When addressing race-based topics in counselor trainings, have you noticed times when learners’ emotional reactions inhibited their abilities to absorb training material or your ability to instruct? If the answer is yes, know that you are not alone. Race-based trainings are not for the faint of heart — at least not if done well.

As noted by activist Paul Gorski, effective anti-oppression efforts are those that pose a true threat to racism and injustice. They seek to prepare learners for transforming (eradicating) oppression or Paone-and-Malottinequity rather than merely increasing clients’ comfort with oppression. Such efforts propose major changes in both people and systems. These changes can be particularly anxiety-provoking for whites who, largely growing up in racially segregated schools and communities, may be unaware of the presence of racism in self, others and the system.

Consequently, although emotional reactions to race-based topics are quite normal and to be expected, as an instructor, it is difficult to know how to respond in a way that maximizes learning. Indeed, Derald Sue, a scholar and educator on race, has noted that fear of learners’ negative reactions has compelled educators to omit race-based topics from multicultural trainings altogether. Yet an abundance of literature exists to provide guidance in working with such reactions. This article offers a brief summary of some of those suggestions, along with additional tactics that we have applied in various university and community-based trainings.

Emotional reactions

Scholars have cited a range of reactions by white learners to race-based topics. Some examples include shock or hopelessness upon realizing the existence and magnitude of racism and its impacts; anger and frustration at hearing perspectives that contradict personal assumptions of meritocracy; guilt in realizing one’s own racism or racial privileges; fear of revealing racism to peers during trainings; and fear of having to assume responsibility for ending racism, including fear of the repercussions of such actions. Overt actions such as shouting (with expletives), crying, changing subjects repeatedly and direct confrontations are easy to identify as emotional responses to race-based topics. However, we have found that the majority of reactions tend to be subtler. Examples include:

  • Leaving the room repeatedly (to use the restroom, get a drink, etc.)
  • Being continually distracted/preoccupied with non-course elements (food, written materials, personal appearance, various electronics)
  • Being physically disconnected (sitting sideways, sitting outside the learning group, sitting with one’s back toward the instructor)
  • Remaining passive or refusing to speak
  • Having ongoing side conversations with others
  • Regularly being absent or tardy

At times, it can be difficult to know if such reactions stem from the instructional topic or are related to other issues (for example, some students are just naturally preoccupied all the time, need to use the restroom frequently or have personal life stressors fueling such behaviors). When these reactions happen repeatedly, however, particularly during difficult junctures (for example, during potentially “hot” moments in conversations or content), the behavior warrants exploration and a possible intervention. A 2009 study by Nancy Chick, Terri Karis and Cyndi Kernahan identified the importance of addressing such emotional reactions to establish a greater sense of learner safety and remove impediments to learning. Following are several suggestions for both addressing and reducing the likelihood of negative learner reactions.

Instructor self-reflection

When observing that a person’s reaction is impeding his or her learning or is negatively affecting others, instructors may want to first consider their own role in the perceived problem before taking action. Self-reflective questions include:

  • Why do I think the learner is reacting this way? Does the issue rest with the learner, or have I contributed to his or her reaction? For example, have I presented the materials clearly? Have I offended the learner in some way, such as shutting the person down or using a demeaning tone?
  • Am I having my own reactions that need attending to (for example, transference/countertransference)?
  • What has impeded me from acting on any of the above issues, and do I need to attend to that impediment?

Instructors’ negative responses to learners’ reactions can result in the ineffective management of learner emotions and ultimately create a hostile learning environment. Such responses can be diminished by reminding ourselves that emotional reactions to race-based topics are extremely common and do not necessarily indicate resistance, conscious efforts to sabotage the training or an attack on the instructor as an individual. It also helps to remind ourselves that people are trying to do the best that they know how. Learners may logically be attempting to protect themselves from what feels like psychological harm. Indeed, the realization of white persons of the reality and impact of racism in society can be a dramatic turning point in their lives. Scholars have used language such as trauma, dilemma and crisis to correspond with the magnitude of this growth process.

There are myriad ways to attend to learners’ reactions to race-based topics. Regular incorporation of one or more of the following types of interventions may reduce the frequency or impact of emotions as they emerge, as opposed to waiting to respond until a larger crisis presents itself.

Sharing verbally

Researchers have noted that students in race-based courses can alleviate negative affect and increase learning through the identification of similar emotions with others. What follows are various approaches to accomplish this.

Instructor modeling: Instructor modeling can normalize students’ experiences and reduce the immobilizing shame that can impede learning about race-based topics. Modeling includes self-disclosure of one’s own feelings and possible techniques for attending to them. One example of this: “Feelings of shame or frustration come up for me when I catch myself in a microaggression, but I’ve gotten better about just noticing those feelings, letting them pass and then stepping up to make reparations for the mistake made.” (On a side note, this example models a mindful-based response in which the emotion was brought into awareness but explicitly not assigned a judgment. Rather, it was allowed to dissipate and then was replaced with anti-racist action.)

Pair and share: Ask students to turn to a peer and share for three minutes their reactions to a provocative event, assignment or reading. Individuals can be paired in various ways. For example, pair students with someone who is racially similar to them (or someone who seems closest to them in their racial identity development level), pair them with a different individual each time to allow for connection with many members, or pair them with the same person all semester to allow for greater familiarity and comfort in sharing. Ensure that both individuals in each pairing get the chance to share.

Scaling emotion: One way to allow the expression of emotion and to identify similarities across learners’ reactions is through use of solution-focused scaling. In this technique, learners stand and physically scale emotional reactions to instructional content. One end of the continuum could be defined as “feeling overwhelmed with a certain emotion, question or response,” while the other could be “feeling underwhelmed, have few questions or am comfortable with the topic.” Instructors can ask learners to define and explore reactions with the people standing closest to them. Afterward, instructors can ask learners to place themselves along the scale according to where they would like to be and to identify what kind of personal action or peer/group support they need to get there. With groups that find standing difficult due to disabilities, or if the size of the room prohibits such activity, instructors can draw a scale on a board and ask learners to indicate where they fall on that scale. They can then sit with others who indicate similar placement.

Use of group format: The use of small groups, in which learners are seated in a more intimate circle formation, offers an alternative to traditional row seating and can facilitate a greater comfort level for members to share. Trust and cohesion, the cornerstones of group work, are more easily achieved in these smaller settings, thus allowing for greater vulnerability. Learners can be asked to express personal reactions to instructional content in the group on a regular basis or in relation to specific events, topics or heated exchanges.

Write it out

Many articles have discussed the merits of allowing students to process learning and affective reactions through writing. Following are several ways to do this.

When it’s really hot, stop and journal: When emotions are extremely high after a hot moment (for example, someone says something highly offensive or controversial and no one seems to be able to respond coherently), stop and ask learners to journal their thoughts. This also gives the instructor time to consider his or her next step.

The minute paper: Don Locke and Mark Kiselica wrote about this technique in a 1999 article on teaching about race. In calmer moments, perhaps at the end of a session period, ask learners to write for one minute about their reactions regarding what transpired that day in the training.

Weekly journaling: Ongoing journaling is a great way to gauge learning or affective responses for those students who are especially quiet. Journals could be handed in electronically to increase confidentiality, with entries being written from locations that are free of peer influence. Instructors can respond more personally in these journals to normalize learners’ reactions and to offer individualized words of support. In addition, private sharing of learners’ feelings absolves learners of color from feeling responsible for comforting or reassuring their white peers, which is a troubling phenomenon that can happen in racially mixed trainings.

Get creative

Nontraditional, creative means of eliciting and processing learners’ affective responses can offer a safer venue for bringing both conscious and unconscious feelings that may be impeding learning to the surface. Instructors could use films, crafts or movement. The following examples cover techniques that we have used.

Sand tray: Based on sand tray therapy, this process involves learners using miniatures to create a representation in a small tray of sand. When using this in conjunction with a race-based training, the instructor might give directions such as, “Create a sand tray to represent what you are experiencing right now in this training.” Learners can then be asked to interpret their trays with peers while identifying similarities and differences in their experiences. The instructor can also offer additional interpretations of certain unconscious reactions represented in the trays. Used several times across a semester, and optionally captured with photos, the sand trays can be compared over time so that learners can visualize their own growth and the growth of the group.

Photojournaling: Photojournaling combines photography with journaling to express one’s emotions. An instructor might use specific prompts for the assignment, such as, “Photojournal how you felt after learning about racial microaggressions today.” The prompt can also be nondirective or open-ended, such as asking learners to create a photojournal of their overall reaction to the day or training.

Sculptures: Using human sculpturing, as taken from family therapy practice, an instructor would place learners in a physical arrangement in the room to represent emotional reactions that she or he is observing. Conversely, learners could be asked to sculpt themselves or the group as a whole. We have used this activity to sculpt a room of students whose negative reactions brought learning to a complete halt. After placing the students in their sculpture (in this case, learners were placed with their backs to the instructor, and as far across the room from the instructor as possible), the sculpture’s meaning is described, and learners are asked to process and make meaning of the sculpture. They can then place themselves in a new sculpture according to where they would like to be and discuss what will help them get there.

Snowball activity: In this activity, learners write down their emotions on one or several pieces of paper. They then ball up those emotions and have a “snowball fight” (they throw those pieces of paper at one another). To ensure that the written comments will remain anonymous, ask learners to pick up and throw the snowballs several times. Then ask them to select one or several snowballs near them and read them out loud. The group can then discuss the written reactions, noting similar and dissimilar comments, and brainstorm solutions for managing particularly difficult emotions.

When all else fails

If a learner continues to exhibit strong and negatively impactful reactions after the previous Abstract-people-Smallsuggestions have been applied regularly, the instructor will want to be more direct. You could address the learner separately, pulling the individual aside to note your observations, but this should always be done with a tone of care. For example, “I can tell that this topic is really affecting you, and I’m wondering how I can help.” If using a group format, this direct inquiry could be done in the group setting. Member feedback could be elicited concerning how the behavior is affecting the individual’s learning as well as the group process.

Don’t go it alone

Finally, because this is hard work and emotional reactions are to be expected, race-based trainings call for community support. We know instructors who have given up teaching multicultural trainings altogether because of burnout associated with attempting to respond to learners’ reactions.

When struggling to respond effectively to one learner (or to an entire group), consult with a colleague who is engaged in this type of work. Remember that some of the best allies can be found across work settings and disciplines. They can be university or community professionals engaged in any form of anti-oppression work (for example, anti-sexism or anti-poverty) because such endeavors are interrelated. Regular participation in such supportive groups would be ideal. This work cannot, and should not, be done alone.


Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Tina R. Paone is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Speech Pathology, Educational Counseling and Leadership at Monmouth University at West Long Branch. Contact her at tpaone@monmouth.edu.

Krista M. Malott is an associate professor in the Department of Education and Counseling at Villanova University.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org