Dealing with Student Resistance: Sources
By Diane J. Goodman, diversity consultant from
Nyack, New York, and adjunct faculty in the graduate
school of education at the State University of New York–New
Education about diversity and social justice is a deeply
emotional and psychological process, not simply an intellectual
one. Often when we ask people to engage with questions
of social justice, we are asking them to question their
fundamental belief systems—how they see themselves
and make sense of the world. It is therefore not surprising
that, even when armed with great information, stimulating
activities, and compelling issues, we find ourselves
asking why our students fail to engage with—or
even actively resist—our course content. This
tendency to resist is particularly common among people
from privileged groups—those in the more powerful
positions in a given form of oppression (sexism, racism,
heterosexism, classism, etc.). Many educators find resistance
from students from privileged groups to be one of the
more challenging aspects of teaching diversity and social
We can enhance our effectiveness in teaching diversity
and social justice by understanding the resistance that
happens when students are unwilling or unable to meaningfully
engage with the material. Students may reject challenges
to the status quo, avoid critical self-reflection, refuse
to consider alternative perspectives that challenge
the dominant ideology, dismiss the idea that systemic
inequalities exist, or avoid examining assumptions.
Such reactions are different both from having prejudices
and from engaging in genuine debate. While I discuss
resistance in terms of students, many of my observations
are applicable to people in other contexts, as well.
Reasons for Resistance
Student resistance arises from a variety of sources,
most of which are societal and psychological. In order
to combat resistance in the classroom, we must first
examine its points of origin.
Our dominant cultural values, institutional structures,
and social climate promote competitive individualism,
hierarchy, and the belief in meritocracy. This leads
people to view dominant groups as normal and superior,
to accept the unearned material benefits awarded to
those groups, and to blame victims for their misfortune.
Our society encourages us to be self-focused, to see
others as threats, and to protect our own interests
and resources. Thus the drive for self-advancement can
diminish the concern for greater equity. People in positions
of privilege tend to resist changing a system from which
they benefit. In addition to these cultural values,
which discourage people from seeking a more equitable
society, the taboo against noticing differences and
discussing oppression leaves people with little ability
or inclination to do so.
While these social, cultural, political, and economic
factors provide a foundation for resistance to social
justice, people’s individual psychological issues
also affect their responses. When people are focused
on their own struggles, on their own identities as members
of oppressed groups, or on protecting their senses of
self, they are often less open to exploring the oppression
of others and how they contribute to it. Various theories
of social/racial identity development (Helms 1995; Tatum
1997; Hardiman and Jackson 1992) describe stages where
people have internalized the dominant belief system,
making them resistant to alternative ways of structuring
social relations. Cognitive dissonance, the discrepancy
between what we believe to be true and contradictory
external information, also causes people to reject new
perspectives, especially when those perspectives threaten
beliefs learned from parents or other respected individuals.
Some students may react negatively to the teacher (challenging
the educator’s credibility, competence, or “objectivity,”
especially when he or she is a member of the oppressed
group). Many people also simply fear change.
Given the depth and range of these reasons for resistance,
it is understandable that some students do not immediately
embrace social justice efforts. Since resistance is
an expression of fear, anxiety, and discomfort, educators
need to create an environment of “psychological
safety and readiness” (Friedman and Lipshitz 1992).
Robert Kegan (1982) discusses the need for “confirmation”
(an environment of support) before “contradiction”
(conditions that challenge current meaning-making systems).
I think most educators jump to “contradiction,”
providing new and challenging perspectives without first
establishing environments and relationships of trust
(among the students, but especially with the teacher).
Let me be clear—real consciousness raising and
social justice education makes people uncomfortable.
Moving people out of their comfort zones is a necessary
part of the process. However, we need to create conditions
that encourage students to begin and remain on the journey,
not retreat (physically or psychologically). We need
to provide students with a balance of challenge and
support: too much support, and students don’t
learn; too much challenge, and students shut down.
By considering the range of societal and psychological
reasons for resistance, we can be more compassionate
and more skillful in how we work with others. It is
not always easy to develop and sustain compassion for
our students, but I believe it is necessary to reach
our educational goals. When sufficient trust and support
have been created, and interesting material and activities
presented, students often become engaged in the lessons
of diversity and social justice despite themselves.
Only by meeting resistance head on, with critical understanding
of its sources and sensitive, thoughtful responses,
can we hope to enlist our students in the ongoing battle
for social justice and diversity.
For a more thorough discussion of these issues, see
Diane J. Goodman, Promoting Diversity and Social
Justice: Educating People from Privileged Groups
Friedman, V. J., and R. Lipshitz. 1992. Teaching people
to shift cognitive gears: Overcoming resistance on the
road to model II. Journal of Applied Behavioral
Science 28 (1): 118–36.
Hardiman, R., and B. Jackson. 1992. Racial identity
development: Understanding racial dynamics in college
classrooms and on campus. In Promoting diversity
in college classrooms: Innovative responses for the
curriculum, faculty, and institutions, ed. M. Adams,
21–37. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Helms, J. 1995. An update on Helms’ white and
people of color racial identity models. In Handbook
of multicultural counseling, ed. J. G. Ponterotto,
J. M. Casa, L. A. Suzuki, and C. M. Alexander, 181–98.
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Kegan, R. 1982. The evolving self: Problems and
process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
Tatum, B. D. 1997. “Why are all the Black
kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” and other
conversations about race. New York: Basic Books.
for Addressing Resistance
Just as there
are numerous reasons for resistance, there are
several possible tactics to address it. The following
methods can prevent or reduce resistance from
the start and throughout the class:
- Build relationships and environments
that allow risk taking. This may involve
talking with individuals beforehand (especially
if you expect resistance) or making an effort
to get to know students who show signs of resistance.
Build a safe, supportive classroom climate (have
guidelines, do group-building activities) and
provide clear structure and expectations. Self-disclose
appropriately about who you are, your process
of “unlearning oppression,” and
mistakes you’ve made—make yourself
human, and demonstrate that unlearning oppression
is an ongoing experience for all of us.
- Affirm, validate, and convey respect
for students. People are more likely
to care about others when they feel respected.
Acknowledge their feelings, experiences, and
viewpoints. Acknowledgment does not necessarily
mean agreement—it means that you hear
and respect what students say and refrain from
judging them. Affirm people’s self-esteem
(e.g., through activities that highlight cultural
pride or times they challenged injustice). Validate
and build on current knowledge and let people
discover information for themselves. Consider
designing classes and sessions that incorporate
the issues that most interest students. Discuss
common reactions and social identity development.
When students are aware of how people typically
react while learning about diversity and oppression,
they can be reassured that their feelings are
normal and can anticipate how to address these
feelings as they arise. Provide opportunities
for frequent feedback (through various and sometimes
- Heighten investment. Frame
diversity issues in terms of shared principles,
values, or goals (e.g., fairness, democracy).
Explore students’ self-interest in social
justice to encourage them to envision greater
equity positively. Foster empathy for those
in oppressed groups so students can develop
personal connections, leading to genuine moral
- If resistance does occur, consider
these options. Try not to get hooked—avoid
focusing on the resistant individual(s), know
your own triggers and what impedes your ability
to respond effectively. Assess the reasons for
the resistance so you can develop an appropriate
response. Invite an exploration of the issue
raised—guide the class in discussion about
the conflict. Contain the behavior (set a time
limit, summarize, and move on). Provide a time-out—let
people freewrite, share reactions in pairs,
take a break. If the group is resistant, go
with the flow—let them air the issue.
Finally, if necessary, arrange a private meeting
so you can understand the underlying conflict
and build rapport with the resistant student
—Diane J. Goodman