Avoiding Inclusive Education at the Expense of Marginalized Groups: The Educator’s Role in Brave Spaces

Content warning: This blog post details my some of experiences as a gay educator and includes slurs and microaggression I’ve experienced.

Working in student affairs, I have attended many trainings around diversity and inclusion.  With content consistent among many presentations, I’m always excited to be introduced to a tool I’ve never used, a way of explaining a concept that students will understand, or a new nugget of information.  While I may not remember every detail of each training, an indicator of a good training is the one or two main takeaways that stick with me.

Last year, I listened to a speaker (whose name I cannot recall) and remembered her mentioning that education on diversity always comes at the expense of someone, and that it should be our goal to minimize that expense for those in marginalized groups.  At the end of the session, one of my peers asked whether this education could come about at no one’s expense, and the presenter responded with a firm “no.”  Though it was a bitter pill to swallow and difficult to process, the more I reflected, the more I realized it held true in my own experience as a gay man on the path to becoming an educator:

When I first moved into my college residence hall and was still in the closet, I watched the residents on my floor constantly insult my straight suitemate by calling him gay.  I didn’t say anything.

When I came out to a religious friend in a study group, she told me I didn’t have to live that way and said she’d pray for me.  We never discussed that interaction again.

When I came out publicly on Facebook, some people I called friends just seemed to fade away.  I let them.

During my first round of training as an RA, the prompt I was assigned in a role play scenario said that I had recently broken up with my significant other.  I specified boyfriend, but I awkwardly corrected my partner who kept saying girlfriend instead.

When a resident found out I was gay, it became a game of twenty questions.  Some of the questions assumed I was an expert on all things LGBTQ+, and others were very personal.

Through the a wall, I overheard one of my residents say his RA was a faggot.  I never addressed that.

When I off-handedly came out to another resident after he had said something to the effect of “no homo,” he became wide-eyed and backed away.  The follow-up was only slightly productive.

That was all during my first two years of college, and though I was wildly unprepared to educate others, I became a part of that process simply by being gay.  However, as time went on, things changed.  The microaggressions and slurs didn’t stop and if anything, I was asked more questions, but I learned more, discovered some language to use, developed more confidence in my queer identity, and got a lot more “practice.”  At 18 or 19, I was not ready to have those conversations, so I ignored opportunities to have them or gave them a go, unprepared as I was. However, at 23, as difficult as those conversations still can be, I’d rather engage in them than allow that education to happen at the expense of someone who is not ready.

That said, I think it naïve in concept and unhelpful in practice to think that we could prevent all marginalized learners from having experiences where they must educate others about their identities.  Students have experiences away from formal learning environments where these issues are bound to arise, and rising to meet the challenge of educating others is a developmental opportunity I would not want to remove entirely.  However, I think we can be allies by creating a brave space to contribute to a learning environment that is suitable for all and modeling interaction in that brave space.

Before one can create a brave space or model bravery, knowledge of different forms of power and privilege is required.  In order to educate about groups different than one’s self, one must have knowledge of those groups, and that learning is an intentional process.  By simply being gay, I learned about issues that affect gay people.  However, I realized that I didn’t know what it was like to be a woman, be transgender, live as a racial or ethnic minority, have low socioeconomic status, or live with a disability.  To learn about those experiences was important, but it was also vital to consider how to do this learning with minimal expense to those who are vulnerable.  I found that a combination of internet research and dialogue with advocates has been helpful.  Without this knowledge, one cannot engage in an informed conversation.

Using that knowledge, one can then challenge non-inclusive practices and model dialogue in a brave space.  Even in discussion of topics unrelated to inclusivity, it seems important to have these conversations as they naturally arise.  Whether these conversations are planned (or at least easily anticipated) in a history, literature, or political science course, or unexpected when a controversial comment is made in a math class, it is important to use these opportunities to model respect, challenging ideas without attacking others, agreeing to disagree, and not taking things personally (concepts from the work on brave spaces of Arao and Clemens).  In the moment, this might be standing up for the marginalized groups who otherwise might not have a voice, but it also models these skills for students so that they may feel more prepared to engage in dialogue outside of the classroom.

Lastly, I think it’s key to never let expertise of inclusive practices hinder us from interacting with learners as humans.  A mentor of mine once said that it was strange for her to learn and grow while her students were perpetually 18 or 19.  I find this important to remember when working with difficult topics around inclusivity.  While I’ve learned and grown, able to throw around words like “microaggression” and “intersectionality” and willing to show more vulnerability with greater confidence in my own identities, I still work with young people who do not have those experiences for the most part.  Whether students are part of the majority group – totally new to the nuances of diversity and inclusion – or part of the minoritized group and requiring support when faced with structures of power and privilege, they all are facing a difficult issue.  A true willingness to engage in dialogue and learn with and from these people will go farther than a formulaic approach to inclusion.  The process is undoubtedly difficult, but intentionality on our part can make the process easier for those who are most vulnerable.

21 thoughts on “Avoiding Inclusive Education at the Expense of Marginalized Groups: The Educator’s Role in Brave Spaces

  1. Blayne Fink says:

    Jake- first and foremost, thank you for your willingness to share such personal experiences in this blog post, your insights and experiences are very appreciated and acknowledged. I think in reading this post, the one thing that really resonated with me is the perpetual age of our students and the difficulties that come with recognizing that at times. Oftentimes, similar to you, I forget that while there is only a small gap in age, my life experiences are vastly different than that of the students I teach, thus our understandings are vastly different. Keeping this in mind, I think you hit the nail on the head in noting that a formulaic response is not the answer, but instead a willingness to engage, but perhaps more importantly, to listen, is the key to inclusion. Again, thank you for your contributions to this weeks blog prompt!

    • jagarner says:

      I think you really hit the nail on the head mentioning that listening might be the more important part of those intentional conversations about inclusion. Without listening, it’s impossible to go beyond those formulaic response and know where students are so that you can meet them there.

  2. Khushboo Gupta says:

    I consider it very courageous of you to speak out about your experience. Your post also highlights the fact that it is so important for the peers to interact amongst themselves (with diverse groups) as there is so much to learn about each other. And this learning will not only add to their knowledge but will also prepare them to better understand people they are going to meet in future and identify their biases if may present, and possibly act on them.

    • jagarner says:

      I agree! These early experiences around inclusion do provide learning in the moment, but also provide the tools for students to better interact with diversity in the future. Great observation!

  3. Ishi Keenum says:

    Thanks for your post Jake. It addresses a lot of things that I think need to be talked about especially in the context of diversity. I agree with you about trying to minimize the expense to the individual when it comes to educating on diverse backgrounds and perspectives. One of the takeaways I’ve been coming to is it is no one’s responsibility but your own to ensure you are educated but in a teaching concept, how do we do that? Your post reflects on your own experience and I appreciate that you shared it.

    • jagarner says:

      That’s a great question you raised, Ishi. To come to better understanding about diverse groups, it sometimes seems easiest to go right to the source and ask someone in that group, but that’s placing the burden on them. In trying to better understand others, I’ve had a lot of luck using blogs and vlogs where people are willingly telling their story. It’s a great place to start.

  4. Jake, I really like your post and how open and honest it was. I think your last point is very important as many students in college are experiencing life very differently. Some of them are coming out as you did, many are exposed to entirely new ideas. I grew up in a small midwestern town. When I started college, it was the first time I had experienced multiculturalism. I am a little ashamed to admit it, but I used to use the word “gay” as an insult, until the first time I said it in college, my friend politely, but firmly told me that it wasn’t ok. We had a brief conversation about it, and I never did it again. I was lucky in that instance to have a friend who was willing to have that conversation with me. Fast forward several years to my first semester of teaching, and I had a student use a certain R-word to refer to an assignment he did not want to do. I found myself in the position of trying to explain to him how that kind of language was offensive and unacceptable in my classroom. It’s a very uncomfortable place to be in, but I think it is important for us to remember that our students are still growing and maturing and they need to be able to have conversations about these things without judgement.

    • jagarner says:

      I feel like that kind of advocacy that you and your friend modeled at separate times is a big part of what we need. There’s a certain privilege that people who don’t identify with the marginalized group hold in speaking out that those hold that identity lack.

      Those conversations are hard to have, but it’s definitely worth learning how to do that. I always find myself wondering how we can best have those educational conversations to engage students rather than just explaining ideas to them.

  5. In addition to the quote you shared about how “education on diversity always comes at the expense of someone,” your statement, “in order to educate about groups different than one’s self, one must have knowledge of those groups, and that learning is an intentional process,” really stuck with me… I think that’s so applicable to just about any scenario where there are two opposing viewpoints. The stronger the opposition, the more important I think this is. For example, I read a bit about a study that was done to investigate how “liberals” vs “conservatives” view different issues. The study focused on presenting a series of topics along with arguments for or against these topics. The main thing that differed was how the argument was phrased; either liberal-leaning or conservative-leaning values were used in persuasion. The result seemed to indicate that people were more prone to be swayed towards an initially or seemingly opposing position to their political standing if the argument used values that aligned with their political standing (e.g., a conservative listening to an argument in favor of a liberal idea that was phrased using more conservative values). I think that people should think more along these lines in general, not for the persuasive aspect so much as it would force you to think from their perspective first and actually help foster more meaningful and fruitful conversation on any topic.

    • jagarner says:

      I really appreciate that example, Michelle! Thinking about how our language reflects our views is an important exercise for us and also might be a worthwhile challenge for our students. It also makes me think of the practice coming up with the best arguments for a viewpoint that you don’t hold yourself.

  6. mkdec says:

    Hello! I really loved your point that “before one can create a brave space or model bravery, knowledge of different forms of power and privilege is required”- I think this is such an important concept for all of us to consider. It isn’t always safe for everybody to stand up for what they believe and what is right, so when we are in positions of power it is all the more important. Showing vulnerability as an educator is sometimes difficult, but so brave and beneficial. Thank you for your thoughts and your honesty!

    • jagarner says:

      I really appreciate that you mention vulnerability. I think its such an important part of multicultural understanding but such a hard one to implement. Showing vulnerability makes these conversations more compelling, but there’s so much risk to that. Thanks for that insight!

  7. Heath Furrow says:

    Jake,
    As others have mentioned, I appreciated that you ended your post by talking about the importance of interacting with students (or anyone) as humans. I would like to think that we could fix a lot of issues in the world if people of different backgrounds could (or maybe would is the right word here) come together and interact in this way. I also appreciated that you pointed out the importance of remembering where students are at in their lives. After 5+ plus years I think its easy for us to forget what life was like when we first went to college.
    -Heath

    • jagarner says:

      I totally agree with your point. I think real dialogue is the answer to a lot of problems.

      The more I think about the age piece, I also start to consider how the passing of time plays a role. Do I have some vague recollection of what it’s like to be 18 and entering college? Sure. Do I know what it’s like to be an undergraduate student in the year 2018? Not so much.

  8. I think you have an interesting point about how students do a lot of learning outside the classroom and that often the learning is peer-to-peer. I agree even more strongly with your statement that “we can be allies by creating a brave space to contribute to a learning environment that is suitable for all and modeling interaction in that brave space.”
    I know all colleges are different, but ideally they should all have diversity/inclusivity training where students are taught to be respectful of others, some examples are given about hurtful/offensive language that they may not be aware of, and some small-group discussions for students to start engaging in brave spaces.
    I also think that it’s helpful to provide people the words for educating people / calling out offensive behaviors. In my hypothetical training, people would provide example responses or having some role-playing in small groups, allowing people to think through how to react before it happens, so that they will react.
    Like you, it took me a long time of hearing subtly-offensive things before I was able to think through how to respond (in different settings) and gain the courage to do so. Because learning to respond to an offensive comment that is not obviously racist/sexist/anti-group (but the subtext is) in a work setting or in a social setting from a near-stranger is not the same as responding to a comment from your friend. But all those responses are important. It’s important to let your coworker, friend, etc. know that the stereotype they mimicked wasn’t funny or the benevolent sexism they are engaging in is still sexism.
    Finally, it is not just the responsibility of those within a group to educate about their group. It is more important for people within the ‘in’ group to defend those in the ‘out’ groups and to call out offensive behaviors within the ‘in’ group. We should all try to learn about groups that we do not below to, but perhaps more realistically- we should at least be able to identify offensive behavior.

    • jagarner says:

      Yes. Just yes to everything you said.

      In particular, I like the point you make about having diversity and inclusion education in small group conversation. I know there are required courses for that sort of thing, but I think it’s important to make this a learning-centered conversation. And what’s more teaching-centered than an online module that students just click through?

      I also really appreciate your last two points and see a strong connection there as well. It’s hard to address those microagressions that come up in conversation and it’s easy just to glaze over them if they don’t pertain to you, but if you are part of the majoritized group and just let it go, it’s making it the problem of the minoritized group.

  9. Carlisle says:

    Jake, thank you for such an honest post and sharing your story. I appreciate the examples you provided about the different types of microaggression you experienced and how you responded or didn’t. I think your willingness to engage in the uncomfortable conversations to allow for education is what we need more of. We often skirt away from uncomfortable topics, but no one can benefit from this mindset. Understanding different beliefs, backgrounds, and hearing stories could help create more inclusive environments.

    • jagarner says:

      Definitely! While I wouldn’t want to call it an obligation to share these sorts of things, I think it is important for those who are able and feel ready to engage in conversation about these sorts of experiences. It provides an advocate and model for those who aren’t yet ready to talk about it.

  10. devinedm says:

    Hi Jake,

    I want to echo everyone’s thanks of your willingness to share your experiences.

    Oftentimes, conversations about topics of bias and its negative impact fall to marginalized groups to lead, and that is unfair. I appreciate your candor and your consideration of what it takes to create a safe and/or brave space for these conversations to be fair and beneficial to those involved.

  11. Antonio Fuentes says:

    Thank you for sharing. I agree with your perception and agree that we need to take advantage of opportunities and moments where we can educate others. Some individuals may be unaware of the comments and microaggression simply because they have yet to deal with them. And attending university is one of the fundamental ways to learn about diversity, inclusion and consideration.

  12. Julia says:

    Hi Jake, Thank you for sharing your deeply personal and troubling experiences. Looking back, would you engage students from your early experiences differently or more? Do you think that there were students that you could have had more success with, based on your own growth? Would you encourage other first and second year students to engage more, or wait to engage? It’s challenging to be part of a community where students are not being checked, but I also recognize the need for allies to help in that process. I’m curious if there were bystanders, and whether you think that bystander intervention could have helped in your experience or if you think it would have worsened matters. Thank you for so thoughtfully engaging this week.

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