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Ricardo Levins Morales

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Black professor's essay raises questions on why she was investigated after offending white students

Taboo Subject?
December 3, 2013

Is talking about race at Minneapolis Community and Technical College grounds for punishment if white students are offended? That’s what some supporters of a professor recently under investigation for talking about race there are asking. One supporter went so far as to create a parody logo of the college with its initials and the text: “Making it a Crime to Talk about Color.”

Minneapolis media and activists have been following the story of Shannon Gibney, a full-time, tenured professor of English. She says a student complaint about a recent lecture on structural racism triggered a meeting with administrators about her conduct and that the meeting was followed by a written letter of reprimand. She also says she was directed to the college’s chief diversity officer for sensitivity training. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to reflect that Gibney is tenured.)

But the college denies her account, saying it never reprimanded her for talking about structural racism -- what it calls an important topic for students and faculty.

Gibney described the incident in her Introduction to Mass Communications this way in a video interview with the student newspaper, the City College News: “[The white, male student asked] ‘Why do we have to talk about this in every class? Why do we have to talk about this?’ ” Describing his demeanor during the discussion on mass communication and politics as “defensive,” Gibney continued: “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 said another white male student added: “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?”

Gibney said she tried to explain that her topic was institutionalized racism, not individuals. When the students were still not satisfied, she invited them to file a racial harassment complaint, she said, and they took her up on it.

Over the weekend, Gibney engaged a national audience in her struggles with an article on Gawker, called “Teaching While Black and Blue.” It reveals this semester’s complaint is the third time she’s been investigated by the college for talking about race – each time, she says, for critical pedagogical reasons.

The essay, part of a longer forthcoming piece, begins with her waiting for a letter notifying her of the results of a college investigation into her conduct during a personnel search for a faculty member specializing in critical race theory. A fellow faculty member had reported her for being discriminatory in her criteria for a candidate in 2011.

“I am waiting for a letter to arrive in the mail. It will be short, no more than one page, and will be covered in black ink, with the occasional flourish of institutional logo,” she wrote. “The signature at the bottom will belong to a high-ranking officer at my Midwestern college of 12,000 students, and the words that preface it will briefly explain the method and, more importantly, the verdict, of an almost three-week long investigation, in which students, faculty, and staff were questioned by the school’s legal staff as to if, in fact, I had committed acts constituting an official case of racial harassment.”

The feeling is all too familiar, as she recounts a similar investigation several years earlier into comments she made during a student newspaper meeting. Having attended in an advisory role, she suggested during a discussion on declining readership that it could be linked to the fact that the newspaper staff was virtually all white. That's in contrast to the student body over all, which is more than 50 percent minority. Additionally, the campus was still healing from an incident the previous year in which a white newspaper staffer tied a noose in the newsroom to remind reporters of deadlines, and declined to immediately remove it, even after two black students asked him to do so.

After a series of back-and-forth emails with a student who said her comments during the meeting amounted to racism, the student reported her for harassment.

“What happened to me in 2008 did not happen because I am a young, black female faculty member at school that has over 50 percent students of color; what happened to me occurred because I turned the world backwards on an angry white male student," Gibney's essay reads. "We were in a regular weekly meeting of the newspaper staff, and the students were discussing the fact of the new edition, how well it had turned out, and the editor-in-chief said that although he was proud of the paper’s developments, he was not pleased with the fact that so few students regularly picked up the publication. Theories were thrown around as to why this was — the aesthetics were all wrong, the design didn’t pop, the stories could be flashier. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a noose hanging from the ceiling. When I looked again, it was gone.”

Describing the three-week investigation process involving a series of questions by administrators, as “terrifying,” Gibney wrote: “Perhaps I shouldn’t have spoken. The words crowded in my mind on more than one occasion, when, during the three-week interview process, I awoke at 5 am, my thoughts running around the room in circles. But then I heard the voice of the young Somali student in my class, who I told would have to attend the remainder of the newspaper staff meetings without me, because I was to have no contact with the student who filed the complaint while it was under investigation (the class was shocked and appalled…and also expressed their profound feelings of impotence at not really being able to affect what was happening to me, and to them). The young woman, in her early to mid-20s, approached me at the start of class, and mentioned that she didn’t think that she should stay in it, because she said that her English was not that good. I replied that the purpose of a writing class was to work on your writing, and that she was therefore in the right place. But that afternoon, when I told the class that I would no longer be attending newspaper staff meetings with them, because of what they had all heard me say the week before, the young woman protested."

She continued: “But what you said was true! she told me. When I walked into that first meeting and saw that it was all white people, no one who looked like me, I wanted to walk away. What was left unsaid was, But I didn’t. I wondered, I still wonder, what had made her stay. The next week, when I saw her in the hallway before she left for the staff meeting, she revealed that she did not want to go. I could see the fear in her eyes, visceral, and too familiar.”

In each case, Gibney ultimately was told that her conduct did not rise to the level of violating the college’s antidiscrimination policy. But she was warned about tone and “cooperation.”

Via email, she said she believed she was being targeted for such investigations, although perhaps not consciously. “In allowing and even encouraging white males to wield their historical institutional privilege as maintained by the structures of the institution, the college has created a campus climate wherein white males feel emboldened and empowered to verbally and legally attack professional Black women."

Perhaps ironically, the City College News, where some students had complained about her several years ago, has been a source of support of Gibney in her most recent investigation.

In a recent op-ed, Colleen Harris, one of Gibney’s students, said it was an “outrage, albeit not a surprise, that MCTC would embrace such a backwards philosophy that places the comfort of two white male students as a healthy center for a discussion on structural racism.  There is no shortage of irony in the matter of a brilliant woman of color professor being disciplined for leading a discussion on structural racism when it discomforts white male students, and furthermore being sent to a training that the college had the audacity to frame as giving Professor Gibney a lesson in intercultural competency.”

The current newspaper editor, Gabe Hewitt, declined to comment on Gibney’s case but said he did not know anyone on the staff who was there in 2009, when the first complaint against the professor was lodged.

Others in Minneapolis have voiced support for Gibney.

Ricardo Levins Morales, a local social justice artist who guest-lectured in Gibney’s class before the story broke, created the parody logo. Via email, he said his version of the logo “exposed a layer of institutional politics that the public face of the college obscures. A succinct visual image can travel quickly in the era of social media and help make clear to the school that their own behavior is under public scrutiny.… It seems to me that education should not be about protecting students from feeling uncomfortable in the face of complex social issues.”

Ryan Williams-Virden, an artist who has lectured on social justice issues at the college, wrote an open letter on his blog to the students who allegedly reported Gibney to the college in the most recent incident.

“I know how you felt in that classroom. I grew up in Northeast Minneapolis, in a working-class family; I remember vividly my hostility at the notion I had any privilege, and at the racism conversation in general,” he wrote, naming a variety of reasons he had changed the way he thought about structural racism.

Williams-Virden continued: “But mostly gentlemen we must talk about structural racism because of you. Because in 2013 three white men feel it is O.K. if they interrupt a college professor while she is conducting class. Your mothers taught you better, and if they didn’t they should have. It is hard to imagine you doing this if I, a white male, were teaching the class. You, gentlemen, are the epitome of why we need to be talking about race and racism at every opportunity. I know you feel the walls of your world closing in on you but trust me when I say those are only the walls of the box you live in coming down and the world is so much more beautiful outside that box. I want you to see that world gentlemen.”

In an email, Williams-Virden said he didn’t believe that race relations were worse at Minneapolis than at many other colleges wrestling with the same issues.

But the college denies unspecified details of Gibney’s account. The president of the faculty union could not immediately be reached for comment.

In a formal statement, the institution says it has never disciplined a faculty member for teaching or discussing structural racism.

“Conversations about race, class and power are important and regular parts of many classes at MCTC and have been for years,” the statement says. “At MCTC, we believe it is essential for our faculty to actively engage students in respectful discussions in the classroom regardless of topic and to create an atmosphere in which students may ask questions as an important part of the classroom experience. Questions from students in classroom discussions are an essential part of the learning process. We expect that faculty will have the professional skills to lead difficult conversations in their classrooms and will teach in a way that helps students understand issues, even when students feel uncomfortable or disagree with particular ideas. We also expect that students act appropriately in the classroom; a student who does not do so may be subject to removal by the faculty member.”

The college said it could not comment on specific personnel matters, even when “information provided by a student or employee about a complaint or disciplinary matter is not accurate or complete.”

In an interview, President Phillip Davis said he could not comment on Gibney’s case but disagreed with her characterization of the college as a place that is failing students of color and intolerant of race-based discussions. Several new initiatives have doubled the percentage of the non-white faculty in recent years, to about 22 percent, he said. And the college is investing in ways to eliminate barriers to success for minority students, including training some faculty in the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s Statway method of mathematics instruction and offering accelerated English courses. In 2010, the college also launched a new advising program for African American students, among other programs designed to “move the dial” on minority student retention and graduation rates, he said. That and other efforts have led to increased minority student enrollment.

“Students are voting with their feet and staying because they find it an exceptional place to learn,” Davis said. “I don’t think [many students and faculty] would recognize the characterizations I’ve seen in some of the news reports of what it’s like to be MCTC. That’s the not the college I know.”

 

 

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