The Problem with ‘Diversity’
Shaz Hussain, Collections Assistant at the Royal Air Force Museum London.
Okay, hi, I’m Shaz. I’m a Collections Assistant, at the RAF Museum in London. But, before that, a year and a half ago, I joined the museum sector as a trainee. This traineeship was a diversity traineeship, and it was meant for minorities, as an alternative route into the sector.
I was told, very early on in my museum career, that I was different, and I was diverse. What I took that to mean was that, I was brown, I was young, I was a little bit not educated enough, and that was different, and that was something that the museum sector was lacking.
The reason why I’ve put diverse in quotations, is because, I’ve been thinking a lot about this word recently, and really percolating on what that word means. This is a quote from a feminist podcaster, I really admire, and it says, ‘If you really want to make a significant change, start by changing the language that you use.’ And, I’ve been really thinking that, maybe diversity, it’s a word that’s not quite good enough anymore.
How did I get to this point? Well, rewind a year and a half ago, when I started my traineeship. I was full of energy, I was so excited, the Norfolk Museum Service, the place that I was placed at, I was going to get loads of people of colour in there, I was going to get young people like me in there. It was going to be amazing, it was going to be great, I had so much energy for this.
My first curatorial experience this happened. I was meant to give a tour of the museum, and I marketed it at, like, young people, people of colour, people like me, and these are the only two people that turned up that day. And, look how awkward everybody’s faces are, including my own, it was not a great day.
So, I went back home, and I thought about this, and I thought, okay, let me just put my ego on ice, put my idea of what I think diversity is, and just put it on a shelf for a second. And, go back, and think about who the community in Norfolk are, how can I actually reach these people, and get to know who they are.
So, I went to the only non-secular community space, that I could think of in Norfolk, the pub. So, I went to the pub, and I ordered a pint, and I sat down, and I actually started listening to the people who lived in Norfolk, and tried to be part of the community, tried to learn from them, tried to learn about their culture, and what was going on there.
And, I realised, in my organisation, if I really wanted to make a significant change, I couldn’t really do that, because I was the most junior person in the museum, I’m not a budget holder, I didn’t have anybody that I was managing. What could I do? I decided to start changing the language that I used, I took control of the one thing that I had power over.
So, these are the things that I started to do. I took diversity, and I changed it to representation. Diversity says that, like, so, I’m using this one thing, and that thing is the norm, so the white middle class thing is normal, anything else you add on top of that, is somehow abnormal, or the other, or different. I didn’t really like that, and so I wanted to represent the community instead.
I took creating spaces for people, and I changed it to inclusion. Creating spaces says, here’s our museum, but I’m going to make a little space over here for you, that you can exist in, please don’t comment in my normal museum, space. I changed that as well, I started using the word, inclusion, instead.
I took the word audiences, and I changed that to partners. Audiences, says that, we as a museum, we perform for our audience, they sit, they watch, they observe, they don’t participate. I wanted it to be a collaboration between the two of us, it was a reciprocal thing, me and the community.
I took hidden stories, and I changed it to the whole story. I had to really think, the story of Norfolk, who is that really hidden from? It’s hidden from me, it’s definitely not hidden from them. So, change that to the whole story.
Right, I took, giving a voice to, and I changed it to, having a conversation with. Giving a voice to, is really patronising, and I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to have a conversation with these people, I didn’t want to bestow a voice on them, because I was this museum person, that’s super patronising.
So, basically, I just wanted to challenge all of you to start changing the language that you use. You can use one of the five, or all of the five, or come up with your own. But, it’s a really simple, easy thing that you can do, it doesn’t cost you anything, and you’d be surprised, if you start saying these words in meetings, how quickly people start to copy you.
So, that’s my challenge for you. You can meet me at the Bone Me Up at 1 o’clock downstairs, or tweet me.