The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What the student body president did after he was called the n-word — again

Payton Head, left, and Brenda Smith-Lezama in the campaign shot for the presidency and vice-presidency of the Missouri Students Association <br/> (Curtis Taylor Jr.)
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The first time someone shouted a racial slur at him on campus, Payton Head was shocked, a little stunned. He grew up on the south side of Chicago in a black community where he was used to being in the majority. He had never had direct racism thrown in his face before.

The second time it happened to him, Head said, he was walking with a friend to get cookies Friday night when a red pickup truck slowed and young people screamed the n-word at him.

But Head is now the president of the students’ association at the University of Missouri.

So he knew what to do: Tell people.

They listened.

His social-media post had been shared well over 1,000 times within a few days, the Columbia Missourian newspaper spread it as well, and the responses were more than he could keep up with.

Many people thanked him for speaking out, with comments like, “Preach, baby, preach!”

Some debated it, too, saying there is reverse racism, excessive attention to perceived slights and so much policing of language that freedom of speech on campus is threatened. When the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote about it, some readers were dismissive, pointing out all the resources directed at black students and other minority groups on campus to support them, and saying things like, “Whiners.”

Concerned Student 1950, the student activism group leading protests at Mizzou, held a press conference on Nov. 4. (Video: Ellise Verheyen and Matt Hellman/Columbia Missourian)

Head heard from university officials supporting him, he said, from professors who used his words to spark conversations in class, and, to his surprise, from well-known actor and activist Harry Belafonte.

University officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

A spokesperson for the campus police said that the incident was reported to have happened near campus, not on it. The Columbia Police Department does not have a report of that nature by Head, according to a spokesperson there.

Head thinks his account resonated so widely because “this story is not just something that happens here. It’s not a Mizzou issue. It’s a societal issue. And very few people are privileged to have the voice to speak up that people will listen to.”

People were startled that it happened to him — a well-known and popular student leader — and that he didn’t ignore it this time.

“This happened to me, but it happens all the time, not only here, but everywhere,” Head said.

There was more tension on campus in the past year, he said, since the police shooting at Ferguson, a couple of hours away, incited debate over race nationally. But he didn’t write just about race. He wrote about all sorts of discrimination he sees, diving into some of the most highly charged and controversial topics out there, such as campus sexual assault and gender identity.

There was record high turnout when he was elected president of the Missouri Students Association, he said, on a platform that called on “Mizzou to embrace students who are different. I think it was because the student body recognized that change needs to happen.”

One phrase in particular from his post kept getting echoed.

After he described hearing the racial slur screamed at him, he wrote, “I really just want to know why my simple existence is such a threat to society.”

He wrote that he had experienced moments like that multiple times at Mizzou, and went on to challenge those who had not:

“Many of you are so privileged that you’ll never know what it feels like to be a hijab-wearing Muslim woman and be called a terrorist or a towel head.
“You don’t have to think about being transgender and worrying about finding a restroom…
“You’ll never know what it feels like to see Memorial Union every day and enter the side like a second class citizen because after 90 years, there’s still no accessible way to enter the tower. …
“You’ve never had to experience people throwing drinks on you and yelling [slur deleted] at you from the patio at Big 12 as you walk past on the street holding hands with your partner….
“You might never had to think twice about what you’re wearing walking around campus at night so that someone won’t think it’s okay to take ownership of your body because your outfit was ‘asking for it.’…
“These are some of my experiences and the experiences of the ones closest to me. This is what I’m fighting against every day in boardrooms, conferences, meetings, classrooms, the Capitol, and in my daily life. This is my reality…”

He called on people to change the culture, suggested student groups and other ways to get involved — and ended with the n-word again. (He threw in another insult that has been thrown at him, too, for being gay.)

“… if this post made you feel uncomfortable, GOOD! That means I’m doing my job.
“It’s time to wake up Mizzou.
“Your [slurs deleted] Missouri Students Association President,
“Payton Head”

(This post has been updated to more accurately describe the Columbia Missourian, which is a local newspaper that is staffed by student reporters and professional editors; it is not the student newspaper for campus.)