NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — In midsummer of 2018, Oumou Kanoute, a Black student at Smith College, recounted a distressing American tale: She was eating lunch in a dorm lounge when a janitor and a campus police officer walked over and asked her what she was doing there.
The officer, who could have been carrying a “lethal weapon,” left her near “meltdown,” Kanoute wrote on Facebook, saying that this encounter continued a yearlong pattern of harassment at Smith.
“All I did was be Black,” Kanoute wrote. “It’s outrageous that some people question my being at Smith College, and my existence overall as a woman of color.”
The college’s president, Kathleen McCartney offered profuse apologies and put the janitor on paid leave. “This painful incident reminds us of the ongoing legacy of racism and bias,” the president wrote, “in which people of color are targeted while simply going about the business of their ordinary lives.”
The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN picked up the story of a young female student harassed by white workers. The American Civil Liberties Union, which took the student’s case, said she was profiled for “eating while Black.”
Less attention was paid three months later when a law firm hired by Smith College to investigate the episode found no persuasive evidence of bias. Kanoute was determined to have eaten in a deserted dorm that had been closed for the summer; the janitor had been encouraged to notify security if he saw unauthorized people there. The officer, like all campus police, was unarmed.
Smith College officials emphasized “reconciliation and healing” after the incident. In the months to come they announced a raft of anti-bias training for all staff, a revamped and more sensitive campus police force and the creation of dormitories — as demanded by Kanoute and her ACLU lawyer — set aside for Black students and other students of color.
But they did not offer any public apology or amends to the workers whose lives were gravely disrupted by the student’s accusation.
This is a tale of how race, class and power collided at the elite 145-year-old liberal arts college, where tuition, room and board top $78,000 a year and where the employees who keep the school running often come from working-class enclaves beyond the school’s elegant wrought iron gates. The story highlights the tensions between a student’s deeply felt sense of personal truth and facts that are at odds with it.
Those tensions come at a time when few in the Smith community feel comfortable publicly questioning liberal orthodoxy on race and identity, and some professors worry the administration is too deferential to its increasingly emboldened students.
“My perception is that if you’re on the wrong side of issues of identity politics, you’re not just mistaken, you’re evil,” said James Miller, an economics professor at Smith College and a conservative.
In an interview, McCartney said that Kanoute’s encounter with the campus staff was part of a spate of cases of “living while Black” harassment across the nation. There was, she noted, great pressure to act. “We always try to show compassion for everyone involved,” she said.
McCartney, like all the workers Kanoute interacted with on that day, is white.
Faculty members, however, pointed to a pattern that they say reflects the college’s growing timidity in the face of allegations from students, especially around the issue of race and ethnicity. In 2016, students denounced faculty at Smith’s social work program as racist after some professors questioned whether admissions standards for the program had been lowered and this was affecting the quality of the field work. Dennis Miehls, one of the professors they decried, left the school not long after.
Then in the autumn of 2019, the religious studies department proposed a class on Native American religion and spirituality. A full complement of students registered but well before classes began, a small contingent of Native American students and allies pasted bright red posters on buildings on campus reviling the course as harmful, intrusive and disrespectful and attacking the instructor, who was young, white and not on a tenure track. He had an academic background in this field and had modeled his course on that of his mentor, who was a well-known professor and a member of the Choctaw Nation.
The administration declined to challenge the student protesters and had the instructor submit to sessions of “radical listening” with the protesters. In the end, the religious studies department dropped the class.
The atmosphere at Smith is gaining attention nationally, in part because a recently resigned employee of the school, Jodi Shaw, has attracted a fervent YouTube following by decrying what she sees as the college’s insistence that its white employees, through anti-bias training, embrace an ideology of structural racism.
“Stop demanding that I admit to white privilege, and work on my so-called implicit bias as a condition of my continued employment,” Shaw, who is also a 1993 graduate of Smith and who worked in the residential life department, said in one of her videos. After months of clashing with the administration, Shaw resigned last week and appears likely to sue the school, calling it a “racially hostile workplace.”
Her claims drew headlines from Fox News to Rolling Stone this week. Alumni, faculty and students continue to debate the issue. All of this arose from the events of July 31, 2018.
A Summer Day
Kanoute, New York-raised, a 5-foot-2 runner and science student, was the first in her family, which had emigrated from Mali, to attend college. She worked that summer as a teaching assistant and on July 31 awoke late and stopped at the Tyler House dormitory cafeteria for lunch on her way to the gym.
This account of what unfolded next is drawn from the investigative report and dozens of interviews, including with a lawyer for Kanoute, who declined several interview requests.
Student workers were not supposed to use the Tyler cafeteria, which was reserved for a summer camp program for young children. Jackie Blair, a veteran cafeteria employee, mentioned that to Kanoute when she saw her getting lunch there and then decided to drop it. Staff members dance carefully around rule enforcement for fear students will lodge complaints.
“We used to joke, don’t let a rich student report you, because if you do, you’re gone,” said Mark Patenaude, a janitor.
Kanoute took her food and then walked through a set of French doors, crossed a foyer and reclined in the shadowed lounge of a dormitory closed for the summer, where she scrolled the web as she ate. A large stuffed bear obscured the view of her from the cafeteria.
A janitor, who was in his 60s and poor of sight, was emptying garbage cans when he noticed someone in that closed lounge. All involved with the summer camp were required to have state background checks and campus police had advised staff it was wisest to call security rather than confront strangers on their own.
The janitor, who had worked at Smith for 35 years, dialed security.
“We have a person sitting there laying down in the living room,” the janitor told a dispatcher according to a transcript. “I didn’t approach her or anything but he seems out of place.”
The janitor had noticed Kanoute’s Black skin but made no mention of that to the dispatcher. Kanoute was in the shadows; he was not sure if he was looking at a man or woman. She would later accuse the janitor of “misgendering” her.
A well-known older campus security officer drove over to the dorm. He recognized Kanoute as a student and they had a brief and polite conversation, which she recorded. He apologized for bothering her and she spoke to him of her discomfort: “Stuff like this happens way too often, where people just feel, like, threatened.”
That night Kanoute wrote a Facebook post: “It’s outrageous that some people question my being at Smith, and my existence overall as a woman of color.”
Her two-paragraph post hit Smith College like an electric charge. McCartney weighed in a day later. “I begin by offering the student involved my deepest apology that this incident occurred,” she wrote. “And to assure her that she belongs in all Smith places.”
McCartney did not speak to the accused employees and put the janitor on paid leave that day.
Stumbles Over Race
McCartney and her staff talk often of their social justice mission, and faculty say this has seeped into near every aspect of the college. Students can now obtain a minor in social justice studies. That said, the president had stumbled in ways that left her bruised by the time of the 2018 incident.
In 2014, she moderated an alumnae discussion in New York on free speech. A white female panelist argued it was a mistake to ban Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” because he used the N-word; that panelist then uttered the word in hopes, she said, of draining the word of its ugly power. Students denounced McCartney for failing to denounce that panelist. The president requested forgiveness.
Later in 2014, she wrote to the college community, lamenting that grand juries had not indicted police officers in the deaths of Black men. “All lives matter,” McCartney concluded in an inadvertent echo of a conservative rallying cry. Again, Smith students denounced her and again she apologized.
McCartney appeared intent on making no such missteps in 2018. In an interview, she said that Kanoute deserved an apology and swift action, even before the investigation was undertaken. “It was appropriate to apologize,” McCartney said. “She is living in a context of ‘living while Black’ incidents.”
The school’s workers felt scapegoated.
“It is safe to say race is discussed far more often than class at Smith,” said Marc Lendler, who teaches American government at the college. “It’s a feature of elite academic institutions that faculty and students don’t recognize what it means to be elite.”
The repercussions spread. Three weeks after the incident at Tyler House, Blair, the cafeteria worker, received an email from a reporter at The Boston Globe asking her to comment on why she called security on Kanoute for “eating while Black.” That puzzled her; what did she have to do with this?
The food services director called the next morning. “Jackie,” he said, “you’re on Facebook.” She found that Kanoute had posted her photograph, name and email, along with that of Patenaude, a 21-year Smith employee and janitor.
“This is the racist person,” Kanoute wrote of Blair, adding that Patenaude too was guilty. (He in fact worked an early shift that day and had already gone home at the time of the incident.) Kanoute also lashed the Smith administration. “They’re essentially enabling racist, cowardly acts.”
Blair has lupus, a disease of the immune system, and stress triggers episodes. She felt faint. “Oh my God, I didn’t do this,” she told a friend. “I exchanged a hello with that student and now I’m a racist.”
Blair was born and raised and lives in Northampton with her husband, a mechanic, and makes about $40,000 a year. Within days of being accused by Kanoute, she said she found notes in her mailbox and taped to her car window. “RACIST” read one. People called her at home. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” a caller said. “You don’t deserve to live,” said another.
Smith College put out a short statement noting that Blair had not placed the phone call to security but did not absolve her of broader responsibility. McCartney called her and briefly apologized. That apology was not made public.
By September, a chill had settled on the campus. Students walked out of autumn convocation in solidarity with Kanoute. The Black Student Association wrote to the president saying they “do not feel heard or understood. We feel betrayed and tokenized.”
Smith officials pressured Blair to go into mediation with Kanoute. “A core tenet of restorative justice,” McCartney wrote, “is to provide people with the opportunity for willing apology, forgiveness and reconciliation.”
Blair declined. “Why would I do this? This student called me a racist and I did nothing,” she said.
The Investigative Report and the Aftermath
On Oct. 28, 2018, McCartney released a 35-page report from a law firm with a specialty in discrimination investigations. The report cleared Blair altogether and found no sufficient evidence of discrimination by anyone else involved, including the janitor who called campus police.
Still, McCartney said the report validated Kanoute’s lived experience, notably the fear she felt at the sight of the police officer. “I suspect many of you will conclude, as did I,” she wrote, “it is impossible to rule out the potential role of implicit racial bias.”
The report said Kanoute could not point to anything that supported the claim she made on Facebook of a yearlong “pattern of discrimination.”
McCartney offered no public apology to the employees after the report was released. “We were gobsmacked — four people’s lives wrecked, two were employees of more than 35 years and no apology,” said Tracey Putnam Culver, a Smith graduate who recently retired from the college’s facilities management department. “How do you rationalize that?”
Rahsaan Hall, racial justice director for the ACLU of Massachusetts and Kanoute’s lawyer, cautioned against drawing too much from the investigative report, as subconscious bias is difficult to prove. Nor was he particularly sympathetic to the accused workers.
“It’s troubling that people are more offended by being called racist than by the actual racism in our society,” he said. “Allegations of being racist, even getting direct mailers in their mailbox, is not on par with the consequences of actual racism.”
Blair was reassigned to a different dormitory, as Kanoute lived in the one where she had labored for many years. Her first week in her new job, she said, a female student whispered to another: There goes the racist.
Anti-bias training began in earnest in the fall. Blair and other cafeteria and grounds workers found themselves being asked by consultants hired by Smith about their childhood and family assumptions about race, which many viewed as psychologically intrusive. Blair recalled growing silent and wanting to crawl inside herself.
The faculty are not required to undergo such training. Lendler said in an interview that such training for working-class employees risks becoming a kind of psychological bullying. “My response would be, ‘Unless it relates to conditions of employment, it’s none of your business what I was like growing up or what I should be thinking of,’” he said.
A few professors have advised McCartney to stand up more forcefully for line workers lest she lose their loyalty.
Asked in the interview about employees who found the training intrusive, the president responded: “Good training is never about making people too uncomfortable or to feel ashamed or anything. I think our staff is content and are embracing it.”
In addition to the training sessions, the college has set up “White Accountability” groups where faculty and staff are encouraged to meet on Zoom and explore their biases, although faculty attendance has fallen off considerably.
The janitor who called campus security quietly returned to work after three months of paid leave and declined to be interviewed. The other janitor, Patenaude, who was not working at the time of the incident, left his job at Smith not long after Kanoute posted his photograph on social media, accusing him of “racist cowardly acts.”
“I was accused of being the racist,” Patenaude said. “To be honest, that just knocked me out. I’m a 58-year-old male, we’re supposed to be tough. But I suffered anxiety because of things in my past and this brought it to a whole ’nother level.”
He recalled going through one training session after another in race and intersectionality at Smith. He said it left workers cynical. “I don’t know if I believe in white privilege,” he said. “I believe in money privilege.”
As for Blair, the cafeteria worker, stress exacerbated her lupus and she checked into the hospital last year. Then George Floyd, a Black man, died at the hands of the Minneapolis police last spring, and protests fired up across the nation and in Northampton, and angry notes and accusations of racism were again left in her mailbox and by visitors on Smith College’s official Facebook page.
This past autumn the university furloughed her and other workers, citing the coronavirus and the empty dorms. Blair applied for an hourly job with a local restaurant. The manager set up a Zoom interview, she said, and asked her: “Aren’t you the one involved in that incident?’”
“I was pissed,” she said. “I told her I didn’t do anything wrong, nothing. And she said, ‘Well, we’re all set.’ ”
She talked to a reporter recently from a neighbor’s backyard, as a couple of hens wandered the patio.
“What do I do?” she asked, shaking her head. “When does this racist label go away?”
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