It’s only skin deep
Published: Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 01:04
I write this article hoping to get your attention, because today I awoke with an indignant heart. I was overcome by my grief so much so that I grabbed a piece of balled paper from my bedside wastebasket and a Sharpie from my night stand and began to write; in writing this I hope to find understanding.
Each day that I attend school I am faced with the beautiful array of diversity that stretches from corner to corner of our campus, and I am proud to be a student here, but my happiness subsides when I take a deep look into the reality of my campus. Here, at this campus, lies an evil that has existed among us for more years than many of us have been born, something that seems inescapable when it comes to Mississippi and the states that border it. Mississippi is covered with it, covered so much so that it is stigmatized and often seen as a place unworthy of visiting, especially if you are not Caucasian. My friends from other states refuse to visit because incidents like the Deryl Dedmon case plague their thoughts of what my hometown is like. So I ask you, “What is your deal?” Why should we all take the blame for the way so little think and feel? Incidents like the Kansas State vs. Southern Miss basketball game seem to set us behind as a campus and help to reiterate that we as Mississippians are still unable to move further from our past. Things that are portrayed of us in the media are often negative and always tied to race, and still we commit the same crime of being ignorant. We are doing all the right things to stay in the exact place we were in during the early 1900’s, whether it’s segregated proms until 2008, students going to a party in black-face or racist chants at games, the mind-set has not changed. Have we changed since the days of the Jim Crow laws? Has our campus changed since its opening in 1910 or since the falsely accused Kennard Washington tried to attend school here? Have we taken strides toward positive growth and acceptance of all since our integration and acceptance of blacks in 1965? When will we stand our ground and put behind us the very thing that continues to separate us on this campus and throughout this state? How would you look at race relations on our campus? Has it changed? Are we still where we were in 1960? Of course we don’t have any “white only” or “black only” signs, but if the mind-set still exists, no signs are needed to portray the attitude that keeps the behavior going.
I needed to know if the face of our campus had changed. It was important to know that we had arrived at a place that was better than the past before me, but I also needed to know that the people that were going to school with me could see the benefits of that change, if any. I began by digging into the past of the USM graduates who surrounded me. The first was Sam Wilson, my uncle, who attended USM in 1970 to obtain a master’s degree. I asked him what race relations were like on campus for him.
“It was good,” he said. “We were pretty segregated then too, and the same types of things were happening on campus. They just weren’t being publicized like today.”
Our talk was brief and provided clarity, but I still needed to hear from one more person. I sought a pillar of the community in Hattiesburg who I knew would be as honest as my uncle about his experience, so I spoke with Raylawni Branch. Branch attended USM in the 1960s and was more concerned about the recent basketball incident.
“I condone the decision of the USM administration when it comes to the band-mates,” Branch said. “We cannot continue to use this old language and behavior. We must support USM in their fight for diversity. Let’s see people how they are and not their skin color. The only race that exists is human race.”
Branch’s fight for equal living is still evident in her life currently. She went on to tell me that she would be holding a forum about race that she’d like the USM band-mates to attend on April 12. The experiences from the past gave me an idea of what the campus was like 30 or more years ago. I understood that for their era that racism was going to be an issue because integration had just started on campus, and this new way of things was very new to everyone, so naturally there would be problems.
What I wasn’t ready for was if today’s USM students were too dealing with problems of the past. It was of great concern to me, so I went to my classes and began asking questions. I first questioned my anthropology professor, Dr. Davis, about the matter.
“I believe race relations are good on campus,” Davis said. “Being an anthropologist, I attempt to be culturally relative, which means I try not to hold my own culture or personal beliefs above others. I feel culture is unique and should be expressed.”
I then asked Dr. Davis if he had dealt with any acts of racism on campus.
“One experience in particular stands out,” he said. “I was outside the library, and a car drives by blaring gangster rap, which is fine with me other than the noise pollution. I heard some people around me say, ‘Why do those people listen to that (N word) music.’ I was quite offended and spoke up. They called me an idiot and walked away. They were the ones being idiots.”