Hi there. Thanks for joining me today. My name is Dr. Laura Greenfield of Laura greenfield.com. And you are listening to my podcast let's talk facilitation, where I offer practical solutions to everyday challenges in the college classroom. Specifically, I help introverted college educators develop unstoppable courage and transformative class facilitation skills in order to engage students equitably, and advance social justice powerfully.
Today, I am revealing the number one mistake facilitators make when students want to debate about injustice, and what to do instead. I chose this topic today because I know so many of my listeners cared deeply about social justice, and strongly desire to make their classrooms truly transformative spaces. But they struggle with how to do so in practice, as vital and rewarding as social justice work can be. It can also be difficult, messy and intimidating. One of the reasons we as facilitators may experience stress in anticipation of a difficult discussion around injustice, is because we are relying on our good intentions to carry us, but we don't have all the tools we need to deliver on those intentions.
I remember a time early in my career when I knew, for example, that I wanted to be proactive in disrupting racism in and through my classes. One particular semester, when I was teaching a public speaking course, I wanted to engage my students in a discussion about racism and public discourse. I knew the theory inside and out, I had a critical analysis of the particular history I was going to address. And I had curated a powerful selection of readings and videos for the class to explore. And I showed up to class to facilitate a discussion that I recognize now in hindsight, I had no business facilitating. And the reason I had no business facilitating that discussion, was because I had not yet developed the tools to do so effectively, strategically, or importantly, ethically. In other words, my intentions were good. But my toolkit was lacking. As a result, the discussion was a wreck, not because I wasn't able to communicate my analysis clearly. But because I didn't know how to support students of color, and other marginalized students in the class, when a very vocal and belligerent white male students spoke up to challenge in essence, the rights of people of color to fight for their lives. At the time, I was paralyzed, I knew what he was saying was wrong. And I could see the discomfort on many of the students faces. And my chest tightened and heartbreak and shame as one student of color quietly got up and left the room. It wasn't that I didn't know how to communicate why he was wrong. And it wasn't even that I was too shy to disagree with him publicly. It's that in my brain, I was hearing shouts of academic freedom and freedom of speech and let everyone have a voice and everyone is entitled to their opinion, and truths are all relative. And other such messages I had been bombarded with in academia and dominant white US society, battling against my own political beliefs that this students ideas were ethically wrong and fundamentally harmful. But what was I as the teacher, supposedly the neutral facilitator, the champion of academic freedom, what was I to do when I saw that one student's way of engaging in debate about the material I was presenting was clearly perpetuating harm. I didn't know the answer then. And so I was awkwardly mute trying to figure out what to say to him. In the end, another student, one who as an undergraduate was nevertheless a more savvy social justice leader than I was as a young college professor intervened, and I'm grateful that she did her intervention both salvaged the discussion and served as a model to me that I have learned from and built upon in the intervening years.
I didn't have the tools, I needed them. But I do now, or at least I have a lot more now. And I want you to have them too. I don't want you or your students to be in the position. I was as a well intended, but ill equipped facilitator, unintentionally causing more harm, despite trying to prevent it. So I'm going to share with you now the mistake that I made, what I believe is the biggest mistake facilitators make when students want to debate about injustice, and what you can do instead.
So the biggest mistake facilitators make when students want to debate about injustice is letting them. That's right, letting them. In other words, you should not be creating space to debate whether injustice is real, bad or worthy of disruption. Why not? Those should all be Givens, people's humanity. people's human rights should not be up for debate. Our humanity the humanity of our students, and the humanity of any persecuted group around the globe should not be up for debate. Any discussion that makes room for the possibility of denying or minimizing anyone's humanity is, by definition, dehumanizing, dehumanizing discussions are unethical. So what kinds of discussion prompts fall into this category?
Any prompt that questions whether a marginalized group deserves or is entitled to fight for their lives and rights. So for example, should trans people be allowed to use the public restroom that best matches their identity? Or is it okay that black people protest police brutality by disrupting politicians speeches or blocking traffic? Or should gay people be allowed to foster or adopt kids? by posing these kinds of questions, putting someone's humanity up for debate, You are implicitly dignifying any answer that a student might have in response, including the claim that no certain people do not deserve rights or do not deserve to fight for their lives.
Now, traditionally, such such questions have been welcomed in academia, under the guise of academic freedom, and with the justification that in the marketplace of ideas, the better argument or the more ethical view, will beat out the illogical others and rise to the top. In reality, however, this doesn't usually actually happen. If simply debating the illogicalness of racism, or transphobia, or homophobia or any other system of oppression was all it took to defeat those systems. We'd be living in a much more just and peaceful world already. A former president, a former ousted president of a college where I used to teach once tweeted, quote, I invite white supremacy, apologists to campus and quote, and she linked to an article that defended such steps as necessary for healthy debate. In this article, writer Zachary wood bemoans, quote The millions of college students that view someone as voicing his or her opposing view, as attack on their very personhood, and quote, Now the irony that white supremacy is, in fact, nothing but the systematic attack on the personhood of all people of color seems to be lost on wood. I am arguing here that white supremacy is not a point of view open to debate. It is a system of genocide of both the body and the spirit, and our only engagement with it should be to dismantle it relentlessly. Now, radical writer and public intellectual James Baldwin points out the paradox and supporting dehumanizing free speech claims. He said we can disagree and still love each other. Unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist. It's perplexing indeed, to argue that all have a right to free speech but not all have a right to exist.
Now if you're interested in further reading about this, I'd recommend Mark Bray's book Antifa: The Anti Fascist Handbook, specifically chapter five titled "so much for the tolerant left: no platform and free speech", where he provides a clear and compelling analysis of how creating platforms for fascistic arguments, in fact paved the way A much more smoothly for actual fascism to emerge, then does limiting fascistic speech itself, even though it's the latter that seems to get both conservative and liberal educators up in arms.
Instead, I want to give you enthusiastic encouragement to claim your radical politics and refuse to make the mistake I made all those years ago in that public speaking class, when I intended to teach about racism and public discourse with the goal of disrupting racism, but in fact created a platform for racism to be on full display by not knowing what questions to avoid, and how to craft a more ethical prompt instead. So how do you craft a more ethical discussion prompt around topics of injustice? Well, rather than posing questions that ask students to defend their rights, or the rights of others, take those rights as a given, and instead pose consciousness raising questions that explore connections between historical events and present day phenomena, the impact of certain institutional policies, the relationship between language and ideology, or rhetoric and violence, the effectiveness of past strategies to disrupt an unjust system, or the potential of newly proposed solutions to disrupt an unjust system. Ultimately, you could boil these questions down to two primary umbrellas. One is, rather than asking, Is this injustice real? You would ask, Why has this injustice persisted? And second, rather than asking, Do people have a right to advocate for justice? Instead, you ask how might we promote justice?
So let me give you some examples of what these questions might look like. So number one, rather than asking, should trans people be allowed to use the public restroom that best matches their identity? You might ask? How does the language of safety in opposition to bathroom access policies for trans people, in fact put trans people at greater risk of violence? Exam example number two, rather than asking, Is it okay that black people protest police brutality? by disrupting politicians speeches or Black King traffic? You might ask? In what ways have black people historically been silenced when advocating for their lives and rights? And what responsibilities do white people and other non black POC have to listen and work towards change? Example number three, instead of asking, should gay people be allowed to foster or adopt kids? You might ask, why did it take until 2015 for marriage equality to be instituted across the US? And what lessons can we learn from history to inform our efforts to ensure the rights of gay parents and families into the future?
Now in addition to being purposeful about the kinds of questions you pose, you can encourage all of your students to be thinking critically about how they engage in discussion, and set the tone from the beginning of the semester to be clear that dehumanizing comments will not be permitted in your class. I put together a free PDF for you, which includes the text of anti racist discussion guidelines that I wrote, and have used on a number of my course syllabi. If you'd like an idea of how you might word your own such statement, feel free to copy mine in its entirety, or revise and adapt it for your own needs. So head over to Laura greenfield.com/guidelines to grab your copy of the PDF titled "sample anti racist discussion guidelines statement" and draw on it to set the stage for more ethical engagement in your classes. Thank you so much for listening in today. And until next time, happy teaching.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai