For many college students, the first days and weeks of the fall semester are filled with excitement and anticipation. But for Oumou Kanoute, a sophomore at Smith College, returning to the school's Northampton, MA campus filled her with dread.
In July, an employee of the elite women's college called campus police on Kanoute, who is Black, as she sat and ate lunch in Tyler House, one of the school's dining and residence halls.
"As I grabbed a plate, an employee came up to me and told me I wasn’t supposed to eat there. I had told her I can go get my keycard and show that I’m with this program that gives me permission to eat there and have access to this dining hall," Kanoute, who is on a pre-med track, told Refinery29 in an interview on Monday. "She said. 'It’s fine, I’m just letting you know.'"
But a few hours later, as Kanoute was eating and using her iPad, she said she noticed the woman who told her she wasn't allowed to be there and another man pacing back and forth. Soon after, a campus police officer approached her, telling her an employee called to say she "looked out of place," which was caught on video that Kanoute posted to her Facebook page. (A Smith employee not directly involved in the incident has defended their colleague, saying the call had nothing to do with racial bias.)
The incident ended without escalating and the officer apologized. "It’s quite a dangerous predicament to be put in if you’re Black," she said. "In any interaction with a police officer, I would want to be anything but Black in that moment because I know the threat that my skin color puts me in because of others' perceptions that tend to demonize Blackness or people of color in general."
The school issued a statement and the employee who made the call was placed on leave pending an investigation. While the episode seems to have been wrapped up neatly and has since faded from headlines and Twitter conversations, Kanoute is still living it.
In any interaction with a police officer, I would want to be anything but Black in that moment because I know the threat that my skin color puts me in because of others' perceptions.
What's often not talked about in high-profile incidents of racial bias is the aftermath; for someone who may have felt their life was in danger or felt humiliation by having police baselessly called on them in front of peers, the trauma lasts longer than the virality of their story.
"I really don’t feel comfortable on this campus. I really don’t feel like I belong," Kanoute told Refinery29. "I have trouble sitting and enjoying meals in dining halls and in common spaces if there’s no one else with me. I’m hypersensitive to even grabbing a plate." Kanoute, who is a first generation college student at a school where less than 6% of the study body is Black, said through tears that the incident has left her and her family rattled: "Me coming to Smith is my mother’s dream. And for me to have to call her and tell her about this and her response to be ‘Thank God you’re alive. I could’ve been burying you today' ... My mom shouldn’t fear for my life for sending me away to school."
Kanoute said in her family's native Mali, "women often have to stop going to school because they get pregnant at a young age, are married off, get their periods, or simply can't afford fees," so she understands the significance and the importance of her being at a school like Smith.
Kanoute notes that what happened to her is not a singular issue at Smith, a school where the first Black women to ever graduate from the institution, Otelia Cromwell, was not even allowed to live on campus or use the same facilities as white students.
"I’ve had friends who’ve had campus police called on their Black boyfriends while waiting for them in a common," she said. "I had a friend whose dad was seen as a threat and a student called campus police because they saw a Black man walking around the dorms visiting his daughter on a parents weekend."
The issue, according to Kanoute, is one of institutional racism that is present at many of the nation's elite colleges and universities. In May, a similar incident happened to a Black Yale student who was napping in her dorm's common room. "Places like Smith, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Middlebury ... they’re not built for students like us yet," she said. "It’s a very hard environment to be in when you’re always one of very few POC in any setting."
More than a month later, little movement has been made in Kanoute's case. A lawyer for the ACLU, which is now representing her, told Refinery29 that Smith College "has yet to offer any signs that they are interested in engaging in any serious, meaningful pre-litigation negotiations. We are still waiting for them to come to the table."
For Kanoute, the school's "half apology" and statement is not enough. "I want the school to acknowledge this is wrong. I want restorative justice. I want to be able to confront the people involved," she said. "I want Smith to adopt new policies and training to prevent what happened to me from happening to other students. I want more steps taken to address institutional racism at Smith."
People want us to contribute to the culture of the school yet the school doesn’t necessarily nurture our intellectual growth, our social growth.
Ultimately, Kanoute wants to not only feel comfortable and like she belongs on campus again, but that she is valued by the Smith community.
"People want us to contribute to the culture of the school yet the school doesn’t necessarily nurture our intellectual growth, our social growth," she said. "Why should I have to explain to a campus police officer than I’m a student here?"
This story was originally published on September 11, 2018 at 12:57 p.m. It has since been updated.