Lesson 4: Classroom Dynamics

4.1 Culture

An aerial photo of the Amazon River

In trying to describe and understand culture, we might think of it as like a river. It’s vast, dynamic, always shifting, and never exactly the same twice. Like rivers, culture can shift both very slowly over time but also very rapidly in the presence of swift moving forces. Either way, it is always shifting and evolving in ways we might not see on the surface.

The banks which hold the river in and create the boundaries of its shape and route are like the social norms that create a flow of a culture. In the river of culture, the water is made up of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions.

People would be the fish that swim along this river, sharing the components of the water and adapting to the culture as needed. While some fish may live in salt-, fresh-, or brackish water, some can swim in more than one kind, but they all have adapted to the resources their water has to offer. Similarly, people will adapt to cultures the same way and bring characteristics of their culture with them into others they may become entrenched in. Just like fish and water, the longer a person is part of a culture, the more invisible and difficult to see it becomes.

Cultural Racism

Cultural racism refers to a dominant culture that was founded on practices, principles, values, and norms that advantage white individuals over Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC)* communities. This historical foundation has contemporary legacies that serve to shape reality through the experience of white individuals. Greater value and normality are placed on white people and whiteness either consciously or subconsciously in order to justify the unequal status of BIPOC communities. Recall, however, that culture in our metaphor is the water and not the fish. It is not necessarily that people choose cultural racism, but rather that it is in the water around us, likely made invisible by how long it’s been there.


The term BIPOC is intended here to emphasize solidarity among non-white individuals and not to suggest a monolithic experience of all non-white communities. The experiences of everyone included under the BIPOC umbrella are not interchangeable and the use of the term BIPOC is not intended to suggest a generalization of those experiences. When using specific example, such as the ones found in the next section, it is best to more directly state which populations are being referenced wherever possible.

4.2 White Supremacy Culture

One of the products of cultural racism is white supremacy culture. White supremacy culture refers to the notion that white people and the thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and actions they have are superior to and more worthwhile than BIPOC communities. It is reproduced in institutions and systems. Some examples are:

  • Media more often centers on the stories of white protagonists, enforcing the idea that white stories and experiences are universal and more important than BIPOC stories and experiences. In 2019, the Hollywood Diversity Report found that only 19.8% of film leads were BIPOC individuals.
  • Brown v. Board of Education mandated the desegregation of schools by ruling that separate means unequal, resulting in the termination of thousands of Black teachers and principles while less qualified white teachers were hired to oversee desegregating formerly Black schools.
  • There is a long history of health disparities between white and BIPOC communities; one recent example is the impact COVID-19 has had on US life expectancy. While the national average for life expectancy has decreased by 1.13 years, in Black and Latinx communities that decrease is between 2 and 3 years, respectively.
  • Many of the most prestigious and oldest historically white colleges and universities did not allow Black people to enroll as students; however, they still could be found on college campuses either as a result of enslavement or as laborers that cared for the students and universities. In many of these institutions, enrollment patterns continue to reflect the dominance of white individuals. At UW-Madison, for example, there has been a 10-year increase in overall undergraduate enrollment, from 28,897 in 2010 to 31,185 students in 2019. Simultaneously, there has been a 10-year decline in the enrollment of Black students, from 685 to 594 students.

White supremacy culture can be found in all dominant institutions in the US, including higher education. In classroom spaces, we’re thinking not only about educational content, but also the culture that is being created for our students. To learn the characteristics of white supremacy, visit the White Supremacy Culture website or view the document below.

The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture PDF

4.3 Safety vs. Discomfort in the Classroom

Safety in the classroom is vital to creating an effective learning environment. Without safety, students are unlikely to engage with the materials or discussions. They may choose instead to check out, shut down, or withdraw from the course. It is an absolute necessity and the responsibility of facilitators to ensure the safety of their students.

In order to do so, we have to intentionally reflect on what we mean by safety.

  • Safety is a place or environment in which a person or group of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm. Distinct from, but often talked about with safety, is the notion of discomfort.
  • Discomfort is an emotional resistance that can accompany activities like self-reflection.

Discomfort can look like defensive anger or frustration at being challenged, a fear of change or the loss of a personal or cultural identity, and feelings of guilt or shame. Some amount of discomfort is harmless, promotes growth, and makes space for learning. When considering safety and discomfort in our classrooms, we are really trying to navigate the line between discomfort (which is productive) and distress (which is not) for a group of people whose complete histories we have no way of knowing.

It can be helpful to use the following questions when navigating that space:

  • What type of discomfort do we want to help students experience and why?
  • What do we do when student discomfort develops into trauma? Can we prevent this from happening, and if not, what do we do?
  • How do we establish an inclusive and safe classroom climate that embraces discomfort pedagogies?
  • What is the value of asking students to move beyond their comfort zones? What do we mean when we ask them to do so?
  • How might a pedagogy of discomfort be enacted to empower diverse students or promote social justice?
  • How does a teacher experience, promote, or avoid discomfort in the classroom?

Community Agreements

A helpful means of navigating discomfort in the classroom can be the use of community agreements. Community agreements serve to make explicit the sometimes implicit elements of the classroom culture. They establish expectations and roles for both instructors and students. These are distinct from rules in that they should come from the group as a whole rather than from a central authority like the instructor. The goal of community agreements goes beyond expectation setting, however. They are intended to build trust and create a more democratic environment for class to progress.

Similar to many practices, though well-intentioned, community agreements can sometimes go awry. While they are intended to dismantle some of the power structures of the classroom, oftentimes, they simply serve to enforce some of the characteristics of white supremacy outlined above. When community guidelines are built on the assumption that a single space can be protective, validating, and respectful regardless of a student’s identity, in order words, when we strive to create a neutral space for all students, we are likely colluding with and protecting white supremacy regardless of intent.

Drafting Community Agreements

Whenever possible encourage the whole group to add to the community agreements list. Ask follow-up questions for each such as:

  • What would that look like to you?
  • How would you want someone to do that?
  • What does _____ mean to you?
  • Can you tell me more about what you picture for you?

Strive to create opportunities for students to reflect on what they want their learning space to look like and the role they want themselves and others to play as well as what they would like to do when a community agreement is broken. While this list should certainly be aspirational, also try to guide them toward building in some humanness. What do we want it to look like if our capacity or bandwidth is low on a given day? What expectations do we want to set for ourselves and others when we’re feeling sad, frustrated, disappointed, angry, or just tired?

Push gently against community agreements that may unintentionally protect white supremacy. Consider this an opportunity to model how you would like to be challenged or have new ideas introduced to you. For instance:

  • If we are always assuming good intent of each other, what space is left for accountability? What would we like that to look like?
  • If we are always respecting each other’s opinions, how do we proceed if one person’s opinion invades the existence of another person?
  • If everyone’s opinion matters, what do we do if someone’s opinion is a microaggression against another member of our classroom community?
  • If we are planning to allow all voices to be heard and share the airspace, does that mean we should not interrupt when someone is saying something deeply harmful to another student or a community?

While these examples may feel drastic, they are, unfortunately, too commonplace. While there may be some truth behind ideas like all opinions, voices, and stories mattering, remember that there are institutional and systemic histories of violence and ongoing examples of violence and threats that change the meaning of “always listening to both sides.”

Additional Reading: Respecting Differences? Challenging common social justice guidelines

Reflective Question

To align with the iterative nature of learning on this topic, below is a reflective question to consider how this content applies to your current or future practice.

What community agreements would be important for your class?