A Smith College employee called the police on a 'suspicious' student eating lunch: 'All I did was be black'

(Photo: Smith.edu)

A student at Smith College was reported to authorities for “being black” — and now she’s gone viral.

Oumou Kanoute is spending the summer on the campus in Northampton, Mass., working as a teaching assistant and resident advisor, but looked “out of place” to someone, who then called campus police.

The undergrad was trying to enjoy her lunch in a common room at Smith earlier this week when she was approached by a campus police officer. “I am blown away at the fact that i cannot even sit down and eat lunch peacefully,” Kanoute, who runs cross country for Smith, recounted in a Facebook post. She wrote that she was peacefully reading and eating when someone she identified as a “white staff member” felt unnerved by the presence of a “suspicious black male sitting in the common room,” she wrote. That’s right, not only did the caller assume she was possibly dangerous because of her race, they also assumed she was a male because of her short hair.

“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,” she wrote. “It’s outrageous that some people question my being at Smith Collge, and my existence overall as a women of color.”

She also shared two videos in which she calmly and quietly speaks to the cop, who was “wondering why” she was there. In the first video, she explains that she’s working on campus and just wanted to relax. And in the second video she expresses her frustration that “stuff like this happens way too often.” She wrote that the cop apologized, but that wasn’t enough to mitigate her unease. “I was very nervous, and had a complete metldown after this incident. It’s just wrong and uncalled for. No student 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.” The two videos have almost 200k views combined.

Some commenters are disappointed by the all-girls school, which is “super left, especially when it comes to the staff…to a point of cliché actually,” a Smith alum tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “In my experience, Smith represents a culture that is hyper-aware of racial profiling and actively fights against it,” she added.

“I don’t consider Smith a racist institution but this jerk who phoned the police definitely is,” someone wrote on Facebook. Others have pointed out that Smith’s school of social work and the Northampton police have “anti-racism” stances.

Many are not as surprised. “This is ridiculous! No student should ever go through this!” one person wrote. “How many incidences need to happen at Smith before something is done? I can think of 3 times last academic school year where a student of color was wrongfully treated by fellow Smithies or Smith staff. For a school that prides themselves on being progressive, their responses to events like this are enraging! We can hang banners on the houses all day long, but it has zero meaning when we don’t practice what we f***ing preach.”

Kanoute posted again a day later; now, she wants retribution in the form of the name of exactly who made this unjust assessment of her. “I demanded that the administration share the name of the person who made the 9-1-1 call so that they can confront and acknowledge the harm done to me as s student,” she wrote.

She called on her peers to share her message to pressure the school into releasing the name.

Smith won’t be doing that, however. “[P]rivacy laws preclude Smith from making public personnel-related outcomes of any investigation,” Smith College president Kathleen McCartney wrote to the faculty, staff and students.

Amy Hunter, interim director of inclusion, diversity and equity; institutional equity officer and title IX coordinator, explained the incident further in her own letter: “Campus Police responded to a call from an employee reporting an unknown person who ‘seemed to be out of place’ in a Smith building where the dining area was in use by the college’s summer programs. A Campus Police officer responded to the site and spoke with the individual, a Smith undergraduate student of color, who was on a break from her on-campus job. Campus Police found nothing suspicious about the student’s presence.”

According to Smith, the responding officer “determined that the call was unfounded.”

Both Hunter and McCartney acknowledge the flaws in Smith’s system that this occurrence has brought to light. “This incident has raised concerns in our community about bias and equity,” Hunter wrote. “Smith College does not tolerate race- or gender-based discrimination in any form. Such behavior can contribute to a climate of fear, hostility and exclusion that has no place in our community.” McCartney apologized to Kanoute in her letter, while Hunter says she has reached out to the student to “offer support and discuss next steps.”

Smith is bringing in a third-party investigator to deal with this employee and taking steps to avoid incidents like this in the future. “Beginning this fall, every Smith staff member will be required to participate in mandatory anti-bias training,” McCartney promises. They will also be working with campus police to “strengthen the protocols by which they triage, assess and respond to calls for assistance.”

Kanoute has not responded to Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for a comment.

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