Michael Powell, New York Times, February 24, 2021
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,” Ms. Kanoute wrote on Facebook, saying that this encounter continued a yearlong pattern of harassment at Smith.
“All I did was be Black,” Ms. 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. Ms. 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 Ms. Kanoute and her A.C.L.U. 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.
In an interview, Ms. McCartney said that Ms. 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.
President McCartney, like all the workers Ms. 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.
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, accept the theory of structural racism.
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 Ms. 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.
Ms. McCartney appeared intent on making no such missteps in 2018. In an interview, she said that Ms. Kanoute deserved an apology and swift action, even before the investigation was undertaken. “It was appropriate to apologize,” Ms. 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 Prof. 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, Ms. Blair, the cafeteria worker, received an email from a reporter at The Boston Globe asking her to comment on why she called security on Ms. 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 Ms. Kanoute had posted her photograph, name and email, along with that of Mr. Patenaude, a 21-year Smith employee and janitor.
“This is the racist person,” Ms. Kanoute wrote of Ms. Blair, adding that Mr. Patenaude too was guilty. (He in fact worked an early shift that day and had already gone home at the time of the incident.) Ms. Kanoute also lashed the Smith administration. “They’re essentially enabling racist, cowardly acts.”
Ms. 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.”
Ms. 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 Ms. 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 officials pressured Ms. Blair to go into mediation with Ms. Kanoute. “A core tenet of restorative justice,” Ms. McCartney wrote, “is to provide people with the opportunity for willing apology, forgiveness and reconciliation.”
Ms. Blair declined. “Why would I do this? This student called me a racist and I did nothing,” she said.
Anti-bias training began in earnest in the fall. Ms. 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. Ms. Blair recalled growing silent and wanting to crawl inside herself.
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.
As for Ms. 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. Ms. 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?”