Diversity and Unity in the Pit at UNC
Let me tell you, its pretty.
I walk out of Lenoir dining hall at the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill one early afternoon and am struck by the beauty of the scene unfolding in front of me. The first thing I see is bricks. Lots and lots of bricks, completely covering the ground I walk on. Sunlight streaks through the branches of the two massive trees in the center of the large sunken rectangular area at the center of campus known as the Pit. As I walk down the three steps into the Pit, I notice the light breeze ruffling the fallen autumn leaves. Amidst the hustle and bustle of college life, I sit down on those steps and breathe in the beauty and peace.
Located right in the center of the dining hall, student stores, student union, and 2 libraries, the Pit is a pretty popular place for all kinds of students. I noticed familiarity and comfort amongst students in the space, while non-students stuck out and seemed out of place. Therefore, I decided to conduct an ethnography to explore this interesting contrast in light of how unity of community is constructed in the Pit. The Pit creates a sense of unity among students through its atmosphere, encouragement of diversity, and reinforcement of student belonging.
Methods- the how
I sat on the picturesque steps outlining the Pit at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill in the early to mid afternoon to observe and analyze the culture of the area. By sitting on those steps, I was able to blend in with other students while taking notes on my laptop on what I saw there so as not to disturb the environment or draw attention to myself. I dressed in athletic shorts, gym shoes, and a Carolina blue t-shirt on both observation dates so to come across as a typical student in that space.
For 30 minutes on 2 separate dates, I observed the clothing, activities, interactions, and placement of students and non-students in the Pit, making special note of patterns of dress, whether people came alone, in a group, or met someone there, and location of people. In addition to the two observations, I conducted 3 interviews (two individual and one group) with students who had been in the Pit the entire 30 minutes that I was observing to get their unique insight to their experience and perception of the Pit .
Discussion- the what and why
The Pit fosters a lively, inclusive atmosphere that furthers student belonging. The central location sets it up for being a true hub––the energy really hits you when you walk in––while the outdoor openness allows for a casual, free flow of people in and out of the space. Moreover, when I asked students for three words to describe the Pit, they used vibrant words such as “welcoming,” “interactive,” “alive,” “social,” “cheerful,” and “hoppin’” (personal interview, Oct. 31, 2016). These descriptions hint at themes of activity and community, which forward the notion that the public openness and design of the Pit creates a place where people come together and engage in various activities.
The social aspect of the Pit is explained by the central location and open design of the space. Peters (2010) argues that familiarity with spaces and regular use stimulate social interaction in public open spaces. Because of its location, all types of UNC students are likely to pass by the Pit every day, which breeds familiarity and comfort with the space and each other. Furthermore, the attention-grabbing speakers, advertising, and performances encourage regular use of the area. By Peter’s logic, these qualities transform the public space of the Pit into a welcoming, social place for any UNC student, thus furthering the unity of this group.
Encouragement of Diversity
Jump rope teams, cancer awareness, a cappella singers––on any given day you are likely to find a myriad of activities and ample representation in the Pit. In this inclusion and embrace of diversity, student belongingness is reinforced. While most spaces on campus have a normative pattern of activity or some overarching genre of causes, the only norm of the Pit is the tendency towards diversity among students and their activities. I witnessed students dancing or singing as a group, passing out information for various clubs, and working tables to advocate for innumerable causes
The diversity of the space is evident in the response of an interviewee who I observed staffing a table. She remarked that she set up her table in the Pit for the “chance to reach lots of diverse groups on campus––lots of different cultures––instead of the groups we usually interact with” (personal interview, Oct. 31, 2016). Her plan to reach a broad base of different students ensures us that a great diversity of background, thought, and passion in students exist in the Pit. Moreover, it serves as a testimony to the effectiveness of the openness and familiarity of the space in drawing all kinds of students, which facilitates a diverse environment, and the act of embracing that diversity within the student body that suggests an underlying force of unity among students.
All things considered, the Pit was an inclusive space for all students, who seemed comfortable with whatever they were doing. Interview descriptions of the Pit confer: one student described the atmosphere as making her feel “welcomed and very content” (personal interview, Oct. 31, 2016). The obvious diversity and underlying unity is perhaps best explained by the idea of a social identity. Brewer speaks to one’s social identity, claiming it’s derived from “a fundamental tension between human needs for validation and similarity to others and a countervailing need for uniqueness and individuation” (Brewer, 1991, 477). Brewer’s theory of social identity plays out in the Pit as students displaying qualities and activities that make them special while still holding strong to their belongingness to the larger group of UNC students through their dress and familiarity with others.
Reinforcement of Student Belonging
Despite the differences between students in the Pit, there were many symbols of unity that indicate community and acceptance among students. There was a subtle sense of insiders versus outsiders in regards to students versus others. Insiders were those who flaunted their UNC student status by their UNC branded clothing, backpacks, laptops, dining hall food, and/or familiarity with other students here. Familiarity with others was portrayed by the many friendly waves, words of greeting, and notably 12 hugs in my 30 minute observation period. These shared symbols and familiarity foster a sense of unity amongst the diverse student group. Despite their differences, they find community in their identity of being UNC students, so much so that one interviewee described the Pit as “unifying” and noted that “it makes me feel serene” (personal interview, Oct. 31, 2016). Although these students exhibit varying behaviors, they can feel the peace of all belonging to the larger group of UNC students, and this common ground breeds respect and acceptance of diverse students and ideas.
The unity of this group is exemplified by the separation they have from non-student outsiders who did not portray a student status here. High-schoolers on a tour, marked by the atypical dress of long jeans and lack of backpacks, attracted attention because their behavior didn’t fit with the norm. They stood in a large group in the middle of the pit, which is typically used as space for official tables with minimal eye contact or socialization with their peers. These high-schoolers drew lots of stares and whispers in contrast to the comfort of receiving any new UNC student into the Pit. Moreover, this effect applied similarly to a UNC staff member working a table that no students stopped at, while the student-run table next to her had 3-10 people at all times.
The exclusion of a certain group at first seems to contradict the unity of the space, but this is inaccurate; it actually explains the nuances of diversity and inclusion in the Pit. The tension between diversity and unity in the Pit is best explained by Peter’s study on interactions between migrants and non-migrants in a popular public park: “Both migrants and non-migrants placed importance on spending their leisure time with people who understood them. Although diversity in public space is appreciated, people tended to interact more with people from their own ethnic backgrounds” (Peters, 2010, 427). Diversity is celebrated to a point––it is appreciated within a unified group, but not between separate, non-united groups. Within the migrant group, diversity is accepted, however the migrant and non-migrants don’t comfortably interact because they have no common identity. Similarly, while students are united by their common student status and thus are allowed individuality within that identity, non-students have no obvious common ground with the students in the Pit and thus their diversity makes them outsiders.
Let me break it down. It’s like a see-saw––the key to it all is balance. As explained by Brewer, “optimal distinctiveness is achieved through identification with categories at the level of inclusiveness where the degrees of activation of the need for differentiation and of the need for assimilation are exactly equal” (1991, 478). The students in the Pit are so comfortable and content because they have reached an equilibrium of uniqueness and commonality that breeds security in identity.
To wrap it up…
The relationship between diversity and unity, forwarded by the atmosphere of the Pit is critical to its community of united students. This interaction is important because it builds the atmosphere that allows diverse opinions and causes to be shared and pursued in a public space. Arendt discusses the “twofold character of equality and distinction” (as cited in Greene, 1982, 7) in the context of being able to present different views and ideas because a group views each other as equals. In the culture of the Pit, this translates to the UNC student status as a starting point of putting everyone on the same level of respect and acceptance, which then allows students to share their own unique opinions and causes off that foundation of equality. The relationship between diversity and inclusion is critical in understanding how best to foster community that is effective in celebrating diversity and working towards diverse goals. The next step is to examine how to better foster equality in a larger group, thus including non-students and eliminating the idea of outsiders.
Brewer, M. B. (1991). The social self: On being the same and different at the same time. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17(5), 475-482. Retrieved from: http://psp.sagepub.com/content/17/5/475.full.pdf+html
Peters, K. (2010). Being Together in Urban Parks: Connecting Public Space, Leisure, and Diversity. Leisure Sciences, 32(5), 418-433. doi: 10.1080/01490400.2010.510987
The Pit. [Online image]. (2014). The University of North Carolina. Retrieved from: http://www.unc.edu/interactive-tour/the-pit/
 Interview Questions
- Why did you come to the Pit today?
- Why did you choose this spot to sit at?
- Did you come here with anyone, planning to meet anyone, or alone?
- Why did you choose the clothing you are wearing today?
- What are three words you would use to describe the Pit?
- Did anything in particular grab your attention during your time here?
- How does being in the Pit make you feel?