Variations on a Mizzou

Some ‘one-off’ reflections I’ve had over the past several days in relation to the protests and tensions at the University of Missouri and other campuses. 

Consider John. John looks different than most of the other people that go to school with him. Sometimes John gets yelled at and people say hateful things about him and to him because he’s different. Not just mean things, words that imply that he’s sub-human, undeserving of respect or to inhabit certain spaces; words associated with violence against people like John, so many times in the past. When that happens, John doesn’t feel safe. John remembers that his parents were pushed around and not even allowed to go to lots of places for looking the same way John does. John’s grandfather was killed by people who use the same words that have been said to John. These words have been said to John and his family, ever since he was a little boy. More times than he can count. Sometimes people like John get shot by police officers. So, John gets worried when people say these things. John doesn’t know who he can trust around him. After all, hardly anyone in power at school looks like him. Do the majority of people not like or trust people who look like him? 

John asks his school’s administrators to do something about these situations. Maybe the people who say such things, who make violent threats with their words, should be more seriously investigated and disciplined since the school has said it wants to maintain a high level of integrity as an institution? Maybe something should be done to figure out why this happens in the first place and if it can be prevented? Maybe the school could talk about these issues together and encourage greater listening and understanding? The school has made it clear that they want this a place where everyone is treated with respect, so surely they will help try and make this a reality. The administrators give John some nice promises. 

But not much happens. Then, someone paints a symbol on a bathroom stall in poop that everyone knows means ‘John go to he**.’ He asks the administrators to do something. They try and find the student, but that’s about it. They don’t find him. John starts protesting. Something more has to be done, because this keeps happening over and over and over and over.  John wants campus-wide initiatives to talk about these problems and create a better environment. This is not an environment conducive to all people learning and studying and preparing for a career. John gets angrier and angrier because few seem to believe him, or to care. 

No, they tell John. You just want to be coddled. You just want to limit freedom of speech. You just need a thicker skin. Encounter some new ideas (it’s definitely nothing new to John…), they say! Let yourself be offended! Stop trying to silence people who disagree! People with cameras come and take pictures of John, but they only use the pictures where John looks dumb and violent. People who take pictures like to do that. John gets frustrated around reporters. John gets compared with book-burning Nazis who can’t handle disagreements and real intellectual dialogue. John says he just would like to feel safe on campus so he can learn. John gets called weak and immature for wanting to feel safe and not have to face verbal harassment on a regular basis. 

John is confused. Especially since no one has even bothered to ask him why he feels unsafe. No one seems to wonder what exactly it is they are telling John he is supposed to put up with. They don’t know. He knows. He has had to put up with it, to have a thicker skin than most, all of his life.

… no one seems to care or even consider the possibility that John might have a point. John is automatically wrong, automatically dumb, automatically immature. They keep telling John he should calmly talk, not resort to protesting and shouting. But no one ever tried to calmly talk to him, even when he spoke up. 

Death threats to people who look like John are posted anonymously on social media. Par for the course. No surprises. Thankfully, the perpetrator is arrested. But in general, it is of no interest to anyone but ‘John-the-whiner.’ One death threat is, of course, no evidence whatsoever that John’s sense of danger is warranted. No, no. John’s the bully. John’s the terrorizer. John’s the one holding people hostage. John’s the childish one. Not the death threatener, not the slur-slinger or poop fascist. Not the vandal. John. John’s the problem, John’s the problem. John’s always been the problem.

Sure, I can agree that it is not a great idea to harass reporters. I can agree that there is a problem with freedom of thought on college campuses, even Barack Obama has said this. But I am unsure that the latter is a serious issue here. The alarm-bell of ‘Nazi-book-burners!’ has been sounded without even a second of thoughtful reflection or attempt to understand the situation.

I am A., asking that we consider, firstly, that the sense of legitimate desperation and frustration which leads to such RARE instances of physical pushing or angry cursing, when we are purportedly talking about regular and serious instances of verbal abuse and personally-directed vandalism that leads one to feel like they are in personal danger and disrespected. Fight or flight.

B, I am also asking for some critical reflection on why it is that no matter what else is going on, ‘black protesters’ are always the bad guy. They are singled out to be ridiculed and described as unruly and unreasonable. What of slurs, swastikas, cotton balls littering black student association buildings, increased instances of slurs and animal-comparisons since the protests, of death threats against black people. Why is there no outrage there, except from the protestors and their sympathizers? Why is it that only the black protestors are the ‘unruly’ and ‘immature’ ones (and hung on them ALL are the angriest behaviors of a FEW)? Maybe the slur-ers get some passing mention, but they are never targeted as ‘the problem.’ And that is exactly what leads to this sort of anger and frustration and consistent sense that you are not thought of as worth the time of day. This sort of selectivity affirms one’s fears of racism, of willful ignorance, of a double standard.

I also have yet to see any evidence that free speech or free thought is being shut down in this case, which is the primary contention from the critics. No one has made it illegal to say anything. There are moral demands being made, but that is different. Was Wilberforce against freedom of thought for demanding, using sometimes very forceful political tactics, for Great Britain to reform itself in ways that (at first, at least) most people were patently and against and to which they were intellectually opposed?  Is it wrong for me to campaign for a dry campus, because I think it is safer and more conducive to learning and because every institution maintains the prerogative to hold itself to certain moral standards, anyway? One can and certainly should debate and feel free to disagree with the validity or appropriateness of the moral demands. But the motivation to want to create a more just and safe institution (especially when you are asking that your university seriously hold itself to the standards and commitments to equality and respect that it is already, officially, committed to), and to want to do so with political force, seems pretty basic and pretty natural; especially when it is your own safety that is involved. Why are black protestors ridiculed for doing just this? Some probably think that there should be more room to debate as to whether these are valid moral demands. Okay. Maybe. But. That’s America. People lobby for change in their government, their company, their institutions, and not everyone agrees. Besides. I fully understand and appreciate the sense that the Mizzou/Yale/etc students have that debate is not helpful anymore since time and time again the experiences and complaints and thoughts of minority students were dismissed with either empty promises or dismissiveness:  ‘lighten up!’ Or worse, ‘you’re making that up!’

. . . To sum it all up, what I think bothers me the most is the constant deflection. The failure to deal with the claims and perspectives and arguments of the protestors (especially since much more basic attempts to discuss were made and were ignored–emails, forums, social media posts). Comparing them to book-burners, making a disproportionate issue over the few instances of less than the supreme docility that certainly every other political cause has always had (sarcasm), all seem like deflections that are just as contrary to the purported values of ‘facing offense,’ and ‘risk’ and ‘hearing contrary viewpoints,’ as anything else.

I’m trying to understand why some are finding so much validity in the argument that leads to the conclusion: ‘Slurs’ and ‘poop swastikas,’ a symbol of death to those who are not of the majority, are a normal part of intellectual or cultural exchange that people should deal with at college, a normal and healthy part of ‘risk’ and ‘offense,’ that one should face at a university. Am I misunderstanding?

I can possibly understand the professor at Yale who said “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing. . . tell them you are offended. Talk to each other.” Yes, that would be nice. But attempts to talk have constantly been ignored with retorts, ‘you’re too sensitive,’ ‘stop whining,’ ‘isolated incident,’ or just silence. Work was done at Mizzou to create more opportunities to talk, to get people talking about race in classrooms and in student forums, but they fizzled out. So yes, let’s get people to talk. But it appears to me that the protests and anger only came after many attempts to talk did not produce much engagement.

Regardless, the flip-side of vehemently protecting the right for childish people to wear clothes that mock groups of people seems unnecessary and kind of ironic. If we are to speak of childishness, there’s a two-way street.

As a Christian, it is difficult for me to stand by while groups of people, especially groups that contain a great deal of brothers and sisters in the Church, continue to be misrepresented, stereotyped, with words put in their mouths and face mischaracterization by selective reporting. The image of ‘unruly mob,’ ‘immature,’ ‘violent,’ and ‘dumb’ sells so easily without critique or second-guessing. No wonder the apprehension.

I cannot but feel uneasy at the dismissal of people sharing countless instances of remarkable harassment towards them.

On the topic of sensationalist-driven media, let’s take for example a set of articles from Breitbart and The Inquisitor, that at the time of this writing are the top articles seen when ‘Mizzou’ is searched on Bing or Google, with headlines along the lines of “Mizzou Activists. . . complain about Paris stealing the spotlight.” 

The article cited one or two tweets to this effect, and then 20-some others that made very different points than what was purported by the headlines.

If the media is going to pick a couple of unsubstantiated examples to gloss a large group, why don’t they also talk about the death-threateners, poop-slingers, spitters, as representative of the denouncers? When will that article be written?

(Update: In fact, the school itself issued a press release saying that these tweets were made up by outsiders. )

A protestor shoved a reporter, and there is moral outrage, and the shoving party (who later apologized) is denounced.

Two white kids threaten to shoot blacks on campus.

And…. still somehow the shover is the most outrageous thing to talk about.

This Seattle Times editorial seems the most level-headed thing yet:

Acknowledging that there is a great failure to tolerate different viewpoints on college campuses, especially non-leftist perspectives (“campuses must assure free expression, which means protecting dissonant and unwelcome voices that sometimes leave other people feeling aggrieved or wounded”), Kristof writes:

“The protesters at Mizzou and Yale and elsewhere make a legitimate point: Universities should work harder to make all students feel they are safe and belong. Members of minorities — whether black or transgender or (on many campuses) evangelical conservatives — should be able to feel a part of campus, not feel mocked in their own community.

The problems at Mizzou were underscored on Tuesday when there were death threats against black students. What’s unfolding at universities is not just about free expression.”

Dr. Cindy Frisby, a professor at the University of Missouri: 

“I have been silent on FB about the racial situation on the Mizzou campus for a variety of reasons, but the main one is this: some of my friends say and post updates that are really hurtful and offensive when it comes to race and offending people of color and I keep quiet because I just don’t think Facebook is the place to hold arguments or candid discussions of race.

I have lived in Columbia and been at the University for almost 18 years. During this time, I have been called the n word too many times to count. Some of you may recall my most recent experience while jogging on Route K in May of 2015 when I was approached by a white man in a white truck with a confederate flag very visible and proudly displayed. He leaned out his window (now keep in mind I run against traffic so his behavior was a blatant sign that something was about to happen). Not only did he spit at me, he called me the n-word and gave me the finger. Of course, I responded with “Oh yea, get out of your car you coward and say that to my face.” He then raced off. Typical. Others of you may recall that after the Zimmerman trial, I wrote about my experiences being called the n word twice while I was on my jog. And yes, I have had a few faculty call me the n word and treat me with incredible disrespect. Yes, faculty. I have had a student who said he couldn’t call me Dr. Frisby because that would mean that he thinks I am smart and he was told that blacks are not smart and do not earn degrees without affirmative action. Yes, true story. I have so many stories to share that it just doesn’t make sense to put them all here.

I endure because what I have gone through is nothing like what my mom went through in the 50s and 60s nor is it even close to what my Lord and Savior had to endure while on the earth (he, too, was spat at, made fun of and even nailed to a cross simply because He loved us/me that much). Yes, we are better off now than we were in the 50s but to some extent we are taking many steps backward by ignoring or not talking about the racial issues.

It hurts my heart when I see posts from these friends that make fun of us because we find things hurtful like dressing up in black face costumes or confederate flags flying high in my neighborhood. What bothers me is that the few of my white friends who feel this way have not taken time or energy to reach out to me and ask me why these things hurt or to understand what is going on or even send an email saying they are confused.

I write this post to ask if those folks who find that the situation on campus is ridiculous to please be a little more open minded. Ask questions. Do your research. Heaven forbid you will put yourself in their shoes.

I am much more than the n word. I am an educated black woman who happens to have worked hard for my PhD. I am a mom. I am a grandmother. I am a daughter. I am a sister. I am an auntie. I am a niece. I am a neighbor. I am a professor and mentor. I am a cousin. I am loved by my family and friends. I am smart. I am funny (or so I think). I am a Christian who loves the Lord Jesus with my whole heart. I would die for Him as He died for us. I am YOUR FRIEND! Yes, I am all of these things. There is so much more to me than the n-word implies. Please consider that when you criticize the events on campus. yes, I am silly. yes, I am a drama queen who thinks I should have been born a celebrity. But what I am not is a nigger! Let me just say that. Consider that you have a friend who deserves and simply wants to be treated equally. You have an know a friend who jogs on route k and wants to do that without fear that some kids in a car will think it is funny to yell at me and pretend that they will run me off the road. Know that you have a friend who wants to walk out every day with confidence that she will not be spat on or yelled euphemisms simply because of the color of her skin. To make things better in our world, that would be a start. Does this make any sense?”

If we are to have any hope of reconciliation, we must listen. We must not stereotype or defame or jump to conclusions. Of course, it is a two-way street, as Barack Obama himself said. We must engage in serious dialogue and it begins at home.

“Let us thus allow ourselves to be genuinely touched. . . so that we will not be careless, hardened, or unfeeling over what our poor brothers are going through. Instead, let us have the kind of compassion towards them which members of the same body owe to one another.”

-John Calvin

Photo credit, DryHundredFear on Flickr.


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