At 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning, a white student discovered a black woman napping in her residence hall lounge at Yale University. She decided to call the police. The two women had never met before, but because the black woman was unknown to the white student, the white student decided to promptly flip on the lounge’s overhead lights, inform the black woman that she had no right to be there, and call the police to report an “unauthorized person” in the lounge.
What ensued for the black woman, who was taking a power nap for her “marathon of papers” due for her master’s degree classes — also at Yale — was a traumatic 17-minute encounter with campus police. As police attempted to card Lolade Siyonbola (the black student) to prove her identity, Siyonbola performed what is becoming a far too common response for black people when their existence seems to challenge white entitlement to space and power: She pulled her phone out and began recording.
If you could just see our degradation with your own eyes, maybe — just maybe — you might act in the name of what is just.
In her video with the police, Siyonbola is dismayed as to why she is being questioned at all. She wants to know why the white student — who has a history of calling the police on black students for existing in the same space as her — isn’t being sent to a “mental institution.” Her encounter with the police is complicated further when they find inconsistencies with Siyonbola’s preferred name as compared to what is listed in the school’s records.
In Siyonbola’s other video taken of her white accuser, Ph.D. student Sarah Braasch, Braasch stands in front of her apartment while filming Siyonbola and says, “I have every right to call the cops. You cannot sleep in that room.”
There is a chilling truth to Braasch’s words. They reveal a foundational American belief in the inhumanity of black life.
Yale’s student body is 52 percent white and just 13 percent black. Though Braasch belongs to the racial majority at her university, she somehow felt threatened by a black racial minority.
Why? Well, in the United States, white people know, deep down, that our universities and other institutions were designed for them. White people know that they are valued more than black men, women, and children. White people know that their word carries more weight, their tears are more potent, and their fears will always be justified when confronted by a body that is black. Because being black in this country perpetually marks you as other, different, out of place, and not worthy of belonging in the same ways as white people.
In my professional life, I facilitate anti-racism trainings for my university. And at the core of each presentation, I’m pushing white people to recognize the humanity of black people.
When I was younger and learning about the Civil Rights Movement, I was astounded by the impeccably dressed black men marching on the sidewalks and streets holding placards that read, “I am a man.” That testament of their existence — of their right to be treated with dignity, respect, and empathy — always broke my heart.
Documenting the dehumanization of black life through video is the most recent page in the tome of white American paranoia and entitlement around racial “others.” Their videos serve as the latest demand that black people deserve to live their lives, have fun at wineries, go to Starbucks, stay at Airbnbs, play golf, continue their education, take naps, and live just as freely as white people.
This viral phenomena pushes viewers of all backgrounds to reckon with the lengths black people must go in order to have our grievances believed. Underlying each video is the belief that if you could just see our degradation with your own eyes, maybe — just maybe — you might act in the name of what is just. Maybe you would see that we aren’t overreacting. Maybe you’ll see that these individual acts are a part of a larger racial cancer in our country. Maybe you’ll examine how you are part of the problem.
As many as four police officers interrogated Siyonbala about her encounter with Braasch. Throughout their exchange, they implied that she wasn't being cooperative and attempted to de-escalate her by telling her not to worry about getting in trouble.
Putting her master’s degree in African Studies to good use, she responded in the best way possible, saying, “I know it’s going to be OK. I know I’m not in trouble. My ancestors built this university.”
This op-ed solely reflects the views of the author, and is part of a larger, feminist discourse.