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Nate Palmer is the primary author of Sociology Source, the editor of SociologyInFocus.com, the creator of SociologySounds.com, and a lecturer of sociology at Georgia Southern University.
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Classroom Privilege & The Case of Shannon Gibney

Three white college students file racial discrimination complaint against professor over lesson on structural racism” The Salon headline from yesterday reads like my personal nightmare. In fact, Shannon Gibney’s account of what happened in her classroom reads like what I can only guess is the personal nightmare of any educator who teaches their students to critically think about hegemonic social power.

Gibney, a professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, started a discussion on structural racism in her Intro to Mass Communications class when multiple white students complained, “Why do we have to talk about this in every class?”. Gibney gives her first hand report of what happened next in an interview below:

“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.” I’ve said almost that exact same thing to my own students. And yet I know that some of my students still do take it personally. I’ve experienced first hand students stubbornly clinging to an individual-centered understanding of the world despite my attempts to open their eyes to the social structures that all individuals operate within.

In fact, as I listened to Gibney I kept thinking, I’ve said the exact same things. I’ve been in situations like that before. Oh my god, that could be me. But… to be honest, it couldn’t.

My White Male Privilege in The Classroom

Do a Google Image search for the words college professor (or just click here) and what do you see. A lot of faces that look a lot like mine. When I walk into the room, I’m willing to bet, no one thinks, “oh god. A white guy, I wonder if he’s qualified. He must have been an Affirmative Action hire.” I’ve written about this before as have others. Regardless of what I do, I am the embodiment of authority. My credibility, authenticity, and trustworthiness are rarely if ever questioned.

When I challenge my students to critically analyze white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc. no one says, “well of course you said that because you are…”. No one says I have a political agenda or an axe to grind. In fact, I often get kudos for doing it. I’m seen as a sort of selfless freedom fighter. Because of my social privilege I often am able to walk right by my students resistance, neutralize their rhetorical strategies, and be heard. It’s not because I’m a better teacher (note that some critiques of Gibney have argued she’s a poor teacher). It’s because I’m a cisgender, hetero, able-bodied, middle class, white male[1].

And now lets put some empirical meat on these anecdotal bones. Studies find that people of color are disproportionally tasked with teaching required diversity classes where challenging social privilege is more likely to happen (Alex-Assensoh 2003). A qualitative analysis of students’ comments on student evaluations of instruction found that women, especially women of color, were more likely have their authority questioned and to be seen as biased or affected by their personal politics (Perry et al. 2009; Schueths et al. 2013)[2]. This is just the tip of the empirical iceberg, but it’s clear that, like we’ve always taught our students, an individual’s social location and the social contexts they operate in affect their experiences.

What Can We Do With All of This.

First, David Mayeda on our Facebook page suggests starting a letter writing campaign in support of Gibney and I think that’s a great start. But more than anything else, let’s stop pretending that social privilege ends at the threshold of our classroom. To my fellow faculty of privilege, let us own our privileges, even if we are uncomfortable with them and even if we are attempting to subvert the systems that privilege us. Personally, I’m going to read this story and remember that I am not Shannon Gibney; in fact my experience is probably closer to the three white men who filled the complaint. And then I’m going to work from there.

References: Alex-Assensoh, Y. 2003. Race in the academy: Moving beyond diversity and toward the incorporation of faculty of color in predominantly white colleges and universities. Journal of Black Studies 34, no. 1: 5–11.

Perry, Gary, Helen Moore, Crystal Edwards, Katherine Acosta and Connie Frey. 2009. “Maintaining Credibility and Authority as an Instructor of Color in Diversity-Education Classrooms: A Qualitative Inquiry.” The Journal of Higher Education 80, no. 1: 80–105.

Schueths, April M., Tanya Gladney, Devan A. Crawford, Katherine L. Bass, and Helen A. Moore. 2013. “Passionate Pedagogy and Emotional Labor: Students’ Responses to Learning Diversity from Diverse Instructors.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 26, no. 10: 1259–1276

  1. I left out some of my privileged statuses, but I think you get the point.  ↩

  2. Full disclosure: April Schueths, the first author of this article, is the editor of SociologySource.org and also my partner.  ↩


"Aren't You Freezing?" & Relative Deprivation 

My Town's Lowly Movie Theater

“Oh my god, aren’t you freezing?” asks a young woman standing next to me in line for a movie. The movie theater is Statesboro, GA is so small the box office is between the two entrance doors. I turn toward her and see she is dressed like Randy from A Christmas Story (you know, “I can’t put my arms down!”). “No, it’s like 60 degrees.” I reply politely with a bemused look on my face. Bouncing on the balls of her feet to generate warmth, she says with bemusement equal to mine, “Okay? But it’s November and I’m freezing!”

Sitting in the movie theater, it occurred to me; this is the most approachable illustration of relative deprivation that I can think of. When it hits 60 degrees in the spring damn near every student on campus has flip flops and shorts on, but when the thermometer drops to 60 degrees in the fall it’s not uncommon to see people dressed for a blizzard. It’s the same 60 degrees, the only thing that changes is your relative assessment of how cold/warm it was just a few days ago.

Ultimately, this is a simple illustration of relativity, but from here it’s not a giant pedagogical leap to relative deprivation.


Pinkwashing, Objectification, & Breast Cancer

“Breakfast for boobs!” I heard a young woman in a bright pink shirt yell as I walked across campus last week. “Bagels for boobies!” her compatriot shouted. The glittery sign on their table advertised “$5 bagel boobz with pink strawberry cream cheese”. I was torn. Part of me was proud of the students for being activists, but another part of me was deeply troubled by the exuberant, cheery, and strangely sexualized way they were framing breast cancer.

But let’s be clear this “Bagels for boobs” fundraiser is not out of the norm of breast cancer awareness campaigns. There are countless T-shirts with pithy sexualized slogans such as “Save the Tatas”, “Save a Life Grope Your Wife”, and Boobies Rock!“ just to name a few. If there was a ever an opportunity to ”see the familiar as strange" and find the sociology hiding just below the surface, I think this is it.

Questions to Ask Your Students

I think we owe it to our students to question in our classes breast cancer awareness campaigns like these. Isn’t it down right bizarre that we sexualize a disease that kills thousands of women[1] each year? Is it really okay to objectify women in the service of raising money and awareness for said disease?

And while we are at it, do we really still need to be raising awareness? Can you think of any two things that Americans are more aware of than breasts and cancer? I know enough of the the history of breast cancer to know that there was a time when we didn’t publicly talk about it and we shamed women with breast cancer into silence, but this has largely changed because of breast cancer movements and activists. Raising awareness of an issue is the first step. It is what nascent movements are preoccupied with. Hasn’t the breast cancer movement graduated out of this phase? If you answer yes, then why do campaigns like these dedicate so much time, energy, and money toward raising awareness?

I ask my students these questions, not to demonize anyone, but rather to invite them to critically think about social movements, patriarchy, and the objectification of women’s bodies. Many of my students, friends, and family members care deeply about breast cancer and are passionate about supporting women with breast cancer and working to find a cure. And it’s precisely because they are so passionate that I think they would welcome a discussion about the effectiveness of the movement. If you care about these issues, as I do, then we should want to maximize the amount of impact our actions have on the issue.

Excellent Resources

There are loads of great resources that you can use to prime your students for a critical analysis of breast cancer awareness campaigns. First and foremost is the book and film Pink Ribbons, Inc.

In addition Sociological Images has two posts that I think students can really sink their teeth into:

  1. We should also note that men die of breast cancer each year as well.  ↩


“That’s Not What I Meant!!!”: Intent vs. Impact.

W Kamau Bell at Nerdist Studios “How come black people can say the N-word, but white people can’t?” That’s a question teachers of race get a lot and comedian W. Kamau Bell has a great answer, “You can say anything you want, but you have to live with the consequences of your words.” While Bell is talking about the N-word, his wisdom could be applied to any discussion of privilege/oppression or really any highly controversial topic.

Intent vs. Impact

There seems to be genuine distress and/or hurt on my students faces when they say, “No, no, no. That’s not what I meant at all!” For the most part, students who say something that deeply offends portions of the classroom seem surprised by the impact of their words. It’s as if I’m watching the student reach down, wrap their hands around their ankle, open wide and stick their foot in their mouth only to be dumbfounded as to how it got their in the first place.

Bell’s retort to the “N-word question” makes me laugh because he is hitting on something that is so painfully obvious and simultaneously something that we[1] often want to pretend isn’t true. Our words and actions sometimes have an impact that we did not intend when we said those words or took those actions. This “intent vs. impact” idea is something that students struggle with, but it’s also a prerequisite for classroom discussions that are open, honest, and safe. It’s something I teach when we set our class expectations for discussions and reiterate throughout the semester.[2]

  1. “who is we?” is something I always ask my students. Many times we is used when the speaker means white people. However, I used the term we to refer to everyone. While folks of privilege may be more likely to deny the intent vs. impact idea, all of us are prone to denying it. If you’ve ever said, “that’s not what I meant at all” to a partner, relative, or friend, then you’re inside my we.  ↩

  2. If you’re looking for a activity/video to illustrate the “intent vs. impact” idea check this out.  ↩


Help! I Missed The Test!

Monday 9:00am.

STUDENT: Don’t kill me but I missed the test last Friday.
ME: What happened?
STUDENT: I had a family emergency.
ME: Huh. Why did you wait two days to contact me?
STUDENT: I had a lot on my mind.
ME: Let’s think about this like a symbolic interactionist. How do you think I am going to interpret the fact you waited two days to contact me.
STUDENT: Uh… How should I… Um…

I’m usually able to keep my cool no matter what my student throw at me, but this situation (which happens 10–15 times a semester[1]) makes my blood boil. I feel so disrespected; like I am here to serve them when ever it’s convenient for them. My time doesn’t matter. I’m not doing anything else with my life. Frequently when this conversation takes place, the student has this entitled tone- this presumptuous demeanor. I’d love to tell you that I can handle any situation with grace and ease, but this one is my Achilles’ heel.

Then it dawned on me, situations like this happen precisely because students don’t have a developed sociological imagination. In Keith Roberts keynote address at the ASA Pre-Conference Workshop on Teaching and Learning, argued passionately that to learn sociology is to learn to perspective take. That is, to develop your sociological imagination you must first be cognizant of others, then be able to imagine how they experience from the world from their eyes, and finally be able to use the scientific method to tease out your bias (as much as that’s possible). If you’ve taught sociology for any amount of time, then you know that developing the skill of perspective taking can be really hard for students. Put simply, for the most part students are bad at perspective taking[2].

When students miss our test and then don’t think to contact me immediately are being inconsiderate. That is, they are not considering how their actions will make me feel. They have not considered how their inaction will look from my perspective. Given that they fail to employ the skill I am primarily focused on teaching, I can forgive their transgression. I can reframe it as a sign that they have much to learn instead of a sign of willful disrespect. Then I can let it go.

  1. The above exchange with a student isn’t a real conversation I had with a student. It’s an amalgamation of all the conversations I have with my students. Also, note that I teach ~400 students a semester.  ↩

  2. I teach mostly “traditional age” students. To be fair, students who are older may have more life experiences and thus a more developed ability to perspective take. However, age and experience does not always lead to a well developed ability to perspective take.  ↩

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