The language of equality, diversity and inclusion
Rachael Minott, trustee, Museums Association
There are many challenges in the pursuit of equality, diversity and inclusion. One of the most difficult is language. How do we enable change if we are using ill-defined terms – if the language we choose creates barriers, assumes hierarchies and reveals our inherent biases? For most of the language we use there is a connotation that we start at a point of normality to which we need to add colour, flavour and spice – and this must be challenged.
Equivalence is a pursuit based on the idea that museums are for everyone, that memory is universal, and so the benefits of retaining and sharing history should be distributed equally. But when we use the term equality we enter into a dialogue of resistance, one with a long history of fighting inequality.
We must commit ourselves to deep rooted change and frank honesty
By using this word we are asking for our own history of misdoings to be challenged. We must commit ourselves to deep rooted change and frank honesty about the institutions we work with and in as historically oppressive places, for both workers and visitors.
There is a desire to make pro-diversity sound like a positive action, rather than a response to historical exclusion. This is why for some practitioners there has been a move towards words such as decolonise over diversify, to acknowledge the trauma that is being skimmed over. But that too is incorrect. To decolonise is a larger task than to simply have visitors and workers with a range of lived experiences.
Pro-diversity schemes are merely the beginning on a much longer road to making meaningful changes. Decolonising requires more diversity in our workforce and audiences but having a diverse workforce does not mean we have decolonised the institution.
The language we use around the term inclusion attempts to identify those who have and those who have not and those who have been hidden and those who have been highlighted: the included and the excluded. This language engages with the process of ‘othering’ the excluded. Consciously or not, it is reductive. When we include those who have been historically excluded (by us) there is a danger of indulging in self-praise – praise that echoes paternalistic behaviours of the past, casting the institutions as benevolent and visitors as passive recipients of grace.
Inclusion actually means abdicating power and through this facilitating the use of the resources for which we care. It will be through co-production where we will be confronted in our subconscious ‘othering’, our biases and our paternalism. If co-production is carried out well, partners will look to our practices and challenge and critique. Ultimately fair collaboration will improve both how we execute this work and how we reflect upon it.
There is a long history of exclusion in heritage industries. It is a long difficult road, and sometimes our actions will feel clumsy and hap hazard. Critically engaging with the language we use will mitigate some of this clumsiness. It will acknowledge that we are merely players in a much larger pursuit of true equality, diversity and inclusion.