Archives and Diversity are Cancelled. We Need Archival Intersectionality – Jasspreet Thethi

Words are a powerful force, used correctly they can galvanise people to take down oppressive regimes, change hearts and minds, and tell stories of the universal human condition. The impact of language changes over time depending on the context in which it is used.

And this is why I can no longer abide the words ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’, used in the context on of the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) sector.

I have been a brown, queer, neuro-divergent person working in the GLAM sector for over ten years. I have read and heard the word ‘diversity’ more times than I can count: during conferences and department meetings, in online publications and strategic plans. At first I was excited, I imagined all the ways the GLAM sector could create space for under-served groups in their respective roles. As the years wore on, and nothing came of these promises, I became indifferent to these words. In the present day, they anger and upset me.

Jass1

Jasspreet Thethi facilitating a Black History Month event.

These words are regularly spoken by a privileged, cis-gendered, white person, often male, and in a position of power. They stand on a physical or metaphorical stage, while the people they purport to empower through representation are expected to listen from the stands. People dissect these words at conferences and managers meetings and weave them into strategic plans. However, the definition of the word is merely: ‘a range of different things.’ Therefore it can be utilised in ways which are not inclusive of under-served communities, while still meeting the ‘diversity aims’ of the institution.

And because of this experience, I suggest we cancel the terms ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ and replace them with ‘intersectionality’. I have listed reasons and examples below. The examples are all true, but I have decided not to ‘out’ the institutions.

Reasons to cancel ‘diversity and inclusion’:

  • It is unclearly defined, and the words do not hold people accountable.
  • The definitions are too broad.
  • It gives institutions the opportunity to focus on one subject at a time, under-representing or erasing other important factors.

For example, a collection or exhibition could be defined as diverse because it spans different countries but have each item in the collection written in the same language by an English, cis-gendered, straight, middle class, white man. In the same vein, an exhibition or collection outlining the suffrage movement could be considered diverse because of its focus on women. However, it is likely to exclude references to queer history, people of colour and the queer people of colour integral to winning the vote.

Reasons to support intersectionality:

  • No one gets left behind:

Intersectionality is a fundamental belief that an individual’s class, race, sexual identity and all other factors are mutually important in their life experience and these identities cannot be isolated from one another. The GLAM sector can use intersectionality to ensure that all people are included in the conversation and represented, to expand the narrow visitor base in an ethical and sensitive way.

  • It is clearly defined:

Intersectionality is a pro-active approach to ensure that people from all walks of life are equally and respectfully included in important conversations.

Ending the use of the phrase ‘diversity and inclusion’ and replacing it with ‘intersectionality’ would ensure that all GLAM institutions searched historical archives and any new collections for a history that is linked to all people in surrounding communities.

Diversity and inclusion isn’t enough, be intersectional.

I continue to explore these ideas further on my blog and within my training packs. You can find out more on my website, or follow me on Twitter @jasskthethi.

Jasspreet Thethi, Reader Services Assistant, John Rylands Library

One comment

  1. Pingback: Decolonising the LIS curriculum: starting the conversation, a guest post by Briony Birdi | NLPN

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