No Justice, No Peace: Challenging ‘Diversity’ and Embracing Conflict

Conflicts in our classrooms should be engaged and explored, not neutralized.

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.

6 responses to “No Justice, No Peace: Challenging ‘Diversity’ and Embracing Conflict

  1. I just wanted to say that I really like your thinking here (and I’ll use the opportunity to add that I really like the thoughtful, questioning approach to these kinds of issues in all of your blog, which I discovered only several weeks ago). I teach English language and writing at the university level in Mexico City. About a year ago, in an advanced-level language class for graduate students in the social sciences, we were having a practice debate about philanthropy, and a student who had struck me as liberal and open-minded astonished me by saying she didn’t think charities should contribute to HIV/AIDS research because, unlike people with other diseases, people with HIV/AIDS had brought it upon themselves. Had it not been a class where I was the professor I would of course have challenged her, but the combination of being flabbergasted, my reflexive teacherly habit of not wanting to stifle students’ opinions, and my thinking “How are we ever going to get through all the grammar review if we stop here to have this debate?” left me saying only something like “Well, I disagree, I think it’s a lot more complicated than that, but let’s go on to the next exercise.” Which was a cop-out, of course. I think you’re right that neutralizing of conflict, especially in these strangely-conceived matters of “diversity,” needs to be redirected toward using conflict to teach students to question their own and others’ assumptions, and that it can be done without stifling anyone. I might just have asked the other students what they thought about her opinion, which would not only have helped this student to consider other points of view, but would also have given everyone additional practice in using modal auxiliaries to express opinions and advice.

  2. I graduated from a liberal four-year Jesuit Catholic instiution whose mission was diversity, citizenship, social justice, etc. and my specialization was in the mentioned themes. I share a disdain, a “dislike”, of the cozy blanket of pacification that diversity provides in classrooms. Despite my quest for wholeness and no nonsense expression of all my idenitities, I never wanted to add my queer identity to being Black, working class/poor, non-Christian, and never-thin into discussions. Being Black was already too much for the middleclass white kids I was in school with, so I always felt like I was in this tight box where I could only be one identity at a time. What’s more, and to the point, the students I attended school with were highly conflict aversive and passive aggressive. They would make their most offensive comments when I was absent from stress, or so my one or two allies in the classroom would tell me when I came back in a day or two, such as “Lynching Black people doesn’t mean anything to me but someone hurting, like, a kitten does”.

    That just didn’t work for me. I’m very confrontational and I agree with the idea that conflict must happen, “diversity” is a cover. I’ve learned not to view my confrontational nature as negative. At the same time I expect a teacher or another student to get on the person who calls me a “nigger” or uses the term gratuitously and unnecessarily. Dealing with racism (especially in a classroom where the teacher is white and you’re the only student of color–I’ve been there) is different from the mentioned situation about Jay at diversity day that was mentioned. My Chicana/Mexicana professor and friend told me that a white male student came up to her in class and asked her if she was a prostitute because the only Mexican women he’d ever seen were prostitutes–an intersection of race and gender there. I’m not sure educators should be completely anarchic about every comment that comes trotting in because white racism is scary, infuriating, and, as much as I hate to use this word, hurtful. And it only gets worse the more outside of white, Christian, male, able, and heterosexual you are in my experience.

    It’s late. Been writin’ all day. I’m tired. Don’t know where I’m going with this but it’s said. I like this post.


    • Thank you so much for your feedback–I really appreciate the honesty of your comment. The point that you make about how hard it was to be all the parts of your self in an institution whose supposed mission was diversity especially resonated with me. By avoiding or evading conflict, we often end up fracturing the very identities we hoped to honor and protect, and allow for cycles of violent silencing to continue. ‘Diversity’ being used to create a false “blanket of pacification,” which then allowed for your personhood to be further attacked, is a situation which I think most oppressed students can relate to. You point out poignantly how diversity as we commonly understand it does far more damage than the conflicts we are often trying to circumvent, and silences those who claims to be giving a voice. Thank you so much, again, for your thoughts, and stay up!

  3. I believe you are an excellent writer and thinker, who has good opinions. But haven’t you thought if you spoke up to Jay that you may have presented other views into the “equation”? You wouldn’t have to speak for yourself but as an educator, point out that there are many views to this controversial topic, and not allow that comment to be simply dismissed. You are entitled to your views, that’s why I find it quite disapointing that you did not say anything towards that comment or to the group. However I find it rather intriguing that someone as opinionated as you would just listen and take in the whole conversation. That must of took some strength, and that leads me to tell you that I like what you write and look foward to more.

    • Thank you for your comment. I am not proud of myself for not speaking up, and I think part of my inability was due to the setup of the event–which was designed for kids to respond to video clips, and not for a community dialogue between kids, teachers and staff, which I would have preferred. Another reason was that it took some time and reflection to figure out what exactly it was that had made me uncomfortable in that moment, and what different directions I would have liked the event to move in. That being said, I do think I would have liked to guide the discussion back in the direction of the immediate community–not as a means of calling out individual students, or outing myself or anyone else in the room. I only think the potential power of such an uncomfortable moment is to remind ourselves and each other that our opinions and ideas aren’t disembodied in the ether, but have a real impact on how we relate to one another in every aspect of human life, and on how we shape our communities of learning. I would have liked to ground that comment in the complexities of the community within which it was made, rather than trying to deflect it elsewhere. I would’ve liked to show that there were other opinions and views right there in that very room, not just somewhere out there in the world.

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