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What Happens When Neoliberalism and White Privilege Meet in the College Classroom? Black Professors are Disciplined for Talking About Racism


The noted historian Eugene Genovese once said that a teacher is not doing their job if they are not making their students uncomfortable at least once every class.

Genovese's wisdom about how effective teaching and learning should challenge and disrupt a student's priors and beliefs does not apply to those faculty who do not have tenure or are contingent labor. Genovese's rubric most certainly does not hold for professors who happen to be female or people of color.

For example, see the experience of Shannon Gibney, an African-American professor who was disciplined by administrators for making white students "uncomfortable" because she dared to talk about structural inequality in her classroom.

Salon details how:

A black female professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College was formally reprimanded by school officials after three of her white male students were upset by a lesson she taught on structural racism.

Shannon Gibney says that the students reacted in a hostile manner to the lesson in her Introduction to Mass Communication class, with one of them asking her, “Why do we have to talk about this in every class? Why do we have to talk about this?”

“His whole demeanor was very defensive. He was taking it personally. I tried to explain, of course, in a reasonable manner — as reasonable as I could given the fact that I was being interrupted and put on the spot in the middle of class — that this is unfortunately the context of 21st century America,” she explained in an interview with City College News.

Gibney says that, after this initial comment, another white male student said, “Yeah, I don’t get this either. It’s like people are trying to say that white men are always the villains, the bad guys. Why do we have to say this?” These students continued to argue and disrupt the lesson until Gibney told them that if they were troubled by her handling of the subject, they could file an official complaint with the school’s legal affairs department.

The students then filed a complaint, and Gibney was formally reprimanded by the school’s vice president of academic affairs for creating a ”hostile learning environment” for trying to educate her students about the existence and operations of structural racism.

As an African-American, who for several years has taught on the college level, I can empathize with Gibney's sense of frustration (and likely anger) at being punished for doing her job, and the abuse she received from several white students who were "offended' that race was discussed in class. I would suggest that the greater insult for Shannon Gibney is not that these entitled and narcissistic students complained. Rather, it is that her superiors took such intellectually vacuous and petty complaints seriously.

Like most people of color who are members of the professional class or work in higher education, we can offer up many examples of our experiences with day-to-day racism and white supremacy. These challenges are especially problematic, because people of color who are members of the professional classes quite literally have the paper to prove their competence and training. Yet, for many white folks (and some black and brown folks who have internalized white supremacy) this is not enough.

The bonafides may be present, hung on the wall, in the office, or listed as the authors of monographs and chapters in books; but, for a particular type of person, they/we are not "qualified" because our not being "white" is a de facto statement of our inherent lack of talent and ability.

I have been a college lecturer for several years.

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