For Oumou Kanoute, it started as an otherwise sedate afternoon at Smith College — some light reading, a blanket and a late lunch in a common room at the women’s-only liberal arts school in western Massachusetts.
No one had come to talk to her, and she hadn’t noticed anyone in particular pass by — but, she learned, someone had noticed her.
The person, an employee of the school, thought Kanoute looked suspicious and called police on Tuesday, saying the student and teacher’s assistant, who is black, “seems to be out of place.”
“I was just walking through here in the front foyer … and we have a person sitting there laying down in the living room area over here,” the caller told a police dispatcher, according to a transcript released by the school. “I didn’t approach her or anything but um (she) seems to be out of place … umm … I don’t see anybody in the building at this point and uh I don’t know what (she’s) doing in there just laying on the couch.”
An officer responded to the campus dorm, quickly determined that it “was a student relaxing in the living room,” the transcript said, and no charges were filed.
But Kanoute — and many, many others — felt the incident reeked of discrimination.
“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,” she wrote on Facebook. “I did nothing wrong, I wasn’t making any noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black.”
She summed up her feelings in a caption on the Facebook video she took that captured some of her interactions with the officer: “This is why being black in America is scary.”
In an instant, Kanoute went from being a teaching assistant and student at the nearly 150-year-old college to being the latest example of #LivingWhileBlack. The hashtag has been used to raise awareness about incidents in which African Americans engaged in innocuous activities have had police called on them by suspicious neighbors or college classmates or store clerks or random passersby.
“Stuff like this happens all too often,” Kanoute told the apologetic police officer, reflecting on the phenomenon even as she was experiencing it. “People feel, just, threatened.”
Black people have had police and security guards sicced on them for a seemingly endless list of nonthreatening things: graduating from college; waiting for a bus to take them to school; throwing a temper tantrum after getting to school; couponing; waiting at Starbucks; not waving to someone outside an Airbnb; drinking iced tea; shopping at Victoria’s Secret, and at Barneys, and at Macy’s, and at Nordstrom Rack.
Kanoute isn’t even the first black woman to have the police called on her while relaxing in an elite college’s common room. It also happened to Lolade Siyonbola in May. Siyonbola had fallen asleep in Yale’s Hall of Graduate Studies during a paper-writing session and was awakened by a woman who said she was summoning police.
“I deserve to be here. I pay tuition like everybody else,” an annoyed Siyonbola told the officers who responded a little later and repeatedly asked her to hand over identification. “I’m not going to justify my existence here.”
In both women’s cases, their institutions of higher education were quick to apologize. And the employee who called the police on Kanoute has been put on administrative leave, although the administration has kept the person’s identity a secret.
In a statement on the school’s website, Smith College President Kathleen McCartney offered “my deepest apology that this incident occurred” and tried to assure Kanoute that “she belongs in all Smith spaces.”
Kanoute is a rising sophomore at Smith, according to Boston CBS affiliate WBZ-TV. She has been spending the summer helping faculty members teach chemistry to high schoolers as part of Smith’s STEM program, which ended Saturday.
Starting in the fall, McCartney said, all faculty and staff at Smith — one of the nation’s largest and oldest women’s colleges, which counts poet Sylvia Plath and women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem among its graduates — will be required to undergo mandatory anti-bias training.
Phillip Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity, a nonprofit that promotes police transparency and accountability, told The Washington Post in May that many people see police as more than just instruments for enforcing the law. They use them as enforcers of unwritten social rules, which can be steeped in discriminatory thinking.
“The issue is that, for many folks, law enforcement has been seen as their own racism valet,” Goff said.
“We talk about not just crime, we talk about disorder — anything that makes folks feel uncomfortable or says that the social norms that we’ve all agreed to are being violated,” he said. “And the problem is that black skin frequently violates the social order.”
In the wake of Kanoute’s experience, McCartney said, the college was also hosting workshops on identity, inclusion and bias prevention aimed at faculty and staff.
But what Kanoute said she really wants is for the college to release the name of the person who called the police on her.
Smith College policies require police to remove people’s names from the public versions of their reports. Putting in identifying information may “discourage the use of critical safety resources,” the college’s statement said.
“I want a public apology from that caller,” Kanoute told WBT-TV. “It just still upsets me to just talk about it because I don’t even feel safe on my own campus and I’m away from home.”
Kanoute said that if someone was concerned, they should have tried talking to her.
“I speak four languages,” she said. “I’m sure I could speak one of the languages they spoke.”