Change on the MU campus won’t come from blacks or other minorities. It will come, if it comes at all, from white people.
Racism exists. It is real. It’s not about one misguided redneck or one oversensitive victim. Minority communities have long known that. The majority in power — the White Community — needs to acknowledge white racism and act.
Until that happens, minorities will struggle.
They have fought to be heard. Groups such as Concerned Student 1950 and people like Journalism School colleague Cyndi Frisby, whose story in the Missourian broke my heart — they have done and are doing their part to tell the white majority that racism is alive and well and being practiced every day in Our Fair City.
Are whites listening?
For more than a year, MU students have tried to educate us. Early on, they cried out against big events that came with too much frequency. The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and others by the police, the people in power. Students also turned inward, particularly in the spring, to demand we look at institutional racism on campus.
MU’s top dog, Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, said he was listening. Minority students weren’t buying it.
This fall, the theme turned to everyday violence, not with guns and bullets but with words and images. Then came Homecoming, when a university system president wouldn’t speak. Then came a hunger strike, when a graduate student wouldn’t eat until that person in power was gone. Then came a football team, which found it has a power of its own beyond Faurot Field.
Then came change at the top.
Some whites have taken to social media to denounce the protests at MU as people, particularly black individuals, whining or acting childish about isolated incidents. Efforts to reach the larger white community have been difficult. White people have refused to go on record for fear of retaliation or at least of saying the wrong thing.
Getting beyond the white shouters and the silenced whites is a goal I’ve talked about with Missourian editors. There are no easy tools in the journalistic toolbox to do that. How do we get people to open up publicly when they fear they might be labeled as racist? How do we give people room to work through difficult issues?
One problem, according to the writer John Metta, is when someone says there is systemic racism on campus, white people respond by saying “I’m not a racist.” In fact, you might already be offended, if you’re white, because I used the terms “white people” and “white community.” You might think, I’m not defined that way.
I’m not a racist. I’m not a racist. I’m not a racist.
Heck, as a white guy (see photo), I’m not a racist, or at least I want to believe that. But we as a white community can’t say we do not commit racism on a regular basis.
“White people do not think in terms of we,” Metta writes. “White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals. You are ‘you,’ I am “one of them.” Whites are often not directly affected by racial oppression even in their own community, so what does not affect them locally has little chance of affecting them regionally or nationally.
“They have no need, nor often any real desire, to think in terms of a group. They are supported by the system, and so are mostly unaffected by it.”
When you have the power, Metta says, you define the debate. Or ignore it entirely.
Last week, I watched again the movie “Avatar,” about the conflict between an indigenous people and the land-grabbers who want to mine the planet and kill the natives’ way of life. (It’s not the greatest movie ever made, but I like it.)
“I see you” is the formal greeting of the Na’vi. It means, I think, that we see all of a person and not just the surface — that we meet as fellow human beings.
There is the simple task on the MU campus and in Columbia.
Simple, and daunting.
“While there is some disagreement about the various actions taken, our committee agrees about one thing — students complaining about racism are telling the truth,” Berkley Hudson, chair of the MU Faculty Council’s race relations committee, wrote on Nov. 18.
“We have become aware of subtle but extensive racism that occurs with regularity to our students. We have also come to learn with clarity that this occurs on many campuses throughout America and should be taken seriously.”
Hudson is a son of the South. His ancestors owned slaves. He has led a committee with a variety of colors, ages and beliefs on a long journey to reach this point. Deep conversation about the problem is work that has to be done before solutions can emerge.
Hudson’s statement is a good place to start a discussion about race. Will we white people agree?