Teachable Moments: Tea Party Outrage, Campus Racial Tension, & Creating Learning Communities

The Problem with American Racial Politics

Imagine teaching a cultural diversity course and a young European American woman feels safe enough to share her beliefs about the unfairness of affirmative action. Everyone listens attentively. When she’s finished, an African American male angrily calls her a racist. A European American male chimes in by saying that it is unfair that “black” people call “whites” racist whenever they speak honestly about racial matters. Everyone starts talking at the same time to offer her or his opinion at this point. Emotions are clearly escalating. How would you handle this as the facilitator?

I wrote a published article nearly two decades ago about how to manage emotional responses to discussions about race in university classrooms (Vaughn, 1993). Many colleges and universities were implementing cultural diversity course requirements in the general education curricular and I was teaching these courses at a large state university. Conservative scholars, such as Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele, unsuccessfully argued against changing the academic canon to include cultural diversity. Their argument was that the recommended changes would undermine teaching all students the philosophical foundations of American society.  Reading between the lines of their arguments, I concluded that they felt the changes in the core curricular were tantamount to threatening the American constitution. During this period rioting in response to the videotape recording of police officers beating and taser gunning Rodney King, an African American, took place in Los Angeles. It was also a period of historic numbers of civil rights lawsuits against companies, which led to staggering financial settlements. Bari-Ellen Roberts’ book, Roberts vs. Texaco, is filled with her account of the daily dignities she endured as an African American executive, which fueled the rage behind her successful lawsuit (Roberts, 1999).

Things have not changed that much in terms of visceral reactions to cultural diversity, even after the election of the first American president of “African” descent. The slow progress is not surprising from this diversity expert’s perspective. The increased outrage and backlash in reaction to societal inclusion of cultural differences due to demographic shifts were predictable. Why? There is a huge gap between the cultural competence that exists in our society and what Americans need to navigate the reality of the demographic changes.  We know a lot about what it takes to create inclusive organizations, but we lack the leadership cultural competence, political will, and big picture mentality to make progress.

One of the hottest classroom topics in my university classroom was affirmative action. While discussions about same-gender marriage and undocumented workers share the stage in generating emotionally-charged discussions, affirmative action remains as potent today. The impact on higher education in California with the passage of Proposition 209 has created outrage on one side and a sense of game-changing social politics on the other side. After the recent passage of its own anti-affirmative action legislation, Michigan will likely witness staggering decreases in African American students we have seen in the state of California’s higher education system. Those who applaud the changes feel emboldened to express their feelings openly. Like, I said, things have not changed that much in twenty plus years. The same factors underlying the heated discussions about affirmative action and race that I was trying to manage in the university classroom two decades ago are the sources of current cultural diversity tension.

Barack Obama is arguably the most culturally competent president we have ever had. No other president, for example, has been exposed to as many cross-cultural experiences at an early age. More importantly, he is bi-racial. The fact that most of us collude in labeling him as black or African American and only parenthetically acknowledge his European heritage is a symptom of the country’s cultural competence deficit that I am describing. I doubt, however, that even he will find facilitating a heated debate about affirmative action within his scope of expertise.

How Lack of Cultural Competence Costs Us

Why do we need cultural competence? African American House of Representatives Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) was called a “nigger” last weekend after the passage of the healthcare bill. The news reports suggest that the culprit was a Tea Party reveler. [Yes, I used the “n” word. That’s another thing we have to get over if we are to increase our competence in a free speech society.] Openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was called a “faggot” on the same day. A few weeks earlier, on the other side of the country, an off campus “white fraternity” party with a “racial” theme created weeks of conflict resolution efforts that spanned from the San Diego, California African American community to the university governing board in the San Francisco bay area. It became apparent to me that managing the emotional discharge was over the heads of everyone in charge.

Cleavages within society due to intercultural conflict create long-term tension that can easily—at any critical point in time—lead to social unrest, physical attacks, and a deep sense of unfairness about and resentment towards cultural diversity. The problem with continued lack of cultural competence among leaders is that it colludes in maintaining intercultural conflict over time, rather than support long-term solutions.

While litigation is obviously expensive, intercultural conflict often leads to additional costs, such as loss of talent, innovation and even a competitive edge.

One of the things you want to avoid to the extent possible as a leader is the appearance of taking sides in a conflict. Yet, far too many leaders do so in an effort to cope with their own and others’ emotional reactions to intercultural conflict. Any conflict resolution expert will tell you that long-term solutions to disagreements require negotiations that result in both sides feeling that it has gained something precious and lost something precious. The mediator cannot accomplish this by taking sides or poorly managing the emotional discharge on all sides. It is not the leaders’ fault that their outcomes are too often unsatisfactory. After all, how could we expect them to do what their predecessors have failed to do and where would they have learned to manage these kinds of conflicts anyways?

Teachable Moments to the Rescue

I propose that leaders view intercultural conflict through different lenses. What many leaders fail to realize due to their lack of cultural competence is that the very conflict that they so desperately try to squelch as quickly as possible to calm people down is ripe with diversity education material. There are several assumptions behind this view:

  • Each American inherently wants to have meaningful connections with other people—even with those they vehemently disagree with.
  • Americans rarely have a safe place to talk about differences with expert guidance.
  • Most Americans are open to and tolerant of cultural differences, they simply do not know how to do the “intercultural thing”.
  • Helping Americans learn from their encounters with cultural conflict as close to the moment it occurs as possible is the key to achieving societal and organizational inclusion.

Let us take the incident involving the off campus party described above as an example. What I have learned after nearly twenty-five years of teaching cultural diversity is that there is not a wrong or right point of view in intercultural conflict—just different ones. The conservative and general newspapers on campus made matters worse by taking the sides with the European Americans holding the “racial theme” party. Then the student government got into the fray by freezing funds to the newspapers. A “teach in” put together by the administration went astray when a large number of students participated in the Black Student Union orchestrated walk out shortly after the meeting started. When conservative students say that it is unfair that an off campus party with a theme that makes fun of an ethnic group in a satirical fashion is not racist, do everything possible to empathize with their worldview—whether or not you agree with them. When the African American students and their local community say that the behavior at the party was insulting, empathize with them as well. The problem is not their different perspectives, but their lack of opportunity to fully connect with each other in discussing the incident. The leader has to put personal opinions aside to understand each party’s point of view in order to determine how best to bring all sides together in making the conflict a teachable moment.

I doubt if you would find one student on any side who believes she or he is prejudice and intolerant. In fact, research supports the view that they probably are correct, but this does not protect them from acting prejudice unless they have developed cultural competence (Devine et al., 1991). Since few of us have had the opportunity to develop such competence, most of us step on multicultural toes without realizing it.

Even for those who may measure relatively high on a prejudice scale, it does absolutely no good to call them racist or confront their prejudice. I pointed out systematically in several published papers the futility of confrontational approaches in trying to get people to change and argue in favor of the more effective self confrontational methods designed to help participants reduce resistance and increase learning (see for example, Vaughn, 2003).

Leaders must avoid taking sides while embracing differences and finding common ground to create safety when facilitating discussions about differences. Nothing sets the stage for feeling safe more effectively than an set of ground rules. Civil debate is such an integral part of campus life and expectations that it amazes me each time these conduct codes fall by the wayside when cultural collisions occur.

Specifically, leaders need (a) awareness and acceptance of personal cultural diversity shortcomings (which we all have), (b) insights into how beliefs and values about diversity tend to make trouble for them in trying to connect across cultures, (c) an understanding of culture differences, and (d) cross-cultural skills. Let me take managing emotional reactions to the conflict as an example (Martin & Vaughn, 2007). The leader who understands her cultural diversity shortcomings has insights into personal values and beliefs that make it difficult to avoid emotional responses to diversity related comments. If she believes that any behavior that signals intolerance of racial differences is inappropriate, she will have a difficult time accepting comments expressing such views even if she knows that it is important to listen to all sides in an argument. Or, he may harbor conservative views that consider anyone “playing the race card” and becoming emotional as playing unfair in a grievance, which will make it very difficult for him to have compassion for them.

A leader can be very open and tolerant, as well as insightful, about her or his diversity-related shortcomings, but lack knowledge of cultural differences. This is often the case. Ironically, these individuals tend to be perceived as prejudice even after their best efforts to appear otherwise. Behaving as though you know what you do not know about cultural differences can be more disabling than acknowledging that you do not know much about other cultures. Assuming that the diversity education goes beyond book knowledge, classroom learning and seminars we may increase our awareness and perhaps even change our attitude, but there is seldom sufficient practice to hone what you have learned. Even the campus’ most acclaimed cultural diversity professor is likely to be ineffective in facilitating real life intercultural conflict. Being the best researcher and classroom teacher for diversity on campus cannot offset practical cultural competence training without facilitation skills.

Summary & Conclusion

How would you handle the affirmative action discussion as the facilitator? The culturally competent facilitator always starts with ground rules to promote a learning community. When participants talk at the same time, they are reminded of the rule they agreed to about the importance of fully listening. Helping participants understand the emotions behind what people share helps them connect with each other. Brief lectures that teach participants about the assumptions underlying each party’s point of view grounds the dialog in a meaningful framework that helps the audience learn about differences. The anti-affirmative action stance is often based on the meritocracy assumption and the pro-affirmative action stance may be based on a social justice assumption. What each side has in common is the need for fairness—they just have different views about how to achieve it.

The complicated part of negotiation is getting beyond an all-or-none, zero-sum game stance to help the parties connect with each other. Getting different sides to shift away from its stance is the effective leader’s role. Discussions of hot topics, such as “White” privilege, the use of parody and satire to make fun of different cultural groups, meritocracy versus social justice, and the like can take place in the context of a learning community. First, establish the ground rules to create the context. Keep the focus on learning, which is what people have in common. It is pretty obvious on a college campus that learning is the common denominator, but continuous learning is also necessary for adjusting in the ever-changing, fast-moving environments of other modern organizations.

The facilitator models civic behavior, orchestrates it in the group dialog, and keeps the focus on the common goal of learning about differences. This does not mean that emotions are swept under the rug. Allowing people to show their emotions is part of learning as long as you help participants avoid shaming, blaming and complaining to the extent possible. You do this by keeping the focus on identifying the real problems that needs to be solved. Helping the fraternity group, for example, understand that the real problem is that there is lack of agreement on campus about the extent that ethnic party themes are acceptable—especially given that the campus champions inclusion.

The next step is to help both sides see the results of their actions. The theme party had an impact on the ethnic group that was the target of the satire, the campus as a whole, and on those participating in the event. How the insulted parties handled their reactions also needs to be shared for better or worse so that everyone has an opportunity to learn from the experience. As each side shares thoughts and feelings, emotions are likely to shift from anger and hurt to critical thinking. This is the “soft on people and hard on the problem” approach found in negotiation literature.

As a classroom teacher, I have the luxury of helping members of the class look at their attitudes apart from real world experience. Organizational leaders are trying to solve problems that in ways that keep people productive. In the end, the leader is the final decision maker for the organization. Let the two sides hammer out an agreement to the extent possible, and take the best information available to make a decision that serves the organization as a whole.

I do not see Americans making considerable headway in managing its diversity and inclusion in the near future. The catalyst for changing these circumstances is educating and training culturally competent leaders. A good sign of progress among leaders is their increased ability to manage emotionally charged discussions about cultural diversity in ways that capitalizes on the teachable moments when cultural collisions occur. The first place to start is in the classroom as early as possible and reinforced in higher education as well as the workplace.


[i] Vaughn, B. E. (1993) Teaching cultural diversity courses from a balanced perspective. In Creative Teaching, 5 (4), Newsletter of the California State University System Institute for Teaching and Learning.

[ii] Roberts, Bari-Ellen (1999). Roberts vs. Texaco: a True Story of Race and Corporate America. Avon Books.

[iii] Devine, P. G., Monteith, M., Zuwerink, J. R., & Elliot, A. J. (1991). Prejudice with and without compunction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 817-830.

[iv] Vaughn, B.E. (2003). Intercultural interactions as contexts for mindful communication. In Smith & Richards (Eds.), Practicing Multiculturalism. Allyn & Bacon: Boston.

[v] Mercedes Martin, MA, & Vaughn, B.E. (2007). Cultural competence: The nuts & bolts of diversity & inclusion. In Strategic Diversity & Inclusion Management magazine, Billy Vaughn, PhD (Ed.), pp. 31-38, San Francisco: Diversity Training University International Publications Division.