I AM NOT AN ACCESSORY!
BY ANISH CHHIBBER
BY ANISH CHHIBBER
Everyone has seen this typical sentence on a job application – “*Insert any company here* is committed to and celebrates diversity and equal opportunities for all”. I must admit, as a young brown teenager, struggling to nab my first part time job in the local Tesco, my eyes used to light up when I would read such sentences. “Yes, they’re bound to take me!” It is embarrassing and bewildering to me now, to confess that I thought having brown skin was my best asset against the backdrop of a dull CV with no prior experience; there are probably many young people out there who still naively feel the same. When writing my applications I would try to make reference to my Brownness wherever I could – “Being of Indian descent, my cultural awareness will allow me to... *Insert banal idyllic use of brownness here*”. I must have envisaged myself a messiah at the Tesco checkout, pulling together all the races and solving intolerance and inequality one customer at a time. “Surely I could be the poster boy for Tesco’s ‘commitment’ and ‘celebration’ of diversity”. Maybe subconsciously, I knew I was trying to take advantage of a society riddled by white guilt. For sure there have definitely been times where I have consciously done it as an adult.
Growing up in Gillingham; a fairly unprosperous, impoverished part of homogeneously white Kent, I was use to being the token person of colour in a school class and work environment. I was accustomed to a racial melting pot, constituting: an angelic racism, an exotic orientalism, a myriad of micro-aggressions and a regular occurrence of being othered (all of which I did not have the language to ascertain for myself). I remember as a kid my family telling me stories of the systemic, vicious and often violent racism that pervaded their lives way back in the day. In my simple teenage head, that was then; now opportunities for black and brown people had no ceiling because all the white people realised their wrongs.
What does any of this have to do with diversity in 2017? I guess it anecdotally shows just how flawed our dialogue on structural racism is. It tries to make amends to people in a way that even children can see through and attempt to manipulate. It does not acknowledge any historical debasement or oppressions like slavery, colonialism, nor does it undo institutionalised racism and the perpetuated inequalities. The only thing it does serve is to make people of colour into an accessory and that is at the heart of a failing liberalism that seeks to appear as if it emancipates us but realistically belittles us.
When a marginalised group (examples include but are not limited to; people of colour, women, those with disabilities, and LGBTQ people) is fetishised by businesses it creates an amalgamation of problems that affect the psyche of those marginalised; tokenism, othering, internalised racism/misogyny/discrimination as well as a desire to assimilate. A society that fetishises marginalised people ultimately instils fetishisation of self within them. Just like 16 year old me applying to Tesco. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that marginalised people should be able to see themselves reflected back in society. Especially in positions of leadership, integrity and intelligence however a culture which continues to treat their marginalised as tokens is simply creating a mirage of equality and liberation.
Often businesses are heralded for their diverse workforce and will never fail to mention their array of skittles that work under them or are present in a boardroom or the cover of a university prospectus. The problem with this is that it does not address the institutionalised discrimination that pervades contemporary working culture. It does not serve to socially mobilise large groups that are often left to rot in a structure of oppression. Instead what it does is create the impression that equality exists.
The consequence of tokenism is that when people (both marginalised and not) see for example a person of colour as a board member or in a position of power, we see a person who has been placed in a space of power for the sake of their niche (or so it may lurk at the back of our minds).
When writing to his nephew on the plight of African Americans during the civil rights movement James Baldwin said ‘Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s own sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.’ Is anyone moving out of their place? A neoliberal paradox of diversity is not attacking anyone’s own sense of reality. Putting a token in a boardroom is not shaking structural inequality to its foundations, neither does it progress the discourse.
What I mean by neoliberal diversity is a diversity that; tolerates marginalised people, acknowledges the marginalised and an affirmation of their oppression only at the benefit of profit. When corporations do not bend at the cultural zeitgeist of a nation they will most definitely fail, and they know it. So hiring a marginalised person is not an act of defiance against institutionalised discrimination. It is an act of self interest and preservation of self image. If the cultural zeitgeist called for the death of Indians, we would see their necks strung up on coke cans.
Corporations do not have a moral compass. The state does not have a moral compass. They will flow with their environment and dominate in the most subtle ways. Some may still stand defiant in the wave of oppression but with the discourse at present, the current of capital will wash away the dissenters and leave only a speck of sand in its wake. We need a decolonial, anti capitalist dismantling of structures that fix us in place. One that works in mutual aid with others. One that is intersectional in all of its operations; as if to encapsulate every unit of the sea (not just the unit submerging men of colour or white women) and drain it of all its content. Without doing so we will be perpetually coerced into a state of mind where we believe with hard work and determination any creed can be successful.
In an instance of my adult life I overheard a group of friends (who deemed themselves very left and liberal) talking about how diverse their inner social circle was. I heard these words escape a white person. They said “When I think about my friendship group and the people I trust - they are all white, straight people and I do not like that”. A lot of people may think like this, and that is another part of the diversity problem. It treats marginalised people as consumables, as accessories, a fashion statement, devoid of which may make some feel like they’re missing out on 21st century cosmopolitanism. In an age of prophetic diversity, everyone; be it a business or individual - wants their own personal minority to play with.