The Trouble with Institutions: Un_Doing Diversity?

Diversity, as a concept, as a keyword, and as a buzzword, has gained momentum in the last decades. Rooted in civil rights and resistance movements of the 1960s in the US, the concept started off as a means to fight racism, exclusion and discrimination, and as a demand for equal rights. It bears strong connections to the politics of anti-discrimination, equal opportunity and affirmative action. As such, diversity entails a promise: it is a call for change, for welcoming, recognizing and supporting difference, for transforming institutions, organizations, or cultures.
But diversity, as it advanced into a tool and management mechanism for institutions during the 1990s, has also been vastly criticized, especially by black feminists and feminists of color (Davis 1996; Lewis 2000; Mohanty 2003; Puwar 2004; Ahmed 2012; Behmanesh 2019; Auma, Kinder & Piesche 2019, Kelly 2021). Its vagueness, its adaptability and its positive affective value support “a kind of ‘yes’ politics” (Ahmed 2012, 67) that rather pushes for harmony and digestibility than for contestation and conflict. “Diversity can be celebrated, consumed, and eaten – as that which can be taken into the body”, “a way of ‘eating the other’ to borrow bell hook’s (1992) evocative description” (Ahmed 2012, 69). Diversity, hence, is also prone to instrumentalization, compliance and self-marketization of institutions, letting in only certain, digestible, differences while shutting others out.

This ambivalence of diversity, its affective groundings and institutional realities, have been at the heart of this year’s annual conference of the Collaborative Research Center 1171 “Affective Societies: Dynamics of Social Coexistence in Mobile Worlds”. The Haus der Kulturen der Welt and the Schwules Museum, two important cultural institutions of Berlin, contributed in organizing the event, which took place online on May 28th and 29th 2021 under the title “Diversity Affects | Troubling Institutions.”

“There is no consensus on the advantages and disadvantages of the concept of diversity” – the warning set the stage in the introductory words of Matthias Warstat, member of the CRC and part of the organizing team comprising Hansjörg Dilger, Juliane Gorke, Omar Kasmani, Dominik Mattes and Hans Roth. It is precisely due to this dissent, that the conference can “hope for unrest and conflict, especially as diversity refers back to one’s own positioning, speaking and institutional presence” (Warstat). In the following, we will give a brief overview of the conference program, picking out some takeaways. And we will discuss how much of this timely hope on diversity’s dissent and its troubles have been accomplished during these two days of debate around diversity, affect and institutional life.

The How of Being There, and Who Remained Missing

The two-day conference offered a packed program, discussing diversity mainly in the context of care, work, media, university, religion and culture. The conference was organized in five panels and three roundtables, which took place in two parallel sessions. In addition, three spotlight talks (by Monika Salzbrunn, Bilgin Ayata and Neetu Khanna), a discussion with and reading by author Sasha Marianna Salzmann, a keynote by Sara Ahmed and a performance by Jeremy Wade and Friends, commissioned by the HKW, were part of the program.

According to the host platform’s count, 1014 people attended the two-day event, a number the live event probably would not have gathered. Crafting a well-balanced conference in a time of online-events, one that offers opportunities for meeting and debate against all obstacles of the virtual, proves to be an art in itself: How to establish contact when the audience consists of remote participants joining via their screens? How to enable discussion when one cannot rely on face-to-face interactions? How to enable exchange when the affectivity of participation is being channeled by and dependent on technology lending bodies this other modality of space and sensing? It became clear throughout the conference that much of the program was designed for a meeting in person. Even though faced with a new reality of meeting in the virtual, the conference emulated a pre-pandemic mode that has long been taken for granted, and by this missed somehow to pay attention to what could have been achieved with this new modality. Namely, the options for including different functional diversities the online setting clearly offers: closed captions, reasonable sizes and handling of presentation slides, the need for breaks and off-screen time, the fact that a Saturday might be a troublesome day for all those with care obligations, the possibility of providing pre-recorded talks for earlier or later access independent of the conference schedule, to name just a few.

In her keynote on complaint and diversity, Sara Ahmed, a scholar prominent for her critical discussions of diversity in institutions, asked: “Who is not here, whose bodies are missing?” as one of the key questions for diversity and its mechanisms of opening doors for some while closing doors for others. Taking this question to the conference, what was startling was the rare presence of black perspectives and especially the research of black feminist theorists in Germany like Maisha M. Auma or Natasha A. Kelly. By this, the conference proved Ahmed’s critique right: Institutions, when dealing with diversity, tend to very selectively open their doors, making diversity lose its edge when not addressing the dominance of whiteness in institutions, and thereby supporting and protecting it.

On How (not) to Deal with “Diversity Trouble”

The normalization and habitualization of anti-blackness in academia became apparent already in the first spotlight talk by Monika Salzbrunn, a Professor of Religions, Migration and Diasporas at University of Lausanne. Her talk was concerned with street fashion shows in Paris, Genoa and Douala as sights of “Diversity (Affects) from below”. Salzbrunn’s lack of engagement with her own whiteness and the reproduction of the “colonial gaze” in the context of presenting recordings and interviews with Black People and People of Color, was disconcerting. Or, to put it positively, as Omar Kasmani did in the chat discussion, diversity can risk being “a performance that is only skin-deep” and hence “should not be mistaken as being included”. Similarly, the panel titled “Care for Diversity”, attested to the habitualized colonial gesture in (western white) research that is rather ABOUT “others” and thus WITHOUT us*. The concept of “intercultural opening”, reasonably rejected in diversity-oriented organizational development due to its culturalizing attributions (Auma, Kinder & Piesche 2019) was nevertheless the basis for Anita von Poser’s analysis of Vietnamese care workers in Berlin, neglecting in effect their experiences of refuge and racism, as well as the possibilities of peer-to-peer methodologies. Let us not forget that it has been first and foremost straight white female scholars who have benefited from diversity policies and legal equality measures. Intersectionality as a travelling concept, which emerged from legal race studies in the US-American context (Cho, Crenshaw & McCall 2013) points us precisely to the voids produced by a white- and West-centric, middle-class-oriented law and how it fails to consider the multiplicity of discriminating factors – a warning applying to the implementation of diversity as well. When research on diversity avoids addressing racism, colonialism, classism, and ableism, it risks falling into the same perils of general presuppositions ignoring the power relations academia reproduces as well.

By contrast, Vanessa Rau’s analysis of handling diversity in the German organization Lebenshilfe e.V. showed how to open an organization for so-called “people with migration background” can turn out to be difficult and harmony disturbing for the organization. Rau found patterns of colorblindness, indifference to differences, projections of harmony and inclusion, preservation of privileges, and shame, as barriers to the advance of diversity at Lebenshilfe. She also emphasized that intersectional perspectives are being rejected, still, and discussed diversity as a pretended, but ultimately undesirable transformation that, in this regard, mirrors (the German) society.

Rau’s empirical analysis was echoed by Sara Ahmed’s keynote on affect, institutions and complaint. Speaking of the “diversity door”, Ahmed, an independent feminist scholar and writer, was pointing to the politics of welcoming predominant in white institutions: Being welcomed, as she noted, “does not necessarily mean that one is expected to appear.” In other words, being welcomed as a body that is supposed to contribute to an institution’s diversity, may result in only certain bodies becoming part of it, and only so much of their affectivities being accepted. When looking at the role of complaint, then, something interesting can be encountered. Complaint teaches us about the constellations and flows of power in institutions: how institutions deal with complaints; how and whose complaints get blocked or swallowed in the process; what reactions they provoke and what affective cascades they effect as a mode of survival for some, as an appeasement strategy for others. Telling stories of complaint can thus become a method of assessing institutional life as a ‘doing-power’ on the body, the mind, the affectivity of those expressing complaints, and of those outacting them. But first and foremost, even being able to complain is in itself a roadblock, something already indexing the fact of being able to express, to let-out, after having to let-in something troubling.

How legal doors are being opened to those becoming part of a society was at the center of Bilgin Ayata’s reflection on the genealogy of citizenship in Germany. Ayata, who is a Professor for Southeastern European Studies at the University of Graz with a research interest in migration, racism, postcolonial studies and affective citizenship, pointed to how migration affects classical European enlightenment notions of citizenship. While the foundation of Germany in 1945 was based on a rupture with the national socialist regime, its migration laws were effectively built on continuity with the “German Empire.” Ayata suggested that this late modernization is due not to “migration per se but the kind of migration that occurred.” When in the 1960s the recruitment of “guest workers” from Italy, Turkey, Morocco, Spain, Greece and Yugoslavia started, the change of social fabric became a matter of “identity trouble,” enforcing thereby the denial of racism and colonialism. The introduction of the term “persons with migration background” in 2004 transformed migration into a racial category, implying differentiations along the lines of origin and appearance. It rendered the process of obtaining citizenship a never-ending racialization held against what being “proper German” means.

With her talk, Ayata was already hinting at something Neetu Khanna would also stress in her spotlight talk. Khanna, who is an associate professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California, discussed her recently published book The Visceral Logics of Decolonization (2020). Drawing from the short story “Woh” (That One) by the Indian Muslim feminist writer (and doctor) Rashid Jahan, Khanna reflected on the “affect of disgust” as a vector for assessing the modes of hygiene and sexual propriety as a “visceral archive” of colonialism, sexist morals and power relations. Troubling the universalizing tendency of affect in affect theory, Khanna called for the necessity of localizing affect by looking at the specificities of affective cultures and their embeddedness in contexts and regimes of power.

Noteworthy was the roundtable on “Undoing Discrimination” that assembled queer, disabled, trans*, and anti-racist perspectives. Kenny Fries, Sanni Est, Miriam Camara and Rhea Ramjohn, in conversation with Samie Blasingame, explored Berlin’s cultural landscape and summarized what needs to be spoken out: German institutions are still predominantly white, cis, heterosexual and ableist and this informs how decision-making is usually structured. For instance, when it comes to disability, diversity conceptions in institutions tend to undercut their possibilities. Kenny Fries, writer, lecturer at Goddard College and creator of the “Fries Test” examining disability representation in fiction and film akin to the “Bechdel Test”, pointed to the structural hostility towards disabled people in institutions. None of the organizations that primarily manage the lives of disabled people, he noted, were either headed by or involved a disabled person in a decision-making position. Though in Berlin a growing number of spaces and cultural events have been fought out by BIPoC, migrant, queer, trans and disability communities, the majority of institutions is rather only “interested in reparation work” than willing to structurally change, as Sanni Est, actress, musician, film maker, trans-feminist activist, curator and community organizer, has stated in concordance with the other panelists. And so, the panel concluded that the pervasiveness of tokenism will only be stopped with structural change in institutions: this involves offering fair employment, pay and resources to diversity personnel, educational trainings, closely listening to BIPoCs and marginalized perspectives, making space, and sharing power and agency.

The Un_Doings of Diversity

There is something strange about diversity and the affects surrounding its implementation in institutions. Diversity, on implementation, tends to offer only a minimal concession to marginalized communities. It opens doors selectively, and conditioned by the institutional setting, it looks for happy tokenizing pictures of a moderately diverse social body to be shown as an institutional asset. This, all the more, calls for thoroughly investigating these implementations; also, to look into the local constellations of blockage and resistance towards complaint and the transformation diversity brings about. It is this very finding that the annual conference of the CRC has accomplished to put forward, showing us how timely and necessary the discussion of diversity and its implementation is, but also how troubling it can be. There is much to be learned about how power holds, who gets affected, and how institutional structures get flowing once the promise of diversity enters and is being critically monitored by those let in, and by those kept out. There also remains so much more to be done.


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