Diversity and Inclusion Work as Consumption

Sometimes I wonder…. I have had the blessing to have been embraced and welcomed into the family of my Native American Godmother while I lived in the U.S. Up close I witnessed and experienced months of preparation and anticipation for the annual pow wow celebrations. The seriousness, the planning, the work that is involved is incredible. Jewelry, made by hand, costumes, sewed to perfect fit and beautifully adorned, food preparations and more, are not to be underestimated. I was honored to be part of it and to contribute the little that I could. When I went to the pow wow, I participated as a family member, even though I was a novice visitor as well.

The pow wow we went to was especially unique as it allowed and acknowledged the mixed heritage of Native people. There are pow wow’s where there is more of an emphasis on purity about which my godsisters shared horrible tales about their experiences with discrimination. But this pow wow was the exact opposite. Whether you were lily white with blue eyes, or with blue black skin, nobody questioned your native identity. Instead, everybody participated in the ceremonies and celebrations. For us the pow wow was about celebration, but also about ceremony and work, hard work, healing work. I experienced up close the power of communal ceremony, the need to claim space unapologetically and affirm who we are, and the normalcy of connecting with ancestors. I have met no group of people more serious then the male drummers and singers who hold the sacred space. And yet, at the same time there is this other space. The pow wow is open to the public and people come from miles around to partake in Native American cultural festivities. They are invited to do so.

You can come to the pow wow to be entertained, to buy souvenirs like moccasins, jewelry, smudging materials, etc. You can eat the sweet bread, deer meat, you name it. And for those selling there is money to be made. It was a fascinating phenomenon to me, the serious sacred and the consumption entertainment going on side by side. I have had the same feeling at the jaran kepang in Suriname, the Javanese spiritual dance ceremony, which is public and sacred at the same time. Jarang kepang is not exactly the same as the pow wow, but I have had the same unsettling feeling at times, wondering about my own consuming presence at a sacred event.

When I look around at the field of diversity and inclusion within academia, I often get the same impression. There is something serious going on. Those on the inside are heavily invested, but for many it remains a matter of consumption. We do diversity the way we do tourism. We dibble and dabble, take and consume to our liking to add some flavor to our lives. Then we go home and feel a little bit better for having partaken, but things are not any different, not really. This is not a condemnation of those who don’t get it as opposed to the good, dedicated people. It is merely an observation of the dynamics involved in diversity and inclusion work.

I try to understand the dynamics as it is my job to try and change this field. We are at a time where there is recognition that something needs to change, where what we have been doing has been insufficient. The numbers don’t lie. Too many of our fellow students, family members, and citizens are being left behind. We can no longer explain this deficit due to lack of hard work. We also know that heritage plays a role and that the unequal experiences and outcomes in our educational system needs to be addressed. We are that far now. But how? On almost a daily basis I am confronted with people who are eager and ready to do something, anything. “Just tell me what to do.” And I appreciate their passion.

My challenge is this. How do I help people get past the consumption approach to embracing diversity and inclusive practices? Tell me what I need to know. Help me understand what I missed. Teach me the short cut approach to doing better. Give me the information. And so on, and so on…What is missing is the understanding that to partake in diversity and inclusion work, to truly engage in action to change the environment that we live in requires change. It requires work, self-work, real work, healing work. It requires taking a look at how we have been conditioned for hundreds of years, and how that conditioning shapes us, guides us, corrects us. As well meaning as we are, we fall back into our emotional responses, reactions and behavioral patterns. And so those who are so eager to partake and receive, when they are confronted with the deep unsettling emotional encounters or changes they might have to go through, they tend to drop off. They thought they came to partake, but actually they came to consume.

When we consume we consume to our pleasure. We don’t necessarily want to go to the point of discomfort. And guess what, true change can only come forth out of experiencing some discomfort. In my godfamily I have seen how people have come for the pow wows, the sweat lodges, the casino’s or the trinkets. When it was time to address our high rates of diabetes, depression, or educational struggles, none of those consumers were around. But you know what? We also did not provide the space for them to be around. We did not expect them to be around. We had no faith in their ability to truly partake. We allowed them to come as consumers and allowed them to leave. Sure a lot of them were only there to consume to begin with, to get their bellies full of cultural delight and leave with their lives a little bit sweeter for having partaken. Even if only temporary.

Some might even argue that we don’t need them to be present, that we need our own spaces. We cannot trust those that have contributed to our marginalization in the first place. I hear you and feel you. I also believe in the need and sanctity of retreat with those we share roots with, whatever those roots may be. However, there is also a reality in 2018 where we have to acknowledge that we are more interrelated and interconnected than we like to admit. Through blood, family and story we are connected with so many people. There are those who because of their programming, though well willing will join and take over, speak for and over, and do more damage than good. But they only do so because they have had the space to do so for a very long time. What if we change the requirements of the space? There is a time to retreat to our respective spaces and there is a time where we have to get together and get to work, even with those of us who seem so different from us, actually especially with those who are so different from us.

What if we were to use an alternative model? One of my early mentors in anthropology Dr. Thom Ball, then Vice President of Native American Programs at the University of Oregon taught me a few things. He shared with me how he was tired of “helicopter” anthropologist swooping into his community and collecting data only to never be seen and heard from again. This inspired him to get his own Ph,D. on behalf of his community. He also explained how Native communities needed to devise protocols to hold anthropologists accountable, and they did. Anthropologists can no longer just go in Native communities in the US. They generally have to present their case to an elder council, who will make specific demands. They are welcome to come in only if they share what they found, teach the community in the process and share their findings for the betterment of the community. It is a different approach. It acknowledges, yes you might partake, under conditions we set, and you will be held accountable. You are not allowed to just come and collect for yourself. Consumption is not an option.

What if we were to use a similar approach in diversity and inclusion work? What if we were to make it clear that we expect and even demand more from people? Could we be so bold? More importantly, could we be strong enough to do so? Just like it is easier to consume it is also easier to dismiss people and wave them to the side with “they are not going to get it anyway” rhetoric. It would require true commitment and not only holding each other, but ourselves accountable. It would force us to push ourselves a little harder or even a lot harder. I love people, the potential of people, but I don’t always like them. Sometimes it is just easier to shake your head and walk away. Sometimes you need to do that for self-preservation. But my job also requires me to be patient and open to those who don’t get it, those who spew their ignorance, or those who merely come to consume. I struggle with that task because it requires me to dig deep and come from a place of love and grace in spite of. I can’t speak for others, and like I said, I am still trying to figure out the best approach. Bravery, accountability, grace, forgiveness, faith, trust… could it work? Sometimes I wonder…

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