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

What Diversity Feels Like: the affective dimensions of diversity work at the university, By Mason Lorch (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This final paper was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.”

            Near the end of term I was talking to my mother on Zoom about my ethnographic data, hoping that by talking out loud to someone, I would work out how to write about my findings in my final report. I was explaining a certain difference I had perceived in the way that my ethnographic subjects—UofT diversity workers—approached talking about diversity compared to how I was used to hearing about it. She stopped me and said “It sounds like what you’re talking about is sense of belonging.” She said that the diversity workers she knows are constantly talking about “fostering a sense of belonging” at her institution. By way of background, my mother is involved with diversity work in the United States at a university where she is a tenured professor.

            I quickly latched onto the concept of ‘sense of belonging’. I had heard the phrase before of course, but until that point I hadn’t considered it in relation to my research. There are two things about the concept that intrigued me. The first is the implication that belonging is something that is sensed. Belonging arises from sensations, impressions and experiences. The way I am used to thinking about diversity is as a matter of policy; it’s about opportunities, access, resources, recognition—all practical things, relating to what individuals are able to do at an institution. The word that I had been using up to this point in place of belonging was inclusion, which is similar in meaning but has a more practical flavour; if you’re included, you can participate. Belonging, on the other hand, has more of a sentimental (as in relating to sentiments) taste; if you belong, you feel at home, you are free from discomfort and anxiety which may prevent you from participating. It struck me that Belonging was the perfect word for the different kind of diversity that the diversity workers I studied are attempting to cultivate. They did not often discuss opportunities or policies or practices directly; instead they discussed the university environment, the way people act and speak, people’s attitudes and most importantly, how this makes one feel and how that affects what people can and cannot do at the university. They were talking about the personal, experiential side of diversity—closely tied to, yet distinct from, its practical, policy-oriented aspects. 

            The second reason that the idea of a sense of belonging drew my attention was my mother’s comment that it seemed to be central to the work of diversity practitioners at her university. This resonated with a key observation that I had made in the workshops and panel discussions that I studied during my research: the word ‘belonging’ was not used, but manifold references were made to particular, concrete experiences which had to do with feelings of belonging or inclusion, or more accurately, experiences of not belonging and non-inclusion. The diversity workers I studied repeatedly evoked scenes of non-inclusion, discrimination, and oppression in the process of introducing ideas, sharing insights, and giving advice. I was curious about why these negative experiences and their attendant affects cropped up so often and in so many different places without explicit comment. I also wondered what impact this emphasis might have had on the impact of the diversity work I studied. In other words, my guiding question about how diversity work at UofT became ‘Why is it so important to know what not belonging looks and feels like?’

            Before I proceed, I would like to briefly introduce a key theoretical concept that I used in my research, that being the concept of affect. As Kathleen Stewart writes in her book Ordinary Affect, affects are often experienced as surges and abatements in the motion of everyday life (Stewart 2008, 2). She defines an affect as a change in the capacity “to affect and to be affected that [gives one’s] everyday life the quality of a continual motion of relations, scenes, contingencies, and emergences” (Stewart 2008, 1-2). Affects can also be thought of as moments  when the many lines of force that run through the social body, shaping our behaviour in complex and sometimes unpredictable ways, converge to push the present moment in one direction or another. They can be experienced as the sensed possibilities of a moment, as potentialities (Stewart 2008, 2-3).

            My data was drawn primarily from two recorded panel discussions hosted by the AntiRacism and Cultural Diversity Office (ARCDO) as part of their “Reflect. Restore. Action.” series in 2020 addressing race- and racism-related issues (available on Youtube, see works cited for links). While analyzing the recordings, I focused my attention on the affects that arose in the panel discussions, noting how and when affective intensities surged, and how this influenced the path taken by the discussion. I carefully watched and rewatched the discussions paying close attention to tone of voice, body language, the sequences and transitions between ideas, and participants’ choice of words in an attempt to attune myself to the affect flowing through the participants in the workshop.

            I was not a direct participant in the panel since it took place before I began my research; however, I was still able to affectively connect to the discussion. The process was in some ways akin to becoming immersed in a film or a novel and experiencing events sympathetically alongside its characters. As in the case of a movie or book, the emersion was not complete, but I was nonetheless able to become connected to the the emotional ebbs and flows affecting the participants. This position allowed me to use my own affective body, and my ability to be affected became my main observational tool. I paid very close attention to the effects that the material had on me, how it made me feel, and what it made me think about. By careful calibration of attention, my aim was to tease apart the affective threads that were woven through me while I was watching the recordings and make inferences about the dynamics at play.

            When my mother first brought my attention to the phrase ‘sense of belonging,’ I asked her whether the diversity workers she knew ever talked in detail about what sorts of experiences would engender a ‘sense of belonging.’ I wondered this because throughout the panel discussions I analyzed, panelists brought up many examples of experiences, not of belonging per se, but rather experiences of not belonging, which gave a granularity, a sense-ability to the concept of belonging. In this section of my report, I would like to outline a few of these experiences and discuss how they affected me.  

            None of the presenters or panelists in the recorded discussions shared any of their own personal experiences of not belonging. They did, however, refer to several non-personal, generic examples of non-belonging experiences—that is, they referred to experiences not as those had by any particular person they know or have heard about, but rather as general types of experiences that someone might have. That said, their tone and emotion when they referenced these experiences made it evident that they had had personal experiences similar if not akin to the ones they had described. The affective intensity that the panelists and presenters were caught up in each time they made reference to one of these scenarios could be felt by the audience members through their tone and body language, and it belied the ‘personal’ nature of the experiences in spite of the generality of their exposition. 

            I will share a few examples of these generic experiences here. These examples are drawn from the introductory remarks of the first recorded panel discussion I analyzed, which was on the topic of Allyship and Solidarity, with a specific focus on anti-Black racism. This discussion took place during the spring of 2020 amid the surge in activism following the death of George Floyd and others. Even in the recording of the event, the energy in the Zoom room is palpable. The presenter, whom I will call Julia, was impassioned and enrapturing.

            One of the key generic experiences that grounded feelings of non-belonging in the Allyship panel discussion had to do with representation. Participants throughout the panel discussions repeatedly mentioned issues with the visible representation of historically underserved groups. It was especially emphasized in regard to the environments around children. Verbalized examples included the characters in children’s books, the ‘pictures on the walls’ of institutions, and role models both in society at large as well as in their local communities. When the panelists and presenters brought up representation, they did so with a passion indexing its heavy significance. For the presenters, representation was evidently more than an issue of accuracy or fairness; it was their children’s healthy growth and socialization that was at stake. 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 sat reflecting 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. 

            A second generic experience of non-belonging was the experience of passive bystanders—others’ unwillingness to act. As with the experience of representation, examples of passive bystanders were evoked in various shapes and forms throughout the discussion. They ranged from the tendency for people with privilege to become complacent when participating in radical social movements to the performativity of many of the people posting on social media in support of these movements. The most intense evocation was the experience of people bearing witness to an instance of discrimination and doing nothing. In her remarks, Julia insisted on treating diversity work as an active process:“ One must actively determine their role as it relates to the impacts of colonialism and truth and reconciliation,” (original emphasis). She continued, “You must identify the spaces of power that you hold through your socially constructed identities and from other power sources including in your profession… What we need are interrupters: interruptions for the daily cuts caused by subtle discriminations, microagressions.” She says we need people who will speak up “when you know you are hearing something that is just not right” (original emphasis). This quote points to the experience of not only discrimination but of bystanders who did nothing. The imperative tone and palpable frustration made it evident to those watching the panel that this experience, although generic, is extremely important to the speaker.

            Hearing her words, I was once again provoked to think: How have I acted in moments of this type? Have I ever been a bystander in a situation of exclusion and not spoken up? If I can’t remember a time that I have, is it because I wasn’t aware of these moment at all?

            Finally, I would like to highlight a particularly intense moment in the panel discussion. The experience shared in this moment had to do with mistrust. Julia began talking about the importance of relationship building in allyship and solidarity efforts. Right away, she affirmed that“ Actions only translate into support when trust is present… And let me say that again. I’m gonna say it again for the folks in the back. Actions only translate into support when trust is present.” At this point, the affective intensity reached a peak. “This notion of— by the very act of reaching out means that the individual [racialized person] should now come and fold themselves into your arms… is inaccurate!” (original emphasis). The frustration underlying this comment was visible in Julia’s body language, as she first sarcastically acted out the “folding into your arms,” and then (on the word “inaccurate”) firmly rejected that image with a hand gesture, as if she was cutting in two the notion she had just acted out. 

            The quote above points more clearly than ever to a lived experience, evidently one in which someone expected to be rewarded for their actions but wasn’t, and responded resentfully. This experience, however, was still not presented as a personal, individual experience. Instead, it was generalized and presented as a phenomenon encountered in many places and many forms in the lived experience of any racialized person.

            Watching this, I again became introspective. I found myself wondering why anyone offering aid would get angry if they were not met with immediate trust. I wondered what anxieties would underlie such a reaction. Most of all, I wondered if I would be susceptible to these same reactions. 

            Although none of the panelists shared any anecdotes about their own experiences of nonbelonging, some did share anecdotes about people they know and care about and what it was like to observe them facing discrimination. This third-person perspective I found enlightening and deeply affective. It shows particularly clearly what not belonging looks and feels like in contrast to ones’ own experience, from a vantage point of privilege.  

            The following two examples come from the second of the recorded panel discussions I analyzed, this one on the topic of discussing Race and Racism with your children. The examples come from two of the panelists’ responses to a question about their earliest memories of speaking about race at home. 

            One of the speakers, a woman who identifies as mixed race whom I will call Maya, shared about a moment when she had asked her 12-year-old daughter about her first memories of talking about race. Her response was striking. When asked about the earliest memories of race, her daughter was reminded of an incident when she and her father, a Black man, were pulled over by the police and the car was searched. Maya expressed the poignancy of the fact that this particular memory was the first thing her daughter thought of:“ [That was] her answer, at 12, of her first memory of race”. As she said this, her voice shook slightly as the motherly dismay for her daughter made her choke up. 

            Maya went on to explain that when she talked to her husband about her daughter’s recollection and they had identified what incident she was talking about (he didn’t remember right away) he remembered it as an unremarkable incident “That one wasn’t so bad, you know, it was a rolling stop, [the cops] pulled me over, they searched the car,” she intoned, imitating her husband’s nonchalance. “As a very light-skinned Black woman,” Maya continued with gravity,“ I had a very different read in the situation.”

            Throughout her narration, a common motif is the stark contrast perceived by Maya between her experience and those of her family members with different skin tone.

Accompanying it is the expression of gravity and horror at perceiving the frightful reality of this difference. She perceived racial bias in a different way than her husband did; not as a fact of everyday experience, but as a condition of experience in some lives and not others. She perceived not only the difference between lived experiences itself but also the way that that difference is only perceivable when—like her—one has a window into multiple life-worlds. Another panelist from the same discussion, Mary Anne, describes a memory from when her daughter was just a baby, going to a fabric store with her baby, her partner, who is Black, and his daughter. Mary Anne (a white woman) was at the cash register with her baby and was enjoying the “Cooing and awing over a new baby that happens, with their big round heads and their big eyes” when her partner joined her at the cash register, and she noticed “the complete difference in the engagement from the women who worked [at the store] with us as a family.” Though she didn’t explicitly describe this difference, it was clear from her body language and tone what type of difference it was. When she was describing the cooing and awing, she leaned forward, her voice softened and gushed, imitating the adoring tones of the women at the register interacting with the baby. But when she continued on, she sat back and her face got serious with a note of sadness in her voice.   

            I thought about how two people who share so many of life’s experiences could have such different perceptions of their shared experiences and yet not notice until a moment like this one brought the difference into sharp contrast. I had a sudden awareness of how discrimination, racism, racialization could be all around me happening to friends, acquaintances, etc. but completely invisible to me. And yet at the same time, the way that the young girl from the first example, who was in kindergarten at the time of the stop and search, understood intuitively that her experience had something to do with race made me think about how pervasive moments like these must be.

            I return now to my guiding question: Why did these experiences of discrimination, noninclusion and non-belonging appear again and again in my data? Given the topics of the two panel discussions I analyzed, I had expected to hear much more about practical tools and advice for participants. Yet, the recounting of experiences took up more time than any concrete advice on how to actively promote diversity. For me, they were also more memorable and thoughtprovoking. I began pondering what purpose the sharing of these experiences of non-belonging served in workshops and panel discussions?

            The first possibility that occurred to me was that sharing these experiences was a form of catharsis for the presenters. Upon reflection, this was not a satisfactory explanation. While it was certainly true that these stories were opportunities to express emotions, and no doubt in some cases, the presenters may have experienced relief from talking aloud about these experiences, the catharsis idea doesn’t explain why the presenters would choose to use up so much time in a formal panel discussion to perform catharsis on themselves. Additionally, based on my observations of body language, it did not seem as though it was cathartic in all cases; some presenters seemed to be made disquieted by telling the stories.

            The second possibility that occurred to me was that recounting these stories and experiences constituted an effort to convince people to believe in discrimination and oppression. To me, this seemed closer to an explanation, but still not quite there. First, it seemed likely that the audience members—people that elected to devote an hour and a half of their time to attending a panel discussion on how to best combat racism and discrimination—would already believe in the reality of discrimination and oppression. Second, if this was their goal, they might have spent more time talking about data and statistics, but none were mentioned. Finally I began to conceive of a third potential reason. Perhaps just believing in discrimination and oppression and knowing about them wasn’t enough to prompt proactive action. Perhaps there are different ways of knowing. These stories could have been aimed at making people feel the affective weight of non-belonging in addition to understanding and acknowledging it. In a way, the presenters were convincing people that discrimination and racism were real, or rather they were training them to see and feel—to experience—their reality.   The British anthropologist Tim Ingold has a name for these kinds of practices that draw attention into the world and change how it is seen: he says they make up a “poetics of dwelling” (Ingold 2011, 11, 26). Diversity workers, by telling stories of discrimination create a poetics of non-belonging, which aims to change not just how people think about discrimination, but how and to what extent they experience it.

            A few clarifications about this last statement: when I say the sharing of non-belonging experiences is aimed at getting people to experience discrimination, the ‘people’ at which it is ‘aimed’ are mostly people with privilege and power. These are the people who can act to facilitate anti-racist movements. This being the case, what I mean by ‘getting people to experience discrimination’ is not necessarily getting people to feel what it’s like to be discriminated against; what I mean is getting them to feel what it feels like to be part of a moment of discrimination, perhaps as an inadvertent perpetrator of discrimination or as a bystander. A second clarification: I don’t mean to imply that the diversity workers I studied were necessarily sharing these experiences with this goal clearly in mind. I cannot attest to their motivations and thoughts. My statement should simply be read as describing the impacts of their experience sharing work, or the organizing principle, whether understood or implicit, behind the tendency to share these experiences and their affects. 

            So why is feeling these affects important? Rendering people more aware of what nonbelonging looks like has many benefits of its own, but circulating experiences of non-belonging doesn’t just train people’s external senses to detect them; it also opens up their emotions. I felt the affects carried by these stories, and I found myself thinking about the fact that these moments are going on all around me all the time, to people I pass on the street, to friends, to peers. I found myself reflecting on my own positionality, on what I’ve experienced and what I have not.   Experiencing the affects from these stories increased my capacity to be affected by the presence of discrimination and inequality in the world around me. I became more aware of the affect of these events where before I had only been aware of their occurrence. This is not to say that I was not aware of them before, but that now they were more vividly perceived. Now that I am more affectively engaged with moments of non-belonging, my choices going forward look different than before, including some choices that I didn’t realize I have been making all along:the choice of whether or not to act and whether or not to consider myself as implicated in moments of discrimination and non-inclusion.

            The diversity workers I observed shared experiences of non-belonging which together created an affective ‘sense of non-belonging.’ By doing this, they worked upon people who had become detached from moments of discrimination, tying them back into and affectively reconnecting them with experiences that they are a part of creating. This is a different kind of diversity work than the kind we may be used to hearing about: not circulating ideas, words, documents, or information resources, but circulating affects. 

Works Cited

ARCDO uToronto. “Let’s Talk Allyship and Solidarity – ARCDO Webcast Recording.” ARCDO, June 12, 2020. YouTube video, 1:25:32

ARCDO uToronto. “Talking About Racism at Home – ARCDO Webcast Recording.” ARCDO, June 12, 2020. YouTube video, 1:25:53

Ingold, Tim. 2011. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London ; Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.

Stewart, Kathleen. 2008. Ordinary Affects. E-Duke Books Scholarly Collection. Durham, NC:Duke University Press.

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