RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

Boardman writes: "It's very hard to see this call by a white Smith College employee as anything but a racist reaction once you know the person on the couch is a black woman, even though the caller doesn't reference race."

Oumou Kanoute. (photo: Facebook)
Oumou Kanoute. (photo: Facebook)

Not Safe to Be Black at Smith College

By William Boardman, Reader Supported News

08 August 18


Dispatch: Campus Police, recorded line.

Reporting Caller: I was just walking through here in the front foyer of [REDACTED] and we have a person sitting there laying down in the living room area over here. I didn’t approach her or anything but um he seems to be out of place … umm … I don’t see anybody in the building at this point and uh I don’t know what he’s doing in there just laying on the couch.

Dispatch: Can I have your last name please?

Reporting Caller: [REDACTED]

Dispatch: I’ll send someone over and check it out.

Reporting Caller: Alright. I’ll wait over here.

– Campus Police call transcript, July 31, 2018,
as released by Smith College on August 3

t’s very hard to see this call by a white Smith College employee as anything but a racist reaction once you know the person on the couch is a black woman, even though the caller doesn’t reference race. The dispatch officer doesn’t ask about that. The Smith employee isn’t even sure what gender the person is but complains to the police, “I don’t know what he’s doing in there just laying on the couch.” The police dispatcher is remarkably uncurious about why anyone should care about a person lying on a couch, much less why the police should investigate at all. Why are these supposedly security-conscious people so casual about such a non-offense offense? Are the redactions in the transcript more substantive than they appear?

Smith College should provide the full, unredacted transcript.

The white employee waits for the campus police to arrive. A second white person of the opposite gender joins the first. The second person has not been identified either.

The “out of place person” turns out to be nothing of the kind, not even close. She turns out to be a black woman with very short black hair. She is Oumou Kanoute, 21, 5’2” tall, an academically gifted Smith College sophomore working for the summer teaching chemistry to high school students in the college’s STEM program. She is also a member of Smith’s cross-country team. To get into the student common room in the first place she had to use her college-issued keycard. The white Smith employees weren’t likely to have known who this person was, but they almost surely knew it took a keycard to get into the room, and they should have considered that along with the absence of any sign of forced entry.

While a uniformed police officer talked briefly to Kanoute, the white employees apparently waited in the foyer, possibly with a second police officer. The record is incomplete.

None of the parties have said what happened next. Presumably the police officer left Kanoute to carry on. But if the white employee was still there, did the officer explain what happened? Why didn’t the white employee own the mistake and apologize on the spot? Why didn’t the police officer facilitate such an opportunity? All this should be just obvious institutional behavior in an institution actually serious about promoting harmony, never mind racial harmony. Failing to resolve it in the moment is a form of institutional negligence, and it could have been avoided had either the white Smith employee or the white campus cop acted with reasonable human decency.

Oumou Kanoute grew up in New York City and is the first member of her family to go to college. She speaks four languages. She was an outstanding student at Westminster School in Simsbury, Connecticut, class of 2017. She worked hard, against long odds, to get into Smith College (roughly 5% black) in Northampton, Massachusetts (4% black). As the college describes itself: “one of the largest of the prestigious Seven Sisters women’s colleges, Smith educates women of promise for lives of distinction.” Smith is notoriously difficult to get into.

The casual, mindless cruelty of a still-anonymous Smith employee set off a sequence of events that continues to unfold. That same evening, Oumou Kanoute posted on Facebook:

I am blown away at the fact that i cannot even sit down and eat lunch peacefully. Today someone felt the need to call the police on me while I was sitting down reading, and eating in a common room at Smith College. This person didn't try to bring their concerns forward to me, but instead decided to call the police. I did nothing wrong, I wasn't making any noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black. It's outrageous that some people question my being at Smith College, and my existence overall as a women of color. I was very nervous, and had a complete metldown after this incident. It's just wrong and uncalled for. No students of color should have to explain why they belong at prestigious white institutions. I worked my hardest to get into Smith, and I deserve to feel safe on my campus.

Beneath that, Kanoute posted a video she made of her police interview. The picture quality is weak and the audio is poor. Over the video she wrote: “So I’m sitting down minding my damn business and someone calls the cops on me while I’m just chilling. This is why being black in America is scary.” The police officer’s tone in the video is mild. Kanoute adds: “Now he is apologizing on behalf of the racist punk who called the police on me for absolutely nothing.” Later that same evening, Kanoute posted again on Facebook, this time asking readers to forward her story to their followers: “I demanded that the administration share the name of the person who made the [campus police] call so that they can confront and acknowledge the harm done to me as a student…. I’d appreciate any message you could send to your followers in order to put pressure on the administration….” Kanoute’s Facebook posts went viral.

This incident illustrates just how thin the veneer of “feeling safe” is for a black person in America these days. Only it’s not just these days, it’s effectively forever, and white society – as Smith College is currently demonstrating – still has a long way to go to achieve any decent version of that “post-racial society” so many callow idiots were crowing about in late 2008.

The next day, August 1, the Smith College “Interim Director of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity,” Amy Hunter, posted a sterilized response to the event. She did not say how it came to her attention, and she named no names. In the midst of her flat, bureaucratic text, she included: “I have reached out to the student to offer support and discuss next steps, and will conduct an investigation of the incident with the employee, with Human Resources and with Campus Police.”

As a personal response, this is worthless, but even as an institutional response it seems rather lame. By then Amy Hunter knew, or should have known, what distress Kanoute had expressed. Personal contact, not mere “reaching out,” is what a responsible institution would require. Perhaps that has happened since.

By August 2, Massachusetts media were running the story, as was The New York Times, which quoted the college president’s response and put the incident in the context of similar racist cop callers in recent months, targeting black people doing ordinary things. The Washington Post, the Daily Mail, ABC, CBS, and CNN also covered the story over a two-day period. As of August 6, the story was still trending on YouTube with 30,972 views.

On August 2, Smith College president Kathleen McCartney made her first public statement in a letter to “Students, Staff and Faculty.” She refers to the event, then says:

I begin by offering the student involved my deepest apology that this incident occurred and to assure her that she belongs in all Smith spaces. This painful incident reminds us of the ongoing legacy of racism and bias in which people of color are targeted while simply going about the business of their daily lives. It is a powerful reminder that building an inclusive, diverse and sustainable community is urgent and ongoing work.

By omission, McCartney implies that she, too, has not felt that any personal contact with the unnamed Oumou Kanoute was necessary or desirable or something. Her letter goes on for another page or two coldly articulating all the right thoughts. She announces that – for the first time: “Beginning this fall, every Smith staff member will be required to participate in mandatory anti-bias training.” There will also be workshops. And Amy Hunter’s office will work with the campus police not to go off half-cocked, though she put it more delicately: “to strengthen protocols by which they triage, assess and respond to calls for assistance.” McCartney’s letter also announces engaging an outside law firm as a “third-party investigator” whose investigation will remain secret, at least insofar as protecting the privacy and concealing the identity of the perp who called the cops in the first place.

Personal responsibility, anyone? Smith College says no, racial harassment is protected speech, apparently, or maybe it’s a form of academic freedom. The college should be ashamed of putting itself in the position of protecting the instigator while attending minimally to the victim. McCartney shows no sign of shame, or even awareness of her structural culpability. With apparently unintended irony, she ends her letter with an appeal to the community to send her ideas: “we need everyone’s input, and we pledge to listen to you.”

Late on August 2, Oumou Kanoute posted again on Facebook to address the unexpected “volume of response to come from this situation, promising to respond to everyone. She addressed the media, saying she was the only contact and not to contact anyone else for interviews. She addressed family and friends and allies, thanking them for support. And she addressed Smith College:

Smith College: I recognize and appreciate the effort that you all continuously put into inclusion on this campus. However, we must be intentional about addressing this racist incident and systemic racism on campus. Your response has been helpful, but it is incomplete. I will be unable to move forward from this incident without the following personal demands –

1. The name of the employee (confidentially or publicly)

2. A private conversation between me, that employee, and the administration focused on reconciliation and acknowledgement of this wrongdoing from the employee and the college

3. An apology from the school and the employee during that meeting – This process must precede any type of decision for or against punishment for this outrageous and racist act. This process must also be accompanied by beginning a mandatory campus-wide conversation and new school policy concerning racism, gender, and policing that centers the voices of students and faculty of color when we return from summer vacation in Fall 2018.

On August 3, Inclusion director Amy Hunter announced “Updates on the Investigation,” including releasing the call transcript and naming the Sanghavi Law Office as the college’s “external investigator.” Hunter also wrote, without revealing the identity, that: “The employee who placed the call to Campus Police has been placed on leave pending the outcome of the external investigation.”

Smith has struggled with race issues in the past. President McCartney stakes out an honorable if somewhat bloodless position (smacking of white privilege?). Oumou Kanoute stakes out a heartfelt demand for a humane institutional response that offers an opportunity for meaningful institutional growth, especially in the current presidentially-induced atmosphere of racist pollution.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

-42 # 2018-08-08 10:49
Students frequently allow strangers into their dorms as they come and go -- the keycards are no guarantor of security. In a dorm, male strangers would always be seen as suspect given the atmosphere and the rape charges that have been so common. Since Smith accepts no male students, the person napping on the couch could not, in the eyes of the employee, be a student and was therefore suspect. As a former university administrator, if one of my employees had not alerted the campus cops of such a suspicious person, that employee would be chastised for negligence. If the "man" on the couch had actually been a homeless man who later went on to rape a student, the damage would have been much greater.

This is not a racial incident so much as a reasonable, cautious response to a person that looked suspicious. It is a sad commentary on current racial relations that this student decided that she was targeted because of her race when it seems highly unlikely that that was the case.

Lee Nason
New Bedford, Massachusetts
+18 # chrisconno 2018-08-08 12:44
In the transcript the caller's second sentence says, "I didn’t approach her ". What about her first words doesn't sound like the caller thought Oumou Kanoute was a woman. She soon changed her pronoun but her first words show that it was second thought about what she had to report in order to look objective. This is RACISM plain and shi*ty.
+20 # WBoardman 2018-08-08 14:50
As a former university administrator, Lee Nason succinctly and
appallingly illustrates a classic bureaucratic numbness and
willingness to deny the most obvious reality.

"male strangers" in a dorm??? Really???
Why does Lee Nason start with an irrelevant and inflammatory
distraction? That's not a serious argument.

Why does Lee Nason accept the assertion that Oumou
was male when even the caller wasn't sure? That's distorting, prejudicial, and not based on the reality.

"homeless man" –more irrelevant, inflammatory hypothesizing
with no basis in fact.

Lee Nason's reaction seems fear-driven in the worst way,
treating anything unknown as somehow threatening.
Usually that's just not true and easily determined.

The caller here was NOT cautious, was NOT reasonable –
the cautious, reasonable response to a person on a couch eating with a book would be to ignore it – or perhaps to determine
with care and tact and no presumption of guilt
what was real as distinct from what was feared. The caller
reacted irrationally, impulsively, and destructively.
What does it say about "university administrators" that
Lee Nason approves of the caller's response.

This is one of the issues Smith is already trying to figure out,
starting with re-training campus police on threat assessment,
especially where there is no threat except in the mind of
one beholder.
+8 # economagic 2018-08-08 20:44
Thank you, Mr. Boardman, for addressing eloquently one of the worst yet of Ms. Nason's "conservative" rants, based in fear and in lack of any iota of understanding of the past 50 years of USian history.

The saddest part is that no amount of reason and empathy for the victim by a third party will enhance her understanding or her empathy or allay her reflexive fears. Unfortunately she was, in the immortal words of Oscar Hammerstein II, "Carefully taught."
+3 # economagic 2018-08-09 20:30
Oh: And to the best of my knowledge she never returns to read responses to her posts, much less attempt to defend her claims.
+1 # WBoardman 2018-08-10 11:49

You seem to think Lee Nason is a woman.
I've always thought Lee Nason was a man.
No way to tell as far as I can see.
I wonder what Lee Nason thinks.
+2 # economagic 2018-08-10 16:12
I looked her up several years ago--retired MIT staff, some sort of management position. I thought she was a he too, probably because of the deadpan explanations of why "good's bad today, and wrong's right today, and day's night today" (Cole Porter, "Anything Goes," 1934).
+8 # Kootenay Coyote 2018-08-08 15:53
Since 'the person on the couch' was NOT male, your argument collapses.
+14 # rodion the troll 2018-08-08 11:42
You actually think that the fact this person is black has nothing to do with outcome? Amazing!
+24 # vt143 2018-08-08 12:10
"Suspicious"??? ????? Reclining on a piece of furniture????? A suspicious person??? How many white students in the exact same pose are ignored, Lee, is the issue. You are trying, unsuccessfully I might add, to reframe this into something you find more benign. This is exactly the point of the piece and you are acting it out all over again. Wow!
+12 # suzyskier 2018-08-08 13:55
I thought this Smith student was the woman having her lunch? There was another incident last year at Yale where a student called police on a tiny black woman student napping in the lounge as a male who shouldn’t be there. In both cases pure racism at its worst! Thanks Trumpy!
+13 # bubbiesue 2018-08-08 14:53
Smith College, my Smith Social Work acquaintances over the years would be seriously embarrassed if not ashamed of you.

You have some serious work to do with your staff on racial profiling. There was no excuse for this, but even if the woman was taking a nap it would have been o.k. to ask, "Are you o.k?" to which the reply might have been, "Just resting."
+11 # lfeuille 2018-08-08 19:19
Diversity training is ok I guess, but the only way to get ahead of this is to inform prospective employees before they are hired that calling the cops on people of color over bullshit will get you fired. And fellow students will be expelled if they do it. There is just to much of this happening to tolerate.
+6 # economagic 2018-08-08 20:49
Punishment seldom leads to a change in behavior, much less a change of heart. Only the sort of face to face encounters Ms. Kanoute describes, and the restorative justice they imply, can get us where we must go if civilization is not to melt down into the swamp from which it sought to emerge.
+6 # elizabethblock 2018-08-08 20:56
My mother went to Smith, in the 30s, for two years. She transferred to Hunter College because she couldn't bear the anti-Semitism. (I don't suppose there was any anti-black racism at Smith then. I don't suppose there were any black students.)
Plus ca change, plus ce meme chose.
+6 # CEB 2018-08-09 16:06
Relaxing in the college common room? You really think if someone were there to commit a crime they would be resting in a student common room? No there is nothing rational about this cascade of events and the tepid response of the college administration, in the aftermath, This is a rush to judgement based on a person’s skin color, pure and simple. Ask Henry Louis Gates when he was arrested in Cambridge for breaking into his own house? I bet he knows why, Sam Cooke sang “Its been a long time coming but a change is gonna come “ . I wonder when.
+1 # Wise woman 2018-08-12 20:14
After this perp woman is exposed, she should be expelled from Smith. She is obviously too stupid to be there. Let her explain her racism to whomever questions why she was released. The campus police should also be fired for their stupidity. They're not smart enough to be protecting female students. As far as I'm concerned, every one involved seems to have been bitten by the dumb bug. Under what rock did they grow up?

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.