Diversity in Kenya: a conversation with Muthoni Muriithi

This article critically examines the concept of diversity, questioning its universality and exploring its diverse interpretations, particularly in Kenya.

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According to the Queensborough Community College, diversity “is a reality created by individuals and groups from a broad spectrum of demographic and philosophical differences. These can be along the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs, or other ideologies” [1]. For the Harvard Business Review[2], diversity “usually means one of three things: demographic diversity, experiential diversity, and cognitive diversity. All three types shape identity — or rather, identities”. Professor Joan W. Scott, American historian, and professor emerita at Princeton University, believes that diversity is not a positive description of an individual reality. She argues that diversity “is an effect of an enunciation of difference that constitutes hierarchies and asymmetries of power […]. It’s wrong to assume that identity groups pre-existed rather than followed from discrimination”[3].

For the Women and Technology Festival[4] conferences, diversity management seems something that only Americans and English people could talk about, since, unlike all other panels whose experts came from all over the world[5], only these two nations covered the diversity management topic. Starting from this event and the various readings on the subject, several questions came to my mind: how does diversity serve companies’ policies? Is diversity management useful to fight social discriminations? Is diversity universally valid or is it just an American interpretation of its social issue?

I’ve been digging around the matter with Muthoni Muriithi[6], Human Rights Lawyer and Gender Advocate from Kenya.

So, after attending Women and Technology Festival and after noticing that only Americans and English people hold the diversity management lectures, I started wondering, is diversity a universal concept or is it just and American culture imposition? 

First, the tech space tends to have a diversity challenge. The people who are designing tech are very problematic for people of color and women, so I am not surprise that at those conferences the topic has not been properly addressed. Additionally, today diversity is a buzz word currently exploited by the neo liberal capitalistic agenda.

What we should ask ourselves is: what does diversity mean? How does a particular culture understand diversity? It is less what book says but rather how a particular country understands diversity. So, living and studying in Sweden I notice that when people talk about diversity, they usually meant racial diversity and when they talk about gender, they talk about gender equality.

What about Kenya?

In Kenya diversity is perceived as a matter of gender diversity. And that’s because of the gender discourse and the global movement for gender equality. So, a lot of international companies and organizations who also have offices in Kenya have also promoted gender equality in their workspace. It is a good thing for the company and for the workers. So now the question is, do we understand diversity as purely gender and for that matter purely women? In Kenya, I think so. And yes, the concepts are influenced by the USA because America exports culture globally, but we haven’t used the diversity argument for ethnicity or race argument. Because diversity in the US was treated as concept about race, particular racial relations between white people and black and brown people.

So, how is the race issue addressed in Kenya?

In Kenya we might talk about specific communities, for example, the Kenyan Indian community who are excluded from political discourse, while holding a lot of economic power. However, I have not seen Kenyan scholars use the ‘diversity discourse’ to address it. It doesn’t help us understand the post-colonial state I would say. That is something common in postcolonial countries. African countries are mostly inhabited by black people with other non-black communities either as a minority or not at all and most times have economic power or benefit from proximity to colonial origins or structures. This an uneasy subject. For example, white Kenyans or Kenyan Indians: from just a national perspective these groups are the minorities yet have economic power and access to resources. It is not possible to compare that with black minorities in Europe or US for example. It is a different spectrum from Europe and US America.

Then diversity belongs to USA.

Yes and no. Yes, in its conceptualization, because of the very particular American experience. But for Africa or in Asia it’s difficult to talk in these terms because our social dynamics are different.

Diversity is a concept that was developed to provide a remedy, to fight social injustice and work for inclusion. So, diversity is supposed to be, and should be, on a social justice dimension. But when diversity enters the liberal workspaces it becomes distorted into a neo liberal tool to increase the labor force and to service a capitalist expansion agenda.

So, it becomes less about the justice aspect and remedying historical injustice, and more about how to make your business profitable out of the labor force who have been historically excluded, and to satisfy a global demand for diversity. It is evident that people in the private sector or in general are uncomfortable to talk about social justice and capitalism, especially in Europe and the US.

How about diversity been applied to management?

For me, to say in a crude way, it is just another way for white people to feel good about themselves.

Today’s talk about diversity was born in the 90s, and it quickly changed the political call for justice and anti-discrimination, and instead made it about making a business case and less as a human rights issue.  It makes diversity discourse more polite, more suitable for companies. Therefore, because companies can’t say “black people are discriminated against”, now they allow themselves to say, “we use diversity management”. The diversity language is a softer way to talk about discrimination. Companies get bogged down in questions like “how do you measure diversity? How do we portray diversity?” these quickly become very awkward questions to ask. How do you measure diversity? Five black people? Four Chinese people?  How do you do that? For example, would they “oh we need more factory workers, let’s call the poor people of color” so instead they talk about a diverse workforce and use this workforce to promote their diversity image.

But they are also reaffirming the same stereotype on a different level.

Exactly. It kind of fixes the person in a label. Furthermore, the label of market also fixes you. You are included because you only see people as valuable to the market. In addition to that, the market is racialized, we know that.

Therefore, we start framing people and doing the exact opposite of what was wanted when we start talking about diversity.

In addition, as scholars and activists, we are taking away that critical lens on the way we look at social phenomena, forgetting feminist perspective, intersectional perspective, Marxism etc. because we have lost the critical social analysis and nourished the illusion that diversity issues can be marketed and be easily consumed by big corporations for profit.

So, you think that diversity management is a subtle way to keep the status quo…

The exclusion from the labor market is a very violent act of white supremacy. I think one of the things that enables us to talk about diversity in the same American terms is that even though in Kenya we don’t have to live in close proximity to whiteness every day, we still live with the indirect effects of white supremacy and colonialism.

For black people in America and in Europe the idea of what it feels like to be excluded from the labor market and therefore from the means to economically empower yourself solely based on the grounds of skin color is very real, very present. Additionally, that is what diversity was intended to address initially but was coopted by market. I look at the private sector because private companies have been the push behind lot of diversity talk and culture. They say “we have diversity management” but what does it mean? How do we integrate the people who had been excluded from the labor market? I don’t think the answer is diversity management in the way it is discussed today but rather recapture the social justice and anti-discrimination ethos and practices that talk about equality rather than feel good politics and tokenism.

First published on November 26, 2021, for the Fondazione Aurora

Michela Fantozzi Portfolio

[1] https://www.qcc.cuny.edu/diversity/definition.html

[2] https://hbr.org/2018/05/the-3-types-of-diversity-that-shape-our-identities

[3] “Multiculturalism and the Politics of Identity”, Joan W. Scott, Vol. 61, The Identity in Question (Summer, 1992), pp. 12-19 (8 pages), The MIT Press.

[4] https://onlinefestival.women-in-technology.com/

[5] https://www.fondazioneaurora.org/prospettive/pubblicazioni/le-donne-senegalesi-alla-conquista-delleconimia-digitale-2/?fbclid=IwAR1mIitoll_V4h99iwNdKsthRmpgIHVDKHkWbmRSKgRTYW9GkMY9jqxphdA

[6] https://www.linkedin.com/in/muthoni-muriithi/?originalSubdomain=fr

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