How can youth learn to discuss diverse identities?

“What do you do when a heated racial argument breaks out in class?”

“Is there anything you can do to proactively set up conditions for youth to talk openly about religious differences?”

“In a classroom setting, a student wanted to talk about being from a family with two mothers, but the teacher just said, ‘We’ll talk about that later.’ What could the teacher have done that wouldn’t shut down what the student wanted to say?”

Oftentimes, workshops on race (as well as homophobia, religious differences, immigration, and so forth) focus on the content of the issue, such as information about race, the historical examination of race, and the current climate around racial issues. In essence, workshops tend to focus on an external problem or challenge. However, quite often a missing step is the internal and group dynamic among participants. How do they learn to process their thoughts and feelings about issues that divide them? How do they learn to actually hear each other and move forward? That internal group dynamic is the focus of this Frequently Asked Question.

For example. . . .

"I'm Not Racist... Am I?" is a feature documentary following a diverse group of teens through a yearlong exploration of race and racism. Watch dialogue facilitator Liza Talusan lay the foundation for a breakthrough moment with the teens in the film. In this workshop, prior to the video clip, Liza presented the opportunity for participants to discuss the racial dynamics within the group. After a few emotional prompts, Liza and the participants were able to name, own and interrupt dynamics that had emerged throughout the process. This helped them to move forward in understanding how race and racism impact our personal identities and interactions.

Liza is a skilled facilitator. You will not learn to do what she can do in a few short lessons. But we can help you get started. In this section, learn more about (1) why you need to start with yourself, (2) how you can set and use ground rules for discussion, (3) how to use a few tools for facilitating difficult discussions, and (4) how to reflect on what happened.

Starting with yourself

The most important instrument you will have in facilitating difficult discussions is you. It is essential that you know what your own biases are, your capacity for listening openly, and your ability to ask questions that prompt thinking and that move dialogue forward without telling people what they should think. If you have not systematically and deeply examined your own biases (yes, we all have them), we strongly recommend that you work with Frequently Asked Question: How do I know if my biases affect my teaching?

Acknowledging, understanding, and thinking about your biases is an important skill that enables you to be a better facilitator of group dialogues.

Community agreements for discussion

Facilitating intergroup dialogues require several tools and strategies too extensive to offer here; however, a fundamental start is generating community agreements (ground rules, or accords) for discussion. Given that emotionally charged discussions are bound to happen anytime, planned or unplanned, setting and discussing agreements for discussion at the beginning of a year or a semester is key. Too often, establishing agreements for discussion is dismissed, rushed, or perceived as time wasted, but they are essential to all facets of developing as a multicultural educator. They are especially relevant when bringing groups of people together for discussion. Agreements are important because they offer a set of common expectations that are explicit and not assumed. They should also be discussed to solicit group understanding of what is expected from each individual and others in the group to help uphold the type of responsibility people have to the conversation.

You can download our set of suggested Community Agreements here, but having these should not keep you for asking for input from the participants you are working with.

Facilitators/teachers are often in the position of enforcing the community agreements, yet making sure everyone is accountable to them is the responsibility of the whole group. Anyone should be able to refer to the agreements to ensure they are being adhered to. It’s also important to emphasize that ground rules should be reinforced, revisited, and revised, as needed. Below are some steps for establishing and maintaining them.

First, whether generated from the group or offered by a facilitator/teacher, there must be a discussion about the community agreements and what they mean, and an opportunity should be provided to address questions or confusion.

Second, agreements, no matter how seemingly obvious, should be clarified. For instance, a common agreement tends to include “respect.” Having respect, by itself, is insufficient, as showing respect has a wide range of interpretations, personally, socially, politically, culturally, and historically. A follow up question, such as, “What do we mean by respect?” allows for more nuanced and group specific understanding of what respect actually entails. We should not assume that one person’s view of respect is the same as another’s. You might call this notion of respect “The Platinum Rule,” (a play on the Golden Rule), whereby students understand that it is not enough to “treat others how you want to be treated,” but rather should strive to “treat how others how they want and deserve to be treated.”

Third, be aware of the norms embedded in community agreements. It is important to monitor whether they inadvertently privilege some participants’ well-being over others. For example, Galman, Pica-Smith, and Rosenberger (2010) examine how their teaching privileged White comfort, silenced race-talk, and perpetuated a type of “niceness” that undercut classroom discussions about race, racism, and antiracism, which was the opposite result of their intentions. During the process of generating agreements, some might privilege perceptions of acceptability, such as not expressing anger (even when appropriate), that potentially detract from the desired outcomes of the discussion (see “Rethinking Groundrules”). The values, beliefs, and preferences of a dominant group (based on power and social status) should not work against genuine intergroup dialog. Community agreements should create group norms that ensure everyone who is participating feels supported and valued, even during times of discussion that are uncomfortable, difficult, and challenging.

Fourth, given the expanded spaces for discussion on social media, we encourage an explicit discussion on how community agreements would apply within and beyond the space in which the intergroup dialogues are taking place. Below are links to help foster this discussion, including setting boundaries, the role of setting a profile, and presenting ideas and opinions.
Facilitation via Intergroup Dialogue

Intergroup dialogue, developed large in higher education, engages students in an educational process via sustained conversation. The process “brings an equal number of students from two social identity groups -- white students and students of color, men and women -- together” weekly for between six and twelve weeks,for at least two hours at a time, in order to deepen students’ communication across differences, understanding of identities and inequalities, and commitment to collaboration (Gurin, Nagda, & Zúñiga, 2013). There are usually between 12-16 participants, with two facilitators from backgrounds representing the social identity groups in dialogue. It may be offered as part of the curriculum, or as a co-curricular activity,

Intergroup dialogue sessions provide opportunities to explore both conflict and common ground. Dialogues encourage self-reflective conversation and inquiry that break through the surface tension created by difference. Facilitators help participants to clarify and address issues of potential conflict (e.g., interracial/interfaith relationships, affirmative action, social integration on campus), and challenge participants to rethink many of their attitudes, assumptions, and political and social understandings by sharing of feelings and experiences. The process provides a personalized and non-judgmental environment where participants feel more free to ask "taboo" questions, make mistakes, share experiences, feelings and opinions, and expose their limited understanding of a particular issue. It also provides opportunities to verbalize disagreements, name conflicts, and ask difficult questions within small groups with diverse compositions. The facilitators assist students in discovering roles they can take on to promote meaningful and constructive intergroup relations. Ultimately, the process explores action to improve cross-group relations and address social injustices.

Role of emotions and perceptions of conflict

Sometimes specific conversations about conflict and feelings can help people understand what they and others bring to the conversation before they even begin. For instance, in particular social or professional situations, you might perceive some emotions as more (or less) appropriate to express. Surfacing ideas about emotions, conflicts, and disagreements early can support how group members express and respond to each other.

Experiences with one’s own family and personal social spaces shape responses to how one chooses to express emotions, acknowledge emotions, and interpret emotions. This is also true for conflict; however, when experiencing conflict in intergroup dialogues, the goal is not necessarily to resolve them but to engage them towards deeper understandings of a point of view.

To attend to these realities, begin by asking the group to answer the following questions individually and then share as a group: What is conflict? What words do you associate with conflict? Notice if the words are negative, positive, or neutral. How do you feel about conflict? How do you handle conflict? Do you avoid it at all costs? Why? Why not? What has been the role of emotions--having and sharing them--in your life? How might responses to questions 1, 2, and 3 influence group dynamics and dialogue?

Next Steps:

After the discussion, it is important for you to examine the discussion and reflect on the experience. Here, you will focus on both your facilitation as well as the content of the conversation and students’ roles within the discussion. You should consider the following questions:
  1. What went well in the discussion?
  2. Where did the group go through their contributions?
  3. What will better support moving the conversation along as you move forward?
  4. What topics were missed or not addressed? Why? How can you work to ensure that relevant topics are raised and addressed?
  5. What are your next steps?
With your students, you can also consider these questions:
  1. What do you need from me?
  2. How can I better support you, guide you, or challenge you?
Once you respond to the questions, look for your areas of strength as well as ways to improve your facilitation. Determine whether or not the discussion needs to be be revisited and think about other topics that may be relevant.


Galman, S., Pica-Smith, C., & Rosenberger, C. (2010). Aggressive and tender navigations: Teacher educators confront Whiteness in their practice. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(3), 225-236.

Gurin, P., Nagda, B. R. A. & Zúñiga, X. (2013). Dialogue across differences: Practice, theory, and research on intergroup dialogue. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.