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Confronting Anti-Blackness at Mizzou

By William C. Anderson, Race, Class and Immigration, Contributing Editor

Students protesting at Mizzou.
Students at Mizzou (Photo credit: Stephanie Shonekan)

Around the country, Black students on college campuses have captured the nation’s attention and imagination with their determined protests against institutional racism. The University of Missouri, or Mizzou, has been embroiled in an ongoing and growing student movement that led to the resignation of the school’s president, Tim Wolfe. The media began to pay attention when graduate student Jonathan Butler went on a hunger strike. The outpouring of support for Butler would ultimately lead members of the football team to strike and urge a walk-out among supportive faculty.

Mizzou has consistently had a problem with racism on campus and, with their recent protests, Black students at Mizzou have exposed intolerance at the university in the form of racial slurs, terroristic threats, and negligence from the administration. Praxis Center’s Dr. Stephanie Shonekan, who serves as a contributing editor and is the chair of the Black Studies department at Mizzou, has been a visible and outspoken faculty member amid the current crisis. In a recent interview with NBC News, she pointed out that “Tim Wolfe stepping down is not the only thing that needs to happen” and that the school needs to “work very carefully on what happens next.”

Dr. Shonekan spoke with Praxis Center about her experiences at Mizzou, the student movement and what needs to happen next.

“Most of my African-American students have told me stories about how they feel uncomfortable on this campus. But, because we have been socialized to such an extent, that seems a normal way of life.I think that the Mike Brown situation – the Trayvon Martin situation – helped students understand what they’ve been feeling for a long time. Throughout all these moments there’s been just a feeling among our students that they don’t feel comfortable — that at night they can’t walk on parts of campus and not get called a racial slur. I think that’s a situation that has always been around.

What the students have done is to continue to draw attention to it and say that it shouldn’t be that we feel so uncomfortable in our classrooms. As the only Black student in a classroom, you know, having to carry the burden of having to represent the whole race or dealing with the fact that your own experiences are not included in a classroom situation, in a syllabus, that type of thing. And then for faculty, there’s a very small number of Black faculty. I think there are forty-two Black faculty and, even though there have been efforts to try to recruit more Black faculty, the problem becomes that Black faculty don’t stay. I’ve heard about large groups of Black faculty that go like on an exodus, they just leave together. While I’ve been here, a number of my friends who are Black, they also left. They’re actually writing a statement about why they left..A number of them explained that they didn’t feel that this town was a town that was welcoming to African-Americans. One of my friends left because there were no opportunities for her in terms of meeting young people and having relationships in this town. I mean, there are good people [in this community] but there’s also a culture that doesn’t feel comfortable for African-Americans and for people of color.”

The media regularly portrayed  the crisis at Mizzou broadly as a problem for “students of color.” Sometimes it incorrectly used the term to specifically describe Black students, other times it was being inclusive of other non-White students. Dr. Shonekan addressed how racism specifically played out against Black students.

“One of the things that I’ve been very intentional about is to really speak from the Black perspective. I know that this is a situation where we can really talk about intersectionality and so on. What we are talking about here is particularly a Black situation…I was talking to a young woman who is Muslim who wears a hijab and she also has those same types of feelings and experiences. And that’s legitimate and valid. So, that experience should go toward emphasizing the problem, the widespread problem on this campus. I think she’s from somewhere in the Middle East and she understood what the issues were. The reason why I — while not dismissing that at all — the reason why I want to draw focus to the situation with Black people is that this is not a situation that just happened in a vacuum.

“This situation is rooted in American history. I think so many times people want to dismiss it and say ‘you know we’ve come a long way.’ Maybe there is some episode that happened and they want to focus on just one of two episodes. I want to pull the lens back and say no it’s not just these episodes; it’s a historical problem that is rooted in and goes back to slavery, and the hierarchies that were established have continued on, which is why when the president and the chancellor step down the Department Of Black Studies gets blamed. Because there are certain people out there who still think that it’s Black people that are the problem.

“There are people out there who want to perpetuate the social and ethnic hierarchies where Whites are all on top and Blacks are on the bottom. For example in the Department of Black Studies, some of the calls that we have gotten are calls and emails that are really vile. It does feel as if we’re back in the ’60s and back in the ’30s or back in the Jim Crow era where people expect us to shut up, don’t say a word, let the status quo continue to flow. And we should be tolerant. And that’s why I really want the discourse to focus on Black people. Yes, these other voices are added to it and those voices help to enrich the narrative but the people who really pushed for this change were our Black students. And yes, the coalitions have been strong, they are beautiful, but it was the Black students who really pushed for change…If we can focus on the Blackness of this situation, then I think we’ll be showing that this is a historical problem that needs to be addressed…Yes, students can stop saying the n-word, but can they move beyond just tolerating Black people?”

Dr. Shonekan explained that there are sometimes efforts to conflate other struggles and take away from the explicit anti-Blackness of the situation. She mentioned that vandals spraypainted over the word ‘black’ at the Black Cultural Center to emphasize the significance of how the movement’s adversaries took issue with that word.

Students of the University of Ibadan as they stand in solidarity to the students at Mizzou.
Students of University of Ibadan, Nigeria stand in solidarity with students at Mizzou (Photo provided by Stephanie Shonekan)

The power of protest was on display when Mizzou’s president resigned, as student hunger striker Jonathan Butler originally demanded. But since white supremacy is intrinsic to many institutions of higher education, how can students prevent this victory from becoming purely symbolic? When asked what could be done, Dr. Shonekan had this to say:

“I don’t know if you heard, but the new interim president is Black. How do we get people to not just say ‘okay, well now they have a Black president,’ which has, of course, become a part of the national narrative since Obama, right? Now, we’re somehow in a post-racial Mizzou. Well, these students are very smart and they’re not going to sit back and just expect that things are going to be okay because the interim president is Black. They are very deliberate and very intentional in their demands. For example, they want to be involved and they want shared governance so that they have a say in how things happen and how things unfold. For us as faculty, it’s so important for us to make sure that we are educating our colleagues. It’s not just Black faculty that have to bear this burden and teach these students. It’s time for other faculty to fold into their curriculum some kind of attention and some kind of intent to include the Black experience. There will be groups that are made up of different people — Black, White, and everything else — that will continue into the future to establish real change.”

Dr. Shonekan emphasized that two men stepping down is not enough. She spoke about desiring something “more meaningful than just to have a teach-in here, a conversation there,” followed by a diversity training where people return to their normal way of doing things afterward.

That “normalcy” is precisely what students at Mizzou and students across the nation, and even around the world, have been confronting as this movement spreads. Dr. Shonekan, who is of Nigerian and Trinidadian heritage, commented on the connections between students at Mizzou and other Black movements worldwide, like the student movement in South Africa:

“The University of Missouri has a relationship with the University of Western Cape in South Africa. They’ve had that relationship for quite a while. It’s a historically colored university, and that in itself is problematic. But I was working with one of the faculty members there, who’s Black, and he was going to Skype into my class two weeks ago. He couldn’t because they have had to close down their campus because of what is going on in South Africa. This class that I have this semester also has Payton Head, who you might have read about. He’s a student in my class and it was so interesting to have him. He’s the head of the MSA. That’s the student governing body. He’s the one that got called the n-word a few weeks ago… For us it was just like ‘wow’ what’s going on there is similar to what’s going on here, you know. They’ve raised the fees in South Africa which will more or less keep a lot of Black South Africans out of these universities. And it just connected. It gave us an opportunity to see that this is not just a Mizzou problem. This is a global dilemma that has continued on. The other day I was listening to a radio show. They were talking about Russia and the world order. That just struck me. What is the global world order and where do African countries fit in that global order? And so yes, the problems in South Africa are serious. I have a lot of colleagues in Nigeria who would like to publish in western journals who have problems even coming to conferences and so on. Even in Nigeria, we tend to pander to western aesthetics, western models of democracy, everything western seems to be the best thing to do… Let’s teach classes that actually include voices and experiences beyond the canon.”

Dr. Shonekan then spoke about  contentious relations between Black Americans of U.S. born families and those from African immigrant families:

“It’s been frustrating because I think often times Africans come to this country and think that they’re better than African-Americans. On the flip side, African-Americans think they’re also above Africans. So I’ve always noticed a gap between Africans and African-Americans. Throughout this semester I would go to marches. I would go to some of the actions that African-American students would be held; there might be one or two African students, but really not many. They have a sense that they’re more acceptable to White Americans, so they want to, it seems to me, maintain that and separate themselves from African-Americans. The problem with that is that they don’t understand we are all persecuted as Black. When we’re walking in Walmart, that person who’s walking around in Missouri with a gun in his holster, he’s not going to ask me am I white or am I Black, I mean am I African or am I African-American. He’s just going to see me as Black. So this is something I kept trying to get African students to work on, to get African students to understand what’s going on because it does affect us very, very closely.”

Dr. Shonekan was glad that the African Student’s Association released a statement of support and said she hoped it would begin to bridge the gap between African and African American students. Intimate issues among and within various Black organizing circles coupled with insidious state violence are a recipe for trauma; given this, Missouri has been a  source of trauma for Black people. Consequently, there is a need for Black students to be able to process what they’re going through:

“There’s no way that what happened in Ferguson is not connected to the urgency that these students have. It was a horrible wake-up call that Mike Brown, his body was left in the street for that long, ignored. What kind of parallel is that to what they’re going through here and how they’ve been trying to get the administration to make real change?”

In fact, Black Studies was born out of the very same types of struggles taking place on campuses around the world right now. Dr. Shonekan insists that Black Studies at Mizzou get more faculty.

“We need a faculty who can talk and teach about Black psychology. It’s not the same as mainstream psychology. We need someone who can teach feminism, womanism, women’s and gender studies who are cross-listed or who has a joint appointment with Black studies…Even before this happened I knew that we needed to fill those gaps in our curriculum so students can’t come for their four years here, major in Black Studies or even want to take classes in Black studies, and not be introduced to intro-level Black psychology classes. So that they understand that there are texts and there are series that come out of the field of Black psychology that are specific to the Black experience. I’m encouraging the administration to include us when they start talking about diversity in the curriculum. I could just never understand talking about a diversity course or a set of diversity courses without including the faculty in Black Studies. That’s what we do is we study race, we study identity.”

Among some of her other ideas were travel abroad programs for students of color and all students who have not had experiences in Black countries or neighborhoods as a meaningful way to address the problem. Dr. Shonekan emphasized growing the experiences of all students to help address the race issues on campus and grow Black Studies on Mizzou’s campus.

Throughout our conversation, Dr. Shonekan often reinforced the point that Black Mizzou students do not feel safe and do not feel like they’re getting the best of their college experience. When asked, how can people help the Mizzou movement, she echoed the sentiments of students: “Open up and just learn.” She encouraged White readers to “use their Whiteness” and their privilege to challenge the problems at hand and stated, “it shouldn’t be left to a man and a hunger strike.” Lastly, she urged all to “work hard to break down the hierarchy that exists that establishes one group over the other.”

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