COLUMBIA — A week after an incident in which cotton balls were found in front of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center, Becky Martinez spoke about it to a close friend.
The friend told Martinez, a visiting scholar in Women’s and Gender Studies, that it had been a week since the incident and asked if the two could stop talking about it.
Martinez said she was saddened by the viewpoints of some who told her that the MU black community and its supporters were exhibiting victim mentality and oversensitivity about the issue. The issue, she said, consumed her.
Martinez told her story as part of Courageous Conversations About the Black Culture Center Incident: Moving Forward, a discussion sponsored by the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative and Difficult Dialogues held Thursday night at the MU Life Science Center’s Monsanto Auditorium. The faculty panel also included Mike Porter of the communication department, Kathleen Boggs of the education department, Associate Professor of Law David Mitchell and Paul Ladehoff, Campus Mediation Service director.
Mitchell also found himself balancing his professional life with his personal feelings as he brought the incident into his Law and Society classes.
The son of a woman who picked tobacco for a North Carolina sharecropper, Mitchell was angry when he heard about the racist act. But as a teacher of the justice system, he understood the full impact that a felony could have on the suspects. He could not decide whether he favored suspension, expulsion or criminal charges in a justice system he said can tread too carefully when there is a crime against a minority.
Mitchell also said he suffered from “ethnic fatigue,” or the need to engage in conversations about race on a daily basis or to always have to be an educator about one’s own race.
“Clearly this was a racist act, and it gets tiring," he said. "You get to the point where it’s like really? Enough.”
Mitchell immediately understood the racist significance of the cotton ball incident, though some of his colleagues didn’t. African-American slaves were forced to work on cotton plantations in pre-Civil War times.
Roger Worthington, chief diversity officer, invited the audience to engage in the respectful and open exchange of ideas about the incident. He introduced five KU students who traveled to Columbia to present a diversity banner symbolizing unity and support to six MU leaders from the Mizzou Black Men's Initiative, MU NAACP and Legion of Black Collegians.
After the KU presentation and the faculty panel, the audience split into discussion groups to talk about their initial thoughts and reactions to the incident, how they have changed and the most difficult dilemma currently facing the MU community. An open forum followed.
Corinne Valdivia, an MU associate professor of agricultural economics, who's lived in Columbia for 20 years, said she felt disbelief when she heard of the incident because she previously saw Columbia push back against racism when hate groups came to protest in town.
Marcus Ferguson, a member of Mizzou Black Men’s Initiative, said he appreciated the supportive action MU administrators have given to the issue, but that the black community felt they had to push for that to happen.
Ferguson said he hopes that in the future the MU black community will not have to do that on a campus that he feels has a long way to go in becoming diverse.
“We’re here, but we’re not together,” Ferguson said.
After many different perspectives were shared in the audience forum, the meeting ended on a note of hope. Many in the audience agreed that while specific and direct support of diversity is needed from the MU community, the administration is dedicated to making progress.
“Slow change feels like no change," Worthington said to Ferguson. "You have my commitment."