Racism in the Classroom: I am Shannon Gibney

Cheryl Harris's "Whiteness as Property" is published in this anthology

Cheryl Harris’s “Whiteness as Property” is published in this anthology

I remember the first semester that I decided to teach Cheryl Harris’s “Whiteness as Property,” my students were completely resistant to reading it. They read the first few pages and realized that the essay was about white privilege and decided that they would read no more. Harris’s essay is complicated, but her argument is solid. They disagreed with it in its entirety, but were incapable of saying much more. They were done with the subject -matter and angry that I required them to read it. This protest to my teaching occurred in an African American literature class.

Structural racism, a topic discussed by Shannon Gibney at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, is one that could have easily been discussed in any of my classes, especially in the context of white privilege. In her Communications course, Professor Gibney was interrupted by two white males who did not want to hear about structural racism. They verbally attacked her in her own classroom and claimed that the discussion of structural racism made them feel like they were being attacked personally.

Professor Gibney’s students, a lot like my students did not take the time to read and understand the material being presented to them. Had they attempted to understand the lecture, they would understand that structural racism analyzes systems of racism, and not individual racism or how specific people are racist. That was of no matter to the students or to the college that eventually reprimanded her for the way she chose to teach her class.

People in support of the students argue that her discussion of structural racism had no place in her class. I find that a problematic assertion, considering none of them had seen her syllabus. And, that does not necessarily have to be the case, considering my white students did not want to talk about it either in an African American literature class.

The real problem is that the discussion of race and racism is an unsavory conversation in any context in America.

Da Realist 1 discussed this in “Teaching and the Power to Disrupt” in Tuesday’s post, where she states,

When you mentally wrestle with a difficult topic–whether it is calculus or philosophy–it may blow your mind at first. Once you begin to understand, you can pick up the pieces of your mind and rearrange them, but you are never quite the same again. This thinking process can be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary exercise in order to learn.

This way of thinking is acceptable in the sciences, but less so in regards to the humanities. And, to be honest, these same critical thinking strategies are deemed unacceptable by our own colleagues in liberal arts, when it comes to our courses in Ethnic and Gender Studies. The students’ and college’s response to Professor Gibney represents the country’s larger issues with engaging in productive conversations about race.

When I first heard Gibney’s story it wounded me deeply because I understand how easily it could have been me. I know what it is like to have spent more than a decade of my time on research, scholarship and teaching, to only be dismissed by students who do not believe that I deserve to be in the classroom. I wish Professor Gibney did not have to experience this and I send her positive energy, wherever she may be.