An elite Massachusetts liberal arts college has quietly conceded that there was no truth to allegations of racism made by one of their students that ‘ruined the lives’ of numerous campus workers.
Oumou Kanoute was in the canteen at Smith College on July 31, 2018 when she claimed she was profiled for ‘eating while black’ after a security guard asked her what she was doing.
Kanoute posted video of the incident on social media and claimed that she was the victim of racism.
She named staff, one of whom was hospitalized with stress, and another janitor, who was not present, was forced from his job
Kanoute said the security guard may have been carrying a ‘lethal weapon’ when, in fact, he was unarmed.
As a result, Smith forced employees to attend seminars about unconscious bias, with one staff member, who disagreed with it, quitting her job.
However, an independent law firm investigating the incident has now found that there was no evidence of wrongdoing and cleared all those involved.
On the day of the incident, Kanoute, a 21-year-old who was raised in New York after her family emigrated from Mali, was in an empty canteen that was reserved for a summer camp program for young children.
Oumou Kanoute said that she was ‘racially profiled’ in the July 2018 incident at the school
Kanoute deleted her social media, but her 2018 post was shared on Instagram by sympathizers
Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, costs $80,000 a year for the women who attend
The 150-year-old womens’-only college, whose motto is ‘audacity, agency, authenticity,’ charges $80,000 a year in fees.
About 6.6 per cent of Smith’s more than 2,500 undergraduates identify as black, according to college data: 36.3 per cent identify as a person of color.
Jackie Blair, a veteran cafeteria employee, mentioned to Kanoute that it was reserved for the summer school, and then decided to drop it, according to The New York Times.
A janitor, who was in his 60s and poor of sight, and had worked at Smith for 35 years, was emptying garbage cans when he saw a figure reclining and eating alone, in a far corner of the canteen which was supposed to be closed.
Campus police had advised staff to call security rather than confront strangers on their own, so the janitor called security.
A janitor spotted a person in the distance reclining in the closed canteen, so called 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.’
A well-known older campus security officer drove over to the dorm where the cafeteria was situated, The Times recounted, and was accompanied by a campus police officer.
He recognized her as a student and they had a brief and polite conversation, which she recorded on video.
‘Hi,’ she says.
‘How are you doing?’ a man says.
‘Good, how are you?’ she replied.
‘We were wondering why you were here,’ he says.
‘Oh, I was eating lunch, I’m working the summer program, so I was just relaxing on the couch.’
He replies: ‘Oh, just taking a break. So you’re with the program?’
‘Yeah. I’m actually a TA,’ she says.
He replies: ‘Oh, so that’s what it was. We just wondered.’
Kanoute says: ‘It’s OK, it’s just that kind of stuff like this just happens way too often, where people just feel threatened.’
Hours later she wrote on Facebook: ‘It’s outrageous that some people question my being at Smith, and my existence overall as a woman of color.’
She said the officer, who could have been carrying a ‘lethal weapon,’ left her near ‘meltdown’.
Kanoute did not mention that Blair had already mentioned to her that the empty cafe was closed, except for the summer school students.
She wrote: ‘I cannot even sit down and eat lunch peacefully.
‘I did nothing wrong. I wasn’t making a noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black.’
Her case was seized upon.
Kathleen McCartney, president of Smith College, immediately apologized to Kanoute
The president of Smith College, Kathleen McCartney, responded the next day.
‘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.
Blair, the cafeteria worker, was emailed by a reporter at The Boston Globe asking her why she called security on Kanoute for ‘eating while black.’
Blair was surprised, as she had had nothing to do with the call for security.
The next day she discovered that Kanoute had posted her photograph, name and email on Facebook, along with that of another janitor, Mark Patenaude, a 21-year Smith employee who was not even on site at the time of the July 31 incident.
She accused him of ‘racist cowardly acts’: he left his job not long after.
‘I was accused of being the racist,’ Patenaude told The New York Times.
‘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 multiple training sessions about race and intersectionality at Smith after the incident, which he said left workers cynical. He left his job shortly after.
‘I don’t know if I believe in white privilege,’ he said. ‘I believe in money privilege.’
Two members of staff have resigned following the July 2018 incident at the elite school
For Blair, the canteen worker, stress exacerbated her lupus and she checked into the hospital last year.
She was vilified on social media, and around campus. She tried to change jobs within the school, but the accusations of being racist followed her.
On September 13, 2018, Kanoute upped the ante and wrote on the ACLU website: ‘This summer, I was racially profiled – an all-too-common experience for Black people in America.
‘But unlike most people who are targeted for simply existing in their skin, my story of harassment went viral.’
Students staged a mass walk-out in support of Kanoute, and urged Smith College to do more to combat what they claimed was widespread systematic racism at the school.
Kanoute spoke to The Boston Globe for an article published on September 17, and said her new-found fame was tough to deal with.
‘I have to watch how I act. It’s hard to maneuver,’ she said, describing the experience like ‘walking on glass’.
‘It’s hard to tell who’s being disingenuous, who’s being opportunistic, who wants to be your friend for who you are, and who wants to know the Oumou that this happened to.’
‘I knew that there would be trolls online that would say hurtful things.
‘I also knew that if I had just sent an e-mail to the administration, none of this would be happening. It would have just been swept under the rug.’
Kanoute took legal representation from Carl Takei, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU asked Smith College to make changes to its policies, from how it handles police calls to mandatory, in-person, racial bias training for faculty, staff, and incoming students.
The ACLU has also asked Smith to create housing for black students who may want to live together – a longstanding request from black student groups.
On October 28, 2018, McCartney released a 35-page report from a law firm which was called in to investigate Kanoute’s claim. Blair was cleared altogether, and the investigators found no sufficient evidence of discrimination by anyone else involved, including the janitor who called campus police.
McCartney began a program of anti-bias training, which many within the staff found intrusive and unhelpful.
‘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.
Jodi Shaw quit her job at Smith College on February 19, citing a ‘racially hostile environment’
‘It is safe to say race is discussed far more often than class at Smith,’ said Professor 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.’
Lendler said the 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.
Jodi Shaw, an employee of the residential life department, resigned from the school on February 19, citing a ‘racially hostile environment.’
Before Christmas she began speaking out against the anti-bias training programs, and found a fervent YouTube following
‘Stop demanding that I admit to white privilege, and work on my so-called implicit bias as a condition of my continued employment,’ she said in one of her videos.
The janitor in his 60s has since returned to work, but Blair was furloughed and struggled to find another job, with one potential employer asking her: ‘Aren’t you the one involved in that incident?’