Interview: Black Mizzou Alumni Discuss Their Experience With Race and Concerned Student 1950

The incidents this semester are nothing new.

Not Available Lead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Not Available Lead

The University of Missouri has been thrust into the national spotlight in the past few weeks, as students have fought an administration that's been slow and weak in addressing racist acts on campus. Attention spiked when the football team boycotted all activities until system president Tim Wolfe resigned, but Concerned Student 1950 has been active throughout the semester full of racist incidences. One of its leaders, Jonathan Butler, went on an eight-day hunger strike before Wolfe and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin both resigned this past Monday. 

Recent incidents have directly sparked the movement, but they're nothing new at the university. Two students vandalized the Black Culture Center with cotton balls in 2010, one spray-painted the n-word on a statue outside Hatch Residence Hall in 2011, and another passed out racist fliers in 2012 at the same dorm. To understand the school's history of racism we spoke with several black alumni who attended Mizzou when those events occurred, as well as a graduate from 2003. 

Lakeisha Williams graduated from the University of Missouri in 2012. She now attends Harvard Law School. 

Did you experience any similar incidents to the ones that sparked the Concerned Student 1950 movement this semester?
I was personally impacted by acts of racism that were directed at black students at large. At this point you've probably heard a lot about what's been coined the cotton incident. During Black History Month two students decided to sprinkled cotton balls in front of the Black Culture Center—being symbolic of the cotton slaves picked. It was an act that wasn't necessarily directed towards me individually, but it was definitely something that was an act of racism, and the intimidation was towards all black students. 

The following year, also during Black History Month, there was a student that spray painted the n-word at one of the resident halls. I'd say those were probably two of the major events that happened during my time there. 

Even as a freshman, though, the racial climate was made known to you pretty early on. 2008 was a big year because the soon-to-be President Obama visited our campus. Shortly after he was elected, while there were students who celebrated that, there were also students that you were sitting in class with that were absolutely, incredibly upset that he was elected president. From there it just fueled hateful words about the president, hateful words about black students. It became apparent early on that there was this divide going on on campus. 

What was that realization like? 
It was illuminating for me. I can remember a guy I sat next to in my psychology class who I generally had pleasant small talk with in class and even a few times outside of it. Then I was the remarks that he made on social media in regards to the president elected. It was illuminating in the sense that times have changed. The acts of racism just aren't as overt as they used to be. So it was the sense that you don't necessarily know the racial feelings of the person you are sitting next to in class. They're not going to call you the n-word every time they see you, but there are these moments that inspire hate. 

And what about the later incidents?
It was a real incidence of irony. It was Black History Month. I was at a conference with other black student leaders. During the time when it was really important to be celebrating black history and to uplift other black leaders—that some individuals would go out of their way to try and tear down that moment. It was a sense of irony. Also jut a bad reality, that there are still those individuals even at our own institution. The school I attended and the school I grew to love, to have those sort of sentiments. 

How do you think the university handled it?
I was satisfied with how the university handled the situation. It's interesting because there was different leadership in place during my time at Mizzou than the leadership in place the following year. I think the one thing the university could do better is more transparency. Because I had a relationship with the Office of Student Conduct—I worked there as a judicial peer advisor, and I also sat  on the school's committee for student conduct—I probably knew certain information that the student body at large didn't. I think there's a frustration that comes when students aren't aware of how a situation is going to be handled or what steps are going to be taken to rectify a situation. It took some time, but eventually the individuals were identified, and I'm pretty sure they were expelled. That was the outcome I wanted to see. But it took some time to find out what happened. 

Moving forward to what's happening now, what have you thought while watching the movement start to rise?
I was really happy to see there are students on campus that are very engaged, that care about issues of race, and diversity, and inclusively. I was happy that there were students who found it important enough to address. In terms of the different incidents that happened throughout the year, those are not new experiences. I experienced things in that form. I'm sure there are students before me that experienced the same thing. I think the major issue is that these things were happening, and the university was being very slow to respond or being unresponsive. To me, that was the first sign there's an issue here in the leadership. I was happy that the students saw it fit to address that. 

Loftin and Wolfe are out, but Concerned Student 1950 has been adamant about it just being a moment in the movement. What else do you think needs to be done? 
I agree that it is very important to have leadership in place that understands the issues and concerns of the students. It became very apparent over time—I don't know as much about Loftin—that Loftin didn't understand the experience of black, minority, and students of color on that campus, the oppressions they were facing. I think (the removal) is a great step. I by no means think it's the only step. 

A lot of it is cultural. Our school is in Missouri. There are a lot of students that come to Mizzou from all 50 states, from all over the world. But there are also many students that come from rural cities and towns throughout Missouri and other areas where they have never had to interact with a black student or minority. They've developed these stereotypes and these ideas of what those people are like. I think the university needs to take the responsibility of understanding that when they are admitting these new classes and doing more to try and bridge that gap. 

I think changing the culture in terms of students and the level of respect they have for one another is pivotal. It's something I tried to work on during my time there and that students have been really trying to work on that campus for decades, since the now interim president Michael Middleton was a student there. 

What did you try to do? 
During my time I was really involved in the Missouri Students Association. I served as the vice chair and later as chair of the Multicultural Issues Committee. For us, our most important programming were events where we could bring students together and just have open dialogue about issues of race, issues of religion, issues of sexuality, and the experiences that students share. One of the most powerful events that we did every year was the Hate Wall. Basically, we put up this wall on which students of minority and marginalized groups write the different slurs and statements that they have experienced. It's a powerful event because you become very familiar with the experiences of your race, but it opens your eyes to issues that other groups are also experiencing. It's an opportunity for them to discuss how these terms made them feel, to go into the history of how those terms and how they developed. 

Long before I went to Mizzou there has been a big push to have a diversity course requirement, something to help bridge that gap for all students, but mostly for students that maybe have not seen people outside their own background. It gives them the opportunity to see that in an academic setting. That's something else the MSA and other students groups pushed for. 

Drew Lawrence graduated from the University of Missouri in 2003. He's now a staff writer for Sports Illustrated. 

Did you have any experiences at Mizzou similar to what's prompted the movement this semester? 
I didn't experience anything like that. That's not discount what's going on there right now. I was probably home like a lot people watching LSU and Alabama when that news came across that the team was boycotting. That's sort of how I found out about the stuff that had been going on since then. But it seems like quite a bit has changed since I've been gone. That wasn't my experience at all. 

What were your thoughts when you first heard about it?
It's unfortunate but not entirely unexpected given the change in the racial discourse since Obama was elected and a lot of these social movements have been going on in reaction to all of that, especially 120 east down I-70 in Ferguson. I'm glad that the students that were part of the activism on campus were savvy enough to hook the football team into what they were doing. That was the most powerful play. Also two of the most unprecedented fires in the history of modern day academia, to get a president and a chancellor bounced basically by the end of the week. That's a huge point of pride for me, seeing that those kids were able to pull that off. That was awesome to see. 

That was obviously a big moment in the movement, but just a day later there was a series of threats. What else do you think needs to be done? 
I don't know that I can come up with a well articulated solution this far away from campus. But there's obviously only so much racial policing the campus can do, especially a public university. Obviously they have to be vigilant about it, keep after it if they want to create the same sort of tolerant environment where black students don't have to worry about going to class under some sort of stress. Hopefully whoever fills that leadership is able to spear that and is earnest about spearing it. 

As a sportswriter, you seem to take a particular interest in the athlete side of this. Do you think this can prompt similar actions at other colleges? 
I don't know. I would like to think so, but the Missouri ace in the hole is Gary Pinkel. He was with that program while I was still in school, building it up. He's been able to pilot a successful transition into what's generally regarded as the premiere college football conference in America. He basically was able to give a huge added leverage to these kids by supporting them. There's nobody in the university system who has got more juice than Pinkel. The fact that he backed players is what gave players the agency to do what they did. If a bunch of kids at Georgia or Florida tried the same thing, and their head coach isn't behind them, and they are not strong enough a number, I could easily see a situation where they are excused and move on. 

Christian Bryant completed his masters in 2013. He's now an anchor for Newsy, based in Columbia, Mo. 

You and Jinx both went to Morehouse, and yesterday he was tweeting about how different his college experience was at a historically black school. Did you notice anything different going from being an undergrad at Morehouse to a grad student at Mizzou? 
​Being at Morehouse we were insulated, kind of in a bubble. There's an intense amount of diversity within the black community, and that was on display at Morehouse. But you get to Mizzou and there aren't very many people who look like you. The first and maybe most intense culture shock going on there is that you don't see very many people like you. So every time I ran across another black person , I'm going to stop and dap them up, say what's up, see where they're from, what they're doing, where they're going, the whole nine. That's a southern hospitality thing, too. 

What does that realization feel like? 
It was almost like there was a familiarity to it when I got here because I've seen a lot of diversity growing up in North Carolina, but it wasn't always that way. I might have been in school a few times, in a grade or two, where there weren't very many black people. So it was almost a bit nostalgic—we'll say that. The second middle school I went to in Greensboro was a predominantly white school. So a lot of the same things and same feelings I hadn't had for years were starting to surface all over again: where I am one of very few (black people) and you already know that at times you might have to conduct yourself differently because people are going to look at you and want to ascribe all those characteristics that you put on display to the entire black community. 

How did you conduct yourself differently?
I'm not sure I acted differently, but I was much more aware of my surroundings. I'm not sure if I'm the kind of guy to really code switch it up and try to change my approach. But I'm always cognizant of how I am and how I'm acting because I know that sometimes people will look at me and say, "Oh, ok, that's how some of those people are." 

Were there any times at Mizzou when you felt uncomfortable? 
Me personally, no. I'll say this: there aren't many places I can truly go and feel uncomfortable. Chuck. E. Cheese is probably a place where I would now feel uncomfortable—the children, the noise, the ball pit, all of that crap. But no, and maybe that's more of a personal thing. But I do understand where that discomfort comes from for students of color. Students want to feel safe, they want to feel included. And according to a lot of students that hasn't been happening, and that hasn't been their experience on campus, which is sad. 

Do you remember any of the racist incidents while you were at school? There was the racist graffiti at Hatch, as well as a series of fliers there. 
I don't remember those, but I do remember people bringing up the cotton ball incident. As far as I can remember there weren't a lot of incidents like that while I was in school. If I'm not mistaken that cotton ball incident happened maybe a year before I got here. Was that 2010? 

Yeah, it was Spring 2010. Obviously people were still talking about it the next year. What did you think when you first heard about it? 
That was some very creative racism. I will say that. That was very creative racism: throwing cotton balls on the ground. I remember hearing something about how these people did it because they wanted to see black students have to pick it up, reminiscent of images of slavery. That's very creative but very disgusting all at the same time. These things happen. I'm not going to say it's the norm here, but at the same time it was just a very disgusting incident. You just find yourself taken back with that sort of event. 

You're still in Columbia in the media, so you've been following the events this semester pretty closely. What have you thought as it's been happening? 
I think it's very important to know that this is a very nuanced thing that's happening here. I think a lot of people who are observing what's happening feel like they have to take one side or the other. Either you're on the side of the student activists or you feel like the student activists are blowing things out of proportion. Personally, it's been incredibly fascinating to see how things have played out, to see how students really take charge in a movement they care so personally about. My eyes are glued to this thing, and I'm waiting to see how the next few weeks and months are going to go. 

Personally, it makes me feel proud not of the institution but of the community of Mizzou. How does it make you feel about the school?
A lot of my feelings have stemmed from what the students are doing. Maybe that's what you mean by the school? It's always comforting, and I get really positive to see people fighting for something they beleive is right. Equality on campus, diversity within the faculty and staff, addressing racial issues: those are all things that should be done already by a school that's devoted to inclusion and education. Students feel like that hasn't been happening, so they're made strides to make this happen. I have a lot of positive feelings about it. 

Tim Wolfe and R. Bowen Loftin are gone, but Concerned Student 1950 have been clear about saying it's just a moment in the movement. What do you think happens next?
They have quite a few demands, and I don't think any one of those things are too much to ask for. They want more diversity, they want shared governance. Those things aren't going to come quickly. The resignations came quickly, and now we have a new interim chancellor, Mike Middleton, who is a black guy. But I think the real test, the litmus test, will be to see what happens over the next few weeks, and months, and years.

Do you think it'll be difficult to sustain the movement when the results aren't as clear? 
When the cameras go away, when it's back to just the core group of Concerned Student 1950, that might be the hardest time period. Because if you're not seeing very visible changes on a consistent basis it can be hard to keep up that fight, I imagine. So incremental, piecemeal changes that make a difference in the big picture may be hard to see, and it might be hard to continue that fight if things are happening very, very slowly. Maybe some of the spirit will drop off, maybe it'll keep going. Who knows? 

What did you think about the threats on Tuesday?
I don't put much stock in Yik Yak, to be completely honest. People get online all the time and spout off random shit. But at the same time you can't write that stuff off. Take Umpqua Community College. I think that guy posted something online before carrying out that shooting. I really felt like authorities moved quickly (at Mizzou), and that's probably exactly what people needed to see. 

It's also proof that this doesn't end with the removal of Wolfe and Bowin. This shit happened the next day. 
They went after Wolfe because they wanted to attract change from the top down. I think the student activists want to see that trickle-down effect. They want to affect change from the top down. 

Hartzell Gray attended the University of Missouri from 2011 to 2014 and finished his degree at UMKC. He's now a radio host at 96.5 The Buzz in Kansas City. 

What were your first impressions of race at Mizzou
​I remember my senior of high school and my freshman year of college when I visited, Mizzou is a very segregated campus. Maybe I was ignorant and didn't really know how campuses worked. I figured that's how it all was. It's very much like one group is over here and the other is over there. You can go to the student center, and all the black people sit together, and all the white people do their thing. It was really weird, but I didn't think much of it. 

Then I went down there full-time sophomore year, and it's a real problem. I had a lot of friends who were in Greek life, which is not my scene, and if I didn't have a friend that I knew I wouldn't walk around Greektown. You know how frat guys get. They get rowdy, and they get a little liquid courage, and they think you're they're best friend, or they forget who they're talking to. 

I went to a party. It was KA, which is probably one of the worst. I'll be honest, it was probably one of the most racist ones we have. People throw the n-bomb left and right. It wasn't at me, but that happened to. They drop the n-bomb and are using the hard-r about somebody, or a group of people, or about athletes. Whenever I was at parties, like at KA, it was used as an adjective, like, "hahaha, fucking n****r." I don't want to diss on the frat culture, but that's definitely a huge thing. 

I with a friend one time. I think it was Homecoming 2012. We were walking, and there was a party bus. Out of the window there were a bunch of people shouting, n-word, whaddup! Come on, man. It's weird. If you go to any of the bars downtown, especially in session, it's just an extension of a frat house. You walk in, and if you're not an athlete you don't get a pass, really. You get the looks. In my experience I was very much looked down on or not taken seriously because of that. 

How were you looked down on? 
Even with professors. If I made a comment that was intelligent, or I wrote a paper. I had a paper I wrote that was really good, and she was like, "I didn't really expect this out of you." It's like, what does that mean? I was in class every single day, I sat front row, and it was an older teacher. Maybe that's me being sensitive or over-thinking. But because of the culture you kind of wonder what that means. 

What's really great about this movement, which I really think is a movement, is that before you would internalize it or talk amongst your friends about it. But when you have the incidents that happened in the last couple of months, you have people bringing it up, talking about it, making it a public issue. 

There are still a lot of people at the school who don't get it. It seems like part of repairing things is getting people to understand what the fight's even about. 
Right. The first thing you got to admit is that we have a problem. People still want to deny it and downplay it, but there's a real problem. How do you get people to realize it? Talking, communicating, having real conversations. I don't know how you do that.

People live what they know. If you're a person who was raised upper middle class, white, privileged or non-privileged, just grew around people who believed that black people are always going to be athletes or they are always going to be looking for handouts—you believe that no matter what. You believe what you believe. It just comes down to having a conversation. 

Do you a think a mandatory diversity course could help with that? 
Yeah, a course with teachers and students. That would be great. Everybody makes fun of sensitivity training, but I think a course would be really good I can't tell you how many times we had someone come speak in classes, and you get to hear their lives and really put yourself in someone's shoes. That's the thing, too. I think no one on the other side, even the Concerned Student 1950 movement—we understand we've been oppressed, we understand that this isn't right, that there are injustices in the world not just at Mizzou—but even when they have their arguments and demands, I feel like they can't understand why their white friends don't get it. 

I have a roommate who is a professional athlete, he plays baseball, and we talked about this. He's like, "I don't understand how if they feel this is so wrong, why don't they do something to make it better?" As he says this I'm thinking: "That's kind of what this movement was. But you don't want to give credit to the movement? That's kind of what you're saying: build yourself up on you bootstraps mentality that you're trying to talk about. That's what they're doing. You still don't want to give it any clout? Why is that?

At the end of the day, when I walk into anywhere—whether it's school, or my job, or Burger King—I want to feel like a person. I don't want to feel like I'm constantly looked down on. When I told him that he just doesn't get it. That's the hardest part. He will never understand what it's like to be a young African-American male growing up in the suburbs. He's like, "I'm just like you." That's not how it works. I had the n-word thrown at me Sunday, the day before [the resignations of Wolfe and Loftin]. 

How do you react when that happens? 
The way I went about it is probably not the best. I've been told this before. One of my co-hosts was with me on that Sunday when I got called it. I kind of brush it off. You pick your battles. She was drunk. I don't want to be that guy. My buddy was really upset. He was like: "What's wrong? You can't let that happen." But I pick my battles. Usually I try to brush it off and end up leaving like five minutes later. Now it's uncomfortable for me. 

That sounds defeating. 
That's exactly what it feels like. You basically just have to put on a face, or you don't. Because if you respond then you're the angry black guy. That's a stereotype. It's very difficult. How do you move past that? I never thought it was something I'd ever have to really care about. I'm a very non-confrontational kind of guy as it is. I was like, "people are dumb sometimes." But the first time I [was called the n-word], it was debilitating. I didn't tell anybody. I didn't tell my parents until the next week. I came home, and I literally started crying. I just started crying. 

That's an experience I wish I could tell more people. I' not looking for sympathy, but I'm looking for you to understand. If that kind of story could work at a seminar or a course at Mizzou, I think someone would think twice about how they speak to anybody, how they act towards anybody. 

Latest in Life