A teaching program of which I was recently a part held a ‘Diversity Day’ early on in the program’s duration. The goal of the day was to give the community a chance to examine the many experiences and perspectives which the students and teachers brought to the program, laying the foundation for a learning environment based in understanding and the celebration of difference. Several events of the day were extremely effective and powerful, including a privilege walk and the writing and sharing of personal poetry. The final event of the day, however, brought up some major questions for me.
The last activity consisted of watching a series of movie and documentary clips, answering short questions in response to them, then discussing answers as a big group. The clips were mostly cursory, shedding brief insight onto major social identities and issues, including religion, class and race. One of the last clips we watched was from a film about the children of lesbian and gay couples, featuring interviews with several different kids and their parents. After viewing and writing responses to the clip, we returned to the larger group to discuss. A few kids gave initial responses to what watching the scenes had made them think about, then one girl named Jay raised her hand.
“For me, watching that movie made me feel uncomfortable,” she said. “I’m raised in a church where we are taught that you are not supposed to be gay, so for me seeing gay families just doesn’t look right. I don’t think it’s supposed to be that way.” The room was silent as students and staff took in her statement. Finally, one of the facilitators of the conversation spoke:
“These are all complicated issues, and they are not easy to discuss. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.” He went on to speak about how the families in the video had just as much a right to find community in each other as Jay did at her church, and then promptly moved on to take responses from other kids. The few hands which followed Jay’s hand gave similar responses, and expressed feeling similar conflicts in watching the clip. They were given similar answers as the one Jay had been given, and the session ended without much resolution.
During the entirety of the clip watching and discussing, and in the last homophobic exchange, I remained silent. I felt partially that the purpose of the day was to give the kids time to process, discuss and share with one another, and I wanted that process to happen without my interference as a teacher. But I also felt largely unsupported by the facilitators of the discussion, and by the structure of the entire day. The assertion that the ‘diversity’ (a wishy-washy and ill-defined term to begin with) of our community could be properly examined and addressed in one day, never to be returned to or revisited again, did any kind of justice to any of us or the communities which we represented was frustrating enough. That the facilitators of the discussion shared little in common with any of the identities around which dialogue was being led was also a problem. But there was, by far, a bigger issue on the table, one which is represented in most events and discussions around diversity which I have witnessed in learning communities.
If a student in the same discussion had said, ‘I don’t think girls are as smart as boys,’ or ‘I don’t think I should have to go to school with kids who don’t speak English,’ how would the comment have been handled? I find that most discussions around complex issues of identity, inequity and prejudice as they inevitably pop up in learning communities are addressed with the goal of neutralization, of protecting any of the parties in the discussion from being hurt. If we as educators understand a comment as being essentially hateful or bigoted, we often stop the student and correct their logic with a lecture. If the motive behind a problematic comment is not as easily discernible, or connects to other sensitive topics–like in the case of Jay’s statement about lesbians, gays and the church–we usually attempt to neutralize the comment by honoring the student’s perspective while also trying to advocate for the other groups in question–as I think the facilitators of the Diversity Day discussion did. We are so accustomed to these responses, and are so regularly encouraged to use them, that they begin to seem the natural or logical ways of addressing these tense and potentially hurtful moments. There are some implicit ideas here, however, that I think we need to rethink.
What frustrated me so much about our Diversity Day discussion was not that a young student made a homophobic comment in my presence. On the contrary, I think the world hurls tons of contradictory and confusing messages at kids, who are then given the daunting job of deciphering them all, and that it is our duty as educators to help them better understand the lives and issues which surround them. What frustrated me was that a homophobic comment was allowed to sit in a classroom full of queer educators and, I’m sure, queer students, and was never addressed as an alienating or hurtful statement. Shutting down students when they make comments which offend us is a practice which I don’t support, but allowing them to make damaging statements without identifying them as such is an even larger problem. What I wish had happened in our discussion is not for Jay and the other students who shared her opinions to have been silenced or publicly called out. What I wish, instead, is that the fact that queer people existed in our midst and would be teaching Jay and her friends for the next several months had been acknowledged, and that a real discussion of what that would mean for all of us had followed. I wish that we had talked about the church, had talked about religion, and what we do when our families or religious communities are telling us one thing when we believe another. I wish that, instead of a facilitator, a teacher, and an adult moving to address Jay’s point, we had opened up the discussion for the input of other kids, had asked them if they agreed with her, and asked why or why not. I wish that the conflict which she presented our group had been treated not as a bomb which needed to be defused, but as a real point of inquiry, one which had the potential to open up and challenge Jay’s thinking just as much as our own.
The conflicts which arise in our classrooms are opportunities which reveal to us which issues are most relevant to the members of that community, and provide us with inroads which can allow us to push thinking on those issues to new levels. When we neutralize them, we are avoiding the work which comes with addressing systems of inequity, challenging them at their root, and imagining the more just orders which might replace them. When we shut students down, no matter how offensive we find their comments, we are forcing them to accept the model of the world which we as their educators possess, leaving them no room to make their own statements about the systems they are a part of, and giving them no ownership in thinking how they might look differently. Evading conflict for the sake of protecting the members of our community is a contradiction, because it is only postponing the journey towards justice, and is accepting dormant anger and unease as a solution to the inequity of the world which our students are living in every day. When we mistake this absence of conflict as the presence of peace we are making a grave error, for there can be no peace without justice, and there can be no justice without the acknowledging and engaging of conflict.
The idea of ‘diversity’ itself, we must remember, comes from a legacy of evading justice through the neutralization of conflict. Diversity initiatives were developed primarily by colleges and universities in the late 70s, 80s and 90s in attempts to quell the militant organizing of oppressed students and their allies in the same and previous decades. Programs like affirmative action (which, we should note, are under attack across the country, anyway) were created by these institutions to placate groups and communities who were making much more radical demands–like the immediate admittance of economically oppressed students, and free tuition for all descendants of slaves and native peoples. ‘Diversity’ was never what these students advocated for, but was a means through which conservative bodies could create programs which would satiate their demands while also appearing as marketable to students of privilege, who in the years following those initiatives have benefited far more from the “exposure” and “opportunity” provided by them than their oppressed counterparts.
As radical educators, let’s not make the same mistake. Conflict is what happens when an injustice has been recognized, and those affected by it are working to understand it. We as educators must act as mediators, but not with the goal of neutralizing conflict or placating the outraged parties. The process of struggling towards justice requires of us that we work to reimagine social orders, and engage conflict as a means of better understanding whose needs are not being met by our current setup. The disagreements which rise up in our classrooms are an ideal place to start, and while it is certainly our role to protect and advocate for our students, it is equally our job to challenge them to question their own thinking, and to aid them in planing a world which will be just for all people.