Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Student Experience
Diversity Digest Volume 10, Number 2

Diversity Digest
Volume 10,
Number 2

Download our print issue (PDF)
Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity and Learning: “A Defining Moment”
Institutional Diversity in a New Nation: Lessons Lived, Lessons Learned
The Pedagogy of Sentipensante: Recasting Institutional Core Agreements
Transforming Our Institutions for the Twenty-first Century: The Role of the Chief Diversity Officer
Creating Institutional Transformation Using the Equity Scorecard
Curricular Transformation
Service Learning, Multicultural Education, and the Core Curriculum:
A Model for Institutional Change
Drop It Like It’s Hot! Hip-Hop in the Twenty-First-Century Classroom
A Sustainable Campus-Wide Program for Diversity Curriculum Infusion
Campus-Community Involvement
El Camino Real: Where Culture and Academia Meet
Faculty Involvement
Advancing Diversity through a Framework of Intersectionality: Inclusion of LGBT Issues in Higher Education
Transitioning on Campus: Creating a Welcoming Climate for Transgender People
Complicating Diversity Categories: Jewish Identity in the Classroom
Student Experience
Dealing with Student Resistance: Sources and Strategies
Beyond Tourism: Race, Space, and National Identity in London
Graduate and Professional Degree Attainment for Students of Color
Affordability of Postsecondary Education for Students of Color
Diversity and Learning Resources

Dealing with Student Resistance: Sources and Strategies

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 Paltz

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 justice.

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 (Sage 2001).


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 University Press.

Tatum, B. D. 1997. “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” and other conversations about race. New York: Basic Books.

Methods 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 anonymous means).
  3. 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 concern.
  4. 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 or students.

—Diane J. Goodman

Questions, comments, and suggested resources should be directed to campbell@aacu.org.
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