Summer Reading Series: Intergroup Dialogues

By Dr. Sarah Ropp

This is the ninth entry in our dialogic pedagogy summer reading series. For more on the series and a full list of texts, see here

Title: Introduction to Intergroup Dialogues (published 2021; $73-$95; available for purchase HERE)

Editor: Stephanie Hicks

Context of Creation: This is a brand-new textbook designed for use in courses built around the concept of intergroup dialogue–“a form of social justice education that seeks to engage difference, social identity, and social justice” (2). It is a publication out of the Program on Intergroup Relations at the University of Michigan, one of the most longstanding and best-known dialogue-based programs in higher education. It follows other volumes such as Intergroup Dialogue: Engaging Difference, Social Identities and Social Justice (eds. Zúñiga, Lopez, and Ford, 2014) and Facilitating Intergroup Dialogues (Maxwell, Nagda, and Thompson, 2011). Stephanie Hicks is a lecturer in the IGR program at Michigan. 

Context of Reception: I read half of this book on a picnic blanket in a park and the other half nestled in a window seat, both during the first week of living in my new home city of Philadelphia. The familiar concepts of the book came to me within a context of newness (the unfamiliar, exciting environment of a beautiful old city park), chaos (the unpacked boxes and disassembled furniture surrounding my window seat refuge in the new apartment), and difference (every time my eye wandered up, I saw something that contrasted in an immediate visual way with Austin, from the tall trees and Victorian-era rowhouses to the ethnic diversity of the people in my neighborhood). 

Overview of Structure and Content: The four units of the reader are based on the four stages of the intergroup dialogue model: 1) relationship-building, 2) social identity exploration, 3) hot topics, and 4) action planning. The units are not evenly balanced in terms of number of chapters or readings per unit: Unit 1 contains two chapters and one reading, while Unit 2 contains six chapters and 12 total readings. Unit 3 is a single, short chapter with no secondary source reading, while Unit 4 is comprised of two chapters and seven readings. Thus, although the introduction presents the textbook as a resource “created with student participants and facilitators in mind,” it is not primarily a skillbuilding handbook (there are really only two chapters that directly address the skills of participating in/facilitating dialogue — Chapter 2, “Affirming Inquiry,” and Chapter 9, “Exploring Conflict on Campus, in Communities, and Beyond,” both of which are very short at 2-3 pages). Rather, it is a collection of short readings, accompanied by pre-and post-reading reflective discussion questions and key term definitions, intended to introduce students to basic concepts related to social identity, oppression, and privilege. A number of these texts are drawn from Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (4th ed. 2018), such as the “-ism: An Introduction” texts and Bobbie Harro’s “Cycle of Socialization/Cycle of Liberation” graphics. Many of these texts are linked in our Difficult Dialogues resources at UT-Austin. Others come from people affiliated with IGR at UMich and/or are identified by the editor as “classic” social justice education texts (xiii), including particularly useful texts by (among others) Beverly Daniel Tatum, Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey, Derald Wing Sue, Iris Marion Young, Devon W. Carbado, and Eesha Pandit. 

Three Thought-Starters for Teachers: 

  • Social Justice Education. As a dialogic model, intergroup dialogue is explicitly grounded in a social justice mission, with critical awareness leading into deliberate action towards change-making. Other models, such as Reflective Structured Dialogue, Story Circles, and Moral Conversation (all summarized, along with four other models, in this graphic), do not include action as part of the goals but rather focus on cultivating understanding and respect for difference. Given that Introduction to Intergroup Dialogues is a course reader, with the four stages of intergroup dialogue all presumably (necessarily) connected to a system of assessment, I wonder what structuring “action planning” into a course’s learning objectives means for student experience and engagement.
  • What is your purpose for including dialogue in your course(s)? How do you know if that purpose has been fulfilled? 
  • What do you think “authentic engagement” means (for what and how you teach)? (How) Can it be assessed? 
  • What are the pitfalls of a dialogic pedagogy that does not require or encourage direct action as a component of engaging with others across lines of ideological and identity-based difference? 
  • What are the pitfalls of a dialogic pedagogy that does require or encourage “action-taking” as part of the dialogue process? 

  • Against Curiosity. The intergroup dialogue model distinguishes between three basic kinds of inquiry: interrogation, curiosity, and affirming inquiry. The last of these is a “facilitation approach and set of techniques” central to the intergroup dialogue model (8). Curiosity, located in what we can imagine is the middle of a spectrum between the obvious non-goal of interrogative engagement and the ideal of affirming inquiry, seeks “explanation or insight” into unfamiliar experiences and concepts, comes from an attitude of “naivety, assumed normalcy, [and] unexamined privilege,” and is likely to result in the subject of the inquiry feeling “tokenized, ‘othered,’ commoditized, exploited, or used.” Affirming inquiry, in contrast, stresses “the mutual exploration of experiences/narratives by sharing and inviting others to share” (9). I am intrigued by this characterization of “curiosity” as a style of engagement akin to “interrogation” and “inquiry,” not (just) an orientation or motivation. 
  • What is your response to this description of curiosity as a colonialist sort of pursuit? 
  • Is curiosity a predetermined mode of engagement and interaction with the other or is it an affect? That is — can curiosity be channeled towards other ends besides tokenization, commodification, and exploitation? Can we stimulate and encourage curiosity without implicitly affirming invasive or appropriative means towards its satisfaction? How? 
  • If not — if curiosity is always already objectifying — what are other, better orientations or motivations for learning? How do we stimulate and encourage them in students?  
  • Privilege Discourse. The readings in Unit 2, which are focused on social identity and various “isms” of identity-based oppression, are frequently directed at a reader who is presumed to be in a position of privilege relative to the social identity in question and unaware of their privilege. It’s clear that the editor has selected texts whose authors represent a variety of identity positions vis-a-vis the topic at hand, but the intended audiences seem a much less diverse group. (The final reading in the book, “Loving Ourselves” by Susana M. Morris, is explicitly addressed to people of color, but I think it is the only one written expressly for a non-dominant identity group.) Several follow the lead of Peggy McIntosh’s seminal 1989 “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” essay on White privilege by including lists of examples of privilege, written in first-person plural (“Being a young person with wealth gives us an unspoken advantage,” in a reading on class privilege (151)) or second-person perspective (“You can worship freely, without fear of violence or threats,” in a reading on Christian privilege (199)). I began thinking about the ways in which privilege discourse often seems ironically to (re)center privileged identities when reading Being the Change a couple weeks ago, and I continue to think this through, now in relation, especially, to issues of class difference raised in last week’s reading, How to Talk About Hot Topics on Campus. I am going to share the questions that keep reverberating in my head with you.
  • Why does it seem to be so consistently assumed that anyone, especially any college student, who occupies a less-advantaged identity position is already fully aware of all of the disadvantages they experience as a result and has fully “unpacked” and come to nuanced understanding of those disadvantages? (Sometimes this is explicitly stated, as in “non-White people are already very aware of their racial status and its implications,” while other times it is suggested more implicitly through omission of consideration.) What might unexamined instructor assumptions related to the socioeconomic class, political ideologies, and national/geographic origin of university students have to do with it? 
  • Why are so very few of these social justice readings for students on power and privilege directed at or “for” members of the less-privileged groups in question? To be clear, I think ongoing reflections on privilege are absolutely essential; I am not criticizing the existence of very useful “examine your privilege” texts or suggesting they be eliminated. 
  • What would these readings look like if they were? How would the ensuing dialogue be different (in structure, in tone, in goal)? What does a social justice conversation look like that does not start with confessionals around privileges and disadvantages that seem, always, to focus on the learning experience or the “awakening” of the privileged? (I am thinking of those exercises in which participants are exhorted to step forward for every statement of privilege that applies to them, creating a visual representation by the end of just how “far behind” the least privileged folks are.) 

Two Concrete Practices for Immediate Implementation: 

  • The LARA method. Intergroup dialogue advocates a four-step response pattern for both participants and facilitators in dialogue called the LARA method: Listen, Affirm, Respond, and Affirming inquiry. This means that, regardless of what someone has shared, facilitators should model deep listening for connection and understanding. They should affirm the contribution, which is categorically different from expressing agreement or approval; affirming the contribution means, at a minimum, acknowledging the speaker with thanks or by paraphrasing what they have said to confirm understanding. In my interpretation, it is an expression of trust in the speaker: that they have integrity, that they are good enough to want to learn from their errors and intelligent enough to do so. Only after affirming, according to the LARA method, should the facilitator (or participants) respond to the actual content of the contribution; here, disagreement, correction, or pushback can be expressed. The final step, affirming inquiry, involves sharing one’s own perspective and inviting others to share their own, to ensure mutuality and equal vulnerability. 
  • Testimonials. “In intergroup dialogue,” Hicks writes, “we write testimonials in order to reflect on the impact that our membership in various social identity categories has had on our lives” (59). Testimonials are written with the understanding that they will be shared with the group. In this way, I suggest, “dialogue” expands beyond the merely oral and can continue asynchronously in written form. Testimonials can be integrated into dialogue in many ways, but I also suggest that it is powerful to offer a testimonial (or any other form of statement) without any response other than, perhaps, affirmation. bell hooks mentions using testimonials in Teaching to Transgress; Story Circles, as a dialogic model, is also based on oral testimony of a sort. Hicks identifies four parameters of a good testimonial that can be shared with students (I have paraphrased them here): 
    1. It is a specific story of something that has happened to you.
    2. You are willing to share it. 
    3. You remember it well enough to write about it.
    4. It focuses on an incident related to a particular social identity, but other social identities intersect and may be mentioned also.  

One In-Depth Activity: How I Got Here: A Testimonial

This activity borrows the notion of the testimonial and refers to Dori Laub’s seminal work on the topic of testimony and the need for an “addressable other” to stress the relational nature of testimony. Rather than introduce the testimonial as part of the “exploring social identities” stage of the intergroup dialogue process, however, as Introduction to Intergroup Dialogues does, I have designed this activity to be done in the first stage of relationship-building and dialogue skills development. Rather than speak to their experiences related to a particular social identity, students are asked to craft a narrative of “how they got here,” for the principal purpose of affirming everyone’s unique pathway to the university and right to belong, as well as practicing the critical dialogic skill of deep listening. The prompt itself takes inspiration from the Blanton Museum’s digital video resource “Belonging,” which could be included in this testimony activity. In leaving “how I got here” fairly open to interpretation as a prompt, I also intend the activity as a kind of assessment to gauge how students are (and aren’t) already thinking about (their) privilege, regardless of which identity positions they occupy. It strikes me that a great deal of the friction I am feeling with privilege discourse in these readings has to do with the way it is so (necessarily) generalized; this activity allows instructors (and participants!) to become aware of and responsive to the actual people in the room, where they come from, and how they are thinking and feeling. It also grounds an ongoing discussion of privilege and oppression related to various social identities in the one privilege everyone in the room is almost guaranteed to share, which is the privilege of a college education at (in UT’s case) a top-ranked, selective institution. Awareness of the privilege of being college students, spending part of their days in high-minded dialogues for the purpose of their own economic, social, intellectual, or moral betterment, is, in my mind, a good starting point from which to begin to empower students as critical agents. 

The dialogue that follows the testimonial sharing should ask questions that prompt critical self-reflection such as: 

  • Now that you have listened to others’ testimonies, what do you notice about the approach you took in your own? Was your tone defensive, proud, shamefaced, apologetic, or something else? Did you focus on yourself as an individual or make a lot of reference to your family, your community, or your identity? Why do you think that is? 
  • What did others express awareness about regarding their own history and journey that you did not? What did you express awareness about that others did not? 
  • Why do you think I asked you to do this activity? What do you feel has been the result, for you personally or for the group as a whole? 

Next Week . . . We will be reading Democratic Dialogue in Education: Troubling Speech, Disturbing Silence (by Megan Boler, 2004).

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