Initiating Classroom Dialogue about Race: A Narrative Framework

Students of different ethnicities support one another

When I think about diversity here in college, I can hear myself saying “What if? What if I could go back and talk to my undergrad professors and my graduate professors and sit them down in the times or moments where I felt I was not heard?” I would ask them to start the semester, start the course, or start every class including people’s personal narratives. ~Tamara

The quote from this student appears in Using Narratives and Storytelling to Promote Cultural Diversity on College Campuses (Bledsoe & Setterlund, 2021), which explores personal narratives about race and how they contribute to our worldviews. The recently published book addresses Tamara’s opening suggestion by offering a framework for promoting classroom dialogue around this issue, which reflects a critical need in the complex climate of higher education in which we currently live. 

Copyright © 2021 by IGI Global

A narrative can be defined as a specific theme or topic that can be as personal as a favorite song, or global like politics. Housed within our narratives are stories that work together to bring each one to life. Narratives about race and culture are influenced by factors such as ethnicity, family, and environment, and are shaped by our past, present, and possible futures. For example, the death of George Floyd in the spring of 2020 was a powerful narrative that opened up a floodgate of stories that varied substantially depending on one’s ethnic group and background. Students should have the opportunity to meaningfully discuss their viewpoints on such topics, including the pain they experienced and challenges they see before them. The diagram to the right shows four components—values, beliefs, schemas, and emotions—which are vital in our construction of narratives and internal processing of race.

Four key ingredients

Race can be described as a broad narrative, encompassing countless individual stories that are developed over a lifetime and carefully constructed with the help of beliefs, values, schemas, and emotions. To prepare for discussions on this narrative, instructors should spend time discussing the following terms with students.

Our beliefs represent what we think to be true about ourselves and the world around us. Beliefs about race can be shaped by our upbringing, geographical location, political and religious affiliation, etc. Values are principals and standards of behavior that guide our actions. Personal values such as honesty, respect, courage, and trust take root in childhood and are often instilled in us by our parents. Schemas represent our internal representations of the world and help us organize information in ways that makes sense to us. A simple schema about race might be, “My skin color is the same as those within my ethnic group;” while a more complex one would be “My ethnic group experiences more (or less) privileges than those in other groups.” And finally, emotions fill out the human experience and highlight our feelings at any given moment. Race can bring up a range of emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, anxiety, jealousy, love, anticipation, and loneliness that work together to shape our stories. In illuminating these four factors, it is best to give students the opportunity to discuss not just their opinions, but the stories that bring power to their beliefs, values, schemas, and emotions.

Creating a safe space for stories

Discussions about race can provide genuine opportunities for students to share their experiences: to hear and be heard and to express and receive raw emotions from others. Creating this space does not mean suppressing anger, but allowing students to express raw emotions when they come up, which can be a unifying, cathartic experience.

However, many instructors find it difficult to navigate the topic of race. Ground rules should therefore be discussed and agreed upon, and the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT, n.d.) suggests the following guidelines: 1) taking time to prepare for discussions about race, 2) identifying a clear purpose, and 3) providing resources beforehand to enhance student understanding. Books such as It’s Time to Talk (and Listen) (Kim & Del Prado, 2019) can stimulate preliminary conversations in this area. The instructor should emphasize that feeling and expressing anger is a natural part of this process. However, if hostility erupts or if students are made to feel unsafe, specific steps can be taken to ensure safety. When microaggressions occur, for example, Cheung, Ganote, and Souza (2016), proposed Taking A.C.T.I.O.N., which stands for asking clarifying questions, carefully listening, telling others what you observed, initiating impact exploration, owning one’s thoughts and feelings, and discussing next steps toward resolution.

Dialogue sets the tone

Engaging in dialogue is a powerful way to connect with the stories of others. The listener is encouraged to carefully consider what the other person is saying without judging or dismissing their viewpoints. Per Tamara’s opening suggestion, time should be given in each class session for dialogue about race, but even one or two activities devoted to this topic can be helpful.

In setting a structure for dialogue, students can work in groups of two for ten minutes, which will give each student five minutes to talk and listen. Storytellers are encouraged (but not forced) to share their views while their partners listen non-judgmentally and seek clarification as needed. The listener has an opportunity to develop empathy and understanding for the speaker’s journey and though curiosity is welcomed, listeners are discouraged from being overly intrusive during this process. Beginning prompts such as the following can provide a pathway for dialogue about race.

  1. How would you define your racial identity?
  2. What stories are integral to your racial narrative? Name two or three.
  3. What are your principle beliefs about race?
  4. What are your top three personal values and how do they affect your thoughts about race?
  5. Discuss some of the emotions that arise when considering race. How do you process or cope with these emotions?

Conversations about race are seldom easy. Yet classrooms can provide a unique outlet for sharing and a safe space through which to hear them. The narrative framework is a critical tool for helping students unearth the stories that make up their overarching narrative about race, which include their beliefs, values, schemas, and emotions. Instructors play an important role in making this happen by preparing students beforehand, offering key resources, and setting the ground rules for dialogue. Sharing stories in this way can thus foster empathy for those with differing viewpoints. In the divisive times in which we live, intentionally allotting time in the classroom for dialogue about race can provide much-needed enlightenment in this crucial area.

T. Scott Bledsoe, PsyD, is a professor in the department of clinical psychology at Azusa Pacific University. He has taught cultural diversity courses for several years and is passionate about issues related to this topic. As a diversity ambassador, he is the coordinator of the Diversity Mosaic Experience, a program which showcases culture-based video narratives of students, staff, faculty, and administrators at the university.  

Kimberly A. Setterlund, MSW, LCSW, is an assistant professor in the department of social work at Azusa Pacific University.  She is the director of the master of social work program and teaches courses in theories, leadership, and social work practice in health care settings. Her research includes graduate student thriving as well as faculty development in higher education.


Bledsoe, T. S., & Setterlund, K. A. (2021). Using Narratives and Storytelling to Promote Cultural Diversity on College Campuses. IGI Global. http://doi:10.4018/978-1-7998-4069-5

Cheung, F., Ganote, C., & Souza, T. (2016). Microaggressions and microresistance: Supporting and empowering students. Retrieved from

CRLT (n.d.). Guidelines for discussing difficult or controversial topics. University of Michigan. Retrieved from

Kim, A. S., & Del Prado, A. (2019). It’s time to talk (and listen). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.