A Smith College Employee Called the Police on Me for Eating Lunch While Black

Enrolling in Smith College a year ago was a dream come true. But rarely has a dream so swiftly turned into a nightmare. As I begin my sophomore year, I’m returning to a new slate of classes and to unsettling memories that I wish I could shake.

This summer, I was racially profiled — an all-too-common experience for Black people in America. But unlike most people who are targeted for simply existing in their skin, my story of harassment went viral.

It happened on July 31, when I was working on campus for a program that encourages high school girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). I was proud to remain on school grounds instead of taking a full summer vacation like many of my peers. As the first person in my family to attend college, every moment at a prestigious institution like Smith was a reminder that my mother's hard work had paid off.

The day didn't seem different than any other. I headed into the building’s common room to set my belongings down and then went into the cafeteria to grab lunch. Eating on campus might seem like a typical student activity. But as a Black student, I received a familiar look of suspicion from a college employee who questioned my presence in the dining hall line as I began to fix myself a plate.

I was greeted by a woman: “You’re not supposed to eat here,” she said.

I informed her of the mentorship program I work for and offered to get my card to prove it. She then allowed me to go on my way.

But the employee apparently wasn’t satisfied. As I was sitting in common room, I noticed a man pacing by the glass doors. Soon he was joined by the same woman who had approached me as I was fixing my plate. The two of them, both white, whispered to each other as I sat on the other side of the glass, wondering what was happening.

A few moments later, I looked up to see the same man who’d been pacing outside the door now approaching me, this time with a police officer. My anxiety was overwhelming. I had gone from a 20-year-old eating a meal on her own campus to the subject of a police interrogation. In my fear, I prayed and tried to remain calm — and pressed record on my cell phone.

“We’re wondering why you’re here,” said the police officer. He was on the scene, he said, because I had been described as “out of place” and demonstrating “suspicious behavior.”

A few humiliating minutes later, the questioning was over. But the pain certainly wasn't. As I write this, I still feel overwhelmed with anxiety and sadness over what happened. I still struggle to leave my room. Walking into the dining hall to grab a meal fills me with dread.

I am one of many Americans who has been targeted by racially biased calls to the police, treated like a potential criminal for the act of “living while Black.” This everyday form of racial profiling isn’t only happening to people sitting peacefully at a Starbucks or checking out of an Airbnb. From Yale, to Colorado State University, to Smith, racism is also prevalent on the very college campuses that claim to be safe spaces. These incidents are being captured on cellphones, thanks to a younger generation that is tech-savvy — but also scared.

It wasn't too long ago that students like me couldn't even sleep in the dorms on a college campus like Smith. I find myself thinking about Otelia Cromwell, who in 1900 became Smith's first Black graduate. Otelia wasn't allowed to live on campus. Her legacy, along with incidents like mine, reminds us of the significant work still required to address the systems that tell us that we don’t belong.

Attending Smith College has helped me realize my dreams and purpose in life. It has also shown me that unity and visibility are important. First-generation students and students of color should know that they belong and deserve to thrive in a society that often tells them otherwise. I am deeply hurt by what happened, but also determined to make it doesn’t happen to anyone else.

To that end, I am using this platform to make demands of the college that I love. Among them is a call for Smith College to adopt new policies and training that address race and gender — including policies that improve how law enforcement officers navigate incidents like mine. 

I also demand that Smith take more steps to address the history of Black students and the school’s legacy of institutional racism. I want a more fitting commemoration of Otelia Cromwell. I want an examination of the racism that shows up in the naming of campus buildings. I want concrete action taken to provide affinity housing for students of color.

Most of all, I want a campus where hard-working students are never told that they are “out of place.”

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Anonymous

This event is awful if entirely true. There is a report that the place she chose to eat was a closed dorm (for the summer); only staff were to be there. That is why her presence was “suspicious” according to this report. If the report is correct, her claims about racial discrimination may be incorrect. I suggest waiting for the results of the independent investigation before making a decision. In general, I support the ACLU, but this premature judgment is unworthy of the legal profession, even if it turns out to be correct.

Anonymous

So that cafeteria worker was too afraid to explain that the cafeteria was "closed" or too inept. Yes..Call the Police. you have already made a decision. Too many 'Ifs"

Anonymous

Why not just walk up to the girl and communicate with her instead of getting the police involved. Just explain that the area is closed or only on open for employees? Usually if we just communicate it would solve a lot of problems!

Paula Atwell

Hi, I am white and support what you are doing. I is outrageous that any student (or staff) would have to experience this situation that you did. I know that my own daughters would have been freaked out if this had happened to them. The only answer is education and training until we can all live in an equal society. This is one of the reasons that I support the ACLU.

Anonymous

This whole episode is a joke. This whiny sno flake should go an get an education. She obviously needs it

Evelyn Davis

IF SMITH COLLEGE HAS ANY ATHLETIC TEAMS HOW MANY OF THOSE PLAYERS ARE BLACK. TELL THEM THEY DON'T BELONG. TAKE YOUR FOOT OFF OUR CHILDREN'S NECKS OR WE'LL PULL THEM OUT. CIVIL RIGHTS MEANS EVERYBODY.

Anonymous

U r not supposed to be in an area that was closed off. U need to sit where other student are. It was not because u r black. She must be afraid because you didnt want to move. Sorry she was just following protocol. Don't use race ... please

Anonymous

Nowhere in the article does it say that the area was closed off nor did it say that she was asked to move. She went in, got her food, told the woman that she was working in the mentor ship program and then sat down to eat her lunch. None of that sounds remotely suspicious and after she told the woman working there that she was in the program the woman let her go on her way. If she wasn't profiling her why did she let her sit down and then proceed to call the campus police. Sometimes when people say it's about race it's about race.

Anonymous

from the U r, i can guess your age

Anonymous

What?

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