Addressing Student Resistance to Discourses of Diversity

**Due to the nature of the topic, we felt that it was important to cite from scholarly work completed within the last 6-8 years. Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that this is a discussion about classroom dynamics, which does not supersede the vital significance of acknowledging resistance within macro-levels of an institution, namely, resistance among faculty, administration, staff, and other stakeholders.


Diversity discourses in college courses have positive benefits for learners (Cabrera et al., 2016), for instance, by providing a space for multiple perspectives to be heard, mitigating bias, and building a critical consciousness so learners are more apt to understand their role in systemic oppression and prejudice and create larger, positive societal change within their communities (Mthethwa-Sommers, 2010). However, in the college classroom, these critically impactful discourses are often stifled due to resistance. Here are some examples of resistant discourse (taken from the literature and faculty experiences):

  • “Your success depends on how much effort you put into things, not your race. If I need money, I go out and get a job – not free handouts.”
  • “Why do we have to keep talking about race? White people also face discrimination in their own way.” 
  • “Why are we focusing on only black people? All lives matter.”
  •  “Oh ya, of course Professor X has to harp on race; he’s black.”
  •  “I don’t really see color. Everyone is the same.”
  •  “Minorities are just too sensitive.”
  • “Maybe they should make better choices and spend more time in the library than on the ball court.”


Resistance is synonymous with the words “battle” or “struggle” or “refusal.” In the context of higher education, resistance can be characterized as the refusal to acknowledge/examine/change dynamics of structures of power, present at the macro-levels of society, that function to oppress and create barriers for marginalized identities within that institution (Cabrera et al., 2016).

How Does Systemic Prejudice Manifest in Higher Education Classrooms?

Throughout its history, the systemic oppression and racist ideologies of the U.S. are closely linked to the exploitation of communities of color by a white majority and the barriers and exclusions of people of color within educational contexts (Museaus et al., 2015). This has been specifically related to adult learning contexts in higher education.

Higher education was originally designed by and for privileged identities, specifically elite white males who would be future leaders of the country (Museaus et al., 2015). Thus, policies that reinforce the preservation of elite interests still remain in higher education in a modern context (Cabrera et al., 2016), particularly since the majority of elites in the U.S. are overwhelmingly white (Museaus et al., 2015). Scholars have outlined historical patterns of effort to preserve such interests through policies that served to prevent barriers to the participation of communities of color in higher education contexts through covert segregation and testing policies. Click here to learn more about these policies.

In contemporary culture, structures of power and oppression manifest in higher education in these ways:

  • The growing neoliberal, market-driven shifts in higher education focus on the individual’s market value versus the development of critical consciousness and value of diversity and sharing multiple voices (Hornig & Sambile, 2019; Guarasci, 2019).
  • A lack of representation of faculty of color in the classroom and particular backlash for faculty of color when teaching discourses of diversity (Delano-Orarian & Parks, 2015; Vianden, 2019).
  • The growing cost of education with financial options that disproportionately impact underrepresented students and their families (Museus et al., 2015).
  • The notion of stereotype threat, where students of color are often made to feel that they are inept in academic endeavors, which is a force that threatens students’ performance in standardized testing (Steele, 2011). Colleges and universities have only recently begun to implement “multiple measures” policies.

Are There Any Other Key Factors That Contribute to Resistance?

Structures of Whiteness

In addition to the historical and contemporary issues of systemic prejudice in higher education, it would be remiss to exclude discourses of whiteness as a silent power structure that is inextricably rooted in its foundations (Cabrera et al., 2016). One way whiteness currently functions in higher education is through what Hornig and Sambile (2019) referred to as “revisionist histories” that decenter oppressed voices in academia and make central the narratives of those in power. One central narrative that has made its way into higher education contexts stems from a national narrative to “Make America Great Again,” (Giroux, 2019). However, scholars questioned at what point America was “great” for marginalized citizens, let alone marginalized students in higher education, where oppression, isolation, invisibility, and stereotypes are well documented as affecting the higher education experience for marginalized and underrepresented students (Cabrera et al., 2016; Giroux, 2019; Guarasci, 2018; Museaus et al., 2015). This mantra is also closely linked with the “All Lives Matter” movement, a backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement, which is meant to highlight systemic brutality towards the Black community in the U.S.

How Does Resistance Manifest in the Classroom?

It is important to consider ways that constructs of whiteness both occupy and actively structure and re-structure higher education environments in the classroom. In this context, whiteness and white privilege in higher education is prevalent in the specific ways that white students often interact and react to discourses of diversity. It is well documented that those in white culture often assume America is a post-racial society, and success is achievable through hard work and merit (Delano-Orarian & Parks, 2015). In higher education, as well as a larger American context, white individuals often react to notions of prejudice in ways that dismiss, devalue, or outright reject that prejudice occurs (Cabrera et al., 2016).

Specifically, white students “recreate” white privilege in everyday action or lack thereof (Cabrera et al. 2016). These actions may manifest through silence, anger, invalidation of oppressed voices (Museaus et al., 2015; Tharp, 2015), and body language (Delano-Oriaran & Parks, 2015). Also, microaggressions can be directed at other students (Cabrera et al., 2016) or faculty of color (Museaus et al., 2015; Vianden, 2018), particularly women of color and specifically by white males in the classroom (Cabrera et al., 2016). Resistance is more common among white male students as this demographic is more often associated with inappropriate and disruptive behavior in higher education contexts, such as harassment and discrimination (Harper & Harris, 2010; Vianden, 2018).  Wagner (2015) emphasized that white males are least interested in diversity education because it conflicts with their intense socialization to embody characteristics of hegemonic masculinity that assert power, dominance, and control, preventing them from appearing weak or ignorant (Wagner, 2015; Vianden, 2018). These qualities are often in direct conflict with diversity education, which asks learners to cultivate cultural humility and develop certain degrees of vulnerability (Wagner, 2015).

What Strategies Have Been Successful in Addressing Resistance?

Best Practices – Content & Methodologies

In emphasizing diversity in education, scholars examined various strategies. These are just a few found in the literature:

  • Emphasizing the inclusion of content that asked students to confront their own positionality through hearing experiences from multiple voices and positionalities in society, which is an element of content incorporation that can be effective in mitigating resistance to diversity discourses (Canlas et al., 2015; Delano-Orarian & Parks, 2015).
  • Introducing the concept of white privilege through works from white authors who reflected the students’ own racial positionality.
  • Focusing content on learners with privileged identities through coverage of concepts such as positionality and privilege, particularly white privilege (Delano-Orarian & Parks, 2015). 
  • Decentering whiteness and emphasizing systematic oppression by incorporating content that examined racial constructs and the historical basis for group relations in the United States (Cabrera et al., 2016; Giroux, 2019; Hornig & Sambile, 2019).  
  • Emphasizing content that focused on macro-concepts of oppression (i.e. inequality, unemployment, and economic decline.)
  • Using a constructivist approach to cultivate a critical consciousness in adult learners because it emphasized active engagement and inquiry through examination of multiple contexts of power and privilege (Merriam & Bierema, 2014). Students do not merely accept facts and information in the classroom, but rather, construct knowledge through this active engagement and examination (Dewey, 2011; Swan et al., 2019).
  • Employing inquiry-based learning techniques to encourage ownership of knowledge construction, and facilitate higher order thinking skills (Mthethwa-Sommers, 2010; Swart, 2017). When done through a scaffold approach (Swan et al., 2019), students are provided with a clear, systematic pathway that emphasizes that decision-making processes should be based on rational, evidence-based inquiry rather than mere feeling or baseless opinions (Giroux, 2019). This is particularly vital in higher education, where larger national narratives normalize raw, emotion-based arguments and incentivize decision-making processes, particularly in dealing with social justice issues that affect marginalized communities (Giroux, 2019; Guarasci, 2018).
  • Promoting community building. Bettez and Hytten (2013) discussed social justice inquiry both as a process and a goal that should cause the learner to re-think the concept of democracy in an effort to move towards community-based thinking. This shift from an individual to a more collective-based focus allows learners to consider power structures inherent in society and in their personal lives and contemplate their own power and agency within those structures (Bettez & Hytten, 2013).
  • Emphasizing strategic dialogue. Dewey (2011) emphasized the vital role of critical dialogue in educational contexts in building a critical consciousness through exchanging ideas, listening to multiple perspectives, and building mutual interests. Smele et al. (2017) discussed how dissent during these discourses needed to be met with levels of discomfort. They encouraged situations where course dynamics included “risky” conversations in which privilege and assumptions about knowledge were “checked” or “called out.” Other ways dialogue has been incorporated are through active questioning (Rosen et al., 2017); critical questioning (Bettez & Hytten, 2013); and emotion-based responses connected with radical listening (Hornig & Sambile, 2019).
  • Promoting sharing, particularly in online discussions, which helped change the instructor/student power structure, as well as encourage marginalized voices to convey the lived realities of their experiences in ways that the instructor could not. Sharing also has been found to increase trust and cultivate empathy for others’ experiences, as well as create opportunities for critical thinking (Rosen et al., 2017).


  1. Considering the problem of resistance, in what ways might you still have room to grow, learn, and adapt in order to address issues of resistance?
  2. Choose a strategy of addressing resistance that is listed from the bullet points above that you have never used or considered before. Describe how you could potentially implement that strategy specifically in order to address student resistance to diversity discourse.
  3. In what specific ways might resistance to change manifest outside of the classroom in higher education?


Bettez, S., & Hytten, K. (2013). Community building in social justice work: A critical approach. Educational Studies49(1), 45–66.

Cabrera, N. L., Franklin, J. D., & Watson, J. S. (2016). Whiteness in higher education: The invisible missing link in diversity and racial analyses. ASHE Higher Education Report42(6), 7–125.

Canlas, M., Argenal, A., & Bajaj, M. (2015). Teaching human rights from below: Towards solidarity, resistance and social justice. Radical Teacher, (103), 38–46.

Delano-Oriaran, O. O., & Parks, M. W. (2015). One black, one white. Multicultural Education22(3/4), 15-19.

Dewey, J. (2011). Democracy and education. Publishing.

Guarasci, R. (2018). Anchoring democracy: The civic imperative for higher education. Liberal Education, 104(1), 26-33.

Giroux, H. A. (2019). Authoritarianism and the challenge of higher education in the age of Trump. Action, Criticism & Theory for Music Education, 18(1), 6–25.

Harper, S. R., & Harris, F., III. (2010). College men and masculinities: Theory, research, and implications for practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hornig, B. L., & Sambile, A. F. (2019). Addressing hxstorical amnesia: Proactively combating hxstorical amnesia as a means of healing in higher education. Vermont Connection40(1), 98–104.

Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mthethwa-Sommers, S. (2010). Inquiry based method: A case study to reduce levels of resistance. International Journal of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education22(1), 55–63.

Museus, S. D., Ledesma, M. C., & Parker, T. L. (2015). Introduction. ASHE Higher Education Report, 42(1), 1–112.

Rosen, D., McCall, J., & Goodkind, S. (2017). Teaching critical self-reflection through the lens of cultural humility: An assignment in a social work diversity course. Social Work Education36(3), 289–298.

Smele, S., Siew-Sarju, R., Chou, E., Breton, P., & Bernhardt, N. (2017). Doing feminist difference differently: Intersectional pedagogical practices in the context of the neoliberal diversity regime. Teaching in Higher Education22(6), 690–704.

Steele, C. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do. New York, NY: Norton & Company.

Swan, A. K., Sleeter, N. M., & Schrum, K. (2019). Teaching hidden history: A case study of dialogic scaffolding in a hybrid graduate course. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning13(1), 1–28.

Swart, R. (2017). Critical thinking instruction and technology enhanced learning from the student perspective: A mixed methods research study. Nurse Education in Practice, 23, 30-39. doi:10.1016/j.nepr.2017.02.003

Vianden, J. (2018). “In all honesty, you don’t learn much”: White college men’s perceptions of diversity courses and instructors. International Journal of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education30(3), 465–476.

Wagner, R. (2015). College Men and Masculinity: Implications for Diversity Education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 48(3), 473–488.

2 thoughts on “Addressing Student Resistance to Discourses of Diversity

  1. Janelle Arafiles

    Thank you for your informational and inspiring post, Prof. H. Honestly, I have a lot of room to grow in this respect. In my own classroom, I try to focus on the value of every voice and perspective within a scope of kindness and push for positive change in the world. I tend to encourage fighting social injustice on broad levels. In other words, I try to touch on as many major barriers as possible. We discuss racism, classicism, sexism, labels, etc. Injustice runs rampant in our circles of life. Hate and unfairness consume communities through various means of fear, perpetuated stereotypes, and ignorance. Sadly, the issue of racism is a barrier our country struggles to break. I address this in my classroom, but I try not to steer dialogue in such a manner that might exacerbate hate or anger between groups. To incite change, I aim to build classroom atmosphere on unconditional kindness, unity, and justice. Admittedly, I am working on strategic dialogue because I avoid delving into negativity as much as possible. When we discuss social justice issues, I try to guide the discussion in such a way that asks students to suggest avenues for change through love for our fellow man. What makes us different should be celebrated and respected. There should be no room for hate between us. We’re people and we deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. That is the way to progress. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best. We should be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin or anything else.

    I’d like to meditate and progress more on decentering whiteness, but I feel that I need more study and resources to implement in this regard. I am specifically looking for resources that fit my foundation of kindness and positive change.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: What Worked? (A Best Practices Review) – Composing Possibilities

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