Class and Power at Smith College Inside a Battle Over Race
A student said that, while eating in a college dorm, she was racially profiled. No evidence of bias was found by an investigation. But the incident isn't going to fade away.
Oumou Kanoute, a black student at Smith College, told a distressing American story in the mid-summer of 2018: When a janitor and a campus police officer walked over, she was eating lunch in a dorm lounge and asked her what she was doing there.
Ms. Kanoute wrote on Facebook that the officer, who could have carried a "lethal weapon," left her close to "meltdown," saying that this encounter continued Smith's year-long pattern of harassment.
Ms. Kanoute wrote, "All I did was to be Black." "It is outrageous that some individuals question my being at Smith College, and my life as a woman of color in general."
Kathleen McCartney, the college's president, offered profuse apologies and put the janitor on paid leave. "The President wrote, "This painful incident reminds us of the ongoing legacy of racism and bias, in which people of color are targeted while simply going about the business of their ordinary lives."
The story of a young female student harassed by white workers was picked up by the New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN. "The American Union of Civil Liberties, which took the case of the student, said she was profiled for "eating while Black.
Three months later, less attention was given when no persuasive evidence of bias was found by a law firm hired by Smith College to investigate the episode. Ms. Kanoute was determined to eat in a deserted dorm that had been closed for the summer; if he saw unauthorized individuals there, the janitor was encouraged to notify security. The officer was unarmed, like all campus police.
After the incident, Smith College officials emphasized "reconciliation and healing." They announced a range of anti-bias training for all employees in the months to come, a revamped and more sensitive campus police force and the creation of dormitories, as requested by Ms. Kanoute and her A.C.L.U. lawyer, set aside for black students and other colored students.
But they did not offer the workers whose lives were severely disrupted by the accusation of the student any public apology or amends.
This is a story of how at the elite 145-year-old liberal arts college, where tuition, room and board top $78,000 a year and where the staff who keep the school running often come from working-class enclaves beyond the elegant wrought iron gates of the school, race, class and power collided. The tale emphasizes the tensions between the deeply felt sense of personal truth of a student and facts that are at odds with it.
These tensions arise at a time when few feel comfortable publicly questioning liberal orthodoxy on race and identity in the Smith community, and some professors worry that the administration is too deferential to its increasingly emboldened students.
James Miller, an economics professor at Smith College and a conservative, said, "My perception is that if you're on the wrong side of identity policy issues, you're not just wrong, you're evil."
Ms. McCartney said in an interview that the meeting between Ms. Kanoute and the campus staff was part of a spate of cases of "living while Black" harassment across the nation. There was, she observed, great pressure to behave. She said, "We always try to show compassion for everybody involved."
Like all the workers with whom Ms. Kanoute interacted on that day, President McCartney is white.
Faculty members, however, pointed to a pattern that they say reflects the increasing timidity of the college in the face of student allegations, particularly regarding the issue of race and ethnicity. After some professors questioned whether admission standards for the program had been lowered and this affected the quality of the field work, students denounced faculty at Smith's social work program as racist in 2016. One of the professors they condemned, Dennis Miehls, left the school not long after.
The religious studies department then proposed a class on Native American religion and spirituality in the autumn of 2019. A small contingent of Native American students and allies, a complete complement of students registered but well before classes began, pasted bright red posters on campus buildings reviling the course as harmful, intrusive and disrespectful and attacking the instructor, who was young, white and not on a tenure track. In this field, he had an academic background and had modeled his course on that of his mentor, who was a well-known professor and a Choctaw Nation member.
The administration refused to challenge the student protesters and had the teacher submit to "radical listening" meetings with the protesters. In the end, the department of religious studies dropped the class.
The atmosphere at Smith is gaining national attention, in part because the school's recently resigned employee, Jodi Shaw, has attracted a fervent YouTube following by denouncing what she sees as the insistence of the college that its white staff accept the theory of structural racism through anti-bias training.
"Ms. Shaw, who is also a 1993 graduate of Smith and who worked in the residential life department, said in one of her videos, "Stop demanding that I admit to white privilege, and work on my so-called implicit bias as a condition of my continued employment. Ms. Shaw resigned last week after months of colliding with the administration and seems likely to sue the school, calling it a "racially hostile workplace."
Her claims this week drew news headlines from Fox News to Rolling Stone. The question continues to be debated by alumni, faculty and students. All this came about as a result of the events of July 31, 2018.
A Day of Summer
Ms. Kanoute, raised in New York, a 5-foot-2 runner and science student, was the first to attend college in her family to emigrate from Mali. She worked as a teaching assistant that summer and woke up late on July 31st and stopped at the Tyler House dormitory cafeteria on her way to the gym for lunch. This account of what followed is taken from the investigative report and dozens of interviews, including with Ms. Kanoute's lawyer, who declined several applications for interviews.
The Tyler cafeteria, which was reserved for a summer camp program for young kids, was not meant to be used by student workers. A veteran cafeteria employee, Jackie Blair, mentioned that to Ms. Kanoute when she saw her getting lunch there and then decided to drop it. For fear that students will lodge complaints, staff members dance carefully around rule enforcement.
Mark Patenaude, a janitor, said, "We used to joke, don't let a rich student report you, because if you do, you're gone."
Ms. Kanoute picked up her meal and then walked through a set of French doors, crossed the foyer, and reclined in the shadowy lounge of a summer-closed bedroom, scrolling the web as she ate. A large stuffed bear obscured the cafeteria's view of her.
A janitor who was poorly sighted in his 60s was emptying garbage cans when he noticed someone in the closed lounge. Everyone involved in the summer camp had to have state background checks and campus police had advised employees that it was wisest to call security instead of confronting strangers on their own.
Security was dialed by the janitor who had worked at Smith for 35 years.
"We have a person in the living room sitting there," the janitor told a dispatcher, according to a transcript. "I have not approached her or anything, but he appears to be out of place."
The janitor had noticed the black skin of Ms. Kanoute, but did not mention that to the dispatcher. It was in the shadows of Ms. Kanoute; he was not sure if he was looking at a man or a woman. She would accuse the janitor of "misgendering" her later on.
A well-known elderly security officer on campus drove over to the dorm. As a student, he recognized Ms. Kanoute and they had a short and polite conversation, which she recorded. "He apologized for disturbing her and she spoke of her discomfort to him: "Such things happen too often, where people just feel threatened, like.
A Facebook post was written that night by Ms. Kanoute: "It's outrageous that some people question my being at Smith and my overall existence as a woman of color."
Like an electric charge, her two-paragraph post hit Smith College. A day later, President McCartney weighed in. I begin by offering my deepest apology for this incident to the student involved," she wrote." "And to assure her that she belongs in every place in Smith."
Ms. McCartney did not speak to the accused workers and, that day, put the janitor on paid leave.
Stumbles Stumbles Race Over
Ms. McCartney and her staff often talk about their mission of social justice, and faculty say this has infiltrated nearly every aspect of college. In social justice studies, students can now obtain a minor. That said, by the time of the 2018 incident, the president had stumbled in ways which left her bruised.
In 2014, she hosted an alumni debate on free speech in New York. A white female panelist argued that banning the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" from Mark Twain was a mistake because he used the N-word; that panelist then uttered the word in hopes, she said, of draining the word from its ugly power. Ms. McCartney was denounced by students for failing to denounce that panelist. The president applied for forgiveness.
She wrote to the college community later in 2014, lamenting that grand juries had not indicted police officers for the deaths of black men. "All lives matter," concluded Ms. McCartney in an accidental echo of a conservative rallying cry. Again, she was denounced by the Smith students and she apologized again.
In 2018, Ms. McCartney appeared intent on making no such missteps. She said in an interview that, even before the investigation was undertaken, Ms. Kanoute deserved an apology and swift action. It was appropriate," said Ms. McCartney, "to apologize. "She lives in the context of incidents of 'living while Black'."
Staff at the school feel scapegoated.
Prof. Marc Lendler, who teaches American government at the institution, said, "It is fair to assume race is debated much more frequently than class at Smith." "The faculty and students don't know what it means to be elite is a characteristic of elite academic institutions."
The implications have spread. "Ms. Blair, the cafeteria worker, received an email from a columnist at The Boston Globe three weeks after the Tyler House incident asking her to elaborate about why she called Ms. Kanoute's protection for "eating while Black. That confused her; what was she meant to do with it?
The next morning, the food services director rang. He wrote, "Jackie," "You're on Facebook." She discovered that, along with that of Mr. Patenaude, a 21-year-old Smith employee and janitor, Ms. Kanoute had shared her photograph, name and email.
This is a racial guy," wrote Ms. Kanoute of Ms. Blair, adding that she was guilty of Mr. Patenaude, too." (He had had an early shift that day and, at the time of the crash, he had already gone home.) The Smith administration was also beaten by Ms. Kanoute. "We effectively allow for racist, cowardly acts."
Ms. Blair has lupus, an immune system disorder, and episodes are caused by stress. She was feeling faint. "I didn't do this, oh my Goodness," she told a friend. "I've traded a hello with the student, and I'm a bigot now."
Ms. Blair was born and bred and lives with her partner, a mechanic, in Northampton and makes about $40,000 a year. She said she discovered messages in her mailbox within days of being accused by Ms. Kanoute and taped them to her car window. One read "RACIST". At college, people called her. A caller said, "You should be ashamed of yourself." Another said, "You do not deserve to exist."
Smith College released a brief statement stating that Ms. Blair did not position the security phone call but did not absolve her of greater liability. Ms. McCartney called her and apologised briefly. The apology was not disclosed.
A frost had settled on the campus by September. Students left the autumn summit in unity with Ms. Kanoute. The Group of Black Students wrote to the president that they "do not feel noticed or acknowledged." We are feeling betrayed and tokenized.
Officials from Smith forced Ms. Blair to join in negotiations with Ms. Kanoute. "A fundamental tenet of restorative justice," Ms. McCartney wrote, "is to allow people the chance to apologise, forgive and heal willingly."
Ms. Blair denied. "Why am I trying to do this? I was branded a bigot by this student and I didn't do something,' she added.
The Forensic Report and the Implications
Ms. McCartney published a 35-page study from a law firm with a background in inquiries into discrimination on Oct. 28, 2018. Ms. Blair was absolutely cleared by the investigation and no adequate proof of harassment was identified by anybody else involved, including the janitor who called the campus police.
Still, Ms. McCartney said the study reinforced the perspective of Ms. Kanoute, especially the terror she felt at the sight of the police officer. "I suspect all of you are going to believe that, as I have done," she wrote, "it is difficult to rule out the potential position of unconscious racial prejudice."
The study said that Ms. Kanoute was unable to point to anything that backed the allegation she made of a year-long "pattern of sexism" on Facebook.
After the report was released, Ms. McCartney gave no formal apology to the staff. We were gobsmacked, the lives of four people devastated, two more than 35-year-old workers and no apologies," said Tracey Putnam Culver, a Smith alum who recently resigned from the facility management department of the institution." "Why is it rationalized by you?"
Rahsaan Hall, director of social diversity for the A.C.L.U. of Massachusetts and counsel for Ms. Kanoute, warned against taking too much from the investigation study, since it is impossible to prove subconscious bias. Nor has he been especially sympathetic to the staff charged.
It's disturbing that by being branded racist, people are more upset than by the real bigotry of our culture," he stated." "The accusations of being racist are not on par with the effects of real bigotry, even having direct mailers in their mailbox."
Ms. Blair was reassigned to another dormitory because Ms. Kanoute was staying in the dormitory where she had served for several years. The first week she spent in her new work, she said, a female student whispered to another: the racists are going.
Anti-bias training in the fall began in earnest. Ms. Blair and other staff in the cafeteria and grounds were asked by Smith-hired experts about their upbringing and family beliefs about race, which many deemed mentally invasive. Ms. Blair remembered that she was getting quiet and trying to hide into herself.
It is not necessary for the faculty to attend such preparation. In an interview, Professor Lendler said that such preparation for staff in the middle class risks being a sort of psychological intimidation. "My reaction would be, 'If it affects job standards, what I was like growing up or what I should be worried about is none of your business,'" he said.
Ms. McCartney has been urged by a few professors to speak up more vigorously for line staff lest she risk her allegiance.
"Asked about workers who considered the training intrusive in the interview, the president responded: "Good training is never about making individuals too nervous or felt embarrassed or something. I believe our workers are happy and accept it.
The college has set up "White Transparency" groups in addition to the counseling workshops, where staff and workers are invited to meet on Zoom to discuss their prejudices, but the participation of faculty has declined dramatically.
Following three months of paid leave, the janitor who called campus security secretly returned to work and refused to be interviewed. Not long after Ms. Kanoute shared his photograph on social media, the other janitor, Mr. Patenaude, who was not working at the time of the event, quit his job at Smith, accusing him of "racial cowardly deeds."
'I have been convicted of being a bigot,' said Mr. Patenaude. "That just knocked me out, to be frank. I'm a 58-year-old male, and we have to be strong. But because of incidents in my experience, I suffered from anxiety and this took it to a whole 'other dimension.'
He remembered going to one race and intersectionality training session after another at Smith. That made staff cynical, he said. He said, "I don't know if I believe in white privilege." "I believe in privilege over money."
As for Ms. Blair, the cafeteria worker, her lupus was aggravated by depression and last year she checked into the hospital. Then George Floyd, a Black man, died last spring at the hands of the Minneapolis police, and demonstrations fired up around the country and in Northampton, and angry notes and allegations of bigotry were left in her mailbox and on the official Facebook page of Smith College by tourists again.
The university furloughed her and other staff this past fall, blaming the coronavirus and the vacant dorms. Ms. Blair applied to a nearby restaurant for an hourly job. "A Zoom interview was set up by the boss, she said, who asked her, "Aren't you the one involved in the incident?
She said, "I was pissed." I assured her that I had done nothing wrong, nothing. And she said, 'Well, all of us are set.'
Recently, she spoke to a photographer from a neighbor's backyard, while a pair of hens roamed the patio.
"What am I supposed to do?" she asked, scratching her head. "When will this racist mark disappear?"