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

Nobody deserves to be trrated this way for no reason. I'm so sorry this happened to you and it's embarassing that it continues to happen in 2018. You belong there and no racists can take that away from you. You are above them.

Anonymous

Lol

Anonymous

I am so sorry. I cannot imagine the horror and humiliation of being profiled as out of place just because of the color of your skin, just because, some white woman could not accept your honest explaination that you were where you were supposed to be. I hope Smith College does the right thing and acknowledge its short comings and gets their staff to understand that they need to respect all students on their campus.

teeka

I find what happened to you appalling.
We think we have come so far, then this incident happens.
There has to be more we can do.

Michael Lakin

Thank you for speaking out, Oumou. Please be assured that there are many white people like myself, my family, and my friends. who support you and who are upset and embarrassed by incidents such as the one that you describe. All best wishes for a college career that continues to bring you satisfaction and success!

Richard K. Englin

I grew up in Rockford, Ill in the late 50's early 60's. My father a World War II Veteran taught me that we are all the color just different shades of brown. My skin is not white look at a piece of paper that is white and the man down the street isn't black just a darker shade of brown. I saw my dad fight with a man against a darker man to save his pay check from 2 white man and the cops and see the judge throw the case out as it must be a misunderstanding, and my dad almost get put in jail for yelling at the judge for this injustice. And I have seen my dad get mad with other man and call them every name in the book, including the n word. After the words are over they all would have a beer. My dad told me words of hate are for arguments for men and then forgotten by men. If they can't they are not men and have not the right to use such words. He also taught me in war the color of a man's skin does not matter in a fox hole just that he does his job. My dad was awarded several bronze stars and purple hearts and many other awards. I to went into the service, the U.S. Navy and my dad's words worked well with my brothers and sisters while I was in. The harder part of life is when you come of service and everyone wants to see black and white. I truly believe we should all start to look at each other as just different shades of brown.

Trina Coleman, ...

As a Black Graduate of Smith College, I stand with you!

Anonymous

Powerful words. Don’t stop their flow. Don’t stay in your room, please. We need your voice. I’m sorry you were hurt. What happened frightens me, too.

Anonymous

I am not surprised that this happened at Smith College. I attended Smith from 1984 until 1986 and found the racism I encountered from professors, staff and fellow students unbearable. I left and never came back. At the time I did not have the strength to fight back. Kudos to you for standing up, but be aware that the issue is with any student that is POC.

Leah McClellan

That's so awful that you were treated like that, and my heart goes out to you. At the same time, I'm mentally yelling Bravo! as I read the last few paragraphs. That's such a positive step to take, despite the hurt, and I hope every item you named is respected and fulfilled.

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