When Lolade Siyanbola, a black graduate student at Yale, was reported to campus police Monday night for napping in her dormitory common room, one officer’s words perfectly captured the Yale experience for people of color: “We’re in a Yale building,” the officer said, “and we need to make sure you belong here.” At Yale—my alma mater—the question of who does and who doesn’t belong is a perpetual one. For many years the university has strived to present itself as an isolated but influential utopia for progressive thought. Those of us who have attended Yale know better. Lolade’s familiar story of presumed black guilt is forcing the university to reckon with how even at Yale, black innocence is often ignored to protect white spaces. When I asked Lolade about the incident, she said, “I thought: the audacity, the ridiculousness. This is America, though. This is what happens in America.”
On Monday night, Lolade fell asleep during a common ritual for diligent graduate students: writing a “marathon of papers” through the night. Around 1:30 a.m., she awoke to a white student, Sarah Braasch, questioning her: “Is there someone in here?” Braasch asked. “Is there someone sleeping in here? You’re not supposed to be here.”
Lolade’s fellow student—who has a history of racially charged statements and discrimination—went on to call the police and report an “unauthorized person in the common room.” Lolade captured a 17-minute Facebook video of the interrogation, which has garnered 1.2 million views over several days. The video captures Lolade’s refusal to brook invalidation. “I deserve to be here,” she said. “I am not going to justify my existence here.”
Stories like Lolade’s have become familiar even to the whites who once might never have seen the ways black people are deemed threatening for merely existing in public spaces. In recent weeks, the arrest of two black men meeting at a Philadelphia Starbucks and the police interrogation of two black Airbnb guests have made headlines and served as reminders that black people are still viewed as dangerous until proven docile.
Yale is no different than America, but it desperately hopes to be. Beginning at Yale months before Barack Obama’s election as president, I watched students at the university—whose population is 71 percent white (though that figure includes students self-reporting more than one race)—stake a claim to its false, aspirational self: a place where the affluent were not out-of-touch.* A post-racial paradise where my professors and classmates were quick to argue for class-based policies, but ignored race, and students wrote op-eds urging everyone to “leave colors out of it.”
But such post-raciality is especially impossible for a place like Yale. Why? In aiming to create a progressive bastion, communities like Yale define racism as isolated events of explicit hatred— not the more common, less-obvious forms of socialized discrimination experienced by students like Lolade. By claiming to be colorblind, Yale ultimately became blind to both my black peers and me. And in a community so dominated by unconcerned students and administrators, white silence was effective in drowning out the voices of color begging to heard.
In talking about race at Yale, Lolade brought up Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson’s definition of a “white space.” “Most of America is comprised of white spaces,” Lolade said. “You have radical white people at the micro and macro level who feel it’s their duty to keep their spaces white—at all costs.” In white spaces like Yale, black students—and all students of color—are forced to navigate spaces not built for them. For those black students, navigation often means assimilation—insincerely changing actions and beliefs in search of acceptance in a white space. But even that often isn’t enough to “prove” we belong, because the exclusivity of an Ivy naturally intensifies the effects of that white space. At institutions like Yale, which boasted a 6.9 percent acceptance rate in 2017, students are often led to believe their belonging is predicated on the exclusion of others. Braasch, the student who reported Lolade, didn’t see a peer: She saw a threat to her own belonging.
Though I lacked the terminology to describe it then, the white space of Yale was palpable for me as an undergraduate. For me, navigating this space did not involve trying to fade into it. Rather, in order to not let Yale subdue my blackness, I began to understand my racial identity as something bigger and more beautiful than myself. I did not desire to be post-racial because I did not desire to be post-black. More importantly, like many black students, I grew too aware of my unequal treatment to sincerely conceive of a colorblind reality.
Since Monday’s news, my former classmates and I have been forced to recount our own experiences with racial profiling at Yale. Mine included fearful avoidance by white students as I walked behind them at night. Unnecessary questioning by security guards seemingly unconcerned with my white peers. Banal everyday racism.
Several of my black classmates fared far worse, including my former roommate—who was stopped and questioned by police twice, and was even still hassled after showing his Yale ID in a Yale dorm. Another friend, after finding an intruder in his dorm room, called the Yale Police Department for assistance. When the officers arrived, they immediately assumed my friend was the intruder and launched into their interrogation before learning of their mistake.
Yale’s response to the recent incident, in which they openly acknowledged the “unqualified evil” of racism on their campus, is dramatically different than that of the supposed “post-racial” climate during my four years. That’s heartening. They’ve begun to plan listening sessions and training on ways for students to address discrimination. But Lolade, who a few weeks ago with other students revived the Graduate Students of Color Coalition, has bigger plans, including enhancing the recruitment and retention of black students, and establishing a racial discrimination office to help prevent and resolve incidents likes hers.
For black students at Yale to truly belong, there has to be a moral shift across the campus—and not just for the sake of students who look like Lolade and me, but for the university itself. “If Yale truly wants to continue to compete in the 21st century,” Lolade pointed out, “diversity cannot be a buzzword. The very fiber has to change.”
Changing the fiber of Yale means more than holding one-off listening sessions for students. It doesn’t mean everyone doing their best. It means holding a mirror to both the student body and police department, and forcing them to acknowledge their biases. More importantly, it means training them to defuse those biases in ways that help forge one community through acceptance, not exclusion. Former students like me, and current students like Lolade, came to Yale in hopes of finding a place where we belong without need for justification. A place we can call home.
Update, May 14, 2018: This post has been updated to clarify a statistic about the racial breakdown of the Yale student body.