AT THE INTERSECTION | Why MCTC’s decision to reprimand Shannon Gibney for teaching structural racism is an investment in white male power


I’m sure by now, most of you have heard about Minneapolis Community and Technical College’s (MCTC) decision to reprimand faculty member Shannon Gibney, after two students filed a complaint accusing her of singling them out — based on their race and gender — in class.

For some context: the class was about structural racism, the students who complained were white males, and Gibney is a woman of color (whom I read as a black woman).  

When I first heard that Gibney was being reprimanded because two white males felt like they were victims, the first thing I thought was, “how ridiculous.” As someone who understands how US power relations and racial hierarchies work, I couldn’t miss the irony: that she, a woman of color, was being accused of attacking white males in her class, because she was teaching about structural racism.

To me, this is a textbook case of how white male privilege works. This is just one possible example of how white men can get away with “victimization” in conversations about the reality of white systems of oppression. The momentary white guilt they may feel when people of color bring up their lived realities of racism and racial violence makes them a “victim,” when the real victims are those in communities of color who live with such traumas every single day.

MCTC’s decision to reprimand Gibney signals the college’s investment in protecting white male hurt feelings, and white male power. What I mean by this is that, despite the realities of structural racism faculty and students of color constantly face, and despite the very real power dynamics faculty of color experience in the classroom, the hurt feelings of a few white men trumped that. A few white men who may have momentarily felt like victims, but who could never understand racial oppression because that is not their lived existence, got their way. Simply because of hurt feelings.

White male hurt feelings seem to matter more to MCTC than the historical and institutional realities of the disenfranchisement of faculty of color. White male hurt feelings seem to matter more to MCTC than Gibney feeling safe in her own classroom, as a woman of color. White male hurt feelings matter more than intellectual integrity and creating safe spaces for real race dialog in the classroom.

The other irony of Gibney’s predicament is that she was accused by her own institution of targeting and singling out “select students based on their race and gender.”

Wait, what? Let’s not get ourselves confused. In this situation, it’s Gibney who is being attacked because of her race and gender. No matter how qualified Gibney is to teach her class, she, from the get go, had at least two things working against her: her race, and her gender. 

In fact, according to this Slate article, research shows that students have poorer perceptions of professors of color, particularly women of color, than their white (male) counterparts, across all subjects. Gibney herself said she felt her authority as an instructor was being challenged by the students from the get go. This implies that a few students felt they were able to exert their white privilege (and masculinity) to prevent a woman of color from teaching a historical narrative that did not reinforce their own.

It was their internalized white privilege that would not allow them to listen and learn. Their inability to depersonalize and separate themselves as white individuals from a white system of oppression implies that they are indeed personally invested in whiteness as a system. Because if they were not invested in it, they would not have felt attacked or threatened by learning about structural racism.

Their reaction also intimately shows the uncomfortable reality of how some white men can feel around assertive women of color. I have had many experiences of white men feeling intimidated by my self-assertion as a black Muslim woman of color. This becomes especially salient when I express my views on racial justice and social justice.

Maybe, just maybe, they felt emasculated by Gibney. Maybe, somewhere in the back of their minds, they thought, “How dare a black woman school us, as white men, about our race, class and gender privilege? How dare she?” And maybe filing a complaint was their way of reasserting their white, male power. 

MCTC’s decision to side with the students and not Gibney demonstrates its investment in white (male) power as an institution. And the fact that MCTC’s administrators who oversee diversity issues did nothing to protect Gibney as a faculty of color — who was being attacked by white male students — meant diversity administrators failed to uphold the purpose of their own existence.

I do believe that had Gibney been a male, she would have been perceived as more authoritative by her students, and therefore a more legitimate source of information. Had she been white, regardless of gender, I think she almost certainly would not have been reprimanded. This is because her white students most likely would not have deemed her a threat or undermined her authority in the first place.

MCTC missed an opportunity for a teachable moment by not backing Gibney up. This incident could have opened up a constructive conversation about race issues on campus. It could have been a golden opportunity to deconstruct these issues in a respectful manner. But, that’s not what happened.

I fear for what is next. Because it means that the feelings of a few white male students can dictate what can be taught in classes on structural racism at college campuses. It means that white male feelings may be enough to whitewash curricula on structural racism, and further erase the narratives and experiences of communities of color. It means that the most fundamental spaces for students and faculty of color todecolonize minds and teach or learn about their own underrepresented histories, are actually not safe, equitable spaces at all.

Gibney’s predicament becomes especially troubling when viewed in a larger national context. More and more white people believe they are the victims of racism and actually perceive “reverse racism” to be a bigger problem than anti-black racism. White people also increasingly believe they are the new racially oppressed minorities.

With the battle for racial equality becoming as much about perception as it is about reality, who is to say that ethnic studies classes won’t soon be forced to perpetuate the same eurocentric narratives that marginalize people of color under the guise of “diversity”? Who is to say that faculty of color won’t be forced to whitewash their courses in order to be more palatable to white attitudes, and to assuage white guilt and white feelings of victimization?

Gibney’s situation is not happening in a vacuum. She is not the only one. This is not an isolated incident. It is not disconnected from students of color and faculty of color being consistently marginalized and put in silos on college campuses nationwide. It is not disconnected from the increasing corporatization of colleges and universities, and schools being more protective of their financial bottom line over the safety of their faculty and students of color. It is also not disconnected from the daily traumas particularly our women of color face, because of systemic disenfranchisements due to their race and gender.

I ask that you show your support for Shannon Gibney as a woman of color professor. If you are against MCTC’s decision to invest in white male power, and you care about the larger complexities of this specific issue, then please sign this petition. Show that you stand against MCTC’s shameful decision to side with the students who  failed to examine their own white male privilege and their investment in their own oppressive whiteness.

Hopefully, if we make enough noise, a teachable moment can still come out of this. 
This article originally appeared on Lolla Mohammed Nur’s blog.

You can find related TC Daily Planet coverage at:
Structural Racism: Can we talk, or not? 
What happened after Shannon Gibney taught about structural racism? ‘I feel like I’m a target.’