Many students will be interested in and hungry for content about race and racism, but some may be hesitant or nervous about it, especially if it is in a required course.

In her book Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom, Cyndi Kernahan describes reasons why some students are hesitant or resistant to engage with content about race or racism. Some of the following are reasons why white students may be resistant:

  • Learning about racism is depressing and upsetting.
  • Sometimes white students are reluctant to face content that they fear may implicate their family’s history or assumptions.
  • Some Americans think talking about race at all violates the goal of being “color blind.”
  • Some may be uncomfortable with the anger or guilt that may surface.
  • Many white students are anxious that they will be considered racist and/or that their views will be criticized (Sue).

In addition, white students may have entrenched misunderstandings about racism that become obstacles to learning.

Scholars who study racism see it as not simply prejudicial attitudes or actions by unkind individuals but as the larger set of advantages and disadvantages faced by each racial group, operating at individual, institutional, and cultural levels to influence us (Kernahan, 22).

If a student only understands racism as a sign of a being “bad person,” then it’s not surprising that some white students shy away from discussion of the topic. Kernahan asserts that the systemic nature of racism is a threshold concept – that is, a concept that is often difficult for students to grasp, but frequently is transformative and crucial to significant progress.

Finally, learning about race and racism may well contradict students’ assumptions or conflict with their cherished beliefs.

  • The harsh, centuries-long, and systemic nature of racism calls into question the idea that United States is a meritocracy, that all Americans have equal opportunity, or that progress is inevitable. While college often prompts students to question core beliefs, that process creates disequilibrium.
  • Understanding the nature of implicit bias may pose a blow to one’s view of oneself as a good person.
  • Learning the nature of racial and other privileges might prompt some white students to realize for the first time that material and other benefits they enjoy have not been earned. Some will feel guilty, and others will try to avoid feeling guilty. John and Joy Hoffman’s model of racial development describes resistance as a fairly typical stage that white students go through.

While it is more likely that students who identify as white will exhibit resistance, some students of color may also exhibit some reluctance or resistance.

  • They may well find content about race upsetting or overwhelming.
  • They may feel wary of participating because of having had negative experiences in other courses, angry or vulnerable due to microaggressions, raw from the barrage of distressing news on social media, or exhausted from the stress of being in the minority on a historically white campus.
  • They might fear they will be put on the spot during class and asked to represent others from one of their social groups, or worry that they’ll be expected to already know the concepts and material they’ll be studying.
  • They may worry they’ll only be viewed as members of a racial group rather than as individuals with many components to their identities.

It makes sense, then, that even if for different reasons, our students might feel some reluctance or exhibit some resistance. However, understanding why some might resist doesn’t mean we as instructors should abandon our learning goals.

Learn more about what can be done about student resistance.


Cyndi Kernahan, Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom: Notes from a White Professor (West Virginia Press, 2019).

Derald Wing Sue, Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race (Wiley, 2015).