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Callie's Commentary | August 13, 2018

The Smith College Incident Is What Everyday Racism Looks Like

Northampton Daily Life
A waterfall at Paradise Pond is seen from Smith College's campus in Northampton, MA.
Boston Globe/Boston Globe via Getty Images
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Callie's Commentary | August 13, 2018

Here we go again.

Another white person calling the police on a black person just living their lives. This time at Smith College where Oumou Kanoute, who is black and enrolled at the college, was almost alone eating in the lunchroom. A college employee — whose identity has not been revealed — called the campus cops describing Kanoute as a male “laying on the couch ... who seemed out of place.” The police officer went to the lunchroom and spoke to Kanoute, who explained who she was and told him, “people just feel, like threatened.” Afterward, Kanoute talked about how upset she was to have been singled out in her own space, saying, “All I did was be black.”

In the couple of weeks since the Smith College incident, I’ve been morbidly fascinated by the animated debate about whether what happened to Kanoute was, in fact, racist. Spoiler alert — it is.

I know that is not how the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby assessed it in his recent column, when he characterized this as a “minor misunderstanding.” He noted that the campus police officer “spoke politely to Kanoute, saw nothing was amiss, and left her in peace.”

It’s clear to me that Jeff, and all of the other commenters who agreed with him, don’t know what everyday racism looks like on the ground. So let me explain.

First, I am certain that if Kanoute were white, no matter how “out of place” she seemed to the college employee, there would have been no call. Just like the Philadelphia Starbucks barista did not call the police on the white customer who was sitting but had not ordered. And just like the white caller in Oakland’s Lake Merritt, who did not call the police on any of the white people there who regularly fired up their grills. Second, many people see racism only in terms of physical violence — the well-documented beatings of black Americans including women and children, shootings of unarmed black men, the burning of crosses.

But the most virulent racism is not physical, it is insidious and systemic, bred-in-the-national-fabric racism, which prevents black Americans from being first class citizens. This kind of racism does not look like what most people envision. It comes packaged in phone calls to the police when white people are uncomfortable or surprised to see black people in certain spaces. Be clear, this is an all too common racist scenario.

Also, be clear, from everything I’ve experienced, that people of color — contrary to what some believe — get no pleasure from calling out racist incidents. We would rather not have to explain our presence in an Airbnb. We would rather not be mocked by someone pulling their eyes back to mimic Asian features. We would rather not be screamed at on the job for speaking Spanish. Being targeted because of your race is painful, and no matter how regularly it happens, you never get used to it.

So I don’t really want to hear people who have never been on the receiving end, as Kanoute or I have, tell me what isn’t racist when I live it every day. Nearly every minute of every day. And I’m more privileged than most. So now that I’ve spoken politely, leave me in peace.

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