White Missouri professor shames black students for heeding violent threats: "If you give into bullies, they win"

This is not how professors should stand in solidarity with minority students

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 11, 2015 4:24PM (EST)

Student protesters at the University of Missouri-Columbia (Jeff Roberson/AP)
Student protesters at the University of Missouri-Columbia (Jeff Roberson/AP)

It is a bold  practice to keep on keeping on in the face of threats and harassment and the daily deluge of lesser but still crushing slights and undermining. But please don't tell people who actually have to live with the consequences of other people's hatred how to handle it. And definitely don't, less than two months after just the latest in a long line of deadly campus shootings, tell students to carry on and not be afraid. Don't tell them, "The only way bullies are defeated is by standing up to them." Just don't.

In the wake of the recent protests and staff resignations at the University of Missouri over the school's handling of a series of racially charged incidents, state legislators announced this week that "Safety is the most important issue right now" and confirmed that a threatening call had been made to the Black Culture Center. Then, other threats began. A suspect is now in police custody for posting anonymously on YikYak that "I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see." Authorities say the person was using "multiple accts to threaten" students but that he "was never physically near campus." Meanwhile, on social media, students have reported that "a group of men with bandannas over their faces was walking around yelling racial slurs, while others were driving a pickup truck around and harassing black students."

When you're in an environment in which students say that "the undergraduate student body president was called the n-word, a white student climbed onto a stage and shouted slurs as a black group rehearsed a skit, and more recently a swastika was drawn on a wall with human feces," when elsewhere people are now regularly being murdered by unhinged racist and misogynist mass shooters, you can understand why anybody might be quite justifiably afraid. But a white professor named Dale Brigham encouraged his Nutritional Science 1034 class not to be. Unfortunately, he did it poorly.

"If you don’t feel safe coming to class, then don’t come to class," he wrote in a message this week to his students. "I will be there, and there will be an exam administered in our class. If you give into bullies, they win. The only way bullies are defeated is by standing up to them. If we cancel the exam, they win; if we go through with it, they lose. I know which side I am on. You make your own choice." Brigham told the Washington Post Wednesday that "Students can come to class and take the exam tomorrow if they wish. My duty is to hold the class. If they choose otherwise, they can take a make up exam. By the way, the university has not cancelled classes or put out any other official statement regarding these rumors. If they confirm any of these threats, I will follow through appropriately."

Yet as a student explained to the paper, "That’s our lives in danger. It’s very scary…. I don’t even want to leave my house, let alone go to campus. Just for the fact that… I know we are in the South and I know that we are the minority and racial tensions are really high." She added, that Brigham is a "great professor" and "is just doing his job," but that "As a student of color, I am torn."

Note, in contrast, how English instructor and PhD student Bradley Harrison Smith handled this same problem. In a message he sent to students and posted on Facebook Tuesday night, he said, "I’m writing to tell you that I’m canceling class tomorrow (Wednesday 11/11/15). The truth is, despite all of the threats on social media, I would still probably feel safe on campus were we to have class. But that’s because I am a white man. I would not feel safe at all were this not the case. By holding class at our regular time, I would be forcing my students who do and probably should feel threatened to implicitly disobey me in order to protect their lives by not attending my class. Which means that, were I to tell you something like: 'We are going to still have class, but stay home if you don’t feel safe…' (which is what I originally planned to say) I think I would be participating in the marginalization of minority students by tacitly supporting an educational environment in which certain students feel safe while others cannot. Attending class tomorrow, in light of the recent threats, would be a privilege not available to all my students, and I have therefore decided that it will not be a privilege for any of my students."

It is a fine sentiment to say, "If you give into bullies, they win." It is simply not a realistic one for a lot of people. The violence that people of color, that LBGT individuals, that women, that any number of despised segments of the population face, is real. To make a personal choice to walk down a street or go to a class or speak at a panel is the result of an individual assessing the risks and rewards of a particular situation. But making a different choice, in the face of threats and harassment, is not a defeat and it is not cowardly. No one should ever be shamed or made to feel that taking reasonable precautions is giving a victory to the bullies. And certainly no student in such a volatile environment should be subtly coerced with a quiz in the middle of a firestorm.

Brigham may very well have meant to be encouraging in his message, trying to offer a show of strength and resilience. But his attempted bravery comes from a position of not having to live life as a black student on his campus in 2015. His actions are not reassuring or protective. And if you want to express support and solidarity, do it in a way that doesn't force others to bear the brunt of the fallout of your choices.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Campus Shootings Dale Brigham Race University Of Missouri