GUEST COMMENTARY: Cotton balls at Black Culture Center show racism still very much alive at MU

Monday, March 1, 2010 | 12:55 p.m. CST; updated 2:02 p.m. CDT, Friday, September 3, 2010

I usually get the most out of them when I feel like changing my nail color. Sometimes if I want my eye shadow to pop, I’ll use one to dab a little Vaseline on my eyelids first. However, I never thought something as simple as a cotton ball could be used in such a menacing, hateful manner.

In the early morning hours on Friday, when some person or persons chose to scatter cotton balls across the front entrance to the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center at MU, it became evident that there’s a conversation to be had that’s long overdue.

To say the least, I, like many students at Mizzou, were disgusted by this act and more so disappointed in the lack of a timely response by our administration. The first text messages, Facebook status updates and pictures began circulating at 8 a.m. as classes got under way and droves of students passed the Black Culture Center.

Sadly, Chancellor Brady Deaton didn’t issue a public statement until 5:10 p.m. Even at that point, it wasn’t enough for him to simply express “individual concern and support to the members of our community who were the apparent targets.” It seemed that people were attempting to categorize this event as minor or isolated. In the year 2010, in our beloved country ran by a man of African descent and at a university that recorded its highest minority enrollment to date in August, the silence of our leaders pained me almost as much as seeing the cotton balls in person.

It’s necessary to remember that the "Father of the University of Missouri," James Rollins, was a slave owner with at least 30 slaves before the Civil War. We should also remember the young black man lynched in town in 1923 after falsely being accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. And we mustn’t forget for whom the beloved Black Culture Center, “where the contributions of Blacks to world history are explored, celebrated, taught and shared” is named after. LloydGaines was denied admission to our Law School by the Board of Curators because of his race and was later responsible for the Supreme Court’s landmark decision forcing the Law School to desegregate or provide a facility of equal status for blacks within state borders.Marian O’Fallon Oldham, was also denied admission to MU because of her skin color but went on to become our first black female curator appointed to the board in March 1977.

No, this isn’t a noose hanging in the library nor is it an off-campus “ghetto-themed” party with 40 oz. beers and gold chains. No, I don’t feel the need to protest Jesse Hall or take over some other academic building. I do, however, feel compelled to blatantly state that racial tensions exist on this campus and are heightened daily — this event has just taken it to another, more public level.

I’d be lying if I said every day when I walk into a classroom, whether as an instructor or as a student, I don’t think my skin color is evident or matters to my colleagues or students. I’d be lying if I said as a minority I feel accepted, respected and equal in this space. I’d also be lying if I said cotton balls in front of the Black Culture Center didn’t frighten me.

It worried me to think of the deliberate racism so freely and effortlessly expressed with no qualms. It petrified me to think how easily some could and did (wrongly) misinterpret such racism as just basic ignorance to be ignored. And finally, it scared me to think of the environment Mizzou might become if we don’t begin an open and honest conversation about the state of race and ethnicity here.

This conversation should be orchestrated by the administration, fueled by the voices of the students and heard by all — campus and Columbia communities alike. If anyone thinks this is an excessive action, I’d ask them how they felt the first time someone here called them them chink, cracker, nigger, oreo, spic, towel-head, etc. If they can’t relate, I’d urge them to ask anyone of us who has been, and then tell me a dialogue isn’t necessary.

Jennifer M. Wilmot is a graduate student at MU and a Columbia resident.

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Andrew Del-Colle March 1, 2010 | 3:07 p.m.


Your voice should appear in this paper more often.


(Report Comment)
Keener Tippin March 1, 2010 | 4:53 p.m.

Agree, Andrew. Very nicely stated, Jennifer.

(Report Comment)
shaun johnson March 1, 2010 | 5:31 p.m.

Once again we see a hate act against Whites. Whites have been falsely vilified by this act of by an admitted minority female. Hate filled marches against imagined white racism have dominated campus life, all caused by a race baiting act of hatred not against blacks, but intended to create an atmosphere of suspicion against whites. Where is the apology to the innocent victims? Oh, that won't happen. Soon enough whites will recognize that simply being white is cause for hatred and vilification, as this episode so clearly diplays.
So White must learn to accept the inevitable label and live with it, in fact, take pride in it.
When whites as as group begin to stop caring about the ubiquitous racist label, only then they will begin to become free and equal.
We've been called cowards by our own attorney general, maligned by our media, enough is enough. If am then a racist to be an upapologetic proud White, so be it. So now I see that I am White I am Proud, more will follow.

(Report Comment)
Aaron Ferguson March 1, 2010 | 5:55 p.m.

I agree it was mean, if not downright hateful, but I just don't think it was the type of person who we'd typically suspect. Chances of Skeeter and Jed coming down from Cen-trailyuh, Muzzurah to do this act are pretty slim. If it was those guys, they would have lit something on fahr (fire). Nor do I think it was a group of skinheads, or else they would have physically destroyed everything in sight, and sprayed graffiti all over the remains.

It feels more like something a couple jerk [frat] boys would do to get some laughs (for themselves; obviously, no on else is laughing). It's an easy prank: spend $3.00 on some cotton balls, quickly place them all around and run off, then soak up all the news stories the day after. High-fives all around, and we should go buy some more beer!

Lastly, it could just as well have been a black student trying to "prove" there's still racial intolerance at Mizzou. To me, that's more likely the case than Skeeter and Jed coming into town.

That said, it smells more like 19-to-20-year-olds trying to get a rise out of everyone. The angrier we all get, the happier they are with themselves. I don't think we, as a society or individuals, should ever stop trying to squelch racism wherever we see it, but in the case of the cotton balls, I think we just need to roll our eyes and let it go.

Jennifer, speaking as a typical white person, I can honestly say I would never so much as consider your race in any matter whatsoever. 99% of whites who I know--which is quite a few--pretty much don't even think about race unless someone else brings the subject up. People are just people; some are ignorant, most are generally pleasant, and skin color is not a factor.

I'll also say that those who should have the most fear in them are not blacks, but racist whites, because the vast majority of us have zero tolerance for THEM.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 1, 2010 | 6:43 p.m.

Well, let's not stop with our speculating. It could also have been someone from the Kansas City, Rolla or St. Louis campuses of this university, or it could have been someone from Truman State University, or it could have been someone from Missouri State University (now there's a bunch of Rednecks!) or the perps could have been from KU. Or it could have been a KU-Missouri S&T conspiracy.

That would explain why the search for cotton ball sales in Columbia hasn't turned up anything.

But I think not. Because there are no racists at those campuses? No. Because there are no pranksters at those campuses? No.

It's because none of those folks would waste money on gasoline to drive to Columbia.

(Report Comment)
Jessica Allen March 1, 2010 | 8:05 p.m.

Jennifer, thank you. Your point about this not being an isolated event seems particularly important right now because I keep hearing otherwise. Many of the speakers at the town meeting said things that allowed them and white attendants to distance themselves from this one racist act. (I'm here and I'm outraged, so I'm not racist! I would never leave cotton or a noose to threaten someone, so it's not me who needs to change--those individuals who committed this act are rare racists on our campus who need to be punished.)

When (usually white) people say they don't notice race, I'm sorry, but I don't believe them. I believe they think it's true, but there's no way anyone in our society is "colorblind." The reason white people don't think about race that much is because they don't have to--they can think of themselves and the white majority as universal and unmarked. This doesn't mean that all whites are "racists," but it does mean that we have to work regularly against everyday racist assumptions and actions, which do not always involve nooses and cotton balls.

I am speechless about the "hate act against whites" comment. I kept naively hoping it was a weird joke. Poor white people, indeed. We have a lot of work to do.

(Report Comment)
Jennifer Wilmot March 2, 2010 | 1:27 p.m.

I’m very thankful for everyone’s comments. I’ve said my peace in this piece and I don’t want to carry this out anymore than it needs to be, but I would like to make it clear that I’m not attacking Whites in this commentary. Was this a racist act? Yes. Because it’s racist, does that mean the culprit is White? No. If a Black person scattered the cotton balls, I’d still think of it as a racist act—I’d view it as an act of internalized racism. Someone chose to use a historical symbol of deep-seated pain, hurt, anger, and racism that is interwoven in our country’s fabric, as a non-violent weapon of sorts—something I can’t categorize as a joke.

My entire point is we, as a campus and a community, need to have a serious convo about the state of race here. Not some prepared speech, no pointing of fingers, no stereotypes—just a heartfelt convo about race because it’s not as peachy-keen as we’d like it to be, or as some are making it.

Again, thank you all for paying me some attention; I really appreciate it.

(Report Comment)
Daniel Jones March 3, 2010 | 5:02 p.m.

To reply back to Aaron Ferguson.

I'm from the city you call "Cen-trailyuh, Muzzurah". Very clever by the way since we are a majority white farming community and most drive trucks so therefor we are ALL REDNECKS (Stereotype). I doubt ANYBODY could of come up with that one. Funny thing is that when the facts come out no one from Centralia was involved. I don't know of any deliberate racist acts done by a Centralia person while I have lived there (which has only been 19 years). Nor do I know of anyone with the name of "Skeeter" or "Jeb". If you have some reason for posting such a ridiculous comment then please enlighten me. If not then keep me and my other Centralia citizens out of this. We haven't done anything wrong. You could of just as easily came up with another town since you are so good at making stuff up. I think that what you just did could be easily considered stereotypical and a lot of racism involves stereotypes... I'm just saying that I was offended knowing someone is trying to insult my hometown. Take it for what it is worth but leave Centalia out of it.

(Report Comment)
Doug Mek March 9, 2010 | 10:38 a.m.

Please for all you posting...

Stop talking and pick up a book. Especially to the "white" people

(Report Comment)
Monique Mendoza March 11, 2010 | 9:29 p.m.

This is what has always concerned about campuses & tensions all over the country. So many people are very quick to deny the obvious racist statements made by these sorts of actions. Even here in CA people argued that the "Compton Cook-out" wasn't racist, which struck me as odd because the whole thing seemed to be a modern day minstrel.

God but people are terrified to talk about race. I wonder how many classrooms I've sat in where race issues were brought up and everyone went silent except for the teacher who was struggling to get the students to participate.

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.