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

Diversity in the University: An Impossible Ideal, By Aashna Shah and Nana Koomson (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 “Confronting Walls and Normalizing Practices.”

When deconstructing what diversity meant at the university Aashna stumbled upon U of T’s definition which suggested that diversity is both the demographic mix of the university community and the practice of recognizing and respecting everyone’s unique qualities and attributes. Further, an inclusive university strives for equity and respects, accepts, and values differences. This idea is not well reflected in the lived student experiences that we gathered through data collection.

Interviews with various student leaders at the University of Toronto indicated contradictions between what the University imagines itself as doing to increase diversity, and what students believe the University is doing. This is exemplified when students of colour asked for their voices to be heard, and for their inclusion in University spaces. Or when international students suggested that even though they entered the university with their diverse set of experiences there were moments where they felt like they had to put on a mask so they could feel comfortable in the space of the university. Students saw University efforts to achieve diversity as a form of tokenization and non-performativity. They did not see the university as a space that ‘values differences,’ a space of real diversity and inclusion. Thus, the diversity work envisioned by the University seems to be more an ideal than something that is embedded in student experiences 

If diversity is as an ideal, the question that seems to follow is what would the space look like if this form of inclusion and diversity was pursued? We concluded that if this ideal of diversity became real, the value of the university as a learning institution would crumble. To explicate further, the university is a space where students from different backgrounds learn how to operate within a given framework. This framework is in part academic: students learn that success looks like mastery of a very specific set of skills. Each student who has earned a U of T degree can use that document as proof of being proficient with those skills. The university allows each student who comes in with a range of skills to master a few of them and become competent members of society with proven competency. Our findings confirm those of Morten and Harney in ‘The Undercommons’ (2013). They argue that the University as an institution is not structured to care about its students. Instead, it aims to produce workers for a capitalistic society. Capitalism does not care about diversity, equity, or inclusion. It simply cares about capital, competition, and resources. 

In an institution that aims to contribute towards capitalism, diversity work is impossible regardless of the genuine intentions of administrators and staff. Thus, diversity is simply an ideal within the University, not something that is experienced by students.  

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