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Keeping it Real: Emotional Display Behaviour

I didn’t plan to bring it up. In fact, I had made a conscious decision to not talk about it. But, in the middle of class, I said something. I had to. I still wonder if I made the right decision.

August 27 was the first day of my Theology of Church and Ministry class. I was prepared with a list of learning objectives I wanted to accomplish: introductions to the class and to each other; review of the course outline; overview of the scope of the course; discussion of students’ initial understandings of “church” and “ministry.”

It was my first day back in the classroom since August 9, when the unarmed 18 year-old, Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. I had been following the news reports of the ensuing riots in Ferguson, Missouri and the militarized police response. I also read and “shared” the teaching resources on Twitter with the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus

I was haunted by my feelings of sadness. I couldn’t stop identifying with Michael Brown’s mother. I am not a person of color. I am not a mother. Yet, I was sad for everyone in our racialized society, especially her. I still am.

I reflected seriously on my decision to not bring up Ferguson. I remembered one emotionally charged classroom experience in particular. It was in March 2003, when the US declared war in Iraq. I was a graduate student in a “Marriage and Family” class. That March, my teacher came to class, but had obviously been crying. It was clear she was distraught. She began the class with a prayer for peace, and mentioned the death count of war fatalities. I was moved deeply. After class, though, I learned that many of my peers were not. Some wondered why we talked about the war in a marriage and family class. One student said something I still remember after ten years: “If she is that upset about the situation, she shouldn’t bring it up in class.”

I decided that, like my former teacher, my emotional vulnerability might lose some students. My emotions might cloud my ability to facilitate a reasoned discussion about Ferguson and racism. It was the first night of class. I didn’t know some of them yet, and they didn’t know me.

Something happened, though, in the middle of class which I did not anticipate (as often does when we are teaching!). A student brought up race. He discussed a parish setting he had recently encountered in which the majority of parishioners were white; they reacted negatively when a new Korean American priest came to the parish and a number of Korean Americans followed him there. The student wondered why the reaction was negative.

I decided then and there to talk about Ferguson. I spoke from the heart, sharing my own feelings that “racism is an original evil in our society,” and that “whenever white privilege is challenged there is backlash”.  I had goose bumps on my arms the whole time, and felt like I was on the verge of tears.

My students may have been surprised. The system tells them not to expect a discussion on race, especially in a classroom in which the teacher and all but one of the students is white. The system tells them that race doesn’t matter in a class that explores “church” and “ministry”.

From what I could tell, the students mostly nodded their heads in solemn agreement with my remarks. No one challenged me, nor did anyone add to the discussion. Did my own emotional display present an obstacle to further discussion? I don’t know. In hindsight, I would have solicited informal student feedback at the end of that class.


When I discuss race in the classroom, I am prepared for emotional fallout -- both from students of color and white students of privilege. A mentor once told me to not use others’ pain as a heuristic tool in discussion of race. This August I learned I need to consider my own pain.

In a previous blog entry, Dr. Nyasha Junior asked, “Did YOU discuss Ferguson on your first day of class? Why or why not?” (See blog entry below dated 9/2/2014) I did, even though I didn’t plan on it. It was because, in the moment, I felt it was necessary to keep it real.

I now ask: When talking about Ferguson or racism in general, how do YOU as a teacher, manage your own emotional fallout? Can our own fallout be pedagogically effective display behaviour?


Ella Johnson

About Ella Johnson

Ella Johnson is an Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at St Ambrose University. Ella lives in Davenport, IA, with her husband Gerry and their daughter Isa, who loves to laugh and keep them very active! Ella enjoys gardening, tending to her growing collection of houseplants, being silly with her daughter and nephews, and eating the delicious food her husband cooks. She teaches systematic theology to undergraduates and also graduate students, who are preparing for permanent diaconate ordination or lay ecclesial ministry. Ella's research focuses on recovering the theological insights of medieval women mystics. She has recently published a book, This is My Body: Eucharistic Theology and Anthropology in the Writings of Gertrude the Great of Helfta (Cisterican Publications, 2020). She also is constantly thinking about how to employ new teaching tactics and engage anti-racism and social justice concerns in the classroom and on campus.

Reader Interactions


  1. Thanks for sharing. Despite our plans or intentions, unanticipated (and sometimes wonderful) things happen in the classroom. Usually, I keep my students from discussing contemporary events and biblical texts (as I mentioned in my previous blog entry). Still, I have many years of experience in controlling my emotions when discussing or encountering racism.

  2. I would not limit it to white privilege. It’s whenever the status-quo is challenged. This is an important distinction.

    I was in an ethics class in Canada and many of the examples were from the US. it left a sense of “only Americans need to change. We’re Canadian – we’re the good guys.”

    We all need to look in those places where we feel uncomfortable with ourselves. The issue is not black and white.

    But yes, Ella, it sounds like you did a remarkable job.

  3. Thanks, for your comments. Nyasha,I just wonder if “controlling” emotions is always a good thing when “discussing or encountering racism.” As some have commented on FB, what about the “gift of lament” (esp. “communal lament” leading to social change)? Thoughts?

  4. Dr. Johnson, controlling my emotions is a survival strategy for me as a Black woman. My family taught me self-restraint in the hope of keeping me alive in a world that does not value people who look like me. I’m not interested in lament. I’m angry. See Audre Lorde’s “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger” in Sister Outsider.

  5. Dr. Johnson, this is a provocative topic. I wanted to respond earlier but was not sure how I wanted to respond. If you remember early in Prez Obama’s presidency some people accused him of being too cool and of not showing enough emotion, but many African Americans understood that he could not come across as an “angry black man”. Yet, some African Americans accused the President of not being angry enough in his remarks concerning the Michael Brown murder. I was not one of them. I say this to say that it is complex for some, as I believe Dr. Junior is saying. At the same time, we regard some emotions as good and some as bad, depending on who the emotive one is. This bias is most evident, for some, with respect to gender and race. Certain emotions are acceptable and not acceptable depending on gender, race, and class. But God gives us emotions and I think the image of God in the Bible is quite emotional. I love that God is angry at social injustice, and I believe we should be too. I value and appreciate what you did in the classroom. I think to ignore you own feelings or to hide them would have resulted in a missed opportunity to demonstrate on the emotional level at least your empathy and solidarity with the least. There may be some students seeking such validation of their feelings in the context of some who might condone injustice and encourage the opposite…a callous disregard for those considered different. Keep on keeping it real, I say. My musings….

  6. In the stages of grief, I believe anger usually comes before lament–grief. Under anger is often sadness, but it’s hard to get to the sadness without the space for anger first. I don’t often find those spaces. We are told over and over again that we shouldn’t be angry…though as Baldwin states…”To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

    Thank you both for your contributions (Ella Johnson and Nyasha Junior). Much appreciated.

    As I Black Woman, I consistently feel the need to control rage and find if I can, safe places to share it…and even on occasion lament.

Wabash Center