Issues November 2019

“Still I Rise”: From the Basement to Beyond; How Marginalized Members of the College Campus Community Mark Space

Marginalized student-activists and diversity workers continue to rise up and mark space in the face of both institutional barriers and the incendiary socio-political discourse of our time.

By: A.F. Lewis

Using the University of Missouri (also known as “MU” and “Mizzou”) as a case study, this essay discusses how American universities are historically and contemporarily ‘unmarked’ or naturalized as being for white men, how marginalized members of campus ‘mark’ and (re)claim space, and how universities uphold white supremacy through a neoliberal diversity regime that co-opts the work of marginalized identities.

Predominately White Institutions (PWIs) were founded to accept cisgender heterosexual white men with wealth. This is evident from the structure of these campuses: from the establishment of organizations and fraternities, to their tailored curriculums.[i]  In many cases, universities throughout the United States were built by enslaved peoples.[ii]  The University of Missouri is no exception – James Rollins (the ‘Father’ of MU) was a slave owner who received seed money from local slave owners for the construction of Mizzou in 1839. Archives show that the University’s second president – James Shannon, a known anti-abolitionist – used slave labor for campus janitorial services.[iii] The legacy of racial oppression lives on today through the space of the University, as demonstrated by the fact that ‘Rollins Street’ runs through a central area of campus. Additionally, there is a monument to slave owner Thomas Jefferson.

[Image 1: Students call for the removal of statue of Jefferson on the Francis Quadrangle with a petition and the hashtag #postyourstateofmind on October 7, 2015. Photo credit: Olivia Paggiarino/MizzouMag]

MU was the first land grant university west of the Mississippi River after Jefferson orchestrated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Mizzou, like many other American universities, was structured with systems of oppression built into the bricks and the books within the context of colonial expansionism [iv], exclusion of marginalized people and usage of a white Western academic canon. Consequently, white supremacy was naturalized and institutionalized at every level of universities. In her work on racism and diversity in higher education, Sara Ahmed argues that when something becomes institutionalized, it becomes automatic or background [v]. The establishment and maintenance of social dominance works through the process of institutionalization and normalization, which sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel says “involves the power to affect what others come to take for granted by tacitly leading them to make certain default assumptions” [vi]. Wayne Brekhus, who has theorized the sociology of the unmarked, defines it as what is normal, everyday, and mundane, with anything falling outside those norms as ‘the other.’ Rather than focusing on how bodies are rendered marked or unmarked, I am theorizing that the material and symbolic space of the university is constructed as unmarked through institutionalization. However, marginalized members of campus work to ‘mark’ spaces through protests and programming.

Whiteness, along with normative gender, sexuality, ability and capitalist values are unmarked on campus. [viii] Diversity centers foreground what is usually backgrounded: that the university space was not accommodating to marginalized students.[ix] The creation of diversity centers such as The Women’s Center, Multicultural Center, LGBTQ Resource Center, and Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center are a testament to at least three facts. First, they highlight a distinction from ‘normal’ spaces on campus, and are therefore ‘marked’ by difference. Second, they call into question who is privileged in the ‘normal’ spaces on campus. Lastly, they capture contestations over material and symbolic space. The physical location of these spaces is important—as the diversity centers at the University of Missouri are located on the bottom floor of the Student Center.

The symbolism of being in ‘the basement’ is not lost on students and diversity workers. The inclusion of these spaces implies a commitment to diversity, while still placing those values as literally and figuratively ‘below’ the status quo of the unmarked campus space. Only recently did MU start to take prospective students to the Student Center basement during their campus visit tours.[x] Although in the spirit of inclusivity, these spaces are not very integrated into the fabric of the campus. Students and diversity workers see this as two-fold: 1). regulating them to ‘the basement’ upholds the status quo of the campus as unmarked, and 2). they (re)frame their position on the bottom floor as foundational, which everything else is built upon. A professor and diversity worker introduced a public campus event with the forceful words: “We [marginalized students and diversity workers] do the work. The centers in the downstairs of the Student Center, that often get forgotten, should not be forgotten when they [those who run the centers] do so much of the work.” If the diversity centers are in the basement, there is little reason for privileged students to be down there, making this ‘inclusion’ not so integrated into the fabric of the campus.

Concerned Student 1950

The unmarkedness of campus was foregrounded in 2015, when MU made national headlines after multiple overt racist events were documented on campus. Black students began marking, (re)claiming, and occupying public spaces on campus beyond just the basement diversity centers or the Black Culture Center.[xi] The Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center is named after Lloyd Lionel Gaines, who was denied admission to the Mizzou Law School in 1936, even after getting a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University. During the protests, the sign of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center was vandalized, with the word “Black” being scratched out

[Image 2: Black Culture Center at Mizzou. Photo credit: Adrian Florido, NPR.]
[Image 3: Black Culture Center with “black” scratched out. 
Photo credit: The Legion of Black Collegians]
[Image 3: Black Culture Center with “black” scratched out.
Photo credit: The Legion of Black Collegians]

Moreover, students created Concerned Student 1950, with the hunger strike by graduate student Jonathan Butler and assembly of a ‘tent city’ of protesters on the lawn of Jesse Hall.

[Image 4: Concerned Student 1950 protesters encircle their campsite on campus quad. Photo credit: David Brenner/New York Times.]

The Mizzou football team threatened to boycott games (which would cost the university roughly one million dollars) until Concerned Student 1950’s list of demands were met, including the resignation of President Tim Wolfe. Student activists, through embodied protests, were physically marking, (re)claiming, and taking up space. Activists held protests called “Racism Lives Here” which ‘marks’ the campus as a space where racist ideologies and practices reside and have material consequences on campus, not as a place of ‘diversity and inclusion’ as the University website portrays.

Space is also marked through social justice-oriented talks and events where marginalized members of campus are building community and directly challenging the university structure. After Concerned Student 2015, the university received a lot of negative press and enrollment was down. To rebrand, MU bolstered their diversity efforts. New processes and resources were in place, but like mentioned above, marginalized students and diversity workers do much of the labor and ‘pull all the strings’ in order to plan and bring speakers that represent diverse identities, issues, and work.[xii] In 2018, Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, was speaking to the high rates of sexual assault on MU campus. Burke said: “The amount of effort, excitement, energy, and resources the university puts into getting you to come to their school, they should be equally excited and committed to keeping you safe. I know there are administrators here. Hi administrators!” There was palpable tension interrupted by snaps, applause and a chorus of “Ooohh” from the crowd. Burke was referring particularly to the Chancellor who the moderator of the event previously remarked: “They [the chancellor and his wife] are busy and have to run to the basketball game right after, but this event, and events like this, are a priority to them [administration].” Burke’s direct call out challenges administrative commitment to diversity, marking the space as an event by and for marginalized people, survivors of sexual assault, and allies. In pointing out the administrators in attendance, Burke holds them accountable to not only wave to the crowd when attending an event centered on intersectional social justice politics, but to work toward institutional change in campus safety.

Diversity Regimes

The space of campus was constructed as unmarked and is contemporarily reified through institutionalized diversity regimes. Consequently, marginalized members of campus face barriers due to these embedded systems of oppression and the co-opting of their work and identities for public relations. This diversity regime is defined by scholar James M. Thomas as a “set of meanings and practices that institutionalizes a benign commitment to diversity and in doing so, obscures, entrenches, and even intensifies existing racial inequality by failing to make fundamental changes in how power, resources, an opportunities are distributed.”[xiii] In this way, ‘diversity’ is used as a neoliberal[xiv] tool of universities; showing a progressive front while reifying structures of power that disadvantage minoritized groups that have historically not been supported at universities.[xv] It also reifies unmarked spaces as ‘the norm’ while regulating intersectional programming to those for marginalized members of campus and separate from unmarked space.

For the Mizzou Pride Week keynote event, The LGBTQ Resource Center brought in Juniperangelica (Gia) Cordova, now a recent grad from UC-Berkeley, who discussed her experience as a Latina trans woman navigating community college and major university as a student leader. She recited Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise”, adding a stanza of her own:

By our natural instincts
and the power our ancestors gave us
we will always rise
So I too, I am trying to rise

For Gia, the poem is symbolic and embodied as UC-Berkeley also has their diversity centers on the ‘margins’ on campus. At the end of her talk, she said: “It’s not enough for admin to desire to protect free speech. The university is protecting an image versus protecting the students.” Gia here draws attention to the way the university co-opts the work being done largely by marginalized students and diversity workers to maintain this “image,” while privileging a perceived multiculturalism over an intersectional framework of oppression present embedded in universities.

The diversity regime is exemplified most recently on October 23 2019, when Mizzou Athletics tweeted (and since deleted) a well-intentioned graphic of four people holding signs finishing the sentence “I am…” The white students were defined by their goals as a “future doctor” and “future corporate financial advisor, while the Black student-athlete and staff member were defined by their race as “an African American Woman” and “I value diversity.” The Black student and faculty member are marked by their difference, while race isn’t a necessary demarcation for the white students, as it is the unmarked category. In the apology by Mizzou Athletics, they posted other ways that “better show how they celebrate diversity.” Sara Ahmed writes that “diversity pride becomes a technology for reproducing whiteness: adding color to the white face of the organization confirms the whiteness of that face.”[xvi] Similarly, the addition of diversity centers at PWIs – although necessary, useful and well-intentioned – confirms the whiteness of the campus space.

[Image 5: Screenshot of tweet from Mizzou Athletics. Photo credit: Columbia Missourian]

Diversity regimes require ‘staging difference,’ a performance of inclusion for the sake of managing the institution’s reputation.[xvii] As Ahmed argues, this “anesthetized equality” obfuscates material inequalities at American universities, through the location of diversity centers, programs, campaigns, offices, and committees, documents, etc. However, Ahmed contends that making diversity a goal of the university does not do the work in and of itself. Neither does hiring diversity workers or creating offices. Neither does writing it into documents and mission statements. What it does is give the institution something to ‘fix’ and hide behind.[xviii] Marginalized members of campus do the bulk of diversity work, marking space for representation, community, and challenging systems of oppression while simultaneously highlighting the “whiteness and non-diversity” that permeates the space of campus and bureaucracy of the institutions.[xix] Marginalized student-activists and diversity workers continue to rise up and mark space in the face of both institutional barriers and the incendiary socio-political discourse of our time.


A.F. Lewis (she/they) is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri with a graduate minor in Women’s & Gender studies (BA in Sociology & Communication from University of South Florida, MA in Sociology from the University of Missouri). Her research interests include culture, identity, gender, race, sexualities, and inequalities. Their current research looks at what happens when diversity discourses meet material and virtual spaces/bodies on the university campus under neoliberal politics. They are invested in critical analysis of systems of power and the re-articulation of inequalities in today’s sociopolitical landscape, both inside and outside the academy.

Further Reading

[i] Banks, James A. “The canon debate, knowledge construction, and multicultural education.” Educational researcher 22, no. 5 (1993): 4-14; Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Transnational Feminist Crossings: On Neoliberal and Radical Critique. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 38(4) (2103) 967-991.

[ii] Brophy, Alfred L. “The University and the Slaves: Apology and its Meaning” in The Age of Apology: Facing Up to the Past. Ed. Mark Gibney, Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, Jean-Marc Coicaud, and Nicklas Steiner (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008);Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (Bloomsbury Press, 2013).

[iii] As a state representative, Rollins sponsored a bill stating the University would be built in whichever county raised the most money for construction. Boone County won, with 384 of the 872 contributions coming from slave owners who raised over $60,000 of the total $117,000. (https://www.columbiamissourian.com/news/descendant-of-mu-founder-atones-for-family-s-slave-owning/article_bc8748b0-af1b-5bb3-acd0-64607b7b9a01.html).

[iv] Siu, Oriel María. “On the Colonial Legacy of U.S. Universities and the Transcendence of Your Resistance”. Mujeres Talk. Ohio State University Libraries. October 2015.

[v] Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional life (Duke University Press, 2012).

[vi] Zerubavel, Eviatar. Taken for Granted: The Remarkable Power of the Unremarkable (Princeton University Press, 2018).

[vii] Brekhus, Wayne H. A Sociology of the Unmarked: Redirecting Our Focus, Sociological Theory 16, no. 1 (1998) 34-51.

[viii] Ahmed claims the university is an institution where “whiteness is invisible and unmarked, as the absent center against which others appear as points of deviation.” 35; Dyer 1997; Frankenberg 1993.

[ix]Zerubavel, 62-70.

[x] In 2016, the student body president advocated for tours of campus to include the diversity centers and initially received pushback from administration.

[xi] The Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center is named after Lloyd Lionel Gaines, who was denied admission to the Mizzou Law School in 1936, even after getting a BA from Mizzou.

[xii] A faculty member and diversity worker told the crowd at an event that she had to “pull all the strings” and “work all her contacts” in order to find the resources to bring folx like Tarana Burke to campus. She was supported by her fellow faculty members in her efforts and thanked the undergraduates who made the event happen.

[xiii] Thomas, James M. Diversity Regimes and Racial Inequality: A Case Study of Diversity University (Social Currents 5, no. 2 (2018) 140-156.

[xiv] Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism.(Oxford University Press, 2005). The neoliberal state relies on privatization, deregulation, and competition in a free market. This includes financialization/ creating a market out of everything. This includes the university. Decreasing state and federal funding for public universities under a capitalist society means that the university is being increasingly corporatized and run like a business.

[xv] Mohanty, Transnational Feminist Crossings.

[xvi] Ahmed,151.

[xvii] Thomas, 153.

[xviii] Ahmed, 33.

[xix] Ahmed, 33.

Featured photo/Credit: File Photo/Kansas City Star.

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