Sometimes you just have a bad week. Or a bad month. Or a year that was so-so. And if you are white these times are usually not connected to being white. They are just what they are. So, given this caveat, I need to say, this has been a hell of a week for a white person who believes in social justice, overturning white supremacy and supporting my colleagues of color in these fights. While I do not experience what they experience every day, I watch them negotiate their lives with awe and wonder. Because they are dealing not only with unfairness, straight out refusal of opportunity, and betrayal by those they believed would support them, they are also dealing with white “friends” who have no desire to even explore, take into account or discuss the role race plays in the world of work and shopping and getting hair done and interactions at the bank or supermarket.
Let me get specific. Shannon Gibney, a full professor at MCTC has been in the news lately. You can get her brilliant essay “Teaching in Black and Blue” at Gawker.com and you can also read an article in the Star Tribune on December 5 about her situation. Shannon is African-American and is tenured. She was explaining to her class how white perspectives often dominate all we do and experience in our country, including in the media. Some men took exception to her description of a “white lens” and called her out on it, becoming insistent and disruptive in her class. She said they could file a complaint and they did. It seemed that the next step would be for an impartial (hopefully not sll white) entity to look over the complaint, decide on its merits and take appropriate action. The word “appropriate” is important here. Shannon was reprimanded. Others at this same institution who are white have described having similar exchanges in their classes with no action taken against them.
Shannon has been told to take classes in diversity. This last is as ludicrous as it gets, although ludicrous is an easy word. Professor Gibney can teach multicultural communication. She can teach diversity and respectful conversation. This reprimand and penalty is a major betrayal of a woman who has done significant work in challenging institutional racism, most recently co-writing a letter to the Walker for not making the first showing of Twelve Years a Slave available to the descendents of slavery who live in our city. I met Shannon when she convened a group of people who were concerned with examples of racial and homophobic harassment on their campuses in both St. Paul and Minneapolis. She has been in the forefront of this work for years.
Is this, ultimately, what she is being punished for? If it is, what does it say for our progress in addressing not only racism but a history of white privilege that extends into the present?
Not long after reading about Shannon’s situation I heard a group of educators talking on the radio about the “achievement” gap. I put that in quotes because I believe we have an “opportunity” gap, with the emphasis on the opportunities that have been denied many families of color in our city. When one of the radio panel brought up the idea of white privilege and the part it plays in our need for constant rethinking and learning about our approaches to the kids in our classrooms, no one took him up on this. It hung there for a heartbeat and then the conversation went on. The teacher who brought up the subject of whiteness is white and is an excellent educator.
I bring this up in the context of the Shannon’s work at MCTC to pose this question: What are we so afraid of? How is it that we can have entire groups of policy wonks, education gurus, experts and school personnel, tell me, “Talking about whiteness is too inflamatory. It will get people too upset. “, or some version of that. I don’t mean we have to stop there, dwelling on these advantages indefinetly. To dwell on the knowledge of such advantages can cause some to become paralyzed. They will stay there unless we walk with them out of their paralysis into a place of healthy discomfort. From there we go to activism, to self- reflection, to better community connections, to effective parental relationships, to examining the difference between equity and equality.
Which brings me to the third part of my bad week. There is a group of people in the Southwest part of this city who want to make sure they get theirs no matter if it comes at the expense of serving kids who need help. These folks often think of themselves as liberals and probably vote Democratic. When it comes to schools, however, they lose their progressiveness. A commentary by Adam Patt in the Strib on November 27 claimed that the district should not devote more money to those schools in dire need, who serve children who are homeless and poor and have many single parent households, if it means taking money away from Southwest High School for a new wing to their building. In his commentary he also hinted that if the district went in the direction of equity, parents like him might leave the district. Can we get real here, for just a moment? This is the perpetuation of white power, of upper middle class power, by threatening the poor, the working class and the administrators who want to provide resources where they are most needed by threatening to withdraw their money from Minneapolis Schools by leaving. It is an attempt to take the district hostage unless Southwest gets a new wing, or extra teachers, or special gifted programs or their version of history. It is the perpetuation of a network of those who know the people to see, who know whom to contribute money to, or who have access to the politicians to schmooze with, in order to get what they want.
Does this mean then, that all those professions of support for racial equity, for decent wages, for multi perspectives and for freedom of speech are truly just lip service? If something becomes uncomfortable or might upset someone, is it then deemed impermissible or unfair to bring up? What seems bizarre to me is that the “achievement gap” is about race and yet we rarely discuss race when we talk about it. What seems bizarre to me is that institutions hire professors of color and then reprimand them for speaking about issues of those of color. What seems outrageous to me is that our schools in the greatest need for an extra teacher in the classroom or a music program or a theater teacher, are expected to close the opportunity gap with no added opportunities.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, I am an observer of the racism that occurs in our city. I am not living in the thick of it. And yet I feel utter frustration and anger at what I read and hear and listen to. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be Professor Shannon Gibney, or a parent from North Minneapolis who wants her child to have a smaller class size. Being retired from public school teaching I am not even living the daily experience of working with schools and with other professionals to begin to talk and reflect on race ,whiteness and social justice education, as both white and black teachers do every day. All I can do is describe what I see. And it is not pretty. For how long do we perpetuate the myth of Minneapolis or the Twin Cities as places where all kids succeed when we have one of the lowest graduation rates in the nation for Latino, African American and Native American kids? How long do we claim to be a socially progressive state, when the unemployment rate for African American men is one of the highest in the country?
I can’t live the life of someone who experiences micro aggressions because of the color of her skin each morning, each afternoon. But I can be pissed about it, ashamed of it, astounded at it. When will we be able to talk?