We are both professors – one a South Asian American woman who teaches at a law school, the other a white American woman who teaches at a community college. Neither of us knows Shannon Gibney personally and we have no professional connection to her. We have been following the reports on the case carefully and are deeply troubled to learn that Professor
Gibney has been reprimanded for discussing structural racism in her class . Both of us, as women scholars—though first and foremost as teachers devoted to our own diverse student populations—feel it is important to act, now, in response to what appears an instance of the kind of discrimination that structurally impacts women of color and scholars from other underrepresented groups in academe.
It is our understanding that Shannon Gibney, an African-American female professor, was interrupted and challenged by white male students in her introductory mass communications class while trying to teach a module on issues of diversity in American life—institutional and structural racism, based in critical race theory and standard fare in any such course—and was then reprimanded by the college for doing so, following a complaint filed against her by those students, including a requirement to attend diversity training (the very subject she was trying to teach) as part of the school’s punitive response.
The irony of this situation is obvious: Professor Gibney was sanctioned for teaching her students about social patterns in American life that have come to be called structural and institutional racism, that action being a continuation of the very problem she endeavored to impart in her role as college teacher. We don’t presume to provide another such lesson here, but a few definitions for the sake of clarity: structural racism regards the ways substantial numbers of minority citizens are omitted from participation in civil institutions; and the related issue of institutional racism refers, generally, to pervasive failures, at the institutional level—eg., judiciary, educational, economic, healthcare, etc.—to provide equal support to and representation of minority groups, those marginalized on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender or class. These problems do not regard blatant single actions or individual instances of hate speech but operate subtly, as part of the very fabric and structure of the institution.
An understanding of these issues is the lesson Gibney was apparently trying to impart. To teach such a topic, as we do in our own classes, is not about racial shaming. It is about examining patterns of social injustice in civil society, patterns defined by and based on the dominant culture that function, on the one hand, to privilege and sustain that group and, on the other, to structurally “underprivilege” minority groups . Certainly such discussions are complex and often charged; but, just as certainly, academic institutions, if we are to graduate individuals who are culturally aware critical thinkers fit to become future leaders, must permit such discussions and such curricula. Indeed, they must protect faculty in instances in which they are attacked for teaching such subjects, rather than admonishing and silencing them.
MCTC’s use of disciplinary procedures to silence discussion and awareness of structural and institutional racism, which negatively impacts minority faculty while at the same time disserving students, is what troubles us most. The action constitutes an instance of institutional discrimination that silences discussion of important social issues within the context of higher education, creates a culture of fear amongst the faculty, dissuading their teaching subjects touching racism at MCTC in the future, and, most importantly, disserves the interests of student enrichment, student learning and student preparedness.
If we parrot the discourse of white privilege by shaming and silencing minority faculty trying to educate students on dynamics of race, we are failing in our roles as educators and administrators. It is our duty to make decisions that serve the student body well and are fair and equitable to faculty and administrators. On behalf of the complaining students, the very last thing the school should have done was to respond by reprimanding the teacher as this only reinforced the problem in question. This was a lost opportunity for an institutional “teaching moment.” It was an opportunity to model, for students, how to successfully and judiciously negotiate the working world they will enter upon graduation. Why did the administration not simply mediate the situation, explaining to the involved students why the subject matter is important and encourage them to work harder to understand the complex social issues Gibney was trying to teach them? Why not call students and teacher to a meeting where the administration would demonstrate support for the teacher and her curriculum while also acknowledging and addressing the students’ concerns?
MCTC lost an opportunity both to educate and to exercise principled leadership. Not only are problem-solving and critical thinking key 21st Century skills needed to succeed in today’s global economy, what the school has done is to teach its white student population that if they don’t like a topic, or whenever a professor calls them to think in a new way about the world and/or themselves, they may simply file a complaint—reinforcing their own unawareness and failure to think critically. If we apply the language of pedagogical “safety” only to white students made uncomfortable by having to think critically about race, that, too, is a form of structural racism. The classroom must be a space where all students thrive, whether that be the white male students in this case, or black female students, or immigrant students, or gay and lesbian students. Black feminists, like bell hooks, reflect on the need to create democratic classrooms where all students feel safe and can learn, safe spaces that do not either replicate or cast a blind eye to patterns of privilege and underprivilege on the basis of race, class or gender. That kind of educational environment has always made classrooms unsafe for minority students, for queer-identified students, for working-class students, for students of certain religious groups, and those of other underrepresented groups.
In closing, we believe the disciplinary response in the Shannon Gibney case constitutes an attack on academic freedom and silences and censors discussion, teaching and critical awareness of the pervasive issues of institutional and structural racism in American society. We judge this action to be unfair, misguided and irresponsible, and call upon the college administration to demonstrate principled leadership by reexamining their response, both to Professor Gibney and to the complaining students.