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Dialogic Vulnerability: Embracing Discomfort Through Courageous Conversations

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By David Rockower 

As a white male teacher who grew up (and teaches) in a town that’s over 80 percent white, my privilege has allowed me to avoid conversations about race and equity. I haven’t needed to engage because I benefit from being part of the dominant group. Only recently have I begun to recognize my privilege and how it’s contributed to my lack of action. Frankly, I’m embarrassed it took me this long to understand that by doing nothing to make change, I’m perpetuating the status quo. The guilt, frustration, and admission of my own ignorance moved me to initiate courageous conversations with my colleagues and students.

Over the years, I’ve danced around topics of race and equity in the classroom, touched on them briefly, and wrapped them up quickly—not because I found them unimportant, but because I found them so monumental that I didn’t even know how to begin. Entering these conversations made me feel vulnerable as a teacher. Did I want to talk about race, equity, privilege, LGBTQ+ issues with my students? Absolutely. But I was hesitant to jump in.

Our district recently hired a director of equity and inclusivity. She organizes discussions around race by facilitating book clubs and panel discussions. A few teachers began using the Building Anti-Racist White Educators (BARWE) framework to lead monthly meetings. A colleague and I established a BARWE group in our building, and this has led to ongoing teacher conversations about race. Topics include challenging implicit bias in our own practice, establishing equitable disciplinary practices, and examining how our curriculum can challenge dominant and oppressive ideologies. Being with teachers who talked openly about race and who were willing to examine their own biases taught me that I was not alone in wanting to bring these conversations into the classroom.

I needed to be thoughtful about how to invite and facilitate discussions around race and equity with middle schoolers. How could I, as a white teacher who grew up in a mostly white town, effectively lead conversations about race and equity? I decided to begin with an explanation and then follow with a framework for future conversations.

Into the Classroom

I told my students that I recognized how often they brought up topics about race and equity but that I’d failed to give these topics the time and attention they deserve. That would now change. I introduced Glenn E. Singleton’s and Curtis Linton’s Four Agreements from the Courageous Conversations About Race protocol: stay engaged, experience discomfort, speak your truth, and expect and accept non-closure. Next, I asked students to complete a quick write that would be collected and used to generate discussion topics. It’s important to note that, although we would likely discuss non-race-related issues, the four agreements would only be used to discuss topics about race. My prompt: what courageous conversations would you like to explore in this classroom? I also provided these things to think about as they wrote:

  • What topics do we typically avoid in school that should be addressed?
  • What topics do you feel more students and teachers should be aware of?
  • Whose voices are being silenced? Left out? Ignored?

As is often the case, my students surprised me with their frankness, knowledge, honesty, and wisdom. Here is a sampling of their responses:

  • How to confront friends/family/adults when they make hurtful comments
  • How are groups that are marginalized represented in the books we read?
  • The importance of the words we choose to use
  • Ways to support the LGBTQ+ community
  • Gender stereotypes
  • Climate change
  • Immigration policies
  • Should children who commit serious crimes be tried as adults?
  • Mental health: where and how to seek help
  • Equal pay in the workplace

Some students went beyond a list and shared a bit more about their thinking:

“I think having these conversations is more than a good idea. I would rather learn about issues that may be scary now rather than when I’m 20.”

“We need to talk about different cultures. I rarely read a book about someone who is not from the United States.”

“I do know a lot about gender, race, and LGBTQ+ issues in the United States, but I want to know how these issues look in other countries.”

“We are talking about climate change, but not enough for people to actually start doing something about it.”

While reading through their quick writes, I was reminded of the power of writing as a means to hear all voices in the classroom. Had I asked students to respond orally to my prompt, I likely would have heard from no more than five different students. The rest would have remained silent, too uncomfortable to share their thoughts with the group. Allowing students to write their questions, thoughts, and ideas enabled me to see what everyone was thinking.

With such a wide range of topics to explore, I wasn’t sure where to begin. But that night, I read an online New York Times article about a Penn State football player (Penn State University is located just blocks from our school, and football is paramount here) who’d just received a racist letter from a fan. Jonathan Sutherland is a sophomore on the football team. He happens to wear his hair in dreadlocks, and, apparently, this upset the fan. The letter commended Sutherland for his excellent play but quickly turned offensive and racist: “Though the athletes of today are superior to those in my days; we miss the clean cut young men and women from those days. Watching the Idaho game, we couldn’t help but notice your—well—awful hair.” The letter was all over social media, and Sutherland’s teammates called out the racist messages. I decided to share the letter in class.

Many students gasped as I read the letter aloud; some asked if it was real or a joke. Several students asked why his hair mattered so much to this man. One student, though angry with the letter, tried to explain why the man wrote it:

“So this guy is sitting in his home, remembering a time when everyone looked pretty much the same on the field. Same haircuts, same pre-game suits. And now he sees guys with long hair, and it bothers him. It bothers him because he doesn’t like people who are different. And he actually thinks writing this letter is a good thing. This guy thinks he’s doing Sutherland a favor. It’s crazy.”

Another student wondered why Sutherland was targeted when other players wear long hair:

“There are plenty of players with long hair. I wonder why he chose to write to a black player. There have been white Penn State players with long hair. Why didn’t they get a letter?”

And that comment led to further discussion about biases. How often do we make comments that are not intended to hurt, but do? Comments that reflect our biases? This letter was blatantly racist, and my students recognized that, but how often do we speak or write things that are racist without our knowing it? After everyone had a chance to express their anger and frustration with the letter, I asked, “So how do we respond to this? Should we? Does it matter?” Some students said the man was set in his ways, and it wouldn’t make a difference. Others observed that, yes, it matters, and any time a racist comment is made, a strong response is needed; otherwise, things won’t ever change.

Wrapping up our conversation without a planned action or response was frustrating for all of us. We agreed that nothing would be solved today but bringing the conversation to light was a first step. Yet, it still felt awkward to end the conversation and simply return to our independent writing projects.

Reflecting on a Courageous Conversation

Later that evening, I reflected on the experience. I pictured my students reluctantly transitioning to their projects—their body language had told me they had more to say. I regretted not offering them another opportunity to write and reflect on our discussion. Did I cut the conversation short because I was uncomfortable? Because I didn’t know where to go next? Because I was afraid of saying the wrong thing? Maybe it was my white privilege revealing itself yet again: because of my position as a white male in a mostly white school, did I not feel the urgency necessary to press on?

I decided to revisit the conversation during another class period. I apologized for cutting the initial discussion short. I explained how, since our last conversation, I’d been thinking about how I’ve responded—or failed to respond—to racist remarks in my own life. I shared memories of relatives who’d made racist comments and how I was embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t always spoken up. I saw heads nod and a few hands shoot up. Several students mentioned hearing racist comments at family gatherings but not knowing how to respond. A few students said that these comments are not tolerated in their homes, and that they would have no problem calling people out and explaining how damaging these comments can be. But most admitted remaining silent, however angry they might have been. We did agree that, even if it’s difficult, we must speak up. I suggested that the next time any of us hears a racially insensitive remark, we need to (at minimum) say, “Hearing that comment makes me uncomfortable.” Though that alone is not enough, it is the first step in taking a stand, because remaining silent allows the oppression to persist.

I’m learning to navigate courageous conversations, and I feel vulnerable when we dive in. But they are necessary, and through our discussions, I’ve learned that my students—in general—are less afraid than I am. I need to trust the process and continue to give us all space and time to speak and write about issues that make us uncomfortable until our discomfort motivates us to act.

RockowerDavid-1David Rockower (Boalsburg, PA) believes that classrooms should be a second home for students, where they discover and celebrate strengths, where student voice, choice, and engagement are paramount. Currently, he teaches English at the Delta Program, a small, democratic middle school in the State College Area School District. He is also a bi-monthly essayist for State College Magazine and has published articles in The Washington Post and Education Week. In 2017, David was awarded as National Middle School English Teacher of the Year by the National Council of Teachers of English. You can follow him on Twitter @dgrock

Works Cited:

Building Anti-Racist White Educators. #BARWE215. https://barwe215.weebly.com/.

Fortin, Jacey. "Penn State Defends Football Player Whose Dreadlocks Were Insulted." NYTimes.com, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/09/sports/penn-state-racist-letter-dreadlocks.html.

Singleton, Glenn E., and Curtis Linton. 2006. Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


Topics: Heinemann Fellows, David Rockower

Date Published: 03/09/20

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