This Work isn't For Us — by Jemma Desai

This Work isn’t For Us is an ongoing study, initiated by Jemma Desai. Partly a critical appraisal of historic "diversity" initiatives, partly an alternative policy document, the study is also an embodied ethnography, assembling testimonies from arts workers navigating institutionally initiated gestures at "inclusion".

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This Work isn't For Us — by Jemma Desai

This Work isn’t For Us is an ongoing study, initiated by Jemma Desai. Partly a critical appraisal of historic diversity initiatives, partly an alternative policy document, the study is also an embodied ethnography, assembling testimonies from arts workers navigating institutionally initiated gestures at inclusion.

society, anti-racism

THIS WORK ISN’T FOR US By Jemma Desai (2020)

‘This work isn’t for us’

‘This work isn’t for us’

Introduction:What this paper is (and what it is not)

A note on Structure


A note on citation:

A note on Location


Chapter 1 : From the Top

(De)politicised & (Dis)embodied

Dear White People


Compliance and containment

Naseem & Reena

Disembodied Futures

Chapter 2 - A (Host)ile Environment

The hopeful performative

(Host)ile Organisations

‘Success’ and ‘Progression’

Assimilation and Fragmentation

The Line

Chapter 3 The Sunken Place

Critical Complicity


“This work isn’t for us”

The Year of the Strong Woman


Eating the Other - Serving the creative case for Diversity


Chapter 4 - Pushback



The Undercommons

Transforming Silence

Collective Critique

Telling the Truth

The moment

Conclusion The beginning of the End (originally written in February 2020 and updated June 2020)





“Because I experienced the end point of colonialism inside my own family, as a tragedy, I came not to be able to maintain the traditional distinction between what is subjective and what is objective. Once you open those gates, you speak — even if you're speaking about the political situation — you're speaking as if it were allowing something from the psychic energy to flow into the world.”

— Voice of Stuart Hall, in Stuart Hall Project Dir. John Akomfrah, (2013)

““I have a hard time accepting diversity as a synonym for justice. Diversity is a corporate strategy. It’s a strategy designed to ensure that the institution functions in the same way that it functioned before, except now that you now have some black faces and brown faces. It’s a difference that doesn’t make a difference”

—Voice of Angela Davis at USC’s Bovard Auditorium at ‘Angela Davis: A Lifetime of Revolution’, hosted by University of Southern California’s Black Student Assembly and the University of Southern California Speakers Committee on 23 February 2015, the 43rd anniversary of her release from prison

‘The Master’s Tools will never dismantle the Master’s House”

— Voice of Audre Lorde at “The Personal and Political Panel’, Second Sex Conference, New York, 29 September 1979

Introduction:What this paper is (and what it is not)

Using the language of diversity can be a way of avoiding confrontation. But what else do we avoid if we avoid confrontation?

— Sara Ahmed Living a Feminist Life (2017)

This report is not a quantitative study full of easy to digest data. It is not written in the language of an institutional report. It is not a snapshot of a cultural moment with readily actionable recommendations. I have spent a long time thinking about how to best present the deep work I have undertaken during this period of study between September 2018 and March 2020. I have been asked (and asked myself) what I want the paper to do, and who I want to listen to the contents of it. I have struggled to answer those questions at some times and other times it has been painfully clear. This tension of method and divergence of desire is at the heart of paper.

Through sitting with this (im)possibility, I have come to understand the truth of American author, professor, feminist, and social activist bell hooks’s maxim that “Language is also a place of struggle” (hooks 1989 :203) and grappled with the possibility of enacting what cultural theorist Stuart Hall described to her as a “politics of articulation.” In the spirit of that questioning and search for a meaningful language, I have chosen a form that refuses the constraints and conventions of the professionalised arts sector, and takes to heart poet, feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde’s words on language as a liberatory force: “I feel, therefore I am free ….For within living structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanisation, our feelings were not meant to survive....

For there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt”. (Audre Lorde, 1985)

My new ways of making your old ideas felt, punctuate this document.

This is a paper which advocates for change, but it does not centre the need to explain why that change is needed. I assume that as a given. I refer to reports generated by agencies who administer the arts sector and studies that confirm this ‘objectively’, and I have grappled with such papers in the writing of this report, but here I offer an alternative to the ‘top down’ narratives on inclusion, one generated from cultural workers, in the grounded reality of such narratives.

This paper is an embodied, self reflexive piece of writing which uses autoethnography as its primary research method. Autoethnography is an approach to research that puts the self at the center of cultural analysis. Chang (2008) describes how the method uses “narration of self to engage in cultural analysis and interpretation”. In the analysis of diversity policy in the arts and culture that follows, I centre my 15 years of working in the cultural sector.

I write as a respondent but also as a recipient of, and an active participant in, the cultural sector’s diversity policies over the past 15 years. I write as a Londoner who by participating in the cultural sector, has felt complicit in a kind of gentrification of myself and my city, complicit in what my friend and mentor Madani Younis describes as a “cultural appartheid”, regularly delivering work in spaces where teams or audiences rarely reflect the populations they located in.

This paper is the result of a lifetime of living as a minority in predominantly white spaces, and of being subject to the ‘imaginations of others.’ In adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy:Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (2017), they describe how people of colour (and especially Black people) are in an “imagination battle” having to contend with building lives and futures whilst at the same time being bombarded with images of racist stereotyping, violence and deprivation through our culture. I argue in this paper that by flattening difference and tokenising the presence of those represented by the nomenclature such as BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), marginalised workers in the cultural sector face a similar battle every day.

Part of such imagining starts to take shape in the language and implementation of policy about diversity. In this frame, an imagining of me by people writing such policy might be that I am a statistic of progress for the sector, and that my participation in these schemes and institutions is, in part, a symbol of change. My experience of the cultural sector and what comes out of it problematises those statistics. Whilst they may appear a helpful advocacy and accountability tool, the struggle I have experienced to be seen in the totality of my experience whilst working in the cultural sector is a negation of them. I believe the picture is much more troubling than those statistics can communicate. Disembodied as these statistics are from the true experiences of cultural workers and practitioners, I would argue that genuine solutions to the unjust position we find ourselves in require a fundamental disavowal of the logic of their language which is the language of establishment, business, political expediency and an embracing of a new more thoughtful and embodied one of humanity (and humility) and understanding. For this reason, the paper is punctuated with my embodied institutional memory, my dialogue with others and that of other cultural workers (from sectors including film, visual arts, theatre and music). By putting my voice in dialogue with others, I honour the stories and thoughts shared with me without repeating the harm of the cultural sector’s diversity policy which as I will go on to show, so often unfeelingly makes individuals performatively hypervisible and invisible at will, and which so often renders us completely disembodied when discussing our lived realities. Sometimes, these voices might punctuate the argument in midflow, this attempts to articulate something I can’t underline enough. While policy led initiatives continue to grapple with inequality with quantitative data and ‘focus groups’ and ‘consultation’, cultural workers and artists are speaking every single day. In a myriad of ways, in multiple contexts and to people at every level of the sector we are sharing our lived experiences of the realities of such policies. I make as much space for them here as it is possible to do so but all ‘voices’ are anonymised unless they come from public events or from platforms such as Twitter.

Diversity narratives in public documents often focus on the lacks, gaps and description of the marginalisation of the excluded rather than the behaviours and attitudes of those that are the beneficiaries of that exclusion - often those that do the excluding. Part of this research is to help workers (and myself) describe and articulate what they face, to confront a feeling we often share, of lack, or of failure within ourselves as we struggle to progress, or are marginalised and discriminated against. Through this process of description we ask ourselves where the perceived lack might actually be located.

They think they understand us so well, but they don’t see us properly. Actually what I realised is that we need to remember that we understand them, how they work.

We’ve been looking at them our whole lives.

It is important to note that I do this with caution and care and with the knowledge that cultural institutions in their current form rarely centre (or even cite) the perspectives and solutions proffered by marginalised communities, preferring to co-opt them and translate them into instituti

This Work isn't For Us — by Jemma Desai
Tags Society, Anti-racism
Type Google Doc
Published 28/04/2024, 07:31:18


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