Last week, Jan. 21, to be exact, a strange thing happened. Well, not so strange if you’re Black in America, as it occurs all too frequently to Black people, especially Black men.
Ball State University marketing professor Shaheen Borna called campus police on Sultan Benson, a student majoring in business administration. Benson is Black. Borna isn’t.
The offense: When a student left in the middle of class, Benson wouldn’t move to that empty seat after Borna told him to do so. Benson sat near an electrical outlet so he could charge his laptop. The other seat wasn’t near an outlet, so, logically, Benson didn’t want to move. Sounds reasonable enough, right?
Obviously not to Borna. Campus police were initially confused as to why they were called. The students in class assured the officers the incident was petty and didn’t warrant police involvement. The officers gave Benson two options: move or leave the class. He left the class. On the video circulating on social media, you can see him handing a fellow student the cord to charge his laptop, adding validity to his claim of needing to plug in his computer.
While Benson had plenty of defenders — several students commented they’ve had this professor and problematic behavior isn’t new for him — others say Benson should’ve moved seats. Somehow the absurdity of calling the cops on a student for not switching seats is lost on them. That reaction wasn’t just extreme, it was off the charts! For people to act as if this action is justified further reinforces the belief that no matter how benign the act, a Black person is always a threat.
This incident hits close to home because I’m a Ball State alum. I won’t say I’m shocked by this incident, but I am infuriated. Ball State University President Geoffrey Mearns says the professor used poor judgment. I disagree. Judgment presumes logic was involved. It’s clear logic wasn’t involved in Borna’s decision. It was an emotionally-based decision, so poor emotion was used (if there’s such a term). I’m not Borna so I’m just spitballing here, but I’m guessing fear or pride were the emotions he felt. He either feared this Black man or he didn’t want to look weak in front of his students. (As if calling the police on a student for something as innocuous as moving seats makes you look tough.)
If Borna feared this student, I’d like to know why. What did this young man do that warranted a phone call to the cops? If he’s in class — in college — there’s a pretty good chance the young man is there to learn. I keep up with current events, but some trends miss me. Is there a trend where students today go through the trouble of enrolling in college, making a schedule, paying for college and going to class only to sit there and harass the professor? And if this is a new trend, who are these parents who are allowing their children to go to school and waste thousands of dollars just for kicks?
Black Americans let out a collective sigh of relief when they saw how well this situation was handled. It could’ve been worse. That’s what’s so infuriating about these calls to police for no other reason than a Black person being Black. The police aren’t here to solve every petty disagreement that arises. It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars, and Black people’s lives are often put in jeopardy. At this point, Borna feels foolish. I can’t imagine how he would feel if the situation turned violent or deadly. This is how Black people in America think, and this is why we were relieved. White privilege is never having to think that way.
As I stated earlier, judging from social media posts, students think this professor is a jerk. Being a jerk is one thing. Being a racist jerk is another. He’s likely been both for a very long time. I’m not sure how Ball State should reprimand Borna. If he’s tenured, firing isn’t that simple. If he has to undergo diversity training, it begs several questions: is this the first time, if it’s the first time, why isn’t this a regular requirement, if not the first time, why didn’t his behavior change, and why not intermittent workshops to keep the information fresh? While his behavior may be an isolated incident, he’s not the only professor on that campus who needs diversity, inclusion and equity training. It should be a regular part of the job. ASAP.