Tuesday, December 3, 2013

What Happens When Neoliberalism and White Privilege Meet in the College Classroom? Black Professors are Disciplined for Talking About Racism

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The noted historian Eugene Genovese once said that a teacher is not doing their job if they are not making their students uncomfortable at least once every class.

Genovese's wisdom about how effective teaching and learning should challenge and disrupt a student's priors and beliefs does not apply to those faculty who do not have tenure or are contingent labor. Genovese's rubric most certainly does not hold for professors who happen to be female or people of color.

For example, see the experience of Shannon Gibney, an African-American professor who was disciplined by administrators for making white students "uncomfortable" because she dared to talk about structural inequality in her classroom.

Salon details how:
A black female professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College was formally reprimanded by school officials after three of her white male students were upset by a lesson she taught on structural racism.

Shannon Gibney says that the students reacted in a hostile manner to the lesson in her Introduction to Mass Communication class, with one of them asking her, “Why do we have to talk about this in every class? Why do we have to talk about this?”

“His whole demeanor was very defensive. He was taking it personally. I tried to explain, of course, in a reasonable manner — as reasonable as I could given the fact that I was being interrupted and put on the spot in the middle of class — that this is unfortunately the context of 21st century America,” she explained in an interview with City College News.

Gibney says that, after this initial comment, another white male student said, “Yeah, I don’t get this either. It’s like people are trying to say that white men are always the villains, the bad guys. Why do we have to say this?” These students continued to argue and disrupt the lesson until Gibney told them that if they were troubled by her handling of the subject, they could file an official complaint with the school’s legal affairs department.

The students then filed a complaint, and Gibney was formally reprimanded by the school’s vice president of academic affairs for creating a ”hostile learning environment” for trying to educate her students about the existence and operations of structural racism.
As an African-American, who for several years has taught on the college level, I can empathize with Gibney's sense of frustration (and likely anger) at being punished for doing her job, and the abuse she received from several white students who were "offended" that race was discussed in class. I would suggest that the greater insult for Shannon Gibney is not that these entitled and narcissistic students complained. Rather, it is that her superiors took such intellectually vacuous and petty complaints seriously.

Like most people of color who are members of the professional class or work in higher education, we can offer up many examples of our experiences with day-to-day racism and white supremacy. These challenges are especially problematic, because people of color who are members of the professional classes quite literally have the paper to prove their competence and training. Yet, for many white folks (and some black and brown folks who have internalized white supremacy) this is not enough. The bonafides may be present, hung on the wall, in the office, or listed as the authors of monographs and chapters in books; but, for a particular type of person, they/we are not "qualified" because our not being "white" is a de facto statement of our inherent lack of talent and ability.

I have been a college lecturer for several years.

In that time I have experienced white students--male students in particular--showing great resistance and disrespect toward me. This is more than the difficulty of dealing with entitled and narcissistic students who have more than earned the title of "snowflake", are part of a generational cohort that is highly resistant to receiving any type of constructive criticism, and lack the ability to understand that there is a difference between opinion, scholarly consensus, and learned expertise.

No, it is the way the energy changes in a space, the surprised looks, the head-shakes, and subtle combativeness (or overt resistance) by some white men when a person of color or a woman walks into a room in their professional capacity as a teacher, manager, doctor, consultant, or boss. 

I have experienced a white male student look aghast upon my entering the seminar room, utter that there is no way someone like me could teach him, and then make a scene of walking out. I have had white students email my superiors and concoct wicked lies about what is being taught in class, my comportment, and how I am somehow "hostile" to white people. I have had white students demand that I demonstrate my competence to be a faculty member and to teach students as "smart" and "bright" as they and their peers are (the subtle coding? all of said students were overwhelmingly white) because I must be an "affirmative action hire" or a "quota". And yes, as the question may be looming for some readers, I was once, for all intents and purposes, called a "nigger" to my face during a related interaction.

Those are relatively rare experiences. I count myself very lucky and fortunate to have colleagues and superiors who have been very supportive, helpful, and encouraging.

College course evaluations are also a space where white students show hostility towards faculty of color.

Beyond the typical complaints about too much reading, or dissatisfaction with grades, evaluations are spaces for students to retaliate against professors and lecturers. It is a one-way fight because evaluations are usually anonymous. And at many institutions they are heavily relied upon for determining promotions, raises, and tenure. In the worst examples, college evaluations are just a score without any context that are used to punish and reward faculty members.

There is a great amount of research which suggests that course evaluations are heavily impacted by an instructor's race, gender, age, ethnicity, and perceived sexuality. Students, who as a practical matter do not have the expertise to determine the quality of what they have been taught (they can only accurately comment on their normative experience in the class), are in fact evaluating a professor based on what they expect their grade to be, and how/if that person fit into some preconceived box of what a "professor" should look and act like.

Consequently, women who are not "comforting" and "nurturing" are evaluated worse than men in the same scenario. Men who teach seminars, as opposed to the classic lecture with its pretense of the "authority figure", are evaluated lower by students.

Students in required classes will often reveal their frustration and sense of being imposed upon through their course evaluations. Because people of color and women may tend towards fields in the social sciences and humanities that explore questions of identity, culture, and power, they in turn face the double burden of teaching courses and material that many white students are resistant to, and then being evaluated as less competent, precisely because they are not white and male.

As is demonstrated in other areas of American public and cultural life, course evaluations are spaces where ability and aptitude are not assessed equally across lines of race and gender: the smart and confident black professor is branded as "arrogant"; the smart and confident woman is a "bitch". 

If the classroom is supposed to be a space where the truth is distilled down to its core essence, college faculty face a dire dilemma. Do they engage in parrhesia, radical truth-telling, that may upset their students?

For those not at Ivies or elite R1's where evaluations are not as important, does an instructor risk their academic career by eschewing student evaluations because high standards, rigor, and truth-seeking are the most important values for them? Because the personal is political and is not neatly separated from one's intellectual work, should faculty of color and others so oriented, simply stay silent on those topics that will upset white students?

These are important questions which speak to a more important concern. Racism and sexism are central to how Shannon Gibney was treated by her students and the administrators at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. But, Gibney's story should be located relative to the structural forces that are negatively reimagining and reshaping higher education in the United States--and the country's economy, politics, and culture, more generally.

Ultimately, Gibney's experience is one more data point which reveals the overwhelming power of neoliberalism and the surveillance society to impact every aspect of American life.

Neoliberalism is a political and economic philosophy which argues that models of extreme capitalism and the marketplace should be used to organize society. Capitalism and democracy are made synonymous with one another. The type of biopolitics which has been ushered in by the neoliberal order is one of a culture of cruelty, mass incarceration, the destruction of the middle class, where the poor are treated as "useless eaters", and the State monitors and spies upon its citizens through omnipresent means.

Higher education in America shares all of those traits. Evaluations are used to monitor, assess, intimidate, and control faculty members. Rate My Professor is part of this apparatus, as are websites by Right-wing "watchdog" groups that seek to bully and fire professors who are "hostile" to the conservative agenda.

Because higher education is profit driven--as opposed to being focused on creating active and critical citizens--the classroom is being transformed into a version of McDonald's or Burger King where the customer is always right.

In many states, faculty are being required to submit their syllabi for public inspection and approval. If higher education is the last redoubt of critical thinking and a bulwark against neoliberalism, rising Christian Dominionism, and the anti-intellectual thuggery of contemporary populist conservatism, faculty members must then conform to the expectations of a lay public who have neither the expertise or qualifications to judge a given professor's ability or competence.

Shannon Gibney's experience resonates here: the White Right is pursuing a nativist and racist political agenda. Consequently, attacking faculty members who dare to engage in truth-telling and truth-seeking on those matters is a necessity.

Neoliberalism is predicated on creating a sense of insecurity and fear on the part of the American worker. If wages are stagnant, being undercut by globalization, and unions are destroyed, then CEO's and the 1 percent can further extract wealth from the masses. The destruction of the middle class is the foundation for a neoliberal order. Tenure for college faculty, which grants the intellectual freedom to engage in truth-seeking and truth-telling, is being destroyed in America. Tenured and long-term faculty members are being replaced by adjuncts who are underpaid, without health benefits or retirement funds, and possess no job security. Tuition rates continue to rise. Executive compensation for senior administrators remains extravagant.

The result of neoliberalism's influence in higher education is that the quality of student instruction will be made lower, universities and colleges will be preoccupied with expanding corporate support and donations (as well as giving them even more control over departments, hiring, and research), and faculty will be made made expendable and disposable. Those who remain will either have been lucky enough to be grandfathered through to tenure or will have adapted to the new reality of simply giving students the grades they want, i.e. "A's" (as opposed to what they have earned) and abandoning any commitment to the life of the mind and the role of the intellectual as truth-teller.

Shannon Gibney's experience is an example of racism and sexism in action. White privilege empowered the white male students to harass her. It was not white racism and white supremacy operating either together or alone that then led to Shannon Gibney being disciplined for daring to talk about structural racism in her class.

Neoliberalism is the main villain in Gibney's story. Black and brown folks are once more "the miner's canary".

The forces of corporatization, hyper conservatism, and extreme capitalism came after Shannon Gibney because she is a black woman who dared to engage in truth-telling about white supremacy in the United States. As such, Shannon was the most vulnerable and opportune target of the moment.

The neoliberal order operates on the same calculus as organized crime or a hitman. It ain't personal. It's only business. Neoliberalism is coming for everyone. White supremacy and white racism are just a means to an end.


Bryan Ortez said...

I had a professor that could probably share many, many experiences with this. He is from The Gambia in West Africa where he attended a rigorous boarding school in English. He was the first professor of color at my school, Shepherd University in Shepherdstown West Virginia. He graduated from Penn State I think under some Doctor named Wolfgang, very notorious you may have heard of him, maybe not.

My professor, Dr. Darboe, was feared by all students for his rigor. Most students failed his classes or performed very poorly. I was in my third semester when I started his class. I failed the first test. I took it back to him and asked, what can I do to make this better? He helped me reform my study habits tremendously. He was very encouraging.

He told me story after story of students complaining about his classes, calling him racist, filing lawsuits against him, challenging his proficiency in English, professors who criticized him behind his back.

I have always been open to discussions about racism in contemporary America and American history. This enabled me to be more free in these discussions and more open to learning about them. There was never any discussion of privilege in any of my classes, however, though I suspect he would have liked to talk about it.

I tried keeping in touch wih him after I graduated, but never got his contact information. I wonder if I can find him today, I would love to send him this.

j.ottopohl said...

Well I have never taught in the US. But, if conditions are so bad there I am surprised that so few other Americans have joined me to teach at universities in mother Africa. We still have a shortage of PhDs on the continent.

JW said...

Just a thought: examples like this (and that of Bryan's professor) might make a good blog analogous to the Mansplained Tumblr: http://mansplained.tumblr.com/. Tumblrs can be set to allow people to submit posts to be published, and so it could solicit these stories and collect them.

KissedByTheSun said...

So that's the way it is then. Reinforce the status quo or suffer the consequences. This is infuriating.

JW said...

I apologize if this is a duplicate, but I think my first comment didn't post.

Just a thought: stories like these might make for a great blog, similar to the Mansplained Tumblr: http://mansplained.tumblr.com/.
Tumblr blogs can be set to accept posts from anyone, and might be a good way to solicit and collect stories like the one above (and like what happened to Bryan's professor).

DanF said...

This: "College course evaluations are also a space where white students show hostility towards faculty of color."

My wife teaches African Art History, African film, and Pre-Colombian Art (as well as the world art surveys). She is one of those tough-but-fair profs that expects her students to (shockingly) learn the subject matter and she provides ample access and time to help them achieve that goal. The African subject matter often produces classic "a-ha!" moments for many of her students as it can truly be life-changing to begin to see the world through the eyes of other peoples. Typically her African America students grok this quickly - possibly because they are already accustomed to viewing their world through multiple lenses - and as a result become animated quickly in class discussions and can apply lessons learned directly to their lives. As a result, I can't tell you how many times she has been called out for "favoritism to Black students" by white males (although there was a particularly nasty pair of white females a couple years ago). The anger manifests mostly in evals and in on-line rate my professor type sites. She has been fortunate in having support of her colleagues despite her adjunct status (partly because she is the one responsible for bringing in majors to the department, but mostly because her colleagues are decent people). She has also been fortunate that most of her students - regardless of ethnicity - really like and support her and write excellent reviews. She is fortunate that she exudes confidence and competence. And significantly, she is fortunate that she is white and doesn't have to fight the race battle.

belsidus said...

This should be a wake up call for race, gender, sexual orientation, and
other identity focused "scholars" to start their own colleges and

If the value proposition is strong, you should have
no difficulty signing up students left and right for a deep dive in the
well of _________________.

If, on the other hand, identity
studies are not self-sustaining in the open market of ideas, and must of
necessity function as dependents on generalized higher-ed, then doesn't
that simply mean that there's no sustainable further demand for what
you have to offer?

chauncey devega said...

I don't think it is demand per se. Most students would rather buy a degree. They are are not interested in the life of the mind or even the basic idea that knowledge, and a broad set of skills are useful and empowering. Kids don't like to eat their vegetables. Nor, do they like to exercise. Higher ed as it exists is in big trouble because of debt, a lack of jobs, a lack of salesmanship, and a lowering of standards. Now, a college degree is like a high school degree was years ago. What to do? I am not sure.

chauncey devega said...

Isn't that level of racial narcissism something else? Those students may not have the language to talk about white privilege and white supremacy. But, they have learned that they had damn well better be the center of the story. If not, they throw a temper tantrum. Sounds just like our national politics and the Tea Party GOP.

chauncey devega said...

What a good suggestion. Thank you. I will look into it.

chauncey devega said...

Cash rules everything around me cream get the money dollar dollar bills yo...

That wisdom is eternal.

chauncey devega said...

You were lucky to have had such a mentor. I saw that at my undergrad too. It wasn't only the white students who complained--although they were the most vocal and got the most attention--about black professors and other people of color who "dared" to teach and have high standards. It was some black and brown students too.

JW said...

I'd be happy to help in any way if you decide to pursue it.

grumpy rumblings said...

have you seen the yoisthisracist tumbler? http://yoisthisracist.com/

Kyle Younger said...

I was a lowly adjunct professor at one point in my life, and I think that any person of color who has taught at a university has experienced "the look" that students give. I remember white students challenging my authority in the classroom incessantly. One white male went to the department chair when I dropped his grade for cheating...I provided proof that the student did indeed cheat, yet the department chair wanted to review my rubric for grading! I found it hilarious that he did this and politely gave him a piece of my mind before resigning...even at the most liberal of universities you can see these dynamics at play. But what do you do? Do you quit while telling somebody off? Do you stay for the paycheck while subverting your dignity? Or do you simply keep on pushing, while fighting the good fight? I don't know...

chauncey devega said...

Adjuncts of all backgrounds are insecure by design. People of color, older folks, women, and others even more so. One day if we meet we can have some beers and share some horror stories. I am sure there would many many other folks at the bar too with similar stories.

Justin M. White said...

I think I came across it a while ago. Thanks for pointing it out

nadiasindi said...

Please sign my BOTH Petitions and share it with as many people as possible. Don't worry, if you are NOT an American citizen; it's OK for any one to sign it. Thanks!

1: with Change.org


2: with Moveon.org


Kyle Younger said...

Yes, I look forward to that beer, as there are definitely horror stories to tell!

john will said...

You are a racist fucking idiot just like that racist bitch that was preaching racism. Sorry, you will no longer be allowed to spread your lies about white people and we will not allow you through your lies to nuture and fester racism against us. Blacks are the most vicious and racist things to ever land in this nation and you orove it daily

Tyrece Washington said...

On this day in 1865, the 13th Amendment — abolishing slavery — became part of the Constitution — when ratified by three-quarters of the states.

Despite protests from the Democrats, the Republican Party made banning slavery part of its national platform in 1864. Senator Lyman Trumbull (R-IL) wrote the final version of the text, combining the proposed wordings of several other Republican congressmen.

All Republicans in Congress voted for the 13th Amendment, while nearly all Democrats voted against it. So strongly did President Abraham Lincoln (R-IL) support the 13th Amendment, he signed the document, though presidential approval is not part of the amendment process.

Yes, outlawing slavery was a Republican achievement.

Henry Higgins said...

I would love for people like you to do that - more evidence of the insanity of liberalism. Then, we whites who have been totally attacked in academia could bring our stories together, for which we have evidence, while you have nothing but innuendo. I got attacked by a black student, threatened without any provocation, and when I reported a black dean summarily banned me from a class we later wound up in. While this poor oppressed little psycho's parents received admission and free rides to Ivy League colleges, my dad and his cousins fought in Viet Nam. Some didn't come home. That's your Diversity Privilege in action, and believe me, I look forward to this collection of projections you're soliciting. See you in the arena of truth, where dead bodies speak volumes over imaginary white ghouls in your head. Let's compare the black on white murder rate to the white on black, shall we? Rest assured, we whites are collecting stories too...of black felons in Viet Nam purposely bombing their white counterparts...lots and lots of these accounts...and no one gave them fake 'bona fides...'

1RW said...

couldn't someone read your essay here and simply conclude that if students respond well to white men in a position of authority, then that's who ought to teach, much like guys that can be 6'4" and 320 lbs get to be NFL linemen, and (mostly) men who are good at mathematics get to be scientists and engineers?

The Perpetual Race Industry said...

What does any of it have to do with preparing our future generation for the workforce? Math and Science are what we are falling behind other countries in. I bet they don't deconstruct whiteness and other time wasting ventures. They are busy outperforming us. You should try being a white male with an arrogant black professor with a chip on his shoulder some time. Since the professor "holds all the power", as the new definition of racism is defined, it can be extremely frustrating. My ancestors picked their own potatoes and were enslaved by vikings and oppressed by the british, get over it.