This past week, thousands of University of Missouri alumni, including myself, and especially those of us who write (and there’s no shortage of us), have been trying to find the words for what has transpired. How do you respond when the nation’s eyes turn to your alma mater -- a place you once called home -- because many of its students don’t feel at home there?
I had been largely unaware of what was happening at Mizzou this semester. Thanks to outstanding media coverage (I expect nothing less from Mizzou) including an interactive timeline from the student newspaper, The Maneater, I was able to catch up.
My initial reaction was how powerful to see free speech rally a group of students to put an end to complacency and indifference toward racism. Not an incident of racially-motivated violence, not some heinous act of hate and intimidation, but the Missouri Students Association president writing about a firsthand experience of verbal racism on campus -- and posting it on Facebook.
I thought Mizzou cannot be the only campus where this is happening, and in a way it made me proud that my campus was giving voice to a larger systemic problem across the country. But it still felt terrible to know that the nation was looking at my school as a place where racism is alive and unchecked and that it needed to come down to the football team boycotting team activities and members of university leadership resigning.
When I read that MU System President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin had resigned, however, I knew that while necessary, it was not enough. These men are not bigots or racists, and removing them does not change the culture at Mizzou around race. It will not stop people from shouting slurs at black students. MU leadership does need to be more responsive to the needs of all student groups and actively foster an inclusive and respectful environment, but real change is up to the students.
Thinking back on my four years at Mizzou, my freshman year was actually the first time that any sort of racial diversity existed in my life. My roommate was black, and I was friendly with a number of other black students in my dorm, as well as students of other races and backgrounds. It was also the first (and turns out only) time I was “the Jewish kid.”
Overall, I felt comfortable and accepted in my dorm and on campus, but I discovered this week that some of the friends I made 10 years ago who are black didn’t feel that way -- their Facebook responses reflected on experiencing racism and racial tension during their time at Mizzou.
It was sad to read that, and it begged the question: could I have done something to make their experience better, to make my campus more accepting?
After my freshman year I didn’t meet or interact with students of other races. I found a place for myself at Alpha Epsilon Pi, sticking with my Jewish roots, and as part of MU’s disproportionately white Greek system, diversity largely faded from my campus experience. I played in my corner of the sandbox and was content there.
I can think of two exceptions. That’s it.
During my freshman year, one of my older fraternity brothers invited a few of us to come see the step show. I had no idea what that was. He told us that it was the coolest thing that he’d ever seen at Mizzou and it was free -- we were sold.
Our main auditorium on campus was packed with black students. Each of the black fraternities came out on stage and did a step routine while people shouted and cheered on their friends in the middle of the dancing. In between performances, music blasted from the house speakers and the whole crowd got up and started dancing in the aisles. I’d never seen anything like it: the talent, the spirit, the energy -- it was electric. I had seen a whole part of black collegiate culture that I otherwise would’ve never known existed.
The second happened a couple years later. Our fraternity organized a highway cleanup with a black fraternity. We didn’t all become best friends because of one community service project, but we recognized the importance of bringing two minority groups on campus together and building that campus community connection.
After all the news this week, I’m more proud of those experiences than ever. I am proud of my fraternity and our effort to bring down barriers -- real or perceived -- between cultures. But two experiences? Two efforts? I wish we had done more.
When 18-year-olds go off to college and learn how to live and behave as independent adults, they bring their experiences with them -- and that includes their biases and their prejudices. It is such a fragile transition and any moment can impact how they will see the world forever. That’s why what’s happening at Mizzou today is such a big deal. Fostering diversity and creating a safe environment on campus is not just a “nice idea,” it’s a necessity. All students on all campuses deserve to feel they belong and all students should learn, at this stage in their lives, how to be open, accepting and respectful to all people and ideas.
So if there’s anything I can add to this national dialogue it’s this: When your school isn’t doing a good enough job, you have more options than to just protest the leadership. You can create something positive. Seek out a new cultural experience for whatever student organizations you belong to. Attend a different religious service. The times when I did these things, or when a friend came to check out something Jewish I was part of, I remember them. I remember them as much as I remember the fun I had going out to the bars, and I treasure them more. Find your place on campus, but then explore other places.
Colleges and universities need to be places of cultural exploration, where all people can learn from and with one another. That can’t happen if some students don’t feel welcome, or safe. It’s worth protesting over and it’s worth fighting for.