June 17th, 2013

Teaching Inequality: Denial, Defensiveness, and the Diminishing of Oppression


As a sociology teacher, not only do I discuss topics related to oppression and inequality, but these topics comprise a pervasive and substantial portion of our pedagogy. The chapters on class stratification, race and ethnicity, and gender and sexuality are a required chunk of the curriculum by the social science department, and an obvious pedagogical necessity to the social scientist who knows that our location on the social hierarchy is tremendously dependent upon the “isms”—on an individual and institutional level. When covering a lesson on privilege and oppression—almost inexorably, and amongst others—at least one of the following responses from students ensues: denial, defensiveness, and/or diminishment. Aptly enough, their reactions exemplify a part of the lesson, and therefore can be used as a learning device in the liberal arts and social sciences classroom.

Denial is a common response from students (and the general public, for that matter) when discussing the existence of gender inequality in the United States. This mentality is revealed in such sentiments as “it’s not like it’s the 1950s anymore,” or “but my mom makes all the money in our family,” and is frequently—though not exclusively—retorted by male students. In the book, Privilege, Power, and Difference, Johnson (2006) analogizes the privileged group member speaking for and defining the experiences of the “cultural other” to that of a parent dismissing a child’s cries after a fall: If a child falls down, a parent might say, “you’re fine, no crying, it really doesn’t hurt that much,” when, for all the parent knows, the child may have broken a bone. Similarly, Johnson contends, “members of privileged groups are culturally authorized to interpret other people’s experiences for them, to deny the validity of their own reports, and to impose their views of reality” (109).

When statements similar to the above arise in the classroom setting, instructors can employ the parent/child analogy to explain how dominant groups often denunciate experiences of others. The classroom discussion itself, a microcosm of society, may serve as an example of power dynamics of the larger culture. The teacher might begin by asking if the classroom is a component of society, and if elements of the larger culture can be found represented in the classroom. The teacher may subsequently inquire: “Why is there a tendency to deny that inequality exists when discussing it in the classroom?” Alternatively, perhaps an instructor can preemptively use this common tendency as a hook—even before comments such as these are made—to instigate a discussion: “It is not the 1950s anymore. People have more rights than ever before, and yet for some this doesn’t seem to be enough. Do I— do we—really even need to listen to the voices of others if they are demanding change? Does a person/group from poverty have more authority to speak about their experiences in poverty than myself, coming from the middle-class? What could that person really know that I don’t?!” Prompts like these often result in a good, active discussion.

Another reaction when covering topics related to privilege and oppression is defensiveness. For example, after reading Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” in which one of the main themes addresses how people who belong to the dominant group are often unaware of all of their privileges, a frequent rejoinder is “she obviously hates white men.” At times, the replies are even a bit angry: “This is just a bunch of bulls___!” (I have heard worse, but out of respect for fellow faculty, will refrain from interjecting it here.) I utilize comments made by students from previous courses to display and nudge a discussion on reasons for the defensive anger that often ensues following introduction of the inequality topic: I ask them, “Why do people often get so angry and defensive when we talk about privilege and oppression? And it is not just anger, but a hostile, defensive anger. What might be the cause of this? What are the benefits of being defensive? What does defensiveness prevent?” When addressing social inequality, discussing responses to the subject are just as important as the subject itself, as they illustrate the intensity to which we adhere to our beliefs.

If I am successful at convincing my students that inequality does indeed still exist, a typical retort is to diminish, or trivialize its scope and impact on society. In line with the fallacy, false-dichotomy, students ask, “Would you rather live in Afghanistan?” insinuating of course, that the plight of women could be far worse—and essentially dismissing any discussion of gender inequality as mere complaining: Women should be grateful for what they do have. I might say that “it is interesting to note that males are not only dominating the discussion on gender inequality, but are also serving as a sort of ‘female-experience-spokesman’ on the topic. I wonder if the females’ interpretation might be any different.” Another possible retort: “If there are worse off places to exist, does this imply we shouldn’t seek progress, because at least ‘we have it better’?” Though perhaps hyperbolic, it certainly drives home the point: It uses classroom discussion to illustrate the meaning of the concept and lesson.

If you teach about oppression, inequality or other difficult topics, what are some strategies you use with your students?

Jaggar, Alison M. 1994. “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology.” Pp. 180-191 in Fifty Readings in Philosophy, edited by Donald C. Abel. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Johnson, Allan G. 2006. Privilege, Power, and Difference. 2nd edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

McIntosh, Peggy. 1988. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Wellesley: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.

Kimberly D. Brostrom is a professor of sociology at the College of Lake County and William Rainey Harper College.

  • Richard Cooper

    I teach employment law to HR graduate students. A few months back I found an article on textbooks in India where the material stereotypes "meat" eaters in terms often used to religious and racial minorities. I show the material and then tell the class that most of us in the room are the victims of this prejudice. I then ask the students to guess what group is being described.

    This really sparks an honest discussion when the class learns who is being described.

    • Stacie Chappell

      Hi Richard – would you be willing to share the article?

  • Ed Brantmeier

    Dear Kimberly,
    Very interesting article and it hits home, for sure. I've been involved with faculty groups related to teaching for social justice, and navigating the complexities of identity and student resistance in the classroom are very close to home to many of my colleagues in ethnic studies, education, social work, sociology, and more. I try to get beyond that "what trumps what" social identity argument to understand how oppression and privilege are rooted in social/historical/situational context in my education classes. Johnson's privilege/underprivilege audit and an Inner Circle activity are quite useful and handy. I've found a pedagogy of vulnerability to be VERY useful in walking my students through the tangled path of meaning-making. I'd be happy to share more and talk more sometime. Thank you for this thoughtful article.

  • Tom

    Thanks God my son do not attend your classes. I hope he learn to make his own conclusions instead to be feed with pre digested regurgitation.

  • Xavier Amador

    This is very interesting, but I find the parent/child analogy troubling. Sometimes, yes, the parent might dismiss a child's broken bone. And a child's feelings should be affirmed, separately from whether the complaint is well-founded. But often enough the child's "tragedy" is really quite minor, and the broken bone is just a little boo-boo. Parents also know that sometimes a child will cry hypocritically, to cover up a misdeed, to shift the blame to someone else, or to avoid getting punished. If we were to apply the parent/child analogy to the issue of social inequality, perhaps we would end up accusing minority groups of hyperbole, hypocrisy, or attention-grabbing whinyness. I don't like where this is going at all.

  • Mark Brunson

    I teach in Utah. We're a Research 1 university that draws from around the U.S., but the majority of our students are home-grown, coming from politically conservative homes and eschew what they see as "liberal" ideas. I learned early on that when I taught about feminism and gender inequality I needed to circumvent the peer pressure factor. For example, if I ask students to raise their hands if they believe they're a feminist, virtually no one – male or female – will do so. If I define feminism academically, then ask them at the end of class to write down on an index card if they're feminist (along with 2 or 3 other questions), up to 33% will say yes because the threat of violating perceived peer norms is removed.

    On another note, your article definitely identifies you as a sociologist. You're teaching about the aggregate experience of a large group; students are responding as individuals. Their personal experiences might well be that they have not experienced inequality or they may have experienced bias because they're males. (Yes, it happens.) Being young, they lack experience at avoiding the ecological fallacy of analyzing at the individual level and attributing that analysis to the group. You, on the other hand, should know better. Rather than viewing their responses negatively (as defensive or denial) use the opportunity to teach about why it's necessary to measure phenomena at the appropriate level of analysis.

  • ReneC

    I begin my McIntosh class (for graduate students) by saying we are all privileged in some ways and marginalized in others. I remind them we are all privileged by virtue of our education. I begin with myself and share some of the privileges I have in our society. I don't experience a lot of defensiveness. My thought on this is that it has something to do with who I am: white, male, and dominant in most other categorizations). Also, beginning with class issues seems to be a good way to introduce the topic since most of my students come from lower income brackets. Another common privilege among most of my students is their Christian heritage. They can easily see how their lives might be more difficult if they were not Christian in our part of the country (the South). Then we move onto other areas. I'm not saying it's perfect, but based on feedback, students said it was eye-opening and respectful as they learned from each other.

  • Andy

    Of all the people I've come across in my forty four years as a US. citizen the ones who don't see themselves as black, white, Hispanic, gay, lesbian, Jewish, female or what-have-you, become part of society and and will fit in. As soon as you see yourself as different then you become exactly that. Accept what you are and show respect to everyone else and you will fit in just fine.

    I will add that we need to make more progress and remind people how stupid we are as a race. Remember, we used to burn women at the stake in this country because we thought they were witches. Equal pay for equal work no matter who or what you are is something we really need to be working on.

    • Jane Gordon

      I agree with Andy that equal pay for equal work is what we need to work on. Women need to do the following (I know people will say this is too simple, but it's true.) Do the following in the following order: 1. Get an education so that you can get a job (the men have to do this, too). 2. Get a job. Work hard. 3. Get married to someone who will stick with you and will support your family. Take your time finding that person. Will that person be a good dad for those kids you will love more than anyone in your life? Find your future kids a good dad. 3. Have those kids.

      If you are unmarried and uneducated, you will be oppressed. If you add children to that, it will be so much more difficult. Women need to respect themselves more and make choices that will reflect that. Women (and men) need to prepare for their lives.

      • GemGirl

        Unmarried and uneducated do not equate to being oppressed. Oppression equates to being oppressed. Systemic oppression has no place in a civilized society. Systemic oppression is a sociopathic system. Using someone's demographics to determine outcomes can be stretched too far, if we're not careful. Should women who get divorced or become widowed be subjected to oppression because they are no longer married? A good marriage is a good thing. But many marriages are not even close to good and can create a lot of baggage for women, especially given the prevalence of abusive dynamics and controlling partners. Life is not as simple as you imply, Ms. Gordon.

    • GemGirl

      People are different. Diversity exists in every aspect of our world — among plants, animals and humans. Denial of those differences will not make the differences go away. I like interacting with diverse people. The problem with "fitting in" is in defining what it means to fit in. Who should decide what is required to fit in? I am a black woman and have no interest in being a carbon copy of a white male, a black male or a white female,etc. I am also not completely the same as all other black females and vice versa. The fact that people are different is not the problem. The problem is our interpretation of what those differences mean, and this is where illusions of inherent superiority and inferiority get most people in trouble and cause inevitable conflict.

      • Andy

        The differences are what makes this country great. I agree that our interpretation of these differences are troublesome but we need to get back to the fundamentals of our Constitution and teach that to our children. "All men/(women) are created equal" but it's not what we have been concentrating on. Instead we look at life as individuals, groups and races. "We the people of the United States" has become more of a "we the group" or "we the different". Maybe we need to look back at what our forefathers had started for this country and get back some of our better moral values.

  • McK

    This is a perfect example of how any opinion counter to "social justice" makes you anti-feminist, racist, homophobe . . . etc.

  • enrighna

    I do teach about these kinds of things, and I think it's helpful to do things: (1) to be truly open and respectful of students' opinions, not quickly labeling something I disagree with "defensive," but trying to understand that person's perspective and (2) encouraging and even modelling the sharing of experiences in which we felt stereotyped or overt victims of bias. The latter encourages honest sharing because no one can argue with "this happened to me." Sometimes I have been truly surprised at the kinds of terrible experiences students have had, as victims of bias, and I always feel grateful that they are wiling to share this sort of thing in a discussion.

  • GemGirl

    Kimberly, your article is very insightful. Thank you.

  • mmacify

    This is a great opportunity to help this instructor see how she is imposing her viewpoint on her students and marginalizing their reactions. How can we best help her?

    • GemGirl

      The instructor isn't a problem. She is exploring issues, not imposting her viewpoints on her students or marginalizing their reactions. Perhaps you might consider this quote by Isaac Asimov: “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”

      A neuroscience study on racial empathy by Social Psychologist Dr. Michael Inzlicht, found physical evidence that white people have difficulty empathizing with non-white people. According to his findings, people are sensitive to others who fall within a closed circle defined by their social relations; and members of the social outgroups (Asians, Blacks, Latinos, Muslims) are excluded from this circle. http://www.michaelinzlicht.com/research/publicati

      Also worth reading: The Erosion of Empathy by the Political Pragmatic — a black woman who blogs: http://www.winningprogressive.org/the-erosion-of-

      • mmacify

        If you look at the psychological research, empathy with others seen as members of an outgroup is a problem for humans in general. You have hit the nail on the head though, as the instructor clearly has difficulty empathizing with her students. Imagine the male student who for the past several years has lived in a world in which girls have higher academic achievement, are more likely to graduate, are less likely to be unemployed, and are more likely to be teaching many of the classes he is taking in college. Telling him all about male privilege will seem inconsistent with many of his experiences. On top of that, if he expresses such a view the instructor will devalue his opinion by telling him he is in denial or being defensive. He may be compared to a parent who isn't aware that his crying child has a broken arm. Then the instructor wonders why he responds negatively. How can we help her to be more empathetic?

        • GemGirl

          I am a psychotherapist. The psychological research on empathy shows approximately 15 to 20% of people are highly empathic (they are known as HSPs — highly sensitive persons). And racial minority groups, at least in America, have been shown to have as much empathy for whites as they do for members of their own group due to how we all are socialized.

  • Dr T

    My experience has been that it is simpler to generate a discussion about gender inequality than to address issues of race, especially in classrooms that are heavily dominated by white students. I think a discussion and exploration of the issue of "color blindness" or "gender blindness" is also highly relevant and critical. As I stress in my classes, the goal is to learn to *see* differences and to value and appreciate those differences rather than to try and deny them. Sometimes, I have students read some of the research that has shown that emphasizing color blindness makes even children more likely to then accept discriminatory attitudes. I also really value and appreciate Derald Wing Sue's Tripartite Model of Cultural Identity. He speaks of our unique elements (genetics, unique experiences, personal values, etc.), our group affiliations (we all have them — whether racial, gender, religious, etc.), and our universal elements (affiliation, romance, sadness, etc.). He notes that the color blindness problem tries to ascribe everyone's identity just to the universal level while ignoring the other levels. It is important that we understand and can accept a person on all three levels. I find this a very useful framework for helping students think differently about other people. (This is for a counseling-related course but I think might apply to other disciplines).

    With regard to student defensiveness, I wholeheartedly agree with Kimberly's assessment of the situation. There are valid reasons why students resist this type of information (at least valid from a perspective of psychological protection of one's own ego and avoidance of anxiety) or accepting it. Students are also at different stages of their readiness to change — some are aware of these issues, but have not yet decided what it means for themselves or how they will act, others are ready to learn and move forward, and others do not see any need to change their thinking or behaviors, and so they react minimizing or denying the value of these ideas. Research on how people change suggests that the best intervention for those in this "precontemplation" stage is consciousness raising, but the person needs to be an active participant in that consciousness raising instead of just having ideas imposed on them. Kimberly suggests several good discussion prompts. I also have students read articles or chapters related to these concepts and then to reply to a few prompts in a reflective journal assignment (ongoing across the semester). This has seemed to work quite well and offers the chance not only for class discussion of these issues, but individual dialogues with my students about their journals.

  • Prof, AVjr.

    All I have to say is keep up the good work, and it may be denial, or minimization of the facts, however, how else will they be able to explained their own identification with the oppressor.
    Please, require readings to get them ready is White Like Me, by Tim Wise or any thing on the movement of race theories of classism and oppressiveness.

  • Rayya Ghul

    Hi I teach about inequality on an occupational therapy degree programme. We developed a tool and teaching methodology in order to raise the students' critical thinking on the topic. It seems to work pretty well with our students – though of course they are predisposed to being empathetic to the difficulties of others having chosen a health and social care career. Out work has been published in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy and is available to view on my academic dot edu page.

    Rayya Ghul

    • Rayya Ghul

      oops 'our work' and academia dot edu!

  • VIctoria baker

    I teach about health disparities to nursing students. I find that need to address topics of social justice from 2 perspectives.

    We encourage students to discuss their personal responses. Everyone has some pain around these issues, and it must be addressed. So we have a forum for students express their personal responses. And we have a video they watch that always gets a discussion started.

    But our own presentation sticks pretty closely to the data. We point out the overwhelming evidence that different groups do not get the same health care, even when they have access to the same agencies. We present the evidence that race is not a genetic category. We explain why understanding culture is just as key to giving excellent care as understanding pathophysiology. These professional issues are much less sensitive topics than the many personal responses we all have around race, gender, poverty, and justice. We want students to explore the topics on both levels.