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

Human Rights

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.

In that time I have experienced white students--male students in particular--showing great resistance and disrespect toward me. This is more than the difficulty of dealing with entitled and narcissistic students who have more than earned the title of "snowflake", are part of a generational cohort that is highly resistant to receiving any type of constructive criticism, and lack the ability to understand that there is a difference between opinion, scholarly consensus, and learned expertise.

No, it is the way the energy changes in a space, the surprised looks, the head-shakes, and subtle combativeness (or overt resistance) by some white men when a person of color or a woman walks into a room in their professional capacity as a teacher, manager, doctor, consultant, or boss.  

I have experienced a white male student look aghast upon my entering the seminar room, utter that there is no way someone like me could teach him, and then make a scene of walking out. I have had white students email my superiors and concoct wicked lies about what is being taught in class, my comportment, and how I am somehow "hostile" to white people. I have had white students demand that I demonstrate my competence to be a faculty member and to teach students as "smart" and "bright" as they and their peers are (the subtle coding? all of said students were overwhelmingly white) because I must be an "affirmative action hire" or a "quota". And yes, as the question may be looming for some readers, I was once, for all intents and purposes, called a "nigger" to my face during a related interaction.

Those are relatively rare experiences. I count myself very lucky and fortunate to have colleagues and superiors who have been very supportive, helpful, and encouraging.

College course evaluations are also a space where white students show hostility towards faculty of color.

Beyond the typical complaints about too much reading, or dissatisfaction with grades, evaluations are spaces for students to retaliate against professors and lecturers. It is a one-way fight because evaluations are usually anonymous. And at many institutions they are heavily relied upon for determining promotions, raises, and tenure. In the worst examples, college evaluations are just a score without any context that are used to punish and reward faculty members.

There is a great amount of research which suggests that course evaluations are heavily impacted by an instructor's race, gender, age, ethnicity, and perceived sexuality. Students, who as a practical matter do not have the expertise to determine the quality of what they have been taught (they can only accurately comment on their normative experience in the class), are in fact evaluating a professor based on what they expect their grade to be, and how/if that person fit into some preconceived box of what a "professor" should look and act like.

Consequently, women who are not "comforting" and "nurturing" are evaluated worse than men in the same scenario. Men who teach seminars, as opposed to the classic lecture with its pretense of the "authority figure", are evaluated lower by students.

Students in required classes will often reveal their frustration and sense of being imposed upon through their course evaluations. Because people of color and women may tend towards fields in the social sciences and humanities that explore questions of identity, culture, and power, they in turn face the double burden of teaching courses and material that many white students are resistant to, and then being evaluated as less competent, precisely because they are not white and male.

As is demonstrated in other areas of American public and cultural life, course evaluations are spaces where ability and aptitude are not assessed equally across lines of race and gender: the smart and confident black professor is branded as "arrogant"; the smart and confident woman is a "bitch".  

If the classroom is supposed to be a space where the truth is distilled down to its core essence, college faculty face a dire dilemma. Do they engage in parrhesia, radical truth-telling, that may upset their students?

For those not at Ivies or elite R1's where evaluations are not as important, does an instructor risk their academic career by eschewing student evaluations because high standards, rigor, and truth-seeking are the most important values for them? Because the personal is political and is not neatly separated from one's intellectual work, should faculty of color and others so oriented, simply stay silent on those topics that will upset white students?

These are important questions which speak to a more important concern. Racism and sexism are central to how Shannon Gibney was treated by her students and the administrators at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. But, Gibney's story should be located relative to the structural forces that are negatively reimagining and reshaping higher education in the United States--and the country's economy, politics, and culture, more generally.

Ultimately, Gibney's experience is one more data point which reveals the overwhelming power of neoliberalism and the surveillance society to impact every aspect of American life.

Neoliberalism is a political and economic philosophy which argues that models of extreme capitalism and the marketplace should be used to organize society. Capitalism and democracy are made synonymous with one another. The type of biopolitics which has been ushered in by the neoliberal order is one of a culture of cruelty, mass incarceration, the destruction of the middle class, where the poor are treated as "useless eaters", and the State monitors and spies upon its citizens through omnipresent means.

Higher education in America shares all of those traits. Evaluations are used to monitor, assess, intimidate, and control faculty members. Rate My Professor is part of this apparatus, as are websites by Right-wing "watchdog" groups that seek to bully and fire professors who are "hostile" to the conservative agenda.

Because higher education is profit driven--as opposed to being focused on creating active and critical citizens--the classroom is being transformed into a version of McDonald's or Burger King where the customer is always right.

In many states, faculty are being required to submit their syllabi for public inspection and approval. If higher education is the last redoubt of critical thinking and a bulwark against neoliberalism, rising Christian Dominionism, and the anti-intellectual thuggery of contemporary populist conservatism, faculty members must then conform to the expectations of a lay public who have neither the expertise or qualifications to judge a given professor's ability or competence.

Shannon Gibney's experience resonates here: the White Right is pursuing a nativist and racist political agenda. Consequently, attacking faculty members who dare to engage in truth-telling and truth-seeking on those matters is a necessity.

Neoliberalism is predicated on creating a sense of insecurity and fear on the part of the American worker. If wages are stagnant, being undercut by globalization, and unions are destroyed, then CEO's and the 1 percent can further extract wealth from the masses. The destruction of the middle class is the foundation for a neoliberal order. Tenure for college faculty, which grants the intellectual freedom to engage in truth-seeking and truth-telling, is being destroyed in America. Tenured and long-term faculty members are being replaced by adjuncts who are underpaid, without health benefits or retirement funds, and possess no job security. Tuition rates continue to rise. Executive compensation for senior administrators remains extravagant.

The result of neoliberalism's influence in higher education is that the quality of student instruction will be made lower, universities and colleges will be preoccupied with expanding corporate support and donations (as well as giving them even more control over departments, hiring, and research), and faculty will be made made expendable and disposable. Those who remain will either have been lucky enough to be grandfathered through to tenure or will have adapted to the new reality of simply giving students the grades they want, i.e. "A's" (as opposed to what they have earned) and abandoning any commitment to the life of the mind and the role of the intellectual as truth-teller.

Shannon Gibney's experience is an example of racism and sexism in action. White privilege empowered the white male students to harass her. It was not white racism and white supremacy operating either together or alone that then led to Shannon Gibney being disciplined for daring to talk about structural racism in her class.

Neoliberalism is the main villain in Gibney's story. Black and brown folks are once more "the miner's canary".

The forces of corporatization, hyper conservatism, and extreme capitalism came after Shannon Gibney because she is a black woman who dared to engage in truth-telling about white supremacy in the United States. As such, Shannon was the most vulnerable and opportune target of the moment.

The neoliberal order operates on the same calculus as organized crime or a hitman. It ain't personal. It's only business. Neoliberalism is coming for everyone. White supremacy and white racism are just a means to an end.

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