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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Bob

I am disappointed with everyone on the tour who did not insist it wait for the detained boys to continue with the group.

Bob Lucas

An awful lot of opinions offered by (anonymous).
Shame.

Judy

That situation is unacceptable!

Carolina Norris

This is totally out of order. The woman who made the call should be outed and sued. I will bet that she has history of bigotry and a lawsuit should shut her mouth! Sorry this happened to your family!

Denise Engle

Oh my goodness! I have been so caught up in National politics I kinda skimmed over this story until jyst now. This is Heartbreaking! Absolutely Wrong on so many levels. You obviously have two fine well bred, intelligent, courteous sons. Every detail in your article illustrates this. Would that MY son would check in to ease a mothers worry on roadstrips as often! To hear that this happened at their dream college makes my heart hurt even more. One wonders how it is that the tour guide, a person invested with the responsibility to present this University in its best lights could not manage to rise to the occasion and reassure the police that your young men had legitimate business on campus and were in his or her care. At every turn it would have been so easy to facilitate these young lads. Its is absolutely unacceptable that NO ONE had a kind thought in their heads. From the cowardly 911 caller to the office staff that left them hanging. Higher education is so very expensive, one would think SOMEONE at that school would appreciate two prospective student's dilemma and DO THEIR JOB! I have always considered Colorado to be a place similar in outlook to my own beloved and sometimes obnoxiously liberal Seattle. I shall have to adjust that opinion accordingly. I urge you to take up this banner firmly and write write write! You have an excellent voice kind, logical, supportive and adamant. I expect to one day hear of great things from both your boys. I hope they find rare gems of learning at their new dream college. And should they ever find themselves in dire straits in Portland, Oregon I hope they shall not hesitate to ring me up...

Anonymous

I'm sorry that your boys were treated so horribly. Racism is pervasive in tbis country and certainly at CSU. I guess this is instructive. You will never send your boys to SCI or any other race ohu st school.

Annalida

Has happened to my son. :(

Anonymous

So tired of hearing about these idiot white people. I can say it, I’m a 61 year old white woman who is appalled at the ignorance and racism around me. White people, wake up!

Julie

The stupidity of some people never ceases to amaze me. Calling police because of the color of someone’s skin or because they’re quiet? Stop trying to whiten the world because we are all supposed to be different. My Dad would be rolling in his grave if I ever thought of treating someone like that.

Betty Jean Myers

I am sickened by what happened to you sons. I am a 78 year-old white woman who was raised by a wonderful mother, also white, and a wonderful grandmother, also white, that taught me at a very early age to know that ALL people are created equal and should always be treated equally. I will never understand why anyone would think otherwise except that they were taught as children otherwise. Isn't it about time that parents are schooled in how to raise their children not to discriminate, and the color of one's skin, or anything else that seems a little different from them, should never make them think that they are better than anyone else. "White" does not make right. Shame on all parents that can't see the damage they do to their own children by not teaching them to "love thy neighbor as thy self"!!!!!!!!!!!!! Get it????????? And, yes, I am madder than hops. This is the United States of America where all people are supposed to have been created equal!!!!!!!!!

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