Building an inclusive community requires trust

Wednesday , May 16, 2018 - 12:00 AM18 comments

Adrienne G. Andrews

Consider any of the following circumstances and ask yourself what you would do.

You are a graduate student who has been studying for hours in the lobby of your dorm. As many students do, you happen to fall asleep. Rather than waking you up, another student calls the police and says she does not think you belong in that space. What do you do?

You and your friends have packed your bags and are leaving an Airbnb. As you put your things in the car, police arrive and think you are a burglar. What do you do?

You enter a coffee shop to wait for a friend’s arrival before ordering. While there, you ask the manager if you can use the facilities. You are told bathrooms are for paying customers only. So you sit down to wait for your friend. The police are called. What do you do?

You are walking across the street to pick up a burrito for lunch before going to teach your class at the local college. When you reach the sidewalk, someone tells you to stop because you fit the description of a criminal suspect. What do you do?

Each of these circumstances is a real-life situation. How would you live if people challenged your right to be somewhere every day? Imagine your daily functions being monitored by others just because of the amount of melatonin in your body.

The first situation happened to a black graduate student at Yale University a few days ago. Lolade Siyonbola was reported on by a white peer who found Siyonbola’s behavior to be suspicious. Siyonbola was frustrated and annoyed, articulating that she was a tuition-paying student. Police then required her to unlock her dorm room and provide identification to prove she belonged.

The second situation occurred about two weeks ago in California when three black people and one white person were leaving an Airbnb they had rented. Police were called because the guests did not wave at a white woman in the neighborhood — that is why she said she called the police. Things escalated because police did not believe that Airbnb was a real thing. The guests were required to show their booking information and to call the owner to prove they belonged.

The third situation happened in Philadelphia about a month ago when Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, two men who happened to be black, chose to wait for their friend in a Starbucks before ordering. Police arrived, handcuffed the men without any explanation, and detained them for hours, finally releasing them when the district attorney declined to prosecute them for trespassing.

The final situation occurred three-and-a-half years ago in Massachusetts when a white woman called police following an attempted break-in where she believed the burglar was a black male. The police detained Steve Locke on the street for almost an hour, bringing the victim to him for possible identification. The victim had identified a black male, weighing about 160 pounds in a puffy coat and knit hat. Locke, a black male, wore a Ralph Lauren quilted blazer and curiously colored one-of-a-kind knit hat made by a friend.

In each case, the individuals were questioned about why they were in the places they were in. They were required to provide identification and publicly humiliated for living while black. In each situation, they fit a description of a body that did not belong somewhere others could be without issue — in a dorm, a neighborhood, at a coffee shop or simply crossing the street. When engaging in everyday actions is a cause for suspicion — none of us can be free.

In these circumstances, certain types of reactions can result in death. Because these actions happen every day, they wear you down. They become burdens no one should have to carry. Yet we expect people to be patient, calm and congenial when they are systemically marginalized in ways that dehumanize rather than in ways that validate our shared humanity.

If we say our communities are inclusive, and we appreciate and value diversity, then when we see diversity in the places we live, work and play, we should not question its validity. If there are a lack of diverse people in the spaces we operate, then perhaps we should be the ones to seek out diverse individuals and make sure they are included, encouraged and belong. Otherwise, we continue to do damage to the same people we say live with us, one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

Adrienne Andrews is assistant vice president for Diversity at Weber State University.

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