Through the theoretical interrogation of both “diversity” and “decolonization” as key concepts in contemporary university life, this essay (1) offers a vision for a transnational “decolonizing diversity” approach that serves as public and political pedagogy within and beyond the university, and (2) provides intellectual and methodological interventions in contemporary organizational manifestations of racialized minority difference — namely, (neo)liberal multicultural formations of diversity in the US academy. The essay offers case studies of “diversity” and/or “decolonizing” work across the United States and African (Ugandan) context, based on institutes and programs at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda; and the University of California, Merced. The decolonizing diversity approach does not locate racial difference in the “diverse bodies” and domesticated forms of inclusion in the university, but in the logics of longue durée imperial formations and coloniality that (re)produce racial difference, linking the politics of race and racial and epistemological inequality in liberal universities of the North to those in the global South.
Postcolonial scholars have long explored universalist schemes within traditions of liberal political philosophy and pointed to the historical production of inequality that undergirds supposedly meritocratic and utopian liberal democracies. More recently, these interventions have helped inform the interdisciplinary field of what is being called “critical university studies,” which interrogates both the “corporatization” of academic institutions and universal ideologies of equality and meritocracy in the modern university in liberal and secular democratic societies.1 This essay follows Damani Partridge and Matthew Chin’s call (Introduction to this issue) to “interrogate diversity” and build on the work of other critical scholars of diversity and the university in relation to broader discussions about the decolonization of the university in the global South and transnational contexts. It analyzes the politics of minoritized and racialized difference in the university through three case studies: antiracist organizing work in the anthropology department at the University of Michigan (U of M), Ann Arbor, from 2006 to 2008; an analysis of the postcolonial patriarchal nativist university at Makerere University in Uganda from 2013 to 2015; and the study of the relationship between neoliberalism and diversity in the “new research university of the 21st century,” the University of California, Merced (UCM), from 2015 to 2018. Through the theoretical interrogation of both “diversity” and “decolonization” as key concepts in contemporary university life, this essay (1) offers a vision for a transnational “decolonizing diversity” approach that serves as public and political pedagogy within and outside the university, and (2) provides intellectual and methodological interventions in contemporary manifestations of racialized minority difference—namely, (neo)liberal multicultural formations of diversity. This approach does not locate racial difference in the “diverse bodies” and domesticated forms of inclusion in the university, but in the logics of longue durée imperial formations (Stoler 2008) and coloniality that reproduce racial difference, linking the politics of race and racial inequality in liberal universities of the North to those in the global South.2 I suggest that diversity initiatives sustain the status quo of racial, economic, and epistemological injustices in the university—and that a provisional yet meaningful intellectual, methodological, and pedagogical practice of “decolonizing diversity” works to produce a long-term and sustained critique of such processes.
The three sites mentioned above have been institutional homes for me, first as a graduate student, then as a research and teaching fellow, and finally as a tenure-track professor. They provoke questions about the transnational itineraries of both “diversity” and “decolonization” as key concepts in the project of interrogating the limits and possibilities of multiracial, plural societies and both inclusion and exclusion in the modern university. The case studies in this essay bring into relief the challenges of diversity discourses and practices of diversity governance in the US university in relation to the analytics of global coloniality and critical race theories, theories and practices of decolonization, and comparative conversations and debates on “decolonizing the university” in postcolonial nations. Indeed, as I discuss further below, current critical scholarship on diversity has studied its deployment in universities in liberal-democratic contexts, but few analyses have situated this body of scholarship in relation to the politics of universities in the postcolonies of the global South.
In the case of US universities, I explore the ways in which, despite its potential deauthorization by neoliberal markets or by intellectual and political elites, a decolonizing diversity approach responds to the hegemony of diversity discourses in our institutions of higher education. This approach entails three elements: (1) a commitment to intellectual life (which undoes assumed binaries between intellectuals and activists in the university, as well as their reifications); (2) the critical, continual study of both diversity and decolonization as key concepts circulating transnationally and in contemporary university life (this includes the ongoing study of imperial formations, (neo)colonial power, anticolonial thought, and theories and practices of decolonization in global and comparative perspective; and (3) practical, everyday strategies that unsettle “diversity hegemony” and that are based on ethnographic, feminist, and reflexive methodologies—including what I describe as “diversity countertactical work” at the University of Michigan and in the University of California (UC) system. Finally, an analysis of “decolonization as Africanization” at Makerere University provides lessons for the ongoing possibilities and limits of racial and ethnic pluralism and multiracialism in the context of “decolonizing work” in the postcolonial university. In all three cases, I interweave my analysis and apprehensions with my subject position as a racialized Sikh feminist scholar born in the United States who has transnational intellectual commitments as the daughter of post-1965 immigrant parents to the United States from Punjab, India. Location by immigration history and citizenship in the United States, experiences in both northern and southern universities, and commitments to a transnational life—which include encounters with different interlocking geopolitical formations of subjectivization, minoritization, and racialization—are all critical to my analysis of diversity projects, racialization and racism, nativism, and exclusion in various universities.
This essay is very much inspired by and written for graduate students in the African university and undergraduate students in the United States who have intrepidly asked their professors to meet them halfway in the project of making sense of their institutional worlds during important years in their life journeys. They have compelled me to consider the thorny contradictions of their experiences: what it means to be recognized as “diverse” or “minority” but also, in other respects, to be invisible subjects in the university. Indeed, the transnational decolonizing diversity approach I outline below also ultimately allows one to explore whether there is such a thing as an ideal universal university, or whether the universities of the South have taken on or can take on distinctive formations.
Diversity as Starting Point
For many first-generation scholars and students in US universities, diversity practices and discourses, institutionalized through “DEI,” or diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, have become a normalized mode of engaging with the politics of minority or racial difference in the university. Diversity projects in the United States can be likened to what Michael Omi and Howard Winant (1994) describe as “racial projects” and are thus linked to racial formation processes in the US context more broadly.3 In this sense, diversity schemes have become a post–civil rights integrationist project since at least the 1980s and the New Right’s attacks on legal affirmative action in public institutions. As Partridge and Chin note in the introduction to this issue, the complexities of the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger Supreme Court decision led public universities to shift away from legal affirmative action, which worked to redress historical inequality, in favor of diversity initiatives that were increasingly shaped and retooled in the context of broader ideologies of liberal multiculturalism and neoliberal capitalist governance in this period, a tendency that has continued through the so-called “postracial” Obama era and into the Trump era.
Indeed, there is a relationship between the rise of neoliberal policies from the 1970s onward and the management of racial difference: neoliberal policies authorize market logics and the role of the market in governance; they also derive from Western liberal philosophies that emphasize individual freedoms in relation to modern state formation and the depredations of unequal capitalist societies (they can range from the defense of individual rights and freedoms and civil liberties among the liberal Left to the promotion of individual obligations of self-reliance and self-management among the Right). While liberal policies have historically promoted activist strategies that seek to level the playing field between racial groups by promoting legal affirmative action policies to redress historical racial inequality in the United States, the Right, espousing meritocratic ideologies, have promoted a vision of a color-blind, equal-opportunity society that requires individual solutions to structural, social, and historical inequality. Indeed, research has shown that postracial ideologies emanating from both the liberal Left and the Right have shifted “away from affirmative action and other legal forms of broader social accountability,” have left increasing social inequalities unaddressed, and have ushered in new forms of racial inequality in even major public universities (such as the University of Michigan and the University of California system), where student demographics do not reflect the demographics of the state or nation at large, and where Native, Black, and Latino/a students and faculty continue to be disproportionately underrepresented or absent from the university.4
In a recent essay, Bonilla and Rosa (2017: 202) note:
Postracial ideology reduces an antiracism to a rejection of biological racial inferiority rather than calling for a dismantling of the colonial institutions and power relations through which race is (re)produced. This ideology contributes to a paradoxical investment in racial difference so long as it is institutionally domesticated as diversity and inclusion. . . . The presence of racialized bodies in strategic, often highly visible, positions is presented as evidence that racism has been eradicated and racial equality achieved, even while underlying institutional structures remain fundamentally unchanged. In this context, racial diversity becomes a highly valuable commodity and a powerfully legitimizing institutional force.
In this essay, I agree with and expand on the arguments of Bonilla and Rosa and others to suggest that diversity initiatives have, first, engendered either the absence or tokenized presence of underrepresented minority faculty and students in the academy (a problem of racial access); and, second, stultified the means by which one can discuss minority racial difference and inequality, particularly as a problem of global racial justice. Finally, I argue that diversity initiatives (or the lack thereof) can be linked to epistemic (knowledge-based) exclusion in the university, and vice versa: epistemic exclusion is often inherently associated with the absence of underrepresented faculty in the university.
In my experiences studying, working, and teaching in liberal academic institutions, I have often found that minoritized scholars (both transnational elites and US-born academics) respond to the above processes by vacillating between two kinds of positions: (1) a general skepticism of “the race industry” or “the performance of diversity” and an unwillingness to intellectually engage in questions of White supremacy, racial inequity, or racial injustices in the university; or, (2) what I have increasingly observed and describe as hegemonic “women of color (WOC)” or “persons of color (POC)” essentialisms—the uninterrogated homogenization and essentialization of racialized people according to liberal identitarianist practices, or the politicization of identity in the liberal university. Racialized faculty and students, as one student described to me, must “self-tokenize” themselves and essentialize the multiplicities and complexities of their identities, subjectivities, histories, and experiences to make political claims in institutional spaces that possess no other terms or intellectual formations by which to engage with minority difference.
On the other hand, self-identified White, White-passing, and transnational elite scholars may subscribe to liberal ideologies of universal equality and meritocracy in the university, benefitting from both White supremacy and colorblind racial ideologies and practices (see also Ajantha Subramanian in this volume, for a comparative analysis of caste difference and privilege in India). White women in the United States, for instance, have disproportionately benefitted from legal affirmative action policies as well as diversity initiatives in the university—additional research has shown that they have also been at the forefront of conservative anti–affirmative action movements (Crenshaw 2007). White-identified scholars might also replicate some of the problematic tendencies of dialectical antiracist activist work in the university (i.e., engaging in liberal allyship practices) by uncritically promoting hegemonic WOC or POC essentialisms. As I discuss further below, much of the intellectual labor of a decolonizing diversity perspective works to destabilize polarized, essentialized positions on minority racial difference in the university to more effectively articulate a collective and cross-racial radical project for racial, economic, and epistemological justice in the university.
This postlegal affirmative action transition to the management of racial or minoritized difference in the university, as expressed through the normalization of diversity initiatives, ushered in a new wave of critical scholarship on the study of diversity in the university across many disciplines, and even in the mainstream press. Critical scholarship on diversity, in line with broader critiques of (neo)liberal multiculturalisms in Western secular, capitalist democracies, suggest that diversity, like “minority,” operates as a technology of governance that one is disciplined into as one encounters public space and institutions. In effect, it becomes a safe way to talk about minority or racialized difference, rather than the more taboo and threatening topics of race and racialization processes and what that might entail: more candid and discomfiting conversations about racial formation and race projects; race and its relationship to other systems of inequality; global and national White supremacy; and racism, inequality, and racial justice.5 In the field of sociocultural anthropology, for example, this shift from discussions about race, racism, and justice to diversity, equity, and inclusion finds a parallel, some scholars have argued, in the way in which the concept of “culture” is mobilized to replace debates on the making of minoritized difference, racial inequality, and the dismantling of racial systems and other power relations.6 Critical scholarship on diversity, on the other hand, explores diversity initiatives as (1) hegemonic, neoliberal tools that manage difference and (2) ideologies, discourses, and practices as ontological and epistemological sites of inquiry.7 Significantly, critical studies of diversity in liberal-democratic contexts can at times paradoxically shore up the terms of liberal inclusion through American and/or Western exceptionalist approaches that avoid exploring the relationship between race and colonial power in a global perspective—ignoring the politics of racial difference in southern universities in their analyses.
Generally, despite this emerging critical scholarship on diversity, diversity discourses and diversity initiatives are still hegemonic in the US public sphere, in public institutions, and in the corporate private sector. Beyond its inherent relationship to neoliberal governance, diversity has become increasingly ubiquitous through corporatization and commodification, and even a profitable project for academics in what has been described as “the neoliberal university”—these faculty and administrators might be identified with the liberal Left and yet gain mobility and social capital in the university through their engagements with diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. This is even more significant in our contemporary moment. At the time of writing, in 2017, the US academy is situated within a political landscape that has shifted from liberal forms of racism and exclusion to ones with overtly White supremacist, nationalist, and Christian overtones. In the post-Obama era, the silence of political leaders and the apparent weakening of the liberal Left in mainstream politics have encouraged a resurgence of White American nationalisms, resulting in highly visible public displays of racism, hate crimes, and anti-immigrant and antiminority sentiment. There is an increase in everyday instances of racist violence, ideologies and policies of mass containment and exclusion, rising tensions in workplaces (even corporate ones, which should be the ultimate site of neoliberal inclusion for minority groups), uncertainty regarding the status of immigrants (in the wake of the repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals [DACA], travel bans affecting Muslim-majority countries, and ongoing mass detentions and deportations), and a paralyzing inability to protect visibly racialized groups in liberal democracies (here I include the UK and Canadian contexts as well). Most recently, the 2013 and 2016 Fisher v. University of Texas (Fisher I and II) Supreme Court cases, Donald Trump’s rescinding of Barack Obama’s progressive guidelines on the use of diversity policies in college admissions, and Supreme Court Judge Anthony Kennedy’s retirement indicate the reactionary Right’s interests in continuing to roll back race-based admissions and hiring, placing legal race-based preferences and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at risk.8
Thus now more than ever, the state’s, and by extension the university’s, allegiance to (neo)liberal values of inclusion and diversity, problematic as they are, is deeply in question. A critical decolonizing diversity perspective explicitly challenges the institutionalization of diversity discourses and practices that often capture and reproduce the tendencies of the late (neo)liberal capitalist state and its proliferating liberal multicultural technologies. It examines how the institutionalization of diversity and its attendant “diversity discourses” (and these discourses are not the same everywhere!), diversity initiatives, and the tokenized appearance of phenotypical diversity among faculty and students often work to sustain the status quo, reproducing racial inequality and other kinds of exclusions, including epistemic ones, in institutions. This intellectual approach, through lived experience and ethnographic analysis, approaches the concept of diversity as a traveling signifier with material, everyday implications. It is a scholarly project that explores diversity as an “assemblage” or constellation of ideologies, discourses, and practices—a cluster that masks more than it reveals.9 Thus unlike the polarized, often anti-intellectual and reactionary responses to racial and minoritized difference in the academy discussed above, this project asks us to strategically and creatively reappropriate (when and only if necessary!), unsettle, resituate, and potentially even discard “diversity” to unearth political possibilities that open to new futures. In the Trump era, when racialized communities and their intellectual work are under attack in the university, perhaps this is an indispensable moment to not only revisit conversations on diversity, inclusion, and representation at our institutions, but to revisit them with the aim of reworking the norms and normalization of diversity to explore other possibilities of racial, economic, and epistemological inclusion.
I use the phrase “diversity as starting point” to suggest that, for first-generation faculty and students of color in the United States, their formation in the national educational system, including its universities, involves processes of liberal citizen-subject making in relation to late neoliberal capitalist/liberal multicultural governance. These processes entail context-specific and commodified forms of national, community, minority, and identity making. They often result in identity-based claims in relation to the hegemonic language of diversity in the university. Minoritized student-subjects, for example, are socialized to produce diversity statements and pressed to essentialize their individual and community experiences from junior high through the university or college experience and beyond, often to justify their presence in the university. Many students at UCM have discussed their feelings of discomfort and irritation about these practices with me—indeed, students are reflexive about how they are obliged to market, commodify, and brand themselves into “diverse” citizen-subjects in the university to attain educational access and resources. Education, here, is less a universal right than a revered prestige commodity that requires both labor and emotional extraction to enter the fold of a fictive inclusive universal humanity.
Based on my experiences learning and working in United States universities, some transnational elites are less comfortable with critically engaging with diversity discourses and diversity in the university. (And likewise, US-based scholars often do not possess the analytical language or concepts to contend with racialized difference in other national or global contexts.) In the United States, for example, elites in the humanities can benefit from perpetuating colorblind epistemologies; they may also be ill-equipped to engage with the challenge of understanding US-specific liberal citizen-subject formation among college students. They often avoid providing classroom pedagogies or intellectual tools to American students that unearth alternative means of claim making in the university. In fact, more recently, and in the context of increasing campus protests and movements by minoritized students, university elites (including administration and faculty) demean student claims and protest movements, often dismissing them as anti-intellectual or “liberal” (in a reductive, pejorative sense—these strategies, unfortunately, are dangerously in line with the Far Right; see also Ferguson 2017 on the neoliberal demeaning of student protest movements). Elite dismissals can occur without recourse to productive engagement with students or critical intellectual interventions in the classroom and beyond in local communities, suggesting a retreat from political critique in both the US university and the public sphere. Indeed, these provisional observations, in tandem with the broader neoliberal transformation of higher education, resonate with my own biography as a first-generation intellectual in the United States academy with a postcolonial orientation and transnational research and teaching commitments. How might we redress these intellectual and pedagogical gaps through more effective transnational analyses of the politics of minority racialized difference?
Decolonizing Diversity: Outlining an Approach
Recently, the concept of “decolonization,” with its transnational circulation, has achieved a buzzword status in social justice–oriented communities and organizations, on college campuses and among campus activists, in academia and popular media. Scholars and commentators have warned that like other key terms of sociopolitical analysis, decolonization risks becoming reified and increasingly emptied of meaning, a metaphor abstracted from the intellectual and programmatic work linked to the history of the political decolonization of indigenous territories and lands, and increasingly co-opted by neoliberal market logics (see Tuck and Yang 2012;,Mbembe 2016). By using the phrase “decolonizing diversity,” I stress the importance of moving away from reactionary positions untethered from intellectual genealogies, historical processes, or complex formations of power and subjectivity. Instead I advocate “decolonizing diversity” as a political/public pedagogy, methodology, and intellectual analysis derived from careful engagement with global anticolonial thought and its histories, theories, and practices of decolonization that are based on five interlinked realms of the political, economic, cultural, social, and intellectual. Decolonization, in this more expansive sense, means “the ongoing undoing of colonization”—historically by anticolonial, nationalist political leaders, activists, and intellectuals and contemporaneously by communities and intellectuals in settler colonial contexts.
Theories and practices of decolonization are thus part of a much larger archive of anticolonial thought: the study of settler and/or nonsettler colonial projects and the colony itself, studies of colonial mind-sets and attitudes fostered in native people, and studies of the failures and limitations of anticolonial nationalist projects. Moreover, this expansive notion of “decolonization” as the ongoing undoing of colonialism must also seriously engage with the intellectual histories and genealogies, geopolitics, and circulation of the earlier materialist, Marxist anticolonial nationalist approaches, including Black and Caribbean liberation thought and the theory of dependency in political economy (Césaire 2001;,Williams 1994;,James 1989; Fanon  2005; Rodney 2011); postcolonial criticism and its focus on the discursive, material, and psychic mechanisms that kept the colonial in place (Said 1979;,Spivak 1986;,Bhaba 1994); and the more recent “decolonial” agenda emerging from the Latin American context that is concerned with the making of Western modernity, the “coloniality of power,” and the long history of anticolonial thought in the Americas (Mignolo 2007;,Quijano 2000). More recent circulations of decolonial thought in the US academy build on the insights of Black and Chicana feminisms, Afro and indigenous feminist thought, indigenous liberation struggles in the Americas, and indigenous perspectives on Palestine (see Wynter 2012;,Anzaldúa 2012;,Lugones 2003;,Pérez 1999;,Barker 2017). Decolonizing diversity entails an understanding of decolonizing methodologies in relation to research, knowledge production, and social criticism (see Tuhiwai Smith 2012;,Sandoval 2000). Finally, this approach requires knowledge of recent conversations surrounding “decolonizing the university” in the global South that examine the political, economic, and epistemic transformation of the university (Mbembe 2015;,Pillay 2015).
By outlining these various trajectories of anticolonial thought and the possibilities of thinking about decolonization in the expansive sense, I suggest that the decolonizing diversity approach requires the continual and critical study of “diversity” and “decolonization” as historically laden concepts embedded within specific local and geopolitical contexts. The intellectual analysis of diversity and decolonization is married with some provisional, context-specific reconstructive articulation in university struggles. The provisional reconstruction of complex theories and ideas into political claims is important and necessary, despite the ways in which postcolonial political elites may co-opt the ideology of decolonization to antidemocratic ends, or even the ways in which university elites may deauthorize student and community activists’ novel attempts to articulate decolonization discourses and practices. Linking the praxis of deconstruction and reconstruction in the decolonizing diversity approach suggests there are parallel and simultaneous possibilities of both rejecting anti-intellectualism and claiming authority in the articulation of political claims.
Some ways in which I have practiced the decolonizing diversity approach in both the US and in Uganda is to ask students to clearly specify what they mean by their various uses of “decolonial” or “decolonization” in their political praxis, suggest readings and help facilitate reading groups to ground their activist practices, and urge them to commit equal time to intellectual study and activist practice. As a result of this process, several of my students have written and published analytical pieces on their social justice work in the university. This approach allows us to advance a project of institutional transformation—politically, economically, pedagogically, and epistemically—such that the purpose of the university is continually interrogated and assessed, that there is concrete experimentation with problems of community,10 plurality, and “difference,” and that the experiences of historically marginalized and minoritized people are constitutive and central to the knowledge formations of the university. Indeed, I often remind my students that the modern university has been advanced on imperialist and settler colonialist projects, and thus it is always a shifting site of power even with and despite the predominance of White access to universities and the inclusion of tokenized racial subjects into its fold. Indeed, these forms of engagement allowed us to more radically align intellectual and political struggles in the university in a transnational context that bridges the global North and South divide, even within the US university. The decolonizing diversity approach requires a commitment to intellectual life and divestment from American exceptionalism and parochialism by professors and students as they work together to achieve common goals. Importantly, the decolonizing diversity approach is never prescriptive but always subject to context, intellectual examination, and continual critique in relation to shifting global and local terrains of power.
A decolonizing diversity approach is also a methodology that enables practical, everyday interventions in the liberal university. It visibilizes and denaturalizes what I describe as the “liberal tactical work” that is embodied and deployed in the concept of “diversity.” Liberalism, in its shorthand form here, is not used in its everyday sense in the US public sphere, but refers to the complex terrain of intellectual thought that emerged from Western European political philosophies and settler colonial civilizational projects.11 For instance, a reading of John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding ( 1998) provides evidence for the historical accumulation, the weighty “imperial debris” (Stoler 2008,,2013), of racial inequalities and structures of (in)tolerance for the other within political society and in the modern US university. Thus contemporary diversity projects are not only constituted through assemblages of contemporary (neo)liberal multiculturalisms but can be disaggregated into longue durée accretions of concepts and ideas that continue to be foundational to the neocolonial apparatus of the modern university. By visibilizing the historical weight of diversity projects, we can begin to ask new questions. For instance, what would it mean to create universities in which marginalized students are not merely tolerated, or assimilated within (neo) liberal multiculturalisms and nationalist citizen-subject–making projects, but a focal point for the making of a new university?
Sara Ahmed’s critical scholarship on diversity (2012 (2017) provides important methodologies to denaturalize the institutionalization of diversity and the extraction of diversity labor in liberal universities. She uses the term diversity work, she explains, “in two related senses: first, diversity work is the work we do when we are attempting to transform an institution, and second, diversity work is the work we do when we do not quite inhabit an institution” (2017: 91). Diversity work is ultimately about tracing the work of diversity and what diversity actually does in practice. Playing with Ahmed’s discussion of the job description of diversity work as a “brick wall” in institutions (2017: 135), we learn about power and its deployment as we are confronted with diversity as a form of oppression and repression.
Thus, building on Ahmed’s notion of diversity work in universities in liberal-democratic nation-states, I suggest that decolonizing diversity is about tracing the key terms and concepts of minority difference in transnational contexts. Moreover, the decolonizing diversity approach foregrounds an analysis of racial difference in relation to imperial formations and global coloniality. It engages with the experiences of postcolonial institutions in the global South and draws from these experiences to enhance our interrogations of diversity projects and diversity work in universities in the North. It is about crafting theory from below while we inhabit institutions: it is about transforming institutions but also about producing knowledge about them as we attempt to make them more habitable.
The practical aims of a decolonizing diversity approach work to denaturalize the liberal tactical work of diversity in the university. Examples of this liberal tactical work might be found in the ways that diversity can suddenly appear as noun or adjective formations (the oft-repeated statements: “We have diversity,” “I enjoy working with diverse students,” “You are a diverse person”). One might critically interrogate “DEI” initiatives at the faculty, student, and staff level. One might observe and reflect on, with intellectual curiosity, the affective forms of discomfort that racialized others encounter when they are confronted with diversity in everyday speech, in faculty meetings, in fleeting encounters with colleagues and students, and in administrative responses to racist incidents and student-led campus protests. Emotional responses preclude goodwill for, trust in, or loyalty to the benevolent university. There is an explicit link between diversity discourses and Euro-American imperialist and settler-colonial projects of deracination, domestication, and assimilation—emotions are one essential source for materializing the subtle erasures of racialized and other forms of exclusion in the university. Finally, this approach is related to and builds on the interrelated ideas of diversity work and the work of diversity (Ahmed 2017).
The decolonizing diversity approach deploys a countertactics to liberal tactical work by privileging the historical, social, and political construction of diversity—by utilizing the methodology of genealogy outlined by Michel Foucault (1982) and undertaking a “history of the present” of our institutions. This diversity countertactical work involves visibilizing the processes that are masked in the sedimentation, naturalization, and reification of diversity concepts. Following Ahmed’s methodology in her ethnographic work on diversity initiatives (2012 (2017), one might explore the relative mobility and immobility of diversity and the associated technologies that manage and domesticate minority racialized difference. What kinds of diversity concepts have mobility, and why? Where do they travel, and how? Which concepts associated with racial or minority difference in general are stopped from traveling? Recently, for example, I observed the termination of a traveling modality of diversity in a faculty meeting. When some faculty suggested the need for more diversity on the faculty (faculty from underrepresented racial communities), other faculty members argued that “there can be no single paradigm for diversity” and “diversity must be intellectual diversity.” This moment revealed the ways in which diversity itself is subject to politicization/political manipulation as it breaks down into its component parts: “faculty diversity” versus “intellectual diversity” (read: minority racialized scholars ostensibly interpreted as “affirmative action hires” versus unmarked White scholars who have the capacity to bring intellectual innovation to the department).
The decolonizing diversity approach offers practical ways to anticipate, disrupt and intervene within these mundane institutional moments. A recent conversation with the vice provost for Faculty Affairs at UCM on the topic of faculty and student welfare in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election exemplifies diversity countertactical work. In our meeting, I opted to use the phrase minoritized faculty instead of minority faculty. The vice provost seemed puzzled and thrown by this use of minoritization, a use that established an important institutional process of becoming minority. This use of minoritization within a site of White hegemonic power relations alerts us that “minority” is never a fixed or stable category but continuously made and remade in the context of US racial formation processes. In this case, the administrator asked me to explain what minoritization meant, which I gladly did. He was surprised and made notes on his clipboard as we talked. I explained that minoritization alluded to the making of minority difference in the university and bypassed the normative workings of identity politics in the university. In this moment, we experienced a collective breach in the everyday workings of liberal multicultural processes. Here, everyday campus faculty diversity work became an intellectual process—one that reworked reifications and uninterrogated categories of “minority” in an institution where minority is often a form of commoditized capital.
In general, the decolonizing diversity approach is based on the assumption that the effort to transform the university is always related to everyday existence in the university, and existence in the university is connected to needing to transform the university. Thus I describe all the universities in this essay as both “homes and non-homes.” They are often non-homes for racialized and minoritized men, non-Christian religious others, women, and queer subjects—especially those who struggle with dispossession from higher education or the constraints and oppressions involved in living an intellectual life because of sedimented histories of slavery, colonial capitalism, state violence, and/or nationalist, communal and domestic or family hetero-patriarchies. Universities are not always welcome, inclusionary spaces for oppressed people, as recent American and South African student protests reveal (Ferguson 2017). Nor are universities always inclusive of the kinds of knowledge that certain bodies and minds will produce—the cultures, languages, epistemologies, or histories that might be brought to bear in the seminar rooms of universities, for example. Discomfort, pain, and tension, as they arise in both banal and precipitous ways, are evidence of transformation in the university.
Yet the university can also be a home for marginalized beings and bodies: a sanctuary that allows for intellectual liberation, recovery and healing, self and subject making. It engenders new forms of community and family for dispossessed intellectuals. We push the limits of the borders, walls, and ceilings that we are confronted with as we remake and fashion universities as homes—often needing to travel to new havens in the process, becoming itinerant intellectuals. In addition to borders, gates, brick walls, or ceilings, we can imagine universities as having corridors, windows, and hallways that allow for certain kinds of mobility—where, why, and how does that mobility arise, and does it require the language of diversity? What are the invisible, illegible, and hidden spaces and terrains of the university where plurality and difference can flourish with abandon and joy?
Decolonizing diversity draws on the trajectories and contexts of different kinds of subjects; it is an homage to the particular—particulars that serve new universals. Faculty and students might approach decolonizing diversity through what I describe as a transnational and diasporic “toolkit for institutional survival.” This toolkit is constituted by the archives of anticolonial thought and critical diversity studies discussed above, as well as the historical, cultural, political, and sacred “libraries” that inform one’s location in society. In doing so, one valorizes particularities in relation to the simultaneous universalizing and identitarian tendencies of the liberal secular university. The decolonizing diversity approach draws on ethnographic methodologies such as participant observation and reflexivity. It builds on feminist epistemologies and methodologies to critically engage with diversity projects, produce knowledge on institutions, and transform institutions. It can privilege subjective and affective knowledges. It draws on women of color, postcolonial, transnational, intersectional feminist and queer of color perspectives on the university—working from an archive of “counter-institutional knowledge” that challenges the boundaries and limits of the university. Indeed, decolonizing diversity is a feminist praxis, following Paulo Freire’s (2000: 87) concept and notion of praxis as “the intersection of reflection, theory, and practice.” It entails conscientization. Decolonizing diversity is related to the production and theorization of knowledge on the university through lived experience, which can then be remobilized to make universities habitable. Finally, I suggest that the decolonization of diversity approach can be assembled from the particular to retool the more universal mobilizations of diversity. Critical theories and approaches to decolonizing diversity derive from our experiences in northern and southern university contexts and reshape our normative understandings of the universal university—thus reimagining its possibilities.
Diversity as Strategy? U of M and the Anthropology Diversity Initiative (ADI)
In 2006, the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCHRI), or Proposition 2 (“Prop 2”) became legal in the state of Michigan. It ended all race-based preferences for admissions in public education and for hiring and contracting in public employment. The MCHRI was later appealed and overturned, but the Supreme Court upheld it in 2014. Indeed, MCHRI occurred in the context of the broader rightward shift in the American public sphere in which the conservative Right has overturned civil rights era–based racial justice work—despite the election of Obama in 2008. I was a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan during this time and observed this political transformation surrounding race-based admissions at the undergraduate and graduate level. I was also de facto engaging in diversity work and understanding the work of diversity.
The local and state-level campaigns for Prop 2 energized many graduate students in the anthropology department to organize politically around the end of affirmative action and the challenge of diversity at the University of Michigan (see Hundle 2010 for a more detailed analysis). Indeed, it was really the “loud silence” surrounding the end of affirmative action and its possible effects on the department that compelled graduate students to organize the Anthropology Diversity Initiative (ADI). Our efforts began informally, when twenty-five students of different racial/ethnic, cultural, and class backgrounds who were broadly interested in problems of diversity, race, and representation began to hold meetings after hours in the unlocked, empty seminar rooms of the department. Many of us were already involved in the graduate employees’ union or in other activist struggles on campus. While informal, one-on-one conversations about racial and minority difference, research, theory, and epistemology were always in progress in the discipline and program, through ADI we began to connect these issues to problems of structural inequality in the department. We focused on the lack of working-class, immigrant, and Black students in the department, or alternatively, their lack of access to anthropology. The question became: Who was missing in our department, and why were they missing? Where were they going? Why, for example, were American Cultures and Women Studies more welcoming departmental homes to these students?
Together we worked on several initiatives to address the recruitment, retention, and matriculation of underrepresented groups in the department. These activities included organizing departmental meetings, researching inequities in the department, consciousness-raising events, and one-to-one conversations about our concerns with faculty, staff, and other individuals involved in admissions. Another initiative involved collecting and publishing anonymous and confidential testimonials in a newsletter that was distributed to faculty and graduate students (here, we drew on the feminist tradition of testimonio in anthropology—the use of feminist and ethnographic textual play that enacted a form of resistance). After one especially exuberant meeting, we circulated and distributed photocopied testimonies with relish and humor throughout the hallways, entranceways, and public meeting areas of the department. We also strategically posted them on bathroom doors and slid them under seminar rooms. Indeed, as I reflect on our strategies as graduate students at that time, I recognize the combined elements of intellectual analysis, direct action and organizing, protest, and play that were involved in demands for racial justice and diversity work in the department. Our after-hours meetings created kinship, community, and new solidarities as we re-claimed both material and epistemological place in the department.
We also confronted complicated landscapes of power, practical quandaries, and collective worries. First, there was the debate on the merits and drawbacks of utilizing diversity in the name of our group. We were critical of diversity—we understood that it was a depoliticizing, repressive tool of management. But we also agreed that diversity discourse would allow us to bridge the divide between bottom-up graduate student claims and top-down administrative directives in the department and in the university. In retrospect, I can say our challenge was trying to articulate claims for racial justice and have discussions about race and racialization during what was rapidly becoming the postracial moment—a fate effectively sealed by the election of President Obama in 2008. At that time, diversity was a concept and discourse that had mobility in both our department and the wider university. It was a safe symbol that contended with difference covertly and neatly. Discussing racism and exclusion overtly was threatening and created tension. I can still vividly recall the impressions of tension and fear in my body when I used the words minority, race, or racism in meetings with authority figures.
The creation of solidarities along racialized and other lines of difference was a source of conflict in our activist practices. As meetings progressed, anthropologists of color felt that when they expressed their experiences of exclusion or engaged in “race talk,” some White-identified anthropologists felt threatened and excluded. Over time, the attendance of White anthropologists in ADI decreased, and mostly racialized anthropologists of color bore the disproportionate burden of formulating a response to the Prop 2 crisis and communicating concerns to faculty and administration. While ADI ultimately engendered cross-racial solidarities among variously racialized individuals, including some White allies, our work also required lessons in the practice of mobilizing identity. Resisting “racial silencing” in the run-up to the Obama era by reinforcing and articulating racial categories could involve the politicization of racial identities—these could quickly devolve into problematic identity and oppressor/victim essentialisms; the elision of the intersections of race, class, and gender; or exclusionary and self-serving political claims.
In Against Race: Imagining Political Culture beyond the Color Line, Paul Gilroy (2001: 105) explores the effects of racialized identity claims, or what he calls “race-talk” or “raceology,” arguing that identity
ceases to be an ongoing process of self-making and social interaction. It becomes instead a thing to be possessed and displayed. It is a silent sign that closes down the possibility of communication across the gulf between one heavily defended island of particularity and its equally well-fortified neighbors, between one national encampment and others. When identity refers to an indelible mark or code somehow written onto the bodies of its carriers, otherness can only be a threat.
Gilroy’s critique of essentialist identity politics and the “us vs. them” attitudes that can impede solidarity politics is crucial. Indeed, the debate on racial justice work and the problematic topic of what has been defined as “identity politics” is ongoing in liberal Left and activist circles—and has reemerged in the national public sphere with the resurgence of the Far Right in 2016. Beyond the rather slapdash recourse to the phrase identity politics, the debates tend to fragment along different axes. Some have noted that an “unmarked” White identity politics is always at play and is now becoming visibilized (see Partridge and Chin, introduction to this issue). On the whole, antiracist leftist commentators argue that race-based concerns become epiphenomenal to class struggles in the mainstream US liberal Left and in academia (see Omi and Winant 1994). Others have rightly pointed out that race-based justice work is often conducted on the basis of elite class privileges. Indeed, some contend that racialized identity, or “identity politics,” is a product of the ascendancy of neoliberalism in the US public sphere, and thus “identity politics is class politics, or the left-wing of neoliberalism” (see Reed 2009). In the wake of the 2016 election, social media commentators have also suggested that the positing of a critique of identity politics by radical intellectuals has worked, alongside the Right, to regressively undermine a theory of racial capitalism and a truly intersectional approach to social justice and anticapitalist struggle, ultimately reinforcing complicities with White supremacy, neoliberalism, and heteropatriarchy. Indeed, I myself have often observed the ways in which the appropriation of critiques of identitarianism, or identity politics, have worked to foreclose discussions of race, racialization, and antiracism and undermined the grounds for racial justice work in relation to other axes of oppression—ideologically, materially, and institutionally.
In my own anticapitalist, feminist, and antiracist praxis, I am influenced by the work of Judith Butler (2011) and Roderick Ferguson (2003), who argue that identity-based political claims are necessary for survival and coalition-building but also require a persistent disidentification (see also the work of José Esteban Muñoz 1999). (In another formulation, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak [(1985) 1996: 204] has referred to these political claims as “strategic essentialism.”) Identity, prone to commodification by both the state and the market, effectively obliges subscription to the very liberal principles of universal equality that are in question. ADI required acknowledging the pitfalls of identity claims while working through the ways in which identity and experience could be sources of radical and dissenting knowledges as well as the basis for progressive mobilization. This more robust confrontation with both diversity and identity, coupled with study groups and close readings, may have helped us to better attend to the practice and process of coalition building in relation to antiracist work. I suspect that much of this intellectual work still needs to be done in our current political moment.
ADI required a “learning by doing” process, which is what diversity work and ethnographic field research are all about. We were learning how to navigate repressive norms and cultures of professionalism, specialization, and hierarchy in academia that were often at odds with our work to disrupt majoritarian and diversity hegemony and address race in anthropology. The department, as an institution, sought to discipline anthropologists in ADI, while the very same anthropologists sought to institutionalize the aims of ADI within the departmental walls. We tacked between using diversity strategically and recognizing its ambivalent meanings and depoliticizing effects. We argued for the recruitment of “minority” students in departments while realizing that the presence of marked bodies, no matter how few, led to tokenization and unrestrained claims of diversity in institutions. We tried to talk about “race,” while vacillating between denouncing its reality and arguing for its real social consequences. Indeed, this last issue was especially vexing, as anthropology is a discipline that both denies biological race and addresses race as a social construction in all subfields, while it tends to eschew integrating postcolonial and transnational perspectives on race and power, global and colonial history, or the study of racialization and race-making projects in ethnographic studies.
Notwithstanding all these challenges, ADI allowed us to conceptualize the department and the field as continuous spaces of critical inquiry. Bringing the department into the ethnographic frame allowed us to imagine the possibilities of a discipline that not only thought about race as a social construction but understood the anti-antiracist work of social constructionism, particularly when it obstructed conversations about the structural realities, lived experience, and materiality of racial distinctions. ADI was an attempt to establish a certain reality that race and anthropology mattered, in terms of departmental, community, and societal commitment. Claiming space to do diversity work, however challenging, wrecked brick walls and created new passageways that led in directions different from those of the institutionally bound order. They functioned to revitalize that order with a creative vision for a democratic and decolonized future in which anthropology had an important role.
Finally, although we did not use the language of decolonization in relation to diversity, we recognized the limitations of the language of diversity in all aspects of our work, both its frustrating confines and its exciting prospects, all within the constraints of our departmental conditions.
Decolonization Work: The Postcolonial Nativist University
From 2013 to 2015 I was a member of the teaching faculty at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, as a research associate at the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR).12 Makerere University allows us to consider the trajectories of the modern, Euro-centric, Western university as it was exported to the colonies under British imperialist control. The British colonial government established Makerere College in 1922 as a small technical training school that served the needs of the developing colony and of economic extraction to the metropole. In 1950, Makerere was “refounded” as a university-level institution that granted degrees from the University of London, ensuring a British influence over the university in the context of anticolonial agitation (Sicherman 2008). In 1963, after independence, it was reestablished yet again, as the University of East Africa, becoming an autonomous national university, Makerere University, in 1970 (Sicherman 2008). Indeed, the university underwent a multipronged “indigenization” or “Africanization” process to become an “African university” that would educate sovereign Ugandan citizens and “build for the future” of the nation (“build for the future” is Makerere University’s motto).
Without delving into the complex history of postindependence nation-state-building or the turbulent decades of the 1970s and 1980s in Uganda, I briefly note that the Ugandan experience epitomized an extreme manifestation of “decolonization as Africanization,” which, coupled with the 1971 military coup by Idi Amin, included the mass expulsions of populations deemed foreigner and other, including remaining British settlers and the Israeli, Kenyan Luo, and Asian communities. Decolonization as Africanization is a phrase I use to indicate one of the many routes that the project of decolonization and forming a new polity could have taken. Rather than developing an inclusive, multiracial, and multiethnic polity based on the redistribution of accumulated racial and economic privileges, new national leaders “Africanized” the economy, government, and institutions by establishing new Black African nativist norms in which citizenship was exclusively defined by indigenous Ugandan identity, ultimately creating a new class of indigenous urban political elites who governed the nation. Patriarchal nationalist initiatives also established masculinist and neotraditionalist, culturalist norms for citizenship by governing the bodies of Ugandan women, who were exhorted to wear long skirts, natural hair, and national dresses instead of mini-skirts, pants, or weaves in the 1970s. Thus in Uganda today, the decolonizing nation is characterized by unresolved and ongoing nationalist, nativist, and hetero-patriarchal structures that tend to exclude nonindigenous ethnic and racialized populations as perpetual immigrant others and that coalesce around the regulation of minority difference, including racial and ethnic minorities, women, and sexual minorities.13 These exclusions often mark the institutions, landscapes, and walls of the postcolonial university, which I frame as the “nativist postcolonial university.” Indeed, postcolonial structures and practices of nativism are often masculinist in nature and are intimately linked to formations of nationalism and hetero-patriarchy.
As I navigated the vexed insider and outsider politics of the postcolonial institution, Makerere University was both a home and a non-home for me. As a US-born Punjabi Sikh woman, I was variously racially marked as “Asian” and “mzungu” (White or Western), owing to my expatriate status and US nationality. Although I have distant family connections to East Africa, I did not have immediate family in Uganda and was an outsider. I was also an insider because of my long-term connections and access to East African Asian/Ugandan Asian and other new migrant families and communities. My appointment as a research associate and proposed long-term contract, which would have allowed me to have a full-time faculty position in the university, was a politicized endeavor, as I was an expatriate American citizen. I also understood that being the only PhD-holding woman of South Asian descent on the teaching staff was politically and intellectually important. I was helping to re-create an environment in which racialized Asian teaching faculty were present in the university and could provide students with important course offerings and intellectual perspectives, particularly from a cross-racial and South Asian diasporic perspective. At the same time, I had much to learn from indigenous Ugandan colleagues about the importance of centering African epistemologies in the African university.
Being home and not at home at Makerere once again compelled feminist ethnographic practice that was not compartmentalized from the everyday tasks of teaching or research. Indeed, feminist ethnography and its relation to diversity work is not only applicable to Western or the US university; it is an important methodology when navigating the nativist postcolonial university. The liberal language of diversity is not mobilized in the latter context; instead, problems of minority difference (whether racial or ethnic) are framed in both analytical and quotidian ways that emerge from the local and historical context: ethnic affiliation or ethnic politics; tribalism; or antiforeigner sentiment, anti-Asian sentiment, and even Aminism. Once again, the nativist university compels us to ask, who is missing from the university, and why, and how can those missing be reconciled with a longer history of colonial violence, colonial privilege, and processes of decolonization? The puzzle of racial and ethnic inclusion and exclusion, including the place of ambiguous, transnational, and quasi-citizen communities of Asians in East Africa (who are often economically privileged) continues to be unresolved, in both the university and the nation.
Reworking the nativist impulses of the decolonizing nation is central to the democratic and inclusionary possibilities of an African university that must always reflect on its origins, its present conditions, and its future aims, including asking, “What is the university for?” While struggles over racial and ethnic pluralism at Makerere University are not at the forefront of discussions about institutional reform, they do emerge subtly in private conversations, more overtly in administrative meetings, and in flashes of everyday tension among students, teachers, and workers in the university. It is my hope that the critique of nativism at Makerere University will be at the forefront of internal reform among Ugandan scholars and will occur in tandem with other pressing issues, including the neoliberal commercialization of Makerere, questions of access and equity for Ugandan undergraduates of all backgrounds (including economically disadvantaged students, women, LGBT students, and students with disabilities), the economic livelihoods of teaching staff, and the reform of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the university (see important interventions by Kasozi 2003; Kwesiga and Ahikire 2006;,Mamdani 2007). Decolonizing and transforming the African university also entails epistemological, pedagogical, and administrative interventions and reforms, most recently concerning important debates about the MISR program itself. Indeed, African students, engrossed in the process of learning and becoming intellectuals, approach these questions with fresh critiques in relation to the interventions of earlier generations of postcolonial elites. Many students at Makerere, for example, have been influenced by the decolonizing currents emerging from other sites on the African continent, including the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) and Fees Must Fall (FMF) student movements in South Africa—movements from which the fallout is still ongoing, of course.14
Thus in contrast to my experiences at U of M where claims for articulating racial justice beyond race as social constructivism and within the constraints of diversity discourse were incredibly difficult in the Obama years, in Uganda I was always wary of the potential explosive violence entailed in the politicization and mobilization of racial identity. In Uganda, these identities were fossilized through colonial nativization and racialization processes (a hardening of ethnic and racial identities that left no room for the complexity of identity or subject formation or cross-racial and ethnic affiliations). In a nation grappling with its history of nativism, which includes postcolonial fascist projects of expulsion and mass extermination, race and ethnicity always seem overdetermined and with material lives and itineraries of their own—eventualities that cast some “out of Africa” permanently.
If the U of M experience revealed to me the possibilities and limits of diversity work, then Makerere University revealed the prospects, pains, and frustrations of decolonizing work. In Uganda, I learned that creating space for a decolonized and democratic East African future requires ongoing conversations about the necessity for racial and economic justice without resorting to nativist solutions. This terrain is fragile and precarious, subject to local contexts, and ever shifting. My hope is that a decolonizing nation like Uganda, with its complex histories of multiracial and multiethnic pluralism, its non-Western histories of anticolonial thought and political protest, and its creativity and inventiveness will be able to forge novel ethical, democratic, and decolonized projects beyond the demonstrated limits of liberal multicultural ones. In this recasting of an African university, we might ask how the historical and ongoing experience of decolonization informs the interrogation of diversity in the global North.
Diversity as Public Relations: Branding the Neoliberal Research University
A more current engagement with the neoliberal nature of diversity work is taking place at the University of California, Merced, established in 2005 and the newest addition to the University of California system. The impulse for developing UC Merced dates to the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education, which sought to establish universal access to postsecondary education for California residents in the University of California, California State University, and the California Community College systems. In 1988, the UC Regents authorized planning for a new campus on donated land in the agricultural belt of the San Joaquin Valley, an impoverished region in the southern part of the Central Valley in California. Historically underserved in terms of higher education, the region’s student population has consisted primarily of low-income, working-class students of color who attend community colleges in the Valley. The State of California has invested $500 million in the construction and development of the university, and the UC Regents (the main governing body of the UC system) has continued to support the development of the campus despite 1990s federal and state budget cuts and the 2008 economic crisis. In short, while it made little conventional business sense to invest in a new research university at the height of expanding global economic restructuring, the Global War on Terror, the national financial crisis, and ongoing federal and state-wide educational defunding, the UC maintained its commitment to opening the university and serving primarily minority students in the Valley.
As an institution, UC Merced is based on the legacies of research and teaching for what has been described as “the public good,” a notion central to the civic myths of the UC tradition, particularly when it comes to abstract liberal multicultural principles of inclusion, tolerance, and educational access for “diverse” communities of Californian students. On the other hand, UCM is also based on completely transparent neoliberal principles, and the developing campus has no institutional memory of a “before neoliberalism.” Indeed, UC Merced, branded as the “new American research university built in the 21st century,” masks its inception and expansion by means of neoliberal development through its claims to the UC system modeled in the 1960s, when the Californian higher education was heavily subsidized and tuition free for the state’s then majority-White students.
In a recent paper, Ma Vang and I argue that UC Merced exemplifies the development of the first major research university in the context of late American racial capitalism, what we and other faculty colleagues at UCM describe as “ground zero” of the neoliberal university, or a view into the future of the research university and the UC system more broadly (Hundle and Vang, forthcoming). Indeed, the technocratic, private-consultant-based development of the new research university in an “underdeveloped,” peripheral region of California exemplifies settler colonial expansion in the American West and parallels the languages and practices of neoliberal developmentalism in the global South. Moreover, we argue that the neoliberal research university is dependent on the commodification and commercialization of diversity, such that diversity itself becomes a symbol evacuated of substantive meaning. Discussions surrounding minority difference devolve into reductive generalizations about diversity, and the substantive needs of underprivileged and racialized students of color with complex immigration histories and backgrounds are undermined.
For instance, the neoliberal conditions of the twenty-first-century research university are often legitimized by what has been called, in technocratic language, the “structural diversity” on campus. While the student body is majority of color, most of the faculty and almost all of the administration identify as White (many do not live in the Central Valley and tend to engage remotely with the institution, paralleling Silicon Valley business cultures). The university’s presence in the Valley is often celebrated and expressed through a benevolent relationship to its always already defined “local communities,” including “minority,” “first generation,” “underserved,” and “marginalized” students and communities, yet it is often not clear who constitutes these students and communities—much less what their experiences, histories, identities, and future goals may be. The celebratory discourses surrounding UC Merced brand it as a meritocratic institution in the Valley that will provide opportunities for the progress and “social uplift” of immigrant, working-class students and the communities of color that they come from.
The existence of UC Merced and its showcase diversity also serve to shore up the legitimacy of the UC system at large in a time of rising racial and economic inequities across all levels of the system.15 Providing access to higher education for primarily first-generation and working-class students of color, while a legitimate goal of the UC system, often detracts from the critical interrogation of the quality, substance, and form of education provided to students, deemphasizes student needs, and tokenizes and homogenizes the complexity of student communities and the conditions of their lives in the Central Valley.16 The opportunities of UCM entail very real risks for the students that the institution purports to serve: the marginalization of courses relevant to students’ cultural backgrounds, histori cal experiences, and other interests; the lack of student housing, student centers, and other spaces for intellectual, cultural, and self-development; and a dearth of mental health resources and collaborative connections to local communities and organizations. The educational model at UCM is driven by instrumentalist market demands in which poor students of color are often groomed to become part of an entrepreneurial labor force for an increasingly specialized economy in California, becoming indebted in the process. One student also discussed the epistemological (knowledge-based) problems of the university, confiding to me during office hours: “Yes, this is a minority-serving institute, but is it meant to really serve us? This campus is meant for White students, to make White students. There is a lot of talk about diversity, but for me, this is a White space. I will have to go somewhere else to get the education that is relevant to me.”
Finally, UCM provides insights into emerging assemblages: the neoliberal management of diversity, the neoliberalization of diversity, and diversity as neoliberalism. Using UCM as a case study, it is possible to interrogate diversity through the lens of “racial neoliberalism” (Goldberg 2008), suggesting that we are seeing emerging permutations of neoliberal diversity in the research university. One important example of the neoliberal-diversity assemblage at UCM is the 2017 controversy in which UCM administrators allowed a New York Times journalist to interview DACA-recipient students after the presidential inauguration of Trump and ensuing calls to deport DACA students. UCM ostensibly sought to brand and portray the university as a haven for DACA students in conjunction with the UC Office of the President’s challenge and eventual lawsuit against the Trump administration on the attempted rescinding of DACA. However, in her article, the journalist in question not only described DACA students using harmful stereotypes but also violated journalistic ethics around privacy and confidentiality by publishing the real names, residential locations, and dorm room numbers of college students (Brown 2017;,Spayd 2017;,Miller 2017). Unfortunately, UCM representatives initially sought to defend what they viewed as positive national media attention to UCM, only belatedly engaging with the concerns of undocumented students and faculty allies on campus.
In a recent essay, Salvador Vidal-Ortiz (2017) discusses the “capturing” of diversity by the market, arguing that,
in the view of corporate-minded academic administrators, the more diversity there is, the more “experience” students gain. That, in coded language, means more diversity allows US-born, non-Hispanic white students to consume otherness and develop the appropriate skills at managing difference (and a portrayal of their “tolerance” for difference) for when they work with—not in—a “diverse” environment. This translates in a direct gain—monetary and otherwise—for a majority white student body that eventually becomes part of the work force. Their coded experience with “diversity” allows for them to “manage” diversity without having to address inequality. It also means disciplining students of color to assimilate to that diversity project—preparing them to abide by these unequal work-force standards, to fit within that system.
To be sure, at UCM there are similar disciplining effects on students of color as they are groomed to be entrepreneurial subjects and are taught “diversity-speak” as a form of symbolic and social capital. An additional institutional effect has been the heightened naturalization and political manipulation of diversity by racialized students and faculty of color and White faculty and administrators while racial and gender inequality has been maintained. At UCM, staff employees are majority women of color from local immigrant communities in the Central Valley, while administrators are mostly White men who do not live in Merced.
What would it mean to resist the diversity hegemony of the neoliberal university through the decolonizing diversity approach discussed above? Could professors adopt this as an intellectual method and pedagogical tool in their classrooms, and could students and faculty collaboratively engage in the deep study and critical analysis of neoliberal diversity models at UCM? How can these small shifts in our relationship to the institution accrue into larger ones, such that we work toward the broader political, economic, and epistemological transformation of the university? And would it provoke deeper questions about the purpose of the UC system and the research university in relation to our contemporary conditions and the shifting racial demographics of the United States—questions that move beyond the stated aims of universal access in the California Master Plan conceived in the 1960s?
Conclusions: Decolonizing Diversity Revisited
It is important to stress that the decolonizing diversity approach addresses the problem of minority exclusion embedded in liberal meritocratic institutions that no longer use the safety net of affirmative action programs to redress historical and ongoing problems of racial and economic access in higher education. This approach therefore also addresses the problem of tokenized minority bodies in institutions that work to undermine both the possibilities of pluralism in the university and plural forms of knowledge production in the university. Thus the decolonizing diversity approach also draws on the decolonizing currents of the African experience and the interventions of scholars located in the global South who have expanded upon the relationship between decolonization and epistemology. For example, in his essay “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive,” Achille Mbembe (2015) calls for a decolonization that makes possible the “pluriversity”—a university that establishes epistemological space for many universals and many modes of being and inhabiting the university, not just one universal with many particulars, or “local communities” (see also Mbembe 2016). This goal would entail an interrogation of the Western university that went “global” with European imperialism and colonization, exhorting us to explore forms of knowledge and pedagogical models that emerge from non-Western traditions.
The case studies at the University of Michigan, Makerere University, and the University of California, Merced, allow us to interrogate both diversity and decolonization through the transnational ethnographic study of minority difference and diversity and decolonization work; the possible appropriations of diversity and decolonization by the state, elites, and the market; their relationships to disciplining processes and subject making; as well as their utility for political critique and programmatic change. The decolonizing diversity approach evinces programmatic change that need not be revolutionary, militant transformation but a product of slow, incremental change that ebbs and flows with stops and starts over time. If decolonization, or working toward a decolonized future, means that one recognizes that one continues to inhabit a colonizing structure that foregrounds the universal claims of liberal citizenship based on racial and class hierarchies and inequalities, one must interrogate both the modern university and diversity not only as a national tradition “gone global” but also as a manifestation of neo-colonial racial inequality and the politicization of minority and racial difference. Indeed, the study of diversity requires serious, thoughtful investigations of global and transnational histories, theories, and practices of decolonization, as well as critical interrogations of key concepts of citizenship, community, and majoritarian and minority difference. A commitment to intellectual study, ethnographic methods, and transnational feminist methodologies and praxis in our encounters with diversity work and decolonizing movements in the university are essential practices in a slowly unfolding, long-term, and sustainable decolonizing diversity approach.
Crucially, decolonizing diversity is not the sole work of senior professors who sit on formal diversity and equity committees or even the prerogative of university administrations. Undergraduate and graduate students in the university are fully capable of critical engagement with diversity and decolonization. As dis cussed above, my own engagements with the decolonizing diversity approach have spanned my experiences as a graduate student, postdoctoral researcher, and a tenure-track assistant professor. Finally, this critical intellectual project occurs within local contexts, when we work with the assumption that institutional homes are sites of both estrangements and intimacies—that they can be field sites and require ethnographic attention through reflexive methodologies. In doing so, the discipline of anthropology, through its signature methodology of ethnographic research, will allow us to continually refine the decolonizing diversity approach, establishing space for alternative presents and futures in the university—new cultures, philosophies, and epistemologies of citizenship, community, and difference that will engender the redefinition of the university itself.
For a discussion of the field of “critical university studies” see Williams 2012.
Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa also use “decolonizing diversity” (2017) in their discussion of the exceptional discourses that emerged in relation to the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.
According to Omi and Winant (1994: 56), “racial projects” are linked to racial formation processes and do the work of making links between structure and representation around race in society. Thus a racial project “is an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines. Racial projects connect what race means in a particular discursive practice and the ways in which both social structures and everyday experiences are racially organized, based upon that meaning.”
Matthew Countryman estimates that since voters approved the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCHRI), or Proposal 2, in 2006, 1,102 Black, Native, and Latinx undergraduate students were not able to enroll or chose not to enroll at the University of Michigan. Likewise, Black and Native students continue to be underrepresented on University of California campuses, including Riverside and Merced, after the passing of California Proposition 209, in 1996, which amended the state constitution to prohibit state governmental institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity in areas of public employment. For more discussion, see Countryman 2017 and Munsayac 2018.
On the complexities of discussing race and racial difference in society broadly, Omi and Winant (1994: 54) observe that “there is a continuous temptation to think of race as an essence, as something fixed, concrete, objective. And there is also an opposite temptation: to imagine race as a mere illusion, a purely ideological construct which some ideal non-racist social order would eliminate. It is necessary to challenge both these positions, to disrupt and reframe the rigid and bipolar manner in which they are posed and debated, and to transcend the presumably irreconcilable relationship between them.” They also suggest that “a more effective starting point is the recognition that despite its uncertainty and contradictions, the concept of race continues to play a fundamental role in structuring and representing the social world. The task for theory is to explain this situation. It is to avoid both the utopian framework which sees race as an illusion we can somehow ‘get beyond,’ and also the essentialist formulation which sees race as something objective and fixed, a biological datum. Thus we should think of race as an element of social structure rather than as an irregularity within it; we should see race as a dimension of human representation rather than an illusion. These perspectives inform the theoretical approach we call racial formation” (55).
See, e.g., Mohanty 2003, for an earlier discussion of “the race industry” in universities; Ferguson 2012, for a discussion of the institutionalization of minority difference through the “interdisciplines”; Ahmed (2012,,2017), for discussions of “diversity work” and “the work of diversity” in the university; Urciuoli 2016, for an analysis of the “neoliberalization” of diversity among college students; and Berry 2015, on the comparative sociological study of diversity in the university, corporate, and not-for-profit sectors.
Here I borrow the concept of “assemblage” from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1987) to emphasize social complexity in relation to diversity in social structure, representation, ideology, discourse, and practice via its connectivity, fluidity, and multiple functions in institutional space.
Distinguishing this broader sense of community from its normative usage in the liberal university is essential. For example, I move away from the utopian and liberal multicultural invocations of “principles of community” in the University of California system and advocate their reappropriation and reshaping by marginalized student communities. For the UC Principles of Community, see https://www.ucop.edu/local-human-resources/op-life/principles-of-community.html.
See Lowe 2015 for an important and recent discussion of the relationships between Western liberalism, imperial trade, colonialism, and slavery.
MISR, when it was still known as EAISR (the East African Institute of Social Research), was an important site for British social anthropology. Well-known British social anthropologists such as Audrey Richards and Aidan Southall, as well as Ugandan native anthropologists, conducted important studies of “tribes” and communities in the colonial context. Since 2012 it has been through a process of transformation under the intellectual leadership of the current director, Professor Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan academic of South Asian descent who is also based at Columbia University.
For further discussion and analysis, see Hundle 2015.
In addition to the repercussions of California Proposition 209 in 1996, which has led to the decrease in underrepresented minority students in especially the coastal UCs, recent reports suggest increasing income equities based on race and gender across all levels of employment in the system. See “Pioneering Inequality: Race, Gender, and Income Disparities at the University of California” (AFSCME 2018).
Student demographics at UCM: 86 percent of students are of color, 60 percent are first-generation and working-class, and at least 33 percent come from the Central Valley — the rest are evenly divided between Southern California and the Bay Area.