Inside a Battle Over Race, Class and Power at Smith College

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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.

“Stop demanding that I admit to white privilege, and work on my so-called implicit bias as a condition of my continued employment,” Ms. 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, Ms. 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.

Ms. 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 Ms. 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 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.

“We used to joke, don’t let a rich student report you, because if you do, you’re gone,” said Mark Patenaude, a janitor.

Ms. 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.

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