Race and Civility forum addresses difficulty of talking about race

Friday, November 20, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Despite differing opinions and emotional personal experiences on the matter of race, people left the third Race and Civility discussion with a sense of hope that change is a possibility.

“I think (race is) a difficult issue to talk about because it’s a very emotionally charged topic,” MU theater instructor Suzanne Burgoyne said.

Thursday's discussion was the third and final part of the Race and Civility series. In the previous discussion, there was more audience participation. But Thursday night, as panelists introduced themselves, they delved deeper into experiences in their lives that dealt with the issue of race and the impact it had on them.

For some members it was memories from their childhood and the inequalities that were present at the time.

“People try and steer away from the topic of race because it can be a very uncomfortable subject,” said MU junior Karlita Mathes, who attended the discussion.

Panelists represented black, white, Asian and Hispanic backgrounds. Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton, who is part Hispanic and was on the panel, said just telling people to change won’t work.

“It’s like turning a big boat. It takes awhile,” Burton said.

The first step, Burton said, is that “(panelists) and you have to recognize that we’re just people and we do have biases.”

"I had second thoughts about attending tonight,” panelist Willie Smith said. “No one wants to touch this topic.”

Smith, a former MU basketball player, was arrested earlier this year and said police used excessive force in his arrest. He said to make a difference with race relations, people have to start at home.

“We need to have an honest conversation with each other about this,” he said.

Because Burton was a panelist, some of the discussion shifted toward police interactions with people of color. Smith said he thinks officers should have to take diversity training before they're sworn in, and Burton said it's important for officers to admit they have certain inherent biases.

After the five panelists shared their personal experiences with race and talked about what should be done about it within the community, the floor opened up to community members to share their thoughts and feelings on the topic.

MU junior Erin Monahan explained how it was hard to stand up in front of everyone and talk about this issue but how it is necessary to build change within the community.

“We need to take the discussion outside and turn it into actions,” Monahan said. “It’s going to take courage and it is our duty to stand up for what is right."

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