The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A black Yale student fell asleep in her dorm’s common room. A white student called police.

Lolade Siyonbola, a graduate student at Yale University, fell asleep in her dorm’s common room on May 8. Another student called the police. (Video: Melissa Macaya/The Washington Post)

Lolade Siyonbola’s exasperated message to the campus police officers — and to the Yale University graduate student who’d summoned them to her dorm — was simple and consistent:

She didn’t have to do anything to prove that she was justified in being there, just because she happened to be black.

“I deserve to be here. I pay tuition like everybody else,” an annoyed Siyonbola told responding officers after they repeatedly asked her to hand over identification. “I’m not going to justify my existence here.”

It was part of a tense, racially tinged exchange that the African Studies student had this week with four police officers and the graduate student who called 911 after she found Siyonbola napping in the Hall of Graduate Studies’ 12th-floor common room.

The encounter, broadcast by Siyonbola on Facebook Live, has roiled the campus community, sparking campus leaders to call for more conversations about inclusiveness. The nation is also engaged in a dialogue about disparate treatment of minorities in public places after black people who have not committed crimes have controversially had the police called on them at an Alabama Waffle House, Philadelphia Starbucks and Pennsylvania golf course.

And for anyone keeping score, it adds “napping” to the long and apparently still growing list of things it is unacceptable to do while black.

Other entrants include: couponing while blackgraduating too boisterously while blackwaiting for a school bus while blackthrowing a kindergarten temper tantrum while blackdrinking iced tea while black, waiting at Starbucks while blackAirBnB’ing while black, shopping for underwear while black, having a loud conversation while black, golfing too slowly while black, buying clothes at Barney’s while black, or Macy’s, or Nordstrom Rackgetting locked out of your own home while blackgoing to the gym while black, asking for the Waffle House corporate number while black and reading C.S. Lewis while black, among others.

Siyonbola is a first-year graduate student in the African Studies department at Yale. She had papers and books spread out in a common room while writing a paper Monday, but had flipped off the lights and went to sleep, she explained in her Facebook Live video.

Another graduate student, Sarah Braasch, walked in, turned on the lights and said she was calling police. The common room was off-limits for sleeping, she added.

She wanted to criticize Black Lives Matter in a college speech. A protest shut her down.

What followed was a racially tinged, police-involved dispute between neighbors that aired live on Facebook — then spread.

Agitated, Siyonbola went to Braasch’s room, aiming a cellphone camera at her, and demanded to know why she had called the authorities.

“I have every right to call the police,” Braasch said after snapping a photo of Siyonbola. “You cannot sleep in that room.”

“Continue,” Siyonbola said, then taunted her. “Get my good side.”

Instead, Braasch shut the door and Siyonbola waited for the police, who became the subject of her second live video.

“Once we verify that you belong here, we’ll be on our way,” an officer said. The officer told Siyonbola that he doesn’t know either woman, is simply trying to quickly sort out what’s going on and needs to check her identification.

Ultimately, but unhappily, Siyonbola relented. She did not immediately respond to Washington Post messages seeking comment.

As the police tried to sort out who she was (Siyonbola’s given name in a Yale database conflicted with her preferred name on the card, a spokesman said.), she told them Braasch had called police on her friend about three months ago “because he was in the stairwell and he was black.”

She claimed that she is facing the same kind of harassment, from Braasch and from the four police officers who responded to her non-crime.

Later, a supervising officer told Siyonbola that she wasn’t harassed, at least not by the officers.

“Every time there’s an interaction with police officers doesn’t mean there’s harassment,” the supervisor told her. Then the officers bid her good night.

“You have a good night,” she said. “I’m not going to have a good night after this.”

Braasch, a graduate philosophy student, could also not be reached for comment. She had reportedly deleted social media accounts or set them to private in the wake of the incident.

On Thursday, the Yale University Police Department posted its account of the incident, which it says began when a caller told the police a woman “she did not know” was sleeping in the common room. After checking identification, police said they told the caller the woman was an authorized resident and “had every right to be there,” adding that this was “not a police matter.”

“Racism is an unqualified evil in our society,” Yale President Peter  Salovey said in an email late Thursday to the university community. “Universities are not utopias, and people of color experience racism on our campus as they do elsewhere in our country. This fact angers and disappoints me. We must neither condone nor excuse racism, prejudice, or discrimination at Yale.”

Kimberly M. Goff-Crews, Yale’s vice president for student life, said in an email to students that the officers admonished the student who called 911 and that “the other student had every right to be present.”

Goff-Crews said she had discussed the incident with other Yale leaders, trying to figure out “how we can work together to avoid such incidents in the future.” She said they were planning “listening sessions” with the Yale community and encouraged students to share their thoughts.

The issue is, of course, much bigger than Yale. People have picketed coffee shops and received apologies from CEOs and college presidents over viral issues of bias that spread at the speed of the Internet, giving institutions an instantaneous black eye.

And with the “while black” incidents piling up, the aggrieved parties have begun to point out the similarities — sometimes in the very videos they post.

“Folks done made it okay to be publicly racist, and do and say what they want,” a tearful Kimberly Houzah said after being kicked out of a Victoria’s Secret in 2016.

Black people who had tense conversations with police said they felt as if their race made them more likely to be treated with suspicion by the white people around them. In some instances, they felt as though celebrating their blackness was being treated as a crime.

After calling Barbara Bush an ‘amazing racist,’ a professor taunts critics: ‘I will never be fired’

Nafeesah Attah, who graduated too boisterously while black last week (she was shoved off a stage while trying to flash a sorority sign) told The Post that her incident “speaks to the bigger and larger issue of race relations in the United States at this time and making sure that black students feel comfortable at these universities.

“This is the time to highlight black excellence; instead we were treated like criminals at our very own commencement.”

In a post on her Facebook page a day after the incident, Siyonbola also acknowledged that other black people have endured similar treatment.

“Grateful for all the love, kind words and prayers, your support has been overwhelming Black Yale community is beyond incredible and is taking good care of me. I know this incident is a drop in the bucket of trauma Black folk have endured since Day 1 America.”

Then she invited anyone reading her post to share similar stories.

By Friday, nearly 10,000 people had commented.

Read more:

‘I was just reading a book’: Canadian cops called on black man reading C.S. Lewis in his car

A teen spread a racist video of a black classmate eating chicken. Both face criminal charges.

Police say a black man was shot after pulling a blade on officers. A new video raises doubts.

Private school teens held an Instagram debate on the n-word. It went as well as you’d expect.