A college student claimed that she was a victim of racism when she was singled out for “eating while black.” The school launched a probe, investigating the allegations, and the truth has since been revealed. It doesn’t look good for many reasons.
Oumou Kanoute was a rising sophomore at Smith College — a private, $80,000-a-year, all-women college in Northampton, Massachusetts — when she claimed she was singled out for “eating while black.” According to the 21-year-old who was raised in New York after her family emigrated from Mali, she was eating in a lounge on campus when she was unfairly profiled and targeted for her skin color.
It all began after the psychology undergraduate student went inside an empty cafeteria that was reserved for another program, the NY Times reported. Students were not supposed to use the area, and upon seeing Oumou Kanoute in the space, Jackie Blair, a veteran cafeteria worker, made the student aware but then decided to drop the issue, according to the outlet. However, things were far from over.
A janitor in his 60s with poor vision, who had worked at Smith for 35 years, was emptying the trash when he noticed a figure in the distance eating in the closed-off lounge area of the cafeteria and called security, according to the NY Post. The outlet explains, “School guidance called for employees not to confront strangers on their own — so the janitor notified security about the person, who turned out to be Kanoute.”
The janitor told dispatchers that there was someone “sitting there laying down in the living room.” He reportedly said, “I didn’t approach her or anything but he seems out of place,” later explaining that he couldn’t tell the person’s gender because it was dark.
A well-known older campus security officer responded to the call with a campus police officer. He recognized Kanoute as a student and engaged in polite conversation with her as she recorded the encounter with her phone. Following the confrontation, Kanoute posted the video footage to Facebook.
Calling the janitor a “racist punk,” Kanoute claimed she was made to feel unwelcome at the elite Massachusetts liberal arts college and alleged that she was a victim of racism.
“It’s outrageous that some people question my being at Smith, and my existence overall as a woman of color,” Kanoute wrote on social media hours later. Neglecting to mention that she had been told that the empty cafe was closed, Kanoute complained, “I cannot even sit down and eat lunch peacefully,” adding, “‘I did nothing wrong. I wasn’t making a noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black.”
Kanoute also alleged that the security guard may have been carrying a “lethal weapon,” leaving her near “meltdown.” The allegations, of course, stirred outrage. In response, Smith College president Kathleen McCartney issued a public apology. The janitor was also placed on leave, the Daily Mail reported, adding, “McCartney did not speak to the accused employees” but she reportedly did meet “with student government and black campus groups over tea to talk about the next steps the institution would take.”
“I begin by offering the student involved my deepest apology that this incident occurred,” McCartney wrote. “And to assure her that she belongs in all Smith places.”
Months after the incident, Kanoute upped the ante and wrote on the American Civil Liberties Union website. “This summer, I was racially profiled – an all-too-common experience for Black people in America,” she alleged. “But unlike most people who are targeted for simply existing in their skin, my story of harassment went viral.” She garnered plenty of attention and support. In fact, students staged a mass walk-out and urged Smith College to do more to combat what they claimed was widespread systematic racism at the school.
Kanoute took legal representation from Carl Takei, an attorney with the ACLU, and 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. Smith was also asked to create segregated housing for black students who may want to live together — a longstanding request from black student groups. However, there was just one problem.
The Results of the Probe:
After a probe was conducted by an outside law firm, the independent investigators said Kanoute’s claims were deemed unfounded. In a 35-page report, they said they found no evidence of discrimination or wrongdoing and cleared all those involved, including the janitor, who was determined to have simply followed policy. They also uncovered that, contrary to Kanoute’s remarks, the security guard was unarmed.
“Based on this information, the investigation determined that the Caller’s had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for believing it was ‘out of place’ for a person to be in the Tyler living room,” the report said.
The Aftermath & Damage:
Sadly, the damage was already done. Kanoute’s fabricated details had ruined the lives of four campus workers. The cafeteria worker, who suffers from lupus, was emailed by a reporter at The Boston Globe asking her why she called security on Kanoute for “eating while black,” even though she had had nothing to do with the call for security. She tried to change jobs within the school, but the accusations of being racist followed her. She ended up hospitalized with stress.
Making matters worse, Blair learned that Kanoute had vilified her on social media and around campus, posting her photograph, name, and email on Facebook, along with that of another janitor, Mark Patenaude. Shockingly, Patenaude, a 21-year veteran of Smith College, was not even on-site at the time of the incident. But, that didn’t stop Kanoute from accusing 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.”
Again, it didn’t end there. Although the findings were issued in October 2018, they were not widely reported. Instead, the college quietly conceded that there was no truth to allegations of racism. The case only came to light years later when an employee resigned from the school, citing a “racially hostile environment.” Sadly, this also relates back to Oumou Kanoute’s allegations of racism.
As a result of Kanoute’s complaint, Smith forced employees to attend seminars about unconscious bias. Jodi Shaw, who worked for the residential life department, began speaking out against the anti-bias training programs and found a fervent YouTube following before she eventually resigned from the school, citing a “racially hostile environment.”
“I ask that Smith College stop reducing my personhood to a racial category. Stop telling me what I must think and feel about myself,” Shaw said. “Stop presuming to know who I am or what my culture is based upon my skin color. Stop asking me to project stereotypes and assumptions onto others based on their skin color,” she continued. “Stop demanding that I admit to white privilege, and work on my so-called implicit bias as a condition of my continued employment.”
In her resignation letter, Shaw said everything changed “dramatically” with Kanoute’s accusations, which caused a “culture war” to arrive on campus after the student accused white staff members of racial bias.
“Before even investigating the facts of the incident, the college immediately issued a public apology to the student, placed the employee on leave, and announced its intention to create new initiatives, committees, workshops, trainings, and policies aimed at combating ‘systemic racism’ on campus,” Shaw recalled.
“In spite of an independent investigation into the incident that found no evidence of racial bias, the college ramped up its initiatives aimed at dismantling the supposed racism that pervades the campus,” Shaw continued. “This only served to support the now prevailing narrative that the incident had been racially motivated and that Smith staff are racist.”
Many staff members found the anti-bias training intrusive and unhelpful. Some went as far as to suggest it’s “a kind of psychological bullying.” James Miller, an economics professor at Smith College and a conservative, explained, “My perception is that if you’re on the wrong side of issues of identity politics, you’re not just mistaken, you’re evil.”
What’s really evil, however, is inserting race where it’s not an issue and making false claims of racism that ruin people’s lives. It’s also evil to act without all the evidence, a mistake McCartney admitted to The New York Times, saying that when Kanoute made her complaint, she was under great pressure to act. As they say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease — unfortunately, that doesn’t always solve the real problem. In this case, it certainly seems to have made it worse.