Non-black students weigh in on MU's Black Culture Center

Friday, November 21, 2008 | 4:48 p.m. CST; updated 6:03 p.m. CST, Saturday, November 22, 2008
Neetu Abad speaks during a forum hosted by the MU Black Culture Center to address perceptions about the center among non-black students Thursday. Among the forum topics was the notion that the Black Culture Center is only for black students.

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.

By the numbers

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.

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l k December 1, 2008 | 10:01 a.m.

I think it's wrong and intellectually dishonest this attempt to make Black people feel guilty or ashamed for developing cultural institutions that promote and present our unique cultural history to the world.

I think it's sad that whites and other non-Blacks choose to obsessively over-analyze our overtures for cultural expression. Ironically, their (whites and other non-Blacks) views are seldom, if ever, scrutinized in the same way. For example, no one ever examines whites and arranges focus groups to study their deficits and shortcomings relative to learning about other people.

Blacks have been in this country longer than any other group (with the notable exception of the American Indian). This society had (and has) closed its doors to us on many levels (social, political, economic). Our response to that was to develop institutions and practices where we would proactively and positively express our culture and heritage. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I don't see anyone arranging focus groups to gauge perceptions of Latino or Asian student unions. I don't see anyone studying student perceptions of Hillel or the Association for Chinese Language and Culture. What about the Indian center? Or the Pakistani student group? Or the Arabian Student Association? What about the Cultural Association of India? Where are the conversations over student perceptions of these groups.

The Obama presidency and his candy store ideology has been hugely successful with immersing people into a facile, fantasy world relative to issues surrounding race and culture.

The big problem here is that whites in this country have enjoyed a crippling privilege and entitlement syndrome that has rendered it difficult for them to learn about or give notice to the history and heritage of others. To white culture all other groups are marginal (at best) or irrelevant (at worst).

Whites can fix this anytime they want to. However, applying narrow perceptions, uninformed opinions, and questioning the right of a Black Cultural Center to exist is not the answer - but a tragic slide backwards.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr December 1, 2008 | 10:08 a.m.

Everybody needs to stop playing the race card it is old hat,old news,over used and washed up.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro December 1, 2008 | 10:37 a.m.

Dear 1-K, (if that's your real name): What do you stand for? Integration, segragation, reverse-discrimination, diversification or cooperation? Obviously you missed the point of this article. It was meant as a P.R. article to encourage non-blacks to visit what has been considered an exclusive college center which has developed a "whites are not welcomed" perception. (No one is questioning the "right" for the cultural center to exist.) Why do you think "some one" is trying to make you guilty or ashamed of your "roots?" If you need a boost of "self-esteem," do yourself a favor and read some Alex Haley or maybe dig this...

(Report Comment)

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