COLUMBIA — It's one of the biggest myths at MU: The Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center is only for black students.
The Black Culture Center is a space where MU students and the Columbia community can learn about the African diaspora and the contribution of people of African descent, said Nathan Stephens, director of the center. The center holds socials, classes, lectures, poetry readings and other events to introduce black culture to the community.
Here's a look at MU's demographic breakdown in fall 2007.
- Black: 6 percent
- American Indian/Alaskan native: 1 percent
- Asian/Pacific Islander: 3 percent
- Hispanic: 2 percent
- White: 84 percent
- International students: 1 percent
- Unknown: 3 percent
Stephens compares the center to a Greco-Roman museum — it's about Greeks and Romans, not just for them.
"We want to increase the participation of non-black students at the Black Culture Center," Stephens said. But when non-black students are asked about the center, "they're like, 'Dude, I'm not black,'" he said.
Seven non-black students met Thursday to discuss how they perceive the center during a focus group held by Stephens and a fellow doctoral student, Nan Li. Before the session, several students voiced beliefs that programs at the center were not aimed at them because of their racial or ethnic identity.
Laura Akers, a white student, held a thoughtful, slightly embarrassed pause before saying why she didn't use the center.
"I guess I just assumed that I don't belong," she said. "Not that I don't belong," she corrected herself, " but that they don't have anything to offer me."
Prakash Jayabalan, a British student who identifies as Asian-Indian, said he'd only used the center to rehearse a performance for the Cultural Association of India. Otherwise, he said he didn't know enough about the center — or about black culture in general — to attend social or educational events there.
"I don't know what's black culture, what that means," he said. He said his own culture can be easily identified with the country of India, but black culture has a broader definition, rooted more in identity than in geography.
After Thursday's focus group, Jayabalan said he was struck by how similar his concerns were with students who did not share his racial or ethnic identity.
"It was fascinating to see that I have so much in common with someone who is of African-American origin or with someone of Caucasian origin living in Missouri all their life," he said. "The same issues and worries he or she has — which I always thought were isolated to my race and ethnicity — affect all."
Jayabalan said he saw the Black Culture Center as a space where frank conversations about racial politics could lead other students to similar realizations. Akers agreed, saying she was enthusiastic about participating at the center.
"During the summer, the center was used more by white students than any other race," Akers said. "That really surprised me, but I was also glad that other students know that they can go there, too.
"Learning about culture is for everyone, no matter what your background is," she said.