A Catholic nun, a gay musician, and a Black Muslim walk into a classroom…

Enter a conservative White Republican, a Marine Corps veteran, a Mexican immigrant (a Sephardic Jew), and a single mom on public assistance.

The students are all undergraduates—aspiring teachers—and they’re about to spend the semester deeply examining culture, diversity, and inequalities in K12 education. The syllabus is a minefield: Racism. Classism. Sexism. LGBT rights. Institutional discrimination. Privilege and power.

“This isn’t about slogans,” the instructor says, ripping up a ‘Celebrate Diversity’ poster. “Grades will not be based on the size of the group hug.”

It’s about to get real.

I’ll bet you can guess how the rest of the story goes: The conservative declares himself a ‘real American’ and bemoans the “criminal aliens” flooding through our leaky borders. The woman on public assistance complains that she’s tired of hearing about race; Oprah got rich, so what’s the problem? The Jew and the Muslim tear each other apart because . . . well, just because. Someone starts to cry as others storm from the room. Forget about learning. This is war.

a different story is possible.

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These days, intelligent exchanges about “isms” are rare, especially in the inflammatory echo-chamber known as social media. We have more and more opportunities to talk, but less and less worth saying. Actually listening to and learning from each other seems out of the question.

We may hear softened rhetoric about racism, such as “I don’t see color,” “I treat everyone the same,” or “I have a Black friend.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Facilitating effective learning about oppression and privilege can happen, and for the past 15 years, I’ve done just this. One of the keys is careful scaffolding. Here’s a peek at my approach:

1. Start with democracy.

Equal opportunity and individual dignity are foundations of our democracy. I’ve yet to meet anyone who disagrees with this. These principles thus become the unifying ideas amidst a range of opinions and political views. Framing the learning around democracy creates a litmus test we use as we establish our guiding question: “To what extent is this [practice/policy/belief] supporting equal opportunity for all?”

2. Deepen students’ understanding of their own identities.

Broadly speaking, the ‘diversity movement’ arose to foster inclusion of historically marginalized groups. Because of this, people in the dominant group may believe diversity is about ‘other people.’ The internal script goes something like this: “I’m just regular. Those people are diverse” (with ‘those people’ and ‘diverse’ code for people of color). This spawns statements such as, “He’s very diverse” (because he’s gay, working class, and Latino).

This is problematic because diversity is about our collective differences. To get to this a-ha, I have students write about how they identify in terms of nationality, ethnicity, gender, race, and other dimensions. Students discuss which elements of their identity are most important to them, which aspects are most ‘visible’ to others, which they are still learning about, and how it all impacts the way they experience the world.

When students recognize the complexity within themselves, they are more able to understand it in others.

3. Help students acknowledge biases and narratives.

No one is born hating or fearing another skin color. We learn stereotypes and prejudice through the media, school, family, friends, and our own experiences. Moreover, these beliefs are often unconscious. To help students become aware of this, I guide them through a series of activities designed to elicit reactions about unfamiliar ‘others’ and the scripts we create about them. (While there’s no room for details here, the activities are fun and create an environment where it’s safe to acknowledge blind spots and assumptions.) Through the process, students discover how easy it is to form impressions, and more importantly, that they can be unlearned.

This easily leads to the concept of narratives: the stories we create about each other (and ourselves). Here, people begin to share how their identities impact their experiences. This can yield powerful and often surprising connections. For example, one of my Muslim students described the life-threatening harassment she’s faced. This promoted a Marine veteran share stories about the Afghani people he had the honor of serving with. Later, the two students explored ways to reduce Islamophobia in schools.

4. Teach the structural nature of inequality.

In our inflammatory media environment, students’ perceptions of discrimination are often linked to individual incidents of hatred, exclusion, or violence: The abusive cop. The name-calling bully. The KKK rally. Such acts are of course wrong, but defining racism (or other ‘isms’) as individual behaviors enables students to dismiss the problem by asserting their own non-racist credentials: “I’m not racist. I never call people names. I have a gay friend.” As long as students believe the problem starts and ends there, they feel free to opt-out from listening, learning, or acting for change.

This is where it’s crucial to move students toward an understanding that ‘isms’ exist at the institutional level. This shift from individual to systemic perspectives is a big leap for students because it asks them to interrogate how society operates. This means examining the ‘operating rules’ and conditions that support systemic oppression. Here are a few:

  • Society ranks and sorts people based on real or perceived membership in social groups including race, class, and gender.

  • We are all part of social groups and hierarchies, whether or not we’re aware of it (with obliviousness a marker of privilege).

  • Inequalities based on these categories can live and breed through schools, businesses, the law and other institutions.

  • Within each category, a dominant group has the power to project its values and behaviors as neutral, normal and natural. Social structures (in education, business, etc.) confer benefits and privileges others don’t have.

  • Because we have multiple dimensions to our identity, we can be in both privileged and non-privileged groups. (The work on clarifying identities is a prerequisite for understanding this concept of ‘intersectionality’.)

  • Examining structural inequalities does not mean that individual initiative doesn’t matter; rather, we need to understand the barriers that undermine individual efforts.

To truly understand these tenets, students need to apply them to actual situations. As a case study, we consider the stark racial- and socioeconomic segregation of the Detroit region (where we’re located). We ask, Are these inequalities just a result of individuals deciding to live next to ‘their kind,’ or is there something bigger going on?

To answer this, we look at the federal housing policies after World War II that provided loans for whites to move to the suburbs. People of color were not only mostly ineligible, the loans could not be used to repair homes in existing city neighborhoods. When examining these policies, students must ask, Who had the benefit in this situation? Who had the burden? Who faced barriers? What were the impacts? Through the inquiry, students uncover the impacts of massive urban disinvestment on Detroit (and countless other cities across the country).

To go deeper, students assess if institutional discrimination is still a concern. They select an example (e.g., racial profiling, the glass ceiling for women) and then marshal evidence—not just anecdotes—to evaluate progress, set-backs, and needed changes. The students don’t always agree, but they come away understanding the questions they need to ask.

5. engage students in changing the story.

My students’ understanding grows over the semester—and so does their commitment to challenging structural barriers to educational equity. Over the course of learning, students must develop applications to their teaching. Here are a few of my favorites examples:

  • Having learned about the complexities of socioeconomic inequality, a “conservative” student from an elite high school and a single mom on public assistance develop a presentation for administrators that fiercely challenges the narrative that kids in poverty are too lazy to succeed.

  • Understanding his obligation to students in the public sphere, a fundamentalist Christian who believes homosexuality is a sin says he will be “the first one to intervene” when an LGBT student is bullied.

  • A physical education (PE) major commits to challenge ‘machismo’ stereotypes in gym class and instead promote enjoyment in fitness for all.

  • A music teacher decides to examine which students are encouraged for band or orchestra, and if there are underlying, unconscious beliefs. (“Orchestra isn’t for ‘urban’ kids.”)

6. Validate the journey.

The learning journey is academically and emotionally demanding for the students (and myself). And it’s certainly not without its bumps. Some students withdraw, while others say they are ‘tired of hearing about it.’ As much as this frustrates me, I cannot condemn how students feel. Rather, I need to equip them to reflect on their beliefs, how those beliefs drive actions, and the impacts of those actions on their future students.

Because here’s the bottom line: Teachers can’t opt out of supporting all kids. Likewise, as citizens, we can’t opt out of democracy’s promise: equal opportunity and dignity for all.

Confronting racial- and social divisions in effective ways is within our reach. But we must first commit to traveling the road together, guided by principles we share.

Want to learn more? Check out my book and download the free Facilitator’s Guide.