This week Amena Khan became the latest woman of colour to be silenced in public. Just days after it was announced that Khan – a hijab-wearing Muslim beauty blogger – was to join French cosmetics company L’Oreal’s “diversity-celebrating” haircare campaign, she was forced to pull out. Her decision followed a right-wing witch-hunt against her over past tweets condemning Israel’s actions during the war on Gaza in 2014.
In many ways, this turn of events was hardly a surprise. L’Oreal’s decision to sack Munroe Bergdorf, a black trans woman model, in 2017 for denouncing white supremacy made it clear that there was no substance to its “diversity” campaign.
L’Oreal, like so many other international companies, has been involved in the co-optation and depoliticisation of diversity. For international companies as well as state institutions, diversity is acceptable as long as it is easily consumed, profitable, and – perhaps most importantly – silently performative.
But diversity of opinion which challenges structural racism and inequality is perceived as dangerous and therefore silenced.
Silencing critical voices
Khan was calling out settler colonialism; she was expressing her outrage over a state that continues to violate international law and enforce apartheid practices as it systematically discriminates against and murders Palestinians on their own land.
It is therefore striking that, while using the concept of “diversity” which is supposed to challenge eurocentric standards of beauty by normalising brown and black people on our screens, L’Oreal refuses to accept and be honest about the historical and political reasons for needing to do so.
Colonialism is one example of the direct and physical consequences of white supremacy, which is an ideological pillar and justification for continued racism around the world. Racism is the reason why there is a lack of diversity from the corporate boardrooms to L’Oreal’sadverts, as well as the reason why we are supposed to accept as “normal” or even “mundane”, the images of Palestinians being murdered, displaced, imprisoned, and disposed.
After all, they are only Arabs, right? If white bodies were being subjected to a fraction of this sort of sustained structural violence, the Western world would erupt in outrage and intervene.
L’Oreal’s actions in relation to both women go beyond ignoring or sweeping these political truths aside. They are acts of silencing women of colour who speak out about the roots of structural violence. This is because “seeking diversity” as a cause has become the acceptable, ahistorical and liberal alternative to anti-racism.
When the state enforces ‘equality and diversity’
The UK context provides a great example of how diversity has been used to silence those challenging structural racism and its roots.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, mass actions took place against the systematic injustice faced by people of colour in the UK, including the Notting Hill Riots of 1958 and the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963. All of this led to the inception of the Race Relations Act of 1965, which eventually resulted in the development of “equality and diversity” departments, policies and practices across education, healthcare, policing, the judicial system, etc.
The diversity industry is used to control and redefine the experiences of people of colour so that we don't point to institutional oppression, imperialist interventions and colonial legacies as the problem.
For many who were on the front line of these struggles, the act was a breakthrough. The state was seen as committing to the legal obligation of not discriminating on the basis of race or ethnicity, which was supposed to allow equal opportunities and treatment for people of colour.
While there have certainly been advances, the institutionalisation of anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-colonialist movements seems to now be working against the oppressed.
But 50 years later, one can easily see that not all went well after the state became an authority and enforcer of equality and diversity practices. Indeed, in 2016 police officers still killed, imprisoned, and harassed disproportionally more people of colour than whites.
Poverty, access to quality education, and discrimination in the job market are still strongly racialised. And the situation does not appear to be getting any better. In fact, the opposite is true. Behind the legalistic and institutional language of equality and diversity, power and oppression remain unchallenged.
Diversity has become a tool for silencing those who fall victim to institutional racism and vocally resist it. The “diversity cause” reduces the conversation to acknowledging the consequences of structural racism while ignoring its causes. Once one is explicit and critical about the very reasons why people of colour need support in the work place, or targeted mentoring and services at university, or culturally-competent mental health services, one becomes an enemy to “inclusion” and “diversity”.
The punishment is exclusion, expulsion and character assassination that varies from accusations of being the aggressive “angry black woman” who is making white people uncomfortable for refusing to ignore daily racial abuse and microaggressions, to being “the Muslim anti-Semite sympathising with terrorists” who opposes imperialism and colonialism.
In reality, this problem has gone further than just watering down and depoliticising the language of liberation; equality and diversity spaces are now being used to actively criminalise dissent.
One example of this is the UK government’s racist counterterrorism PReVeNT programme, meant to identify “vulnerable” individuals at risk of “radicalisation”. The programme, which uses the equality and diversity departments, encourages the racial profiling of Muslims and people of colour under the guise of “safeguarding”.
So these departments which were meant to root out racism, are now actively training their workers to do the contrary. For example, PReVeNT officers are supposed to monitor individuals expressing support for Palestine whether verbally, on social media or through protest action.
Opposing settler colonialism and expressing solidarity with Palestine have become a key indicator of “radicalisation” in the UK.
The diversity industry
Despite helping reinforce white supremacist capitalist patriarchy in society by directly benefiting from the exploitation and inferiorisation of brown and black people around the world, L’Oreal – like other international companies – has tried to present itself as an inclusive, peaceful entity that celebrates diversity.
Khan and Bergdorf’s statements had to be cast aside and demonised as extreme and destructive to the vision of unity because they had dared to contextualise oppression, and therefore held a mirror up at L’Oreal and the industry at large exposing their silence, inaction and complicity. These women of colour went beyond what the company’s agenda allowed them to say and do, so they were disciplined for it.
Bell Hooks put it best when she stated, “When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do embody white supremacist values and beliefs even though they may not embrace racism as prejudice or domination, they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they wish to see eradicated.”
The diversity industry is used to control and redefine the experiences of people of colour so that we don’t point to institutional oppression, imperialist interventions and colonial legacies as the problem.
It is used to suppress critical activity and accountability-seeking and support a space of superficial subjectivity to dictate the solutions to the problem of inequality.
The message of companies like L’Oreal is clear: be beautiful, sell products, and stay silent. Khan and Bergdorf – or Colin Kaepernick in the world of sports for that matter – thought otherwise.
They shouldn’t back down. The struggle starts with refusal to conform. Then goes on with fighting back.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.