June 01, 2018

Native Students Racially Profiled on University Tour

Eliza Racine

Racial profiling has become second nature in the United States. Our society is immersed in othering people of color, and it proves difficult to maintain a sense of safety in one’s daily life when the most mundane activities can warrant someone calling the cops. While many recent incidents involve black and Latino people being unfairly discriminated against, racial profiling unfortunately also affects Native Americans at alarming and disproportional rates.

One of the latest incidents of anti-Native profiling, sadly, occurred on a university campus.

Two Mohawk teenage brothers, Thomas (left) and Lloyd (right) Gray, traveled from Santa Fe, N.M. for a tour of their dream school, Colorado State University (CSU). However, after arriving late for the tour on April 30, a paranoid 45-year-old white mother called 911 concerned for how “odd” they were acting in being quiet, not answering her questions, and wearing black clothing with metal band T-shirts.

Campus police pulled the brothers aside, patted them down, and asked for IDs and why they weren’t “cooperating” with their group. After being shown an email confirmation of their tour and determining they weren’t a threat, the police let the Grays go, but they missed the rest of their tour.

CSU issued an apology, called the incident “shameful on so many levels,” and asserted that the Grays did nothing wrong. On May 4, Tony Frank, president of CSU, sent out an email to all students for new changes to campus tours. Tour guests will be given badges and lanyards, and tour guides will be the first point of contact if police want to speak to anyone in the group.

CSU also offered a VIP campus tour to the Grays with all expenses paid.

Their case unfortunately isn’t the first or last example of racial profiling across the U.S. Recently, a white Ph.D student called the police on Lolade Siyonbola, a black student, for falling asleep in a Yale dorm common area. In New York, Aaron Schlossberg threatened to call ICE over restaurant workers speaking Spanish.

This trend is not only terrifying, but dehumanizing for people of color. Continued instances like these can make them feel like they don’t belong in certain spaces. Nobody should be deemed dangerous for things like touring campuses, sleeping in dorm halls, or barbecuing in a public park.

Being uncomfortable around someone who is different from you is not a good enough excuse to call the police.

– Amber Gantt, contributor to University of Denver’s student-run newspaper The Clarion

During the CSU incident, the unnamed white mother even admitted in her 911 call that she was probably acting paranoid out of concern about recent school shootings, even though the brothers weren’t carrying anything else with them to indicate a profile consistent with school shooters. None of those doubts stopped her from shifting blame onto teenagers for acting “creepy” and not answering her questions.

As Amber Gantt, a contributor to the University of Denver’s student-run newspaper The Clarion, mentions in her observations of this case of racial profiling, “Being uncomfortable around someone who is different from you is not a good enough excuse to call the police.”

After hearing about the incident and concerned for their safety, the boys’ mother, Lorraine, told them to come home to New Mexico immediately.

“It was one of their first experiences out into the real world,” she said in an interview with the Denver Post. Despite the apologetic messages, Lorraine is still not ready to talk to CSU officials yet. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) joined the Gray family to represent them and create a plan of legal action.

Across many Native American tribes— including Mohawk, Lakota, and Navajo—, being reserved and quiet is considered respectful, as children are taught to listen and absorb information before speaking.

“It’s not uncommon to have the students being really intent on listening to somebody as a means of learning and means of respect,” said Kara Bobroff, founder of the Native American Community Academy to the Associated Press. “It’s not a value to put yourself out in front of everybody, necessarily. It doesn’t need to happen to define success.”

This case of racial profiling highlights the cultural gap between tribal systems and mainstream American college systems where professors and other students are unaware of how Native American values are different from their own, and can misinterpret them as disrespectful or suspicious. As Native Americans only make up 1 percent of U.S college students—less than half finish a four-year university— there are few resources to establish a sense of community away from home or educate non-Native people on racial sensitivity.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Roy Taylor, a Pawnee man with a son who recently graduated from Pomona College, was not surprised by the caller’s questioning of the Grays’ presence. While touring colleges, Taylor and his son also received numerous questions from parents about their backgrounds.

“It was disconcerting at times and felt intrusive, but nothing of the scale of this woman’s intrusions,” Taylor said. “I think sometimes those parents, they believe that’s their way of being friendly. But it doesn’t come across that way.”

The escalation of intrusivity and misrepresentation has the possibility of becoming hostile.

On May 6, Nicolas Rojas, a 20-year-old Cherokee student, was denied access to Marymount California University after showing a security guard his tribal identification card, which he used before, without issue, to apply for jobs and travel. The guard heatedly interrogated Rojas for half an hour and threatened to arrest him while letting in other people without checking for any ID. The university issued an apology but excused Officer J. Girgis’s reactions for the “lack of familiarity” with the ID.

In a country founded on the genocide of Native Americans, it is long past due for all of us to question our biases around skin color, or indeed any form of difference. American universities must quickly get familiar with their underrepresented students and provide them the tools to succeed and feel welcome. We all must re-examine our implicit biases, work to eliminate racial profiling with a recognition of how much more harm than good it does, and delegitimize undue paranoia from settler communities.