Missouri Students Association President Payton Head decorated his office, unsurprisingly, in all black and gold. On his desk sits a black canvas with gold letters featuring an Albert Einstein quote: “The world will not be destroyed by evil, but by those who watch without doing anything.”
Head was walking through MU’s campus on the night of Friday, Sept. 11 when a group of men in the back of a pickup truck yelled racial slurs at him as they passed. Saturday afternoon, he posted a Facebook status detailing the experience and calling for more awareness and discussion on the treatment of minorities.
It quickly went viral. Yet, it wasn’t just a rant.
He said in an interview that he wanted to focus on creating a dialogue instead of making the post about his own personal hurt.
“Of course there’s a lot of hurt and pain that’s associated with living in a world that’s not created for you,” he said, “but at the same time, if you’re not able to vocalize that to the people with privilege, who can help change that world, who have the institutional privilege to create change, then there’s no way to see change.”
Head is no stranger to this sort of challenge. He almost didn’t run for president because he was told he “would never win” as a black man who wasn’t involved in a fraternity. That was his first experience with racially motivated aggression.
During his sophomore year, another group of young men on the back of a pickup “booed at him and his friend, and repeatedly called him the n-word,” he said.
“I’ve always dealt with microaggressions, and there’s racism in all sorts of things that we do, but never directly had someone said something like that to me, out of hatred, to my face,” he said. “Like, they looked me in the eye and called me the n-word.”
“I’ve experienced moments like this multiple times at THIS university, making me not feel included here”
That was when Head decided he had to stay involved with campus leadership to make a positive difference at MU.
“It was in that moment that I realized I had a decision to make: I could go back down South to the historically black college that was still offering me a scholarship, but then I realized, what would I be doing if I left?” he said. “Later that semester, I decided that I was going to run for MSA president and that I was going to do it regardless of what everybody told me was possible.”
Head won the election with the biggest voter turnout in MSA history, and he and MSA Vice President Brenda Smith-Lezama were the first slate with two Black students to win an election.
Now, with only a few more months left in his presidency, it’s happened again: a racial obscenity spat at him from the back of a pickup truck. He said he doesn’t want to hear about it happening anymore.
“It started as a hurt for me, but then it became a hurt for my school, because what kind of legacy am I leaving if I don’t talk about these issues?” he said. “I love my school. This place is my home, but I want my home to be better.”
"Many of you are so privileged that you’ll never know what it feels like..."
For many students, this is nothing surprising. Other minority students have experienced it firsthand themselves.
“I would notice at parties my friends would introduce me as their ‘Asian friend Crystal’ when I would be standing right there,” said Crystal Duan, junior diversity peer educator and former Maneater staffer.
Duan said she had also been catcalled with racially specific language. Head also references the experiences of others to whom he’s close, such as a transgender student who was spat on and a Muslim woman who was called a terrorist. These students’ stories never went viral on social media.
“When this happens to them, they don’t have administrators calling them and MUPD checking up on them to make sure they’re OK,” Head said.
Head said that though his influential position allowed his story to gain attention, for many students, their own personal run-ins with discrimination go widely ignored.
“I really appreciate Payton using his voice,” said Rivu Dasgupta, student co-coordinator for Diversity Peer Educators and former Maneater staffer. “That being said, I think it’s kind of awful that it has to be this way, and we have to have our MSA president speak about (the issue for people to listen).”
Head has been involved in a variety of different student organizations, but he said his favorite is DPE, an organization that offers sensitivity training and education to promote greater cultural understanding and awareness. He said that his involvement in the organization gave him the tools to communicate about these issues with others.
“Sometimes you can feel some sort of oppression, but you don’t really have the words to talk about it,” Head said.
“If you see violence like this and don’t say anything, you, yes YOU, are a part of the problem.”
The objective of being a DPE is promoting inclusivity in every facet of university life. Part of the DPE program is conducting facilitations, which is a diversity simulation in which people can role-play different kinds of identities. Duan said the facilitations “get people to think more about the concept of inclusivity.”
Head encourages everyone to be aware of biases present in society and to wake up “because some students don’t get to sleep.”
“If your simple existence is not a political statement, I’m really going to need for you to check your privilege,” Head wrote in his post.
Head said that there are many things that MU students don’t hear about because of their privilege, which allows them to ignore issues that do not directly impact them. As MSA president and a self-identified advocate for those who can’t speak up for themselves, Head has conveyed that he has fought and will continue to fight for those who are oppressed for “simply being who they are.”
“If this post made you feel uncomfortable, GOOD! That means I’m doing my job. It’s time to wake up Mizzou.”
From 2012 to 2015, nine hate crimes were reported to the MU Police Department. Four of the nine crimes occurred in 2015, including an incident in April where a swastika was burned onto the ceiling of a stairwell in Mark Twain Hall.
“We take every incident of bias and discrimination very seriously, and we are going to take any action we can against any perpetrators we can identify,” MU spokesperson Christian Basi said.
Basi elaborated on MU’s response to hate crimes or incidents of racial bias.
“We encourage any member of the university community who feels unsafe to contact the MUPD immediately,” Basi said. “We also encourage anyone who ever experienced or even witnessed what we call a biased incident involving discrimination within the MU community to file a bias report as quickly as possible.”
MU has offices devoted to expanding campus policies and behaviors to include students of every identity, including the Equity Office, the Chancellor's Diversity Initiative, the Disability Center and the LGBTQ Resource Center.
“Our school could be doing more,” Duan said. “I’m not saying the efforts we’ve put in so far are very good or very bad, but I think our school could be aspiring to have a higher level of inclusivity.”
Head said he plans to use his remaining time in office to combat the inequalities on campus mentioned in his Facebook post.
To students who are experiencing oppression on campus, Head advised: “Breathe. Fight. Repeat.”