Dangerous Discussions: Voice and Power in My Classroom

My classroom: the site of promise, possibility, and also, dangerous discussions.

“I think we can all agree . . .”

“No one can seriously argue that . . .”

“It goes without saying that everyone here believes. . .”

These are the sentence-starters of the privileged, those whose views of the world are so thoroughly normalized, so regularly validated, so wholly reflected in their lived experience, as to seem like certainties, even truths.

In my classes, comments that begin with these phrases are usually uttered by young white men, and to a lesser extent, young white women. During an unplanned and pedagogically negligent conversation about a racist threat (“Kill the n******”) scrawled in three boys’ bathrooms at my school, I heard white students use all three constructions:

“I think we can all agree that 99.9% percent of students at this school find that graffiti absolutely disgusting,” asserted Matt. (All student names in this story have been changed.)

“No one can seriously argue that Black students are actually, physically, threatened at our school,” claimed Melvin.

“It goes without saying whoever wrote that is just stupid and immature. It was just a joke, a way to get attention,” explained Peter.

When these white students took it upon themselves to speak for the whole school community, they robbed their peers of conversational space, room to exist. Some students have the confidence, energy, wherewithal, or power to push back, but many — understandably — do not. Nor, of course, should they have to.

In response to Melvin’s comment above, Cory, who is African American, asked, “Do you have any idea what it feels like to be one of only 14 Black students in this school and see that shit? It certainly feels like a threat!” Cory asked me if he could go out in the hall to call his dad. He was done with our so-called “discussion.” As I watched Cory walk through the door, shoulders slumped and head down, I began an internal post-mortem of this dangerous and harmful class conversation for which I was responsible.

I should have known better. In my desire to make sure this terrifying incident wasn’t swept under the rug — as has been the case with too many instances of racism at my school — I am mortified to admit that I dove headlong into this discussion without the care and planning it required. Doubtless, this reckless urgency was a manifestation of my whiteness and it did real harm to Cory and others.

For the remainder of my classes that day, applying my better sense, I asked students to write first, before launching a conversation. Students drafted questions, thoughts, feelings, reactions on note cards. I asked students to indicate on their cards if it was okay for me to share their ideas (anonymously) with the class. After collecting students’ responses, I quickly read through them and carefully selected examples to read aloud, giving voice first to the ideas of students of color, before sharing selections from a broader cross-section of students.

Sam wrote: I just feel so hurt. Everyone says we are family. You hear it all the time — “The Laker Family” — but what kind of family treats its members like this?

Glenda wrote: I am so sick of this. It just keeps happening. This is why black kids leave our school. Why would any black person feel safe here?

Jaden wrote: It’s so weird to be sitting in a classroom with all the kids who act nice to your face and have to wonder, “Was it you? Or was it you?”

As we moved into a large-group discussion, the comment-cards became anchors that kept us moored to the important questions raised by Sam, Glenda and Jaden: What kind of school community have we built and is it really a family? Why does each year bring a new racist incident? Why do Black students leave our school? What can students and staff do to assure those targeted by this hate speech are supported, loved, valued and protected?

That quick, on-the-fly adjustment of how I structured our conversation was part of an ongoing, career-long interest in how to make discussions fairer. So often, as evidenced in the back-and-forth between Cory and Melvin, class discussions become a reflection of existing power relations in society, rather than a tool for dismantling and reorganizing them.

Affirmative Action for Class Discussions

I’d bet all teachers have experienced a totally unsatisfying class discussion on a topic about which we care deeply. In my early years as a teacher, I made the mistake of interpreting these unsuccessful discussions as the students’ fault, a sign of their apathy or disengagement. Over time, I started to notice that different discussions failed in different ways. In some cases, a few students might make tentative, short stabs at contributing, but nothing gets rolling, and long silences dominate. At other times, one or two students are so confident and emphatic as to suck all the collaborative oxygen out of the room.

The trajectory and outcome of a discussion can be affected by dynamics that are both personal and political, from natural differences in temperament to manifestations of racism, sexism, and homophobia, from fear of judgement by peers to language anxieties. Quiet students often report feeling “put on the spot;” indeed, particularly when it comes to analyzing complex social phenomena in a social studies classroom, many of us might feel simply too confused about our own convictions to quickly find the language to share them in public.

One method I have come to rely on to improve the probability of a successful discussion is to create a written report of students’ initial thinking about a complex question that can be used at the basis for our conversation (a modified, slap-dash version of which I threw together in the discussion described above). On the first day, I ask students to write.

For example, at the beginning of the financial literacy unit in my sophomore government class, in which I focus on understanding the racial wealth gap, I post statistics about the wealth of U.S. households by race: the median white household owns 86 times the wealth of the median Black household. Before looking at the factors that have produced and fostered this massive gap, I want students to air and share their preconceived ideas about racialized economic inequality. All of us, whether we have studied history or not, carry around naïve (though socially constructed) assumptions about why society is the way it is; the first step in debunking and rethinking some of these assumptions is to articulate them, so that by the end of the unit, students can evaluate which theories are borne out by evidence and which are not. I ask students to write to this prompt:

Imagine you are talking to someone from a far-away country–say, someone from Uzbekistan. They have read an article outlining these racial disparities and ask you, someone living in the U.S., for an explanation. What do you say?

I can close-to-guarantee that this prompt would have failed to surface a diversity of voices if I had started by immediately asking for verbal responses, as I mistakenly did about the racist graffiti. My school, like all schools, has its own particular set of social relations that affects the course of classroom discussions.

With large white and Asian populations, my school has tiny numbers of African American and Latinx students. These young people regularly find themselves “the only,” the only Black or Latinx student in a class of 30. Additionally, my school is located in one of the most affluent cities in the state; the median household income is more than double the median for the nation overall. So there are two — at least! — critical dangers when we talk about race and wealth in my classroom. Danger one is that majorities will dominate; that is, the ideas and perspectives of wealthy whites will eclipse (perhaps suffocate is a better word) alternative experiences and viewpoints. Danger two is that when minorities do access the wherewithal or space to speak, their comments will be awarded outsized significance, heard as somehow representative of a whole group, rather than the ideas of an individual student. Both of these dangers can be mitigated somewhat when I manage (a terrible, but accurate, word) the power relations shaping how voices emerge in the classroom.

Between day one and day two, I read through all my students’ written answers, highlighting perspectives that seem to be shared by large numbers of students as well as ones that seem more out-of-the-ordinary, underrepresented. For example, about the racial wealth gap, the most common responses among whites students were variations on these:

From Lawrence: I believe there is a racial imbalance in the US but not because people are out and out racist, but because subconsciously people stereotype other races or cultures in a negative manner.

From Casey: Although there was a lot racism and inequality in our past, Blacks and all other races have an almost equal amount of opportunity to be successful and do big things in the United States.

Here are a handful of responses from African American students:

From Derrick: In the past, whites caused extreme violence toward African Americans and Native Americans. They stole their land, their possessions, and generations of lives. Now, this violence paved a path for all of them, a path of success for whites and muddy trails for the rest of us.

From Amelia: One potential cause? Well our country was, you could say, built on racism.

From Sam: People today are segregated by wealth. If you are born poor, you are more likely to stay poor.

Though this was not universally true, white students were more likely to emphasize stereotyping and interpersonal racism, while students of color were more likely to emphasize structural racism. Both explanations — and the connection between the two — deserve space for discussion in the classroom. But what would happen if the conversation proceeded with no intervention by me? The ideas of Lawrence and Casey would dominate the ideas of Derrick, Amelia and Sam, 10 to 1; and remember, Sam, Amelia and Derrick are not in class together — they were the only Black student in each of their respective classes, placing upon their 16-year-old shoulders an enormous and undue burden of representation.

As I read through student answers, I also pay particular attention to the work of students who tend to be quiet or silent in discussions.

From Mary: Often in media, the villain or antagonist may be of a different race. In a society so invested in the media and that is exposed to this at a young age, they will soak in the subtle message that sends.

From Javier: I also feel like a lot of white people today have gotten their wealth over time and from past generations so that could have a big influence on it.

From Leslie: Usually, people of all races are more likely to give whites the benefit of the doubt — even when we don’t deserve it — which only results in white people gathering and collecting more cash.

Unfortunately, I also come across a lot of answers riddled with racism.

From Sandy, a white student: People still stereotype Blacks because there is a population of Black people that know they don’t have the best reputation anyways, so they don’t try as hard as they can. I also think that Black society consists majorly of consumers, who spend more than they earn.

From Harriet, a white student: When I grew up it always seemed that my African American friends were unmotivated about school. I think that may be the source of the problem.

From John, a Korean-American student: Blacks have a had to fight for their rights in a white dominant country. It feels like ever since then Black people have had a chip on their shoulder when it comes to integrating into society.

When I am done reading through, marking up, and responding to all students’ answers, I type up excerpts, usually just one or two sentences, into a single document. Student names and class periods are not included, and since I combine the answers of all my students in the course, we are looking at the ideas of anywhere from 60 to 120 individuals. In actuality, every student does not have their writing published; when a single viewpoint is repeated multiple times, I will transcribe a couple of different versions of the same idea. But almost every minority student, quiet student, or outside-the-mainstream student does see some of what they wrote in print. I think about it as the application of affirmative action in class discussions.

The answers that are blatantly racist pose a pedagogical conundrum. In the past, I have always published a handful of these because I believed it was important to expose them to the disinfecting sunlight of peer critique. Indeed, the debunking of these assertions was one of the most powerful outcomes of the lesson, making me return to it year after year. But recently, I had a conversation with a former student who is African American. My former student reported that though he found this lesson powerful and meaningful, the experience of reading those racist comments by his peers was incredibly traumatizing. He said he felt “kicked in the stomach,” a feeling from which, he said, he never quite recovered. Considering his experience, I must weigh the benefits of exposing (in order to interrupt) racism against the potentially traumatic impact on Black students. To not include examples of my students’ racist thinking feels inauthentic, as if I am trying to whitewash reality. At the same time, how to surface that reality in a way that does not do harm? I am still grappling with this question.

When it is time to have the discussion, I pass out copies of the excerpts of student writing I have compiled. I ask students to read through all the answers. Sometimes I ask them to highlight two comments with which they agree and two comments with which they disagree or to pay particular attention to answers that surprise or confuse or trigger them. Eventually, students talk about their reactions, feelings, and thoughts about “our” ideas. Of course this version of “us” has been carefully quilted together by me; it’s a very different “we” from the one found when a white student starts off a conversation with, “I think we can all agree. . .”

In the discussion, many voices get heard, even those of students who stay silent. For example, Leslie found talking in class excruciating; she is one of those incredibly fair-skinned white people whose color can turn from ivory to beet red in a hot second of public speaking. Yet, her comment above, about giving white people the benefit of the doubt, “even when they don’t deserve it,” occupied a central place in our conversation. Students really seized on it, sharing example after example of white people getting ahead regardless of merit. Her ideas moved the conversation forward in a way that would have been impossible in a regular class discussion where her silence would have meant the absence of her voice.

The act of “publishing” students’ words also validates and promotes the otherwise-often-left-out ideas of quiet and minority students, a way for teachers to say, “Your ideas matter.” Because I give more space to these students’ words, they necessarily occupy a more prominent place in the discussion than they otherwise would. Javier’s comment above about generational wealth ended up sparking a thrilling aha! moment for a number of white students who, perhaps for the first time, appreciated the dark irony of U.S. culture’s glorification of bootstrap individualism coupled with a unwavering commitment to the right of families to pass down obscenely large inheritances from generation to generation.

Focusing on the written document — our collective answers — also highlights that our discussion is about ideas rather than the people who expressed them; the legitimacy of a viewpoint is divorced from the social stature of the student. Lawrence may be an outspoken, confident, popular student; but his ideas, if they are on the page at all, occupy the same prominence and credibility as anyone else’s.

After having experimented with many different versions of class discussions, this method results in more students speaking, often more than once, than any other technique I have used. I don’t know exactly why that is, but one possibility is that students can better manage how vulnerable they make themselves in front of their peers. Instead of being forced into either claiming an idea as their own or not speaking at all, they are offered a third option. They can offer a response to an anonymous comment: “I found it really interesting that this person wrote. . . “ A student may in fact be talking about their own writing, but nobody knows that but themselves. Another possibility might just be that this process gives students time. Perhaps we teachers too often ask students to discuss too quickly after introducing a question or idea. This two-day process allows time for deliberation, time for ideas to emerge, develop, stabilize, and crystallize.

Reckoning

I owed — and delivered — Cory an apology. When I delved into a discussion of a sickening and scary racist threat without planning ahead of time how I would protect and support my Black students, how I would keep them safe at a dangerous time, I was doing the very thing upon which this piece seeks to shine light. I was allowing a class discussion to become one more tool for the powerful to wield against the powerless, rather than a vehicle for voicing and validating the lives, experiences, and knowledge of the marginalized.

In classrooms all across this country, you will hear teachers vowing that “all voices have a place in this school.” But the lesson of history is that professions of equality and opportunity, no matter how well intentioned, do not make it so. If we truly want our quiet, marginalized, and underrepresented students to have voice in our classrooms, we are going to have deliberately design models of discourse that make their voices impossible to ignore.