Academic Exchange Quarterly Summer 2012 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 16, Issue 2

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Racism: A Difficult Dialogue


Paul G. Wright, California State University, Monterey Bay


Paul G. Wright, Ed.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Master of Social Work Program, specializing in race, gender and inequality issues.




Dialogue on racism remains relevant and difficult even in a “post-racist society” which has elected its first African-American President. This article identifies barriers that may hinder effective dialogue on racism and it offers a model for facilitating a difficult dialogue on racism in academic and non-academic settings.



When reflecting on difficult dialogues, I think about the topic of racism. I have heard many people say that they are tired of hearing about racism and that this topic has become outdated.  Also, this generation believes it is living in a post-racist society that does not think or operate from a racist script, particularly in a country that has elected its first African-American president. In a study conducted by Byrd and Mirken (2011) it was revealed that even in a “post racial” society with its first elected African-American President, race still matters and that “whites and people of color differ greatly in their perceptions of race and racial inequality in America today” (p. 4).  


However, my experiences in the classroom hearing reactions from students on this topic have led me to conclude that racism is still a significant issue that remains unresolved and difficult to have a dialogue on even in a social work program where we pride ourselves on taking on the “isms” of society.  This difficulty manifested whenever content on race, culture or diversity was discussed in the classroom. It provoked the most hostile reactions from students compared to other highly charged topics.  On several occasions a few students in the class became so disruptive that it became difficult to continue to lecture on the topic of racism due to frequent interruptions and outbursts by certain students in reaction to the subject. This dynamic was intriguing to me because my assumptions were that students who matriculate into a Master of Social Work (MSW) program do so because they have a sense of social justice, an affinity for diversity, and seek dialogues on topics such as racism and sexism. For the most part, MSW students honestly want to help others and envision themselves working with people who have various needs whether those needs are addressed clinically or through social services. Further, they view sexism, homophobia, racism and any other “ism” as offensive and those who discriminate against others based on race, gender or sexual orientation in an unfavorable light. Ironically, when the dialogue on race begins, many students (even the liberal) have a difficult time listening and engaging with others on this topic in the class. If a dialogue on racism is difficult for MSW students, it may be challenging for student in other academic disciplines as well. Therefore, the concepts discussed here may be applicable to other settings, academic or otherwise.


There are various approaches to having a dialogue on racism in the classroom, for example, according to Sue and Constantine (2007) it is important to understand the role of microaggressions (subtle and non-verbal exchanges which are put downs) that are directed towards students of color, which sabotage dialogue on racism. Other approaches on the subject of race and diversity are discussed in the works of Brown and Kraehe (2010), Leibowitz, Bozalek, Rohleder, Carolissen, and Swartz (2010), Sonn (2008).


Difficult Dialogue among the Professoriate

The dialogue about racism is also difficult among social work faculty. Some non-tenured faculty  have expressed to me privately their apprehension about teaching courses that address racism for fear that they may receive poor course evaluations from students, which could adversely impact their ability to become tenured. For this reason, some non-tenured faculty are discouraged from teaching classes that address racism.


Also, some colleagues have stated that they are uncomfortable with class discussions on racism because they are often rife with hostility. Faculties reactions and reasons for avoiding difficult dialogues on race is consistent with research as indicated by Sue, Torino, Capodilupo, Rivera and Lin (2009). The social work code of ethics explicitly articulates the social work position and expectations on issues of diversity and social justice. (NASW, Code of ethics, 2008) It is an expectation of the profession to have this dialogue and address diversity and oppression in the course content. One could conclude that if a social work program does not prepare students to work with diversity or address issues of racism in social work practice it is not adhering to our code of ethics. Although this is part of the mission statement of social work programs, it is not uncommon for students to react to the race content with a range of feelings. For instance, white students typically respond with denial, disbelief or projected anger toward students and faculty of color. Students of color tend to react to the race content with denial, shame, relief, feelings of validation or anger at white people for the history of oppression and racism. The reactions to this difficult topic vary, however these reactions are articulated in an article written by Phan, Woods, Vugia, Chu, Wright, and Jones (2009).


Classroom Experiences with Racism

In 2011 when I was discussing the deplorable conditions in which many Mexican migrant farm workers work and live in a particular agricultural area in California, an older white female student blurted out, “That is a crock of sh--!” The student continued to blurt out comments, about the material being biased.

On another occasion, in 2011, a twenty- something year old white female student gave a presentation on affirmative action. She discussed the history of African-Americans which led to the need to create this policy and discussed the advantages and disadvantages of affirmative action. She concluded her presentation by stating that due to affirmative action “there are students of color in this MSW program who are not qualified to be here.” The student further stated that many professors of color at the university are unqualified but they are allowed to teach at the university because of affirmative action. These statements were made as though these are known truths.  As I observed the students in the classroom, I could see that the students of color, mostly of Mexican ancestry, exchanged glances of shock and dismay. After class the students of color voiced their feelings about the student’s views on race and diversity. They were perplexed as to why she had chosen to pursue a degree in social work because social workers’ primary focus is to work with poor or oppressed groups.


 Socio/historical Impact of Racism on Groups of Color

Throughout most of American history, European Americans have controlled the discussion on issues of race and many of the negative images associated with groups that have been oppressed and discriminated against based on their race.  For example, Mexicans have been viewed as lazy and untrustworthy, Asians as too clannish to assimilate. African Americans have been depicted as sub-human to justify enslavement and Native Americans have shared this sub-human status to rationalize their extermination and confinement to reservations. This history is carefully documented in the works of such historians as John Hope Franklin (1994), Ronald Takaki (1998), Rodolfo Acuna (2006), Debra Minkoff (1995).


There is a parallel between historical oppression and racism, and the current conditions of specific groups of color and this disparity is manifested in different systems but it is probably most evident in the criminal justice system.  For example, African-American and Latino youths are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and are more likely to become incarcerated than their white counterparts (Davis and Bent-Goodley, 2004, p. 105).


It needs to be noted that racism is not an imaginary concept and it produces damaging results for whatever group it targets.  In the course of their careers, social workers will encounter a member of an oppressed group or racial minority and will need to have the cultural competency and skills to provide services to them. Therefore, it is crucial that students in a social work program learn to have a dialogue about racism. Further, social work students need to understand how certain social policies may specifically impact racial minorities and their communities in an adverse manner. Katznelson (2005) summarizes in When Affirmative Action Was White how policies such as the New Deal were strategically crafted to exclude African Americans from obtaining needed benefits and thus placed African Americans at a serious disadvantage for becoming middle class citizens not only at that time but in future generations.  Conversely, policies were created in a manner to benefit white people that place them at a significant advantage to obtaining middle class status and stability.  This is relevant because of the relationship between historical oppression and the current day condition of groups of color. Therefore, to help the social work student understand the circumstances of groups of color there must be a dialogue about the history and the factors which have led to the current status of oppressed groups.  Whenever, the content on the history of racial oppression is discussed and policies which were created to support and institutionalize the gains made by racism, white students take a defensive stance (understandably), and it makes dialogue difficult if not impossible. An example of this type of discussion in a social work class looks like this between a white student and a Mexican American student in a social work class.


White male student:  Mexicans use racial discrimination as an excuse to not do well in school or to obtain jobs in this country. I can understand if this was 60 years ago. They (Mexicans) did face some racial discrimination but in 2011 no one is holding them back but themselves and their unwillingness to learn to speak English.


Mexican male student: The other day I applied for an office position at a company. When I arrived for my interview, the hiring manager, who was white, suggested that I would probably be a better fit for a position in the company’s café even though I was more than qualified for the office position. Why do you think he would make that suggestion? (Classroom discussion, Fall 2011)


This type of exchange is common between white students and students of color in a social work program when race is a part of the discussion. The discussion takes on an argumentative stance and it becomes a challenge to help each student to learn to listen and respond to one another.


What is Dialogue?

In order to have a meaningful dialogue on the difficult topic of racism, it is helpful to understand what dialogue is and what it is suppose to achieve. Dr. Debian Marty, a communication ethicist at California State University, Monterey Bay. She offers the following definition of dialogue:


Dialogue is not designed to make choices about specific actions, although it may serve deliberation and decision making. Nor is dialogue intended for persuasion, wherein the incentive for understanding differences lies mainly in discovering strategies for refutation or rebuttal. These expectations for action and advocacy are misplaced, for dialogue is meant to facilitate mutual understanding. (D. Marty, personal communication, July 11, 2011)


Obstruction to a Dialogue on Race

The history of racial oppression is not a pretty one. A review of the history and experiences of minority groups of color which have experienced oppression based on their race, underscores that one group in power perpetrated this oppression and benefited from its existence while other groups were placed at a psychological, political and economic disadvantage. Freire (1999) captures this dynamic clearly in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Consequently, it is this very dynamic of oppressor versus oppressed that creates the primary obstructions to dialogue on race. In other words, it becomes them (white students) versus us (students of color) and each group is invested in their position.


People are socialized through academic institutions to become anti-dialogists and to respond in a strategic and a defensive manner to opposing points of view. In an academic setting students are taught to write papers discussing the pros and cons on subjects. This exercise which is taught in the educational system has its benefits; however, other exercises need to be included which teach students how to understand others and engage in an authentic dialogue. Our current educational system inevitably socializes students to become argumentative about difficult topics rather than listen and understand the experiences of others. This learning approach promotes an anti-dialogue climate in the classroom and exacerbates the adversarial style of communication that is inherently a part of our culture and academic socialization. Difficulties in communication will inevitability occur when groups with significantly different views and experiences try to resolve their disputes with adversarial communication habits. Dr. Debian Marty states,


When people attempt to resolve their differences or want others to understand their point of view it is nearly predictable that resolution or mutual understanding will not take place when the argument culture of communication is used which is a cycle of judge, blame and defend. This cycle needs to be converted to a reciprocal process of listen, reflect and respond. This goal brings us into the art of dialogue.  (D. Marty, personal communication, July 11, 2011)


There are courses in social work, such as General Practice classes which teach students interpersonal communication skills and specific texts that are assigned to help students understand and empathize with clients who have different life experiences. Murphy and Dillon (2011), Hepworth, Rooney, Dewberry Rooney, Strom-Gottfried and Larsen (2010) and Skovholt and Rivers (2007).  However, it is ironic in a discipline such as social work where students are taught to work with vulnerable populations that the curriculum does not typically offer courses that teach students to communicate with each other in a non-adversarial manner and how to engage in a dialogue that seeks common ground and mutual understanding on highly charged issues.  Given our cultural socialization on how we learn to take an argumentative position rather than to engage in authentic dialogue, it is a logical conclusion that we will instinctively assume a “judge, blame and defend” posture in our discussions with others. Makau and Marty (2001) articulate an effective model for dialogue and identifies the judge, blame and defend posture that is common in adversarial dialogues.  


Strategies to Dialogue

Learning to listen to others is not easy and developing listening skills does not occur quickly. Some people are naturally better listeners than others, but most people need to work at developing this skill. The first strategy in learning to have a dialogue with others is to make a paradigm shift from the argument culture which promotes the cycle of judge, blame and defend. This adversarial style of communication needs to shift towards a listen, reflect and respond pattern for the purpose of understanding a different point of view. One must be willing to shift from the “winners versus losers” mindset that someone’s point of view must prevail so that they can “win.” Asking questions is viewed as a weakness to people who are a product of the adversarial style of communication. In an argument culture when one’s communication style is reciprocal rather than dogmatic, one is viewed as an oddity. Hence, a paradigm shift in how we communicate with others is essential if we are to understand others, particularly if their culture, background and life experiences are in contrast to our own (Makau and Marty, 2001).


The second strategy to having a difficult dialogue on race is to help students shift from an us (white) versus them (color) perspective to help students understand that there is a common purpose and goal to which all social workers are committed. As an educator who has taught on the topic of race extensively, I have observed that this strategy helps to facilitate the paradigm shift from the defensive and argumentative style of communication to one of commonality.  Discussions on racism are essential to help move toward that common goal in our profession which is to ultimately improve the economic and political inclusion of groups that are vulnerable and marginalized in our society (NASW, Code of ethics, 2008). There is a probability that as social workers these students will either work directly with or have a role in influencing social policy that impacts members of these groups. Therefore, it is in the interest of all of us to understand the history and life experiences of people who are members of these groups.


As a facilitator of these difficult dialogues, I frequently use class discussions, teachable moments or experiential activities to help students to raise their consciousness regarding racism. As social workers we are here to help improve the conditions of society for all people, regardless of group membership. Further, it is in the interest of all of us to have a more just society where all people are respected and have equal access to services and institutions.



A dialogue on racism is difficult, but still remains relevant even in a post-racist society. On the surface, the subject of racism does not seem relevant perhaps due to the lack of obvious oppressive systems that have plagued our society in the past. It is the subtle effects of racism that makes part of the dialogue on racism difficult because it is difficult to see the connection between historical oppression and current circumstances. Further, the uninitiated do not understand how racial stereotypes can be psychologically and economically damaging to a particular group.  The dialogue on the current plight of groups of color and their experiences with racism becomes hindered due to taking an argumentative stance on racism. Therefore, it is imperative to become conscious of our mode of communication and to earnestly work towards a paradigm shift in how we communicate. Moreover, professors need to model for students how to have the difficult dialogue on racism. If professors are avoiding this topic, students will be ill prepared to face the difficult realities that groups of color experience every day. Finally, it is vital that we understand that there is a common benefit when each member in our society is included and treated with respect and that we all benefit if each person can realize their full potential as a human being.  





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