I remember it like it was yesterday.
As I pulled up to a liquor store near the University of Missouri-Columbia’s campus, I had no idea that I was about to experience one of many instances of racial profiling at the school. It was 2005, my junior year there, and I was preparing to attend a party along with three of my friends.
By now I was used to the unbecoming stares of suspicion by staff as we browsed the store aisles. My experience shopping at Chicago’s local beauty supply stores owned by members of other ethnicities groomed me for that. I was even used to not being greeted with a pleasant “hello,” despite store personnel greeting my white counterparts.
I was used to that.
What I was not used to was being called a “nigger.”
I entered the liquor store with one of my male friends, also an African American, while our other two friends waited in the car. I selected my drink of choice for the evening, and my friend was still deciding what he wanted to get. As I proceeded to pay for my drinks, I noticed the cashier was staring at my friend as he stood near the freezer. I paid it very little mind because I was used to it. It wasn’t until my friend turned to grab a bag of chips that things escalated.
The cashier couldn’t even ring me up before hopping over the counter to confront my friend.
“GET OUT! GET OUT! You are stealing!” He yelled.
My friend was shocked and attempted to explain to him that he was simply trying to figure out what he wanted to get. The store clerk was not buying it. I also attempted to explain that he was not a thief, but our skin color overpowered our voices.
“THE NIGGER IS GONE!,” my friend yelled as he angrily exited the store. I left the items that I was going to purchase on the counter and followed suit. But that wasn’t enough for the man. “That’s right you are a nigger, you all are niggers,” the store clerk spat.”
As he followed us out of the store, he not only fixed his thick Greek accent to continue to call us “niggers,” but called the police and recorded my friend’s license plate number. At that point, we realized that we had to stay, as getting pulled over in Central Missouri could prove to be dangerous.
Two squad cars arrived, and three white officers exited the vehicles.
“What did you do?” one said to my friend. It seemed like he was convicted before having a chance to state his peace.
As he explained to the officers what happened, the store clerk continued to yell at us. He refrained from calling him the N-word, but disputed just about every single detail that my friend divulged. Luckily, the police officers let us go after running our IDs, another practice that I was used to.
In regards to an unrelated incident, Black students staged a protest soon after. A handful of activists and supporters took to Jesse Hall (one of the school’s administrative buildings), to take a stand against racism. They gathered in response to a very clear message from members of MU’s white Greek-letter community that appeared in the Greek newsletter that warned us to “stay on our side of campus.”
Ten years later, and not much has changed.
As I write, a full-out protest has taken shape at my alma mater, and students are still fighting for rights that should be given to them automatically. Last week, Jonathan Butler, a Black graduate student and activist at MU, kicked off a hunger strike to call attention to race relations on campus as part of the Concerned Student 1950 movement. He called if off on Monday after seven days, according to the Associated Press.
— JB. (@_JonathanButler) November 9, 2015
Over the weekend, Black Missouri football players took to Twitter to announce that they would not participate in team activities until Tim Wolfe, the university’s president, leaves office. Missouri football Coach Gary Pinkel, along with the university’s football staff, is standing behind them. Monday morning marked a victory for their efforts: Wolfe stepped down asking the university community to “use my resignation to heal and start talking again to make the changes necessary.”
Ten years ago, we didn’t have much support, but this time it’s different. Maybe it was the famed Missouri “cotton ball incident,” where two white students drenched the university’s Black Culture Center with cotton as a symbol of hate in 2010.
Or perhaps it’s the fact that Payton Head, president of the Missouri Students Association, was bold enough to pen a letter detailing his experiences with racism on campus. Maybe it was that time the KKK marched through downtown Columbia, which is housed just a few blocks from campus.
Members of the Legion of Black Collegians have been threatened with racial slurs and targeted. Despite mandated online diversity training for faculty, staff and students, the racial climate at Mizzou has experienced little progression.
Concerned Students 1950 is necessary because no Black man, woman or child should ever have to get used to racial profiling in any form. You should not have to get used to being followed while shopping in a store.
And the students are making sure that we no longer have to.
With Wolfe now out of office, the brave hard work of Black student activists and their allies is paying off. Now that’s something that we all should get used to.