A Woman Called the Police on My Native American Sons While They Were on a College Tour

It’s not easy to accept that two of my sons are now nationally known, not for their sharp humor, musical talent, or academic achievements, but rather for the humiliation they recently endured on a campus tour. Moms are supposed to have all the answers, but it’s hard to explain why they, as Native Americans, were treated at a public university like they “don’t belong.”

So when Starbucks closed 8,000 stores last week to conduct a racial bias training, the news gave me hope, which is something that I’ve struggled with lately. I’m under no illusion that a four-hour session can fix racism. But I hope that more institutions, including colleges and universities, will take important steps to protect people of color from the consequences of white suspicion.  

It’s been a month since the incident, but April 30, 2018, is a day that will live with me forever. I was worried from the start. My two sons, 17 and 19, were adamant about taking the seven-hour drive in our road-worn family car from our home in New Mexico all the way to Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where they were scheduled to attend a campus tour. I didn’t like that they’d be navigating miles of unfamiliar roads and unbearable Denver traffic alone. But they had worked hard to raise the travel money and CSU was their dream school, so I didn’t stand in their way.

They checked in with me every few hours as they went from Taos to Raton to Pueblo and beyond. When they finally reported in a text that they were on the tour, I was relieved: My boys were safe on campus. I would soon discover that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Not long after receiving the text, I answered a frantic call from my older son. “Ista!” he said, (Ista is Mohawk for mother) “someone called the police on us because we were quiet!” No mother should have to hear what my sons told me over the phone — that campus police pulled them aside because a woman on the tour thought their shy demeanor and t-shirts were suspicious; that they were frightened and embarrassed by the interrogation; that the tour left them behind as they were being questioned; that they went back to the admissions office afterwards for help, only to be flippantly told, “There’s nothing we can do. You can do a self-guided tour if you want.” 

As a Native American woman, I am part of a community that endures racial bias every day, and I resolved that this injustice would not go unnoticed. Several calls and a rant on Facebook later, my sons’ encounter with racial profiling went viral.

Critics wonder why I would blame Colorado State University for the actions of a campus visitor. But I challenge them to imagine being young, hours away from home, and confronted by campus police due to a ludicrous report from a stranger. Body cam footage shows that the tour guide led participants past the detained boys as if they were invisible. If I can’t trust staff at CSU to keep them safe and respect them for one hour, how can I trust them to ensure their safety and success for four years?

Of course, I am upset by the actions of the unnamed 911 caller. But I am also upset that the police officers didn’t address the tour guide to determine if my boys belonged on the tour. Going forward, the CSU administration should draw up guidelines for university employees on how to deal with teenagers or other people on campus who are on the receiving end of 911 calls that could be based on bias.

They should also consider the trauma that can ensue when young people of color are pulled off a campus tour and detained like criminals. After determining that my sons were wrongfully accused, unnecessarily detained, and unfamiliar with the campus, the least that the officers could have done as public servants was help them catch up to their group.

If our story had not received global attention, the 911 caller would have walked away proudly, feeling that she had done the right thing and saved their group from young men who didn’t belong. And CSU may have never started thinking of ways to protect people of color from 911 busybodies.

We are determined to stop dangerous actions like these by “nervous white people.” What happened at CSU could happen anywhere. What happened to my sons has happened to thousands of native people and other people of color for centuries. We feel it is our duty to take a stand and make the country aware that we’ve had enough.

The concept of “see something, say something” is often abused in America to target people who are simply existing in their skin. This bias must be checked. And institutions ranging from Starbucks to CSU can help. I particularly hope that universities — if they truly want to support inclusion — will do the work to keep other young people from experiencing what my boys did when they were 500 miles from home.

Have you had the police called on you for racist or inexplicable reasons? Share your story

From Starbucks to Yale, the stories of racial profiling that have hit the news recently are disturbing — but they’re not isolated incidents. If you’re a person of color who’s had the police called on you for inexplicable or racist reasons, share your experiences and ideas in the link above. We may use your story in an evolving collection that we will feature on our website.

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Anonymous

I heard the 9/11 call as well. For reference, I am white - a mixture of Scots/Slav, blue eyed, fair skinned. The caller most definitely referred to their race. Do you really believe that if those boys had been white rather than "Mexican", 911 would have been called on them?

Stop defending ...

Amazed at all the comments supporting and defending the white racist caller. Yes, she was indeed profiling. She described them as "Mexican." Said they "didn't look" like they belonged.
Being quiet is not a cause for suspicion or concern. Lots of kids are shy, and they owed this white stranger no explanations. There's a difference between casual friendly conversation and an interrogation. If someone was being nosy and in my business, I might not respond either.
There is no way you can spin this to blame the victims. They did nothing wrong. There is no defense for the nosy, privileged racist caller. Kids come in all colors. Kids dress in t-shirts an jeans. She and her husband should learn to mind their own business.

What?

If you didn't want public attention on your two sons, why did you deliberately create it?

Anonymous

Exactly right!

Excuse ME?

The family was not crying or demanding attention, if the white lady would have just let them be and allow them to participate in the tour, there would be no story to tell!

Anonymous

Perhaps because she was outraged at the overt racism? So that other POC would not face the same humiliation when visiting a campus?

Anonymous

This is a racist comment. Defending her citizens rights is not same as "Deliberately creating a public attention.You should be ashamed to be so nice as to defend the racist profiler. Being quiet, and not making immediate eye contact are both culturally appropriate behaviors in Native American culture. No wonder this mother is defending her son's, they did nothing wrong!!!!

Anonymous

With all the school shootings that have been happening people are on high alert and some are paranoid. After every shooting we are told to report anything we find suspicious. Perhaps you should encourage your "boys" to learn to speak to others like "men" since that's what one is and one will be within a few months. Every adult should be able to respond for him/her self if someone questions why they are somewhere or what their motives are. Frankly, I find it a bit ridiculous that they couldn't just talk their way out of this. Are they planning on calling you Everytime they run into a little conflict at college?

Pierce

Says someone that talks like a child. A mature adult would understand that not everyone is an extrovert that likes to engage in chatter with annoying women talking in unfriendly tones. Maybe they were trying to listen to the tour guide that was speaking on the tour that they drove many hours at their own expense to attend. But even besides that, listening to the 911 call, we know that they did answer her questions. They told her where they were from and what majors they were thinking about. The fact that she misunderstood them to be from Mexico might help illustrate why they laughed and didn't want to continue talking with her.

Anonymous

I am white, but I work with first nations communities a significant amount. The communities I work with are all either Cree or Inuit, but something that is common to them both is that being quiet is considered a positive attribute, particularly with elders. The wisest members of the band are typically the quietist and when they do speak, everyone listens attentively. Not meeting a person's gaze is also the default in their traditional societies. So, you are making assumptions, coming from the dominant culture, on how a person should act, and imposing your culture on someone else.

As for being on "high alert", yes, that is true, however, look in the video at how these young men were dressed. Where would either have hidden an assault weapon? That argument is just ludicrous.

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