By now, much of the world knows Oumou Kanoute, the Smith College sophomore who looked suspicious eating in a common area on the western Massachusetts campus.
An employee of the school, the story goes, saw her and called police, saying Kanoute, who is black, “seems to be out of place.”
Police responded quickly and just as quickly discerned the young woman was a student “relaxing in the living room.” No charges were filed, but the rest of us found out about what happened because Kanoute posted the incident on her Facebook page.
“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,” she wrote. “I did nothing wrong, I wasn’t making any noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black.”
“This is why being black in America is scary,” she wrote, summing up her interaction for the officer.
With that, Kanoute became the latest African-American to have had police called on them because someone was suspicious of their presence.
Remember Lolade Siyonbola who a few months ago fell asleep at Yale University and was awakened by a woman who said she was calling police. Remember the two men who were arrested in September while waiting for a friend at a Philadelphia Starbucks? What about the kids shopping at Nordstrom Rack?
These incidences have been happening with such regularity, they have their own hashtag: #LivingWhileBlack.
You know what really bothers me about these stories?
The surveillance and policing of black and brown people isn’t new.
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You know what else?
It could’ve been me.
And it’s even more than that.
These cases demonstrate intrusion and violation of the privacy and sanctity of a black person’s daily routine.
“Accusations and calls to police proclaim that certain people—black people—are not welcome here, wherever here happens to be at the moment,” said Deborah Cohan, a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort. “In recent years, we have seen a rapid succession of high profile cases in which black men and women have been brutally beaten up and killed by white police officers; cases like the ones at Smith and Starbucks are on a continuum with these suggesting that the mundane activities of blacks need to be monitored and scrutinized and that they are indeed suspect. Instead of only driving while black, we now have eating while black or using the bathroom while black.
What this case also reveals, Cohan said, is the culture of fear where anyone who is rendered “other” is to be feared.
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If you’re suddenly thinking that there’s something eerily familiar about these times, I feel you.
I’d been trying to put my finger on it for some time, and then this newspaper’s birthday arrived and I remembered Eugene Patterson who famously wrote “A flower for the graves” published in 1963 about the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four little girls on their way to Sunday school.
I’m by no means saying that these incidences are as serious as four little girls dying, but what I am saying is that all of us had better be bothered by what we’re witnessing.
To paraphrase Patterson, we’re watching the stage set for something just as sinister without saying it; we’re listening to the prologue unbestirred; and the curtain opening with disinterest.
“We — who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate,” Patterson wrote.
“We — who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their (racial slur) jokes.
“We — the heirs of a proud South, who protest its worth and demand it recognition—we are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when” people are criminalized just for being black.
I’ve been there and I understood completely when Kanoute, through tears, said she was afraid.
I’ve felt that same fear, especially for my husband.
To their credit, officials at Smith have apologized to Kanoute and are planning to require anti-bias training of their employees.
“These are well-intended and will hopefully create more knowledge, awareness, and self-reflection,” Cohan said. “Yet, my own experience with trainings like these are that they are primarily about covering the interests of the institution and thus resented.”
So what can we do?
“We need to start conversations about intersecting forms of oppression early and often, Cohan said. “Children often ask adults about difference when they are very little, when the moment is tender and supple and malleable—when it would be most possible to generate greater tolerance, acceptance, care and love.
How we deal with those questions will determine America’s future. If we get it right, and I hope we do, we could finally look at issues of race in our rear-view mirror and live as God has commanded us. To love him and each other.