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November 29, 2013 10:00 AM Professor Teaches Students About Racism. Students Accuse Her of Racial Discrimination.

By Daniel Luzer

One professor at Minnesota’s Minneapolis Community and Technical College is now facing sanctions for her “actions in [targeting] select students based on their race and gender ” for teaching her students about structural racism, the idea that there are systems of that perpetuate and reinforce inequality based on race.

The professor was surely in the right in attempting to present this subject, but she didn’t seem to do it very well.

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Shannon Gibney, a professor of English and African diaspora studies at MCTC, is teaching Intro to Mass Communication this semester. The way she taught it apparently made many of her students very uncomfortable. According to an article at Minneapolis City Pages, Gibney explained that it happened like this:

[One of the white students asked,] ‘Why do we have to talk about this in every class? Why do we have to talk about this?’ I was shocked… It was not in a calm way. 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.
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?’
I tried to say, ‘You guys are trying to take it personally. This is not a personal attack. We’re not all white people, you white people in general. We’re talking about whiteness as a system of oppression.’
And so I’m quite familiar, unfortunately, with how that works — and how the institutional structures and powers reinforce this white male supremacy, basically, and that sort of narrative, and way of seeing the world.
And so I said, ‘You know, if you’re really upset, feel free to go down to legal affairs and file a racial harassment discrimination complaint.’

And so, somewhat sensibly, they did.

The school determined the white guys were right, sort of.

What happened in the course is a little ambiguous, but apparently the school sent Gibney this letter:

Shannon, I find it troubling that the manner in which you led a discussion on the very important topic of structural racism alienated two students who may have been most in need of learning about this subject.
While I believe it was your intention to discuss structural racism generally, it was inappropriate for you to single out white male students in class. Your actions in [targeting] select students based on their race and gender caused them embarrassment and created a hostile learning environment.
For that reason, I have determined that a reprimand is warranted.

So those two students who “may have been most in need of learning about this subject,” what lesson have they learned about this subject now?

And that hostile learning environment? Is the learning environment improved?

I have great sympathy for the professor. She’s a woman who’s spent a career exploring and attempting to address issues of social and economic inequality and race in America. As one commentator points out in the City Pages article, however, structural racism is a very difficult concept to teach to students, and professors have to be very careful about presenting the information in a way that’s digestible and doesn’t appear hostile.

It’s a new concept for most college freshmen, particularly white students, and it’s easy to misinterpret the lesson and feel attacked. That’s what a structural problem does, after all.

The students might be wrong, but that’s because they failed to understand the material. Or, perhaps more importantly, the professor failed to present it clearly. And that’s her fault. That doesn’t, of course, make her guilty of racial harassment, but it does make her a bad teacher.

Classes like these are actually very, very difficult to teach well, in part because the students tend to take these complicated things pretty personally.

And that’s the really hard part about being in academia. For many subjects, it’s not enough to teach the information, you have to do a good job teaching it, so students really understand. If that’s a problem, maybe there’s a better way to present the material.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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