Earlier this year, I was interviewing the brilliant history scholar and #FergusonSyllabus creator Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Like most of my interviews in the last year or so the conversation shifted to fall 2015 and what actually went wrong.
When I’m reporting, I understand that the story is not about me. How I feel isn’t important, making my subject comfortable so I can get the best material is. So, when Dr. Chatelain asked me about my experience as a student on campus I struggled to come up with an answer. Technically, I was on the clock for Mizzou, my voice memos app was recording and we were in a very public place. I didn’t want my difficult relationship with Mizzou to be picked apart by anyone within ear shot.
The truth is, my experiences involving race on Mizzou’s campus have been less than stellar. The house I lived in junior and senior year was next door to a huge fraternity house. It looked like the houses you see when visiting Mount Vernon or any other former plantation turned wedding venue. It was unsettling.
I’d speed walk past their house every day to and from campus. When they were outside drinking and visibly intoxicated, I’d pretend to be on the phone. That didn’t stop them from calling me nigger, or throwing beer cans in my direction as I walked by. They did it because they could. There was one instance where I was able to perfectly identify a guy who yelled “run nigger” at my boyfriend and I on the first day of classes, his frat backed him up. Denied that it was him. Blamed it on a pledge who “didn’t make it past the first week.”
I was disappointed, but not surprised.
Then, there were more subtle things that happened during my time on campus. Like being ignored when working on a group project, constantly being interrupted and hearing about my friends being asked if they were in the wrong class because they had the audacity to be black and in the honors college.
That stuff felt like the end of the world as an 18-year-old. Now, I realize the universe was prepping me for an adulthood full of microagressions.
That day, Dr. Chatelain had a great question: “Have you ever thought about how different things would be if Tim Wolfe would’ve gotten out of that car at the parade?”
I hadn’t. But what a poignant question.
Things escalated because former system president Wolfe didn’t get out of the car; because former chancellor Loftin’s words seemed hollow to marginalized populations at Mizzou and ultimately because it was clear that no one with the power to do something supported black students.
No part of Mizzou was ready for the fall 2015 protests. No one could have predicted the results (hundreds of layoffs, programs being phased out and building shortening their hours). Still, there are many moments when it could’ve been prevented:
- In 2010 when two white boys thew cotton balls in front of the grass at the Black Culture Center
- In 2011 when “nigger” was spray painted on Hatch Hall during Black History Month
- Or even in 2014 when Mike Brown was shot and killed 90 minutes from Mizzou’s campus.
Dr. Chatelain said it best: “We can’t not react to students. They may not get everything they want. but ignoring them is not the answer.”
Unfortunately, ignoring is something my alma mater is really good at. Whether it’s the direct ties some of our first leaders had to slavery, or the denial that we’re in the mess we are now because of being reactionary instead of action-oriented, Mizzou has some deep wounds, and it’s going to take more than new leadership to heal them.
With a new chancellor on the way in August and most of the interim roles filled with permanent leaders, it’s my hope that MU can start to shift the culture in a different direction. Because that’s what is really needed: a culture shift.
The truth is, nothing is going to stop a handful of racists from being racist, but a culture of support and courage could make it so said racist is held accountable when they don’t uphold Mizzou’s values.
It’ll take some time, but man I hope we get there soon.
Have protests against racial injustice shaken your campus? If so, what’s being done to fix it? Share your thoughts below.