Scripts for Engaging Problematic Comments
Attitudes about race, impacted by our current political environment, have produced pedagogical challenges for professors in the humanities who teach subjects that involve discussions of racial difference. Our website is designed to help teacher-scholars discuss race and other controversial topics in the college classroom. Initiated by the editors of the book Teaching With Tension: Race, Resistance, and Reality in the Classroom (Northwestern University Press, 2019), the guide has been augmented by Cassander L. Smith, Lauren S. Cardon, and Jenifer Park at the University of Alabama.
The guide consists of a series of how-to prompts that provide specific language one can employ to foster productive conversation around issues of race. This is NOT intended as an exhaustive guide. Indeed, it is impossible to anticipate every scenario that could happen in the classroom, and there are many right ways to respond in a given moment. Below, we highlight some of the more common scenarios and provide possible approaches.
How to prime students to discuss difficult topics
On the first day of class, set ground rules.
Example: “This term we will be discussing a number of controversial topics that will appear in the readings. I have selected the texts for this course with the sole purpose of helping you to develop your critical reading and thinking skills (fill in blank with your specific student learning outcomes). To help us navigate the course readings, I would like for us to establish some ground rules for classroom discussion. Those rules will help to ensure that we remain open and thoughtful in our engagements with each other. For next class period I want you to think about what rules you would like us to implement to ensure that this space remains open and conducive to learning.”
Contextualize the course content by signposting.
Example: “As you prepare to read the essay about late-term abortions for next week’s class, I do want to draw your attention to the fact that the content of the essay might be challenging to read and process. People have very strong opinions about abortion as a political issue. You might find your ideals, be those ideals religious, political, or personal, being challenged. I assign this essay to you because it illustrates several rhetorical devices we have discussed in class and does so while modeling for us how to write about controversial topics with balance and introspection. Please try to identify three rhetorical devices in the essay. If you find the material especially difficult to read, identify those passages that are most troubling. Next class period we will discuss how and why the essay is a tough read.”
How to address a harmful comment when the student does not intend harm and/or is open to correction
If applicable, validate anything your student has said that has merit before addressing the problematic content.
Example: “Student Jay, I think you make a good point about the dangers of erasing or rewriting history, particularly your example of Holocaust denial.”
Present an opposing viewpoint.
Example: “Student Bee, I appreciate your thinking about the importance of protecting our southern borders by building a wall. How could we respond to those who argue that such a move is actually anti-American? Or what would we say to those who argue that people cross illegally our northern border where there is no wall? What is it about this southern border that makes it exceptionally threatening within the psyches of many Americans?”
Affirm the student, not the comment.
Example: “I think I understand what you are getting at, Student Em. If I am hearing you right, you want to point out a link between poverty and people’s lack of work ethic. It is the case that people often associate poverty with laziness. I want to push back a teensy bit on that idea. Is that really the case for all people in all instances of poverty? How much of our thinking about this topic is guided by assumptions rather than inference. When we encounter a person sitting on a sidewalk, who is seemingly homeless, what do we really know about that person’s situation? As with most things, our public, civic crises, and poverty for sure is one, are never that simple. What might be other contributing factors for poverty?
Present a loaded/leading question designed to challenge the comment.
Example: “Your comment, Student Ese, points out the fact that we often link poverty with laziness. But how do we measure effort in our society? Is there a danger in assuming that wealth and success are always the outcome of hard work? I wonder what it means to somebody working two jobs at maybe Walmart and McDonalds and barely getting by. What might we be missing by assuming a lack of work ethic?”
Rearticulate the comment to eliminate its offensive element.
Example: “Student Cee, I don’t think ‘dumb’ is the word you want to use to refute your classmate’s idea that Trump’s presidency will usher in an era of political incorrectness. The prediction seems rather astute as the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. I think your larger critique is that the comment doesn’t take into account the fact that a presidential campaign does not have the same dynamic as a presidential administration and that we should consider that aspect.”
Remove the comment from the immediate domain of the student.
Example: “Your comments about taking down monuments or renaming buildings tap into a really controversial contemporary debate. Let’s examine the elements of that debate.”
Identify flaws in reasoning or rhetoric and encourage the student to consider different perspectives.
Example: “I understand that some might say people ‘shouldn’t be offended’ by these statues. But that assumes that we can control people’s reactions. Instead, it might be more useful to understand why people are offended, and then consider what could be done to address those concerns.”
Select examples carefully to illustrate flaws in the comment’s reasoning.
Example: “It may seem like renaming a building or street erases its history. But let’s consider a case in which the person honored by the building or street is responsible for acts of oppression and racial violence. For example, Building X was named for a big donor who was also a KKK leader. In this case, it might be easier to see how the harm of maintaining this honor outweighs the harm associated with renaming.”
Consider following up the previous example with one that shows some generosity to the student’s position, if it has any merit.
Example: “Now, this becomes more challenging with a figure like Thomas Jefferson. On the one hand, he’s considered an American hero; he wrote the Declaration of Independence; he’s responsible for many of the founding principles of this nation. On the other hand, he owned hundreds of slaves and published harmful, eugenicist writing that attempted to justify racial oppression. How do we ‘honor’ the contributions of Jefferson while also acknowledging the harm? This is a question about memorialization and commemoration.”
How to open up discussion when students want to shut it down
Take a comparative approach.
Example: “So you’re saying that talking about race and racism is what makes race and racism a problem, or at least it makes the problem worse. Hmmm… that’s an interesting comment. Can you think of any other situation in your life where you might advocate for not addressing an issue if its problematic nature is brought to your attention? For example, say you’re driving down the highway and you hear that loud thump thump thump of a blown tire or you see the engine light flashing or your brakes aren’t working well, do you pretend the issue doesn’t exist because addressing it might make things worse, i.e. you don’t have the money to fix the problem? Ignoring a flat tire doesn’t make the tire any less flat. We have to fix the mechanical problem. What makes racism (fill in blank with any -ism) so different? When we say that talking about racism makes it worse, I wonder why folks have a vested interest in silence.”
Question the student’s reasoning.
Example: “How does discussing the issue of racism make racism worse? What is the problem with discussing race and racism? Is the problem inherent in the topic or the result of our feelings about race and racism?”
Offer a broader perspective.
Example: “So you’re asking why everything has to be about race (or something else). If you’re saying that’s all we talk about, then I’m not sure that’s true. But if you are saying that we talk about it often, then I completely agree. We do so because it is currently and has long been a powerful social issue, and I want this course to develop both a language and an analytical skill set for talking about these issues so that you are prepared to deal with these issues outside of the classroom. I cannot speak for your experience, but many folks don’t talk about race and racism very often. When they are pushed to have these conversations, they can feel discomforted. That makes sense because they are pushed outside of their comfort zone. But we ultimately learn and grow from moving beyond our comfort zones.”
How to address comments when student seems oblivious or attached to a particular ideology
Ask students to entertain the opposition.
Example: “I see a number of you in class believe strongly in the need for gun control. And we’ve spent considerable time discussing the advantages of passing legislation. Now, let’s take five minutes to discuss the opposite. Why might gun control pose problems rather than fix them?”
Historicize the comment in an effort to track its evolution or manipulation over time.
Example: “That is an interesting observation, one that has been expressed by a lot of people. What do you think is the ideology or history underpinning that observation?”
Example 2: “That’s an interesting idea. Now, let’s talk a bit about the historical underpinnings of it.”
Concede the student viewpoint and carry it out to its (il)logical conclusion.
Example: “A lot of people feel the way Student Tee does that James Baldwin’s novel is race-baiting. It was banned from school reading lists for several decades. What do we think Baldwin intended? If we believe he was race-baiting, what was his end game? What might be other reasons that he wrote the novel?”
Redirect student’s energy back toward the course learning objectives:
Example: “I hear you, Student Kay, that you think the essay is horribly written because it treats white people like villains in a horror movie. How can you restate your critique to relate back to Aristotle and his concept of pathos?”
Example 2: “Can you point us to a passage in the text where you think white people are presented in a particularly negative light? What might be the author’s rhetorical strategy in representing white people this way? How are other races treated in the text?”
How to respond to comments you perceive as blatantly racist
Refer back to the discussion guidelines you established at the beginning of the term.
Example: “Before we continue with the class discussion, I need to remind you all of rules one and five from our list. We agreed to refrain from making comments that denigrate or in other ways cause harm to any identity group, and we agreed that we would not interrupt classmates when they are speaking. You get one pass. If you violate these rules a second time, I will ask you to leave the room.”
Call out the offensive comment with appropriate gravity and compassion.
Example: “Thank you, Student P, for your observation/question. Before engaging your remarks, though, I need to point out that the nature of the comment [or tone, diction, spirit, words, etc.] is inappropriate. I want to remind everyone that when making a comment, please be mindful of what you say and how you say it.”
Example 2: “Student X, you probably aren’t aware of this, but the term you just used to refer to American Indians is offensive. We should all use any one of these more appropriate terms or better yet, refer to their nation affiliation, Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, etc.”
Example 3: “I understand that the text we’re reading refers to African Americans using antiquated terminology that today is offensive. Let’s be careful that we don’t mimic the text’s outdated language in our discussion.”
How to respond to microaggressions
Below are some one-liners that well-meaning students often utter. Be on the lookout for these comments and other microaggressions that can quickly shut down BIPOC students (and their allies) and make them feel that their perspectives are unwelcome in the classroom.
When students make these kinds of comments, a general approach is to reaffirm the perspective of the student of color. Encourage humility and make it clear that people of color talking about their experiences of race are the best experts about their own experiences.
Resist the urge to ‘explain’ or paraphrase the comments or experiences of students of color. Trust them to speak for themselves. And try not to elaborate on their experiences by sharing your own that you think are similar. People sometimes try to compare experiences of racism with sexism or classism or ageism or homophobia. Often these -isms work in tandem; they intersect. Rarely, however, does the rhetorical strategy of experiential identification work to reaffirm students of color in a class setting. Instead, it pivots the conversation away from race and the student and focalizes you and your experiences.
Consider these dialogues:
“I didn’t mean the comment that way. I don’t even see color.”
Interrogate the comment’s logic: “Let’s think about what we really mean when we say we don’t see color. Is that really possible? Don’t we see differences in people based on height? Weight? Eye color? Even income level? How about religion or nationality? How do you decide to whom you say “Yes, m’am/sir”? How is it, then, that we can look at a person with obvious somatic features that differ from our own and not ‘see’ those differences? What does color stand in for?”
“I don’t think the incident described in the essay is racist at all.”
Encourage an empathetic reading: “You don’t think it’s racist, but why might your classmate think it’s racist?
“Student Gee is saying that race is the main point of the novel, but I disagree. It’s a very divisive way of reading, I think. Not everything is about race.”
Challenge hyperbolic rhetoric: “It’s true that not everything is about race. But is that really what Student Gee is saying? What is divisive about pointing out the novel’s racist politics? What/whom does the comment divide?”
“Actually, I’ve met lots of people from China who don’t think that idea is bad.” (Or any phrase that attempts to correct a person of color’s perspective on an experience of racism)
Identify the fallacy of using anecdotal evidence to generalize: “I hear you, Student Zee, and I appreciate your willingness to share anecdotal evidence. It's a valuable perspective. And it also reminds us that people are not homogenous in their thinking. One person in a subject group might not be offended by a comment, but that doesn’t mean that all people within that subjectivity group feel the same way.
“She is being emotional; I’m trying to think objectively about the text.”
Validate the other student’s perspective: “You say she is emotional about the text and you are objective. Why might you have differing orientations to the text? And is an ‘objective’ approach any more reliable than an emotional one that is rooted in experience?”
“I’m not a racist, and I am offended that my comments were interpreted that way!”
Clarify the comment: “Nobody said you were racist. It’s clear that you did not intend offense when you made your comment. We understand the spirit of your comment; in recognizing your intent, though, we must also attend to its effect. The comment caused harm, and I know that’s tough to acknowledge. It’s tougher to experience the harm.”
“I don’t appreciate Student Y implying that all white people are like that. Not all white people ‘whitesplain,’ just like not all men ‘mansplain’!”
Push the student toward introspection: “Does Student Y actually ‘imply’ that all white people are like that? To whom does the comment apply specifically?”
Or “You seem to have a really strong reaction to Student Y’s comment. Why is that? Do you think the comment is directed at you? What about Student Y’s comment implies that it is relevant to you personally?”
In some instances, the problematic one-liner or microaggression might be spoken by a BIPOC person in reference to other BIPOC individuals, or specifically to BIPOC women. You can address these comments in the same spirit, understanding that BIPOC students, too, can propagate racist rhetoric.
“Personally, I think Black people are too quick to play the race card. We need to suck it up and move on.”
Interrogate the student’s word choice and/or take a comparative approach: “You say that Black people are ‘quick’ to play the race card. What do you mean by ‘quick’? Is there a certain amount of time before people should speak out about the racial dynamics of a situation? Can you think of an example when there was an incident that you think was motivated by race/racism? How can you tell the difference between a bonafide racial incident and one in which people are imagining racism?”
“I am tired of talking about racism and slavery all the time. That's not all our history is about.”
Probe the source of student’s frustration: “You make a good point that sometimes focusing only on a racial oppression can mean ignoring cultural contributions or other aspects of the human experience. Are there any possible negative consequences if we stop talking about race and slavery?”
Or “You say you are tired of talking about racism and slavery all the time. Why is it so exhausting? What are we not talking about because we are spending so much time talking about race and slavery? Why do you think it is that we spend so much time on this topic?”
“My parents immigrated here legally. Everybody else should, too. We can’t just grant amnesty to millions of people who broke the law.”
Point out the intricacies of the situation to challenge the comment: “I don’t know the specific details of how your parents immigrated here, beyond the fact that they did so legally, but I can say that immigration is rarely ever a simple matter. What it means to come here legally, for example, looks different depending on your country of origin. Consider the rules that have in the past governed those coming from Cuba compared to, say, Haiti. Also, consider the rhetoric surrounding immigration and the racist connotations attached to people who immigrate to this country from Mexico. So, you see it is not just a matter of what is legal versus illegal. It is about the politics surrounding what we determine is and isn’t legal.”
It may help to point to specific laws to clarify the complexities of the issue. Here, you can take the comment out of the student’s domain and provide some historical background. “I want us all to keep in mind that the U.S. had an open borders policy for much of its history, which means legal immigration, but without restrictions. The U.S. also has a history of establishing quotas against specific populations the government deemed undesirable, often with disastrous repercussions -- think about how the United States turned away thousands of Jewish refugees during WW2, which led to changes in amnesty laws within the next few years. The quota policies (e.g., the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 and others) were lifted by the Hart Cellar Act of 1965, which decreed that the U.S. couldn’t discriminate against certain populations in its immigration policies. I say all of that to say the issue goes much deeper than what is or isn’t legal.”
How to begin a one-on-one conversation with a student who has submitted work that promotes problematic ideologies
*Note, it’s good practice to have these kinds of conversations in person rather than by email. Given the potentially tense nature of the exchange, conveying the proper tone is essential. Tone is easier to manage when the student can hear your voice. Also, when you communicate through email, or any written form, you open yourself to the possibility that your message can be taken out of context and posted on social media or otherwise circulated to condemn you. In rare instances, depending on the nature of the student infraction, you might opt to have a colleague present for the exchange. Most often, that isn’t necessary. Also, consider requesting that students do not engage certain topics or arguments––arguments that something is moral or immoral, or arguments that something is or isn't offensive, or even arguments related to certain subject matter that has proven problematic in the past.
Frame the situation within the context of course policies.
Example: “Student Q, thank you for agreeing to meet with me. I know you have questions about why I deleted your discussion board posts/took down your video from the class blog/graded your essay as a D- (fill in the blank). I did so because I found some elements of the work don’t exactly mesh with our course policies about respecting cultural differences. You might not be aware of this, but posting a picture to the class website (fill in blank with offensive image/violation, i.e. posing with a rifle aimed at a target // a selfie with a symbol in the background associated with white supremacy // slogans that denigrate or criticize people of a particular group) may make students of [X Background] not only feel uncomfortable, but even physically threatened.
Challenge the evidence presented as well as the subject matter; come prepared with well-founded evidence as a further means to undercut the argument.
Example: “Student Z, I’ve indicated why your premise (that race X is biologically different from race Y) is problematic, but there’s an additional issue here. One of the main learning objectives in this class is being able to assess a source’s credibility. But all of your sources here are from popular media outlets with an explicit bias and stated political agenda. None of them are written by experts in fields like anthropology or biology, which alone undermines the credibility of the claims. If you look at sources X, Y, and Z here, which I’ve brought, they are all written by experts in these fields. See how their conclusions differ from the ones in the sources your work cites?”
Allow the student to elaborate on their work, which will help you determine their state of awareness.
Example: “I would like to hear a little more about what you were thinking when you were crafting this assignment (refer to the specific assignment/work).” As they explain, try to find aspects of their approach that you can praise, which will become the building blocks for submitting a new project (if you allow revision).
After praising what is good about their approach to the assignment, then explain the problematic aspects of it: “I like how you began the assignment with an outline. And you conducted good, solid research on poverty and Southern geography. I like that all very much. I am concerned, though, with how the project seems to imply that people who are poor are inherently lazy. That conclusion is not supported by any of the research you cited OR The sources you cite to support that claim are not scholarly sources OR Did you come across any other sources that offered different conclusions about poverty OR That conclusion is more of a moral judgment than an analytical inference.”
What to say when you don’t know what to say
Consult other sources.
Example: “I am not sure how to respond to that idea. Let’s see what Cornel West says about American political history and oligarchies.”
Allow students to grapple with the comment.
Example: “Student Ar poses a very good question. How would the rest of you answer that question?”
Example: “I am not sure how to respond in light of Student El’s comment. I need some time to craft a thoughtful and useful response. I will write down that comment in my notebook, and we can engage it next class period.”