Diversity in social movements

The diversity of movements and organisations shapes them.

This might sound trite, but it also creates a barrier to more diverse movements. This 2011 Daily Kos article is one of my favourite things on the Internet. (I know. The headline. Persevere.) It’s a consultant’s story about trying to help feminist groups become more racially diverse.

This isn’t necessarily about racism or sexism or classism or anythingelseism. It’s more about a kind of Hayekian concept of privilege. We don’t know what’s in other peoples’ heads, so we miss stuff when we don’t interact with or listen to each other.

Treating the Daily Kos article as a case study gives some insight into the barriers to diversity and shows us why diversifying can lead to pushback. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but start here:

“What I had planned for my meeting with the white women of TWFC was a set of introductions, and an initial discussion of what, in their opinion, a truly diverse organization would look and feel like. As I expected, their views were universally that a diverse TWFC would be just like the current TWFC, except there would be more women of color attending events and volunteering for the organization. Their focus was on “attracting” more women of color. I urged them to shift the focus in two separate directions:

“Question 1: “How do women of color stand to benefit by joining the current TWFC?”

“Question 2: “Can you see anything about the current structure of TWFC that might serve as an impediment to attracting women of color.”

“Answers to Question 1 were clustered around the belief that TWFC helped “all women” and that a woman of color’s interests were also served by the work of the organization because “they’re women too.” No one on the board suggested that the category of “women” was not universal, and that communities of women (or women from different communities) might have different needs, and different opinions on how to achieve those needs. There was a distinct air, in some of the comments, that women of color should be “grateful” that organizations like TWFC were fighting for “their” interests, and that the failure of women of color to join TWFC was a kind of ingratitude.

This jibes well with my experience in the libertarian movement. The general idea is that the fault is with the missing groups. But it seems like these groups—especially women, to which I’ll speak since I am one—are becoming more involved. Our voices are starting to count. We’re carving out a niche and I hope other groups will, too.

But there’s pushback.

The best example right now is probably the #MeToo movement. A critical mass of women coming forward makes it easier for each of us to speak out. Behaviour that was ignored or excused for a long time is (finally) (sometimes) unacceptable. A movement with women is one that cares about sexual harassment and assault. It cares about kids and discrimination and contraception and improving sex ed. It will care about these things regardless of whether that movement ignored them without women.

And women make the case that the movement should care. A movement that’s becoming more diverse is one that needs conversation and problem-solving. It will probably take longer than anyone would like to sort it out. If it’s ever sorted out.

There will always be pushback from people who don’t share the concerns of the new group. And frustration about trade-offs. From the article:

“The core group began by thinking it was easy to go beyond tokenism to integrate women of color into the organization. They ended, however, with the realization that genuine integration means not only attracting more women of color to events, but also shifting the structure of the organization to include women of color as powerful forces in shaping the organization.”

I don’t know what the solution is. I hope it will be more flexible movements. I think a better libertarian movement will be made up of many overlapping groups and will have less well-defined boundaries. These groups will, I hope, discuss and negotiate their problems and solutions, building communities of weak ties.

Regardless of what they should look like, broad-based social movements should want to be diverse. To be more diverse they have to be more humble. They have to accept that there’s stuff they’ve been missing and be open to finding out where it fits with stuff they haven’t. That’s the kind of society that’s much better positioned to meet its challenges head-on.