(Got the OK from the boss before posting. Sorry to step on people’s time, but I figured there was no way this would be happening today. Friday seemed too long to wait. Thanks– Doc.)
When I was 24, I packed up everything I owned (a sad and tiny amount that barely filled one-fourth of a modest moving van) and trekked out to Columbia, Missouri to begin my adult life. Through a bit of fortune and fate, I had landed a job teaching at Mizzou as a member of the professional-practice track at the “Best Journalism School in the Country.” I was living 500 miles from my nearest friend or relative, and I thus realized I could be dead for months before anyone figured it out. I was also scared out of my mind that people would figure out I was a total fraud and didn’t deserve to be teaching these incredibly gifted students.
Those five years, however, turned out to be among the best and most influential in my life. I learned how to push harder than I thought I could. I realized that even the “best and the brightest” could learn something from somebody who spent a lot of time writing weather stories and obituaries. I figured out how to make friends and the ways in which life changes weren’t always bad. I got married, earned a doctorate and launched the next important phase of my life all while subsisting on Shakespeare’s pizza, Booches’ burgers and Billiards’ onion rings.
Occasionally, a job will open up at Mizzou and we will discuss it seriously, as my wife and I really call those times “the best of our lives.” However, we dismiss the opportunity for a variety of reasons, with one central reason running as a thread through all of those dismissals: It will never be the same.
The reason we think those times were great was a confluence of events and circumstances that will never be repeated. Our station in life, our basic needs at that time and the general environment of Mizzou conspired to make us love almost every minute of those five years. It’s something we could never replicate.
Recently, the chaos and concern that has fallen upon Mizzou like a rare Columbia blizzard, seemingly coming out of nowhere and grinding the area to a complete halt.
Today, I find myself questioning not only what is happening there now, but if the life we lived was truly real or a false front. In the past several months, students have protested race relations on campus, pushed for the resignation of top UM administration, gone on strike and generally called attention to a giant festering wound that imbues the entire area. The anger and hurt that has burst forth like a runaway train has shown the nation a campus in crisis. All of this came to a head with the resignation of MU System President Tim Wolfe, a man seen as tone deaf when it came to the racial and cultural situation on his flagship campus.
In my time there, the Quad was peaceful, the statue of Thomas Jefferson was a landmark and students were concerned if they could rip down the goal posts after a win without police interference. Now, the Quad is the site of a hunger strike, the statue is coated in Post-Its noting “slave owner” and “racist” and the athletic department stands to lose $1 million if it’s football team will boycott the upcoming game against BYU.
Over the past few years, the term “white privilege” has become both a rallying cry and a term of derision. I always had difficulty with any term that seeks to explain every aspect of any situation through oversimplification. However, I do believe the concept that biological aspects, such as race and gender, tilt the scale in some clear and some unperceivable ways. This is clearly a valid criticism of our society. I never once thought we were truly living in a post-racial society, no matter how many flags we eliminate, how many fraternities we ban or how many times we fire people who tell their mistresses not to Instagram with black people.
In my life, however, I viewed myself as being less myopic than the “other leading brand” folks who thought the world was a fine place and we all got along splendidly. My father once told me that during his time in boot camp, he flattened a redneck with one punch after the man called him a “nigger lover” for hanging around with some of the black guys in the barracks. Dad’s friends at work ran the gamut at work from black to white and I never saw any difference in any of them. They were all “aunts” and “uncles,” as per the parlance of our family in describing family friends who weren’t to be called Mr. or Mrs. When I was four or five, I asked my parents what color I would be when I grew up, given this mixed racial crew of “aunts” and “uncles.”
In growing up and growing older, those things stuck with me and, especially at Mizzou, I didn’t see the divides and the anger as much. When I heard about the feces-art version of a Swastika drawn on the wall of a dorm, my heart broke and I immediately thought about one of my best friends. I met him at Mizzou and we bonded over our love of trivia and journalism. He was Jewish, I was Catholic. He invited me to Passover, I brought him an Easter basket. I stood up for his wedding and he was the best man at mine. Never once did I hear “kike” or “hebe” or “Hitler” references during my time there. I’m quite certain I would have had a police record if I did.
The question thus becomes to what degree these things were there and I just didn’t see them. It’s like that moment in “The Matrix” where Neo is offered the blue pill and the red pill. He can go back to life as he knew it and never think twice about it or he can see reality as it stands, its ugliness and all. Maybe for five years, I kept taking the blue pill: I lived in a “good part of town” and I dealt with “the right people” and I just kept ignoring the boiling cauldron of racial anger that built below my feet. Maybe I did see a spasm of what we see now, but I dismissed it at the time as “a few disgruntled people” or “an isolated incident that got overblown.” I spent the last week pulling at the deepest recesses of my brain, looking for anything I might have overlooked, seeking anything that would tell me the truth. I can’t find anything and maybe that’s what’s scaring me most.
Maybe this is the way it always was and I just finally now took the red pill.
And in seeing it now, I wonder if I would have been a better person if I had seen it then.