Diversity, Superdiversity, Decolonise not Diversify

Some thoughts on ‘diversity’ and recent debates.

I recently completed an evaluation of RE:Present, a very successful programme which focused on developing the skills and knowledge of 35 diverse cultural leaders in Birmingham. As a result of that work, I can’t stop thinking about the term ‘diversity’ and whether it is helpful or not.

One of my recommendations for future iterations of the RE:Present (available to read on M & E Lab website) was to address the problem with ‘diversity’. What does it mean? What kind of diversity? Who’s diversity? On reflection, this is probably an impossible task. I guess that my suggestion draw attention to the problem with the term ‘diversity’ as a catch all word.

The Arts Council England prefers to discuss the Creative Case for Diversity with an emphasis on the protected characteristics but also geography and class. They offer funding for a range projects aiming to engage more people in the arts and build cultural capacity. For instance, Change Makers is a fund which will connect major arts organisations with emerging arts leaders from Black, ethnic and disabled communities. For the Arts Council it seems that addressing ‘diversity’ is about encouraging participation, production and representation across all art forms and groups of people.

That’s fine but academics such as Kate Oakley and Dave O’Brien have argued that by focusing on ‘diversity’, important issues such as inequalities in production, representation and cultural value are being ignored. Sara Ahmed suggests, there is a danger of encouraging that a tick box approach. Thinking about ‘cultural value’ is important in suggests that one set of things are valuable to one group but could be marginalised by another. What is culturally valuable? Who determines that and what are the implications for those whose cultural production and consumption falls outside of the norm or acceptable forms of cultural value? As Oakley and O’Brien explain, as people consume across different forms of cultural forms, the cultural norms are impossible to define (for instance, cultural omnivores who have a greater diversity of taste). Hierarchies of taste and  cultural value is complex And so are diverse individuals and communities who cannot be bundled together and treated as one.

So,  does superdiversity offer a useful perspective?

In academia, ‘superdiversity’ is an emerging field of study and in the UK the University of Birmingham is leading the way with the Institute of Research for Superdiversity. A key aspect of ‘superdiversity’ is the acknowledgement of complexity in contemporary migration across a wide range of variables including ethnicity, gender, age, immigration status, rights and entitlement. Beyond this acknowledgement, I find it hard to  identify the advantages of ‘superdiversity’. As Finex Ndhlovu argues, like other theories from the Global North, the limitations of ‘superdiversity’ are likely to be the same as what it purports to critique, eventually leading to similar forms of tokenism.

At a local level, how is Birmingham engaging with ‘diversity’?

A recent event at Impact Hub Birmingham, Art Against The Grain: Decolonise not Diversify quotes Kavita Bhanot’s article as a means of framing a day of lectures, workshops and informal discussions. Bhanot’s article entitled Decolonise not Diversify is concerned with a ‘quick fix’ approach to ‘diversity’. She states:

The real problem is not simply a monoculture but a mono-ideology, a mono-perspective.

Bhanot is concerned with the structural frameworks which define our culture. If tastes are characterised by white, middle class man, then so will cultural production. At Art Against The Grain: Decolonise not Diversify the speakers and participants addressed monoculture and challenged us all to rethink our perspective by discussing a range of issues including identity, forms of activism, cultural norms, structures, institutions such as museums and our own wellbeing. As Immy Kaur stated during the event, it is important to create a space where people can experiment with presenting new and/or difficult, provocative ideas on this subject. The event created just that kind of space.

My observations from recent events at Impact Hub Birmingham and through researching ‘diversity’ for projects such as RE:Present demonstrate the challenges but also a level of engagement with these ideas and some practical activities. I hope this continues.

I am writing a research project on this subject. As the proposal develops I will continue to write blog posts to think through these different ideas.

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