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November 1, 2016

Conversation Interrupted

Here's what to do when discussions on race and equity issues stall.

School Culture
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It's a common scenario in U.S. schools: Well-meaning educators gather to discuss the problem of inequitable outcomes for students of color, when suddenly the conversation shuts down. The signs are subtle, yet apparent—a bowed head, a blank stare, crossed arms or tightened lips, and an intense preoccupation with phones or laptops. These nonverbal images of tension preclude the inevitable—someone requests to table the conversation until later.

As a consultant who supports schools' work on equity, I've seen this many times. A discussion is thwarted and once again, the conversation on race and inequity gets postponed.

It doesn't have to be this way. With the right conditions, educators can have honest conversations about race and inequity—and begin to make change.

"We Can't Talk About This Now Because …"

Before we explore how to create those favorable conditions, let's consider the rationales usually offered for why such conversations are often avoided.

We might offend someone. The fear of offending someone when discussing issues of race and inequity is most likely to surface when at least one member of the group is of a different ethnicity or culture from the others. Most of us haven't engaged regularly in school-based conversations about race, culture, or their influence in learning. The possibility that we might say something that will offend a colleague is often disturbing enough to stall meaningful conversations beyond a rehearsal of obvious facts.

We don't have enough experience to discuss this topic intelligently. Conversations about race and inequity stall when members believe they aren't competent to navigate these issues without assistance from an experienced facilitator. If they have limited training in cultural competency and lack fundamental knowledge about inequity, group members may feel inadequately prepared. Disruption that can lead to positive change is almost inseparable from conflict, and many of us would rather maintain the tranquility of the status quo than risk conflict.

Talking about inequities makes us feel guilty, embarrassed, or ashamed. The history of injustice and inequity in the United States has had devastating effects on people of color. Talking about this history authentically isn't always easy because the sting of oppression can still be felt within families, and generational trauma is ongoing. Participants may experience an overwhelming sense of helplessness against systems and social structures over which they have no control. The easiest way for many to deal with this tension is to excuse themselves emotionally from the conversation. It's important to realize that such a retreat is a privilege of people who don't have to manage the repercussions of inequity and racism on a personal basis, as most people of color do.

People won't believe I'm advocating objectively. Educators of color, in particular, worry that they'll be perceived as promoting their own agenda or self-interest when they advocate for students of color in a discussion (Jay, 2009). The fear of being perceived as someone who can't understand the context objectively because of personal racial bias derails many otherwise useful conversations.

If I disagree with policies meant to help people of color, I'll appear racist. Time and again, when institutions set policies—such as additional funding or supports—that target underserved learners, a silent minority resents these efforts but feels unable to express the feeling (Andrews, 2007). In many schools, opinions at odds with the premise of empowerment for everyone are potentially alienating. People with such opinions dare not speak them aloud. So they disengage.

Educators who hold such opinions aren't necessarily mean or hateful people. Generally, they haven't been challenged to examine their unconscious biases or how their culture has influenced their perspectives. For example, they may have values and beliefs that seem like common sense to them, but their unspoken biases adversely affect the academic trajectory of certain groups of students.

To keep these educators engaged, we should consider how we might create conditions for them to safely express their thoughts and hear authentic responses, yet move the discussion forward.

Four Ways Forward

These reasons for discontinuing discussions about equity boil down to fears. Fear is the worthy adversary of equity, inclusion, and empowerment. For generations, fear has fueled the kind of emotional responses that have hindered discussions about dismantling inequitable practices.

The antithesis of fear is a professional culture in which authentic, empathetic, caring conversations are the norm (Mayfield & Garrison-Wade, 2015). Four important actions are fundamental to creating this kind of culture and moving discussions on inequity forward without fear, drama, or anxiety.

Make acts of kindness the norm. When schools design systems in which kindness and generosity toward one another are encouraged—and judgment or blame discouraged—educators will feel at liberty to remove their emotional masks and be their authentic selves. Examinations of unconscious bias, privilege, and the inheritance of inequitable systems will be more common in an environment where teachers can speak their truth and know they will still be accepted.

Communicate with empathy. Communicating with empathy is a practice that allows people to listen and speak without judgment. When a person is an active, empathetic listener, he or she listens to understand the speaker—not to formulate a rebuttal, make assumptions about the speaker, or respond with personal feelings, experiences, or knowledge. An active listener's primary role is to gain a better understanding of what any speaker is communicating; even if the listener doesn't agree with the speaker's perspective, he or she strives to understand the speaker's sentiments. Common responses from the speaker include neutral statements like "I can imagine how that must have made you feel" or "Tell me more. I want to understand better." This kind of listening creates conditions in which all feel valued, respected, and heard—regardless of their unique perspective.

Consider this conversation among a leadership team in a historically underserved community. As the team planned for professional development opportunities, one teacher expressed an opinion that was at odds with the cultural norms of the organization.

"Honestly, I am tired of talking about race," said Mary. "I don't notice a student's race, and I'm sick of people insisting that I do. Can we focus on something else for a change?" The immediate response from a peer validated her feelings and still advanced the discussion:

Mary, I appreciate your candor and willingness to be vulnerable. I recognize these conversations can be more difficult for some than others. But we made a collective agreement at the beginning of this year to examine privilege and implicit bias. I believe we owe it to our students, their parents, and ourselves to follow through on this commitment.

This simple statement expressed empathy for Mary's feelings, held her accountable for common agreements, and kept the focus on their commitment.

Establish norms for communication. Caring communities build agreements about how people will treat and speak to one another and what they collectively value. The norms should be revisited before each discussion on equity until they are institutionalized as "the way things are done." Two common, powerful communication norms are "Speak your truth—just speak it kindly" and "Speak to understand, rather than persuade." Identify a norm keeper, whose role is to monitor any violation of the terms and to celebrate when a group conforms to the agreements and holds an effective discussion.

Agree on common vocabulary. This is crucial. Differing understandings or internal pictures of common words are at the root of much confusion in discussions on equity. Think of how many different images might come to mind when a group hears the word equity. One participant might envision equal services for everyone, another might imagine racism, another might think about gender prejudice, and another may think of financial markets. Establish common definitions for words that you'll use frequently so that when one person says a word or phrase, everyone knows what that person means. Those terms might include achievement gap, opportunity gap, bias, stereotyping, and scapegoating. Unpack the terms and discuss them with the school's vision and mission in mind.

It's Possible!

Disrupting inequity begins when teachers have meaningful, authentic conversations about education inequities, race, and culture—and examine their practices and policies in light of what they learn. With a caring professional community, empathetic communication, common vocabulary, and a dogged commitment to eliminating barriers to equitable outcomes for all students, any school team can approach critical topics with confidence and competence.


Andrews, F. E. (2007). The role of educational leaders in implementing a culturally responsive pedagogy designed to increase the learning opportunities for diverse students. Academic Leadership, 4(4), 1–10.

Jay, M. (2009). Raceing through the school day: African American educators' experiences with race and racism in schools. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 22(6), 671–685.

Mayfield, V. M., & Garrison-Wade, D. (2015). Culturally responsive practices as whole school reform. Journal of Instructional Pedagogies, 16(July), 17.

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