Can’t We All Just “Belong”?

In the UNC System and elsewhere, a politicized concept needs careful redefining.

A university library I visited recently was giving away stickers that said, “You Belong Here.” Surely this affirming declaration does not mean that students can’t flunk out or get expelled, or that employees can’t ever get fired. I began to wonder what it means to belong at one’s college or university.

The sticker’s message soon became newbiquitous: I’ve since noticed “belonging” referenced by corporate consultants, as well as high-school and university administrators who have added a “B” to DEI. Some education scholars have argued that student success depends on a sense of belonging. Educational leaders are trying to build belonging into their disciplinary societies, and it was also invoked, to explain Claudine Gay’s resignation from her post as Harvard’s president, by a professor who wrote, “Black people will never belong there because we weren’t meant to—not then, not now, not ever.”

“Belonging” can lapse into safetyism and censorship.In a statement on its website, the UNC School of Education ties belonging to advocacy “for equity in every aspect of the lives of all members of our communities, especially those directly and indirectly affected by violence and racially motivated acts.” Appalachian State’s Office of Diversity & Inclusion says it seeks to foster a sense of belonging, and belonging is a goal of UNC Asheville’s Quality Enhancement Plan’s IGNITE first-year experience program.

Belonging in some of these circles means “feeling accepted, valued, and included within a group or organization.” The idea is not merely to tolerate people in all of their varying viewpoints, lifestyles, and identities, as our laws require, but rather to make people feel valued and supported for these things. Belonging can also be tied to social or community justice, as in Emory University’s identity-based affiliation groups described as opportunities for students to “find the place where they belong and support them in making change in their communities.”

While a feeling of belonging can result in a commitment to the organization and to teamwork, belonging can also lapse into safetyism and censorship. For example, a high-school librarian and blogger lists what belonging looks and feels like, using language such as, “When the things I love, value, prioritize, or need are celebrated, centered, and made space for” and “When I see other people like me reflected positively in that space.” The librarian then takes a facile step further, stating, in boldface, “I know I belong when things that harm (physically, psychologically, or emotionally) me are not allowed and when that rule is vigorously enforced and upheld.” Here, “harm” moves beyond physical harm to the psychological and emotional realms, giving us an imperative to banish these harms through vigorous enforcement. While there is nothing wrong with belonging efforts that make space for lactation rooms or add to displays of the institution’s founding white-male leaders a set of photos featuring diverse alums, expurgating emotional harm rationalizes all manner of intolerance, censorship, and hypocrisy.

Anyone capable of stepping out of their own worldview can immediately think of multiple scenarios in which one person’s “things I love” are another person’s “things that (psychologically or emotionally) harm me.” Bacon. Strippers. Chick-fil-A. Football. Body piercings. I won’t go on, as I probably had you at strippers. If belonging is framed as being able to confidently walk into any room and freely and comfortably express all parts of yourself without expectations or judgment, then this view of belonging is an entitled fantasy. Here, the belonging discourse winds up encroaching on the freedoms that are foundational to the university’s academic mission. It’s a totalitarian belonging in which you assume no one who disagrees with you gets to exist. Belonging for me, but not for thee.

“Belonging” can strike students as a promise that they won’t ever feel offended or face people who think differently.I’m not suggesting that this overly simplistic view of belonging is the cause of censorship on campus—only that it can easily become a new excuse for it. When students see and hear the message that “they belong,” at least in the absence of clear instruction about the university as a place of polyvocality, it can strike students as a promise that they won’t ever feel offended, alienated, or otherwise forced to face people who don’t think like they do.

At Winston-Salem State University, a faculty development specialist offers classroom strategies that foster a sense of belonging for students, among them “setting proper boundaries,” which includes not accepting microaggressions:

Set Boundaries. During in-person or online discussions, establish boundaries on appropriate discourse. Microaggressions and comments that will isolate or demean a group are not acceptable. Our classes should be a place of inclusivity and not exclusivity. Boundaries communicate the importance of respect, professionalism, collegiality, and civil discourse. By establishing professional boundaries, we can promote students’ sense of belonging. Thus, our classes become a space to grapple with complex and controversial topics amicably.

Of course instructors have a right not to tolerate disruptions to student learning in their classrooms, but the net is cast too widely when any student who commits a microaggression or makes a comment that is taken to demean a group gets excluded, in the name of inclusion, from the learning environment. Especially in a classroom that encourages exploration and inquiry, or that includes discussions of topics that could become contentious, students with ideas or questions that others don’t like should be tolerated. They should belong.

A desire to help students feel a sense of belonging need not lapse into censorship. UNC Wilmington announces on a website titled “Connections and Belonging” that, “at UNCW, you belong. We want to help you to feel welcome, connected and engaged during your time here.” This leads directly to the institution’s Seahawk Respect Compact, and while many student codes of conduct are censorious, UNCW does not tell students that their constitutionally protected speech will be punished. Indeed, FIRE gives UNCW its top, green-light rating.

Belonging may be an issue today because young adults struggle with individualist and communal commitments. As John Inazu explains, people today often lack a deep, shared, institutional or collective identity—the shared experiences and challenges that can cultivate a profound sense of belonging. David Brooks argues that, just as those who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s pushed aside the old authoritarian ethos in favor of an individualist ethos, today’s young adults eschew individualism and its personal freedoms for the rewards of what Brooks calls relational commitments. In this context, students might see the rewards of belonging as worth the sacrifice of free expression. When students demand that someone be silenced, it may be because they see the expression as offensive to a community to which they’ve committed themselves. But bullying dissenters into conformity violates their belonging.

Colleges must find ways to honor the welcoming world students want while avoiding the expectation that everyone will agree.College and university leaders must find ways to honor the welcoming, communal world students want to experience while avoiding the expectation that everyone will agree. One should be able to feel a sense of belonging to a community with a shared purpose while also recognizing that the community, and the conditions of belonging to it, should not enforce consensus. Indeed, an academic community honors and expects dissensus. While some communities do entail a great degree of agreement about something, a university, by its very nature, is a dissensual community. In his 2000 book Anxious Intellects, John Michael discussed the importance of dissensual communities, arguing that failing to see and embrace dissensus is a failure of intellectual humility, an act of arrogance that demands conformity.

A more nuanced version of belonging, then, involves a sense of confidence and security concerning opposing ideas and even offensive views. Belonging can also mean we have a shared purpose beyond ourselves. Universities have an opportunity to remind students and employees what is special about their campus culture and the university’s knowledge-seeking mission. That’s a commitment to one’s community that I hope today’s students could embrace. Danielle Allen stresses that students can become confident pluralists for whom belonging involves respecting the intellectual and expressive freedoms of their fellow community members. Belonging, at least at a university, won’t come from stomping out dissent but rather straining to connect through difference. Students can choose to engage and forge connections even if they don’t perfectly belong. Rather than providing a womb-like environment of pure safety, belonging at a university is always a little bit broken.

Some people are going to annoy us, just as we will frustrate them. But we can embrace and celebrate this. We are not necessarily injured by the annoying opinions or expressions of others. To appropriate Thomas Jefferson, don’t let it pick your pocket or break your leg. Conflicts and friction are part of belonging to a dissensual community of learners. Universities can emphasize that students belong amidst the constant clanking of multiple perspectives, identities, and interests. They can encourage students to engage with this threatening and wonderful world with hope and kindness. They can acknowledge that students might sometimes feel injured emotionally or socially, or that they might feel out of place, out of sorts, restless, broken, invisible, or lost. And they can invite students to bring their scared, scarred selves in the hope of having some meaningful encounters that will make them want to show up again because they belong to something bigger than themselves—the dissensual university community.

Martha McCaughey is professor emerita in sociology at Appalachian State University and an adjunct professor in the department of criminal justice and sociology at the University of Wyoming.