Dear Avoiding Target Practice

Dear Ms. Scholar, I am committed to social justice and frequently talk about issues of class, race, and gender in my classes. This semester, though, I only have one African American and one international student in class. I often find myself either tempted to ask about their experience, casting them as the token representative or — more frequently — avoiding directing questions toward them for the same reason. Any suggestions? I want to avoid target practice.

Ms. Scholar at work.

Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Avoiding Target Practice, Ms. Scholar believes that our classroom can either reflect dynamics of oppression and prejudice, or challenge those dynamics. Too often our discussions of differences — especially race and ability — become nondiscussions. We take a colorblind stance (“I don’t see race”) and avoid potentially conflictual discussions. This isn’t helpful, as although this is an attempt to not judge the other person, in being colorblind we may fail to see the ways that race colors that person’s life.

Avoiding targeting particular students as representatives of their race or other cultural groups is difficult, a problem that few people handle well. I asked colleagues across the country how they handle such situations and received a range of responses — which again reminded me why being on a professional listserv can be so useful!

Anita Thomas attempts to challenge dynamics about oppression and prejudice by laying these questions on the table at the beginning the semester. She asks students to observe who is in the room and who is missing, thus raising a number of important questions: What sorts of diversity do we want? What burdens are raised by being one of a small group? How can we have class discussions without these missing voices? In what ways can we attempt to bring these viewpoints back into the classroom? Even raising this question begins to change the climate and the nature of the discussion in the classroom.

Creating a “safe place” for discussing differences, while well-intended, can be misguided, depending on how safety is framed. Is such safety focused on protecting students from feeling uncomfortable? If so, Billy Somerville (The New School for Social Research) argues, that safety privileges white students over students of color, thus protecting them from acknowledging their own racism and removing their motivation for having such discussions (to acknowledge and address problems, to create greater equity). Instead, real conversations about race are “inherently risky, uncomfortable, and fundamentally unsafe” (Leonardo & Porter, 2010, p. 139), particularly for people (mostly Whites) who have a lot to lose by acknowledging past — and present — problems.

One could also re-envision/redefine what safe space is. Such conversations do not need to be hostile to be effective (consider Martin Luther King, Jr.). A colleague’s professor had two rules for class that were especially useful for contentious sessions: she asked that students (a) provide explanations and evidence, and (b) avoid dismissive gestures. My colleague said that those two rules made the classroom space feel much safer. As Billy Somerville suggested, when we overfocus on safety, we may dance around issues and eviscerate discussions. How can we create a safe environment while also creating an honest one?

Carrie Castenada noted that it can be empowering to give students the opportunity to decide when — or if — they want to disclose their experiences. She will sometimes start a discussion saying, “Some people say…” She attempts to ground these observations in research and real-world examples. When she sees her students nodding and being engaged, she may simply say, “This resonates with you.” Some will nod without saying more, while others use that as an opportunity to jump into the discussion. She respects their “wisdom/fear/hesitancy” to share personal experiences — while also expecting that they will participate in other ways (e.g., responding to the readings). However, another colleague observed that giving students the option to self-disclose, while not demanding that they do, doesn’t let them off the hook (any more or less than any other student) for responding to the texts and classroom discussions.

The question seems, then, how do we create an atmosphere that will open up the discussion and motivate change, without reiterating the forms of oppression that people with power have exercised over people with less power for centuries? Perhaps we want to create “safety to move and challenge” rather than “safety to remain.” — Ms. Scholar


Leonardo, Z., & Porter, R. K. (2010). Pedagogy of fear: Toward a Fanonian theory of ‘safety’ in race dialogue. Race Ethnicity and Education, 13, 139-157.

Special thanks to Laurie Helgoe and Billy Somerville for raising this issue on a listserv and for the comments (theirs and others) that informed this discussion.

If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o

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