‘Things happen at Stanford that we don’t talk about’: One student’s experience with racial profiling

July 29, 2020, 12:09 p.m.

When Black Student Union (BSU) co-president Sierra Porter ’22, first received her Stanford acceptance letter, she felt special; she felt chosen. Stepping onto campus for Admit Weekend, the dreamlike impression continued. 

“It’s like Disneyland,” Porter said. “It’s a fairy tale.” 

After talking to other students at Admit Weekend, however, that facade started to crumble. 

“The students that were there told me, ‘Sierra, I know it seems all glamorous and like a fairy tale now, but you have to understand it’s not perfect,’” she recounted. “‘And when you get here you will see that for yourself.’” 

Now as a rising junior, Porter can definitely say there are problems at Stanford that are rarely fully addressed — racism and racial profiling on campus being two of them. 

In her frosh year, Porter lived on West Campus in Ujamaa, Stanford’s African American ethnic-themed dorm where 50% of residents are Black. Living there, Porter said she immediately noticed that police presence was constant. At first she brushed it off — East Campus probably had constant police presence as well. However, when she moved to Castaño her sophomore year, she said she began to realize that that wasn’t the case — police presence on this side of campus seemed very minimal in comparison to what she had been familiar with. 

In her whole year of living on East Campus, she occasionally saw police checking for bike lights, witnessed a total of two students pulled over and never once received an email alerting students to the presence of police on any East Campus street. Her email inbox from the year before had been filled with over a hundred messages sent by other Black and Brown students via an email list they call the diaspora, all bearing more or less the same succinct warning: “Cops on Santa Teresa. End of message.”

In one incident, Porter had to suddenly scramble to turn on her bike’s lights after noticing a police car parked in the dark of an alleyway on West Campus, seemingly waiting to catch student offenders.

In response to a request for comment on apparent increased police presence near Ujamaa, Stanford University Department of Public Safety (SUDPS) spokesperson Bill Larson said that “as a general rule, one deputy is assigned to the west side of campus and one to the east side of campus.” 

Porter also remembered various times when police chased her and her friends for no apparent reason, forcing them to escape into the Ujamaa building. In a particularly memorable experience, a police car drove across Lake Lagunita with its headlights on towards her and her group of friends until they ran into Ujamaa for safety. 

“I had never seen cars drive on [the lake] until the police chased us that day,” Porter said.

Larson listed marijuana, alcohol and other illegal substance use on the lake bed as reasons for deputies to be policing the area but wrote that “it would not be permissible for a deputy to ‘chase’ someone without reason or cause.”

The glaring disparity of her experiences compared to those of other students left Porter feeling profiled during her year of living in Ujamaa — and she wasn’t the only one. Kory Gaines ’21 wrote an opinions piece for The Daily, expressing similar sentiments over the “casual policing” on campus that seems to disproportionately target Black students.  

Larson wrote that SUDPS has been doing implicit bias training for its personnel for “several years,” just this March having completed “16 hours of Intercultural Competency training.”

Porter’s negative race-related experiences on campus aren’t limited to incidents with the police, however. In classroom settings, Porter felt singled out because of her race, treated as the spokesperson for all Black people and was faced with microaggressions and uncomfortable comments from fellow non-Black students to the point where she considered dropping a class. 

These instances of being singled out or targeted because of her race have taken their toll.

 “Now, when I’m [near the lake], if I see headlights I’m panicking,” Porter said. “I’m like ‘We need to be ready to move, shoes need to be on, there’s no time to talk and relax — we need to go.’”

“It doesn’t even have to stem from you doing something shady or not. It’s just the fact that you feel targeted in a space that’s supposed to be safe for you,” she added. 

After facing continual microaggressions in the classroom and finding very few people willing to step up and speak out against such statements and actions, Porter said she felt unprotected. Ultimately accepting the apologies she received for the microaggressions, Porter said she is ready to move on but still acknowledges that similar instances are not talked about enough at the University. 

She attributes the lack of conversation and action around similar cases of microagressions and racial profiling to the wish of the University to maintain the specific image and reputation that even she bought into when she first arrived at Stanford. 

University spokesperson E.J. Miranda did not offer comment on this specific criticism but told The Daily that the University realizes that “as an institution, Stanford must continue to evolve to become a more inclusive and equitable campus community” and that they “are committed to that goal.” 

He also pointed The Daily to a message from Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne sent on June 10 that announced the formation of the Community Board on Public Safety, which will be “tasked with building relationships and fostering communication and trust between Stanford’s Department of Public Safety and the broader campus community.”

SUDPS and its personnel are “supportive of exploring ways in which [the public safety department] can best serve the community” and “[look] forward to the Community Board on Public Safety… being an avenue for community discussion around the way in which policing is done on campus,” according to Larson. 

From Porter’s perspective, requiring all enrolled students to take a class on race issues could also help create awareness around the Black experience at Stanford. Much like all students are required to take a class on safe alcohol and drug use before attending the school, all students could take this course, providing them with knowledge and awareness of race issues both on campus and on a national level. 

In a different message to the campus community sent in late June, Tessier-Lavigne listed a similar initiative among other plans to address race-related issues on campus. 

“The provost is… working with the offices of VPUE, VPGE and VPSA to develop [anti-bias] training for all our students, and, as soon as it is available, including it in the orientation experience of incoming students,” he wrote. 

Porter also advocates for hiring more Black faculty, which currently make up only 2% of the total University staff. Black faculty and Black studies professors would be in positions of power to educate, in contrast to Black students to whom fellow students may not pay the same attention, according to Porter.

“Students may not want to listen to me,” Porter said. “I’m just like them, right?”

“Someone who has a degree and knows what they’re talking about, that’s someone who I think needs to be leading these conversations,” she added.

In addition to this credibility, hiring more Black faculty — and specifically Black studies faculty — would signify “true commitment to deconstructing institutional racism” at Stanford, according to third-year Ph.D. student and president of the Black Graduate Student Association Kimya Loder. 

This could be a difficult task, though, as the University “[has] great difficulty recruiting and retaining due to the isolation and intellectual loneliness Black faculty members experience,” according to an open letter attached to a change.org petition advocating for the departmentalization of African and African-American Studies (AAAS) at Stanford. 

The petition, already signed by over 5,000 people, puts forward several demands in order to solve this paradoxical problem. Among them is a demand to hire Black faculty in clusters and to offer monetary resources to the AAAS program. According to Porter, hiring in clusters has the potential to create a Black faculty community and incentivize Black professors to stay at Stanford. Offering tenure and resources further sends the message to these Black professors that the University supports them. 

“Black faculty knowing they are supported by the University will incentivize them to come,” Porter said. 

The organizers of the petition don’t expect these demands to solve all racial issues on campus, but they hope they will be steps forward for the university. 

“Departmentalization of AAAS is not a one size fits all solution to legacies of racism and prejudice on Stanford’s campus,” said Loder, who helped draft and coordinate the petition, “but it does ensure that the institutions that directly support students most impacted by these issues are adequately resourced and supported.”

In his late June statement, Tessier-Lavigne outlined the additional steps the University would take to address racial issues on campus, while promising a faculty cluster hire of ten professors “who are leaders in the study of the impact of race in America.” 

Addressing calls for the departmentalization of AAAS at Stanford, Tessier-Lavigne laid out the current plan to “determine the most effective structure for supporting studies of Race and Ethnicity at Stanford” which includes a self-study conducted by the provost and the dean of humanities and sciences.

Porter and others criticize this response, though, as simply another way to “hold off on departmentalizing AAAS for another few years.” 

“As a director of African and African American Studies, and as a historian, I am disappointed that there isn’t more about developing and strengthening and building African American Studies at Stanford,” Allyson Hobbs said in an interview with The Daily following Tessier-Lavigne’s late June email to the community. Hobbs is AAAS director and an American History associate professor.

“I think it’s always good when the University issues a statement about racism, about the importance of creating a more inclusive community, the importance of listening to community members and hearing their concerns and taking steps to change our campus culture,” she added.

Tessier-Lavigne goes on to offer a meeting with “every Black staff member at Stanford who wishes to engage in conversation.” He admits that this segment “has been too often overlooked in institutional change initiatives” among other initiatives the university plans on implementing. 

Porter remains hopeful that eventually the University will address the racial issues she and other students of color have seen on campus but has yet to feel any sense of real urgency from them. 

“I completely understand you’re in the midst of a pandemic,” she said, “but how much longer do we have to wait?”

Contact Joelle Chien at joelle.chien2 ‘at’ gmail.com.

Joelle Chien is a high schooler writing as part of the Stanford Daily Summer Journalism Workshop.

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