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Standing Up to the Moral Outrage Industry

What we can learn from how Yale handled Sarah Braasch and the “napping while black” incident.
August 14, 2019
Standing Up to the Moral Outrage Industry

The anti-racist activism of recent years has opened our eyes to real and painful problems that remain a part of this country’s unfinished promise. But this crusade also has its ugly side, including the zeal to shame and punish those branded with the scarlet “R”—often based on false claims, out-of-context video clips, or both. Last January, students from Covington Catholic High School were furiously denounced for supposed on-camera harassment of a Native American activist in Washington, D.C., then exonerated by more video. A Portland woman went into hiding after being pilloried online for supposedly calling the police on innocent black people (in fact, she had called a non-police hotline about a parked car partially blocking a crosswalk, unaware that its occupants were black). A Chipotle worker was fired over a video that showed her refusing service to several young black men who later turned out to be serial dine-and-dash thieves. And last month, an Ohio bakery won a multimillion judgment against Oberlin College for the school’s role in a 2016 protest—or harassment—campaign that targeted the business as racist over the shoplifting arrests of three black students.

Among those celebrating the outcome of the Oberlin case was a woman who had to flee another campus just over a year ago after a viral video turned her, literally overnight, into America’s Most Hated White Bigot. “Reading this made me sob,” Sarah Braasch wrote on Twitter. “I am so happy for the Gibson Family and their business that they were able to secure real justice in their lawsuit against Oberlin College. I hope so so much that I’ll be able to do the same in a lawsuit against Yale.”

Braasch, 44, is the Yale graduate student best known as the white woman who called the cops on a black schoolmate sleeping in a common lounge. Today, she lives more than 2,000 miles away from Yale in the Southwest (she keeps the city and even the state undisclosed due to safety concerns). She is still pursuing her Ph.D. in philosophy, though she now needs special permission to visit the campus. And she is on a quest to clear her name.

It’s not easy. The “napping while black” story, still routinely cited as an especially egregious case of black people being harassed by cops—and by racist white people—over normal everyday activities, sparked outrage for a reason: It seemed entirely outrageous. 

Shortly after midnight on May 8, 2018, Lolade Siyonbola, a Yale graduate student in African Studies, live-streamed a Facebook video of her 15-minute encounter with campus police after another dorm resident saw her sleeping in a common lounge in the Hall of Graduate Studies and called the campus police. (Siyonbola said she had been taking a nap during a study break and had her books and laptop next to her on the couch.) 

The video showed a calm but exasperated Siyonbola saying, “I deserve to be here… I’m not going to justify my existence here.”  While the officers were polite, they not only demanded Siyonbola’s ID even after she opened her own room to prove she was an HGS resident but would not let her go until they verified her name in the student database—which took a while due to a spelling discrepancy. At one point, Siyonbola said that the same woman had previously called the police on a friend of hers “because he was in the stairwell and because he’s black.” 

Coming less than a month after two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks while waiting for someone without making a purchase, the Yale dorm incident quickly became the new symbol of everyday racism. The caller, briefly seen in another video clip saying, “I have every right to call the police—you cannot sleep here!” was easily cast as the embodiment of smug white privilege. When Braasch was identified the next day, a Twitter chorus sprang up to denounce her as a “freakish bigot” and an “overeducated racist.”

And yet another side to this story does exist. It includes the fact that disciplinary charges of race-based harassment filed against Braasch by the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in June 2018 were formally withdrawn in October. And it includes the fact that while those charges were pending, nine Yale professors wrote glowing character letters on Braasch’s behalf, most of them stressing her passionate anti-racism. 

“It’s especially tragic that Sarah was portrayed as a garden-variety bigot when she has such a strong commitment to civil rights,” one of those faculty members, prominent philosopher Shelly Kagan, told me last month. “Most people form their impression from the initial reports; they have no idea, for instance, that Yale eventually dropped the racial bias charges. She got a terrible rap.” He was echoed by law professor Alan Schwarz, who said that he had known Braasch for two years and saw “a great inconsistency between the person I know and the way she has been depicted in the media.”

Some of Braasch’s supporters have called the “napping while black” incident a “hoax.” That’s a stretch; there is little doubt that Siyonbola (who did not respond to a request for comment for this article) genuinely believed she was being targeted for racial reasons. And yet the background to that night’s events—including an extensive record of emails between Braasch and various Yale staff members—makes it highly unlikely that Braasch’s motivation was racist. Rather, the brief confrontation was a perfect storm of bad circumstances: escalating personal conflicts, Braasch’s difficult history both before and after coming to Yale, and her troubled emotional state—and the climate of racial tension and hyper-awareness in which every conflict across racial lines could be a spark falling on a powder keg.

* * * 

Under other circumstances, Braasch could have easily been a progressive hero: a woman who overcame incredible adversity to become a high achiever and a fighter for justice.

Her childhood and adolescence, as Braasch describes them in an email interview—and in several blog posts over the years—sound like a modern-day Dickens or Dostoyevsky novel set in the Midwest. She was one of four children in a family of devout Jehovah’s Witnesses in the suburbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul. It was, by her account, an abusive home with a tyrannical father, a subservient mother (who had grown up in a secular family but fervently embraced her husband’s religion), and a cultlike atmosphere where demons and demonic possession were ever-present dangers. 

As a teenager, Braasch rebelled. At 16, she says, she got a restraining order against her father after a violent episode, forcing him to move out for six months and then live in a basement room with a separate entrance. The last time she spoke to him was a vicious shouting match after her high school graduation. A few weeks later, she left to attend the University of Minnesota, on financial aid as an independent student, and never saw her parents again; in her freshman year, she cut off all contact with her mother, whom she blamed for failing to protect her children.

At 22, Braasch graduated summa cum laude with degrees in aerospace and mechanical engineering and a minor in French; but behind the façade of success, she was a wreck. Socially awkward and isolated, she was also battling serious mental health problems; fear of demons still haunted her even though she’d long left her faith behind. She did not seek help: “I just tried to hide it from everyone and cope as best I could,” she says.

It all came crashing down when Braasch started graduate school at Berkeley. She stayed awake all night, terrorized by imaginary demons, and stopped going to class. Finally, feeling suicidal, she saw a psychiatrist at the student health center and was put on medication. Her condition improved, but she soon dropped out of school and went to Los Angeles. She dreamed of movie stardom; instead, she ended up in a series of jobs at boutique hotels, which unexpectedly stabilized her life and brought new friends who became a substitute family, including a gay couple to whom Braasch still refers as her “surrogate dads.”

After turning 30, Braasch says, she had an “existential crisis” and resolved to become an international human rights lawyer with a focus on women’s issues. She enrolled in Fordham Law School in New York and spent time in Morocco and Ethiopia working with human rights organizations. After getting her law degree in 2009, she went to France to work with Ni Putes Ni Soumises (which roughly translates as “neither whores nor submissive women”), a feminist group launched in 2003 to combat sexual violence and misogyny in the banlieues, France’s ghettoized suburban housing projects. She interviewed mostly African Muslim women and girls for a survey on health care and birth control and worked with activists like Lubna al-Hussein, a Sudanese Muslim reporter who fled her country after being prosecuted for wearing trousers. She got involved in pro-secularist activism and guest-wrote for atheist blogs.

Braasch with Lubna al-Hussein

She still dealt with anxiety attacks and other mental health issues, but overall, it felt like her life was finally on track. Then, in February 2010, she received shattering news: the younger of her two brothers, Jacob, had killed himself. “I was utterly destroyed,” says Braasch. “I didn’t get out of bed for a month, I think.”

Having regained her bearings, she went back to the U.S., partly to be near her other brother, Aaron (who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia but was in treatment and seemed to be faring well). She worked as a legal intern for the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin and joined the 2011 protests against Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to curtail public unions’ collective bargaining rights. She also went back to school—this time to San Francisco State University for a master’s degree in philosophy, which she felt she needed for her human rights and secularism advocacy. While she was there, a new tragedy struck: Almost exactly two years after Jacob’s suicide, Aaron Braasch was found dead on his porch by his maternal grandparents, who lived next door. He had frozen to death, possibly after a heart attack, after biking home from a bar where he’d forgotten his keys.

Devastated, Braasch decided to dedicate her life’s work to her lost brothers: if she couldn’t save them, she would save the world.

In the fall of 2014, that path brought her to the graduate program at Yale.

Braasch recalls that she “cried tears of joy” when she got the call telling her she’d been accepted to Yale after being wait-listed: “It had been a long road to get there, and I felt like I won.  I felt like I had reached the finish line of my struggles.”

New struggles started soon enough. In January 2015, Yale’s listserv for graduate students in philosophy erupted in outrage at reports that a candidate for a faculty post had made online comments expressing the belief that homosexual relations (and premarital sex) are immoral. Some suggested showing up at his job interview wearing rainbow pins or apparel in protest and writing to faculty to oppose his hiring. 

Braasch weighed in to advise against such action, and later voiced her concerns at a departmental meeting of faculty and graduate students. She argued that the candidate, an African-American conservative Protestant, was simply endorsing the sexual ethics of his faith and penalizing him for it would run afoul of both academic and religious freedom. Her own distaste for religion notwithstanding, she strongly objected to, as she puts it, “deciding which tenets of which faiths make one ineligible for employment at Yale.” (In addition to email records, her role was confirmed by Professor Kagan in our interview and by several faculty letters written on Braasch’s behalf last year.) Braasch says that while the faculty backed her, most of her fellow graduate students were upset with her—not only for taking the position she took, but for mentioning the names of the students who had called for a protest on the private listserv. 

In the end, the controversial candidate did not get the job (he currently teaches at a Midwestern university); but tensions lingered. A graduate-students-only meeting ostensibly meant to clear the air turned nasty: Braasch says she was called anti-gay and ignorant and berated until she was in tears. She also says that most graduate students in the philosophy program shunned her ever since, sometimes even leaving the room if she came in. Whether or not her perception of ostracism was exaggerated, Braasch’s correspondence with a faculty mentor at the time shows that she felt distraught and isolated. It inevitably affected her mental state; but, with therapy and medication, she coped well enough to persevere. In 2015-2017, she was a conference assistant on three conferences—two of them, as it happens, on race-related issues: one on mass incarceration, another honoring Joyce Mitchell Cook, the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. in philosophy at Yale.

It’s hard to pinpoint the start of the chain of events leading to the fateful night of May 8, 2018. But Braasch’s residential problems began in her second year at Yale when, she says, the (white) young woman with whom she shared a bathroom at the Hall of Graduate Studies stubbornly shirked cleaning duties. Eventually, there was a blow-up, and Braasch asked to be moved; her new room was in Harkness Hall, a dorm populated mostly by medical students, on what was supposed to be the quiet floor.

Soon, she says, she found herself at her wits’ end because of constant parties with “screaming and yelling and vomiting.” Finally, around 3 a.m. one morning in April 2016, she opened her door to tell some raucously drunk students in the hallway—two white men and a South Asian woman—to knock it off. Instead, they got verbally abusive, and Braasch was sufficiently rattled to call the non-emergency campus police line, resulting in a visit from the cops.

In the weeks that followed, Braasch complained to housing staff and campus police that the young woman was harassing her in retaliation, yelling near her room and standing by her door shouting insults and taunts (on one occasion Braasch came out to confront her). A sticker with “BITCHES” scrawled on it was left on her door. In her emails, Braasch comes across as anxious to resolve the issue without getting the culprit in trouble; she even reports asking one of the woman’s friends to speak to her. (Eventually the harassment stopped, and the woman left Braasch an apologetic note.)

The next semester Braasch moved back to HGS, into a room on the 12th floor where she was the sole resident, with the rest of the space occupied by the common lounge. As she puts it wryly, “I was living by myself at the top of a tower like Rapunzel.” 

In February 2017, she exchanged a series of emails with housing staff about a vexing new issue: She believed someone had been entering her room in her absence. While nothing was missing, Braasch was increasingly alarmed. First, she wrote, a light she was certain she’d left on was turned off when she returned from class. Another time, Braasch reported, she came back to find her exercise bike moved from the middle of the room to the side. Three days later, leaving her room early in the afternoon, she noticed a middle-aged white male who looked like a worker walking out of the common lounge. Then, Braasch remembered that she had seen the same man about a week earlier, sitting on the stairs near her door looking at his phone. “I’m concerned that I’m being stalked,” she wrote to a housing manager. She also made a report to the Yale Police Department the same day. 

The next day, a housing staffer emailed Braasch to say that he had found and spoken to the man she had described; he was a facilities worker who routinely did maintenance and repairs around the building and used his phone to check work requests. A residential advisor chimed in to say she could vouch for the worker’s character. Braasch felt that she was not getting straight answers, and the email records show her growing frustrated and upset that her “safety and privacy” concerns were being treated dismissively. 

The issue died down after Yale’s housing director wrote to Braasch to alleviate those concerns; but it was still very much on Braasch’s mind a year later when, on February 24, 2018, she wrote to Yale housing staff again to report a “negative experience”:

I have been especially cognizant of my personal safety with respect to access to my room in HGS (1201), since an HGS staff member was entering my room unauthorized and hanging out by my room on the 12th floor … waiting for me to enter and leave.  

Today, around 5 pm, I think, a man entered the tower elevator behind me.  It was just the two of us. I waited for him to use his key to operate the elevator, but it was clear that he was waiting for me to use mine.  I felt a bit uncomfortable, but I went ahead and used my key and pressed 12 for my floor. Then, I asked him which floor he needed, and he said 12.  Obviously, I became concerned, but I decided not to panic. I thought that maybe he was making use of the common room on the 12th floor. …

[W]hen we exited the elevator, I waited a moment before entering my room, so that he could make his way into the common room, but he didn’t.  He just stood there like he was waiting for me to enter my room. 

To avoid the man, Braasch wrote, she walked one floor down and then came up a side stairway to the common room, which was dark and empty. She assumed the man was gone and headed toward her door. Just then, he called out from the landing between the 11th and 12th floors, asking where the common room was.

I told him that no one was in there, and that he needed to be a resident and have a key to get in there, and that if he wasn’t supposed to be there that he needed to leave, because he was making me very nervous.  He told me that he was a student. I told him it didn’t matter—you can’t get into the common room w/o a key and to please leave.  

Back in her room, Braasch called the campus police. According to her, she told them she wasn’t sure if she needed assistance, but they said they’d stop by just in case. 

The man in the elevator was Reneson Jean-Louis, a divinity student in the master’s program and a friend of Lolade Siyonbola’s whom she had invited to a get-together in the common room.* (His own account of the encounter was fairly similar, except for the claim that Braasch had actually invited him on the elevator and that during their verbal exchange upstairs, she physically blocked him from entering the lounge.) Shortly after Braasch had gone inside her room, Siyonbola—whom Jean-Louis had texted to say he was lost—came to the lounge with other friends. Minutes later, four police officers arrived, responding to a call about a possible “suspicious character.” They left quickly after establishing Jean-Louis’s identity; but to Siyonbola and her friends, this was a clear-cut racist incident. According to Jean-Louis, the cops themselves suggested that the white dorm resident might have been suspicious because of his race and told him that such profiling happened “all the time.” 

Braasch had her own grievance. In her email to housing staff, she complained of being taunted and mocked by some of the people in the common room after her call to the police:

[A] group of persons, shortly thereafter, stood outside my door, fake laughing uproariously and saying, Are we making you nervous, oh hell no, she’s going to call the cops on us! … 

I find their behavior egregiously unacceptable, and I ask you to not allow them to use the common room any longer. … I refuse to apologize for being concerned for my personal safety. 

(A police report Braasch filed about two weeks later notes that “[t]he comments were repeated two or three times by different people over a thirty minute (sic) time frame,” probably while they were “waiting to leave on the elevator.” Braasch told the officer who interviewed her that, while there were no threats or knocks or her door, she felt “harassed” and “trapped.”) 

A few days later, Jean-Louis and Siyonbola sent a complaint to Michelle Nearon, Yale’s associate dean for graduate student development and diversity. Its main author was likely Siyonbola, a 34-year-old Nigerian-born former tech professional turned writer and spoken-word artist with a passionate interest in black culture and activism. Siyonbola’s online postings suggest that she had been intensely preoccupied with what she called the “genocide” of young black men by police (or white people claiming self-defense) for several years. The one-and-a-half page long, single-spaced letter invoked similar themes and declared that “calling the police on a Black student because he is lost in any part of HGS and the wider Yale campus is an act of violence.” 

Meanwhile, Braasch—as her correspondence with Yale staff members shows—was initially assured by two housing managers that she had acted appropriately. (Housing staff even moved to address her concerns, implementing a rule that required parties in the common room to be booked in advance and posting a reminder that dorm visitors had to be accompanied by a resident.) Then, on March 2, an administrator asked her to come in for a meeting. To her dismay, Braasch learned that a letter accusing her of racial animus in the February 24 incident was circulating among the deans and “gaining traction.” There was some dispute later as to precisely what was said, but Braasch came away with the impression that some deans wanted to use the incident as a “teaching opportunity” and that she might be required to undergo “implicit bias” training or even publicly confess her racism at a townhall-style meeting.

In the weeks that followed, Braasch sent frantic emails to Nearon and other officials, asking to see the complaint (her request was denied), threatening a defamation lawsuit, and demanding retractions. Worried about her reputation and career, she also felt increasingly fearful for her safety. Braasch wrote that she was particularly shaken when, walking on the campus in mid-March, she overheard a group of students talking about a call to the police by a person on the 12th floor of the HGS tower. By her account, her name was not mentioned but she heard herself described as an “out-of-control racist” who should be “thrown out of school.” 

The emails show Braasch growing more and more perturbed. “I feel that Yale has hung me out on a rack (with RACIST pinned to my chest) to be attacked, verbally or physically,” she wrote to a female Yale police sergeant who had reached out to ask about her safety concerns.  She believed that wild late-night parties in the common room were being deliberately booked by hostile housing staffers—specifically, two HGS resident coordinators from whom she sensed “palpable” animosity—to punish her for asserting her “rights as a woman living alone in Yale’s on-campus housing to live in a safe environment.” Nonetheless, she brusquely rejected a suggestion by Nearon that the university could move her to another dorm if she felt uncomfortable in her room at HGS. The way she saw it, Yale was trying to force her from her home instead of taking steps to protect her—such as sanctioning the students who had taunted her during the party.

In late April, Braasch wrote to two associate provosts and to the police sergeant who had contacted her before that she was being harassed in a new and scary way: For about two weeks, “someone has been passing by my door approximately once each evening and shaking my door handle.” Braasch never saw who it was, but she “strongly suspect[ed]” it was one or both of the resident coordinators. The sergeant offered to meet with her to discuss the situation; Braasch admits she never followed up, mainly because of her workload as a teaching assistant: “It was the very end of the semester, and I was monstrously busy taking care of my students.” She also says that the handle-rattling stopped shortly after that. 

By the start of May, Braasch was fully prepared to leave campus once classes and exams were over. The last day of finals was May 9. 

Shortly after 2 a.m. on May 8, Braasch emailed several Yale housing administrators whom she had previously contacted about her troubles, with the subject line, “I just want to let you all know that I called the Yale Police again.” 

Braasch wrote that she had gone into the common room to throw out some trash and to check on the room, “because students had been making noise in there all evening.”   

There was someone sleeping on the couch with a blanket completely covering them. I turned on the light and said “Who are you? You can’t sleep in here. You’re not supposed to be sleeping in here.  Are you a resident?”

The rest was history.

A woman—Siyonbola—pulled down the blanket and asked, “Hey, aren’t you the person who called the cops on that party?” (Or, in Siyonbola’s version, “on my friend.”) 

The moment those words were spoken, Braasch says she knew that the woman was one of her harassers seeking revenge for the events of February 24. And then she made her next move: to call the non-emergency campus police line.

When she wrote to the Yale officials shortly after the police left, she still had no idea that this brief encounter would blow up into a big story in which she would be the villain. Mainly, she was annoyed and confused because the officer who spoke to her gave her a stern lecture, wouldn’t listen to her attempts to talk about her past harassment, and told her that she had no reason to call the police and that the other woman had every right to be there. 

“Did I do something wrong?” Braasch wrote.

A few hours later, the story of the black Yale graduate student who fell asleep on a study break and was reported to the police by a white woman with an apparent habit of calling the cops on black people had exploded on the Internet, with help from Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King.

In two days, Siyonbola’s video of her interaction with the police was watched by more than 1 million people and had nearly 20,000 comments. 

Before long, the deluge of anger had a target with a name and a face. Anti-police violence activist Brittany Packnett, who has more than 200,000 Twitter followers, denounced Braasch as a “danger to black students” and urged Yale to take action; there were calls for her to be not only expelled but criminally charged. Best-selling author Ijeoma Oluo tweeted a de facto call to harassment, suggesting black students should camp out by Braasch’s door every night. The fact that the Bigot of the Week was identified as a civil rights activist in her bio on the Yale website was mentioned only as evidence that “white allies” can be as bad as any white supremacist. “Sarah Braasch even looks like a Nazi,” wrote one Twitter leftist. 

Braasch’s past was zealously combed for evidence of racism, turning up a 2010 article for The Humanist in which she talked about having won a middle school debate on the Civil War arguing the pro-slavery side. The Grio, a website focused on black community news, ran a headline announcing that Braasch “defends slavery” in her writings. The left-wing site ThinkProgress reported that she “brag[ged]” about winning a debate with a pro-slavery argument, in a piece headlined, “Woman who called cops on napping Yale grad student has a history of racially charged statements.” In fact, Braasch’s article makes it quite clear that she saw her own debate arguments as insidious; her point was to compare them to current arguments defending female full-face veiling in ultraconservative Islam. 

Needless to say, Braasch’s support for the burka ban became further proof of her bigotry, as did a 2011 blog post criticizing hate-crime legislation and defending “hate speech.” Even a 2009 Humanist column arguing that America was founded on secular humanist as well as Judeo-Christian principles was flagged as “racially offensive” for the observation that once you delve far back into history, “social constructs like racism and tribalism seem downright silly”—a comment deemed to be too flippant about racism. (The Humanist hastily took down both of Braasch’s articles and posted an apology; later that month, its publisher, the American Humanist Association, gave a Feminist Humanist of the Year award to Oluo, who used her acceptance speech to declare that Braasch’s hideous racism should have been obvious all along.)

The Braasch-bashing often left all logic in the dust. A May 10 Twitter thread by a young adult fiction editor slammed her as a vicious racist who had “touted the ‘merits’ of slavery”—and then condemned her for regularly retweeting black women on her (already-deactivated) Twitter account, thus stealing the words of less privileged black feminists. For the thread’s author, Braasch became a symbol of the “white feminist” who poses as an ally to minorities but is actually an oppressor. 

Meanwhile, at Yale, three top officials—Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Lynn Cooley, and University President Peter Salovey—issued statements that did not explicitly label Braasch’s actions as racist but deplored the dorm incident as evidence of continuing racial bias problems on campus. Cooley and Goff-Crews promised “listening sessions” and further steps to counteract racism and discrimination. Siyonbola blasted the school’s response as vague and inadequate in a comment to the Yale Daily News, saying that the real question was simple: “Do you want black students at Yale or do you not want black students at Yale?”

Braasch herself, by then, was no longer on the Yale campus; she had left on May 9, after spending one night in a different dorm, and was hiding out with friends in Brooklyn. Horrified by the media coverage, she considered making a statement to the Yale Daily News; email records show that one of her faculty mentors strongly discouraged it, predicting that the matter would “blow over” and would not affect her position at Yale. Her inbox was flooded with hate mail from all over the world (“racist bitch” was one of the milder epithets) and outright death threats (“I’m [sic] promise I’m gonna hunt you down and kill you! Racist [sic] like you have no place in this world”). Her infamy reached France, where the current leadership of Ni Putes Ni Soumises—a group to which she had remained devoted enough to run an NPNS fan page on Facebook—formally condemned her as an “overtly racist and Islamophobic individual.”  

Some, including people at Yale, were privately supportive. “I know you aren’t a racist—geez! I’m just horrified that you’re facing this,” one professor wrote in reply to an email from Braasch offering her side of the story and assuring him she “didn’t turn into a racist.” A student who had had her as a teaching assistant that semester (who also happened to be an editor at the Yale Daily News and had self-recused from the story due to conflict of interest) wrote to compliment her and wish her well, adding, “I’ve been disappointed in some of the cruel and misleading stories that have circulated over the last few days.” No one spoke up publicly. 

As weeks went by, the storm showed no sign of blowing over. A petition signed by nearly 3,000 people by the end of May demanded that Braasch be “removed” from Yale. On June 5, Braasch was informed that the Yale Graduate School was initiating disciplinary procedures to determine if she had violated the rule prohibiting harassment (including race-based harassment) toward another student. 

At the end of August, Braasch submitted her response, with several attached files of exhibits. Most of those were copies of correspondence documenting her troubles at the dorm before the May 8 incident; but there were also 30 letters from character witnesses. They included former college classmates, co-workers, and even childhood friends. But 10 of the letters came from professors: nine Yale faculty members and a law professor with whom she had studied at Fordham. Most of the letter-writers stressed that they had never known Braasch to show racial or other prejudice, and many stressed her commitment to civil rights and to working against gender and racial oppression. One noted that in 2016, she was so distressed by Donald Trump’s election victory she considered leaving school to become a full-time anti-racism activist.

“I cannot recall having a student or student assistant who was more effectively dedicated to helping others of every race and religion than Sarah Braasch,” wrote Alan Schwarz, the law professor and one of two faculty members who agreed to go on the record for this article. “She is a treasure Yale should strive to keep, not a troublemaker it should discipline.”

In October, Braasch received a letter from the dean’s office. The charge against her was being withdrawn, and Yale would not consider any further complaints related to the incidents of February 24 or May 8. She could continue to work toward her degree and receive her stipend; the only condition was that she could not live on the Yale campus, or even visit without advance written permission based on “pressing need.” She was, obviously, exempted from normal teaching requirements. 

Officially, the case was over—after $10,000 in legal bills, paid by close friends—and Braasch was free to move on. Yet in the court of public opinion, she was still the Yale racist.

What, then, is the true story of the “napping while black” episode? The standard narrative is a simple case of racism: a white woman who subjected a black woman to humiliation and coercion because, as Siyonbola put it in a recent interview, she was “programmed think that all black people are dangerous.” Meanwhile, Braasch is convinced at this point that it was nothing less than a setup and that Siyonbola deliberately camped out in the common room with the aim of getting her in trouble.

The “setup” theory seems extremely improbable. Siyonbola was undoubtedly angry about the February 24 incident, and she almost certainly knew that its culprit was the only resident on the 12th floor; but if provoking a confrontation was her intent, lying on the couch in the common room at 1:30 a.m. hoping that Braasch would find her there would have been a very long shot. And there is no evidence to support Braasch’s claims that Siyonbola “harassed and stalked” her between February 24 and May 8.

But does the racism narrative make any more sense? 

The assumption that Braasch’s suspicious reaction to Siyonbola was racially motivated certainly made instinctive sense to a lot of people—both outsiders who followed the story in the media and members of the Yale community. As Yale graduate A.T. McWilliams noted in Slate, racial profiling is a very real issue for the school’s African-American students (who make up about 7 percent of the student body on a campus located in a town with a sizable black population and very high crime rates). For McWilliams as for many others, the inescapable conclusion was that Braasch was incapable of seeing a black student as a peer and that her call to the police was about protecting Yale as a “white space.” 

For many progressives, there is almost literally nothing that can exonerate Braasch of racism—certainly not commendations from white professors with no firsthand knowledge of what happened on May 8. The testimony of a black character witness such as Djamila Abdi, a French African woman who worked with Braasch at Ni Putes Ni Soumises ten years ago (and was utterly shocked to learn that Braasch was being accused of racism), can be dismissed as a classic “black friend” ploy. Braasch’s advocacy for civil rights and for black immigrant women can be seen as white-saviorism. And indeed, someone could champion racial equality and be a hypocrite, or have black friends yet disproportionately see black strangers as menacing.  

Yet in Braasch’s case, the assumption of racism is not supported by a close look at the evidence. 

Braasch’s February 24 call to the police about Jean-Louis, for instance, does not seem particularly irrational. She had found herself in the dorm elevator with a man who didn’t seem to be a resident since he didn’t have the key, who went to the same floor she did, and then got off the elevator and just stood there. Obviously, Jean-Louis was looking for the party and trying to figure out if he was in the right place; but Braasch didn’t know that, and it’s not especially paranoid for a woman on a deserted floor to become alarmed in that situation, regardless of the man’s race. (Ironically, Jean-Louis’s claim that Braasch initially invited him on the elevator actually makes it less likely that her response to him was racist.) If a white man had taken umbrage at being treated with suspicion under such circumstances, the woke brigades would have ripped him to shreds for “male entitlement” and insensitivity.

At other times, Braasch’s perceptions of danger, and her reactions to them, seem far less reasonable. Several of her character witnesses noted that she is hypervigilant about her physical safety, due to her family background and other experiences including sexual abuse. (Braasch says she was molested as a child and later sexually assaulted by a doctor she saw in Morocco; she also describes herself as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.) But this hypervigilance, even if it seems overwrought, does not appear to be race-related; the episode that triggered Braasch’s fears for her safety at the dorm involved a white male whom she saw as a possible stalker.

As for the May 8 incident, Braasch has consistently maintained that when she first saw Siyonbola, turned on the lights and said, “You’re not supposed to be sleeping here,” she had no idea what race (or sex) the sleeper was. Her very first email about the incident, before it became a racial issue, mentions “someone sleeping on the couch with a blanket completely covering them.” And by the time she made the call, she was convinced that Siyonbola was one of her harassers.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the state of Braasch’s mental health—perhaps exacerbated by the fact that, as indicated by her correspondence with the dean’s office about a Ph.D. schedule extension, she stopped taking psychotropic medications at some point in 2017. Her emails to Yale staff often show a tendency toward paranoid thinking, with rapid escalation from suspicions to extreme conclusions (which can make it difficult to assess her claims). The same pattern is evident in some of Braasch’s recent statements—for instance, that a brief mention of the “napping while black” incident in a wire story on the NBC News website was NBC’s “retaliation”  for her demands to retract past reports portraying her as a racist, or that Yale has made secret deals to encourage various pundits to defame her. 

Ironically, the issue of Braasch’s mental health was repeatedly brought up by Siyonbola during her conversation with the police. “I think when someone mental calls the police for no reason, you guys should just tell them to, you know, go to an institution,” she says early in the video. She goes on to suggest twice more that Braasch should be institutionalized. At one point, when a police supervisor talks about having to sort out a problem between two people, she scoffs, “One that’s mentally healthy and one that’s, like, psycho.” She also says of Braasch, “The university knows that she’s unstable, and she’s still here.”

These comments raise the obvious question of why neither Siyonbola nor anyone who watched the video considered that Braasch’s call to the police might have had nothing to do with racism. But they raise another issue, too. In an age when “ableism” ranks prominently among the deadly sins on the progressive campus so that even the phrase “that’s crazy” is deemed offensive, Siyonbola’s disparagement of a schoolmate with mental health disabilities as a “psycho” who should be locked up did not elicit a peep of criticism. Nor did anyone object when the petition calling for Braasch’s ejection from Yale was amended to include, apparently at Siyonbola’s suggestion, a demand for her “mental health evaluation”—clearly meant not to help but to shame and punish.  

Once the situation was racialized, other issues that would normally be important to progressives—safety for women and sexual assault survivors, combating prejudice against mental illness—fell entirely by the wayside.

Was Braasch, as she believes, the victim in the Yale fiasco? Some of her claims of mistreatment must be taken with a definite grain of salt. Just recently, she tweeted that Dean Nearon explicitly refused to do anything about “the students who were stalking [and] harassing” her and suggested she should “move away” if she felt unsafe. In fact, Nearon’s email of March 14, 2018 said that Braasch’s safety concerns would be handled by the Yale police department and that she could be relocated if she had issues with students’ use of the common room. What’s more, Braasch’s communications to Nearon and other Yale staff in March made no mention of being stalked or harassed and even explicitly acknowledged, on March 21, that she had “not experienced any instances of harassment” since February 24—though she was fearful because of the suspicion of racism hanging over her. When I asked Braasch about this discrepancy, she admitted to “getting angry and tweeting injudiciously” because of her need to tell the world how she was wronged.

Still, it’s difficult not to conclude that Braasch was indeed badly wronged by Yale officials on the big issue of the racism accusation. After the February incident, she was put in an impossible position: She knew she was the subject of a potentially career-wrecking complaint of racial bias and that it was being talked about on the campus, yet she was not allowed to see this complaint and had no idea what it said, whether it mentioned her name, or whether she faced possible sanctions. It was a predicament that could have made even a well-adjusted person paranoid. Yet not one of the Yale staff members with whom she was in contact, at a time when her messages showed she was under intense stress and in a fragile state, tried to steer her toward getting help.

In the end, Braasch certainly bears some responsibility for what happened. But so does Siyonbola, who chose to escalate the conflict on two occasions and to frame it in entirely racial terms despite being apparently aware of Braasch’s mental health issues. In a way, each woman’s single-minded hypervigilance and sense of grievance—personal for one, racial for the other—made her blind to the other’s humanity.

There are plenty of others who deserve blame. The Yale bureaucrats who did nothing to defuse a potentially explosive situation, or to correct the wildly misleading reports that painted Braasch as practically a white-sheeted racist. The Twitter outrage mob. The journalists who ran with a simplistic narrative, picking and choosing and sometimes twisting the facts (so that, for instance, Braasch’s old blogposts were scoured for racial faux pas but no mention was made of her discussion of her past mental health issues). And, of course, the pundits and activists who used that narrative to advance their pet causes in the culture wars.

More than a year after the storm, Siyonbola has received her master’s degree from Yale and is going on to a Ph.D. in sociology at Cambridge. Braasch is still working on her Ph.D. thesis—and fighting for vindication. 

She has her battle cut out for her. Her complaint to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, accusing Yale of sex discrimination and of violating her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, was rejected in March (she is appealing). Her YouTube videos in which she tries to tell her side of the story have relatively little following. To some extent, her appeals for support are undercut by her conspiratorial claims and over-the-top rhetoric—such as accusing various organizations of deliberately trying to either drive her to suicide or incite her murder—which can put off otherwise sympathetic people. (Ironically, the hyperbole echoes that of Braasch’s detractors who suggest she was more or less knowingly placing Siyonbola in mortal danger when she called the campus police.)

At times, she seems to realize she’s going overboard. “After you’ve literally been subjected to a global defamation campaign, you tend to think that everyone is conspiring to destroy you,” she told me in an email at one point.

And yet sometimes, Braasch’s claims hover on a thin line between outlandish and insightful—such as her repeated assertions that the movement to document everyday racism has turned into a “bloodsport” of targeting vulnerable white women as “punishment” for the white female Trump vote. As it turns out, a similar point was made—much less melodramatically—by feminist author Phoebe Maltz Bovy in a Twitter thread last fall. 

In the end, one can look past the hyperbole and the melodrama and agree that what happened to Braasch was wrong. A series of misunderstandings was allowed to escalate into a full-blown fiasco, and a bright, talented, troubled woman was made a target of “mob justice” with devastating consequences. 

The day she left the Yale campus for the last time, Braasch wrote to one of her professors that she was still the same “proud social justice warrior” she had always been. More than a year later, she says still wants to save the world—but this time, as a voice for all those maligned by the “moral outrage industry.”

When all is said and done, it’s a good cause.

*Correction, August 15, 2019: The article originally transposed the first and last names of Reneson Jean-Louis.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.