Editorial: Being black at Smith College 

  • A banner hangs on Chapin House at Smith College in Northampton on Thursday. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 8/6/2018 9:23:49 PM

A pattern of racist incidents across the country in recent months continued in Northampton on July 31 when Smith College police were called because an employee believed a black student was “out of place” in a campus building.

The responding officer quickly determined that the student, sophomore Oumou Kanoute, who was on a break from her summer job as a teaching assistant and residential adviser, had done nothing wrong. “All clear. That was a student relaxing in the living room. They had lunch here, I guess, and they decided to stay for a while,” the officer reported to the campus police dispatcher, according to a transcript provided by the college.

In a Facebook post July 31, Kanoute wrote: “Today someone felt the need to call the police on me while I was sitting down reading, and eating in a common room at Smith College. This person didn’t try to bring their concerns forward to me, but instead decided to call the police. I did nothing wrong. I wasn’t making any noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black.”

Smith President Kathleen McCartney apologized to Kanoute and college officials announced that the unnamed employee who called police had been placed on paid leave while the incident is investigated by the Sanghavi Law Office, of Brookline.

Further, McCartney announced in a letter to the campus community, “Beginning this fall, every Smith staff member will be required to participate in mandatory anti-bias training. In addition, the Office of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity (OIDE), in partnership with Human Resources and the School for Social Work, will hold a series of workshops for faculty and staff focused specifically on topics of identity, inclusion, bias-response and bias-prevention.”

While those steps are appropriate, we believe this is an opportunity for a more immediate and broader communitywide examination of racism. People of color and college and city officials, such as the Northampton Human Rights Commission, should be involved in convening such a forum.

The Smith College incident is the latest in a series of unfounded calls to police this year about African-Americans engaged in everyday activities. They have become so commonplace that “All we ever did was be black” is now a slogan on T-shirts.

In May, a white student called police at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, after she discovered a black graduate student napping in the common room of their dormitory. Yale officials later concluded that the report of “an unauthorized person” illustrates that more work is needed to make the campus “a truly inclusive place.”

Two black men who arrived early for a business meeting at a Starbucks in Philadelphia were arrested on suspicion of trespassing in April after a white manager called police, saying that they refused to buy anything or leave. The chief executive of Starbucks later termed the incident “reprehensible,” and the company closed 8,000 shops May 29 for anti-racial-bias training.

Also in April, four people, including three who are black, leaving an Airbnb they had rented in Rialto, California, were questioned by police for more than 20 minutes after a suspicious neighbor reported a possible burglary.

There was no justification for police being called in any of those incidents, nor at Smith College last week. As Kanoute wrote on Facebook: “It’s outrageous that some people question my being at Smith College, and my existence overall as a women of color. I was very nervous, and had a complete meltdown after this incident. It’s just wrong and uncalled for. No students of color should have to explain why they belong at prestigious white institutions.”

Smith President McCartney correctly observed: “This painful incident reminds us of the ongoing legacy of racism and bias in which people of color are targeted while simply going about the business of their daily lives. It is a powerful reminder that building an inclusive, diverse and sustainable community is urgent and ongoing work.”

That’s a lesson not only for the campus community — but for all of us committed to confronting racism in America.

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