Smith College student who was racially profiled while eating says the incident left her so shaken she can't sleep

A Smith College student who says she was racially profiled Tuesday while eating lunch on campus said the inc...

Posted: Aug 4, 2018 12:11 AM
Updated: Aug 4, 2018 12:11 AM

A Smith College student who says she was racially profiled Tuesday while eating lunch on campus said the incident left her so shaken she has had trouble eating and sleeping.

"I have to check my closet at night now before I go to bed; I'm terrified in my own room," said Oumou Kanoute, a rising sophomore at the Massachusetts college. "I don't even feel like leaving my room sometimes. I can't sleep or eat, and all I want is this person to understand the predicament they've put me in."

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The incident is the latest in a string of cases of white people calling authorities to report black people going about their everyday lives, including waiting for friends, napping or doing their jobs. Officials at Smith have apologized and placed an employee on leave pending an investigation.

Kanoute said she was eating lunch and reading a book in a common room on campus that requires keycard access when she noticed a white man and a white woman pacing outside the room's entrance.

Campus police arrived a short while later. Kanoute said the officer told her that an employee reported "a black man demonstrating suspicious behavior."

Kanoute is a 5-foot, 2-inch, 120-pound black woman with closely cropped hair. She said she has eaten in the common room before and has keycard access because she is teaching chemistry to high school girls at the college this summer.

"I'm not threatening," she said. "How can I be a threat? I hate to play the race card, but I just don't get it."

'He seems to be out of place'

Smith College, which has acknowledged an incident that matches Kanoute's description of what happened but has not named the student, on Friday put the employee who placed the call to campus police on leave pending the outcome of an external investigation, according to an online statement.

The campus police officer who responded determined that the call was unfounded because there was nothing suspicious, the school's institutional equity officer, Amy Hunter, said Wednesday in a statement.

Smith College also apologized for the incident, which Kanoute detailed in several Facebook posts.

"I am blown away at the fact that I cannot even sit down and eat lunch peacefully," Kanoute wrote. "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 added.

Kanoute said she wants to talk to the person who called police. She has asked the school to turn over the caller's name and audio of the call.

"I want to know what was said during that call that dehumanized me and criminalized me," she said. "It's the scariest and most upsetting thing that's ever happened to me."

Smith College on Friday released a redacted transcript of the short call, including how the caller described the student:

"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."

The dispatcher tells the caller someone will be sent to "check it out."

Later, according to the transcript, a "Responding Officer" states: "All clear. That was a student relaxing in the living room. They had lunch here. I guess and they decided to stay for a while."

Any campus police records must have references to involved parties removed if they are released, according to a Smith College policy reiterated online as part of the institution's response to this incident. No report was filed in this case since the responding officer determined that the call was unfounded, the college added.

'Clearly, we have important work to do'

In a message Thursday to students, Smith College President Kathleen McCartney apologized to the student and announced that the school is hiring a third-party investigator to review the incident.

"This painful incident reminds us of the ongoing legacy of racism and bias in which people of color are targeted while simply going about the business of their daily lives," McCartney said.

"Clearly, we have important work to do going forward as a community," she added.

In her message, McCartney said employees will now be required to attend "anti-bias training" and said the school will offer a series of workshops for faculty and staff on "identity, inclusion, bias-response and bias-prevention."

The private college in Northampton, Massachusetts, is one of the nation's oldest and largest women's colleges. Famous graduates include Julia Child, Gloria Steinem and Sylvia Plath.

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