Chapter 5 – One (Only) Way forward.

I propose that only via shared understanding, relationship-building, a community that preserves space for authenticity and solidarity can truly achieve meaningful representation – with unity in diversity.

The concept of “Global Village” was born in 1964 by Marshall McLuhan, who illustrated how the technical advancements in communication abolishes geographical and temporal boundaries. There emerged an innocent globalist and cosmopolitanism view that harmony in diversity will be achievable in no time. The Culture War narrative took over, as the after-(ongoing) effect of the economy crisis ripples, as the “compete for survival” instincts kicks back in economic and cultural terms, the harmony in diversity fantasy seems much more far away than it was in the 1960s.

In earlier chapters, I criticised HEI’s approaches in promoting representation. I argued that the current measures of diversity could easily be portraited as performative, quasi-pro-diversity mandates that drains energy from both the dominant and minoritized groups, as the former feels like they’ve been unjustly underserved, and the latter tokenised, seeing little actual improvements.

How then, can we create and preserve a safe and empowering space that community can thrive, with harmony in diversity? In my opinion, there are 2 key attributes to such communities: Authenticity and Solidarity. And both of these attributes can only be demonstrated through patient, non-judgemental listening and communication.

1. Authenticity

I believe that our identity is continually constructed through our interaction with our circumstances, with respect to history, personal struggles, evolves and adapt to our environment. If we truly respect ethnicity as “self-defined and subjectively meaningful to an individual.” (ONS, see discussion on this in Chapter 3), we have to allow individuals, especially young people in HEI, to have the courage to embrace and explore this uncertainty. We have to reject label-driven classifications to pre-determine how we should interact with others. Here’s my story to illustrate this point:

I attended a language class at the university in London, this was not too far from when the 2019 Hong Kong Democratic Movements have made the news in the West. The first few terms we learn after “What’s your name?”, “Where do you live?”, would be – you guessed it – “Where are you from?”. I am in a small class of 10, coming from different countries, ranging from Switzerland, Germany, Poland to Pakistan, Iran, China. We took turns to ask each another the question – where are you from.

There is a stark contrast in the temperature of the room when I said I am from Hong Kong, and my other classmate said that they are from China. I was welcomed with a lot of warmth, and them a much less welcoming acknowledgement. It is no surprise that the China = Bad overly simplified narrative has crept into the classroom, and affected how we treat others. I felt it, and I decided to share with the class the cultural similarities between Hong Konger and Chinese people. The class was less hostile (yes.) as they now can see my Chinese friend more as a person, and not as an extension of the communist suppressor as they may have previously perceived.

The more socially acceptable, easy thing for me to do in that situation would be simply add salt to injury, to explain how Hong Kong is different from China. I chose not to do that as that would further undermine the class as a safe space for my friend to explore his identity. But this is not just for him. I can easily imagine that this act of differentiation would drive me further away from my dual Hong Konger-Chinese identity. I admire a lot of the elements in Chinese traditional culture, the food, the language, the art… Yet there is strong social pressure for me to denounce part of my identity, and only by doing that my social standing in the environment can be affirmed. Knowingly or unknowingly, my self-identity would change, not as a result of authentic, soul-searching, but under the influence of social correctness or social desirability.

An environment that truly enables authentic identity building need not to be value-free, but it requires individuals to be treated with no presumptions that is based on group identity one may be prescribed as having. It means that individuals have to choose the hard way, to not rely on mnemonic devices of ‘labelling’ too much when we meet and interact with others. This leads on to the second attribute – solidarity.

2. Solidarity

A community that endorses solidarity within itself share a key assumption: that every individual in the group is valued as much as the other. There are a lot of discussion on the importance of solidarity so I won’t drill into this too much here.

To highlight how HEI values diversity, a common approach was to collate a long list of cultural or religious events or dates that is happening each month. This was intended to create opportunity for staff and students to demonstrate solidarity with others. I strongly doubt many people read them, or “celebrate with” others. My observation is that, apart from being startled by the sheer amount of “festivals” and “celebrations” that are on the list, the biggest barrier that stops people from “celebrating with”, is the lack of relevance behind those jubilant pictures and exotic foods. I think it is not meaningful to include every festival you can think of purely on the notion of inclusivity. It has to come from the population you intend to share this list with, and it has to be an invitation to “celebrate with” the relevant groups. How do we stand in solidarity if we don’t even know they exist? Representation of non-existing people does not make sense. HEI as a porous community, be it at department, institute, or the University level, must allow individuals to willingly share, and take initiative, and have their skin in the game to allow the above to happen.

Ultimately, the narrative that work and life should be separated, that one’s goal for life is retirement, and that the individuals as just a cog in the system strips people self-worth and sense of community. Under this narrative, your coworkers not worth your time, but another replaceable, disposable piece of work to listen to, understand or build relationship with. But there is no short-cut to diversity and proper representation. There is no laws, rules, or recommended practices that can foster relationship. Authenticity and solidarity needs to be centred at the heart of any diverse community to develop shared understanding. With no understanding, there is no true diversity; with no true diversity, there is no true representation; with no true representation, there is no equity.

An authentic community with individualised understanding and solidarity is key to proper representation, and equity (in the long run).

There is one, only way forward:

“…Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”

Mark 12:31

“There is no panacea, or utopia, there is just love and kindness and trying, amid the chaos, to make things better where we can. And to keep our minds wide, wide open in a world that often wants to close them.”

Matt Haig, “Notes on a Nervous Planet”



Author: joseph lam

On a Part-Time PhD Journey. Reflection on living Academia into a better place. 🇭🇰 Migrant in 🇬🇧

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