Embodiment, place, and language – Intersecting Considerations for Inclusion

Who we are, where we are and what we say all intersect to impact on how inclusive or, indeed, how exclusionary an organisation, or any other setting is. This may seem like something of an obvious statement, but the realities are somewhat more complex and nuanced. For organisations wanting to be more inclusive, and for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging practitioners everywhere, a deep understanding of these realities will benefit the efficacy of the work. In simple terms, we need to develop an understanding of how meanings, ideologies, power dynamics and cultures are carried and communicated by the who and the where of the setting at hand, and how this affects what is experienced.

Let’s start with the who or, more precisely, the body itself and how we draw meaning from bodies. In very basic terms, we draw meaning from the bodies we encounter because we recognise them as fitting into certain categories of ‘body’. We recognise bodies as ‘Black’, as ‘White’, as ‘man’ as ‘woman’ because the categories of race and gender communicate the criteria bodies need to meet to be socially recognisable as raced and gendered.

These categories are, of course, socially constructed and do not refer to fixed or real aspects of the body or, indeed, the person. Crucially, as socially constructed categories, they do not emerge from a vacuum, rather they arise in and from social and cultural contexts that are riven with ideologies and political interests and imperatives. As such, the categories – the labels and their ‘definitions’ – are equally ideological and carry political scripts, social value judgements, and rules of belonging that convey what it means, for example, to be acceptably White, or to be acceptably ‘woman’. In essence, these categories are key aspects of the ideological discourses of identity that permeate our society and work to impose hierarchical social frameworks on our physicality. They seek to regulate our bodies, what they mean, and how we should use them to perform the identity the category seeks to impose on us.

In being socially constructed, the category criteria do change with different social and historical contexts. Think about how the patriarchal discourses of the ‘ideal’ physicality for women has changed over the years. However, despite these changing criteria, the underlying ideology of men’s superiority over women has not fundamentally changed at all. Equally, think about how the definitions of the category ‘Black’ have changed from conveying the precepts of scientific racism in the past to conveying the cultural racism of today. However, the underlying ideology of White Supremacy has also not fundamentally changed at all.

Crucially, in the context of conveying meanings, whilst categories of identity are regulatory regimes imposed on bodies, they also constitute linguistic vehicles for the further articulation of the ideologies they carry. The very materiality of our bodies communicates the values, beliefs, and ideologies contained within the categories that mark them, and society has been conditioned to ‘read’ these ideologies in the bodies we encounter.

To summarise this point, the materiality of the body is an echo-chamber for the discourses that categorise it. So, the person with a body categorised as White need do nothing agentive in their identity performance to communicate their Whiteness and the ideologies of White Supremacy. This body’s materiality as White is, in this sense, discursive and we draw meanings from this embodied Whiteness. However, it is not just the physicality of the body that articulates these discourses. It is also how we ‘behave’ and ‘style’ these bodies.

In Judith Butler’s (1990, 1993) terms, normative discourses of identity also convey the rules that condition and regulate how a person should perform an identity to be recognisable within that materialised body. For example, heteronormative binary gender discourses communicate the rules on how to behave as a man and as a woman. As a consequence of this, in performing an identity that abides by these rules, people will, knowingly or unknowingly, ‘cite’ these ideological discourses of identity through their gestures, movements, body language, and stylised appearances i.e., we will reflect in some way the discourses that work to materialise us and regulate our behaviours. As such, the performance of identity is an act, or more accurately, a series of acts that construct and communicate a specific meaning of the body that is conditioned by ideological category regimes and discourses of identity.

Through these processes, those of us who are categorised as ‘White’ and ‘man’ embody the discourses of Whiteness and masculinity not simply through how we look but also by how we behave. These embodiment practices convey the underlying ideologies of the discourses of identity that have materialised us as White and as men. In this sense, irrespective of my own beliefs, or how much work I have done to be cognisant of my Whiteness and masculinity, when I walk into a room, the very act of me doing so rearticulates discourses of patriarchal White Supremacy simply because I am materialised as White and behave in a manner that is consistent with our understanding of how a White man behaves.

My materialisation and embodiment of Whiteness and masculinity will have a very real impact on the other people in the room, no matter who they are. Some will feel more included because of my Whiteness and my masculinity, some will feel more excluded and, if I am there to talk about diversity and inclusion, the effect is further compounded. This is because, in their materiality and through embodiment practices, bodies constitute an aspect of the communicative situation in which the talk takes place and, therefore, inform readings of the meaning of the utterances by those who hear them. This can be seen in the very different reactions people have to me talking about inclusion, particularly when I give talks on Whiteness and/or Privilege, compared to other people with differently categorised bodies saying exactly the same things. However, the inclusion and exclusion effect of how bodies and behaviours are read extends beyond talks on diversity and inclusion. Anything I say in any context is articulated from a position of Whiteness and masculinity and, as such, the meaning of anything I say and how it is understood by the people hearing me, will be conditioned by the ideological discourses of Whiteness and masculinity.

Now, let’s go back to this room that I have walked into, as it is also critically important in the context of meaning and the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion. This is because the performances of identities occur in specific temporal, spatial, and social contexts that have their own conditioning effect on the meanings communicated through that performance. Gregson and Rose (2000) argue that the physicality of spaces is discursive and is a factor in the production of meaning. They say that space needs to be thought of as ‘brought into being’ through performances of identity and since these performances are themselves articulations of power, then the spaces they bring into being are also articulations of power. So, in a room of people where most of those people are White men, the space becomes a White, masculine space and itself articulates the discourses of Whiteness and Masculinity. However, we need to go beyond the immediacy of the effect of the performance of identities on spaces and include the symbolism of the institution the space is within, and how that space is designed and structured.

If a diversity and inclusion discussion is being held in a conference room in an office block in Bristol, England, for example, the architecture, interior office design, and layout of the room is very likely to have been undertaken through a lens of Whiteness – only 1% of architects in Britain are Black and only 12% of Design Managers are from Black and Minoritized backgrounds. As such, these spaces themselves will articulate Whiteness through their design and so impact on the experience of the talk for all participants. The strength of the Whiteness in the space can reinforce the resistances of those White people who reject inclusion and can constitute acts of oppression for Black and Minoritized people in the room. Much like the intersection of embodiment and talk, the design of spaces is exclusionary outside of diversity and inclusion discussions. The very Whiteness of their design will be exclusionary to Black and Minoritized people on a day-to-day basis. Whilst there has for some time been a drive to design inclusion into the use of space for people disabled by society, we have not, as yet, seen an attendant move to design spaces to be inclusive of other people, unless, of course, you are White…

In bringing the body, embodiment practices, talk, and space together, there begins to emerge a sense of a complex communicative situation that has a very real impact on the meaning of what is being said and the experiences different people will have in that space. Understanding these dynamics is essential in designing and delivering diversity and inclusion work. Practitioners need to think carefully about the who, where and what of the work to ensure that it is both maximally impactful in developing contexts of inclusion and minimally harmful to the people participating. Beyond this, though, for organisations with a true intent on creating inclusive workplaces, factoring in considerations of the who, where, and what into the design and development of your organisations, into its work practices, into its physical environment, into its organisational cultural development, and into how communications are undertaken is a critical task at hand.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble. Routledge London

Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that Matter. Routledge, London

Gregson, N. and Rose, G. (2000) Taking Butler elsewhere: performativities, spatialities and subjectivities. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 18, pp. 433 – 452

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