Smith College, an elite college in Northampton, Massachusetts, failed to defend its working-class employees against false and damaging accusations of racism levelled by a teaching assistant, The New York Times reports.
The story began when Oumou Kanoute, a black teaching assistant at the college, was found eating in the Tyler house dormitory cafeteria, which during that summer was off-limits to students as it was being used for a children's summer camp.
Kanoute was approached by a cafeteria employee named Jackie Blair, who informed her that the cafeteria was off-limits to students at the time. This caused Kanoute to go to the dormitory lounge, which was also closed to students for the summer, where she was noticed by a janitor.
The janitor, who has been advised to call campus security if he sees someone trespassing, decided to give them a call. "We have a person sitting there laying down in the living room," he said to dispatchers. He did not mention her race.
When security arrived, the officer recognized Kanoute as a student and had a brief conversation with her. Kanoute expressed her discomfort with the situation, saying she felt threatened, and the security guard apologized for bothering her.
That evening, Kanoute took to Facebook to lambast a number of college employees as racists. "It's outrageous that some people question my being at Smith, and my existence overall as a woman of color," she wrote.
Smith College president Kathleen McCartney immediately apologized for the incident without conducting an investigation or contacting the accused employees, and put the janitor who called security on leave.
The actions of both Kanoute and McCartney stunned the employees. Ms. Blair, who did not call security, had her name, picture, and email included in the post. "This is the racist person," Kanoute wrote.
"Oh my God, I didn’t do this," Blaire said of the incident. "exchanged a hello with that student and now I’m a racist." Blair, who suffers from lupus, also says that the stress of the situation triggered symptoms. She checked into a hospital later that year due to the symptoms.
Blair, who makes a mere $40,000 per year, had notes taped to her car window and mailbox and experienced calls to her home. "You don't deserve to live," one caller told her.
The college released a statement regarding Blair where they confirmed that she was not the one who called security, but refused to absolve her of racism in general. Despite not having done anything, the college attempted to pressure her into joining a "restorative justice" session with Kanoute, which Blair refused to do.
Kanoute similarly accused a janitor, Mark Patenaude, of being a racist and included some of his personal information in the post. As it turns out, Patenaude was not even working at the time of the incident, and had left campus earlier that day.
"To be honest, that just knocked me out," Patenaude said. "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."
Two other employees were also accused of racism.
Later that year, the university released a report on the incident which found zero evidence of racial bias on the part of Blair or the janitor. McCartney, however, still refused to rule out that they were motivated by racism. "[It] is impossible to rule out the potential role of implicit racial bias," she wrote. She refused to apologize to any of the four employees, two of whom had worked at the college for over 35 years, for what they were put through.
The ACLU weighed in with a similar statement, saying that "[it's] troubling that people are more offended by being called racist than by the actual racism in our society." They further stated that "[allegations] of being racist, even getting direct mailers in their mailbox, is not on par with the consequences of actual racism." The ACLU provided no evidence of this "actual racism" on the part of the employees.
"We used to joke, don’t let a rich student report you," Patenaude said. "Because if you do, you’re gone."