Emerging scholarship on university–community co-production rightly emphasizes the importance of preparatory work to build research partnerships. Such preparation creates the necessary common ground on which to build a meaningful collaborative relationship. Drawing on our experiences on a large university–community co-production experiment in historical mapping, we argue that this work is particularly important in partnerships where relationships are characterized by difference. If academics wish to work with individuals and groups beyond the bounds of those with whom they already agree, ‘foregrounding’ co-production is a critical component. We identify three dimensions of foregrounding co-production: practical, epistemological and affective. Each become increasingly important in cases where communities lack trust in, or actively mistrust, the university. Understanding and navigating difference, historical harm and power asymmetries can be time-intensive, and it may require a reorientation of the relationship between process and output in collaborative projects such that initially intended aims are not met. In order to encourage co-production across difference, we conclude that foregrounding should be valued as an end or ‘output’ in and of itself.