Shana Almeida discusses her research on diversity in Toronto
In 2016, BBC Radio 4 officially declared Toronto, Canada to be the most diverse city on earth. According to BBC reporter Ed Davey, Toronto is most diverse because approximately 51% of its population is foreign-born, with over 230 nationalities living there (“WS More or Less: The World’s Most Diverse City”, 2016). Responding to the declaration made by the BBC, Patricia McCarney, Director of Global Cities Institute at the University of Toronto, remarked that the city’s top ranking is “proof of Toronto’s welcoming attitude to newcomers”, and to its cultural openness (Ngabo, 2016).
I spent almost eight years as a political staffer in Toronto’s municipal government, a (if not the) key player in the branding and marketing of Toronto as a post-racist diversity mecca. For years I was the sole racialised Chief of Staff, in the company of very few womxn. As an antiracist activist, I saw this role as a responsibility, one I took seriously. However, as a racial “insider-Other”, it was nearly impossible for me talk about racism in the City that was known for being “good” at diversity. Exactly as Sara Ahmed (2012) asserts, those who spoke about racism, myself included, became the problem in and of the institution. I found myself developing a strategy to use the language of diversity to personally invoke, sustain and also obscure an antiracist agenda. I initiated policies to increase the representation of racialised communities in decision-making and to address barriers to access, couched as key opportunities for the City to reflect its commitment to achieve greater diversity. I had successfully used the language of diversity “against them”. To be honest, I thought of myself as a bit of a lone warrior in the diversity game. An antiracist champion of sorts. Yet for over a decade now, these initiatives are taken up by scholars, organizations and policymakers as proof of and to re-circulate the City’s leadership as being good at diversity.
Inspired by years of reflection on what I thought diversity “did” for me in the City, I began to research the topic for my Phd dissertation “Theorizing the Local: Diversity, Race and Belonging in the City of Toronto” (2016). My research was carried out in two phases, the first of which involved interviews with racialised City of Toronto staff to explore how they understood and worked with diversity. During our interviews, I began to see how they accessed and used similar heroic, agentic narratives. Their stories of actions, feelings, desires and belonging in the City were intimately connected with various highly individualized notions of themselves, and of diversity. I wanted to understand how staff descriptions of how staff “do” diversity in the City shaped and is shaped by their sense of who they are, but I also wanted to avoid the tendency to make reductionist generalizations about identities as “essences” and/or psyches. Chris Weedon (2004) writes that humanist terms like human rights and equality are discourses in that, while they convey ideas of tolerant and welcoming spaces, also reinforce and hide how bodies, identities and belonging are structured and how we make meaning of them within relations of power, along racial, gendered, class, sexual and ethnic lines. Similarly to Weedon, I saw diversity as a discourse and as productive in its structuring of how we think about and know ourselves and others in the world in ways that reinforce historical power relations. I sought therefore to trace how staff’s various positionings of themselves, their work and their belonging in the City might be historically constituted, with re-constituting effects.
In my research, I found how racialised staff take up and are produced through diversity discourse to gain authority, legitimacy and to negotiate their belonging via “being the exceptional”. This happened in various ways, including the strategic use of inclusion, equity and/or intersectionality discourses to move beyond the benign terms of diversity, relaying “proof” of diversity (including through their embodied presence) to refute racism in the City, or a distancing from racial stereotypes. Yet, with this heroic, individual and agentic approach, it becomes more difficult for individuals to see collusions with diversity discourse and the reproduction of race in the City. Even forms of resistance can be traced to a reproduction and accommodation of diversity’s racialising effects. Commitments to social change based on personal, moral choices to “do and be the right thing” for example, are grounded in, de-historicise and occlude colonial and racial imperatives, and further reaffirm individualistic notions of the Self as somehow outside/against power. The paradox is, the more autonomous and agentic the racial “insider-Other” feels and/or claims to be, the greater the reproduction of race in the City becomes obscured. These claims and feelings of being autonomous may maintain a coherence and continuity of Self for staff, but they can make it more difficult to recognise and address complicity with(in) relations of power.
So far, so good. But then things took quite a turn. In the last moments of my PhD defense, I was asked a poignant question: Have you thought about how your work will be taken up as diversity work? I froze. Despite my interventions on diversity discourse and complicity, I had not examined how the work that I had pursued for seven years was also complicit with the racialising conventions and norms I sought to expose. I thought I was “doing diversity differently”, again. I could not see – or perhaps refused to engage with – how my critical project could in fact be keeping the diversity project going. As Nikolas Rose (1996) and others suggest, it is in the space of war that new subjectifications are created. Following my defense, I began the complex process of reflecting on how my research project, as a form of war, might not only reproduce diversity discourse and racialisation but my own positioning/subjectivity as a critical racialised “activist-academic” researcher. I learned that subjectivities of resistance, agency and heroism, which are necessary to power, are produced in and across institutions.
These reflections compelled me to contextualize my positioning as a revelatory figure in the academy, a figure that stands outside of the race-power-knowledge nexus. It is in this very idea of the “outside” that I now locate and re-attach my work (and my body) within and as contributing to diversity, equity, intersectional, anti-racist, resistance, activist, and critical work in the academy, and most importantly, also enmeshed in the occlusion of racialisation. This is the crux of my embodied tension: however I define myself in academic spaces, I take up the position of and am produced as an exceptional racialised subject in ways that suture the academy’s racist, racial anxieties and ruptures. By engaging in critical writing, research projects and other individual, heroic acts of war to expose the violences of race, I am absorbed into the reproduction of diversity discourse and racialisation in the academy. And I absorb it into my own work and the positioning of my-self.
I want to propose that agency and resistance in the academy reside in continuously making visible our multiple modes of complicity, as well as our lived contradictions that are transformed and/or muted through the production and (re-)making of racial Others into subjects. This approach is not without its concerns and political tensions. It could very well be wielded as an apparatus of power, simply by way of taking up and reproducing the positioning of the “truly” ethical and critically reflective insider-Other. I would argue that this critique could similarly be leveraged against the establishment of critical Whiteness studies in academic institutions. White scholars who conceive of themselves as being aware of their racial privilege and identify complicities with whiteness might actually reinforce and reproduce their own whiteness and innocence, as well as the whiteness and innocence of the institution. However, I also want to suggest that the task of articulating agency in terms of “good” versus “bad”, complicity versus resistance, again sets up the binaries which reinforce the idea of the agentic, free and heroic individual, outside of existing relations of power. By diligently making visible the various complicities with power as well as the possible contradictions that are effaced in the process, I feel it becomes more possible to work towards a greater accountability to act(ion).
Here I want to draw on Denise Ferreira da Silva’s (2007) brilliant critique of theories of race that re-constitute self/Other relations and claim “that racial emancipation comes about when the (juridical and economic) inclusion of the racial others and their voices (historical and cultural representations) finally realizes universality” (p. 154). For Silva, the pursuing of logics of exclusion can become invested in and focused on narratives of injury and repair, rather than on how and why the state legitimizes and authorizes the reproduction of racial subjugation. The historical, moral ascription of racial and cultural difference, or raciality as Silva names it, (re-)produces raced bodies as well as the racial terms under which the state engages with those bodies, in the interests of the self-preservation of the state and its laws which protect the ethical subject. The legitimacy of the state’s actions is thus “always already given – in exteriority” via raciality (2014, p. 160). What Silva is saying, and I agree, is that state actions and laws do not produce raciality; rather raciality produces the actions and laws of the state. This is what calls for more inclusive democracies fail to recognize: raciality necessitates exclusion, abjection, even violence.
Agency and resistance in the context of diversity as well as equity, inclusion, and intersectionality discourses in the academy and beyond cannot remain grounded in and hopeful about the work that racial “insider-Others” can do in order for themselves and other racial Others to be and feel included. Following Silva’s critical interventions, I want to suggest that we move away from ideas of agency and resistance as a means towards greater inclusion, and instead investigate points of agency and resistance as a critical interrogation of legitimacy; that is, the role of the academy in always-already legitimizing exteriority and various forms of violence (via diversity and other discourses) to re-inscribe its authority and self-determination. What happens when we refuse processes and policies of inclusion, and instead initiate critical interventions in how, why and under what terms racial Others are always-already constituted, by the State and the academy, via exteriority? What if questions turned to what racial “insider-Others” are always-already doing for diversity and other discourses, instead of what they might do to and with them?
My research project ended up being one which traced the legitimacy and authority of the City of Toronto, its self-preservation tactics, as well as the laws and policies that are always-already designed to protect it and the ethical subject via raciality. It continues as a project which inspires an ongoing interrogation of my own contradictions and complicities within power hierarchies. The question of where diversity and other discourses will take us now must continue to attend to and reveal their racial norms, particularly how they bend and shift in the current context to constitute and be constituted by the subjectivities, encounters, desires and negotiations of belonging by racial Others in the academy. Most importantly, I feel we must pay close attention to the various tactics of the academy which legitimize and authorize its self-preservation via the inclusion, however partial, of heroic racialised scholars. This also means continuing to fiercely engage, contend with and make visible our own complicities and the paradoxes that we live with. In the academy, there is no innocent space.
Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. London, UK: Duke University Press.
Almeida, S. (2016). “Theorizing the Local: Diversity, Race, and Belonging in the City of Toronto”. PhD diss., York University, Toronto, Canada.
Ngabo, G. 2016. “Toronto the diverse: BBC study declares city most diverse in the world”. Metro, May 16. http://www.metronews.ca/news/toronto/2016/05/16/toronto-the-diverse.html
Rose, N. (1996). Identity, genealogy, history. In S. Hall and P. Du Gay (Eds.), Questions of cultural identity (pp. 128-150). London: SAGE publications.
Silva, D. F. (2007). Toward a global idea of race. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press.
Silva, D. F. (2014). No-bodies: Law, raciality and violence. Meritum – Belo Horizonte, 9(1), 119-162.
Weedon (2004). Identity and culture: Narratives of difference and belonging. London, UK: Open University Press.
“WS More or Less: The World’s Most Diverse City”. Narrated by Charlotte Mcdonald and Ed Davey. BBC Radio 4 More or Less: Behind the Stats. BBC Radio 4, May 13, 2016. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03v1r1p
Dr. Shana Almeida is a scholar, researcher, and activist in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her research and teaching contributions are informed by eight years of work experience in the municipal government of Toronto, Canada, as Special Advisor to Toronto City Councillor Olivia Chow, and as Chief of Staff to Toronto City Councillor Gord Perks. Shana completed her Ph.D. in the School of Social Work at York University in Toronto (2016). Her forthcoming book ‘Toronto the Good? Negotiating Race and Belonging in the Diverse City’ will be published with the University of Toronto Press.
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