Ryan LeCount teaches at Hamline University. When we asked for people to tell us about their experience with classroom discussions of structural racism, here’s what he told us:
How do you define structural or institutional racism?
In my own research and teaching, the distinction here is between the individual and the institutional. Much of our discourse about race and racism is focused on the attitudes and behaviors of individuals, but it turns out that those things, while very important, are not the primary drivers of racial inequality. So when I use the term structural racism, I am referring to any system, policy or process (regardless of intent) that creates, maintains, or exacerbates racial inequality. Differential access to labor and housing markets as a result of (putatively) non-racial policies, for example, would fall into this category. The best-known and perhaps most often-cited example is the differential punishment for possession of rock vs. powder cocaine. Again, though the intent may not have been (explicitly) racist, the outcome is.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
What has your experience been teaching this subject? Do you face much resistance?
The first and most important thing to say here is that I am white and I am a man. These are two unearned social privileges that make (especially white) students much more receptive to messages about racial inequality and racial justice than they are to a woman of color like Shannon. Whether or not they are aware of it, students are less dubious and or dismissive of claims that I might make than if those same claims had come from, for example, a woman of color.
It’s really important to acknowledge that part of this story. This is a big part of classroom dynamics that needs to be acknowledged (and addressed). Having said all of that, my experiences have been fairly “positive” from the standpoint of students engaging with the information and the data and addressing themselves to the idea of racial inequality and the importance of the topic.
It is absolutely the case that white men are those for whom this story is often the most difficult to hear. This varies of course, but the kinds of students that select themselves into Hamline in the first place, then into a Sociology class about Racial and Ethnic Relations following that, tend to be those who are ready to hear things that make them relatively uncomfortable. I gather that Shannon has not have that privilege at MCTC- a fact that makes her work all the more important and her treatment all the more problematic, at least from where I sit.
What works best? What do people find trouble with?
I’m a very data-oriented scholar and teacher and I find that that can be compelling for many students (though were are certainly in an era of denialism in which many students are dubious of any source of information that conflicts with their assumptions). In general, telling a story and making analogies often hits home. One I’m fond of that seems to resonate with students is the analogy of a door that is always open for some, sometimes open for others, and seldom open for still others. The idea that the door is invisible to those who are always able to walk through it, but a relatively big concern for those who frequently find it closed- and the fact that we have a situation in which the first group wants to know (earnestly) why so many people are always talking about the door when the door does not matter to them- this is a helpful analogy. It makes the idea of opportunity structures accessible to students in a way that talking about accumulated advantage associated with historical access to mortgage markets does not.
In general, it’s very hard for students to face the ways in which they personally have benefitted or been disadvantaged from these systems, policies and practices. As long as we’re talking in the abstract, or as long as we’re not talking about any number of proposed solutions to the kinds of inequalities we have identified, things go relatively well. When, on the other hand, we start to ask students to think about solutions or to identify their own experiences in the racialized world, it becomes much, much more difficult. Though I NEVER in practice “call students out” or compel them to speak about their own experiences in class, this is a time when a lot of students clam up, or at worse, shut down. This can be a significant challenge.
Why is this an important topic?
In short, because several of the problems are getting worse. Health and wealth gaps between whites and people of color (to name only a few) are growing and the great recession as exacerbated these trends. These young folks live in a world where there is almost no safe place to talk about race (or especially racism), and spending time in a safe and intellectually rigorous environment is the best place to do this important work. Because our lives are actually increasingly segregated in many ways, many white students are less likely to have these systems, policies and practices made visible to them than they were even in the recent past. Uncomfortable as though it may be, there is no way to start to address these problems unless we can talk frankly about them.
I do not know all of the details of this story or of the other situations that Shannon has faced beyond what has been made available to the public. However, let me say in closing here that I am not naive and I’m very well aware of the kind of political circumstances that the MCTC officials found themselves in. This is a conversation that causes A LOT of discomfort and misunderstanding, and downright resentment and rage in certain of quarters of our society. As higher education is increasingly managed in a consumer model, all of the pressure is on the administration to respond to “angry customers”- many of whom don’t frankly understand what it is they are angry about.
But none of that, absolutely none of it, is cause for the way that Professor Gibney was treated in this particular situation. Academic freedom is a sacred value to those of us who have chosen this path in our lives, and to characterize this work as harassment is a fundamental misunderstanding not only of the content, but of the nature of education itself. Let me reiterate that I was not in the classroom and that I don’t know all of the details, but it is absolutely not appropriate to censure or in any way undermine a course instructor who raises the issues of inherited racial advantage- especially when the substance of the claims are empirically verifiable. It may make students uncomfortable to confront the idea that the world is not as equitable as they might have assumed, but that revelation certainly does not rise to the level of actionable academic misdeed.