Conversations about race, privilege, and oppression in school should be rooted in psychology, empathy, and the humanity of all participants, according to Grace Kim, a clinical associate professor in the counseling psychology program.

“How can we teach issues related to diversity and social justice in such a way that looks at people as whole beings?” says Kim, who is a trained clinical psychologist. “Unfortunately, a lot of educators find these emotional pieces really challenging.”

Kim’s book, Teaching Diversity Relationally: Engaging Emotions and Embracing Possibilities (Routledge), which she wrote with Roxanne Donovan and Karen Suyemoto, was published this year. She offers the following rules of thumb for educators wishing to effectively teach diversity and social justice courses.


A learning space in which students and instructors feel part of a community is less likely to devolve into a division and unhealthy conflict, Kim says. Before wading into a conversation about diversity and race, students and educators should agree to principles and norms that will guide discussion. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing, and depending on where they are you would want to scaffold more in a particular area,” Kim adds.


In determining how to approach a potentially tough conversation, teachers should weigh the positionality of all participants in the discussion—both their identities, like race or life experience, as well as the knowledge and resources everyone is bringing into the conversation. Kim says some teachers start with an exercise exploring their own racial identities in order to “grow in our understanding of race and our own identities as people who have race.” 


Conversations about controversial topics can result in conflict between participants, which can turn contentious. On the other hand, Kim says, healthy conflict is generally a sign that students are engaged in a discussion. It can also bring classmates together: “When conflict is resolved in a positive way, the sense of belonging and group cohesion can increase.”  


As teachers facilitate such conversations, they should give themselves space for growth, Kim says. “There’s a lot of guilt or a sort of self-chastising, especially if the class is not going well,” she says. “Teachers can be very tough on ourselves, so how can we grow in such a way that that will free up a little more of our creativity and growth rather than keep focusing on what we’re not doing right?” 

Top illustration from iStock Photo.