Kristin Haltinner: ‘Open and honest conversation in the classroom is key’


Kristin Haltinner teaches at the University of Minnesota. When we asked for people to tell us about their experience with classroom discussions of structural racism, here’s what she told us:

How do you define structural or institutional racism?

Our nation was built on an ideology of white, Christian superiority. Because of this, racism had been built into all structures of society (from the 3/5ths clause in the Constitution to the crack/cocaine sentencing divide, among many more ubiquitous and hidden inequities). Structural or institutional racism refers to this historical and continued practice.

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

What has your experience been teaching this subject? Do you face much resistance?

I have not faced much resistance. As a white instructor in a racist society, I’m afforded a level of authority by white students. Let us be clear, this had nothing to do with my ability as an instructor – it is the legacy of societal white supremacy. Thus students are less likely to challenge me on issues like this. There have been occasional students who are uncomfortable with the topic at first but I have never had a student not recognize some level of structural racism by the end of the semester.

What works best? What do people find trouble with?

Students find trouble with things they typically take for granted: native mascots, racism in the media, historical forces causing contemporary school segregation and inequality. What works best is providing students with an array of information, presented in different forms (films, memoirs, statistics, discussion, reading). Having open and honest conversation in the classroom is key, even if it is uncomfortable.

Why is this an important topic?

Structural racism holds back all people. It prevents the nation (and world) from reaching its potential. We systematically disregard and disenfranchise brilliant minds of color. We pretend that white people succeed solely because they have worked hard, and not because of this legacy. We are cheating everyone.