Defensiveness is a barrier to equity work

Defensiveness can be a barrier to effective communication, particularly when it involves receiving feedback from others or encountering information that contradicts what we believe about ourselves. For that reason, defensiveness can be a major barrier to becoming a more equitable educator. In this blog post, I’d like to dive deeper into this subject to think more deeply about what I can do to become a more equitable educator and how we can help our field move towards greater equity and justice.

A few months ago, I was teaching multi-variable calculus and drew the following vector field on the board.


When this happened during class, a student mentioned “Oh! It looks like a swastika” and I said that it was unintentional but didn’t change the diagram and just kept going on.

After class, one of my students came to tell me that another student felt uncomfortable with the swastika and with the way that I handled the situation. In that moment, I felt a rush of defensiveness. My initial instinct was to defend myself (to point out that the swastika has actually been used for centuries before the Nazis and the version that appeared in class is actually a different orientation from the Nazi swastika and is closer to the sacred symbol used in many Asian cultures (…and even now as I write this I still feel defensive and feel like I have to explain myself)). I didn’t say any of that. Thankfully, I just paused and apologized, expressed that it wasn’t my intention to be dismissive and didn’t realize that it had that impact, and said that I would be more careful with this example in the future. Later, I removed one of the red arrows above in the online version of the lecture notes.

I share this anecdote not to make any kind of judgment on the student who felt uncomfortable. I don’t want to get into a debate about political correctness or students who are fragile “snowflakes”. All that matters here is that a student felt uncomfortable, I received feedback about it, and that feedback helped me recognize how I will do better in the future. (In the future, I won’t shy away from this example, but I will take 30 seconds to share a bit of history about the symbol.)

What was the source of the defensiveness in that situation? I realize now that the first emotions I felt in that moment had to do with surprise and anger from being misunderstood: “How could anyone think that I would be so insensitive or oblivious as to use such a hateful symbol in my class? Don’t you know all the stuff I’ve done to promote equity and justice?” I really dislike the feelings that come with someone being offended or upset by something I said or did, when that was not my intention–lots of people feel this way. And, that, dear friends, is a common source of tension for many people about talking and thinking about equity. The recognition that our past deeds might have marginalized, discouraged, or discriminated against people of color, women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people (list goes on…) runs smack into the thought “BUT I DIDN’T MEAN IT”. And yet, while the intent was not there, the impact can still be real.

How does defensiveness lead to undesirable outcomes? When receiving feedback from someone else, defensiveness shifts the focus from the issue at hand to our own emotions. In this situation, if I would have responded defensively, it would have shifted the attention away from the student who was uncomfortable to my own hurt feelings. And the reality here is that I had nothing here to lose except my own stupid ego by listening to and receiving the feedback.

I’m not saying that we instructors should not defend ourselves against baseless accusations. If it is really the case that there is no possible iota of truth in the feedback that I am given, then I can choose to reject the feedback, or perhaps actually defend myself. However, in this situation, there really was something that I could have done differently so the feedback was helpful. And, the power difference in the student-teacher relationship is important here. Because it takes so much more courage to say something to someone who has power over you, I believe that when instructors receive feedback like this we should listen carefully and err on the side of being generous.

Here’s another example of how defensiveness can be an impediment to thinking about and working toward greater equity. An imagined conversation snippet:

Person A: “I think when our department enacts policy X, that is a form of institutional racism.”
Person B: “What are you saying? I’m not racist!”

The words “racist” and “racism” can conjure up strong feelings and sometimes bring conversations about equity to a halt. The historical significance of the word “racist” (that it came into popular use in the 1930s in response to the Nazis) helps to explain why some people react so strongly to that word.

This kind of defensive reaction often stems from the contradiction between unjust outcomes or discriminatory behavior and a belief in oneself as a good and decent person: “How could students possibly suggest that I could be racist/sexist/*-ist? Don’t they know that I have been fighting for [XYZ cause] for longer than they have been alive?” As with the previous swastika anecdote, the defensiveness here has the effect of shifting the conversation away from the topic of discussion (a policy) to a person’s feelings.

To get move past my own defensiveness, I want to work toward having a thick skin but tender heart. I want to become less sensitive to the effects of any feedback and criticism on my ego, or my conceptions of who I am or want to be, and instead be more sensitive to the experiences of others. I would rather err on the side of being misunderstood than to misunderstand others. My problem is how to disrupt the surge of defensive emotions so that I can exercise enough cognitive control to react gracefully in that situation.

And as an educator who tries to help others move toward greater equity too, I think this deeper understanding of my own defensiveness will help in situations when I encounter defensiveness with others. Defensiveness often begets more defensiveness, so having a thick skin and tender heart can help to disrupt that cycle.

(Many thanks to Dylan Kane for encouraging me to think about this topic, and to Robin Wilson and Dagan Karp for their helpful feedback.)