It’s a familiar story. A black person is minding their own business. A white woman notices them and calls the cops.
The latest event in a long historical pattern took place at Yale University this week (paywall). A black graduate student, Lolade Siyonbola, was taking a nap in her dorm’s common room on Monday night after an evening writing papers. A white woman who also lives in the dorm noticed Siyonbola sleeping, told her she was not supposed to be there, and called campus security. “I have every right to call the police. You cannot sleep in that room,” the woman said in the first of two Facebook videos posted by Siyonbola.
The fallout is captured in a 17-minute Facebook video posted by Siyonbola, which now has more than 600,000 views. She shows the campus officers her room key and unlocks her apartment; the officers press her to produce identification, while Siyonbola questions whether the request is justified. Once the officers verify her identity, they leave.
The incident is the latest in a string of high-profile incidents that have exposed a troubling, often-overlooked truth about racial discrimination in the US. The Black Lives Matter movement intensified focus on police brutality in black communities, which tends to involve white male police officers’ violence against black men, sometimes with deadly results. But Siyonbola’s experience highlights the fact that white women play a role in encounters between the police and black Americans, too. Again and again, the news cycle highlights stories of white women who felt threatened by the mere presence of a black person in a public space, and called the cops.
Consider a number of recent stories that have made national news in the US. On May 8, a white woman spotted three black women checking out of their Airbnb rental and called the police. Seven police cars showed up; the police instructed the black women to put their hands in the air, and told them that a police helicopter was encircling them. The officers let the women leave once they showed their Airbnb booking confirmations and phoned the home’s landlord, who told the police they were indeed guests, and not burglars. In April, two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks (paywall) after a white female employee called the cops. Their crime? Sitting at a table and waiting for their friend. The two men were held for nine hours and eventually released without charge.
Jessie Daniels, a professor at The City University Of New York, notes in the Huffington Post that these incidents follow a well-established blueprint in the US. When the Starbucks employee called the police, Daniels writes, “she was deploying a technology that was designed to protect white women from men like Nelson and Robinson ― one that relies on the constant surveillance, threatened incarceration and oppression of black men.”
White women’s recent choices in the voting booth have also demonstrated how they prop up racial injustice. Exit polls showed that 52% of white women backed Donald Trump, known for anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Over a year later, when voters in Alabama went to the polls to choose between Democrat candidate Doug Jones and Trump-favored Republican Roy Moore, who was accused of child molestation, white women voted overwhelmingly for Moore. By comparison, exit polls showed that 98% of black women backed Jones.
The results of the Alabama election led to an outpouring of love for black women. The latest incidents of racial profiling suggest that white women may be in for a powerful reckoning about how their ideas about who, and what, is dangerous put other people’s safety at risk.