Be­ware daily of liv­ing while black in Amer­ica

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - METRO - Gra­cie Bonds Sta­ples Only In The AJC

By now, much of the world knows about Ou­mou Kanoute, the Smith Col­lege sopho­more who looked sus­pi­cious eat­ing in a com­mon area on the west­ern Mas­sachusetts cam­pus.

An em­ployee of the school, the story goes, saw her and called po­lice, say­ing Kanoute, who is black, “seems to be out of place.”

Po­lice quickly dis­cerned the young woman was a stu­dent “re­lax­ing in the liv­ing room.” No charges were filed, but the rest of us found out about what hap­pened af­ter Kanoute posted the in­ci­dent on her Face­book page.

“To­day some­one felt the need to call the po­lice on me while I was sit­ting down read­ing, and eat­ing in a com­mon room at Smith Col­lege,” she wrote. “I did noth­ing wrong, I wasn’t mak­ing any noise or both­er­ing any­one. All I did was be black.”

“This is why be­ing black in Amer­ica is scary,” she wrote, sum­ming up her in­ter­ac­tion for the of­fi­cer.

With that, Kanoute be­came one of the lat­est African-Amer­i­cans to face a po­lice call be­cause some­one was sus­pi­cious of their pres­ence.

Re­mem­ber stu­dent Lo­lade Siy­on­bola who a few months ago fell asleep at Yale Univer­sity and was

awak­ened by a woman who said she was call­ing po­lice. Re­mem­ber the two men who were ar­rested in Septem­ber while wait­ing for a friend at a Philadel­phia Star­bucks? What about the three teens who were pro­filed last spring while prom shop­ping at a St. Louis area Nord­strom Rack?

These in­ci­dences have been hap­pen­ing with such reg­u­lar­ity, they have their own hash­tag: #Liv­ingWhileBlack.

You know what re­ally both­ers me?

These cases demon­strate in­tru­sion and vi­o­la­tion of the pri­vacy and sanc­tity of a black per­son’s daily rou­tine.

“Ac­cu­sa­tions and calls to po­lice pro­claim that cer­tain peo­ple — black peo­ple — are not wel­come here, wher­ever here hap­pens to be at the mo­ment,” said Deborah Co­han, a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of South Carolina-Beau­fort. “Cases like the ones at Smith and Star­bucks are on a con­tin­uum with these sug­gest­ing that the mun­dane ac­tiv­i­ties of blacks need to be mon­i­tored and scru­ti­nized and that they are in­deed sus­pect. In­stead of only driv­ing while black, we now have eat­ing while black or us­ing the bath­room while black.”

What this case also re­veals, Co­han said, is the cul­ture of fear where any­one who is ren­dered “other” is to be feared.

If you’re sud­denly think­ing that there’s some­thing eerily fa­mil­iar about these times, I feel you.

I’d been try­ing to put my fin­ger on it for some time, and then this news­pa­per’s birth­day ar­rived, and I re­mem­bered news­pa­per ed­i­tor Eu­gene Pat­ter­son who fa­mously wrote “A flower for the graves” pub­lished in 1963 about the Birm­ing­ham, Ala., church bomb­ing that killed four lit­tle girls on their way to Sun­day school.

I’m by no means say­ing that these in­ci­dences are as se­ri­ous as four lit­tle girls dy­ing, but what I am say­ing is that all of us should be both­ered by what we’re wit­ness­ing.

To para­phrase Pat­ter­son, we’re watch­ing the stage set for some­thing just as sin­is­ter with­out say­ing it; we’re lis­ten­ing to the pro­logue unbe­stirred; and the cur­tain open­ing with dis­in­ter­est.

“We — who go on elect­ing politi­cians who heat the ket­tles of hate,” Pat­ter­son wrote.

“We — who raise no hand to si­lence the mean and lit­tle men who have their (racial slur) jokes.

“We — the heirs of a proud South, who protest its worth and de­mand it recog­ni­tion— we are the ones who have ducked the dif­fi­cult, skirted the un­com­fort­able, cav­iled at the chal­lenge, re­sented the nec­es­sary, ra­tio­nal­ized the un­ac­cept­able, and cre­ated the day surely when” peo­ple are crim­i­nal­ized just for be­ing black.

I’ve been there, and I un­der­stood com­pletely when Kanoute, through tears, said she was afraid. I’ve felt that same fear, es­pe­cially for my hus­band.

To their credit, of­fi­cials at Smith have apol­o­gized to Kanoute and are plan­ning to re­quire anti-bias train­ing of their em­ploy­ees.

“These are well-in­tended and will hope­fully cre­ate more knowl­edge, aware­ness, and self-re­flec­tion,” Co­han said. “Yet, my own ex­pe­ri­ence with train­ings like these are that they are pri­mar­ily about cov­er­ing the in­ter­ests of the in­sti­tu­tion and thus re­sented.”

So what can we do? “We need to start con­ver­sa­tions about in­ter­sect­ing forms of op­pres­sion early and of­ten, Co­han said. “Chil­dren of­ten ask adults about dif­fer­ence when they are very lit­tle, when the mo­ment is ten­der and sup­ple and mal­leable — when it would be most pos­si­ble to gen­er­ate greater tol­er­ance, ac­cep­tance, care and love.

How we deal with those ques­tions will de­ter­mine Amer­ica’s fu­ture. If we get it right — and I hope we do — we could fi­nally look at is­sues of race in our rearview mirror and live as God com­mands us. To love him and each other.


“I wasn’t mak­ing any noise, dis­turb­ing any­one,” Smith Col­lege sopho­more Ou­mou Kanoute said. “I was just eat­ing, mind­ing my busi­ness, not both­er­ing any­one at all.”

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