A Minneapolis college professor has ignited a debate about talking about race on campus after going public with a dispute with her employer, the Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
Shannon Gibney, who is black, has said that she was reprimanded for offending two white students during a classroom discussion about racism.
Gibney, 38, says that she has been investigated three times by the college for incidents involving alleged racial discrimination. The first time followed a 2008 confrontation with “an angry white male student” about the nature of racism, she wrote. The latest incident occurred in October.
Gibney, who teaches English, has declined requests to discuss her case with the Star Tribune. But last week, she posted a first-person essay on the online site Gawker, titled “Teaching While Black and Blue.”
On Tuesday, her battle with MCTC was the top story on Inside Higher Ed, an online journal, which raised the question: “Is talking about race at Minneapolis Community and Technical College grounds for punishment if white students are offended?”
MCTC officials would not comment on Gibney’s case, saying they can’t discuss personnel matters. But the college issued a statement saying it “has never disciplined a faculty member for teaching or discussing” racism.
Whitney Harris, the college’s executive director of diversity, said that MCTC courses routinely touch on sensitive topics, including race.
“Race matters in the United States … there’s no reason to hide from it,” Harris said. “I think it would be quite a chore to try to show that professors are punished for talking about race.”
At the same time, he said, it’s up to faculty and students alike to conduct classroom discussions in “a positive and respectful manner, even around unsettling topics.”
In a video interview, Gibney said that she had been leading a discussion on racism in a mass communications class when “a young white man in the class interrupted me and asked, ‘Why do we have to talk about this every class?’ ” She said another white male student joined in, complaining that “people are always trying to say that white men are always the villains.”
Gibney said she responded by saying: “You guys are taking it personally. This is not a personal attack. We’re not talking about all white people, you white people in general. We’re talking about whiteness as a system of oppression.”
As the discussion grew heated, Gibney said she told the students: “If you’re really upset, feel free to go down to legal affairs and file a racial harassment discrimination complaint.”
Two students reportedly filed complaints, triggering an investigation that resulted in a letter of reprimand. Gibney also said she was ordered to take diversity training. She has filed an appeal, and her union has filed a grievance over the action.
“I think Shannon’s been unfairly singled out in this case,” said Barbara Hager, president of the college’s faculty union. Instead of supporting her, she said, “the administration tried to stop this faculty member from expressing what she knows.”
Harris declined to talk about the dispute but said he knows that discussions about race can be tricky. “People get uncomfortable,” he said. But “if true learning is taking place, then there’s almost always some level of discomfort, if you will. Our goal is not to create an environment where we are coddling students so they won’t feel uncomfortable.”