Students should confront discomfort in class

An MCTC instructor’s experience with student discomfort is a reminder of what is needed to learn.

by Trent M. Kays

Minneapolis Community and Technical College recently reprimanded instructor Shannon Gibney for racially harassing white students in class.

While Gibney led a class discussion on structural racism in her Introduction to Mass Communications course, three white, male students became uncomfortable with the topic. These students took Gibney’s structural racism discussion as a personal attack.

In an interview with City College News, MCTC’s campus newspaper, Gibney said, “I tried to say, like, ‘OK, you guys are taking it personally; this is not a personal attack. I’m not talking about all white people, you white people in general. We’re talking about whiteness as a system of oppression.

Gibney’s explanation fell on deaf ears, and her reprimand is proof that both students and college officials should learn more about structural racism.

It’s an important reminder that students may feel uncomfortable discussing sensitive issues. However, rather than deny or avoid discomfort, students should realize this is part of the learning process.

MCTC’s reaction problematically forces instructors to walk a fine line between what they can and cannot discuss in their own courses.

Discussing sensitive issues is an important aspect of education. Gibney’s inclusion of structural racism in her curriculum was important and relevant. Communication and structural racism are not mutually exclusive; they often reinforce each other.

In fact, there could be an entire course on structural racism at MCTC, given the college’s racial diversity and the state’s achievement gap and other racial issues. More than half of MCTC students identify as non-white.

Our founders built the United States, in part, on racism. White men ingrained racism in the very structures meant to promulgate freedom for all. I certainly do not think white people, let alone all white people, are responsible for all the world’s ills. However, white people predominately controlled the country when racial intolerance dominated.

All of this is to say that Gibney should not have to defend herself when discussing structural racism. If some of Gibney’s students felt uncomfortable, I am happy. We should all be uncomfortable talking about something so heinous and unethical. Still, even mentioning sensitive or uncomfortable topics can make a classroom tense.

In my teaching experience, sensitive topics regularly arise in the classroom. The unfortunate truth of teaching is that there will always be at least one student who is uncomfortable with a topic. Students and teachers bring all their life experiences and cultural understandings into the classroom. This knowledge informs how we interact and consider knowledge.

For example: Some of my students have just finished working on anti-bullying posters. We discussed bullying in different mediums and contexts. We wrote about bullying and created posters to address bullies and the bullied. This was a sensitive topic.

There was a good chance that some of my students experienced bullying. Should I have not talked about bullying? Absolutely not. The classroom space is the best place to explore sensitive and uncomfortable issues openly.

The classroom is a safe space where students can find encouragement and support. In a learning space, we can confront systemic oppression, structural racism and the dominant narratives that control our lives. It’s through these confrontations that we may begin to dismantle problematic traditions in order to mold a more equitable future.

If the goal of education is to educate, we cannot hide from the tough topics that evoke emotional and impassioned responses. Understandably, some responses can become heated, but that’s good. It’s another example of a moment when students can learn how to engage in debate and understand their emotions.

The most valuable position I can find myself in as a teacher is as a moderator and guide for my students. It is the essence of teaching: to encourage and lead students in dialogue.

I give my students leeway in discussing sensitive topics, though I remind them that they should always be respectful and empathic to their peers. I enjoy letting students set the pace of the course, but I cannot always just be a guide. Sometimes students have trouble articulating their thoughts about topics that personally affect them, so I must help them.

I want to err on the side of caution and suggest that Gibney’s uncomfortable students were unable to properly articulate their thoughts. Perhaps her students didn’t understand the pervasiveness of structural racism, or perhaps her students took it personally because they saw some of themselves in the discussion. Hopefully they are able to discuss it now, instead of simply limiting themselves from confronting structural racism.

Gibney didn’t deserve punishment for discussing an uncomfortable topic. There will always be uncomfortable topics. Yet, MCTC made a poor decision in allowing discomfort to dictate what is acceptable to discuss.

I can think of few things more ironic than a small contingent of white male students using an institutional structure to attack a woman of color. In that way, maybe Gibney’s lesson in structural racism will be more effective than ever.