Jodi Shaw is a proud alumna of Smith College, the tony women’s liberal arts college in Northampton, Mass. She was a lifelong liberal, and an artistic type, whose mildly bohemian existence reflected her Smithie values.
Shaw graduated from Smith in 1993 and would describe her four years at the historic college as “among the best in my life.”
After Smith, Shaw had pursued creative writing but found her calling as a musician. She has been an artist-in-residence in the performance and interactive media arts program at Brooklyn College and was awarded the Songwriters Hall of Fame Abe Olman Award for Excellence in Songwriting. She was an independent musician for 16 years. Shaw looks like the studious Smithie from central casting: her dark hair is casually swept back, not unfeminine but marking Jodi as a woman who perhaps spends more time reading books than avidly testing new products at the cosmetics counter.
When Shaw, a divorced mother of twin boys who longed for more financial stability, was offered a chance to return to Smith to work in the library, she was “over the moon.” “I had remembered Northampton as being such an idyllic place for me as a liberal.” She continues, “I’m, like, super liberal. Northampton was like a dream—it was so liberal. It was still cheap to live here, so it was very diverse for a small New England town. And I just thought, wow, it would be so nice to move back up there.”
Now, a few years later, Shaw finds herself in a painful position: disillusioned with Smith and a public critic of the institution she loved.
In the roughly three decades since Shaw had left the ivied environs of Smith College, the school had changed. As Jodi puts it, the famous liberal school had become illiberal.
Jodi’s epiphany is one that is increasingly shared by alumni of other prestigious schools and institutions. Writer Bari Weiss, a refugee from the New York Times, another onetime bastion of liberal values, also has had the epiphany. Weiss says she hears constantly from others similarly awakened (as opposed to woke!) but that they inevitably don’t want to go public. “And I understand why,” Weiss wrote. “To go public with what’s happening is to risk their jobs and their reputations.
Jodi’s epiphany is one that is increasingly shared by alumni of other prestigious schools and institutions.
“But the hour is very late. It calls for courage,” Weiss continued. “And courage has come in the form of a woman named Jodi Shaw.”
The story of how Jodi Shaw took a courageous stand begins with a 2018 incident that did not directly affect Shaw. Oumou Kanoute, a black student at Smith, was eating lunch in an off-limits dorm lounge, when a campus police officer approached her and asked what she was doing there. The New York Times described the incident:
The officer, who could have been carrying a “lethal weapon,” left her near “meltdown,” Ms. Kanoute wrote on Facebook, saying that this encounter continued a yearlong pattern of harassment at Smith.
“All I did was be Black,” Ms. Kanoute wrote. “It’s outrageous that some people question my being at Smith College, and my existence overall as a woman of color.”
The college’s president, Kathleen McCartney, offered profuse apologies and put the janitor [who had contacted the campus police] on paid leave. “This painful incident reminds us of the ongoing legacy of racism and bias,” the president wrote, “in which people of color are targeted while simply going about the business of their ordinary lives.”
The officer could just as easily not have been carrying a “lethal” weapon, and, as it turned out, he was indeed unarmed. After McCartney’s profuse apologies were issued, a law firm was hired to investigate the incident. No persuasive evidence of racial bias was found. The janitor, who had worked for the college for 35 years, had poor eyesight and so, when he saw somebody he could not identify in the closed space, it was natural, indeed it was expected protocol, to contact the campus police.
Even after the investigation cleared the college of exhibiting racial bias, Smith President Kathleen McCartney continued to behave as if the incident was steeped in racism, rather than a misunderstanding. Instead of belatedly offering profuse apologies to the lower-level staff members whose lives had been upended by the incident, McCartney dug in and defended her premature apology to Kanoute. “It was appropriate to apologize,” Ms. McCartney insisted. “She is living in a context of ‘living while Black’ incidents.”
Smith College had turned an awkward but accidental misunderstanding into a wholesale repudiation of the college’s legacy of being liberal-minded and tolerant.
Jodi Shaw, who meanwhile had been pouring her energy into an all-important presentation designed to cement her position as a full-time library employee, would become swept up in this war. The presentation previously had been approved by Shaw’s superiors. However, she recalled, “I was told that I could not proceed with the planned program. Because it was going to be done in rap form and ‘because you are white,’ as my supervisor told me, that could be viewed as ‘cultural appropriation,’ which was ‘problematic’ in light of the July 31 incident. He made it clear that he had no objection to rap in general, nor to the idea of using music to convey orientation information to students. The problem was my skin color.”
What makes Shaw unusual is that she is speaking out.
The other problem was that Shaw knew she could not reinvent a presentation that had taken months in a matter of days. Shaw was in a bind. She and her ex-husband had both found housing in the Northampton area and moved there with the idea that their sons would be able to have access to both parents. Shaw knew she was licked. In order to remain in Northampton and employed by her alma mater, Shaw resigned herself to the humiliating loss of the library job and took a lower-paying position as Student Support Coordinator in the Department of Residence Life. The position paid $45,000, less than a year’s full tuition for Smith.
But Jodi Shaw’s travails were just beginning. As a lower-level staff member, Shaw was required to attend multiple staff meetings in which she was expected to discuss her “identity,” anti-racism and anti-bias training, and a barrage of invitations to attend so-called optional programs on race, knowing full well that “cultural competency” would be partly based on her participation in such workshops. Unfortunately, the anti-racist workshops seemed to inculcate racism rather than eliminate it. The workshops were painful and an invasion of privacy.
“In my new position, I was told on multiple occasions that discussing my personal thoughts and feelings about my skin color is a requirement of my job,” Shaw later wrote. “I endured racially hostile comments, and was expected to participate in racially prejudicial behavior as a continued condition of my employment. I endured meetings in which another staff member violently banged his fist on the table, chanting, ‘Rich, white women! Rich, white women!’ in reference to Smith alumnae.”
Jodi Shaw is not the first graduate of a prestigious school to realize that the atmosphere of beloved institutions has been permeated by racial animosity. “I can’t get into personally identifying details but as a person working in residence life hearing stories about student conflict,” Shaw tells IWF, “there are often times when two students will get into a conflict and instead of talking it out, they say it is a racially motivated conflict. And sometimes it’s two students of color, and they are still claiming it’s a racially motivated conflict, perhaps having to do with one having lighter skin tone than another. I mean, this is what we are teaching them.
“Students are encouraged to view interpersonal interactions through the lens of immutable characteristics such as race. They apply status and power to each other and then, when there’s a conflict about crumbs left in the toaster, race and power get dragged into it. When really, in my mind, I don’t think it has anything to do with that. I think it just has to do with, ‘Who left crumbs and didn’t pick up after themselves? This makes it impossible to actually address the issue in a meaningful way, or communicate effectively, because now you’re talking about these big issues like power and race that may or may not even be present.”
There is a name for what Jodi discovered at Smith—Critical Race Theory—CRT, which is all about power structures and not at all about being kind to other people or eradicating racial discrimination or encouraging harmony in everyday life. “CRT is a departmental phenomenon across the country. People are getting master’s degrees in higher education and then they are going to work in the student affairs, the non-academic side of higher education. And these schools that they are attending are very heavily grounded in critical race theory, for one, but also, queer theory and gender studies these are all part of critical theories. Critical race theory is only one of them. In my experience with my colleagues, it feels like a very complex theory is being flattened into the depth of a Twitter feed. Really, it feels very jargony. I’ve seen things go out to students like newsletters about cultural appropriation or white privilege where the citations for such are Jezebel Magazine.”
While CRT has justified attacks on others as racist, it doesn’t really enrich the life prospects for students who buy into these ideas. “It’s disempowering,” Shaw tells IWF. “It’s telling students, your destiny will be determined by racial essentialism, which is to say, your race is who you are, your destiny. And it also is a weird dynamic because it puts all the burden on white people and creates an unhealthy dynamic in which students of color are dependent on white students to do “the work”–although it is never entirely explained what that “work” is. Apparently, it’s talking about white privilege, or having conversations about whiteness. If white people do “the work,” then the rest of the people in the world who aren’t white will somehow then be liberated.
“Anytime you reduce humanity into two groups and constantly tell one group they have more power than the other, there are bound to be some problems there, when that’s not true. And that’s actually not true, especially at Smith College. At least in the context of Smith College, students really can do whatever they want, and I think we need to be telling them that. Like you are a powerful person. You can do whatever you want. You may have setbacks just like anyone else. Maybe some of them will be tied to your race but you can still do great things. People have all kinds of setbacks. Your setbacks are not the sum total of who you are.”
The New York Times (of all places!) blew the whistle on another aspect of what was happening at Smith in a story by reporter Michael Powell. . In an eye-opening report headlined “Inside a Battle over Race, Class and Power at Smith,” Powel revealed who bore the brunt of these accidents: Smith’s ordinary, low-level employees, who in the Kanoute incident ended up as scapegoats. “We used to joke, don’t let a rich student report you, because if you do, you’re gone,” Mark Patenaude, a janitor, told Powell. Now, it’s students willing to lodge an accusation of racial bias who can destroy the lives of members of the staff.
Take Jackie Blair, a Smith cafeteria worker. Blair asked Kanoute about her decision to enter an off-limits dining area, but let the matter drop, as not worth pursuing. Blair did not call campus security. But Kanoute posted a picture of Blair on Facebook, saying of her, “This is a racist person.” Blair, who is married to an automobile mechanic, found the word “RACIST” taped to her car window and received anonymous calls at home. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” one caller told her, while another opined, “You don’t deserve to live.” Media outlets began calling Ms. Blair, the cafeteria worker, for a response to her alleged racism. An official from the Office of Inclusion and Equity twice contacted her to persuade into a mediation with with Kanoute, an offer she refused. Ms. Blair suffers from lupus, which is triggered by stress.
“It’s people like Jackie Blair who are hurt most by this when you come down to it. Because they’re really trapped. They can’t stand up and say ‘you know what, I don’t like this’ and then get fired. They can’t launch a new column on Substack or become thought leaders. Launching a substack column or becoming a thought leader is just not an option for working class people. The staff is trapped in this environment in which students are being emboldened, not only by the administration constantly capitulating to them, but also by being taught about this thing called micro-aggressions—they are encouraged to interpret the slightest thing as a racial micro-aggression, whether or not it actually involves race or gender. Because a micro-aggression is an entirely subjective interpretation, it is totally up to the ‘victim’ to decide, and although I know a lot of faculty who also feel trapped, I can only speak for the staff, and it is they whom I believe are most trapped, since many of them work alongside students inside the houses where they are required to enforce the rules, they are naturally the ones on the receiving end of many of these accusations. Of course, the students do it to each other as well. I think that’s probably where it’s happening the most.”
For Jodi, the last straw came in January of 2020 when she was required to attend a retreat on systemic racism. When it came her turn to speak, Jodi said she “did not feel comfortable” sharing her thoughts on racial identity. Jodi was the only one who declined to participate. The hired facilitators were not sympathetic. They reportedly later described her behavior as an example of “white fragility.” “They said that the white person may seem like they are in distress, but that it is actually a ‘power play.’ In other words, because I am white, my genuine discomfort was framed as an act of aggression. I was shamed and humiliated in front of all of my colleagues.”
“When we are facing authoritarianism, we really have to link arms and just drop everything else.”
She explains to IWF, “My act of abstaining was framed as an act of aggression against, I guess my colleagues and people of color. Because my abstinence from this discussion was framed as a hostile act, it set the stage to then view me committing an act of aggression if I did not attend future anti-racism trainings and discussions, even if optional. Abstinence is impossible—it’s a Kafka trap. So, either you talk about it in the way you’re supposed to talk about it, follow the script. Or, if you don’t talk then it’s an act of aggression. I realized they were trying to compel my speech by using shame. They were trying to compel me to say something, and that’s when I realized that a real line had been crossed and that I could no longer just keep my head down and my mouth shut.”
Able to take it no longer, Shaw resigned her position at Smith. Jodi Shaw is not the only liberal to become convinced that a beloved institution that nurtured her has become illiberal.
What makes Jodi unusual is that she is speaking out. Bari Weiss recently wrote about a secret zoom meeting of parents who were distressed at what their children were being taught and yet abstained from offering criticism (and for good reasons). Somehow, Jodi found her voice. She is taking on her old college’s cancel culture, in videos, interviews and a legal complaint filed against Smith. Jodi has become friendly with Helen Pluckrose, the U.K. intellectual who is coauthor of Cynical Theories and whom IWF profiled here, the best and most readable book out on CRT and cancel culture. They speak frequently. Jodi, surprised at her warm reception by conservatives, remains firm in her liberal convictions but hopes that both sides can join in a coalition to address what is happening on today’s campuses
“I’m willing to put aside policy, because in my mind policy debates, over things like universal health care, or abortion, are luxuries of a functioning democracy. Even if our democracy isn’t perfect, I think what we are facing now is authoritarianism, and when we are facing authoritarianism, we really have to link arms and just drop everything else. This is the most pressing issue, more than anything else.”
IWF agrees and we are proud to stand with Shaw and others who stand up against authoritarianism. We will lose our culture of freedom and our country if more people like Jodi Shaw don’t find the courage to speak. As Weiss said, the hour is late. But not too late to save liberal (in the classic sense of the word) values. Thanks, Jodi Shaw, for going first.