Recently Shannon Gibney, an instructor of English and African diaspora studies at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), received a formal reprimand. She was leading a discussion in a political science and communications course. During a discussion about structural racism, she was interrupted by two white male students. They were upset that this issue was being discussed, and felt that Gibney was personally attacking them. At the end of the debate Gibney informed them that if they were truly upset, they were able to file a racial harassment complaint. The two students did so, and Gibney received a formal reprimand, which will be placed into her file. After speaking about the issue to City College News, Gibney was informed that she violated the two students’ rights to privacy (she did not mention any names, nor were any specific persons alluded to). She was threatened with potential further disciplinary action, including suspension or termination.
The issue is not whether Gibney overstepped her boundaries as an instructor; whether by being put on-the-spot and being truthful, she made two students feel uncomfortable. Structural racism is messy. It hurts, and no one should feel comfortable when discussing these issues. The real, hidden issue is the message that The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System (MNSCU) and MCTC sent by reprimanding Gibney and sentencing her to diversity training. By giving lip service to diversity and inclusiveness, MCTC inadvertently affirmed and reinforced the two students’ white male privilege. Furthermore, it reinforces that discussions of racial and social justice are optional; that only special classes specifically reserved for these matters are appropriate.
The first issue is the absence of student accountability. Where are the students in this? Gibney is first and foremost an instructor at MCTC. As such, she is in a superordinate position to students, who have voluntarily come to MCTC and her class for enrichment. The lack of respect that these two white students showed to Gibney, and the institution’s response, reaffirms culturalisms tacitly enforced from childhood on. Men, especially white men, are taught to be loud, aggressive, and outspoken. They are taught that their voices and presences are always welcomed; they have never felt the shame of silence. Women are taught to be meek, quiet and never to speak out. Women of color are especially hurt by these cultural beliefs.
Whether or not the administration at MCTC meant to reinforce these tropes, they absolutely did so by punishing Gibney and not creating an open dialogue with the two students. If MCTC administration truly wanted to support diversity while creating a welcoming space, the students would have been included in the outcome following the complaint. A skilled moderator could have been brought in to facilitate a discussion between Gibney and the students. Fellow faculty members, administrative staff and students could also have been invited to the discussion.
Instead, the message that Gibney, and thus all students and faculty, are receiving is that these are issues we still must tip-toe around. We are being told that we have to make people “comfortable,” that somehow when talking about hundreds of years of systematic oppression, and how it plays out in modern life, it can be a “comfortable” discussion. That white men can never be made to feel unease (and subsequently, white women like me) is their given privilege.
The second issue is the message that the MCTC administration has chosen to send when it comes to matters of appropriate context. The two students’ initial complaint was that they did not want to talk about structural racism; they didn’t see why it mattered in their traditional political science class. This is perhaps the most prevalent issue that keeps institutional racism reaffirmed. The true question should be: “Why aren’t these issues being discussed in introductory classes, as these matters are integral to the fundamental power plays and structures of the United States?” By censoring Gibney’s attempt to introduce the topic to those in need if it most, the administration at MCTC has decisively declared that structural racism is not a true issue.
Classes are offered where this ugly story is explained and analyzed. People like me, who already have an interest in social and racial justice, are able to take classes that stretch their knowledge, viewpoints, assumptions, and prejudices about the world and its many inhabitants. People like these students, who so dearly need this knowledge the most, are left ignorant and in a vacuum. In this way traditional power and the structural restraints are kept safe. A space is created for dissidents to come together and learn, but no real advancement is made in disassembling the current power structures.
As a student and an employee of MCTC, I am deeply hurt by the message that my college has decided to send. I am a global studies major with an interest in community development. I came to MCTC, after Normandale Community College, for its wonderful diversity of cultures, opinions, and beliefs. I was hired to be a student ambassador for the same reason. I want to connect with people from all walks of life and work with people to enrich our environment, our lives and our community.
To me, MCTC is a bi-polar creature. I am allowed to take classes that probe, analyze and disassemble the historical racism of the world and the current oppression people face. I am a student ambassador because I believe in diversity, in open communication, in cross-cultural relationships. Yet, the top administrative officials of the MNSCU system and MCTC have taught me that this diversity is lip-service. It’s a lie. It’s a way to accommodate those we’ve downtrodden for hundreds of years. It’s a way to protect the status quo. It’s an illusion.
This letter is a response to City College Air: Discrimination on Campus
For more responses see:
An Open Letter to the Three White Men That Complained About Discussing Structural Racism
by Ryan Williams-Virden
On Power and History: Five False Equivalencies
by Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre
Image by Ricardo Levins Morales, sourced from ryanwilliamsvirden.com