Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Mizzou, Racism and Student Protest

This semester has seen numerous disturbing events at my alma mater, The University of Missouri, in Columbia, Missouri – a town I ended up calling home for 14 years after graduation.  Sadly, little has surprised me.  Even sadder, had these events happened in any other medium-sized college town in this country, I would not be any more or less surprised. 

But there is a difference or Mizzou would not be in the national news.  Students got fed up.  A graduate student started a hunger strike.  The football team joined in.  The faculty threatened a walk-out.  The roots of a movement started.  Predictably, opposing voices yelled back.  Everyone with an agenda looks to be using the situation to make their point  Racism is a problem on campuses nationwide.  Racism is an issue only raised by Black rabble rousers. Football is too important.  Finally athletes find power in their voices.  Media is manipulative and intrusive.  Media has a right to cover all stories in the ways they see fit protected by the First Amendment.  Students should be encouraged to continue to insist that they be heard.  Students should be quiet and get their education.  Listen to authority.  Question authority.

As reasonable thinkers have taken up each of these views, each has made eloquent, thoughtful points.  But to me, I see some basic truths.
-          Racism is still real.  As a white man, it would be best for me to listen to others’ experiences and do what I can to be empathetic and make a better world for others.
-          White privilege is still real.  It’s what allows me to opt out of this conversation if I choose.  It is what allows some to be completely tone deaf when others raise issues of racism.
-          We are sports-obsessed and sports bring a lot of money to many colleges and universities.  In modern America money speaks.  Want to work for change?  Think about where you spend your money.  Play a part in making others rich? – you have power.  Use it.
-          Being a victim of racism is not a single event – it is cumulative.  Many keep their responses to themselves – until the dam breaks.
-          If you are white and male, use your voice to speak up and make a difference.
-          Media is everywhere today.  Do anything in public and expect coverage, for better or worse.
-          Media could stand to be a little more respectful.  Everything is not a story.
-          Education and learning is messy and loud and rarely neat.  It is not a straight trajectory.  Bumps happen.  Students must explore, experiment and make mistakes.  They are not employees.
-          Question everything.
-          It is amazing, empowering, life-changing when an authority figure, a respected teacher or coach, particularly if white, can stand with and for his or her minority students.  

Finally, a word about Columbia and Mizzou itself.  There is a long history of racism in CoMo and the University – from slavery to lynching, from James Scott to Payton Head, from urban renewal to school re-districting.  On campus there have been issues for generations – since Lloyd Gaines was admitted in 1950 and then disappeared.  But this is also the University that gave me a chance to explore race and racism in my final history seminar with the incomparable Sundiata Cha-Jua.  This is the same place that introduced me to the idea of privilege through the work of my advisor, David Roediger.  This is the same town that introduced me to such incredible leaders as Beulah Ralph, Clyde Ruffin, Tyree Byndom, Wanda Brown, Wynna Faye Elbert, Kylar Broadus and John Kelly.  This is the same community that introduced me to allies like Jeff Brooks, Meghan Davidson, Nanette Ward and George Frissell.  This is the same African-American community that welcomed me as an ally.  This is the same University that provided me my first opportunities to speak outside of my own school – to teach undergrads and graduate students about race and privilege in the public school classroom.   

There’s fertile ground for positive change in Columbia and at the University of Missouri.  Now more than ever it needs leadership and vision.    

Once a Tiger, always a Tiger (and a Kewpie).  M-I-Z!!!