[UPDATE: Smith College has provided me with a statement from the President Kathleen McCartney. You can read it here.
“Ordinarily, a personnel matter of this nature would not warrant a letter from the president to the college community; however, in this instance the former employee, in her letter, accuses the college of creating a racially hostile environment for white people, a baseless claim that the college flatly denies. In addition, her letter contains a number of misstatements about the college’s equity and inclusion initiatives, misstatements that are offensive to the members of our community who are working every day to create a campus where everyone, regardless of racial identity, can learn, work and thrive.”]
With the caveat that this column might be “developing”: I read Bari Weiss’s Substack column about Jodi Shaw, a Smith College staffer (who was also a Smith college grad) who resigned from her job recently with some… “fascination” is the word I reflexively want to put here, but it’s the wrong word. “Confusion” is probably more appropriate. Skepticism? Side-eye?
The short version: Shaw alleges she was harassed out of her job at Smith because she is white, and reverse racism is not a myth perpetuated by racists but a real, true, thing that is not at all imaginary, and Smith has been thoroughly corrupted by it. I had some questions and thoughts, and I’m going to lay them out below.
Here is the piece, and here are my questions:
First: why does everyone have Bari Weiss’s phone number?
This is, admittedly, the least important question, but the one that comes up first because the first section of the piece is entirely about the phone calls Weiss gets “every day.” Every day, she says, “I get phone calls from anxious Americans complaining about an ideology that wants to pull all of us into the past. I get calls from parents telling me about the damaging things being taught in schools: so-called antiracist programs that urge children to obsess on the color of their skin. I get calls from people working in corporate America forced to go to trainings in which they learn that they carry collective, race-based guilt — or benefit from collective, race-based virtue.”
And so on.
I get phone calls every day from robots trying to suck money out of my bank account via cruise ship offerings, IRS scams, and notices about my auto warranty, even though I don’t have a car. This is one of the many reasons I screen my calls.
But a LOT of real people are calling Weiss (Why? How do they have her number? On a cell phone or a landline? Do they not have email?) They call to complain about an unspecified dangerous ideology that venerates America’s past (no, it’s not white supremacy), diversity trainings that make them feel bad, and I guess, teachers who point out that not every child’s experience is the same, a fact about which children of color at least are already usually pretty aware.
Is this anti-anti-racist hotline a number that everyone just knows? Unclear.
Is this an audition for political speechwriting?
This setup is gratingly familiar: it’s a convention people use in political speechwriting that is so ubiquitous that it kind of mocks itself at this point. The script goes something like this: politician is trying to explain an abstract policy that’s hard for voters to really connect with, and then he or she turns to the camera, and musters a facial expression that projects sincerity and says, “this reminds me of Jenny Mae Johnson, in Patriot, Iowa, who’s thinking about her daddy, a proud coal industry worker who died in 1962, and whose dignity and memory is being stripped away by the implementation of cancer-causing windmills. Every day (!), I talk to people like Jenny who face this exact same problem, who suffer under the tyranny of killer communist cancer wind machines built by the Democrat party. Vote for me, Senator Quixote!”
It’s possible that I hate this convention because it’s become so clichéd. But I think I hate it because it’s so often inauthentic, and transparently so.
Every day people call Bari Weiss to complain about the inconveniences that people of color are imposing on them by insisting that they be treated like equal human beings. People like Jodi Shaw, an unassuming staff librarian at Smith College, whose salary(!) is less than(!) the average year of tuition(!) at the same institution, but who also has a degree from the same institution where she presumably paid the same (discounted for year) tuition.
But let’s backtrack a bit. What’s the thesis of this piece?
Weiss states it up front:
We all know that something morally grotesque is swallowing liberal America. Almost no one wants to risk talking about it out loud.
Wow. Something morally grotesque? That no one wants to talk about out loud? Does this involve cannibalism and is it about Armie Hammer? Are liberals eating babies? In the basement of pizza parlors where they’re sex trafficking children? (Just asking because I’ve heard that one before.)
No, no. The moral outrage here is, most centrally, that a white staffer at Smith is uncomfortable with things like diversity training, and believes she is being discriminated against as a white person (at Smith College, a place definitely not known for its overall whiteness), and if you need some evidence of this, she claims that she was not allowed to give a presentation in her desired format of … rapping it. She alleges that she was told this was cultural appropriation.
Just applying Occam’s Razor, which some people seem to think is a lesser-known Gillette brand, it seems like Ms. Shaw’s superiors may have been trying to save her some humiliation. I don’t care if Bari Weiss calls me a reverse racist for this: white people mostly suck at rapping. (I have the standing to say that by Weiss standards, because I’m a mostly white person, but I have to disclose here that I also asked my Hispanic genes, and they agree: white people are mostly bad at rap.) It’s easier for an administrator to say that rapping your presentation might be inappropriate in context than, Jodi, I don’t want you to embarrass yourself and the whole department.
Or Jodi, this is a wildly inappropriate and maybe bonkers way to convey information in a professional academic setting where information needs to be delivered effectively for work-related purposes. No, you cannot rap your presentation, and neither can you set it to Sondheim, or Twitch it while playing Call of Duty, or deliver it as an abstract performance titled The Student Support Coordinator Is Present.
But even if the administrators were worried about cultural appropriation, why is that a problem? Why is it too big of an ask that you do your presentation in the format that 99.9999999999% of all presentations are deployed? Why do you need to rap, Jodi? What makes you believe you’re entitled to rap your presentation?
But back to the Weiss thesis: The Something Morally Grotesque Swallowing Liberal America.
At the pleasure of speaking ill of the dead, this is Rush Limbaugh-level garbage inflammatory hyperbole. So cartoonish, it’s edgelord-ism without the edgyness, or baseline cleverness. I mean, I think conservatives like Bari are overly taken with an idea of absolutist speech that ignores harm to others, but I’m not writing columns claiming that conservatives are so corrupted by this that they’ll soon be showing up in maternity wards so that they can scream bigoted epithets at babies who aren’t white and male before they have the capacity to understand words. (I just maintain they’re happy to continue with a racist and sexist healthcare system that results in reprehensibly high modern mortality rates for pregnant women and people of color.)
Anyway, back to the specifics:
Weiss claims that Jodi Shaw is a “lifelong liberal.” What’s the evidence of that?
I DMed Jodi Shaw for comment before I wrote this article. Not because I need to in order to ask these questions, or note publicly that I have them—this is commentary, not reporting—but because why not? It’s not a lot of work. As of publication, I haven’t heard anything. Nonetheless, Shaw has a pretty extensive digital history and has been talking about her purported oppression as a white lady at Smith on every social platform available to her. For a while. The only digital evidence I can find that she’s a liberal is that… well, she went to undergrad at Smith. And even that is circumstantial.
But generally speaking, liberals don’t rail against “social justice,” believe “reverse racism” is a thing, think asking employees in any sort of institution to consider issues through the lens of race is inherently unreasonable, much less unacceptable.
Does she have any justified complaints?
You can read the entirety of Shaw’s resignation letter in Weiss’s column. The letter seems hyperbolic itself, though not with the well-worn rhetorical flourishes Weiss exhibits. You may recognize some of the processes she talks about as extreme practices from your own workplace. Things like managerial workshops, basic diversity training, and so on. Ms. Shaw is particularly incensed that at a staff retreat specifically to talk about issues of race, she was expected to discuss issues of race, which made her uncomfortable.
“What passes for ‘progressive’ today at Smith and at so many other institutions is regressive,” she writes. “It taps into humanity’s worst instincts to break down into warring factions, and I fear this is rapidly leading us to a very twisted place. It terrifies me that others don’t seem to see that racial segregation and demonization are wrong and dangerous no matter what its victims look like. Being told that any disagreement or feelings of discomfort somehow upholds ‘white supremacy’ is not just morally wrong. It is psychologically abusive.”
Leaving aside the fact that Ms. Shaw characterizes what she’s experiencing as racial segregation—a term that has a very defined meaning, and means something very different to Black people who are old enough to remember not being allowed to set foot in schools and stores and churches that served white people—let’s consider what she considers psychologically abusive: being made to think about her own whiteness and how it affects others. It makes her uncomfortable. She doesn’t like conflict, warring factions (as if anyone does.)
She is suggesting that she feels unsafe in the environment re: issues of race because she is professionally obligated to consider issues of race. Giving Shaw a generous benefit of the doubt, and assuming that she might simply be oblivious to the ways in which life might be different for her than it is for, say, Black students at Smith, Shaw is saying she can’t do her job if she has to acknowledge these things, which make her feel bad about herself.
This is a not uncommon reaction for people having to confront their own white privilege for the first time. First, unless they’re wealthy, they don’t think they have it. Shaw emphasizes that her salary, which is $45,000—about $10,000 higher than median personal income in the U.S.—is less than a year at Smith for students. It doesn’t occur to her, for example, that by virtue of being white, she’s less likely to be pulled over for a traffic violation and shot or arrested en route to work than Smith employees and students who are Black, and that having to go through life worrying about things like that might be, as she puts it “psychologically damaging.” Or that minority students at Smith might be taking out student loans and working to get the degree she also got from Smith. I don’t know if Shaw went to Smith on financial aid or not. According to her New York Times wedding announcement, her parents owned a catering company in New Hampshire, and she was an artist in residence for a while at Brooklyn College, which I’ll give her, makes it credible that she was probably a liberal in 2008, at least. But if she’s arguing that she’s less privileged than the average Smith student, I’m not sure that’s true. She’s a former Smith student herself.
But also, people like Shaw tend to miss the point of acknowledging their privilege as white people, which is not about making them feel shitty about themselves, but encouraging them to be more empathetic toward and aware of what people who are not white have to deal with. If that does make Shaw feel guilty, or bad about herself, or ashamed, she should ask herself why. Why does this responsibility toward other people feel like such a burden for her? Why does acknowledging the fact that she benefits in certain ways from it make her angry at the people who don’t instead of angry at the systems that perpetrate it?
Shaw also says that she received a settlement offer from Smith to stay silent about all of this, which seems… weird? Did she, really?
Shaw says that she resigned from her job so she could go public. It seems odd that Smith would offer a settlement for a complaint about anything that hasn’t ended up in court. I am not by any means an expert on this kind of conflict in higher ed institutions, but generally my experience with institutions—working in them and covering them as a journalist at one point—is that legal threats have to be made somewhere for the word “settlement” to come up. Shaw is threatening to sue the school and has started a GoFundMe I won’t link to that has raised a little over $184,000 at the time of publication (which in this context, is just fancy language for “I hit the ‘publish’ button”.)
Weiss doesn’t seem to have called the college for comment, so I did (or emailed, rather), but on a Saturday. A PR professional there said they’d respond early week, and I’ll update when I hear. Shaw’s story was also reported by Rod Dreher at The National Review, and various conservative outlets. Dreher doesn’t seem to have called Smith for comment either, and credulously repeats the claim that Shaw is a lifelong liberal—who apparently believes structural racism cannot and does not exist. (He also amusingly claims that Western Massachusetts is the ‘heart of progressive wokeness” in the U.S., which is probably news to a lot of people in Western Massachusetts.)
So many questions! What does it all mean?
Well, Jodi Shaw is probably fine. She now has five times the average American annual personal income to live on, and growing. She can’t rap her library presentation, but she’s compensated handsomely for it. It is either serendipitous luck for Shaw, or a successful grift, enabled by columnists who like her narrative.
Incidentally: my purely speculative interpretation of what Shaw means by “settlement” is that Smith was going to lay her off and offered her severance, contingent upon signing a non-disparagement agreement, which is pretty standard fare. (And I’m very opposed to making severance contingent upon NDAs. As a not lifelong, but for the last two decades, liberal.)
That is not by any colloquial or legal definition, a settlement, but it’s true that they would have given her money with an agreement that she not disparage them--the same way almost every institution implements firings and layoffs. And it’s possible Shaw didn’t understand that. But I don’t know. I am also taking Shaw’s word for it that she ultimately resigned and was not fired. I will update if/when Smith and/or when Shaw respond to my questions.
For Weiss, I think this is a continuation of a trend: anti-anti-racist commentators reaching so hard for examples of woke excesses that they’re willing to snap tendons in the effort. If the example is very shallow and silly, they’ll take it anyway because it’s the only one available.
Critical Race Theory has become their go-to emblem of woke overreach, even though, in looking at the critiques of CRT, some of the critics don’t seem to really understand what it is, or just don’t care because they know that neither do most people. And liberal elite academia will never fail to be an effective bogeyman for the right. It’s easy to caricature because most Americans never experience it. Smith might as well be another planet.
And that’s the point. Most people are skeptical of institutions that cater to and produce rich people, and elite universities certainly do that. But think about what Weiss is telling you when she says the problem here is that those same universities use their money and power to interrogate racial disparities, and that in order to do that, those institutions insist, wrongly in Weiss’s view, on interrogating themselves and the way they operate now, here, in 2021.
Why does it make them so uncomfortable?