Talking about racism: Let's get uncomfortable

Guest column by Anna Sutterer
Posted 12/1/15

The pain of racism is real and immediate:

A young black woman looks toward the sky, tears leaving trails on her cheeks. As she chants, “We have nothing to lose but our chains,” she collapses into the arms of her friends.

Jonathan Butler, a …

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Talking about racism: Let's get uncomfortable


The pain of racism is real and immediate:

A young black woman looks toward the sky, tears leaving trails on her cheeks. As she chants, “We have nothing to lose but our chains,” she collapses into the arms of her friends.

Jonathan Butler, a black 25-year-old graduate student, refuses to eat until the University of Missouri system’s president, Tim Wolfe, steps down.

Concerned Student 1950, a group of black rights activists on campus, present to university administration eight demands they believe will catalyze action against systematic discrimination at the school.

I watched these scenes at my school gain national attention over the past three weeks.

I saw lasting effects of Missouri’s slave state history, and the shooting in Ferguson just two hours east of the Columbia campus, contribute to a tense campus climate. A series of prejudiced acts at the university over recent years exposed holes in administration control and left black students unsure of their position on campus.

Rows of seats in lecture halls sat empty as students supported protests by holding walkouts. I was handed a flier promoting a student center merchandise boycott; some students did not want to support MU as a business during this time. My Facebook and Instagram feeds filled with inflammatory posts supporting or denouncing the protesters.

At first, I wanted to stay out of the fray.

I am a white, 19-year-old woman from a fairly homogenous Denver suburb. How could I understand enough to participate meaningfully? My first reactions were of anxiety and avoidance.

But then I realized, as a Christian, as a journalist, and as a human being, I must be willing to enter into the tension. I stood in protest crowds and watched people of different races, areas of study and ages embrace one another. I listened to a black student share an instance when strangers made gorilla noises and beat their chests at him. I saw grief on classmates’ faces and imagined their minds reeling with times they’d experienced discrimination or outright hatred — how those past moments must have felt so present.

It took witnessing these events for me to confront my own biases and think critically about race relations, not abstractly this time, but alongside those who experience it every day.

After many conversations with friends and family, I started asking one question: How do we sort through arguments and layered emotions to reach a core where we can unite and make change?

I’ve been part of a deeply distressed community before. The shooting at Arapahoe High School my senior year disrupted our peace and left us with many questions. But parents, counselors, teachers, friends and other schools in the area responded with strength and cooperation.

Protests, walkouts and media attention interrupted the university and overshadowed conversations about practically anything else. Violent threats on social media threw students into confusion and fear, and I found myself saying similar prayers to those I had said two years ago. The issues and circumstances are different; however, seeing Arapahoe redeemed gives me a sustained hope for community revival.

Discussions in classes, at my campus ministry and at church have taught me my experiences and perspectives are not the whole truth. I have some listening to do. I must acknowledge what I don’t know, and understand that sometimes I’ll have to ask awkward questions to combat my ignorance.

I am challenged to see beneath the surface.

The young man from the gorilla story said racism dehumanizes everyone involved and degrades people to one dimension. My subconscious biases sometimes prevent me from looking at people and understanding their lives hold as many intricacies as my own.

Moving to Missouri’s diversity has shown me how challenging this can be. I must continuously check my thoughts and fight off immediate judgments. It can be an exhausting daily exercise, but growth is worth it.

The university has made administrative changes and created positions focused on inclusion. I am hopeful for any move toward reconciliation, but we will have to wait and see how these will directly affect individual temperaments.

I am most optimistic about a diversity-training program required of all faculty, staff and incoming students beginning in January. They will be informed about campus racism issues, diverse organizations and resources, and personal responsibilities toward inclusivity.

I’ve received emails from the university sharing plans, promising we will get to a better place eventually. I’ve read columns and reflections and social media posts expressing analogous calls to action.

What sticks out to me most is the role of the Christian Gospel, and how these events challenge my faith to walk the walk.

Colossians 3 says we are to “bear with one another” despite our grievances. My pastor at The Crossing Church in Columbia said love and humility are attractive to all people — that’s how to approach these difficult topics.

Racism is a real and immediate problem: We must be willing to stick around and listen to those voices that erupt out of frustration, examine our own hearts, and then share our experiences with others who have not been exposed directly to ongoing prejudice and discrimination.

That would be a start to healing the pain.

Anna Sutterer lives in Centennial and is a sophomore at the University of Missouri.

Anna Sutterer, University of Missouri racism, Arapahoe High School, Centennial Colorado


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