Context Matters when Teaching Diversity

 Carol A. Hand

One of my dear blogging friends, Nicci Attfield, asked a thought-provoking question in a recent post – “Can men be feminist?” Her discussion reminded me of a similar question I was asked years ago, and my experiences teaching courses in diversity at two very different universities.

More than two decades ago, I was asked to be part of a panel discussion at a university conference for social work students, practitioners, and educators. The question I was asked to address forced me to think critically about my past experiences and observations. “Can non-Native practitioners be effective with Native American clients?” At that point in my thinking, it was tempting to take the easy route and simply list the reasons why the answer was “No.” But the need to be honest and respectful made me go deeper. Ultimately the answer was really quite simple. Ethnicity and overcoming adversity in one’s life doesn’t necessarily make one more empathetic or a skilled deep listener. What matters most is someone with a kind heart who is willing to do the work to understand the world through another’s eyes. To listen deeply, to see not only the struggles but also the strengths, and to help clients see their strengths, connect to supportive resources, and develop necessary confidence and skills to be able to discover their own answers. To help clients discover they have worth and their own answer to the question – What is the best you can imagine for yourself in the future?

It would be another decade before I would be asked by the same university to teach a class on diversity. Fortunately by that time, I had served as the teaching assistant (TA) for a gifted educator who taught one of the undergraduate diversity classes in the sociology department – a class of 465 students (a limit based on the number of available seats in the classroom). As the only TA, my job was to attend every class as the official notetaker who typed up a summary of each lecture, write 25 multiple choice questions each week for weekly quizzes (a challenging job for someone who insisted on writing questions that required critical thinking rather than rote memorization), and serve as an occasional lecturer. I learned how to use history as a way to reduce resistance from the mostly Euro-American class and how to encourage dialogic exchange even in a large class. Serving as a TA for the class inspired me to take on an issue that I had postponed – the use of demeaning Native American logos and names for public school sports teams. Both serving as a TA and as an as advocate helped me improve the social work diversity class I was asked to teach as an instructor.

diversity pals rebecca bowen 2012

Photo Credit: Diversity Palms (Rebecca Bowen, 2012)

Ever mindful of the importance of the names we assign to courses, I realized one of the first challenges was to change the name of the class “Social Work with Racial and Ethnic Minorities.” That title implies teaching largely Euro-American students to work with clients who are largely from other ethnic backgrounds. (I don’t use the word “race” often because it suggests a scientific basis for what is in reality a socially constructed category that is used to oppress people who are labeled other than “white.”) Because the course had such poor student reviews in its history, I had the freedom to be creative. It was unofficially renamed “Mulicultural Social Work” to acknowledge that practitioners and clients could be from any background. What mattered were empathy, knowledge, and skill – to inspire students “To learn, to care, and to act.”

I taught the class at the undergraduate and graduate levels for two years. The context? The university where I taught had a long tradition of progressive ideals and required all undergraduate students to successfully complete at least one course about diversity. That did not mean, however, that women faculty who were Black or Latina were treated well by all students, colleagues, or administrators. Assigning diversity classes for them to teach without support from allies and colleagues often placed them in a difficult situation at best. When I read the attitudes many students honestly expressed in their reflection papers, I developed a deeper understanding of the challenges my Black and Latina colleagues faced. At the time, however, Native American faculty didn’t have to overcome and rise above the same level of negative stereotypes. Yet there was still a lot resistance to overcome.

There were three major objectives in my mind: to increase student knowledge of and empathy toward different ethnic groups and inspire interest in continued exploration, to encourage greater self-awareness about their own ethnic history and heritage as a foundation for understanding others, and to engage students in planning a feasible and specific action they could take to raise awareness and/or address one issue related to ethnic injustice.

The first difficulty was to minimize the feeling that Euro-Americans were being blamed for the current situation of discrimination, racial profiling, and violence. Few had learned much about the history of structural oppression that continues to influence the lives of people of color in the US. That’s where we began, drawing from a number of excellent sources I will list later. Reading the weekly reflection papers, I saw the gradual easing of resistance and stereotypes. But the growing resistance was palpable as they faced the next assignment – looking more closely at their own ethnic identity as they completed a cultural portfolio. They were required to compile a series of reflections about their ethnic heritage supported by “artifacts.” Many Euro-American students had difficulty seeing why it was important to disentangle what they referred to as their “Heinz 57” blended background, and doubted whether they could possibly do so.

Once the portfolios were done, however, 99 percent became deeply engaged in the next challenge – developing an action plan to address injustice. With 45 to 100 plus students in each class, I really can’t remember all of their plans, but two stand out still decades later. A Muslim student expressed her concern about a demeaning anti-Arab cartoon published in the student newspaper. After the editorial board brushed aside her concerns, she organized a student letter writing campaign to force the newspaper to publish an apology. They did. Another student, a Euro-American woman in her 40s, was angry that her former high school didn’t teach the truth about history. She wrote a letter to the principal describing why it was so crucial to better prepare students to be part of an increasingly diverse global context. She sent her letter along with a copy of Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States.

It was a rewarding class to teach. I am grateful for the opportunity I had to witness the transformation and learn more about students from so many different backgrounds.

diverity tree

Photo Credit: Diversity Rainbow Hand

According to the majority of students on course evaluations, the “diversity class” was no longer dreaded. Many commented that it was the best class they had had in college. But context matters. How would a similar course taught by the same Native American instructor in a different environment be received? Although I had empathized with the challenges my colleagues of color had experienced in the past, I really had no idea what it felt like to face a hostile audience in an anti-Native context. A friend and colleague wrote about the first of two semesters I experienced when teaching diversity in a different context.

When I think specifically about teaching, I note the challenges my Native American colleague and other faculty of color face that will never be part of my experience because I am White. A White MSW student informed my colleague in class that she was unhappy with her teaching style. The student explained how she could show my Native American colleague how to teach. When the incident made its way to the chair, combined with complaints about teaching lodged by several other White MSW students, it was dealt with as a teaching problem, not as a reflection of how dominant teaching styles are viewed as the only good or correct way to teach by those immersed in their own ethnocentric worldview. In effect, the response from faculty and administrators mirrored other colonizing, oppressive approaches used by White people throughout U.S history with Native American people: My colleague was expected to become “White.” Who she was—her very identity—was marginalized and devalued. (Maxine Jacobson, 2012, p. 276)

Overcoming resistance, particularly from students from the most privileged Euro-American backgrounds, proved to be a daunting challenge in this context. My way of dealing with the student challenge Maxine Jacobson mentions in this excerpt was to work with the student on her own teaching demonstration. Despite my warning that it would probably not be effective for her to begin by saying that she thought I was an ineffective teacher who only focused on Native American issues (her perception although not true given the scope of the topics we covered), she ignored the advice. When she began her presentation by stating her opinion about my teaching ability, at least one third of the 35 students in the class were visibly offended. They frowned, sat back, and crossed their arms. Many refused to participate in the activity she had prepared, and she turned to me and said, “Make them participate!” I asked her what she expected me to do. It was her class at the moment and given my cultural values, I really had no right to interfere. I have good reasons to believe that although this student finally graduated, she never really learned how to empathize with people who were less privileged.

Even faced with hostility, I persevered and attempted new innovations to overcome resistance. As expected, resistance and even outright anger were palpable as the due date for the dreaded self-awareness assignment drew near. The Cultural Portfolio assignment of past years, based on only one dimension of difference, had been replaced by the “Positonality Montage,” described in the following essay I wrote at the time.


The Paradox of “Difference” and the Importance of Self-Awareness

Introduction. As an Ojibwe educator and practitioner, the significance of difference is an ever-present challenge. Differences are more than skin-deep and have profound consequences for our ability to understand others, and hence to be of service to those who need assistance. Yet to emphasize difference without recognizing the shared humanity that unites us can reify divisions and socially constructed power differentials. Two stories illustrate this paradox.

The Parable of the Nile describes the danger of ignoring the significance of difference. Briefly, the story tells of a monkey that was swept into the raging Nile by torrential rains. Just as the monkey reached the end of its endurance, it spied a branch hanging over the water and was able to pull itself from the river and was saved from drowning. Wishing to spare another from death, the monkey reached down into the turbulent water to save a fish that was struggling against the current, and it lifted the fish into the air. The monkey was baffled by the fish’s lack of gratitude. To take this parable to its logical conclusion, we should refrain from any actions that are intended to help others who are different. An image shared by Joel Goldsmith (1961) provides another way of looking at difference. If one imagines looking at the earth from the moon, one sees distinct land masses, continents and islands that are separated by vast expanses of water. Each is alone and appears distinct. If one looks deep enough, below the surface of the water, one finds that they are in reality connected. From this vantage point or worldview, the monkey’s actions make perfect sense. These two perspectives, or “positions,” illustrate the paradox of making sense of “difference” in a way that promotes understanding and life-affirming action based on knowledge and skill.

One first step for reconciling these two perspectives is cultivating critical self-awareness. Understanding how one makes sense of the world, how one has been socialized to see oneself and others who are “different,” and the values that underlie the meaning of differences, are crucial dimensions to explore on an ongoing basis. In an effort to explore how to promote critical self-reflection for social work graduate students, I designed an exercise to encourage students to begin to develop an understanding of their “positionality” and its impact on relations with clients, peers, and people in positions of authority. The class assignment, named a positionality montage, is required for the Human Behavior in the Social Environment Class during the first semester of the foundation year. The assignment, described below, has had a profound impact for many masters students.

Positionality Montage Description. An important course objective is to encourage class members to critically reflect on their own “positionality,” and how it affects their world view and values, influences understanding of difference, and shapes interaction with others. This assignment is designed to focus on understanding self in relation to history, meaning, context, and power as a foundation for self-aware professional practice.

So why is the assignment called a montage? According to Webster’s Dictionary, montage is the “art or process of making a composite picture by bringing together into a single composition a number of different pictures and arranging these … so that they form a blended whole while remaining distinct” (1984, p. 922). Positionality reflects many dimensions. For the purposes of this class, the dimensions include:

1. race/skin color/ethnicity/nationality/first language,
2. gender,
3. socio-economic class,
4. age,
5. sexual orientation,
6. religion/spiritual belief system, and
7. ability/disability.

This assignment is designed to encourage critical self-reflection by exploring each of these dimensions, to gain an understanding of what each of these dimensions means personally, how these meanings developed, how your life has been shaped by larger social interpretations of these dimensions singularly or in combination, and how these meanings impact your stance toward difference. Or more clearly stated, the purpose is to answer the questions “Who am I?, and “How does this affect how I relate to others who are different?” These are complex questions, and the answers are ever-changing. In order to make the task more doable, there are four components for the assignment. The first is a brief description of six categories. The second component is a more in-depth discussion of the remaining dimension. The choice of which category to focus on in more depth should be based on what you feel has been the most important influence on your personal and/or professional development, or that dimension that has been the most “invisible,” and hence, perhaps the most taken-for-granted. The third component is to describe or synthesize how these seven dimensions interlock, providing a specific example that illustrates the impact in your work with those in authority, peers, and clients. The final component is a brief description of any new insights and implications for future practice.

You are encouraged to be creative with this assignment. You can interweave photographs, a family tree, documents or stories from ancestors, family celebrations or rituals based on cultural/ethnic roots, songs, videos, etc.

Final Thoughts. Critical self-awareness is an essential foundation for effective social justice work practice. Before one can “shift center” as Andersen and Collins (2004) recommend, one must be aware of one’s center. Yet critical self-awareness is but one of many steps in the complex, life-long process of understanding and embracing diversity. Relating to diversity is a multi-dimensional endeavor that involves seeing not only one’s position at present, but also reflecting on one’s experiences within the contexts of personal and world history, power differentials, and socially-constructed meanings of difference. It requires understanding one’s privileges and oppression. And it requires the courage to make mistakes and to look foolish, the grace to face conflict, and the desire to find common ground based on honoring the richness of others’ experiences and perspectives.


Andersen, M. L. & Collins, P. H. (2004). Race, class, and gender: An anthology, 5th edition. Belmont, CA: Thompson Wadsworth.

Goldsmith, J. (1961). The thunder of silence. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.
Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (1984). New York: Gramercy Books.



Photo Credit: Diversity Tree

Obviously I survived those challenging years. The responses of some of the students made it well worth the effort, as the following excerpt from a final student portfolio underscores.

diversity comment 2

Photo Comment: The student granted his permission for me to use this quote for an earlier publication.


I wish to thank Nicci for inspiring me to share these reflections and resources in hopes that they may be useful to others.

Works Cited:

Maxine Jacobson (2012). Breaking silence: Building solutions. Social Work with Groups, 35(3), 267-286.

Howard Zinn (1990). A people’s history of the United States. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

List of Resources*:

Adams, M., Bell, L. A. & Griffin, P. (Eds.), Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook. New York, NY: Routledge.

Adams, M., Blumenfeld, W. J., Castañeda, R., Hackman, H. W., Peters, M. L. & Zúñiga, X. (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice: An anthology on racism, antisemitism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and classism. New York, NY: Routledge.

Andersen, M. L. & Collins, P. H. (2004) (Eds.). Race, class, and gender: An anthology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Loewen, J. (1995). Lies my teacher told me: Everything your history textbook got wrong. New York, NY: Touchstone.

Rothenberg, P. S.(2004). Race, class and gender in the United States. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Takaki, R. (1993). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

*Note: There may be more recent editions available.



30 thoughts on “Context Matters when Teaching Diversity

  1. HI Carol, thanks so much for sharing this! I too think we need to look at the multiple positions we have, and the way we position ourselves, so that we can work effectively. It is (to me) very important to see the different ways of being in the world, and to take time to know how this impacts on ourselves and on other people.

    This is such an interesting post, and I love the way it brings heart and empathy into critical social theory.


    1. Hi Nicci! I wanted to comment on your post, but I wanted to take time to reflect first (and finish the tedious process of organizing chapters I have already written about Indian child welfare). I look forward to your posts because you always raise such important topics – you make me think about issues in new ways.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments – empathy is the crucial foundation for the work we do, as you so well know and demonstrate consistently in your work and writing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Carol, I am so looking forward to your book coming out! I hope that is going well for you!

        It was such an interesting topic for me too…what are helpful men able to describe themselves as when working towards social justice? And do men want to be seen as feminist?

        I appreciate the chance to learn from your experiences and I am grateful you shared them with such generosity and heart. It helps to break down barriers rather than re-create them. We must keep trying, because that way there will hopefully be a kinder world.


        1. Thank you for reblogging this post, Nicci ❤

          I should tell you a story about the student whose quote I shared. He was a tall, muscular young man – a former high school football star who did his internship with a domestic violence agency. He was conscious of his gender and size, and was mindful of the need to create an atmosphere of safety for the women with whom he worked. He told me that he consciously "made himself small," and learned to offer to hold babies while he spoke to women from abusive relationships. He was a gifted advocate and counselor.

          The story fits so well with your post. I doubt if he would describe himself as a feminist, but he certainly was a kind and empathetic human being…

          Liked by 2 people

  2. I think the racism most prevalent in western society is a deliberate structural oppression enforced by the ruling elites. I had forgotten about the treatment of early Massachusetts Bay religious leader Roger Williams, the first to take a strong stand in favor of religious tolerance and against the confiscation of native lands.

    The British Crown came down hard on Williams for his tolerance. He was officially banished from the colony and taken in by the Wampanoag.

    The US would be a far different place if men and women of conscience, like Williams, hadn’t been systematically persecuted.


    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Stuart. I agree that the ruling elites have certainly always benefited by silencing people of conscience, and employing effective divide and conquer tactics – shaming/prosecuting allies and pitting marginalized groups against each other. History can’t be undone, but we can still learn from the mistakes of the past. Unfortunately, that becomes less and less likely given ever more punitive policies and institutions (like education).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Carol, this essay brought up two different memories. First, my early college experience. I left Panama City, Florida and an integrated education to go to an all girls school in Columbia, MO. Even though it was integrated, I soon found that the majority of black girls had never gone to school with white students. And after feeling that the white people, students and teachers, weren’t relating to me as a person, I conducted a survey, for an article for the black student newspaper at the neighboring University of Colorado. I found out that most of the white girls had had no interaction with black people, or if they did it was only as domestics. That was the beginning of my separation from mainstream America. A couple of decades later, I participated in a diversity training in which people stood in a circle and were called out based out the criteria in your positionality montage. Finally, years ago I wrote an essay called “The Minority Myth” after attending a meeting of staff at the University of Texas in Austin when I first heard the oxymoron expression “minority-majority.” But, that’s a whole another discussion. Thanks for a good read and making others aware of issues, that are still, unfortunately a reality for too many youth.


    1. Thank you for adding important experiences to the dialogue, Skywalker. There seem to be so many barriers that keep people from learning about other cultures and people who are different. I think people on the margins, like you and me, have many more opportunities to interact with diverse people and cultures, and in the process, develop empathy. Unfortunately, those with the power to change institutions and policies that are discriminatory and oppressive are more likely to grow up in circumstances similar to those of the white girls in your first college. I’m sure that was a fascinating learning experience for you. My first college experience was very similar to yours and taught me a great deal about (socio-economic) class differences.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Any elementary teacher worth their salt knows that context is everything. I have had the dubious privilege of attending two community colleges, one liberal arts college and one public university. In retrospect, I found the community colleges to be a more grounded experience and the faculty less enamored with the world of academia.

    Higher education lost a powerful voice and conscience with your retirement, Carol. Fortunately, we will soon have your books to help ease the loss.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for sharing your observations as a teacher and student, Jeff 🙂

      It has also been my observation that faculty at community colleges are better grounded and more engaged teachers – they are also paid much less and most have little job security. But they’re accessible to those who can’t afford college otherwise. Let’s hope that Obama’s proposal to make community college free is actually implemented…

      (And, I have begun the next child welfare book chapter but once again realize how hard it is for me to deal with the emotions evoked by revisiting people’s stories about the abuse they lived through because of structural inequalities and ill-conceived oppressive policies.)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Carol, as usual, thought provoking. Such a delicate topic as noone wants to where “the scarlet letter” of being racist or chovanist. Through all the challenges thrown out in your post, personally, none stood out more than simply being kind and empathic. As culture shapes political correctness, kindness is timeless. Peace.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I read this essay with great interest. Often, I am the only prof in our small college my students see who identifies as Native, and is willing to speak to being brought up between cultures. Often, too, Native students “come out” for the first time in these classes. I try to hold that position of knowing about my experience, and refusing to generalize about it. I also seek to engage every student in valuing their identity, in all of its complexity. Sometimes I am able to do these things; other times, not so much.

    It was a joy to read about your successes in this realm, and about your kindness in refusing to rescue students from their own creations. Now, as I near the end of my classroom teaching days, I am aware that, although I mostly teach small seminar classes, I am not at all sure I have been as creative, kind, or successful as I would have wished.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for sharing such important teaching experiences and insights, Michael. You’ve mentioned crucial issues that many faculty struggle with – helping Native students acknowledge who they are and refusing to generalize your own experiences.

      Your thoughts about success in one’s career remind me of a Maya Angelou quote one of my mixed ancestry students shared with me to thank me for treating her with kindness and respect. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” All any of us can do is our best on any given day. It’s really up to students to think critically about what we teach and come up with their own ideas and approaches. And I know both how delightful and frustrating it can be to breathe one’s spirit into teaching. I’m grateful that I was able to work with Ojibwe and first generation non-traditional students in my last year of teaching. They were almost always the most engaged and committed to learning.


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