The institutionalization of Diversity and Discrimination in Middle East
By Zarqa Parvez
Diversity, Inclusion and discrimination have become to of the buzzwords in institutional life. Almost every institution either academic or corporate has some sort of center, policy or agenda to achieve diversity. This vast level of incorporation of diversity is alarming; it might be indicative of the concept losing its critical edge. So what is diversity and what are we doing with it?
Aren’t we all diverse beings? We have multiple identities that intersect at different levels producing the individual that we are. So what does diversity imply then? Does it mean a group identity? In most cases it means people of different race, color, religion, beliefs and gender. Any one who is different from the dominant group of established power structure; is diverse.
In order to understand institutionalized diversity we, then have to understand institutionalized discrimination and practices that re-produce these behaviors. I would therefore use a de-constructivist approach. To de-construct discrimination, we have to look practices that construct the “other” and “stranger-making” practices in the institutions as expressed by Sara Ahmed in “On Being Included”. The question to be asked is how are certain norms established? How are systems of power created and how is privilege institutionalized? Why are some people more at home in certain places and why are their bodies considered to be the norm? How and why hierarchies are maintained?
Diversity is mostly a political project than it is about inclusion and targeting discrimination. Even those who claim to suffer from discrimination in fact may also be discriminating others. How aware are we of our own biases? How willing are institutional leaders to listen to genuine conversations about discrimination and how effective our “diversity policies” in tackling discrimination? Mostly importantly how free are members of institutions in speaking about discrimination? After all, no one wants to loose his or her job over a genuine opinion or convicting someone discrimination, especially that person is a superior in power structure.
To recognize that at present most of the institutional work on “diversity” and “equality” is mostly political allows us to look for effective solutions. We have to look at reproduction of discrimination and diversity as not a solution in itself to the problem but rather a process. Discrimination can be creative and continuously reproduced through new practices, so diversity too has to be an equally creative in response. The focus on process allows for new directions and strategies to be created as recognition of the fluid nature of discrimination as opposed to a fixed concept with a clear framework. As many gender theorists put it power can be redone the moment it is thought of as undone.
There are several types and forms of discrimination. Discrimination based on race, skin color, religion, beliefs and gender. I prefer to use discrimination instead of “racism”. Racism as a term established power relations and re-instates certain hierarchies such as the white vs. people of color. The minority or people of color may also reproduce racist behaviors towards people of other races or color and should not be confined in a certain power relations dynamic, where they are seen as subject of racism but not capable of producing “racism” themselves. According to Fred Pincus there are three levels of discrimination Individual/Institutional/Structural. The individual discrimination has to individual members of a particular race/ethnicity/gender intended to differentiate or harm members of another group. Institutional discrimination is related to policies of dominant group (ethnic/gender/race) to differentiate or harm the other group. The structural discrimination is related to both policies and behaviors of a certain group that can produce harmful behaviors and differentiate between certain groups. The focus of this article is institutional discrimination; in order to understand how diversity has become a popular project of institutions we have to first understand the very concept of institution. Weber identifies institutions with status quo and with the existing and changing norms. The new approach of understanding institutions then focuses on the process, rather than focusing on their mere existence we have to focus on activities inside the institutions that essentially shape them. So for example, when a certain act/thing becomes institutionalized it becomes normal or part of the background of that institution. This allows us to approach “diversity” from a different perspective and to understand what becomes passed over or excused in the name of a normal institutional practice as routine or ordinary. The focus on institution allows us to see privilege beyond the obviously constructed definitions.
For example, whit privilege as a concept is well known and largely debated, but what is white privilege? And is it always seen clearly and obviously? In most Western institutions in Europe and USA, it might translate into obvious instances of preference of people of white race in certain jobs, through hiring policies, pay gaps and discriminatory behaviors towards the people of color. But what happens when a dominantly “white institution” specifically an academic institution with a history of white privilege branches out into other parts of the world such as the Middle East?
Such an institution might be seen as a marker of progress, modernity and enlighten for the local communities. However, what happens to the institutional practices that maintain white privilege and in the name of educating the local population perpetuate discriminatory practices in the subconscious of students and staff? The hiring process, teaching approaches, syllabus and behavioral conduct may reinforce the privilege of a certain ethnic/racial group, as it indeed has done in many Gulf countries that welcomed branch campuses from Europe and America.
It becomes increasingly difficult to challenge or question such privilege in academic institutions since their work is to educate and re-produce the same “quality” education as their country of origin. Diversity seems to be their goal by default. This is to say that to have an institutional mission and aim for diversity may be a sign that diversity is in fact not an institutional goal. To educate people of color in the countries where the same people were colonized and seen as a subject of oriental study may mean that white privilege and discrimination is simply going to re-produce in different shapes and forms. In fact, discrimination may even further strengthened by bringing certain orientalist and white privilege attitudes into classrooms subconsciously with pre-conceived notions and biases about the people being taught.
White privilege is linked to colonialism, orientalism, the power of normal and biased power structures build in the favor White skinned people. Further to this, white privilege is also “the benefit of doubt” as explained by Francis Kendall. This “benefit of doubt” gives the white privilege more leverage as they are often more humanized and given the benefit of doubt for the same incidents the people of color would not be able to get away with. Henceforth, just like how people of color do not deserve the unequal treatment, white people have done nothing to “earn” unequal access to compassion and fairness. “They receive it as the byproduct of systemic racism and bias.” (Francis Kendall).
Not every white person may subscribe to this privilege but will essentially benefit from it. It was during a meeting in a Western academic institution in Gulf country that I raised the issue of “white privilege” at a meeting discussing an event of clear act of racism committed by a white academic. In response, I was asked by a white academic “what do you mean by white privilege”? To which I replied “It is a privilege not to know your privilege”.
This is exactly what happened when a female white professor’s blog describing all brown people in a Gulf country (which she was visiting for the first time) as retarded, backward and ugly was posted on social media. To which she had responded “ I’m sorry, I had no idea it caused you so much hurt”, indeed it was a privilege to see her offense as causing “hurt” and it was her white privilege which led others to sympathize with her by giving her a benefit of doubt saying “but people change with time”.
If such an incident had occurred in a Western institution by a person of color, they would have immediately been fired or resigned themselves or maybe even labeled as “terrorist” “extremist” or “xenophobic”. But in the Middle East such behaviors are tolerated and excused by locals. In the Middle East, this is a clear evidence of white privilege being institutionalized but also what is explained in Arabic as “’uqdat al-Khawaga” or the “the cultural inferiority complex” whereby certain racist attitudes by white people are internalized by the colonized or people of color. If a brown person within the Middle East wrote such a blog, the response would have been much different and they would certainly not be treated with the benefit of doubt.
In such cases then, discrimination becomes a more complicated issue and diversity more challenging. It is far from a simple framework or institutional goal. Diversity for many prestigious Western institutions then becomes a token of enhancing institutional image and many incidents of discrimination are shoved under the rug or just seen as “normal”. “Normalizing” is how you reproduce several forms of discrimination. Discrimination based on race (racism) is reproduced through everyday behaviors, many of which are either undocumented or unspoken of clearly. It is just a problem that needs to be solved. The inability to talk about it is what contributes to the problem. Nobody wants to talk about it because they want to be seen as racist or acknowledge their own privilege. The reason why we haven’t seen drastic change in institutional inequalities is because many are just doing surface level tokenism.
Perhaps the root of the problem is that we focus on institutions as fixed entities but do not see them as fluid concepts in constant change, influenced by human activities. Instead of focusing on the presence of a goal or people of color as indicators of diversity, it’s time to shift focus on practices, attitudes and behaviors that creatively perpetuate discrimination.