What we mean when we talk about inclusion

We live in the golden age of diversity and inclusion, yet so many still feel so excluded. How did we arrive in this place, and where do we go now?

People gather for the free speech rally at Wilfred Laurier University on November 24, 2017. (Photograph by Cole Burston)

People gather for the free speech rally at Wilfrid Laurier University on November 24, 2017. (Photograph by Cole Burston)

These have been interesting times for the diversity debates. Last week James Damore—the former Google engineer who mapped a path to infamy via a memo to his bosses about their diversity policies, and the nature of women folks’ brains—filed a class-action suit against Google. It claimed that he and other class members were “ostracized, belittled, and punished for their heterodox political views, and for the added sin of their birth circumstances of being Caucasians and/or males.” Just a few weeks earlier, a U.S. Congressman, Steve King, had provoked a huge outcry with an inflammatory tweet in support of Hungary’s anti-refugee PM decrying the “multicultural Left” and declaring, “Diversity is not our strength.” The tweet won thousands of Twitter likes.

This comes on the heels of other fights that have coalesced inside and outside the courtroom. A 2014 suit alleging that Harvard University’s affirmative-action policies discriminated against a group of Asian-American students sparked an investigation into the school’s admissions practices by a diversity-skeptical U.S. Department of Justice. Meanwhile, across the pond, a well-respected historian, Mary Beard, found herself embroiled in a bun fight over inclusion, thanks to her suggestion that the Roman Empire was more racially diverse than we may realize. The comment, made in an online debate about a black character in a BBC cartoon about Ancient Rome, sparked fierce criticisms (and then much worse—see: woman and Internet) that Beard was presenting a sanitized, revisionist picture of the times to better suit modern sensitivities. A historian at Cambridge University, Beard was suddenly just another academic with a progressive, “politically correct” diversity agenda rewriting the historical record with feel-good fictions.

Even diversity-embracing Canada saw its share of action, when this magazine published an interview with Frank Vettese, the CEO and inclusion officer of Deloitte Canada, with a headline that asked, rather cheekily, “Can white male CEOS bring diversity to corporate Canada?” That interview was a response to a piece by Vettese in the Globe and Mail called “White on Bay Street,” about lessons he learned as a white diversity guy in the business world—in turn a response to “Black on Bay Street,” a brilliant essay by a young superstar lawyer, Hadiya Roderique, who left the law because it couldn’t seem to make room for someone like her. Roderique’s article crystallized, with elegance and heartbreaking clarity, the gulf that can exist between being pro-diversity and actually building a sense of inclusion. Business and cultural leaders surely read her essay with a sense of dread. Here was a bright, articulate achiever with a promising future, from a minority group, who had been utterly failed by a system committed to nurturing people exactly like her.

So we live in the golden age of diversity and inclusion, yet these ideals as well as their realities still challenge us, divide us, and elude us. In the political realm, rifts over diversity have deepened into serious fault lines: not only Brexit and the Donald Trump revolution, with its darkly anachronistic supporting cast of neo-Confederates and Nazis, but also the rise of anti-immigrant, nativist political parties and candidates throughout the West. Meanwhile, there have been conflagrations—in some cases literal ones—ignited by social and economic alienation in Paris’s banlieues and the outskirts of other European cities.

READ: We don’t need less identity politics—we need more

On a global scale the United Nations has pledged to “Leave no one behind” in the quest for universal human rights and economic opportunity, and the World Bank, an organization more commonly associated with market-friendly development programs, has set itself the task of identifying social exclusion’s root causes.

And yet it would seem, as the London-based Indian writer Pankaj Mishra suggests in his recent book Age of Anger, that an astonishing number of people around the world now count themselves as left behind—glum millionaires and the most penurious of the 99 percent; citizens of Western liberal democracies and denizens of Mumbai’s slums; stateless migrants from war zones and working-class white Americans; disaffected young Muslim men and white male columnists for daily newspapers. How can so many still feel so excluded? How did we arrive in this place, and where do we go now?

For globalizing, pluralistic societies—which is most Western countries today and a good many in the rest of the world—these are vital questions. They are all the more urgent in the shadow of a global migrant crisis that puts intense moral pressure on the world’s richer countries to open their doors wider. Already, between 2000 and 2015, the number of international immigrants went from 173 million to 244 million, and these migrants are ethnically and culturally more diverse than those in earlier waves. The risks, and lost opportunities, of not integrating such large numbers of people hardly need to be spelled out. And there is an irrefutable humanistic, moral case for according all one’s citizens the same rights and freedoms and responsibilities, the same access to economic and social success.

Refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan protest at the detention center against their deportation to Turkey on April 5, 2016 in Lesbos, Greece. (Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

Refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan protest at the detention center against their deportation to Turkey on April 5, 2016 in Lesbos, Greece. (Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

Dramatic changes in the global landscape are intensifying rifts and inequities, but they also present an opportunity for real transformation. The challenge is in accomplishing this in ways that are effective and fair—and seen to be effective and fair for everyone. How do we pursue ways to be more inclusive of our most vulnerable without alienating the rest? How do we maintain social cohesion within societies that are changing so rapidly? What exactly do we mean by inclusion, and how do we ensure it’s more than a buzzword? We are in a critical moment for such questions as a rhetoric of inclusiveness speeds ahead of actual change.

The short history of inclusion is full of optimistic and determined efforts, with mixed results. Recently these have attracted a new wave of critics who are philosophically committed to the goals of inclusion, and are holding institutions to account in a bid to better define and achieve them. For anyone interested in a better system, it’s illuminating to study those experiments—ideas in inclusion that have worked, and ones that haven’t.

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We are not the first humans in history to think about how to live more harmoniously in pluralistic societies. The Roman Empire had no choice but to wrestle with the realities of governing a diverse group of subjects. As a powerful empire with far-flung borders that ran at various times from England south to the Sahara, from Spain to Syria, Rome had to wrestle with the realities of governing a multinational, pluralistic citizenry, the vast majority of whom didn’t speak Latin, and had never taken any of the proverbial roads leading to Rome. The empire’s answer to that challenge can be traced to its very founding myth—Romulus, the surviving twin, declaring Rome an “asylum,” calling all refugees, runaways, and outsiders of every stripe to his new city. Those formidable armies were built on recruiting soldiers of all ethnicities, and for all the brutalities perpetrated by gladiatorial Rome, its slaves, Beard writes, could win emancipation, and citizenship.


Stylised Berber Cavalry under Lusius Quietus, fighting against the Dacians. From the Column of Trajan.

Stylised Berber Cavalry under Lusius Quietus, fighting against the Dacians. From the Column of Trajan. (Wikimedia Commons)

But we in the 21st century are surely among a rare few to think about it in a deliberate, active, and not always mercenary, way. Governments like Canada’s and Australia’s grapple with questions around minority rights, while in the corporate world there is a robust infrastructure to pursue goals of diversity and inclusion.

The West is a relative latecomer to the challenge of designing programs of inclusion for historically disadvantaged groups. India arrived at that juncture almost seven decades ago, a newly independent nation reckoning with its insidious caste system: baroque, ancient, and instituted and preserved by one of the world’s most tolerant religions in one of the world’s most pluralistic countries.

The Indian mechanism of “reservations” has
 been in place ever since, written into the 1950 constitution that also abolished the caste system, and built on a modest framework of quotas that goes back to the British colonial period and, in some states, even earlier. The most shunned of the castes are now organized into three broad categories: Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes (many of whom live in forests in the northeastern states, a world away from urban India) and Other Backward Classes. Since the 1980s they have had up to 50 per cent of government jobs, university spots, and legislature seats set aside for them. And so urban, upwardly mobile children of middle-class Indians compete for the remaining half of those positions—except in states like Tamil Nadu, where reservations have translated to a winning political formula for the underprivileged vote, and therefore the percentage of reserved seats in government jobs is 69 percent, well above the ceiling set by the Supreme Court.

Even beyond outlier states like Tamil Nadu, it is difficult to say how effective the system is. On the one hand, it allows participation in the economy for the country’s most vulnerable, which cannot but help. Just how much it helps is the question. The population of all the targeted classes hovers somewhere around three-fifths of the country’s population,
 and according to a 2013 report in The Economist, government jobs as a proportion of the overall
job market are about two per cent: too few to
 register as sufficient change for the recognized groups, significant enough to seem constricting
 to everyone else. (Private-sector jobs are not subject to the quotas.) Reservations have been in place too long in India for the newly disadvantaged advantaged to fight them very consistently (though they may in part account for the fleets of tutors sicced on middle-class children from a young
 age). But from time to time there have been riots,
 and protests—as in 2006, when reservations were extended to include elite medical institutes, and thousands protested, and doctors walked off the job.

Lawmakers, undaunted, continue. The state 
of Telangana recently increased its mandated reservations for disadvantaged Muslims, who
 have been slipped into the Other Backward Classes category. (The secular constitution bars reservations based on religion.) A third to half of seats in local councils and governing bodies are now reserved for women. And in the past few years there have been agitations from various other groups, including Patels and impoverished Brahmin priests in Gujarat—the most privileged
 of the privileged at one time—to be counted as economically disadvantaged and have reservations set aside for them, too.

It would be a mistake to think that India’s experience adds up to a warning against inclusionary policies. What it does is frame important questions about how to design such policies, the conditions under which they can work, and the unintended by-products of some approaches. Does the official recognition of certain groups as “disadvantaged” (or worse, “backward”) risk damning them to future discrimination? How to correct historical injustices and disadvantages in a way that integrates groups, rather than deepening racial, economic, other divisions or drawing corrupt new pathways to privilege.

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Toronto, Ontario, Canada, October 4 2016: Crowds of people seen within the city centre of Toronto, Canada. The image shows members of the public crossing on a zebra crossing area at this major road junction. In view are the various traffic lights and pedestrian crossing lights. In the background are various buildings, mainly retail shopping and entertainment business typical of a modern city centre.

Toronto, Ontario, Canada, October 4 2016 (iStock)

Hover around a busy downtown area at lunchtime, and you will more likely than not observe ferociously mixed social groups pouring into and out of the restaurants and coffee shops clustered around the office towers: Asian hipsters in conversations with middle-aged men in chinos; young black urbanites with fashionably quirky socks lunching with older suburbanites clad in Mountain Equipment Co‑op-wear; huddles of women of varying ethnicities and ages.

“Work friends” can be remarkably different from each other in a way people in social groups outside of work are often not—a change in habits that comes from exposure, a shared purpose, and the human impulse toward connection. They are a reminder that the working world, like schools, can play an important role in citizenship and inclusion. Exposure and education are key in bringing people along, and the office is where many adults encounter both.

Indeed, the corporate world has become a significant actor in the field of inclusion in the West, part of a response to a market case for inclusion that has emerged in the past two decades. “There is now strong evidence that inequality can significantly lower both the level and the durability of growth,” wrote the authors of a 2016 report from the International Monetary Fund. The World Bank goes a step further in its report on social inclusion, in wanting to explore the reasons for those effects: “why certain groups are overrepresented among the poor and why some people lack access to education, health, and other services or receive poorer-quality services.” The report’s answers to those questions settle on everything from food security to environmental sustainability, ideas that if followed to their logical conclusions should revolutionize the way the World Bank does business.

READ: Can white male CEOs bring diversity to corporate Canada?

There are obvious reasons for the private sector’s embrace of diversity and inclusion. Exclusion in a workplace, beyond being unfair, costs employers. A variety of experiences and backgrounds is more likely to generate innovative ideas. Mixed workforces more closely resemble markets, and they reflect changing demographics; nearly half of American millennials are not white, and the post-millennial generation is even more diverse. A study of Canadian diversity by the Trudeau Foundation and the Centre for International Governance Innovation found that for every one per cent rise in ethnocultural diversity, a range of workplace sectors saw increased revenues and productivity of anywhere from one to 6.2 per cent.

Diversity policies are also useful insulation against discrimination suits. In fact, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review, the expansion of corporate diversity programs came in the wake of several high-profile cases involving tens of millions in damages. Inclusion in the workplace, at its best, is more than all this; it can harness the talents of diverse communities, and create a harmonious, productive whole that is greater than its parts.


One study found for every one per cent increase in ethnocultural diversity in their workplaces, businesses experienced an increase of up to six per cent in revenue. (iStock)

The D&I business is thus a more than $8 billion industry in the U.S. alone, with diversity symposia and unconscious bias workshops and consultants and official benchmarks, such as the U.S.-based Diversity Collegium’s, now in its tenth year. More and more large employers in both public and private sectors employ diversity hiring goals or targets and appoint diversity managers or committees. When Google fired James Damore earlier this year, it would have come as a surprise to exactly no one that it has a vice president to oversee diversity and inclusion, even with, or perhaps all the more because of, the swirling possibilities of gender discrimination lawsuits.

With so many companies investing in diversity, workplaces today should be significantly more diverse, with more leadership positions held by women and minorities. But studies have found, this is not exactly the case. Between 1985 and 2014—over almost three decades—the percentage of black men in management positions at American companies with 100 or more employees crept from three per cent to just 3.3 per cent, according to a 2016 Harvard Business Review report based on interviews and data from 800 firms. The proportion of white women did rise, by seven per cent. But five years after companies introduced mandatory diversity training, the proportion of Asian-American men and women in leadership positions shrank on average by four per cent to five per cent.

None of this is surprising given the methods most companies rely on in the pursuit of diversity, note Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, the authors of the HBR report, titled “Why Diversity Programs Fail.” Diversity training, for instance, is a staple at Fortune 500 companies, and employed by many American and Canadian firms. But a substantial body of research over more than half a century shows that training is not particularly effective at encouraging people to confront their biases—and in fact, can provoke the opposite effect. Mandatory training, the kind favoured in corporate North America, is particularly pernicious at reinforcing biases rather than challenging them. People, not surprisingly, don’t like to be told what to think. It is worth noting that Google announced in 2014 that more than half of its workforce had already been through unconscious bias training.

Mountain View, CA, USA - Exterior view of Google's Googleplex Corporate headquarters. (iStock)

Mountain View, CA, USA – Exterior view of Google’s Googleplex Corporate headquarters. (iStock)

A diversity infrastructure gives management a sense that it is taking steps toward change. But it doesn’t always denote actual progress. In the past three years, a report from Deloitte found, the number of companies that consider themselves excellent at gender diversity went up by 72 percent, and nearly half of companies surveyed this year said their focus on global cultural diversity was adequate.

This is sobering to contemplate in the context of a well-publicized 2016 study from the University of Toronto involving a résumé audit, interviews, and 1,600 fabricated résumés sent to employers in 16 American cities. The study found that black, Asian, and other minority applicants who modified their names to sound more white, and altered their resumés to conceal their ethnicity, were more than twice as likely to be called about a job as those who didn’t. Even more damning, the rate of callbacks for “ethnic”-sounding applicants was no higher from companies who say they are actively seeking diversity. And because applicants themselves were less likely to modify their applications to pro-diversity companies, it seems fair to conclude that minority applicants in fact fared worst at companies with a stated commitment to diversity.

A performance of diversity without the substance, then, can be damaging in very tangible ways. “Having an institutional aim to make diversity a goal,” the British-Australian feminist scholar Sara Ahmed writes, “can even be a sign that diversity is not an institutional goal.” In her book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Ahmed invokes the sociological concept of habitualization, developed in the 1960s, to describe the work that happens within an institution. Institutions, whether workplaces or universities (the focus of Ahmed’s research), function with an interplay of habitualized activity (things workers no longer have to think about but just do instinctually) and deliberate activity (the active decisions they must make, innovative work that is done). One challenge of diversity as a goal, she notes, is that it must somehow travel from its designation of conscious aim to habitualized practice—surely the level on which true inclusion happens.

READ: Munroe Bergdorf’s firing shows the futility of workplace diversity campaigns

This presents a vexing challenge for employers: do nothing and the problem persists unchallenged; tackle the issue head on with the best tools currently available, and you could end up making it worse. It is, however, a conundrum worth wrestling with. Economic participation is vital in the inclusion equation, and workplaces have historically shown considerable bias in the other direction. Exclusion in one domain can also reinforce exclusion in others.

For companies committed to real change rather than optics, there are diversity measures that can lead to that habitualization. Dobbin and Kalev write that college recruitment programs targeting women and minorities are more effective than bias training or hiring rules. (Managers who carry them out are chosen for an expertise or deep interest in recruiting, and the emphasis is on finding talent—a positive exercise rather than a punitive one.) Voluntary training programs in general work better; the freedom to choose allows people to act with more generosity, and change their points of view. Transparency and what the study calls social accountability can also be transformative. People behave better when they think others are watching, and this is no less true for people in offices. The possibility that their decisions might be reviewed by their peers resulted in managers making more equitable decisions. Eventually, it’s habit forming.

In some ways companies may better achieve true racial and gender diversity without zeroing on either principle. There are also other kinds of diversity not captured in diversity spreadsheets at all: generational exclusion, for instance, a pervasive reality in the youth-focused West, and certainly in the workplace, where older employees are uniquely vulnerable to job loss or marginalization. An inclusion that encompasses these other forms is less vulnerable to misapplication. The challenge lies in persuading employers to spend the energy—and the time—to find them, even if they don’t boost the company’s position in diversity rankings or are as satisfying to company lawyers.

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Recently a group of Canadian researchers conducted a study to investigate how audiences of ethnic minorities respond to advertisements featuring ethnic minorities. Participants in five experiments were shown ads featuring ethnically diverse models as well as ads with only white models. The study’s surprising finding: minority consumers responded more positively to ads featuring white models than to ads showing models of other ethnicities than their own. In other words, advertising that featured one minority group offended members of other minority groups because it seemed to remind them they hadn’t been included—a curious and yet entirely human reaction that gestures to the complexity of inclusion.

For one thing, ethnocultural minorities tend to draw their ethnic identity from a specific culture or place, rather than from a generalized marker such as “minority” that binds them to all other minorities. And intercultural dynamics are not only a matter of perception; they can describe very real differences between minority groups.

This fact is hinted at in the case brought by the group of Asian-Americans against Harvard, and in a recent campaign to keep a 20-year ban on affirmative action in California, which brought out hundreds of Asian-American students; the move to repeal the ban had significant support from Hispanic voters. Speaking about the Harvard suit, the lawyer and civil liberties advocate Alan Dershowitz warned about the difficulty of penalizing one group that has been discriminated against historically (Asian-Americans) to help another.

CAMBRIDGE, MA - SEPTEMBER 12: Freshman Winston Yan enters the Admissions Building at Harvard University September 12, 2006 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard is eliminating early admissions beginning next year because of criticism that it favors wealthier students and hinders those seeking financial aid since the deadlines for aid are much later. (Photo by Glen Cooper/Getty Images)

CAMBRIDGE, MA: A lawsuit against Harvard University, filed on behalf of Asian-American students, claims they have been discriminated against by affirmative action policies (Photo by Glen Cooper/Getty Images)

And yet there is a temptation to view “diverse populations” as a single monolithic entity, and it’s subtly encouraged by quantitative targets (even unofficial ones) in HR departments or on campus. The flattening effect that an infrastructure of inclusion can have on the diversity that exists among minorities reenacts in a sense what the Australian academics Jon Stratton and Ien Ang have suggested is a failing of multiculturalism: the multicultural orthodoxy “constructs a binary relation between ‘ethnic communities’ and ‘Australian society’, as if the two were mutually exclusive, homogeneous entities.”

By emphasizing the differentness of a culture from the “mainstream”—a kind of race-less, neutral middle, as though such a thing exists—the discourse of diversity and inclusion can dull very sharp cultural differences within that culture.
 Ruby Hamad, a Lebanese-Australian writer and filmmaker, has explored this theme in her writings about Western perceptions of Islam. Rare is the news article about Muslims that doesn’t feature
an image of a hijab or niqab, she points out—even though both are symbols of very particular strains of Islam, and there are many communities, including her own, where women don’t wear them. Editors have newspapers to publish, and stories needing images, and this may seem a picayune point, but Hamad has felt firsthand the effects of reinforcing clichés about Muslim identity in this way; often she has had to argue for the legitimacy of her own Muslim identity, which she says is “too Muslim for some, not Muslim enough for others.”

Too narrow a focus on one kind of inclusion can obscure other kinds of exclusion. The Equality of Opportunity study, led by Raj Chetty, a Stanford University economist, reviewed data on 30 million college students and found that many Ivy League universities have more students from families in the top 1 per cent of income than in the entire bottom half. The focus on “identity diversity” has created campuses that look more inclusive, but continue to exclude, this time on the basis of economic advantage. Intriguingly, in California, where the affirmative action ban remains, a survey of ten colleges found that seven of those schools saw black and Hispanic attendance rise after the affirmative action ban (though it fell dramatically at the University of California at Berkeley or Los Angeles). The study was undertaken by Richard Kahlenberg, a fellow at the left-leaning Century Foundation and a vocal champion for the goal of socioeconomic diversity; Kahlenberg’s analysis, reported in his paper A Better Affirmative Action, showed that without the crutch of race-conscious policies, officials were forced to find other ways to make their student body diverse, and many did so by pursuing socioeconomic diversity—which ended up yielding more racial diversity as well at those seven schools.

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But even reasonable critiques of attempts at inclusion are difficult to articulate while a more fundamental controversy roils over any efforts made at all to include minority groups. During a period of unprecedented scrutiny of police shootings of black men (and children), six in 10 white Americans said they believe discrimination against white people is as big an issue today as discrimination against people of colour, according to a Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings Institution survey. A Pew Research Survey last year reported that only 36 per cent of white people agreed that racial discrimination is a barrier to black people getting ahead today, compared with nearly twice as many black Americans—interesting to contrast with a poll by the same group three years earlier in which a majority of white respondents said they support affirmative action programs on campus.

Sober, progressive critiques of diversity and inclusion these days occupy a misshapen public space that also encompasses more self-serving arguments. It’s a strange coalition: advocates for fuller kinds of diversity; people who interrogate the language and structure of race-conscious hiring; those who view any such accommodations as racism against white people; minorities who object to the insinuation in the language of diversity— however unintentional—that the old way, unfettered by demands of social justice, was a purer, virtuous pursuit of merit.

How we think and talk about inclusion, then, is as important as what we say or do about it. We have to somehow find a way to sympathetically bridge the difference between those who view societal inclusion as a zero-sum game—inclusion for some, however worthy of help, necessitates exclusion for others—and those who understand that inclusion for all actually increases the sum in the long run. It is possible, and indeed vital, to resolve this, and to do so without reducing inclusion to a market argument. But it’s difficult to imagine many hearts or minds being changed in the fractious, vitriolic public arenas in which such conversations are now happening. The xenophobia being whipped up by Brexiteers and Trumpians, by their alt-right counterparts in our own country, speak to the worst angels of our nature—all of us. Those who lean toward the same troubling biases are tipped that way entirely. Many on the other side emerge increasingly radicalized. One cannot blame them, and cannot help but lament the narrowed possibility for a shared public conversation, a common arena for debate. To ask the former group to be less angry or extreme seems futile; to ask the latter comes across as re-victimizing victims, placing on them the burden for change.

Supporters cheer Republican Presidential nominee Donald J. Trump during a rally at Giant Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Supporters cheer Republican Presidential nominee Donald J. Trump during a rally at Giant Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

In the discourse, as in the sphere of policy, the burden for change must rest somewhere. A remarkable study about transphobia published in Science magazine last year overturned decades of conventional thinking about the effectiveness of political persuasion. The study, conducted by two researchers, David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, was based on door-to-door canvassing of five hundred voters in Miami-Dade county, where a local ordinance was put in place protecting transgender people from discrimination. In the study, canvassers conducted a 10-minute interview explicitly aimed at changing voters’ minds, as well as before-and-after surveys. Later follow-ups tracked whether the change stuck. The study’s revelation, which attracted attention from political scientists across the country, was that 10 minutes of conversation did change many people’s minds. It was in fact possible to shift opinion by talking.

But what if you have been having the same conversation for years and getting nowhere? The fatigue and frustration felt by historically excluded individuals and groups, and by those sympathetic to their plight, is entirely understandable.

READ: The lessons Canada should learn from Britain’s anti-immigrant politics

Opting out is a choice articulated by some, including the London-based writer Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of the book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race. Eddo-Lodge has written about the crushing “emotional disconnect” of trying to articulate racialized personal experience to a white person who is stubbornly oblivious to the existence of structural racism—of other, less privileged ways of experiencing the world. “Amid every conversation about Nice White People feeling silenced by conversations about race,” she wrote in the Guardian, “there is a sort of ironic and glaring lack of understanding or empathy for those of us who have been visibly marked out as different for our entire lives, and live the consequences. It’s truly a lifetime of self-censorship that people of colour have to live.” Whether or not this is a universal experience—whether or not any universal experience exists for people of colour, or any people—it is undeniably a reality for many, and the act of writing the book is a profound attempt to communicate it.

In fact, notwithstanding the book’s title, this is the opposite of shutting down the conversation. In her writings, in interviews, Eddo-Lodge is speaking to everyone about race, including white people who feel remotely inclined to listen. It is a book that should change minds. Still, its title, perfectly reflective of the high emotional pitch of social media, also raises questions. Can inclusion rest on the exclusion of some? Does it need the exclusion of some because even to include those voices is to perpetuate past wrongs?

There is a natural friction between groups who want change and groups who are served by the status quo: the latter can exert an aerodynamic drag on movement forward. But what do we do with unwanted voices that are a majority? It’s easy to forget, for instance, with all the demographic projections and the discourse of a multicultural Canada, that we still live in a state where 80 percent of the population is white. It would seem unrealistic, not to mention exclusionary, to think we can build an inclusive society while tuning out or turning down that 80 per cent, even if some of them (a minority, it is worth mentioning) are saying things we find abhorrent.

Anti-hate and anti-immigration protesters in Toronto are separated by police at Nathan Phillips Square in March 2017 (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

There is a principle at stake, of not allowing debates about inclusion to happen in an exclusionary way. The new vogue in the West is for a modulation of the conversation by suppression, a desire for the silencing of not merely hateful opinion, but divergent perspectives of many kinds. The argument made is that certain conversations must stop for other, more productive ones to occur; and anyway, it is impossible to silence the powerful majority. A broader streak of illiberalism is in evidence here, and it’s difficult to see how a modern, inclusive society benefits from it. Does the suppression of some views not logically encompass the potential suppression of any or all views? Can a free society support the kinds of intolerance—including an intolerance of religion—that have become commonplace in modern progressive thought? Freedom of thought and speech are deliberately blind to content; making the freedom contingent on which thought or words defeats the point.

In this mode of thinking, it is not only racism or prejudice that is shut down, but also many other voices, including progressive ones—people broadly aligned with the underlying values who may not speak precisely the same coded language. This is all the more poignant given that these political or social constraints on speech have no effect at all on those fully committed to illiberalism and to the free expression of ideas of xenophobia, racial superiority, sexism, and social injustice. We continue to hear those voices, but less so others in the middle who share the fundamental values of egalitarianism, tolerance, pluralism.

There is also a pragmatic argument to be made. The support of the majority is surely vital to the long-term health of minority rights. Even successful movements that have risen up from the grassroots have found support among the majority, or from cultural or political elites. And while it may be impossible to silence the majority, it is certainly possible for a majority to feel silenced, which is a political obstacle as well as a moral and social one.

The problems of a mildly uncomfortable majority are, of course, not the concern of activists demanding the most basic forms of inclusion for black Americans, or Indigenous Canadians, or any other historically disadvantaged group. Nor should they be. Discomfort pales before real economic and social injustice, and in any case the work of activists has generally been to throw rhetorical grenades, to build pressure in the system, to remind everyone that these debates have stakes, and to shift the conversation from the edges. This is important work.

Yet it is also a fact that a position of discomfort is not one from which people will act with the greatest generosity or fairness. The frustration of activists is understandable; they don’t want to negotiate with people who refuse to “get it.” This cannot then be left entirely to the activists. Responses have to come from other places, too—from minorities who are not too exhausted to talk about it, and from reasonable members of the majority who don’t default to one of a few modes currently available in the popular discourse, which include angry reactionary; sanctimonious, slightly self-loathing recovering white person; and silent observer. They have to come from the middle, and be heard by the middle, which means they may have to come outside the polarized zones of social media.

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New Canadians take part in a citizenship ceremony at the Ontario Science Centre (Institute for Canadian Citizenship)

New Canadians take part in a citizenship ceremony at the Ontario Science Centre (Institute for Canadian Citizenship/Victoria Heath)

Countries such as Canada and Australia have staked a lot in the idea of achieving inclusion by recognizing, and accommodating, difference. That mode of thinking has migrated from courts and parliament houses out into the public arena. In the public discourse, the challenge is in how citizens can achieve that recognition of particularity, and answer its demands, while still achieving a recognition of the universal—respect for all groups, and people. We could do worse than to consider the advice of the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who has written about the value of applying the literary imagination in a judicial context. Adopting the posture of “concerned reader of a novel,” she writes, allows a jurist to be merciful. For the lay person too, there is much to be said for viewing the world this way, to approach our disparate fellow humans with genuine curiosity and sympathy, with a desire to understand “the entire complex history of their efforts.” Taking in the lives of others, and their whole stories, would allow everyone to be more compassionate, and like Nussbaum’s reader, to participate, and observe, to expand what we see.

In the end inclusion depends in part on perceptions—of fairness, of equity—which vary depending on the person doing the seeing. In fact, questions of perception lie at the very heart of the question. Inclusion, after all, is not merely about literal rules—legalizing gay marriage or mandating equal access to services. Those rules leave too much room for exclusion. Rather, this is more fundamentally about how we see our place in the world, about our ability to imagine and achieve a good life in every area that is meaningful to us. The capacity of all citizens to have this, in turn, allows a society to flourish.

Inclusion has been described as a “mutually beneficial state for both the community and the individual.” Much rides on that “mutually beneficial.” Discussions of inclusion and exclusion, which often bring into clear view the failures of governments. But what we owe each other is not only a question for governments to answer but also a question for individuals to untangle: what our responsibilities are as citizens, what our obligations are to those different from us, and what we owe to our communities—each of us, and all of us.

This essay is adapted from the joint 6 Degrees-Royal Bank of Canada report 
All of Us: What we mean when we talk about inclusion. 6 Degrees, a program of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, is a new global forum exploring inclusion and citizenship in the 21st century. The Institute for Canadian Citizenship delivers programs and special projects that inspire inclusion and encourage active citizenship. Royal Bank of Canada is Canada’s largest bank and one of the largest banks in the world, based on market capitalization. Copyright © 2017 Sarmishta Subramanian. Reproduced by arrangement with the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. All rights reserved.


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