The Conversation You Shouldn’t Be Afraid To Have

Mizzou, Racism On College Campuses, And What You Can Do

Sh!t You Should Know | Mia Rafowitz and Connor DiGregorio | November 16, 2015

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On Friday morning, we stood in silent solidarity with our fellow peers at the University of Miami. Our arms linked together, powerfully, motionless for 30 minutes. The demonstration, #ConcernedStudent1950, was orchestrated by students, from all different backgrounds and organizations, to show support and unity for the minority students of The University of Missouri. 

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Henson Destine stands with his fellow students at the demonstration this past Friday

Henson Destine, member of United Black Students at the University of Miami, said:

“This was not to combat any issues going on in Miami, but to show our presence, unity, and to demonstrate that we do not approve of the racial and social injustice that was taking place at Mizzou.”

I’m sure you’ve seen a lot written about racism on college campuses recently, in particular at Mizzou. So we are here to try and explain: Why did the climate at Mizzou become so tense in the first place? What is happening on other college campuses, and on our campus? What can we do?

This is not an easy conversation to have. It’s one that forces us to ask tough questions, to admit prejudices that may live within us that we do not wish to accept. It forces us to get uncomfortable, to sometimes feel shame, upset or discouraged by the world we live in. But we think its crucial that you dare to ask questions, to get curious, to step outside the bubble of comfortability and grapple with this reoccurring issue.

DISCLAIMER: As white students who have not experienced racism firsthand, it can be hard to understand what the black community at Mizzou truly feels, or even the entire black community in the country right now. So, our first task is not to criticize or voice our own opinion about the latest events at Mizzou, but simply to listen. We cannot have an honest and fruitful conversation about racial problems if we do not first seek to learn. We are here to acknowledge what the core issue is – racism still exists, inequality still exists, and in 2015, a black student has a different college experience than a white student in subtle ways you may not understand.

First, let us realize that Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike, the Mizzou football team’s refusal to play, all the demonstrations by black students on the Missouri and other college campuses, are not baseless actions. They are actions riding on the feelings from years of name-calling, profiling, and subconscious differentiated treatment. And these are fucking valid feelings. Not acknowledging or discussing what’s going on perpetuates the problem. And we can see proof with the events that have transpired at Mizzou.

We spoke with a Mizzou student journalist, Luke Slabaugh, who’s been covering this story. He explained that the topic of race has been prevalent around campus for many years. Cases like Ferguson, the South Carolina Shooting, and Sandra Bland, have caused Missouri students to engage in an open dialogue on race for the last couple of years.

While most people can acknowledge that these have been cases of great tragedy and injustice, it can still be hard for many people who have not personally experienced racism to admit that it’s a prevalent problem today.

We spoke with TSM writer and student at Mizzou, Lucy Mulvihill, who responded to the events at Mizzou. She told us she believes the events spiraled out of control. In her mind, there was never much of a serious issue to begin with.

When we asked Lucy, a white student, if she had noticed racism around campus she said, “I don’t think there was a racial division. I have a lot of black friends. We have a diverse campus, where people are very accepting of each other.”

Her roommate, Sarah Schroeder, added, “There may be micro-aggressions, catcalls at people, but no blatant acts of racism that I’ve seen. 35,000 people go here, there are going to be people who say mean things and that’s not a crime.”

And Lucy is not alone in thinking this. I hear time and time again, “We have laws that protect against discrimination”, or “The civil rights movement solved this problem”. So, is racism just something a few isolated individuals participate in? Absolutely not.

We asked another member of the United Black Students at University of Miami, Hulya Miclisse-Polat, what some people may not be understanding:

“Racism is not only at an individual level- it’s institutionalized.”

Hulya points to the disparities in terms of employment, incarceration, housing, and education. Even if these laws are supposed to be race-neutral, and equal for all, the numbers show that there is a problem.

“It is very difficult to understand and complex, but if we continue to have these conversations it will be easier to identify and dismantle these types of institutions,” said Hulya. 

And, in the case of Mizzou, it wasn’t simply because of a few assholes shouting racial slurs that started all this. Butler had been trying to ignite change for years before starting his hunger strike, pointing to lack of black faculty and continual lack of support from current administration. Hulya emphasizes that something like this does not occur from one incident: “A lot of times with racial issues it’s things that have been built up. A lot of these students (at Mizzou) were facing micro-aggressions, and a feeling of being unwelcomed.”

So was it too extreme? Was it effective? We asked Henson his opinion.

“I personally did think it was extremely effective. Yes, you can always be vocal but until you take action that can draw, not just internal attention, but external attention from other students and the community, things won’t be changed.”

Bottom line? In an environment of threat and without support by the forces of authority assigned to protect anybody who feels unheard or unfairly treated, some kind of change must be demanded. It is unacceptable for intense hatred to be tossed around without worry of repercussion. It is unacceptable for passive minded administrators to dismiss these petty grievances because the problem is permeating the whole system, not just individuals. In the case of Mizzou, the demands of concerned student 1950 to have president Wolfe resigned were met. We saw action, and the students feel this is a step in the right direction.

But – let’s not be so naïve to believe that minorities are not marginalized every day on college campuses across the nation. We just don’t always hear of it. After all, it wasn’t until the football team at Mizzou got involved that this made national news.

Just a few months ago, a student threw a beer and yelled racial slurs at the Indian student body president of University of Southern California. And the day after Mizzou students were threatened via Yik Yak, black students at Howard University received the same types of threats. And I’m sure that today, yesterday, and even tomorrow minority students at our own school will feel and have felt differential treatment because of their race or ethnicity.

Regardless of what you think, or the articles you’ve read, or your current views on the case at Mizzou… The point is: Nobody should feel unsafe or discriminated against walking in his or her own skin. College is supposed to be a place to express yourself, be free, meet people, and to learn from one another. If the system is rigged for those born white then we need to start figuring out how to change that. 

So what about the climate at at University of Miami, where we pride ourselves on being an extremely diverse body of students? Henson explains that while the black students generally feel accepted and are able to be heard, the reality is that only 8% of the population on campus is black, and the majority of those students are athletes.

However, just because the black community at Miami is not currently dealing with any major issues, doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist.

Hulya explained that even in an area as diverse as Miami, underrepresented groups can still face micro-aggressions. She also went on to talk about the feeling of being 1 of 2 black students in a classroom, or having never been taught by a professor of color. So, while we are a diverse student body, it is important that we strive to be better.

President Frenk sent out an email addressing the fact that there is still work to be done around campus:

“In the brief time I have been president, I have been impressed by our diversity—of people, ideas, and beliefs—and I salute our ongoing efforts to promote a climate of inclusion. But we can and must do more. We have to move beyond the concept of inclusion by creating a real sense of belonging that not only celebrates our diversity but also strengthens our shared commitment to respect one another, to create a safe environment for each one of us, and to ensure that we all feel we are valued members of our community.”

The support from administration is huge – and it seems President Frenk is following the lead of Donna Shalala and continuing the conversation about race and diversity on campus. This is not going unnoticed, and was very apparent in the administration’s presence at the demonstration on Friday.

So what can we do as students at UM to further stand together as one community?

“The most important thing is to rather than establishing the fact that we are different, first and foremost understand we are all humans, people. Regard us all as humans who are here on this four-year journey together,” said Henson.

And in coming together as one, we must realize it is not constructive to make this a “with us or against us” kind of issue. Instead, we should be asking questions like, “What are you feeling, why is this happening, how can I get involved?”

In discussion with Mizzou student Lucy, she also explained the frustration she had with the fear of being called a racist. “If you are not 100% for this movement at our school, you are racist. I think people are afraid to voice their opinions.”

As a white student, do not be afraid to get involved in the conversation, and as a black student, create an environment that encourages discussion for everybody.

Hulya explained,

“It is true that students who are not directly effected don’t know how to approach or don’t want to offend. The first step is to ask a question if you have it. It’s ok to sit and listen and try to figure out what’s going on. It’s ok to ask questions even if it may not be the most politically correct, it is just about starting the conversation.”

Henson explained that the decision of a silent protest was because “We didn’t need to bash anybody, we didn’t need to criticize, we just wanted to show that we were together.”

Henson’s words were calm, yet strong and powerful, as was the silence of the protest. When we walked up to Friday’s demonstration, we were immediately welcomed and found ourselves quickly intertwined within the arms of our fellow students, fellow Canes.

We must acknowledge the importance of open communications, of asking questions. We must acknowledge that immediate desire within us to differentiate people, and create a dialogue about how we can attempt to change this.

An open forum to speak freely about what’s going on is a step we can take in the right direction together. There will be an event through the United Black Students in partner with the Multi-Cultural Center where anybody is welcome to come, talk, ask questions, and get involved. The event, “U Stand with Missouri”, will take place on Wednesday at 5:30 pm in the Student Center Ballroom East.

We encourage you to go. We must not tiptoe around issues anymore. Not be scared to talk, to fight, to ask questions. If you don’t know, figure it out. Ask somebody. It is not taboo to talk about race issues. Do not be scared to offend, because silence itself is offensive in times of great strife for our peers. Realize that racism exists, not just at Mizzou and Yale but on other college campuses as well.

Let’s open up the conversation. Let’s start talking.

Hear what other students at college campuses around the nation have to say about the recent events and the prevalence of racism: To Our White Friends, From Schools Around the Nation

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Students at the University of Miami sign to show support for the students of Mizzou.


Featured photo courtesy of: Georgette Spratling and Henson Destine