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 “On Being Included.”
In my research into diversity work at the University of Toronto, I ended up thinking a lot about the phenomenon of belonging and how diversity workers go about promoting it. My research consisted of analyzing two recordings of panel discussions hosted by ARCDO, the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office, on race- and racism-related topics. One aspect of belonging that was emphasized multiple times in both panel discussions was visible representation. The following ethnographic moment took place in the first of the two panel discussions, on the topic of how to enact Allyship and Solidarity.
This panel discussion took place in the spring of 2020 in the midst of the surge in activism following the death of George Floyd. The energy in the virtual room was palpable.
One of the presenters, whom I will call Julia, was emphatic about representation. Julia strongly emphasized the need for people who can “activate courage in your workplaces” and who are “willing to take a look at the images that are hung in their hallways and their schools, and say we need to make a change to ensure the environment is reflective and, more importantly, welcoming to [historically excluded groups]” (original emphasis).
From the way Julia emphasized the word “welcoming,” I gathered that for her, it isn’t just about pleasantries or politeness. As I reflected on this moment, it struck to me that the issue of whether an institution was welcoming had real, important consequences for members of marginalized groups’ ability to succeed at the institution. And in the case of a university institution, this meant people’s access to education, and hence their chances for future social mobility, could entirely depend on the presence of a welcoming environment, or in other words, a ‘sense of belonging’ at the university.
This is an important take-away because it highlights that fostering a sense of belonging is not just about people’s feelings. Feelings of non-belonging can have serious, life-altering consequences.