Oumou Kanoute should be excited to return for her next semester at Smith College.
But she’s not.
Instead, the rising sophomore says she’s “terrified” to go back to the school’s campus in Western Massachusetts.
Kanoute says she hasn’t felt comfortable there since July 31, when a college employee called campus police after seeing the black 21-year-old eating lunch in a school building during a break from her summer campus job. The staff member reported her as someone who “seem[ed] to be out of place.”
The school later said campus police found “nothing suspicious” about the student’s presence in the building.
Kanoute said she’s done her best to forget the experience of being approached by a uniformed officer asking what she was doing in the school building. But even being back home in New York, surrounded by family and loved ones, she said she’s felt the school year “creeping up on her” with the rising fear that she will face a similar situation again.
In a way, she says it feels “inevitable.”
“If you’re black, the color of your skin and your existence [is] always contested by society in one form or another,” Kanoute told Boston.com. “I shouldn’t have to be afraid to sit down and eat my lunch — to read a book some place quietly where I have access. I shouldn’t be afraid to wear a hoodie. I shouldn’t be afraid to jog to class. My heart shouldn’t race when I see a campus police car or a cop car. Little things like that already made me nervous before because of what I see on the news, but now that it’s actually happened to me, it makes me hypersensitive to the fact that it could happen again. And that it could be worse if it were to happen again.”
Before the incident, she said she felt comfortable on the campus of the all-female college.
“I just don’t feel safe,” the 21-year-old said. “But I can’t leave. I’m not only advocating for myself, I’m also advocating for my peers. I need to pressure change on that campus to make it a better place for incoming students in the future.”
As she recounted the decision to start filming when she saw a uniformed police officer approaching her, Kanoute started to cry.
“I just immediately thought of my family and started praying,” she said. “And in my head I was just like, ‘Stay calm. Do not stand up. Do not try to walk away. Just stay where you are. Be polite, answer their questions, and use your phone.’ That’s all I could think.”
Kanoute said, initially, she didn’t want to share what happened to her that day in a public forum.
Instead, she said she planned to send an email to the school administration to let them know what happened and say that “something needs to be done.”
But conversations with other students led her to believe that what she experienced was a “frequent occurrence” that the administration had already been made aware of, she said.
“They were like, ‘Oh yeah, this is a frequent occurrence. It happens to black parents, it happens to students who have their black boyfriends visit them on the weekends,’ or something like that,” Kanoute said. “To me that was news. I had no idea that that was happening on my campus, within the community. I found out the hard way, I guess.”
The intended psychology major said she didn’t want her experience to be lost or swept under the rug. So she used social media to share her story late on July 31, posting images she took during the incident that occurred earlier in the day on Facebook.
As of Thursday, her post had been shared more than 3,000 times and had more than 1,800 comments.
“I didn’t want to be silenced,” Kanoute said.
Smith College says it has hired a third party to conduct an investigation into the incident and the staff member who called the police, whose name has not been released, will remain on leave pending its outcome.
In a statement, the school’s president, Kathleen McCartney, issued an apology to Kanoute for the incident, adding that she wanted to assure the student that “she belongs in all Smith spaces.”
“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,” the president wrote.
Kanoute says the last three weeks have been hard. Because along with the encouraging and understanding messages she’s received, she’s also been subjected to criticism — on social media and in the media.
One of the most difficult things, she said, is when people tell her “how [she] should feel about racism.”
“Basically devaluing my existence and my entire experience as a woman of color,” she said. “To have a white person tell me how I should feel about racism is just — I don’t even have the words. To have someone — who has never experienced racism — tell me how I should react to it or how I should respond.”
She pointed to an article by Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby titled, “At Smith College, the racist incident that wasn’t,” as an example of the criticism and attitude she’s encountered. [Boston.com is owned by the same parent company, Boston Globe Media Partners, as the Globe.]
“Misunderstandings happen,” Jacoby wrote in his column. “One aspect of maturity is learning to distinguish malice from error. What happened to Kanoute last week was unfair, but it was a momentary unpleasantness, not a hateful assault on her dignity as a black woman.”
“There are a lot of people out there who think like this man and who don’t realize the reality of racism and how it affects my day-to-day life,” the Smith student said of the column. “It affects my health, it affects my sleep. It affects whether I eat, it affects where I go to school, it affects where I live, it affects where I’ll get a job in the near future. It affects everything if you’re black.”
Kanoute said she’s “forever grateful” for the support that poured in from fellow students, alumni, and strangers after she shared her experience.
“Being black shouldn’t be a burden,” she said. “I’m proud to be the skin that I’m in, I’m proud to be able to succeed and rise above all the criticism and society’s standard demands to basically limit my existence and being in all the things that I want to stand up for. It’s just hard being black and being a woman. You always constantly have to prove yourself to people. … It’s sad that I have to do so much racial labor to teach people how to not be racist. It’s like c’mon, we’re not in the ’50s, you know? You would think that this kind of stuff wouldn’t be happening right now.”
The 21-year-old said she wants to continue to raise awareness — to help young kids know what to do if they are in a scenario like the one she faced.
What if she weren’t a student at Smith, she asked, would media outlets still be reaching out to her for what she experienced? What would her platform be?
“What if I was just a kid — a little black boy playing basketball in the park?” Kanoute said through tears. “What would have happened to me? Would I be given such a huge platform? Would people be so willing to support me and listen to my story? We as black children should not have to go through this. It’s emotionally draining and it’s just not right.”
She also wants to push for more action from Smith College in connection to the July 31 incident, including a face-to-face apology from the employee who called the police.
“I just want the caller to understand the emotional harm that they’ve caused me — mentally and emotionally,” Kanoute said.
Smith officials declined to comment to Boston.com on whether McCartney would meet with Kanoute upon the start of classes or if school officials have spoken with the student.
The 21-year-old said she’s working with another student to push for the administration to do more on campus to make students of color feel safe and empowered.
“I want people — especially if they’re white — to stop exercising their white privilege by calling authorities on us, on people of color, for absolutely nothing except existing,” Kanoute said of what she wants people to take away from her experience. “I want them to realize that it’s just wrong. If you have a concern, at least approach the person and talk to them first before calling the police on them. I’m tired of being demonized and devalued and dehumanized for how I look. It’s just not fair. I am not a threat.”