New book on how to deal with oppressing structures
Communication researcher Scott Burnett is one of three authors of the newly published book "Differences at Work: Practicing Critical Diversity Literacy". The authors have interviewed six practitioners, people who work with critical diversity literacy, and created a handbook for people that want to practice a critical perspective on social relations. The other authors are South African researchers Melissa Steyn and Nceba Ndzwayiba.
The book is about “critical diversity literacy”, what is that?
– It is about being able to read and understand social relations, and how these relations work together in organizational life. In order for us humans to work together, we need to develop the capacity to understand how people’s differences in terms of, for example, race, gender, or able-bodiedness, have been constructed both symbolically and materially to create damaging hierarchies.
Scott Burnett explains that it’s also about everyday actions towards liberating ourselves from the oppressive structures of racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism that are present in every day life.
– In the Swedish context, when when we talk about equality, we tend to focus a lot on gender and the political gains of feminism. But it is clear that oppressive dynamics are not reducible to gender alone.
Why did you write the book?
– All organizations - whether that organizational setting is a government department, a nonprofit organization or a university - need to learn more about these questions in order to participate in promoting social justice. There is actually fairly little work on how these different questions work together, and might be addressed, beyond the existing neoliberal and managerial discourse of “diversity”.
In the book you write that organizations need to take a critical diversity literacy approach in order not to lose their durability. What do you mean?
– All organizations have to put people first, and as an organization you have to put a more complex understanding of your responsibility to society. Today, people are often treated as if they are means to some other end. And if they are problematic in any way, it’s their fault.
An illustrative example that Scott Burnett is using in the book is the opening of a new H&M store in South Africa. According to the authors it clearly shows that organizations are being damaged by their failure to deal with diversity.
– When H&M launched in South Africa in 2015, they did so with mostly white models in their posters. When they were called out on Twitter, they said this was to promote a “positive image” of their brand! So, the Swedish brand comes to South Africa and advertises themselves as entirely for white people… Most likely they just used the posters that they had from Sweden, although to be honest you wouldn't even see that in Sweden. Three years later there was the “coolest monkey in the jungle” debacle. Their whole approach to working with difference has eventually changed, but only after they suffered significant brand damage and financial loss.
Who is your key audience for the book?
– It is a democratic contribution making critical social research from universities accessible to a broader audience, with as little academic jargon as possible. We wanted it to be available to practitioners in South Africa, but also internationally, and in Sweden, wherever it can be useful as a handbook,