: making sure more people are being heard. Recognizing this is based on: 1) an acknowledgement that the people in the room don’t represent the broader group and 2) a determination that this should be the case. Not only are two heads better than one, but more difference at the table can bring about different relationships to problems, solutions, and systems.

On the other hand, inclusivity presupposes that the existing set-up is completely fine and the only issue is that certain people either aren’t aware of the metaphorical table, aren’t educated enough about it, or for some other reason can’t make it. This assumption erases oppression and power.

By framing the question as [ why aren’t certain people here? ] rather than [ is there something about our underlying structure/dynamic/agenda/leadership that turns certain people off? ] locates the problem and thus the solution in totally different places.

The following 2 women of color have also blogged about the word in ways I’ve found useful in developing my thinking around it. I’ve culled some of the key quotes.

I first turn to a piece provocatively titled “How to Uphold White Supremacy by Focusing on Diversity and Inclusion” by Kẏra, a Chinese-Amerikan trans woman working to create space for radical racial justice through technology where progress has been limited to liberal white feminism.

She writes,

“Inclusivity” and “exclusivity” are politically meaningless without context and divert attention away from specific power dynamics. In common use, they are assigned inherently positive and negative values without specifying who is being included or excluded.

So why do so many people seeking racial justice, female empowerment, and queer liberation still choose to advocate for “diversity” and “inclusion”? They appeal to liberalism. They prevent oppression from being named. They prevent us from speaking truth to power. They make progress sound friendly to those in power.

The only way to prevent that is to name oppression for what it is; to speak truth to power. If a group is dominated by whites, men, and other privileged classes, don’t let that be reduced to a diversity issue.

When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we necessarily position marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination.

As a web developer / techie / nerd myself, I’ve frequently found myself in spaces dominated by nerdy, white, cis-, straight men. Possibly because of this, becoming acutely aware of who is in the room, who is taking up space, and who isn’t is something I do by default. In response to Kyra’s point of not “reducing it to a diversity issue,” there are very well known and documented reasons that women aren’t equally represented in technology. To say that the conference organizer (for example) just didn’t know enough women, or the women were busy, etc, fails to recognize systemic ways in which women have been excluded from tech, forced out of it, harassed while persevering in it. (Perhaps that’s why more women are freelancing.)

Next, let’s hear from Virgie Tovar, MA is an author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. Here’s what she says on her blog about inclusion:

The word “inclusion” is a buzzword in political organizing that typically indicates some vague understanding that something just isn’t right here. The idea of inclusion is typically thought of as an innocuous way of discussing the perceived lack of meaningful engagement by people who are experiencing the greatest impact of the political issue at hand. But I don’t think it’s an innocuous idea. I think there’s a lot embedded in that word, and so I wanted to give you three reasons to rethink the idea of inclusion.

Here are snippets of Virgie’s reasons:

  1. First, embedded within the idea of “inclusion” is a kind of white supremacist/heteropatriarchal/thincentric/ableist framework or epistemology – the presumption that thin people need to create space for fat people […]”
  2. Second, any movement that engages heavily with reinscribing dominant aesthetics – or respectability politics – is not going to be of interest to marginalized folks who see that dominant aesthetic as problematic and violent.”
  3. Finally, and – in my opinion – most importantly, is that the word “inclusion” presumes the maintenance of that movement’s current leadership with the understanding that these “included” people will become absorbed into that movement without any radical rehaul of its current hierarchy.”

At the end of her post, she poses 2 amazing questions for people who see inclusion as a need:

1. What do the people who see inclusion need or want from the inclusion of people who are not well-represented? I think this is an incredibly important question for organizers to ask themselves. We all kind of know that a lack of poc or big bodies or trans folks is an indication of a failure, but do organizers desire their inclusion simply as evidence that they are not failing or is there some greater desire to be in service to people who are experiencing the greatest impacts of marginalization?
2. Is the individual or group who is seeking “inclusion” ready to change up the agenda, the political tools they use, or the hierarchy of leadership?

So. What do you think – is inclusion a word you use frequently and a process you undertake? Or do you think it reeks of a liberalism that seeks to maintain existing power structures?

Here is a cat-related meme to get you started: