The Creative Case

for Diversity in Britain

City University London 23/03/2011

Roshi Naidoo, Arts and Heritage Consultant

Diversity after Diversity


When I was commissioned to write this piece I was asked to pose some potential solutions to the problems associated with the ways in which the managerial discourses of diversity have played out in the arts and heritage sector, rather than just revisit familiar critiques of the agenda. After all, the critical arguments have had numerous airings in public forums, policy documents and academic writing. Why are issues of diversity always loaded at the service delivery end of an arts organisation’s priorities – always to do with ‘new’ audiences, education and young people – and not integrated into the bedrock of every aspect of its work? Why are the people employed to ‘do diversity’ often treated like piece workers and brought in only for one-off, temporary, online exhibitions, or education projects for Black History Month? Why does expertise in, for example, the Black Arts movement in 1980s Britain, not translate into an appreciation that such expertise does not preclude other knowledge or competencies, and that it may be an asset, rather than a barrier, to becoming a leader of a mainstream arts organisation? How has the ghost of 1970s multiculturalism and the dreaded ‘saris, samosas and steel bands’ ideology returned in various guises to haunt discussions of how best to represent black and Asian arts in Britain, and also found new tokenistic expression around other issues of difference?

I could go on. But if we are moving forward, should we be rehashing these critiques or not? Perhaps we should be looking at the enormous strides forward that have been made through institutional diversity initiatives, such as noting the list of senior personnel from the sector who have been engaged with the Greater London Authority’s Heritage Diversity Task Force (HDTF).

The important thing I think is not to present either a hagiography or a rubbishing of the diversity agenda (and no, I am not suggesting a ‘third way’). The issue is not about being ‘for’ or ‘against’ diversity policy as it stands, but about something more nuanced, which challenges the limitations of the ideological, philosophical and historical lens through which we view the very idea of what diversity means.

It is for that reason that we need to explore existing criticisms before we can shift towards more progressive formations.

This article then will look at the theoretical and political assumptions that underlie current policy, as well as examining those that underpin suggested changes to that agenda, before I move on to potential ways forward. As we know, we need to do some major rethinking to find solutions to the shortcomings of the policy, process and practices of diversity, rather than just make cosmetic changes around recruitment quotas. But despite a widespread acceptance of this (at a national level at least), discourses of ‘diversity’ stop short of asking some of the more difficult questions. And that may be because substantive rethinking involves words and phrases that have become unfashionable in the sector recently, such as politics, power and structural inequality.

Listening to Hushed Conversations

I began by noting that critiques of the diversity agenda have had a good airing in various forums. In some ways this is true, but in others it is not. Where they do not get a good airing is in the day-to-day work of arts and heritage organisations, where the best and most illuminating criticisms of diversity can be heard in hushed discussions muttered in quiet corners. Such conversations are whispered because the weight of the discourse of diversity, and the unrelenting and often disproportionate enthusiasm with which each ‘inclusive’ project is met, can hang over formal meetings and discussions about difference and representation in oppressive ways, making people unable to speak. It is through listening to the informal conversations of sector workers who are both struggling to have issues of sexuality, disability, ‘race’ and difference mainstreamed in the arts, and/or are themselves ‘different’ in some way, and simply wishing to pursue a career in the sector without being straitjacketed into being a representative of one aspect of their identity, that we can find keys and clues as to how to move forward.

For example, when, in my capacity as an arts and heritage consultant, I am shown images of the latest youth project featuring prominent pictures of young Asians in hijabs, sponsored by some multinational company and told that the organisation is ‘very excited’, how do I say that this does not excite me? How churlish does it sound to be unenthusiastic about young people being empowered to speak in a public forum about identity and belonging through the medium of the arts? But it really does not excite me and these are some of the reasons why.

Firstly, for those of us who have been around for a while, this focus on youth is something very familiar. We believed once that this was a precursor to a more embedded approach, but the attention given to the young in diversity projects around ‘race’ seems not to be replicated so enthusiastically beyond this age group. (Interestingly there seems to be much less interest in young people and issues of sexuality.) This has the effect of constantly reinventing a non-white presence in Britain as new and the future, rather than a long-standing historical fact. Therefore diversity and representation are always positioned as either being in a state of embryonic development or a ‘work in progress’ for institutions. Those who challenge the sector’s sluggishness then are simply carping and need to be more patient. The unspoken attitude of many who spearhead diversity projects is this: look at all the great work we are doing with young Muslims in a deprived area of London – it will only be matter of time till this seeps through right across the organisation.

I am not arguing that arts projects with these young ‘diverse’ people cannot be valuable, important or illuminating, but they need to be part of a wider politics of representation and empowerment. Otherwise the same young people who may find inspiration working with an arts organisation now, and as a result are encouraged to pursue a career in the sector, may well find themselves in a ghetto ten years down the line, only talking about the ‘experiences’ of migrant communities, or fronting projects about changes in British identity, rather than having access to the same opportunities as their peers from the ‘right’ backgrounds.

When the word ‘diversity’ is heard, particularly in local and regional arts sectors, and not followed immediately by ‘youth’ or ‘new audiences’, another term one can perhaps hear is ‘Caribbean elders’. This is one of the instances where listening to informal conversations is very illuminating. A colleague once told me this homogenising of ‘elders’ annoyed her, but felt she could not really say in meetings that this term was not only sentimentalising and disempowering, but also vaguely racist. Another person told me that there was a time when you could find references to the same group of Caribbean ‘elders’ mentioned as consultants in a raft of funding applications and diversity projects, and that this was a worry which was hard to voice, especially when the group in question were understandably flattered at being regularly courted.

What the two points about ‘youth’ and ‘elders’ illustrate is the lack of space to properly interrogate the complex political assumptions that underpin diversity as a managerial discourse. It is extremely difficult for individuals in meetings to raise these concerns without appearing to be horrible people who do not care about giving expression to the old, the young or other socially excluded groups, such as refugees. National institutions may in general be more nuanced in how they approach diversity, but the absence of day-to-day opportunities to question the back story, if you like, means that the perpetual ‘excitement’ expressed creates a momentum which is hard to counter. After all, who wants to prevent the tangible action of a youth diversity project by bogging people down in theory?

The second reason why I cannot share in such enthusiasm relates to the poli-tics of identity. Increasingly institutions create the conditions whereby people are defined too rigidly through singular aspects of their identity. The arts and heritage sector does not simply reflect identities ‘out there’ when they organise people into categories such as ‘young Muslims’ through diversity initiative. They also create them. Political, cultural, social and ‘ethnic’ identities are not fixed, hermetically sealed groupings that simply require representation in public sector organisations. The process of identity negotiation and renegotiation is a complex one and requires a sophisticated understanding of notions of difference, representation and power. Institutions may be offering a voice to individuals or communities who have been neglected, but that offer may be highly contingent on a foregrounding of one aspect of their identity at the expense of others.

People inhabit a multitude of identities without them being necessarily in con- flict with each other, and it is through art, film, music and literature that those identities – overlapping, competing, fluid and inspiring – are expressed. It is through the arts that one can find narratives that challenge reductive assumptions about what ‘other’ people are ‘like’, or what everyday life looks like in different parts of the world. Yet too often diversity policy in the sector takes a narrow instrumentalist view and misses the opportunity to reflect on the multiple meanings of identity in their quest for easily delineable categories of subjects. What is lost in this process? How are people reduced and diminished as well as empowered? Once again, this is a difficult concern to articulate.

We also require some space to discuss why it is in the sector’s interest to pursue current formations of reflecting diversity. Demonstrating that they are relevant across all communities helps legitimise the authority of our public institutions. But are they up front about this, or does it feel as though they are being inclusive as an act of magnanimity? We also have to ask questions regarding a potential correlation between projects that reflect the voices and concerns of Muslim communities at the same time that we as a nation are engaged in a ‘war on terror’. As the morality of current conflicts are played out in political debate, a bizarre boundary between ‘good and ‘bad’ Muslims is being created in the popular imagination. The arts and heritage sector needs to play a sharper role in challenging these limiting ways of understanding people as individuals, communities and citizens. As economist and political theorist Amartya Sen notes in his book Identity and Violence:

Indeed, the increasingly common use of religious identities as the leading – or sole – principle of classification of the people of the world has led to much grossness of social analysis. There has been, in particular, a major loss of understanding in the failure to distinguish between 1) the various affiliations and loyalties a person who happens to be Muslim has, and 2) his or her Islamic identity in particular.1

And it is also to this end that the sector needs to challenge the issue that constitutes my third reason for failing to be excited. The slippage between ‘diversity’ and ‘faith’ as terms has steadily increased. This has now been going on for so long that for some they are perceived as the same thing. It is again one of those things very difficult to raise objections to, especially as we live in a time when the right and far-right are clearly underpinned by Islamophobia. These groups attempt to legitimate their reactionary, unpleasant and illogical views by playing on reductive notions of ‘Islam’, and liberal institutions have played an important role in challenging this. However, the same institutions can also lock people into oppressive binaries through this process, and should instead attempt to formulate a more nuanced approach to issues of faith and secularity. And part of this is developing a politics of diversity that is distinct from faith, and not applied in a lazy fashion to every aspect of difference.

This need for distinction is constantly felt. For example, at an event at a major museum recently a curator talked about a project whereby representatives from faith groups came in to change object labels and situate them within a more pertinent religious context. When I raised questions about the multitude of problems this might pose – given that even within each faith grouping the meaning of an object can change dramatically – I was dismissed. In the ladies toilet, though, someone approached me and said that I had raised an important point, but felt they could not say so for fear of being labelled as culturally insensitive. Most senior staff in the sector will acknowledge that this is a hugely problematic area, and they do understand that fighting racism and criticising religion are not incompatible positions. But without a mechanism through which to express this, things become difficult and it is easier to say nothing. Secularity in public culture is not a given but something that has been fought for over centuries, and is never so secure that it does not require protecting. It would be a shame if the unravelling of the first threads were performed because of diversity policies, especially when, once again, the arts and heritage sector is so perfectly positioned to make interesting, subtle and politically crucial points about identity, community and belonging available to a wider public.

And so to the fourth reason that I so often find myself cringing, rather than jumping for joy, at diversity project meetings. This relates to something I have referred to elsewhere as a fear of sameness.2 I have made the point that a fear of ‘sameness’ can be detected in diversity policies, and that while there is space to accommodate the superficial differences of ‘minorities’ in public culture, it is in acknowledging the ‘sameness’ of ‘minorities’ – as well as a fear of difference – that prevents us having our full humanity represented in public sector institutions, the media, academia and elsewhere. For example, understanding that British history cannot be separated from colonial history does not make someone a ‘diversity’ person. Furthermore, this understanding and, say, an expertise in the Harlem Ren- aissance, does not preclude other expertise. As I have pointed out,

some of us do actually also know about European art and Hollywood film and the history of punk rock etc. But we become fragmented within the sector – our racial identities either overdetermined or dangerously ignored.3

The creeping worry is that too many people seem to believe that there is one big topic called ‘diversity’, and that it is easier as an arts organisation to fulfil a remit for it by engaging with people who are different in the ‘right’ way – preferably visibly. Again it is worth listening to what people say in the canteen, and I have heard over and over again the view that around ‘race’, institutions are more comfortable with people who can more easily be designated as ‘foreign’, rather than with ‘other’ Europeans with a deep and complex history of being embedded in the continent over many generations, and possessing a set of cultural competencies and interests which sit uncomfortably within the diversity agenda.

To reiterate, we need sober analysis to replace all this ‘excitement’ about diversity. It strikes me that to be excited by it as it stands is like being excited by a university prospectus which fronts images of black students in the mistaken belief that the philosophical or literary canon on its courses represents a sea change in how colonialism and Empire are taught.

I have provided broad brush strokes here and not included the many projects, exhibitions, art installations and so on that do challenge limited definitions of what ‘diversity’ means. However, I think that the characterisations I have sketched above do hold water, especially if one looks beyond the handful of enlightened movers and shakers in the sector who wish to improve how the arts responds to the ques- tions of difference and representation. So while all this might sound ‘negative’ and appear not to propose ways forward, I think that it is an important exercise. And for this reason we need to analyse not only institutional diversity policy, but also the different criticisms of it before we can proceed to solutions.

Citiquing the Critics

There are no shortages of criticism for diversity, both as an actual policy and as an imagined and manufactured threat to ‘our’ culture and heritage. These come framed within a range of ideologies, and even when they appear similar on the surface, they are motored by different political interests. In discussing a fear of sameness, I have been careful to distinguish this from the liberal notion that we are all ‘just people’ and therefore should not be bothered with all this difference nonsense.4 This usually works as a strategy to deny the validity of differing subject positions and to downplay the impact of homophobia, racism, class prejudice and other forms of intolerance on people’s everyday lives.

Therefore I can be suspicious of arguments that suggest that if it were not for the relentless focus on difference through diversity policies in the cultural sector, artists could be just artists and judged on merit alone. The report ‘Boxed In’, produced by the Manifesto Club Artistic Autonomy Hub, airs this view, albeit more cogently and subtly.5 The report, authored by Sonya Dyer, attacks the Arts Council’s specific policies for increasing the participation of black and ‘ethnic minority’ people in the sector as artists, curators and leaders, and concludes that initiatives such as the Arts Council’s decibel and Inspire programmes segment people through the crude racial categorisation of their work and abilities. In the case of artists, this denies them their uniqueness of being simply artists, and is counterproductive to the development of their careers. It not only leads to a culture of paternalism and dependency, but also to a reductive view of the arts as a conduit through which to improve society in relation to equalities. This does chime with the concerns over ‘diversity’ expressed by a range of other critics. However, as I have noted, it is important to distinguish between different critiques of the equalities agenda and to locate arguments within their wider contexts.

‘Manifesto’, the group that produced ‘Boxed In’, is committed to libertarian ‘freedoms’, and is reflective of a strand of thought coming from the right and libertarian groups within which an indictment of New Labour’s cultural policy leads to a general attack on ‘multiculturalism’ and what is termed the ‘race relations industry’. On their web pages one can also find their ‘freedom of flight’ campaign and a castigation of Heathrow protesters who ‘caused delays for families’. The freedom not to die in an environmental catastrophe is not discussed. I do not mention this to be glib, but because we must follow the trajectory of where such politics takes us. ‘Boxed In’ is a very clear and thoughtful reflection on some of the problems of diversity initiatives. But we have to look closely at the details and ask ourselves if we are being led to old reactionary positions, albeit in new, trendier clothes. What solutions are being proposed? Are we being asked to return to the notion of individuals on a level playing field with no need for the political interference of the state – a merging of the liberal humanism of our sameness with the belief that all are equal under the market? Diversity policies may indeed smack of paternalism, but how much more paternalistic would a future anti-state agenda be, on the basis of the idea that social problems are best ‘solved’ by philanthropists?

Criticisms of diversity can be part of a wider agenda to undermine the public sector and give freer reign to the private – no doubt so the private sector can make as good a job of governing the arts as it has of the banks.

Therefore, although we should take very seriously all critiques of diversity policies, we need to be aware of the political impetus behind some arguments for change. One particular remark in ‘Boxed In’ jumped out at me. Dyer notes: ‘There is an equal lazy equation of “blackness” with “disability”... as if blackness were a disability in itself.’6 Though I understand the broader point about institutions lumping all ‘others’ together, it is also a political understanding that disability and ‘race’ do have much in common. Disability politics have helped us to understand the ways in which people are made unable to participate in the public sphere, and made invisible in heritage culture, in ways not related to their impairment.7 The troubling element in this quote is not just its lack of solidarity, but also the refusal to understand and challenge structural inequalities in favour of a singular focus on the rights of individual artists. For many libertarians and new conservatives, diversity politics is simply another interference in our lives, like too many road safety signs.

Balancing the politics of identity and difference with the politics of our com- mon humanity has historically been a difficult philosophical problem. But we must understand how this has developed and understand the dialectic of identity politics. Civic culture has grown out of these contestations around difference – not in spite of them. And these interventions have been most successful when articulated through an understanding of power relations and structural inequalities. Criticising cultural diversity policy from a position which implies that doing away with it puts us all on a level playing field is not helpful unless it faces the thorny question of how to challenge homophobia, economic inequality, disablism, racism, sexism, etc.


So you may say that it is easy for someone like me working as a consultant, and not within the strictures of one institution, to make criticisms, but what can people inside actually do? Most importantly they can embark on a more considered analysis of diversity policy as it exists, and can ask questions about what can change. This will require work, reading, thinking and considered consultation. An interest in bharatanatyam dancing, for example, is not in itself a qualification for someone to do an organisation’s diversity work. There needs to be a more profound theoretical engagement with the field. Below is a rudimentary list of suggestions:

1 Move from thinking about ‘inclusion’ to a paradigm of ‘cultural democracy’. The paternalistic notions associated with the former prevent sector staff from understanding that we all have cultural rights, and it is those which should be met, rather than an organisation’s need to prove their commitment to diversity through tick-box exercises. As James Early from the Smithsonian Institute has said: ‘You cannot invite me into my house – I am a citizen’.8

2 Stop ‘celebrating’ us. The fact that we live in a ‘diverse’ society is not a cause for ‘celebration’, but a simple and banal fact. We cannot seem to displace a central ‘normal’ figure in the middle of this against whom ‘diversity’ is measured. For example, for whom is ‘multiculturalism’ vibrant, exciting and new? Perhaps it is time to stop banging on about adding colour to the capital, or making the 2012 Olympic bid look attractive, and just accept it as a everyday fact of life, an historical legacy of colonialism, part of the intercultural dynamism and exchange that characterises all cultures and civilisations, and also an effect of contemporary global flows of capital and labour. It is not that I object to festivals that celebrate historically quashed identities, but difference needs to be acknowledged outside of, as well as through, Carnival, Chinese New Year, Pride, and the ubiquitous local multicultural festivals. And to paraphrase Ziauddin Sardar, rather than to be celebrated, we need power, and that comes from occupying the mainstream.9

3 Open up the possibilities of identity. By resisting the temptation to lock people into singular aspects of their identity, we can move to a place where people are allowed to be different, and the same, in many ways. Only through mainstreaming all these discussions can we see the full range of possibilities there are to enrich cultural expression and understanding through this. For example, accepting that a British Asian may find the band The Smiths more interesting than the fusion music of say, Nitin Sawhney, opens up all sorts of landscapes for cultural analysis. Such an interest is not ‘white’, and also may or may not involve reconciling a love of music which, to paraphrase, ‘says something to them about their life’, with the shifting racial politics of the author of these sentiments. But where we are at the moment means that only one of these artists is associated with ‘diversity’. Everyone who is ‘other’ in some way will have a dozen similar examples of the limits of diversity as a discourse to accommodate and reflect the many different ways in which they experience and express their cultural identities. We really need properly to unleash the power of the arts to make sense of all this.

4 The arts and heritage sector needs to think about how diversity policy can make a real impact on challenging racism, sexism, homophobia, disablism, class and economic inequality. It also needs to think about the relationship between how it frames this, and broader issues of global justice, democracy and representation, whether that relates to understanding asylum or what constitutes British national culture. Rather than dwelling any more on politically toothless forms of diversity, policies should be reformulated to think about structural inequalities and cultural democracy. For example, is there a connection between the almost total ignorance in this country of the economic relationships between Britain and its former colonies, and forms of popular racism and anti-immigration feeling? Those who set the cultural diversity agenda for museums, galleries, archives and the arts, would do well to focus on how their work impacts on such attitudes to ‘race’ and migration in Britain, rather than continuing their obsessive focus on one-off projects for black and Asian youth.

5 Go for the long term over the short term. Stop focusing solely on the money your arts organisation has been awarded for a diversity project and the short time scale you have to deliver tangible outcomes. Think instead about the deeper, long-term institutional shifts that have to occur to place a concept of diversity at the centre of all work. And then ask yourself whether the concept of diversity you are working with is good enough. Is it engaged with equality and democracy or is it patronising, limiting and self-aggrandising?


Maybe this moment of reassessment should be grasped as an opportunity to give diversity narratives a stronger critical and progressive dimension. And for those who believe that it should not be political, we should remember that it already is, and that diversity is sold as a marketable commodity. Perhaps too we should use this moment to challenge the flat universe that is emerging in the sector, whereby too many things are deemed ‘exciting’ and innovative, and where space for critical voices can be limited. We know that if diversity is to be integrated into every aspect of the Art’s Council’s work it must be reformulated. But to do that we do need some ‘back to the drawing board’ thinking, and the freedom to question and criticise in public, without being positioned as negative.

In the end, this should not be simply about recruiting a better range of curatorial or managerial staff. It is should not just be about establishing permanent exhibitions that mainstream ‘diverse’ arts. Both these things are important, but something more profound has to happen. What is required is a philosophical and attitudinal change in how we perceive our national culture. It is about ridding people of the erroneous view that ‘diversity’ is only of interest to those who possess some form of ‘other- ness’. It is about a willingness to be open to the limitless cultural landscapes that have yet to be explored beyond the suffocating categories of identity we imprison people in. But if we do seize this opportunity, the power of the arts to transform will become palpable.


+ Add a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear immediately.

Your e-mail address will not be revealed to the public.
HTML is forbidden, but line-breaks will be retained.
So we know that you're human.