Napping While Black (and Other Transgressions)

A wall on Yale’s campus in 2015, around the time that more than 1,000 students, professors and staff members gathered to discuss issues of race and diversity at the school.

Napping. Add that to the list of activities — driving, walking, laughing, waiting for someone in Starbucks, checking out of an Airbnb — that put you at risk of being interrogated by the police if you are black.

Early Tuesday morning, Lolade Siyonbola, a graduate student at Yale, fell asleep in her dorm’s common room, where she’d been working on a paper. At around 1:30 a.m. she was awakened when a white student turned on the lights and said, according to Ms. Siyonbola: “Is there someone in here? Is there someone sleeping in here? You’re not supposed to be here.” The student, Sarah Braasch, then called the campus police.

“You’re in a Yale building and we need to make sure that you belong here,” one of the officers said to Ms. Siyonbola, in a 15-minute exchange she videotaped and posted to Facebook.

After Ms. Siyonbola used her key to open the door to her room, the police still doubted that she belonged there and asked to see her ID.

At that point, she said: “I deserve to be here; I paid tuition like everybody else; I am not going to justify my existence here.” You can watch the whole back-and-forth here.

In an email to students, the university called the incident “deeply troubling.

Also troubling: Last week Thomas Kanewakeron Gray and Lloyd Skanahwati Gray, Native American brothers who drove seven hours to tour Colorado State University, had their visit cut short after a parent on the tour called 911. She told the dispatcher the two teenagers were “creepy” and “they stand out.” She also said they “made me feel sick” and were “real quiet.”

The message here is clear: Black and brown people seem out of place to some people when they encounter them in institutions of higher learning. Never mind that Ms. Siyonbola is earning a master’s degree in African studies, that she founded the Yoruba Cultural Institute in Brooklyn and that she is the author of a book about African history and diaspora migration. To her fellow student, she seemed like an interloper.

I know what that feels like.

When I was 18, I moved to Italy to attend an American liberal arts college. I hadn’t been the best high school student, and I imagined it would be difficult to learn a new language — it was — but I fell in love with school and I excelled in most of my courses.

I was thrilled to be on my own for the first time. I embraced what made Rome so different from the suburbs of Washington, where I’d grown up. (I’d never heard of an Aperol Spritz, let alone tried one.)

But even thousands of miles from home, one constant remained: I was constantly made aware of the color of my skin.

I was regularly asked if I was a prostitute in broad daylight, asked how much I cost while walking to class. I was pushed off a bus twice by angry old men. I was spat at. I was once locked in a taxi and propositioned by the driver. I got out only when I started to scream and hit the windows.

While subletting an apartment for a summer, the landlord came to pick up the rent money (this is common in Italy), and instead of just taking the money and giving me a receipt, he said I could keep my money if I just “had a little fun” with him. I declined, threw the money on the table and left the apartment. When I told the white student that I’d sublet the apartment from, she was skeptical and said she had never had any problems with the man.

In this environment, the campus, its supportive professors and the group of friends I found became a haven. But on a few occasions, it felt like the nastiness outside the school found its way in.

My junior year, I took a rigorous course that nearly everyone dropped after the first week. One day, the professor asked me a question and my response fell short. He laughed. I later learned he had posted about the response on his Facebook account, calling out students who ask silly questions. The same professor later told me he was “surprised” I got into Columbia Journalism School.

A few weeks after I received that message, a different professor accused me of plagiarizing a history paper. I showed him my sources; it was clear I hadn’t done so.

I loved school and wanted to shrug off these experiences. But while I could chalk up the hostility on the street to Italian culture, in the classroom, I was surrounded by Americans. And the truth is that my white friends weren’t being questioned about the validity of their work or asked to prove that they deserved to be there.

But I never said anything. I didn’t want to seem paranoid or overly sensitive. Most of all — amazingly — I didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable.

I remember one day during my senior year a staff member whom I had worked with several times over three years asked me how my family was “holding up with the war and all.” I was confused. My family is from Zimbabwe, but there was no war. I realized she had confused me with my friend and classmate who was South Sudanese. “They’re fine,” I told her, unsure of how to correct her and unwilling to take the time. My classmate was often mistaken for being me. We were the only black women in our class.

As a senior I became frustrated that the security guards asked for my ID every time I entered one of the campuses. That was the policy, sure, but they didn’t hold other students to the same standard. Others came and went without flashing theirs, yet I always had to show mine. I later heard from other students of color that this was a common experience.

After graduation, I moved to New York to attend Columbia Journalism School. There, a career counselor told me not to bother applying to Reuters, The Washington Post or The New York Times, even for internships. When I asked why, she told me I was too young and inexperienced, and it just wasn’t realistic.

I ignored her. I applied to that internship at Reuters. I got it.

She couldn’t imagine me there. But I knew I belonged.

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