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

The Cruel Optimism of Inclusion at the University, By Mason Lorch and Katerina Richard (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 “On Being Included.”

Individuals strive for diversity in their communities, workplaces, and universities because of its promise: the promise of pursuing your aspirations without fear of discrimination or prejudice. 

Diversity is a state that is defined by a feeling; diversity is felt when it is present and certainly when it is not. This feeling is very personal and is often central to people’s ability to function and participate in social life in institutions such as the University.

Commitment to diversity is optimistic—it is driven by hope: hope of success, safety, or belonging. However, the ideal state of diversity may not turn out to be actually achievable. Perhaps this is because there is a fundamental contradiction between the desired state and the basic structure of the University as an institution; an institution for the purpose of training individuals for social purposes cannot help but normalize, and an institution that impartially judges performance cannot help but differentially value different contributions and be blind to individual differences, gifts, and disadvantages. Would a university that doesn’t teach and doesn’t grade really be a university? 

Despite this apparent contradiction, people continue to long for diversity. In the process, they find themselves submitting to the University’s processes of Normalization or Othering (or even participating in these processes themselves). They remain committed because the alternative, which is giving up on the hope of diversity—of inclusion or safety or viability in the university community—is too catastrophic for them.

This is a phenomenon which theorist Lauren Berlant calls Cruel Optimism (2011). Cruel optimism is when people remain committed to improbable promises of future happiness, even if the continued commitment is harmful, because abandoning the hope altogether would be too catastrophic. 

It is not just students who are trapped in a state of cruel optimism. The University itself is attached to the promise of Diversity. Diversity appears in mission statements, statements of values, and many other quotidian documents. Posters and announcements of Diversity-related initiatives paper the walls and email bulletins at UofT. 

However, as research has revealed (Ahmed 2012), diversity initiatives often don’t achieve what they claim to. Attempts to act fail to make any meaningful progress towards the feeling of diversity in people’s lives. And sometimes these same statements inadvertently obstruct progress (Ahmed 2012). This is worth pointing out because remaining committed to Diversity can lead to harm to the people involved.

An example of “cruel optimism” within the University of Toronto is the goal of achieving reconciliation. Through its 34 Calls to Action, land acknowledgments, and implementing Indigenous spaces, the University of Toronto commits to a promise of achieving reconciliation. Yet critical observers find the University’s efforts to be performative and ineffective. In reality, the goal is unattainable because reconciliation is not something that can be “achieved”.

The University’s continued promise is actually harmful because people who depend on the university to succeed are given false hope. Individuals become attached to an ideal state in the future where the needs of Indigenous peoples are met, and their future hopes become attached to the promise of a place in the university community and the opportunities it holds. The University ends up stringing them along because it allows for a continued attachment to a future that cannot truly exist. We must ask the questions: Why does the University remain attached to the ideals of inclusivity and reconciliation? Why do administrators feel the need to “achieve” reconciliation even if it is not a goal that can be achieved? How can the University rethink itself to break through the bind of Cruel Optimism?


Berlant, Lauren Gail. Cruel Optimism . Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included : Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life . Durham ;: Duke University Press, 2012.

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