Rebuilding the master’s house instead of repairing the cracks: why “diversity and inclusion” in the digital rights field is not enough

Paul Sableman, CC BY 2.0

Silicon Valley is not the only sector with a “white guy” problem: civil society struggles with this as well. Oddly, it wasn’t until I looked at the group photo taken at the Digital Freedom Fund’s first strategy meeting that I noticed it: everyone in the photo except for me was white. I had just founded a new organisation supporting strategic litigation on digital rights in Europe and this had been our first field-wide strategic meeting, bringing together 32 key organisations working on this issue in the region. This was in 2018. In 2019, the number of participants had increased to 48, but the picture in the group photo still was pretty pale, with the team of my organisation accounting for 50% of the 4 exceptions to that colour palet. And while gender representation overall seemed fairly balanced, and there was a diverse range of nationalities present, some voices were noticeably absent from the room. For example, the overall impression of participants was that there was no one with a physical disability attending.* It was clear: something needed to change.

In all fairness, the participants themselves had clocked this as well –– the issue of decolonising the digital rights field had significant traction in the conversations taking place in the course of those two days in February. I have been trying to find good statistics on what is popularly referred to as “diversity and inclusion” (and sometimes as “diversity, equity and inclusion”; I have fallen into that trap myself in the past when speaking about technology’s ability to amplify society’s power structures), both in the human rights field more widely and the digital rights field specifically, but failed. Perhaps I was not looking in the right places; if so, please point me in the right direction. The situation is such, however, that one hardly needs statistics to conclude that something is seriously amiss in digital rights land. A look around just about any digital rights meeting in Europe will clearly demonstrate the dominance of white privilege, as does a scroll through the staff sections of digital rights organisations’ webpages. Admittedly, this is hardly a scientific method, but sometimes we need to call it as we see it. 

This is an image many of us are used to, and have internalised to such an extent that I, too, as a person who does not fit that picture, took some time to wake up to it. But it clearly does not reflect the composition of our societies. What this leaves us with, is a watchdog that inevitably will have too many blind spots to properly serve its function for all the communities it is supposed to look out for. To change that, focusing on “diversity and inclusion” is not enough. Rather than working on (token) representation, we need an intersectional approach that is ready to meet the challenges and threats to human rights in an increasingly digitising society. Challenges and threats that often disproportionately affect groups that are marginalised. Marginalisation is not a state of being, it is something that is done to others by those in power. Therefore, we need to change the field, its systems and its power structures. In other words: we need a decolonising process for the field and its power structures rather than a solution focused on “including” those with disabilities, from minority or indigenous groups, and the LGBTQI+ community in the existing ecosystem.

How do we do this? I don’t know. And I probably will never have a definitive answer to that question. What I do know, is that the solution will not likely come from the digital rights field alone. It is perhaps trite to refer to Audre Lorde’s statement on how “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” in this context, but if the current field had the answers and the willingness to deploy them, the field would look very different. Lorde’s words also have a lot to offer as a perspective on what we might gain from a decolonising process as opposed to “diversity and inclusion”. While the following quote focuses on the shortcomings of white feminism, it is a useful aide in helping us imagine what strengths a decolonised digital rights field might represent:    

“Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. … Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.”

The task of re-imagining and then rebuilding a new house for the digital rights field is clearly enormous. As digital rights are human rights and permeate all aspects of society, the field does not exist in isolation. Therefore, its issues cannot be solved in isolation either –– there are many moving parts, many of which will be beyond our reach as an organisation to tackle alone (and not just because DFF’s current geographical remit is Europe). But we need to start somewhere, and we need to get the process started with urgency. If we begin working within our sphere of influence and encourage others to do the same in other spaces, to join or to complement efforts, together we might just get very far.

My hope is that, in this process, we can learn from and build on the knowledge of others who have gone before us. Calls to decolonise the academic curriculum in the United Kingdom are becoming increasingly louder, but are being met with resistance. Are there examples of settings in which a decolonising process has been successfully completed? In South Africa, the need to move away from the “able-bodied, hetero-normative, white” standard in the public interest legal services sector is referred to as “transformation“. And efforts to “radically re-imagine and re-design the internet” from Whose Knowledge center the knowledge of marginalised communities on the internet, looking at not only online resources such as Wikipedia, but also digital infrastructure, privacy, surveillance and security. What are the lessons we can learn from those efforts and processes?

This is an open invitation to join us on this journey. Be our critical friend: share your views, critiques and ideas with us. What are successful examples of decolonising processes in other fields that the digital rights field could draw on? What does a decolonised digital rights field look like and what can it achieve? Who will be crucial allies in having this succeed? How can we ensure that those currently being marginalised lead in this effort? Share your views, help us think about this better, so we might start working on a solution that can catalyse structural change.

This post was cross-posted from the Digital Freedom Fund blog

* As observation was the method used for this determination, it is difficult to comment on representation that is less visible than other categories such as religion, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, etc.

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Moving from Rights Eroded to Rights Realized

In 2017, a women’s rights watchdog group reported that 25 women were killed for their human rights work, a decrease from the 37 women human rights defenders (WHRDs) killed in 2016. These deaths are an outrage, but represent only the most extreme form of violence and repression that human rights defenders around the world are confronting.

We are witnessing a growing trend of “closing space” for civil society actors – a term which refers to restrictions that authoritarian and right-wing governments are imposing to obstruct and limit oppositional voices. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders receives complaints from activists world-wide about closing space, and reports that one-third to nearly one-half of which concerned WHRDs in the years from 2004 to 2014.

Women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI*) human rights defenders the world over are targeted in the closing space phenomenon both for who they are as well as for the work they do. These defenders are targeted because they are often “perceived as challenging accepted sociocultural norms, traditions, perceptions, and stereotypes about femininity, sexual orientation, and the role and status of women in society.” Yet, only limited analysis has been made of their experiences of closing space.

Rights Eroded Blog Photo

In response, the International Human Rights Law Clinic (IHRLC) of Berkeley Law and the Urgent Action Funds for Women’s Human Rights (UAF) conducted a review of the laws and their impacts on WHRDs in 16 countries. Our report Rights Eroded: A Briefing Report on the Effects of Closing Space on Women Human Rights Defenders offers a window on the challenges women and LGBTQI* human rights defenders face as well as their resistance strategies and recommends action international and state authorities as well as donors should take to protect these front-line activists.

Women and LGBTQI* human rights defenders interviewed for the report spoke of their experiences of structural and social discrimination, targeted efforts by the State to hinder their work, gendered forms of harassment, and criminalization of their activities. They described a climate in which States have moved to restrict their access to the funds essential to their work. Governments have applied a complex web of rules including anti-money laundering and national security legislation to ensnare organizations engaged in legitimate human rights work. They emphasized how social stigma and targeted campaigns by the State to delegitimize their work undermine public support for their activities and limit the resources available to them. Activists revealed the ways in which they self-censor to avoid confrontation and abuse from State actors. And, importantly, they cataloged the strategies that they employ to resist closing space through alliance building with other human rights activists, leveraging media attention, and adopting new funding strategies. Continue reading