In the days since the story of racial tensions at the University of Missouri began making headlines, I’ve wanted to defend my alma mater. I’ve wanted to make the case that the portrayal of the university, and the people who go there, doesn’t reflect the experiences I had at Mizzou.
But that would not be true.
I’m the kind of alumna who carries a Mizzou koozie in my purse, the kind who can still sing every word of the school’s fight song. But during the 3 1/2 years I spent on the overwhelmingly white campus in Columbia in the 2000s, I was also incredibly alone.
I was one of the few black students in the dormitory that mostly housed students in the university’s Honors College. My roommate, my closest friends, my peer adviser and the vast majority of my professors were white, too.
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And campus wasn’t exactly an easy place to be black. For such a big school, the university was incredibly segregated. (Today, more than 75 percent of the 35,000 students at Mizzou are white.) I figured that out early when I decided to go through “formal recruitment,” otherwise known as “rush,” for a sorority. I’d gone to an all-girls (and, yes, nearly all-white) high school and was nervous about getting lost on the massive campus. I thought joining a sorority could help it feel more like home.
I remember standing on the streets of Greektown in front of house after house, waiting for the members to burst out in their matching outfits. I rarely, if ever, saw a face that looked like my own.
At one sorority house, I spoke to another black woman. I wanted to hug her because I was so relieved I wasn’t the only black person in the room. It was unwritten but immediately clear: I was in the wrong place. I’d ended up at white rush, rather than pledging one of the black Greek letter organizations on campus.
It was a week before my first day of classes, and I was already feeling like an outsider, a theme that would play out until I graduated in 2009. It’s why nothing that happened on campus recently has surprised me much. This has been going on for a long time.
Former Missouri basketball player Kim English made that case this weekend, tweeting that “oppression at my alma mater and in the state of my alma mater occurred LONG before the tenure of this System President.”
“If U were black at my alma mater, and ur name was not Maclin, Denmon, Pressey, English, Weatherspoon, Carroll, etc. You didn’t feel welcome,” English continued, listing the names of some of the university’s best-known athletes.
He’s right. The history of racial incidents at Mizzou long predates the university system’s current leadership.
Tim Wolfe, who resigned as University of Missouri system president on Monday after weeks of protests, including a graduate student’s hunger strike and a boycott by dozens of black players on the school’s football team, wasn’t in charge when I attended Mizzou.
He wasn’t the university system president in 2010 when two white students threw cotton balls onto the lawn of the school’s black culture center and were later convicted of … littering. Nor was Wolfe at Mizzou when, in 2011, a student painted a racist slur outside a residence hall.
Wolfe also wasn’t on campus the day students threw a beer bottle at me from the balcony of an off-campus apartment building. My offense? Daring to date someone of a different race and to leave a party with him.
My most memorable assignment while working for the university’s student newspaper was covering the 2007 neo-Nazi march near the journalism school, on the thin border between campus and downtown Columbia.
Mizzou is where I met my closest friends and fell in love with journalism, but it is also where I was called an N-word for the first time that I can remember.
Wolfe’s resignation as UM system president after a galling lack of empathy for the everyday struggle of students of color is a first step. But it won’t change years of systemic racism or the persistent microaggressions — subtle examples of bias — that I, as well as other students, and even faculty routinely faced on campus.
“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,” Cynthia Frisby, a black Missouri School of Journalism professor, wrote in a Facebook post that has been shared hundreds of times.
The university has a complicated history when it comes to race, and I’m hopeful that the dialogue happening on campus today can create a Mizzou that’s more welcoming to students of all backgrounds.
Juana Summers, political editor at Mashable, graduated from the University of Missouri in 2009 and was a political reporting fellow at The Kansas City Star in 2010.