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Not Safe to Be Black at Smith College

By       Message William Boardman       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   5 comments

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From youtube.com: Oumou Kanoute is a student at Smith College. {MID-307957}
Oumou Kanoute is a student at Smith College.
(Image by YouTube, Channel: TEN TEN TV)
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Dispatch: Campus Police, recorded line.

Reporting Caller: I was just walking through here in the front foyer of [REDACTED] and we have a person sitting there laying down in the living room area over here. I didn't approach her or anything but um he 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 he's doing in there just laying on the couch.

Dispatch: Can I have your last name please?

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Reporting Caller: [REDACTED]

Dispatch: I'll send someone over and check it out.

Reporting Caller: Alright. I'll wait over here.
-- Campus Police call transcript, July 31, 2018, as released by Smith College on August 3

It's very hard to see this call by a white Smith College employee as anything but a racist reaction once you know the person on the couch is a black woman, even though the caller doesn't reference race. The dispatch officer doesn't ask about that. The Smith employee isn't even sure what gender the person is but complains to the police, "I don't know what he's doing in there just laying on the couch." The police dispatcher is remarkably uncurious about why anyone should care about a person lying on a couch, much less why the police should investigate at all. Why are these supposedly security-conscious people so casual about such a non-offense offense? Are the redactions in the transcript more substantive than they appear?

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Smith College should provide the full, unredacted transcript.

The white employee waits for the campus police to arrive. A second white person of the opposite gender joins the first. The second person has not been identified either.

The "out of place person" turns out to be nothing of the kind, not even close. She turns out to be a black woman with very short black hair. She is Oumou Kanoute, 21, 5'2" tall, an academically gifted Smith College sophomore working for the summer teaching chemistry to high school students in the college's STEM program. She is also a member of Smith's cross-country team. To get into the student common room in the first place she had to use her college-issued keycard. The white Smith employees weren't likely to have known who this person was, but they almost surely knew it took a keycard to get into the room, and they should have considered that along with the absence of any sign of forced entry.

While a uniformed police officer talked briefly to Kanoute, the white employees apparently waited in the foyer, possibly with a second police officer. The record is incomplete.

None of the parties have said what happened next. Presumably the police officer left Kanoute to carry on. But if the white employee was still there, did the officer explain what happened? Why didn't the white employee own the mistake and apologize on the spot? Why didn't the police officer facilitate such an opportunity? All this should be just obvious institutional behavior in an institution actually serious about promoting harmony, never mind racial harmony. Failing to resolve it in the moment is a form of institutional negligence, and it could have been avoided had either the white Smith employee or the white campus cop acted with reasonable human decency.

Oumou Kanoute grew up in New York City and is the first member of her family to go to college. She speaks four languages. She was an outstanding student at Westminster School in Simsbury, Connecticut, class of 2017. She worked hard, against long odds, to get into Smith College (roughly 5% black) in Northampton, Massachusetts (4% black). As the college describes itself: "one of the largest of the prestigious Seven Sisters women's colleges, Smith educates women of promise for lives of distinction." Smith is notoriously difficult to get into.

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The casual, mindless cruelty of a still-anonymous Smith employee set off a sequence of events that continues to unfold. That same evening, Oumou Kanoute posted on Facebook:

"I am blown away at the fact that I cannot even sit down and eat lunch peacefully. 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. This person didn't try to bring their concerns forward to me, but instead decided to call the police. I did nothing wrong, I wasn't making any noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black. It's outrageous that some people question my being at Smith College, and my existence overall as a women of color. I was very nervous, and had a complete meltdown after this incident. It's just wrong and uncalled for. No students of color should have to explain why they belong at prestigious white institutions. I worked my hardest to get into Smith, and I deserve to feel safe on my campus."

Beneath that, Kanoute posted a video she made of her police interview. The picture quality is weak and the audio is poor. Over the video she wrote: "So I'm sitting down minding my damn business and someone calls the cops on me while I'm just chilling. This is why being black in America is scary." The police officer's tone in the video is mild. Kanoute adds: "Now he is apologizing on behalf of the racist punk who called the police on me for absolutely nothing." Later that same evening, Kanoute posted again on Facebook, this time asking readers to forward her story to their followers: "I demanded that the administration share the name of the person who made the [campus police] call so that they can confront and acknowledge the harm done to me as a student." I'd appreciate any message you could send to your followers in order to put pressure on the administration..." Kanoute's Facebook posts went viral.

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