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Community deals with difficulty of talking about race

Monday, May 10, 2010 | 10:29 p.m. CDT; updated 9:59 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010
MU Associate Professor of Law David Mitchell asks a question about the make-up of the panel selected for a live taping of "Intersection," KBIA/91.3 FM's weekly news discussion program during a live broadcast of the show from the Fred W. Smith Forum in Reynolds Journalism Institute at MU on Monday. The panel discussed issues of race and diversity in mid-Missouri.

*CLARIFICATION: Panelist Nathan Stephens' remarks were expanded from an earlier version of this story.

COLUMBIA — During a late-September afternoon, Ana Gutierrez-Gamez walked across Lowry Mall talking to her mother on the phone. The MU freshman’s mother does not speak English, so Gutierrez-Gamez spoke to her in Spanish.

A young woman she did not know approached. “You need to speak English — you’re in America now,” she said before walking off.

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Gutierrez-Gamez, who had started attending MU a month earlier, was shocked. She walked to Gillett Hall holding in her emotions. But once she reached her dorm room, she burst into tears.

“I couldn’t believe someone would be that rude to me,” Gutierrez-Gamez said of the incident.

This was a private incident. Recently, public incidents involving race occurred on U.S. campuses, including the Compton Cookout at the University of California-San Diego and Mug Night at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Both incidents stereotyped African-Americans.  At MU, a February incident in which cotton balls were scattered in front of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center brought conversations about racism to a campuswide level.

Racism is hard to talk about. On Monday evening, KBIA/91.3 FM and the Reynolds Journalism Institute held a forum on race and diversity in mid-Missouri for the weekly show "Intersection" to provide a medium to have this difficult discussion. Half of the hour-long show ran live on the radio, and the entire program is expected to be available online Tuesday at kbia.org.

Panel member Marie Glaze, human rights specialist for Columbia, described attempting to talk about race as a closed feeling you get in your throat. "When you start having this unvarnished discussion, it roils your insides," Glaze said.

Audience member Suzanne Burgoyne, a member of Difficult Dialogues, a program designed to help educators facilitate open-minded discussion, said a conversation about race is needed without oppressing others. A co-founder of the MU Interactive Theatre Troupe, Burgoyne described attending a theater conference at which there was bickering about who was truly oppressed.

"I was unhappy because everyone at the conference was competing for who's the most oppressed," said Burgoyne, one of about 50 people who attended the live-taping at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Gutierrez-Gamez, who along with others in this article shared their stories at different times, said she doesn't feel anyone is left off the conversation about race, even though it often centers on black-white relations.

“We (minority organizations) all agree even though we’re separated by race, we all have the same issues," said Gutierrez-Gamez, a member of the MU Hispanic American Leadership Organization.

Passions cloud the discussion

The 1977 TV miniseries "Roots" received wide acclaim, numerous awards and high ratings. The Museum of Broadcast Communications said "Roots" was credited with having a positive impact on race relations.

Not for Arnel Monroe, who was a fourth-grader at the time. For him, it was “one of the worse weeks of my life.”

Before "Roots," the Columbia teacher said he never viewed being black as something different. His world of church, neighbors, friends and schoolmates was black.

Since then, Monroe has used athletics and education to help him connect with others who were not African-American. His pursuit to play football and get an education took him to the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg from 1986 to 1991.

“The town was trying to get progressively better but still had some issues,” Monroe said. He recalled more open use of the n-word, something he rarely ran into growing up in Columbia.

Now a special education teacher at Hickman High School, Monroe thinks Columbia continues to be a progressive city as it grows in population.

“We have issues we have to discuss and work out, but we’re not afraid to work them out,” he said.

However, plenty of events in U.S. history can be a barrier to discussions about race: treatment of Native Americans by the early settlers, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s and current racial tensions developing from the illegal immigration debate.

Monroe said people must “leave feelings at the door” when talking about race because they get in the way of communication.

“There’s never going to be a sustained dialogue for too long because it draws too many feelings," Monroe said. "Race is one of those subjects that makes everyone uncomfortable.”

How to handle racial dialogues

Yve Solbrekken, a science education doctoral student at MU, has experience with helping others engage in a conversation about race as a former fellow of Difficult Dialogues. Race has long interested her. She described herself as a sensitive kid when it came to those suffering, including suffering because of racism.

“I’m troubled when people approach each other with preconceived notions because of race,” said Solbrekken, who is white.

In grade school, she had a friend named Melody, a member of a Native American tribe. The other children use to call Melody “ape face” because of their perception of her features. Solbrekken said she could not understand the mentality of her classmates.

“As a member of this human race, it’s maybe an obligation, but at the very least, it’s the right thing to do to intervene,” she said.

Solbrekken and Gutierrez-Gamez, a Mexican native who grew up in Sikeston, have some ideas about how to make dialogues on race work:

  • Take a deep breath. When offense is taken, tell the person you’re not sure if you’re understanding them correctly and say what you think they’re saying, Solbrekken said.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak your mind. If you’re included in the conversation, it’s because others want to hear what you have to say, Gutierrez-Gamez said.
  • Keep emotions in check. “I can see why it could be intimidating," Gutierrez-Gamez said about talking about race with people from other backgrounds. 
  • Try again. Solbrekken likes the idea of do-overs. “Let them rephrase, gather their thoughts and try again,” she recommended.

Education is key

“In academia, our purpose is to facilitate discussion about everything,” Solbrekken said. To reach the goal of limiting racial misunderstandings, education will have to play a role.

Some have felt that MU could do a better job of facilitating discussion. At a town hall meeting a few days after the cotton ball incident, requiring a diversity class at MU was a main topic of conversation. It was a renewed debate publicly, but the work concerning the recommendation has been going on behind the scenes for several years.

Monroe said teaching about diversity is important. “If we’re going to talk about America as a melting pot, we need to talk about all aspects of the pot,” Monroe said. “We need to celebrate all things that makes us America.”

During the "Intersection" taping, panel member MU Chief Diversity Officer Roger Worthington talked about how his mother was steered away from her Latino heritage when she attended school. What she experienced affected how she raised Worthington.

"My mom purposefully avoided teaching me Spanish because she viewed it as a determinant," Worthington said. His experiences helped lead him to his career of improving diversity on campus.

*Fellow panel member Nathan Stephens, director of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center, said a true litmus test of diversity is not in the casual events like playing sports or working together. "But when it comes to real intimate issues such as 'can my daughter date your son or vice-versa?' That is when the issue gets sticky for most of us," Stephens said.

He said this is evident in the 2005 Campus Climate Survey where a lot of people were willing to be "friends or work together" but not be roommates with people who were "different" than they were because that was an intimate setting.

“We ought to change the way we socialize our children racially and otherwise,” Monroe said.

Lisa White, new president of the MU Legion of Black Collegians, agrees. She is used to being a minority in communities in which the majority is white. White went to private school until she went to Hazelwood Central High School in St. Louis. She was able to have both white and black friends, which she said helped her socialize when she came to MU.

“It equipped me for some of the things I wouldn’t have been ready for coming to college,” White said.

But she and Gutierrez-Gamez have found that at a university where 80 percent of the students are white, a lot of students tend to stick together by race.

“College has the ability to still shelter you from reality,” White said.

As the president of the Legion of Black Collegians, White’s job is to serve as a voice for African-American students on campus and air their issues and concerns. When asked why she is active in making that voice heard, White thought carefully before answering.

“If no one else will take up the responsibility," she said, "I will.”


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Comments

Nathan Stephens May 11, 2010 | 8:19 a.m.

Actually my full quote was "we have no problem with casual issues such as working together and playing basketball together. But when it comes to real intimate issues such as 'can my daughter date your son or vice-versa?' That is when the issue gets sticky for most of us. This is evident in the 2005 Campus Climate Survey where a lot of people where willing to be 'friends or work together' but not be roommates with people that were 'different' than they were because that was an intimate setting." I know that space is limited Missourian but please put people's quotes in their entirety in the article or at least provide some context.

(Report Comment)
Bryan Richardson May 11, 2010 | 9:23 a.m.

The changes have been made. I'm sorry if you felt the original quote was out of context. I appreciate you coming forward and saying something about it.

(Report Comment)
S. David Mitchell May 11, 2010 | 10:14 a.m.

While the caption depicts one of the points made in my comment about the make-up of the panel, it is reductionist and obscures what I was saying about diversity. We cast diversity as being an issue with which people of color are forced to engage while white Americans often ignore the ethnic differences that make them diverse. In my comments, I remarked that not all white immigrants were readily accepted, e.g. the Irish, and that it is just as important for white Americans to acknowledge their own ethnic differences as contributing to a diverse society. Some folks will say that why can't we just be Americans but honoring one's ancestry or taking pride in one's differences does not diminish one's identity as an American.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin May 11, 2010 | 12:01 p.m.

"But when it comes to real intimate issues such as 'can my daughter date your son or vice-versa?' That is when the issue gets sticky for most of us," Stephens said.

In Columbia, it gets even stickier when we're talking about economic justice, or the distinct lack thereof -- one of many reasons I wish these mostly "gown" discussants had more "town" involvement.

(Report Comment)
Nathan Stephens May 11, 2010 | 1:00 p.m.

Point well taken Mike, point well taken. That did come up by the way from Professor David Mitchell who mentioned that he has some privilege as a law professor that other people, especially the poor and minorities do not have. It also became evident that we needed more than one forum.

(Report Comment)
samuel brady May 11, 2010 | 1:32 p.m.

Columbia is a very racist city lets face it. No matter where you go you are judge if you are black . Think about this, no matter what place of business you go to are restaurant in the Columbia area you will never see black management its always a white person.98% of company's here are white own and the work force are mostly white. blacks don't have a chance here in this city. If you go take a look in city gov. its mostly all white people that work there. In the Volunteer building as well. The only place you will see black men working is on the trash trucks.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin May 11, 2010 | 2:00 p.m.

I'm not talking about privilege, per se, Nathan -- just the lack of these discussions in the community and the absence of most of the discussants as leaders beyond the university.

In the well-known "town and gown" framework, the "town's" black leadership is largely fragmented and struggles mightily -- with everything from an historically inequitable distribution of taxpayer-funded resources to virtually no representation on local elected bodies or at the administrative tops of various public agencies and organizations.

As a result, basic human justice, particularly where it involves African-Americans, eludes much of the town.

I have argued for years, for instance, that federally-funded Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) NOT be used to substitute for local taxpayer dollars when paying for basic infrastructure -- e.g. storm drains, sidewalks, street lighting, parks -- in largely African-American neighborhoods.

Because these monies are going to neighborhoods that have been behind the curve for decades, CDBG and related grants should be used IN ADDITION to local tax dollars, NOT in place of local tax dollars. They should be used to vastly accelerate the pace of infrastructure improvement, not merely to keep it up with the rest of the city.

I'm not alone in making this argument, but it has yet to be heard.

In another public setting, Columbia continues to have segregated public housing projects, an anachronism I've questioned many times over the years.

Why are these projects not updated and modernized? And why do they lack amenities -- like an inviting landscape -- basic to multi-family housing nationwide?

Again, I'm not alone in asking these questions.

In the community -- the "town" -- those of us who argue about such things are -- figuratively and literally -- in the minority.

The voices for what I regard as basic human justice seem much more prominent and coherent on campus, and could really be a help in the community.

Gene Robertson made this point, in a different way, in an earlier editorial here.

(Report Comment)

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