‘EDI’: Endless Distraction and Inaction

Dr Sanah Ahsan confronts the reality of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in clinical psychology training.

The summer of 2020 ignited a season of white panic. In the face of a deadly pandemic, George Floyd’s murder and a powerful iteration of BLM uprisings, the UK was forced to reckon with whiteness. The lie of whiteness has existed for centuries: this systemic process upholds false hierarchies through rules, ‘norms’ and discourses, to maintain the so-called superiority of people socially racialised as white, which systematically disadvantages People of a Global Majority (PoGM) – wreaking most violence on those racialised as black. Systemic Whiteness thrives through its apparent invisibility to white people. That summer created conditions of stark, undeniable visibility which contested the dominance of whiteness. A move to escape the discomfort of this led to elaborate performances of ‘anti-racist’ credentials.

Black squares and BLM hashtags were thrown up over newsfeeds, even Ben & Jerry’s introduced a sprinkling of anti-racism statements. The red-velvet curtains of UK academia opened to a performance of ‘commitment to diversity’ statements and schemes. In 2021, Higher Education England (HEE) clinical psychology training courses across England were given an opportunity to bid for, and win a payment (typically £74K) by HEE, specifically for ‘improving equity and inclusion for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic trainees’ (though a more specific framing would be, dismantling whiteness) under a broader framework of ‘equality, diversity and inclusion’ (EDI) initiatives. Given that clinical psychology is an 88% white profession, this fund seemingly offered promise for the beginnings of change. 

For the first time in history, a large portion of money (£30K) was ringfenced to establish a mentoring programme to support aspiring PoGM trainee psychologists in entering the historically inaccessible profession. Money was also allocated to an EDI leadership role within each university to lead on tasks including anti-racist education for course staff and supervisors, curriculum reviews, anti-racist recruitment processes, support for PoGM trainees and more. An increase in funded training places dangled the promise of more PoGM trainees entering white institutions. 

Universities had to react rapidly to secure that money, churning out EDI action plans within weeks to meet the deadline, each outlining how they would reach nine key performance indicators for addressing racial inequality. There was little time to think, breathe and have space to respond thoughtfully or systemically. Before we knew it, EDI consultants, many of whom were black and brown people, were transplanted into institutionally racist academic spaces for one day a week, for one year, with the goal of promoting ‘racial equity’ within an ‘equality, diversity and inclusion’ framework. But could we trust the money would be honoured to dismantle whiteness in clinical psychology? And if so, could one person be recruited in to fix an enduring, deep-rooted, systemic problem – for one day a week, in just one year?

What does ‘EDI’ actually mean?

The term EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion), is a vast net with gaping holes that catches very little at all. Although the HEE funding specifically targeted racial inequalities in clinical psychology, the broadness of the term has allowed room for confusion across training courses, with some universities diluting and redistributing funds towards other intersections of oppression that fall under this umbrella term. For example, some universities allocated funds towards projects that centre white-identified folks with different lived experiences of oppression. Of course, whiteness interlocks with other systems of domination including patriarchy, capitalism, ableism and heteronormativity, but people racialised as black are at the most violent crossroads of how these systems intersect and oppress. The work of undoing whiteness requires a focus so rarely given – defensive manoeuvres and distractions often operate to move away from this focus. The acronym EDI would be better placed as ‘Endless Distraction and Inaction’.

If language is a vehicle through which power is gained and maintained, the vague language of diversity and inclusion upholds whiteness by default. As Resma Menakem states, we are ‘diversifying’ from white people being the standard of humanity. The HEE EDI scheme is structured by ‘task and finish’ groups, often chaired by a white person, with EDI job descriptions and action plans dictated by white programme directors, embedded in majority-white teams. Such processes are emblematic of what Tema Okun defines as ‘white dominant culture’, specifically a “sense of urgency for funder-driven deliverables”, “transactional goals” or “rushing to achieve numbers”. The alternative visions that Okun offers is a movement away from cultures that prioritise neat, ‘finishable’ tick-box tasks and toward the ongoing, gradual transformation and commitment to the liberation of all people. 

Nevertheless, with the HEE EDI scheme being structured by a ‘task and finish’ approach, the potential of the EDI worker in this context is already constricted by the  systems they are being hired to challenge. But what happens when the EDI worker leaves? Where is the collective responsibility in doing this work?

The trap of the EDI role

On the tin, the EDI role is one where a lone individual (usually an outsider) is allocated the task of somehow transforming racism and other oppressions within an institution. In other words, the EDI worker is one person who is mandated to do the work of a whole institution. They are set up to fail, due to the inherent structure of the institution. 

Sara Ahmed, who has extensively critiqued the EDI model within universities, uses the image of a brick wall as a job description for this role. In reality, it is to do work that is unsupported and met with institutional resistance. EDI workers pose a problem by exposing the problem of whiteness, quickly becoming the institutional “killjoy”, as Ahmed defines. The shame and failures of the institution are expelled into the EDI worker, and the presence of this person becomes a cue for discomfort. The resistance to meet this discomfort manifests in a range of violences from individuals in the institution, from the subtle sense of “here she is, talking about race again”, to bureaucratic brick walls, to the worker being positioned as ‘incompetent’.

Ahmed says that, through the effort of trying to transform academic systems of domination, individuals tasked with an EDI mandate gain knowledge about the institution itself. The HEE funding enabled EDI to get up close and personal with how whiteness leaks through veins of clinical psychology training, through obstructive HR processes, all white staff teams (often under-resourced and exhausted), power-hoarding programme directors, inexcusably low budgets for visiting lecturers, and so on. With job security limited to merely one year, their temporary, siloed and disposable position granted little leverage for influence, squashing the space to envision any long-term transformation, let alone undo decades worth of racial inequality. Finally, there were no systems of care in place for those being invited into these often loveless and hostile conditions, to do great emotional and spiritual labour, that is fundamentally unwanted.

The appointment of an EDI lead, or EDI workers, does not guarantee an institution is willing to be transformed. Universities may tokenistically employ a PoGM, who is complicit and upholds systems of domination within training: Tony Sewell’s claims that institutional racism doesn’t exist are a reminder  that whiteness is not synonymous with white people. Additionally, universities may employ somebody to do the work they are unwilling to do themselves. In many cases, those in power draw up rigid superficial action plans, which EDI leads are instructed to deliver in silo, without creative freedom. This ‘stay in your lane’ device is a further manifestation of Okun’s ‘white dominant culture’ in clinical psychology training programmes. Like the black square or BLM hashtag, universities are invested in the performance of diversity, ticking the box of representation whilst upholding the hierarchies that maintain domination. They choose this rather than the uncomfortable, painful, life-long work of transformation, liberation and love. 

One example of this rigid, misdirected work is the mentoring scheme mandated by the HEE funding. Mentorship may build community among marginalised trainees, offering a place for connection and pastoral care. Perhaps it even offers a sense of tangible action for those who want to do something. But it does not address structural barriers and can serve as a distraction from addressing the deeply rooted systems of domination. Mentoring may be understood as the contorting of people’s bodies into a rectangular shaped door so they just about get in, rather than knocking down the tiny frame and building a new place anyone can enter. Therefore, even with an increase in funding for PoGM training places, we see the contorted bodies of PoGM trainees walking into harmful conditions that haven’t been changed, so ‘diversity targets’ are reached. Over the course of the training, it is the bodies of PoGM trainees that weather racism, described by Ta-Nehisi Coates as “a visceral experience that dislodges brains and blocks airways”. 

Disembodiment, Discomfort and Deconstructing Whiteness

Academic institutions invite us to engage at an intellectual level, often disconnecting us from the abundance of wisdom and data in our bodies. For the HEE EDI worker, the administrative demands and procedures, which must be crammed into eight contracted hours per week, leave little room for anyone to feel fully and acutely, to connect with their embodied creative and spiritual power, what Audre Lorde termed ‘the erotic’. EDI workers, who tend to be black and brown people, are already living in a physical place of threat detection. The heightened states of adrenaline, having to fight fires and navigate constant threat and resistance weathers the body, especially if untended and unsupported. Showing up fully as oneself, being honest and speaking the truth of what you witness, defining oneself rather than being swallowed into other's fantasies in the thick EDI fog, is a difficult, but brave and radical thing.

The black feminist author bell hooks reminds us that there is some degree of necessary pain in giving up old ways of thinking and knowing, and learning new approaches. When institutional racism is scrutinised (i.e. when EDI workers actually do what they are purportedly there to do), programme directors and teams are forced to confront the limitations of their practice, with harms and problems being exposed, and a possible loss of ‘authority’ and power. White directors or staff who initially attempt to deconstruct whiteness may be terrified to make mistakes, offend or fail. What they do to escape their embodied shame or pain, is perhaps what we all might do, in our shared cultures of chronic shame: fearfully retreat back to the familiar. In this instance, it means maintaining harmful practices that uphold white domination. It is a skill for the EDI worker to meet their new colleagues with fierce compassion in these places whilst honouring one’s own boundaries, and ensuring there are structures supporting staff accountability for change. As Lama Rod Owens teaches us, we cannot force anyone to do the work of liberation, nor can we take on their work. A huge requirement of the EDI work is therefore to give the work back to those who need to do it, whilst occupying the grey space: where harm, failure and hope are possible all at once.

To do this, we also need to recognise the generativity in open conflict, that relationships can deepen and flourish with radical honesty, alongside a willingness to be accountable to ourselves and each other. In undoing the lies of whiteness, all people must thoughtfully and heartfully act, not merely engage in intellectual debate. Standing up against entrenched systemic processes and authoritative figures who hoard power is imperative. But this is not just the role of the EDI lead, in fact there is less risk for white staff embedded in the team whose roles aren’t as precarious, to do this. As Cornel West states: white people who stand up against whiteness are constructed as white traitors, which is ultimately a traitor to our shared humanity. There lies the motivator: a return to a fuller humanity. Telling the truth of whiteness requires noticing and responding (rather than reacting) to the body’s signals to help navigate such action, and meeting our individual and collective discomfort. Refusal to meet that discomfort is where so many forms of violence are enacted, maintaining conditions of comfort for white people (socio-economically, physically and emotionally) at a great cost to PoGM. As Paolo Frieire teaches us: without both embodied reflection and action, clinical psychologists risk becoming complicit with upholding whiteness in the profession – which my earlier research highlighted. 

What can we re-imagine instead?

As Bayo Akomolafe states, good questions transcend the answers that we give them. It is my own living of the problem of whiteness and its lies, that roots me in imagining other possibilities. That includes my own experiences of contributing to ‘EDI’ work in clinical psychology training over the past year as a visiting lecturer. These are the questions I leave my readers with:

  1. Can we re-imagine nurturing and compassionate systems of accountability across each clinical psychology training course, to focus the work of liberation? This would support people to maintain an ongoing commitment to anti-racist praxis, leaving less room to retreat, or act out as soon as things feel uncomfortable. White programme directors and core staff team especially require this support in being accountable. Regular affinity spaces for white-identified people, may scaffold the work of meeting the bodily discomfort that arises in undoing the lies of whiteness; returning to the narrowing throat and tightening chest, as a place of opening for change.
  2. Can we bravely and compassionately enter generative conflict, and return again and again to the inevitable discomfort that arises when deconstructing whiteness? Transformation cannot happen in isolation.PoGM and white-identified people all need connection, community, care and boundaries to resource ourselves and each other, in undoing the false hierarchies and lies of whiteness. 
  3. Can we re-imagine significantly greater funding, as an ongoing, sustainable support every year? This will offer further resources and space required for envisioning and implementing meaningful transformation. This feels especially important, as we approach a moment where decisions and applications for further funding are being made. We do of course want there to be work and roles focused on dismantling whiteness, but this cannot happen in isolation.A whole team needs to be built around this work, to offer the care and support it deserves, whilst cultivating a sense of collective responsibility across the institution. PoGM involved in this work are understandably longing for the nurture and care needed to support this work: affinity PoGM spaces that help deepen the practice of boundaries, interdependence, embodiment, care and rest, may offer a lifeline to this exhausting work. 
  4. Can we use language more consciously? Can we call this work what it really is? It is the practice of dismantling whiteness, of anti-racism and a commitment to the liberation of all people.

Life at the shoreline

Some readers may come to this thinking, but efforts have been made, HEE are finally putting money where their mouth is – is nothing good enough? It is important to discern a reactive, knee-jerk performance of ‘EDI’ rooted in the intolerance of discomfort, from the sincere work of meaningful liberation: a praxis of commitment and action, coming from an embodied place where we are connected with wisdom, and make the choice to cultivate learning conditions which are truly loving for all people. Regardless of whether this work is funded, clinical psychology training institutions have a collective responsibility to commit to and centre this work, with whatever resources are available. 

A radical position might say, a meaningful dismantling of whiteness isn’t possible within academic institutions that, in their essence, are hierarchical and act as gatekeepers to knowledge as a means of power. As the American writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde states, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. But we know that academic institutions that provide clinical psychology training aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. We are constantly negotiating our longing for revolution, for true liberation, whilst navigating the reality that reform is a perhaps more achievable short-term goal.  Our imagination begins with transformation within the institution, but does not die here.  

The conditions as they stand, are unsurvivable for EDI workers. If the HEE funding is to be reviewed and renewed, I hope that a more thoughtful, holistic, liberatory, collective and country-wide approach is invested in for the future. 

I end this piece in deep gratitude and honour of all of those who have given their heart, spirit and body to this work of liberation, often in hostile conditions. Audre’s poem A Litany For Survival gives me some rest in this work of unrest, as we occupy the shoreline and constant edges of decision. 

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed 
futures
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours;


when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
 nor welcomed
but when we are silent we are still afraid
so it is better to speak
remembering we were never meant to survive.’

Dr Sanah Ahsan is a Liberation and Community Psychologist & Poet [watch her poem for the British Psychological Society on psychologists' response during the pandemic].

With deep gratitude to Dr Julie Baah for her generous guidance, support and care - not only towards this piece of writing, but throughout this EDI work. Thank you to Juliet Young for her artistic interpretation at the top of this piece.”

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Comments

Sanah Ahsan offers her view on the problems with equality and diversity iniatives. It is well articulated but in my view has several shortcomings. It has no references (though authorities are occassionally alluded to in the text). This reflects a tendency now for opinion and academic conventions about evidence and logic to be blurred or conflated. This itself reflects an alteration in rhetorical conventions since the postmodern turn of prioritising epistemological privilege (or 'lived experience') over supra-personal process of evdence agreement and considered reflection, defended by reasonable argument in respectful exhanges with others.. Two distorting outcomes then occur. First, what used to be a taboo (ad hominem reasoning) is now placed at the top of the tree of academic legitimacy. Second, asserted pan-explanatory concepts (in this case 'whiteness') about social injustices are simply taken as a priori non-problematic givens. One important blurring now is that the digital logic of identity politics (with its indignant certainties) is beginning to displace epistemic humility when faces with inner and outer forms of reality that are complex, nuanced contradictory and often mysterious. The latter requires analogue forms of reflection (Type 2 or slow as a cognitive process). The presumptious langauge of identity politics (typified in this piece but there are legions more) generates more heat than light and reflects Type 1 reasoning: good bad, right wrong oppressed oppressive etc. In the febrile world of identity politics this is the trend (it in noit just about race but all social groups set againt one another by its logic). Whether we use academic or political criteria identity politics is a dead end-my hope is that in the not too distant future we will all wake up to this realisation. For now it is well articulated here by Pragna Patel from Southall Black Sisters:

"Identity politics is a considerable challenge for us, not just in feminist circles but actually within all social justice movements. Identity politics has taken root in a way that I feel is profoundly regressive. It is a focus on individual experiences of victimhood. It is a focus on difference rather than unity….I fear that all social movements are now tainted by a narrow form of identity politics…it has fragmented our struggles…..It is leading us down a political blind alley."  (Interview on BBC, Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour January 5th 2022.)

From Eric Hobsbawm to Adolph Reed many have criticised the errors of race reductionism in political science. The best recent anaylsis is offered by Loic Wacquant in his The Invention of the ‘Underclass’: A Study in the Politics of Knowledge. It has a coda called ‘Resolving the trouble with “race” in the twenty first century’. In particular, his thoughts on why we need to address race as a ‘trouble’, rather than a self-evidently valid master concept, is for all of us, from any discipline, with food for thought.

 

Apologies for errors for writing in haste. The final sentence in my opninion above should have read: In particular, his thoughts on why we need to address race as a ‘trouble’, rather than a self-evidently valid master concept, leaves all of us, from any discipline, with food for thought.