Race, Police & Justice: Voices from the Colgate Community

I cannot walk around with a sign hanging from my neck. I cannot walk around with a sign that says, “I belong here.” However, some days, I wish I did have a sign to hang around my neck. For example, the Sunday that I was accosted by a Campus Safety officer in the building that houses my office, I wish I had a sign that said, “I would be at church, but as a new faculty member and a Black woman, I had to work today because I cannot be less than excellent. Let me work in peace.” Or, I wish that I could put a sign on the back of my car that says, “I am not lost; I am a member of this community.” These signs would have come in handy during the times that I have been followed by Hamilton Police patrol cars, stopped for ridiculous reasons and given death glares by police officers. Some days, I wish that I had a sign that said, “Please keep your apology.” I need this sign for when Campus Safety officers or Hamilton Police officers mumble and sputter their apologies when they realize that they have accidently questioned or pulled over a Colgate professor.

I wish my students had signs. I wish they had signs that said, “I am a student; I belong here.” They needed these signs during the 2015 Spring Party Weekend. It is difficult for me to relay the pain and shame of knowing that the heavy police presence at Bunche House was not at the surrounding houses where students of lighter hues were openly drinking in plain sight. It was humiliating to keep on a smiling face and encourage the Black and Brown students to have a good time in spite of the fact that they were being actively racially profiled and harassed. I fought back rage as I walked down Broad Street, kicking away beer cans that spilled over from other partiers as the police officer that walked in front of me kicked away the same beers cans. I almost became undone when the same police officer who turned a blind eye to young people of lighter hues openly drinking on a boat then came to Bunche House and glared at the students just trying to have a barbeque. There were not any red cups or beer cans to kick away at the Bunche House party, but from the beginning until the end of the event, there were no less than three officers present, watching the Black and Brown students for any minor infraction. At that time, I wish I had a sign that said, “Please, just leave us be in peace.”

Sadly, we cannot wear signs. These signs would say that we are more than Black and Brown people in Hamilton, New York and relay in plain sight that we are teachers, students, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, friends, lovers – people trying to make a better way for ourselves and our families. However, the signs would become too heavy and leave rope burns around our necks. So we carry these signs inside along with pain of knowing that we need signs and others do not.

In the words of the Black feminist activist Barbara Smith, it is painful to be stereotyped. It is my hope that whoever reads this letter understands that being stereotyped and profiled hurts, inside. In the midst of any incident where I am reduced to the color of my skin or saved by my faculty identification, I want to tell the officer that I am Berlisha R. Morton. I have had my heart broken more than once. I have watched my beloved grandmother be taken over by the ugly disease that is dementia. I have suffered and recovered from the pain of a divorce. You can profile me – my skin is thick and hard. I can take your blows because I know that your ignorance cannot steal my joy. But I cannot tolerate looking into the eyes of a young person and having to explain that in spite what the racial profiling might say about your presence in this town, you belong here. This is your community. This is your University. And because we belong here, we will not wear signs. We will demand to be at peace in our community and at our University.