A week after protests over racism at their school became the biggest story in the country, 300 students, faculty and community members marched through the University of Missouri, Columbia campus behind a banner that read “Mizzou United, Columbia United.” Their goal: to keep talking about what’s been going on here, and why.
The big national news outlets have moved on — to the bombing in Paris, to the raids in Belgium — but here, the campus community is trying to make sense of it all, and figure out how to move forward. Despite the resignation of Tim Wolfe, the university system’s president, and a slate of new diversity initiatives, the atmosphere on campus is tense. Students and faculty say that won’t change without some hard conversations.
At Sunday’s march, recent grad Aliyah Sulaiman expressed support for a conversation she said is long overdue. Here’s how she put it:
When Sulaiman was studying here, she says, she often talked with other black students about campus racism, but those conversations stayed private. Longtime professors, white and black, agreed there’s nothing new about racial friction here. “People have talked for years behind closed doors about problems,” said Spanish instructor Grace Vega, “but when you want them to come out into the open to support change, they’re afraid.”
But for a lot of white students here, talk of racism is new. Some have expressed anger online, in widely circulated social media posts and open letters. Others don’t know what to think. A sophomore named Allissa says: “Me and my roommates are just confused about the whole situation. We don’t really know how to approach it, and we don’t really know how to communicate with other black students to know, like, what they were feeling and what they wanted to accomplish and what they still want to accomplish.”
Allissa is white and grew up in Glasgow, Mo., a rural town of about a thousand people that’s mostly white. She asked me not to use her last name because she’s worried she’ll be vilified for her views.
She told me she wants things to change if students of color feel uncomfortable on campus. It’s just that before a couple of weeks ago, she had no idea there was anything wrong.
Sophomore Drew Mack grew up in St. Louis, one of two urban centers where most of the state’s black residents live. His mom is white and his dad is black. He says he’s been looking for opportunities to talk to students like Allissa because he wants them to understand why students of color are demanding change.
I met Drew and Allissa separately, and since they both told me they wanted to talk to other students about this, I asked if they’d like to talk to each other. They agreed.
First, they talked about the key incidents leading up to the demonstrations — the racist slur hurled at the student body president, the feces swastika (confirmed by a police report), how pleas from the Legion of Black Collegians to administrators had not gotten an adequate response — because Allissa felt she hadn’t heard the full story.
Then Allissa asked Drew to help her understand something else: what it feels like to be black on campus.
Drew explained how he felt after threats against black students circulated on social media:
I can’t put into words the fear that washed over me, hearing about that. The next day I went to class, but I was absolutely terrified to do so. I kept my phone on me and I kept my head up. Every time the door slammed open or shut, I jumped. And I realized that some of the people around me who were not people of color were not nearly as antsy.
Just the fact that people can see that being a possibility is such a testament to our campus climate and our mental health. That the thought of somebody shooting students of color on campus was such a possibility that people wanted their classes to be canceled, people stayed home, and people are paying thousands of dollars to feel unsafe. That’s atrocious.
Allissa said talking to Drew helped her understand why students of color had demanded change in a way she couldn’t grasp before.
Drew and other students here said it’s vital to hold the school accountable for racist acts committed on campus. But the bigger challenge may be getting students like Allissa, who make up a big part of the student body, to acknowledge there’s a problem. “Appointing new administration is definitely a great step, but it’s not going to end there,” says Drew. “Having these open dialogues is going to be as central to making the campus climate a bit less scary.”
On Monday night, the Department of Black Studies hosted a teach-in. The room was packed. When chairs ran out, people crowded together on the floor. “I think everyone can agree this has been quite a semester,” said professor Stephanie Shonekan, who moderated the panel of 11 faculty members from a range of departments.
English professor Clenora Hudson Weems was on the panel. She said these frank discussions about racism give her hope. “We can serve as a blueprint for other universities,” she said. “That’s the beautiful thing about it. Once that happens, we can all smile and say ‘Hallelujah.'”
First, though, the plan is to keep the conversations going.