Payton Head was walking down the street with a friend last week near the University of Missouri campus in Columbia when something ugly happened to him.
“Some guys in the back of a pickup just started yelling the n-word at me,” Head, who is African-American, told the Columbia Missourian.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been targeted with slurs in Columbia, he said. The first time someone shouted one at him on campus, Head, who grew up on Chicago’s south side, was stunned, he told the Missourian.
But this time was different.
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This time, as the leader of the school’s student association, he owned a public platform.
“I’d had experience with racism before, like microaggressions, but that was the first time I’d experienced in-your-face racism,” he told the newspaper.
“I could either not say anything and go about my night, or I could finish my term and stay angry, or I could say something.”
So, he said something in a long, emotional Facebook post that’s starting to go viral. The line that’s being quoted over and again is this: “I really just want to know why my simple existence is such a threat to society.”
The student body leader also challenged his fellow Tigers to not stand passively by when they see behavior like that. He also reported the incident to the police.
“This story is not just something that happens here. It’s not a Mizzou issue. It’s a societal issue,” Head told The Washington Post. “And very few people are privileged to have the voice to speak up that people will listen to.”
His post has been shared more than 1,500 times on Facebook since Saturday.
One of those who applauded him was Cathy Scroggs, MU’s vice chancellor of student affairs, who called Head “a profile in courage.”
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“What has made this case notable is that in a day where young black men are often portrayed as volatile and menacing,” writes The Grio, “Head’s heartfelt letter has touched a chord within his community due to its candor and thoughtfulness.”
Head won his job in student government by campaigning on a platform calling Mizzou to “embrace students who are different.”
He wrote on Facebook that the reason he’s “always talking about the importance of inclusion and respect” is “because I’ve experienced moments like this multiple times at THIS university, making me not feel included here.
“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 where you can go and not be targeted for violence because you don’t fit into the gender binary.
“You’ve never had to experience people throwing drinks on you and yelling (homosexual slur) at you from the patio at Big 12 as you walk past on the street holding hands with your partner ... these are some of my experiences and the experiences of the ones closest to me.”
He ended his post: Your (n-word and homosexual slur) Missouri Students Association President, Payton Head.”
Head said this week that he has heard from professors around campus who used his post to start conversations in class. And actor Harry Belafonte, a longtime activist, has reached out to him too, he told The Washington Post.