Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Diversity 2021 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Diversity Work and the Emotional “Wall”, By Erica de Souza (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.” It was originally posted in the category “Doing Diversity Work.”

My Ethnography project was not about the affective reactions to diversity work, but it became an unsaid “wall” during my research. My question was, “How does the University circulate diversity?” There were also smaller questions such as, “How does the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office (ARCDO) do it? Is it effective? How do students feel about it versus faculty? How does ARCDO engage students and faculty differently?” I was very open to tracking wherever diversity practice went, and however it was accomplished or not accomplished. Yet, time and time again on a personal level I was struck by emotional reactions. The students I surveyed had emotional reactions or demonstrated a mild avoidance to particular questions. Example question: Does anything (words, phrases, etc.) attract you or repel you to/from university circulated diversity communications? (i.e. emails, newsletters. etc.) There were those who wanted to avoid the question altogether, and everyone blatantly skipped the “repel,” and went straight for the “attract.” I decided not to poke the bear, since I was a stranger to my anonymous interlocuters. 

Even during ARCDO trainings sessions there were emotional reactions. I was a bit more prepared for these since we were told to expect to take pauses. In other words, this was a space to be vulnerable. I didn’t completely understand what the extent of that meant at the time, but now it’s clear. Every participant’s camera was off in these training sessions, except mine. I do not know by their faces, but by chat messages, that people were upset. I was so upset at times I could no longer see the screen for a few moments. I was having flashbacks of the racism myself or my family experienced that I had observed. It slowly began to dawn upon me that for those who answered honestly, they first had to move past their emotional “wall,” and turn it into something constructive, something that they could talk about and learn from. I participated in doing so on a number of occasions. An online chat message could be expressed with anger and pain. The limits of a computer screen could not contain it.

Now when I think about Sara Ahmed’s discussion (2012, 25-27) of the “wall” as an obstruction to diversity work, I understand that there is something emotional happening there, be it avoidance, a false objectivity, an unsaid pain they’d like to plaster a smile on and bury very deep. I think we forget sometimes that the “wall” is made of people. People who don’t want to unlearn, or people who believe they are doing it even though there’s so much more to do. I believe it’s harder to get past because on the emotional level the wall is normalized to be hidden, to be taboo. Now after all my research I’d like to believe that diversity practice would be a lot easier if people let go of one emotion in this wall which is fear. Fear to change, fear to lose privilege, fear to be transparent, fear to be vulnerable. It’s about self-preservation but I wonder what are we giving up when we don’t break this wall, and turn it into something helpful to others? When we do get past it, transformation may begin.

References

Ahmed, Sara. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822395324.

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