This scenario takes place mid-semester of an introductory graduate class on intercultural communication. The professor and the majority of the students in the class are White. Christine is the only Black student in the class.
Christine is halfway through her first semester of graduate school. She entered the program full of excitement, but her enthusiasm is waning. Christine has experienced several uncomfortable moments in the classroom and when working in small groups. She notices her perspective and the ideas she contributes are often ignored. At first, Christine felt confused, worried she might be misunderstanding her classmates or overreacting. Given these doubts, Christine tried to convince herself she was being overly sensitive. However, two months into the semester, she sees a pattern of small slights. At times, she feels invisible.
Christine is the American-born daughter of Nigerian immigrants who grew up in Baltimore. She is proud of her cross-cultural upbringing and had the opportunity to spend a year attending high school in Nigeria, a life-changing experience that opened her eyes to many different perspectives. After high school, she went to a historically Black university and loved her time there.
Christine was drawn to her current graduate program in Washington, DC because it would enhance her intercultural competency, as she expected other students in the program to be just as curious, open to new ideas, and passionate about understanding other cultures. In practice, however, Christine believes her classmates are unaware of the assumptions and biases they bring to discussions and team projects. Yet, Christine realizes she has never needed to fight so hard to have her voice heard. It now dawns on her that this is her first educational experience in a predominantly White institution (PWI).
In today’s class, the professor gives the students a challenge to solve in groups. Each group will need to make a decision at the end of a series of 5-minute rounds. In giving the activity instructions, the professor says, “Come back ready to explain your thinking as well as your group’s decision-making process.”
Christine lands in a breakout group with three White students, Brad, Amber, and Danielle, as well as Elaine, an international student from Lebanon. Brad, a military veteran, immediately takes the lead. He reads the scenario and tells the group his thoughts. Christine decides to wait to hear what everyone else has to say before contributing. Having been in a group with Brad and Amber before, she notices he tends to dominate conversations and Amber is also quite talkative. Christine wants to make sure she has a chance to collect her thoughts before speaking. While she does not think of herself as a shy person, she feels self-conscious about being the only Black student in the group.
The conversation among Christine’s four teammates converges on agreement. Christine finally speaks up. She disagrees with the logic behind the group’s proposal and puts forward a counterargument. In fact, she believes her perspective as a Black woman allows her to see a flaw in the current solution. Brad passes over Christine’s idea, saying, “Our five minutes are up, and we need to submit an answer. The rest of the group agrees, so we are going to stick with this.”
The team begins deliberating in round two and a similar dynamic unfolds, with Brad driving the conversation, Amber adding in her thoughts frequently, and the other two women in the group making an affirming comment now and then. Christine decides to speak up sooner. “Have you considered…” – but before she can get her thought out, someone else speaks over her. She tries again, “I see things differently, I think we should…” – again Christine is interrupted. She persists, but when Christine is finally able to contribute her thought, Brad makes a sarcastic comment and moves on. Christine’s face gets hot, her heart starts beating faster. Time is up for round two.
In round three, Christine is too worked up to actively participate. Worried she will sound angry and defensive, she holds back. But her eyes widen when she hears Danielle chime in with a comment, not backed by research or grounded in a particular logic, saying almost exactly what Christine tried to communicate to the group in round two! The other three nod in agreement. It seems the message got through this time, now that it came from someone else. The clock runs down and the four students submit an answer they agree on. No one checks to see if Christine agrees. All she can think about is how ready she is for this to end, these 15-minutes felt like an eternity.
Back in the main classroom, the professor invites a representative from each group to present their solution and elaborate on their process. For the first few minutes, Christine is too caught up in what happened to pay attention. Her mind plays back the interactions in the breakout group again. Did the other students not see how they were ignoring her input? Should she say something? While the activity centered on a made-up scenario, Christine can’t help but feel that the students acted in a way that demonstrated bias. Shouldn’t the students be learning to question their thinking and taught to appreciate differing perspectives given that this course is on intercultural communication?
Her group is called on last and Christine tunes back in. She listens with increasing frustration as Elaine speaks on behalf of their group. Christine’s counterarguments are not mentioned. After Elaine presents the “group’s solution,” the professor signals it is time to move on to the final section of the class agenda.
Christine raises her hand, shaking with anxiety and annoyance. “I need to say something.” An uncomfortable silence falls over the class. Brad leans back in his chair and crosses his arms. “I disagreed with my group’s decision.” Christine tries to keep a smile on her face, but her voice starts to quiver with emotion. She expresses her frustration at not being heard in her group or having her ideas taken seriously. While describing the details of the interactions in the breakout group, Christine does not explicitly say she thinks racial bias contributed to the group dynamic. Clearly taken aback by the intensity of emotion, Amber jumps in. “I didn’t even realize you thought we were ignoring you. I’m sorry you felt that way. Why didn’t you just speak up?” Having let both sides express their version of events, the professor brings the discussion to an abrupt close because class time is up.
Christine is unsure what to do. Was it a mistake to speak up? Will it change the way her classmates interact with her in the future? Tonight’s class was emotionally exhausting. Christine realizes she feels guarded in class, cautious about how she expresses herself, and anxious about how others perceive her. It is adding stress to her graduate school experience and making her question if she should consider transferring to another school.
As you consider this case, discuss:
How does culture influence the intergroup dynamics of the breakout group?
What beliefs, values, and thought patterns of the students might influence the decision-making process?
What are some of the characteristics that might be attributed to a predominately White educational institution?
How do the students’ behaviors demonstrate implicit bias and microaggressions? What other examples of microaggressions have you witnessed in classroom settings?
How do our personal identities, ascribed or imposed, influence interpersonal communication exchanges?
How might Christine’s sense of being invisible impact her learning? How might the term “racial battle fatigue” apply here?
What are the potential consequences of Christine’s decision to speak up? What could be the repercussions of staying silent?
Although Christine felt that racial bias was at play, she didn’t specifically mention it. Why might she have chosen to filter, or simplify, her thoughts during this follow up class discussion?
What is your reaction to Amber’s response to Christine?
Who bears the burden of responsibility in this scenario? Is it Christine, the professor, or the other students in class?
What can the professor do to facilitate a meaningful discussion following this classroom incident? What steps can the professor take to ensure the classroom is a “brave space,” one in which the students recognize the opportunities to learn from conflict and feel able to rise to the challenge of engaging in genuine dialogue about issues of race and social justice?
Additional recommended resources to explore the central themes in this case are available.
Sue, Derald Wing Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race
Oluo, Ijeoma. So You Want to Talk About Race
Greenwald, Anthony and Banaji, Mahzarin R.. Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People
Zielinski, Alessandra, Executive Coach and Consultant, ACZ Consulting, LLC (Adjunct Instructor at American University), Austin, Texas, United States. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lasan, Christine, Investigator and Administrator, Maryland Department of Health, Baltimore, Maryland, United States. Email: email@example.com