Jennifer Pennington: ‘Understanding white privilege is a critical component’


Jennifer Pennington works for the Minnesota Council of Foundations. When we asked for people to tell us about their experience with classroom discussions of structural racism, here’s what she told us:

What is structural racism?

Structural racism privileges one group over others while also supporting discriminatory systems and policies.

A classroom discussion of structural racism led to a reprimand for Professor Shannon Gibney at MCTC. Professors and students at other colleges report that discussions are often tough, with some white students perceiving any discussion of structural racism as a personal attack. We’ve collected many of their accounts in Structural racism: Can we talk? Or not? To join in the discussion, post a comment or send an opinion article to

How do people in university settings discuss it?

As a student, we discussed and looked at definitions of individual racism and of structural racism (also called institutional racism). We saw how structural racism could be built up over time. For example, in regards to housing, there was a 100 year period of policies – everything from restrictive covenants to red lining to predatory lending – that created a system that privileged whites and excluded people of color. This had many effects including the effect of whites building up more wealth over time because they were given better access to and opportunities for home ownership.

Why is it an important teaching topic?

If we are going to truly and effectively address the grand challenges of our times and truly provide equal opportunity, then it is imperative that we name and dismantle structures that privilege one over others. This will require collective will and action. It is a complicated topic that intersects virtually every aspect of all our lives. We may never truly end racism, but we can dismantle institutional racism by examining how our communities and institutions are set up, the policies that govern them, and who is at the table.

What challenges have you faces personally dealing with this issue in your class- in regards to students’ or administrative response?

Because structural racism is so pervasive, it is challenging to learn about it and then start to see it all around you, especially in the very academic institution in which you have been introduced to the topic.

What have you found to be the most successful way at teaching this subject matter?

I appreciate that it is complicated and may be difficult to grasp when first introduced to the topic of structural racism. From personal experience and as a white ally, I believe understanding white privilege is a critical component to understanding structural racism. I had a professor, Dr. Rose Brewer, who very clearly showed how race, class and gender intersect but also the ways in which they differed. She provided many examples, and she utilized a number of teaching techniques and tools such as readings, videos, small group discussions, writing reflections, group presentations, and class discussions.