The Other Side of the Story: Sarah Braasch and the “Napping while Black” Incident at Yale

Yale PhD student Sarah Braasch

It only takes a news headline or a two-minute clip on the news to brand someone a racist. Unfortunately it’s exceedingly difficult to prove that someone is not a racist once they’ve been falsely accused, especially if it becomes a viral story. We saw this recently with the Covington Catholic kids at the Lincoln Memorial. Within hours, most observers were convinced that Nick Sandmann and his classmates were abusive racists. It took a mountain of additional evidence and analysis to challenge that narrative. Eventually everyone was forced to admit that, at worst, the event was much more complicated than Native American activist Nathan Phillips had led us to believe.

Sarah Braasch’s story is in some ways similar to that of Nick Sandmann of Covington Catholic. Sarah had two unfortunate confrontations with African-American students at her Yale dorm during the spring 2018 semester. A selectively edited cellphone video, along with the testimony of the two students were sufficient to brand Sarah a racist. These charges and the subsequent outrage eventually drove Sarah to leave the Yale campus. To my knowledge, no good-faith effort was made by the media to show Sarah’s side of the story. Only recently has Sarah begun to lay out her side of the story via her Twitter account and her YouTube channel. What follows is my best effort to make sense of her story.

I should say up front that I do not know Sarah Braasch personally and am only working off of what I’ve gathered from watching her videos, speaking to her briefly via Twitter direct messages and what I’ve seen on the story in a few mainstream media articles. The two key events in her story take place on February 24th, 2018 and May 8th, 2018. In the February incident, Sarah has an awkward encounter in an elevator with a Yale student named Reneson Jean-Louis. On May 8th, Braasch confronted a sleeping female student named Lolade Siyonbola in the 12th floor common area of her dormitory. I would urge those unfamiliar with Sarah’s side of the story to check out her YouTube channel, and probably start with this video which explains the origins of her situation. I am in no way claiming that she bears no blame in the situation or that she did not do or say things that made her situation worse. I am saying that I do not find allegations of her being a racist to be credible and the retribution she has faced is in no way proportionate to whatever errors in judgement she may have made.

It’s difficult to understand Sarah’s side of the story unless you can put yourself in her shoes. Given that the media branded her a racist right out of the gate, it seems very few have been interested in doing that. The racism charge is also quite a deterrent for others to stick their neck out in support. I initially stumbled upon her story from a tweet which linked to her video. Her story fascinated me so much that I reached out to a few YouTubers that I trusted to see if they wanted to do a video on Sarah’s story. As far as I know, no one has done so thus far, which is in part why I’ve decided to write this.

As I see it, there are at least four aspects of Sarah’s background that you need some understanding of before you can really understand her story:

  1. Her living arrangements
  2. Her history of mental health issues/trauma
  3. The fact that her PhD research focused on implicit bias testing and police brutality
  4. Her rationale for making the decisions she did when thrust into these two awkward encounters (which she outlines in detail in her YouTube videos).

Sarah’s living situation at Yale in 2018 was unusual and I believe it negatively impacted the outcomes of both the February and May incidents. Sarah lived on the 12th floor of a high rise dormitory for graduate students at Yale. The situation was unusual in that she was the only resident on the 12th floor. There was a common area on the 12th floor that was used for parties and other gatherings, but according to Sarah it was rarely used and Sarah rarely entered it. On the one hand, her dorm room offered quiet and privacy for her to work on her PhD, but it also was isolated and she had no one on her floor to socialize with or contact in the event of an emergency. Another key detail: her dorm room had no peephole, thereby making it impossible for Sarah to identify who was outside her room. This also meant that someone intending to harass and intimidate Sarah outside her dorm room could do so without fear of being easily identified. I think it’s important to bear in mind while reading the sequence of events that Sarah really had no idea who specifically was outside her dorm room and how many people there were outside at any given time. By all accounts she lived a reclusive lifestyle focusing on her dissertation and engaging in little to no social activities with students in the dorm.

Within her YouTube videos, Sarah explains that she has a history of mental health disabilities which include PTSD. She is sexual abuse survivor. She also alludes to a variety of other traumatizing events in her life including the suicide of immediate family members, membership and subsequent departure from a religious cult and an unspecified safety issue at her dorm room in a prior year. In a recent video she also divulged that she underwent counseling while at Yale. I think it’s also relevant that Sarah is middle aged, which I think gives her a different perspective on dorm living and also probably makes it harder for her to effectively interact with Yale students who are likely to be in their 20s.

It’s also important to note that Sarah’s PhD dissertation research involved implicit bias testing and police brutality. She is a believer in the merits of implicit bias testing and is concerned with police brutality and specifically police brutality in the cases in which African-Americans are the victims. She is literally devoting years of her life to this. It would be quite odd if someone willing to spend so much time and energy on these topics turned out to be a closet racist.

As I see it, Sarah took a very cautious approach with her personal safety because of her history as a survivor of sexual abuse, and her PTSD, among other reasons. It’s also likely that she felt she had to be extra careful about safety because she is a woman who lived alone in an isolated dorm room. Normally this sort of information would generate some understanding and empathy, but in Sarah’s case she was branded a racist and no one in the media asked for her side of the story.

Early in the evening of February 24th, 2018 Sarah got into the elevator of her graduate student dormitory at the ground floor. Her first hand explanation of events can be found here. Normally Sarah tried to avoid riding in the elevator alone with male strangers. As the elevator door was about to close, an African-American male named Reneson Jean-Louis entered the elevator and according to Sarah did not appear to have a key for the elevator. He did not press a floor number. He rode alone with Sarah up to the 12th floor and exited with her. Sarah was uncomfortable, not because the young man was black, but because she was alone with him and did not recognize him. There were no lights on in the 12th floor common room and the young man had no key so it was unclear to Sarah why he was on the 12th floor. Sarah spoke briefly to the man attempting to ascertain why he was on the 12th floor. The man explained that he was a student at Yale, and that he didn’t appreciate being questioned. Sarah made it to her dorm room without issue but was still concerned with his presence in the hallway so she made the decision to call the non-emergency line for the campus police. With the benefit of hindsight, this would prove to be a huge mistake for Sarah, as it set many unfortunate events into motion.

The police agreed to come by and check things out as a precaution. Although the police didn’t speak with Sarah at her dorm room, it was clear that they had arrived on the scene, because a few students gathered outside of Sarah’s dorm room a short time later, shouting what Sarah describes as “mocking and taunting comments”. Given that her door had no peephole, it was impossible for Sarah to identify who was outside the door.

Sarah now realized that multiple students were upset that she had called the campus police. In the coming days, it also became clear to her that the resident coordinators in her dorm had taken the side of the students she had offended, further complicating her situation. The coordinators asked that Sarah attend a public meeting where Sarah would be expected to address the situation and explain her behavior on the night of February 24th. Sarah refused. Over the next several weeks, Sarah experienced an inordinate amount of yelling and door slamming coming from the 12th floor common room at all hours of the night (only a wall separated her dorm room from the common room) which she interpreted to be a campaign of harassment against her coming from these various students who had deemed her to be a racist.

This tense atmosphere continued, with Sarah becoming increasingly desperate to get away from her living situation as the academic year was coming to a close. Adding to her tensions was the fact that two female students on the Yale campus had been robbed in their dorm room at gunpoint a couple of weeks prior by a man who had been seen in the common room. Around 1:30am on May 8th, 2018 Sarah went to the common room to use the garbage can as her dorm garbage can was overflowing. She encountered someone sleeping with a blanket covering their face in the 12th floor common room who she later learned to be African-American Yale student Lolade Siyonbola. (Sarah’s video sequence on the encounter begins here.) Sarah woke the woman explaining that it was against dorm rules for people to be sleeping in the common room overnight. In Sarah’s opinion, Siyonbola appeared to be sleeping overnight in the common room rather than napping during a study break because a)the lights were off, b)she was wearing some sort of shower cap, c)all her belongings were put away and her laptop was closed. Given that the woman was covered by a blanket, it was also impossible for Sarah to know the person’s race or gender before waking them. For all Sarah knew, she was disturbing a white male student. Sarah and Siyonbola began to argue over whether Siyonbola had a right to sleep there. Sarah explains that she was especially adversarial with the woman because she believer her to be one of the people who had been hassling her during the previous several weeks.

Eventually Sarah went back to her dorm room and called the non-emergency number for the campus police. Siyonbola filmed much of her interactions with Sarah using her cellphone. An edited version of this cellphone video would later be distributed to the press and on social media. This blew up into a national news story in which Sarah was roundly condemned for how she handled the situation, being branded a racist. Siyonbola and Jean-Louis would also give interviews with national cable news. Apparently a petition was even started to attempt to force Sarah into psychiatric treatment for her behavior.

Now that I’ve laid out the basics of Sarah’s side of the story, what are we to make of all this? Sarah unfortunately made a number of judgement calls in the Spring of 2018 that inflamed awkward situations rather than allowing them to blow over. Once familiar with her personal history it’s easier to understand why she made the choices that she did but I can see how her fellow students who did not know her were put off by her decisions to:

  1. Question why Reneson Jean-Louis was on the 12th floor on February 24th
  2. Call the non-emergency line for campus police
  3. Have the police send out officers to investigate
  4. Request that the 12th floor commons area be closed down for her safety
  5. Awaken and confront Lolade Siyonbola in the commons room on May 8th
  6. Call non-emergency number for police and request officers investigate

Yes I can see why these students would be annoyed and maybe even enraged, but I also find it troubling that these student’s thought processes immediately jumped to racism as being Sarah Braasch’s motive for her behaviors. It seems as though a more rational first reaction would be that Sarah was rude or overly cautious. Surely these would be the likely reactions if the people Sarah confronted were white. And in that scenario there would be no lasting outrage and no news coverage.

I don’t believe Sarah to be a racist. I think she reacted to these two situations from a standpoint of safety and caution. Based on what I know of her personal history, I think she would have reacted exactly the same if the two students were white. I also find it hard to believe that a racist would spend years of their life on implicit bias and police brutality research. Sarah also explains in one of her videos that she lobbied aggressively for an African-American professor to join the Yale Philosophy department (he was the sole African-American candidate that year). Given how devastating an accusation of racism is, I think it’s important that some measure of proof be provided. It should require something more than an unpleasant encounter between two students of different races.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of people at Yale did view this as a racist incident and responses toward Sarah included but were not limited to:

  1. Seeking a public hearing where Sarah would be forced to explain herself
  2. Harassing her outside her door with yelling and door slamming
  3. Petitioning to force Sarah into psychiatric counseling
  4. “Mobbing” on social media decrying her as a mentally ill racist
  5. Generating enough outrage to turn this into a national news story

So I’ve laid out what I believe to be Sarah’s “crimes” of hyper-vigilance mixed in with a bit of rudeness and maybe some paranoia. But what should her punishment be for these words and actions? Over a year has passed since her encounter in the elevator. By all accounts it’s been a brutal year for Sarah in which she’s had to leave the Yale campus housing and lived in fear for her safety. Her life has been derailed. She has decided for her safety to keep her current location secret. It sounds as though she may sue Yale University.

In an ideal world all of this drama would have stayed contained within her dormitory. The students could have perhaps set up a private meeting with Sarah with a dorm resident supervisor acting as a mediator. They could have explained how Sarah’s words and actions made them feel and Sarah could have tried to explain why she reacted the way she did. With a little luck maybe they could have hashed it out and quickly moved on with their lives. I’m not sure why the Yale administrators went straight to the idea of a public hearing for Sarah. That seemed over the top to me and not a very sensible first step. I certainly don’t blame Sarah for declining to put herself through that. It probably would have turned out an awful lot like the Nicholas Christakis incident at Yale in 2015 or what Bret Weinstein dealt with at Evergreen State.

In the end, I just wish Sarah the best of luck and for her to have peace so she can focus on her studies and move forward with her life. I know that there are two sides to this story and that many are convinced she’s a racist and there’s nothing anyone can say to change that and that’s fine. That’s life. My hope is that people will seek out both sides of this story and then draw their own conclusions.

— Paul