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Friday, November 13, 2015

What We Talk About When We Talk About Racism at Mizzou

Posted By on Fri, Nov 13, 2015 at 1:45 PM

At the edge of the University of Missouri’s flagship campus in Columbia, across the street from the world’s oldest journalism school, sits a popular student hangout called Campus Bar and Grill. Inside, neon Budweiser signs illuminate the pale orange walls. Plastic beer cups advertise the services of Bogdan Susan: Attorney at Law. A vodka cranberry costs 75 cents.

The RFT was there Thursday evening, one day after the bar had closed for a day following anonymous death threats and canceled classes. Earlier in the week, racial justice activists, led by a hunger-striking graduate student named Jonathan Butler, had successfully toppled two top school officials.

As the Blues played the Rangers, an overwhelmingly white sea of students crowded inside to watch the game – and talk about the events roiling the campus. We agreed to give them anonymity in order to encourage frank conversation. Most students were willing to talk under those conditions.

"I don't want to be perceived as racist," said one mechanical engineering student, when we asked why he didn't want to give his name. A senior, he was at the bar with a fellow fraternity brother. The two wore matching Blues jerseys and sporadically yelled at the television.

“A few black students have called the entire school racist, even though we accepted them,” he said. “A few black students turned their backs on us.”

“They claim systemic racism,” explained the other brother, a senior health sciences major. “What happened is this was the first university built west of the Mississippi. So, they think the campus is racist because it was built by slaves.”

His friend chimed in: “It’s not like black students are all saints. Per capita, I think black people are probably more racist.” The aspiring engineer stressed that he came to Mizzou for an education, followed by a job and money. “If you’re in college, and you want racism and social justice in the curriculum, you need to grow up. Grow a pair.”

The Blues lost, and the bar got more packed. A sophomore studying biological engineering who gave her name only as Ellie struggled for the bartender’s attention, so we bought her a vodka cranberry. She said that racism is a problem at Mizzou, and that Tim Wolfe could have been more proactive in dealing with the issue.

But, she added, “It’s very unfair that they get upset when they were called that word, but they call each other that word all the time.” Earlier in the fall, Payton Head, the black student body president, said he was walking on campus when “some guys in a pickup truck just started yelling the n-word at me.” The next month, members of the Legion of Black Collegians alleged that fraternity members yelled the same epithet at them while they were rehearsing a play.

“They have black sororities. If we tried to have a white sorority, people would freak out,” Ellie added.

A junior business major in a white golf shirt walked up to the bar and ordered a $4 pitcher of Bud Light.

“All I can say is the protest caused more division than unity. Talking about racism makes more of a divide,” he told me.

We asked him if racism exists on campus. “It’s hard to tell from my standpoint,” he said. “I’m a white dude. I’m not going to experience some of the things black dudes are.”

Steven Hsieh is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @stevenjhsieh.

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