It was supposed to be a night of celebration.
Dr. Celeste Malone, an associate professor and coordinator of the psychology program at Howard University, had invited fellow Black psychologists, graduate students, and a small number of friends and family to celebrate in her presidential suite on the evening of Feb. 8.
The gathering was part of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) annual convention at the Hyatt Regency in Denver. Malone is NASP President, only the second Black female president of the organization, which represents more than 25,000 school psychologists, graduate students, and professionals across the globe.
Malone’s presidential reception started at 7:30 p.m. At 9:20, Malone offered a toast, acknowledging how many more Black psychologists exist in the field today than in the past and recognizing past psychologists of color who led the way to progress.
“Being the second Black president, this was a big event, not just for me, but also for the Black community of school psychologists,” said Malone in an interview with Diverse.
Just ten minutes later, a knock on her hotel room door brought the party to an abrupt end. Two white members of the hotel staff, informed Malone that there had been several noise complaints and demanded that everyone leave. One remained behind in the hotel suite to ensure compliance.
The Hyatt’s quiet hours do not begin until 10:00 p.m. Malone said she and her guests had received no prior warnings from any hotel staff about noise complaints. No one was staying in the adjoining rooms besides herself and one relative. Reports from attendees said that the party was not loud. Further, the gathering was located in the parlor of the presidential suite, a space commonly used for events, with a capacity for 75 people.
Malone said she, and those attending the celebration, were targeted because they were Black.
While Hyatt has since issued an apology, Malone and NASP officials are still working with the hotel to address the wrong and ensure incidents like this do not happen at any future NASP convention again.
Earlier that day, Malone had given her keynote speech, Radical Hope and Authentic Healing, touching on the collective responsibility of community to advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Malone said that she and other NASP leaders worked hard to ensure that the convention was an “inclusive and affirming” space.
“For that joyful experience and event to end in such an abrupt and stereotypical type of way—that hurt,” said Malone, adding that she knew what was happening as soon as the hotel staff came to her door.
“I’d commented, about five minutes before they came, I wouldn’t be surprised if they came because I’m a Black person, staying in the largest suite of the hotel, the gathering would be predominately Black people, and this was a celebratory event,” said Malone. “I know these are all things that raise flags—gatherings of Black people are surveilled. There was nothing about this that surprised me.”
Despite this, Malone said the moment was incredibly painful.
“I’m angry, because I know what I’m experiencing is indeed racist—and at the same time, I know I cannot express my anger, or I have to be careful in how I do so, because I could make the situation worse,” said Malone. “It was the same thing for those with me. We all knew the deal—we knew what we had to do. They left quickly, without any complaints. Even though we know it’s wrong, our response in expressing those justified feelings can make the situation worse.”
As soon as the hotel staff left, Malone immediately called NASP Executive Director Dr. Kathleen Minke and NASP’s Director of Meetings and Conventions, Glenn Reighart. Malone said their immediate understanding and support of her experience made a tremendous difference for her.
“Not having to explain to [Minke] why this was racist, and for her to understand, was not something I took for granted,” said Malone. “Black people are rarely given the benefit of the doubt and have to break down why something was racist, or our experiences are painful. To not have to do that, and her as well as other NASP staff springing into action right away the next morning, was incredibly affirming.”
Katherine C. Cowan, director of marketing and communications at NASP, said from NASP’s perspective, they had two clear responsibilities, and the first was to ensure that Malone was ok. The second was to be as transparent as possible. With Malone’s permission, Cowan and her team took to social media to share what had happened.
“Our position has always been to ensure reparative action was taken in a way that met Celeste’s needs as president and an individual, Black woman,” said Cowan. “We are still negotiating some details with Hyatt.”
So far, resulting negotiations include an official, public apology issued by General Manager of the Hyatt Regency Denver Gregory Leonard. An investigation of the Hyatt employees involved in the matter has also commenced, and the hotel has committed to retraining in diversity, equity, and inclusion for all hotel staff. Hyatt has said that they will compensate and offer personal apologies to all affected, and they will make donations to organizations identified by NASP.
Hyatt representatives did not respond to requests for additional comment.
Malone said this incident has made her think more broadly about the safety of people of color and other marginalized communities at conventions. NASP’s response has reaffirmed her commitment to the organization, she said.
“For every professional and academic society, how are you going to make it safe for your colleges of color, your LGBTQ+ colleagues, for everyone to feel safe in these spaces? Do you speak up for them and are you advocating for them as well?” asked Malone. “This feeds back into your diversity, equity, and inclusion statements. What does it look like in practice? NASP is a good example of that, and other organizations need to be thinking about the same.”
Liann Herder can be reached at email@example.com.