How a Smith College Employee Became a Right Wing Culture Warrior
By Brian Zayatz
[The following is part of The Shoestring’s “See Something, Say Something” media criticism series.]
In mid-February, certain corners of the internet were ablaze with a frankly quite comical resignation letter written by former Smith College staff person Jodi Shaw. The letter alleged that Shaw faced an inhospitable workplace because she was asked not to perform a rap during orientation because she is white, and was made uncomfortable by being asked about her race during a racial sensitivity training. Shaw was dubbed the “rapping librarian,” and seemed all too eager to reply to tweets from critics that she never in fact rapped, even threatening to release the unperformed rap to demonstrate her skills. But in an all too predictable turn of events, right wing critics of “woke culture” successfully spun the story until it was picked up by liberal outlets under the guise of concern for workers, scapegoating a lone Black student for a cascading series of events with many causes.
To anyone even a little bit versed in anti-racism, the language of Shaw’s resignation letter, and former NYT op-ed columnist Bari Weiss’s blog post about it, is not unfamiliar. It is textbook white victimhood language in which asking someone to have an awareness over the way their race has impacted their life and thinking (in order to, say, better serve a racially diverse student body as an administrator in the Residential Life department) is perceived as a direct attack.
However, both of these texts are couched in just enough appeals to liberalism to have fooled readers less versed in the genre’s patterns. Weiss identifies Shaw as a “lifelong liberal,” and quoted a video in which Shaw demands Smith “stop reducing my personhood to a racial category.” To the untrained eye, these might seem like the earnest pleas of someone who has found that liberalism has moved out from under them and become something new and dangerous. This is, of course, exactly the impression anti-woke crusaders want to evoke in their readers: that liberalism, which once stood against oppression during its Civil Rights-era golden age, has swung too far to the left and become oppressive itself. Far right neo-cons style themselves as defenders of an older version of liberalism in order to create an appeal to the mythical White Working Class, yet in reality are nothing more than an on-ramp to old-fashioned white supremacy. (For more on the linguistic shifts of white supremacy towards “color-blind” or “post-racial” vocabularies, I highly recommend Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists.)
Unfortunately for Weiss, Shaw’s letter pretty plainly states that all that happened to her was that she was asked not to rap and to admit that she was white. And for those inclined to do a little bit of googling, it’s not terribly clear whether Shaw ever was a “liberal,” but it is very clear that she has recently become a darling of conservative outlets and Fox News hosts. (When I began tweeting about Shaw, an account called @smith_disclosure created late last year and with few followers began tweeting at me incessantly. The account seemed concerned only with Shaw’s case, to such a degree that I considered it might have been Shaw herself. When I saw that this account followed notorious right-wing doxxers, I blocked it.)
Weiss and Shaw also focus on the class aspect of Shaw’s case, which was ultimately far more potent in gaining a wider audience. Weiss’s initial tweet promoting her blog post pulled the quote, “I make $45,000 a year; less than a year’s tuition for a Smith student. I was offered a settlement in exchange for my silence, but I turned it down.” The blog post is a sob story of a woman bravely choosing freedom over silence, despite the financial risks to which this exposes her two children. Yet Shaw’s fundraiser has now raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars. Shaw has pledged funds in excess of $150,000 to be allegedly held in escrow to support others facing hostile work environments. (Interestingly, Shaw claims on her GoFundMe that she can’t expose the names of those she financially supports because it would put them at risk, which seems at odds with the stance she takes in her resignation letter, that “equally troubling are the many others who understand and know full well how damaging [woke culture] is, but do not speak out due to fear of professional retaliation, social censure, and loss of their livelihood and reputation.”)
The disingenuous class angle was the angle eventually picked up by the Times: wealthy college students (who happen to be Black) terrorizing white working class staff. Michael Powell, the story’s author, mentions Shaw only in passing, even though the timing of the article implies a pretty central role for Shaw in the fact that it was written at all. “A student said she was racially profiled while eating in a college dorm,” reads the article’s subhead, continuing: “An investigation found no evidence of bias. But the incident will not fade away.” In writing his article, Powell all but guaranteed the incident will not fade away, especially with such incendiary lines like “All of this [referring to Shaw’s case and a number of other instances of ‘culture war’] arose from the events of July 31, 2018,” dragging back into a national spotlight a Black woman who has already been doxxed.
The impact of this type of writing is plainly to erode trust in academia, one of few spaces in the US where leftist ideas can be discussed at least somewhat openly, and stoke popular anti-intellectualism. And prominent left-of-center figures fall for it like Charlie Brown kicking a football. Ryan Grim, a reporter at The Intercept, tweeted “Just shut Smith College down and distribute its endowment to its workers. Pathetic.” Such sentiments from liberals merely embolden the right in their crusade against academia. “One can easily trace most of what is wrong with the country back to the same place: COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES,” reads an anonymous email sent to a number of Smith professors, continuing: “‘Diversity,’ for instance, the most aggressively inculcated of all university lies, is not a strength of ANY nation but actually a weakness, and in America it merely translates, over time, into ‘white genocide.’”
Powell’s reporting certainly flattens the issue, but some of it is downright sloppy, or else actively malicious in pursuit of clicks. Like Weiss, Powell highlights the cost of tuition at Smith College without addressing that many students do not pay anything near this figure (nor have any say over it). Though never stated outright, the implication is that the student named in the story is entitled and rich. In fact, the student in question was herself on staff at the time of the incident Powell dug up, a seemingly crucial point for a story about a culture war between students and staff, as if those two groups are entirely distinct from each other, that Powell glosses over. He then implies again, two paragraphs later via a quote from a janitor, that the student worker was rich.
The reality, of course, is far more complex. “The administration is creating structural conflicts between students and workers,” said a leftist Smith professor of color who spoke on the condition of anonymity (we’ll refer to her as P). “Who is creating the policies around how workers are supposed to respond to people on campus? It’s not staff who create those policies, it’s the administration.” She also points out that the article treats race and class as non-intersecting categories and does not address why a Black student might feel threatened by having police approach her. “The intention of the NYT article is to claim that anti-Blackness is not real on campuses, which of course is intended also to discredit Black liberation struggles outside the university,” P. concluded.
Beyond Powell’s oversimplification of the conflict, the article has another gaping hole in its claim to legitimacy: the pool of respondents skews hard right and hard white. This is either because he didn’t ask students, staff, or faculty of color for comment, or because these groups share an understanding that conflicts at Smith College will not be resolved by national press attention, and moreover, such attention can put students at great risk. Often, leftist professors do have critiques of student activism, but choose not to share them with reporters knowing that many, like Powell, will be eager to flatten campus conflicts into easy headlines. “There are cases where those kinds of tactics, like public shaming, are totally appropriate,” said P., adding that “we also need, as the left, a bigger toolbox.” Though she didn’t claim to be able to confirm the details of Powell’s reporting, she said the story “shows that we need clear accountability processes for how we handle harm and conflict.”
Bad faith higher education reporting is nothing new. During my time in college, we always cringed when someone from a national outlet showed up to cover something that was specific to campus, knowing it would end up being a hatchet job. Why continue to assign white people to these stories? The collective impression one gets from this genre of news story is that only white people care about freedom of speech. If any of these white writers tried to explain why this is (they never do), they would quickly fall into racist affirmative action-era cultural arguments about why Black people aren’t ready to hold leadership positions in an integrated America.
One staff person, who identified herself as white and working class and who reached out to me on the condition of anonymity (we’ll call her S.), said she and other staff had been receiving cold emails from journalists for months regarding Shaw’s case. “Interestingly, non-white staff members I had asked had not received those emails,” she said, noting several times that she thought, months before Weiss’s post, that the story was already receiving far more attention than it should have. (Though most of our conversation was spent discussing media attention and Shaw’s impact on campus life, S. also pointed to several omissions in Shaw’s story, including that her paid suspension was for forwarding emails sent to Res Life from parents and alums concerned that a racist staff person was working directly with students to her personal email after she had started to go right-wing viral in the fall.)
“I watched [Shaw’s] earlier videos that she put up because I do have an interest in labor issues,” said S. “I really wanted to see if she actually had an issue… Even racists can be treated badly at their jobs.” But S. felt that everything in the videos was a personal complaint, “basically that her white privilege and her status as an alumna” were not bringing her the advantages she felt she deserved. “We do have a lot of actual labor issues going on at Smith around the pandemic,” S. continued, like furloughs, access to PPE, and the risk calculations of workers weighing possible exposure against their need for a paycheck, but none of these were mentioned by Shaw, for whom the biggest labor issue at the college is that white people have to think about white supremacy.
P. agreed. “Workers have legitimate grievances,” she said, continuing: “There’s already that mistrust and resentment among the workers, and then the administration has a liberal approach to anti-racism that divorces representation from real decision-making power and control over resources.” She noted that both she and her students, who come from diverse class backgrounds, have been grappling with the question of, “how is it that you can build an anti-racist class politics that takes seriously anti-Blackness on campus?”
Obviously, such a politics will not come from the administration or the racial sensitivity trainings they implement. Such trainings will always be geared towards reducing the conflict that is troubling for the college (that which causes student uprisings or ends up in the Times) and not towards that which is beneficial to it (a racial wage gap, say). An anti-racist politics grounded in the management of corporate liabilities, whether at Smith or any of the growing number of workplaces employing these trainings, will always fall flat for some—certainly, workers of color—and leave the watered down ideology vulnerable to right-wing grifters like Shaw. The Smith community, and Northampton broadly, have their work cut out for them in making anti-racism not something you sit through because your boss forces you to, but something you actively uphold understanding the interconnectedness of all subjugated people’s fate.
I asked S. whether she knew anything about the settlement Shaw was offered, and she did not. “I will say it’s been an effective little piece of psychological warfare to hear that they were offering her a settlement at all,” she said, “when I know so many good people who have lost their jobs, or been put on furlough… [or] put in hard situations having to choose whether to go back to working with students or the public. It’s hard to hear after the year we’ve had when staff have been asked to make sacrifices.” (In an email to the Smith community, President McCartney did not explicitly deny offering Shaw a settlement, but claimed that it was Shaw who had pushed for an “exceptionally large sum” in order to drop the threat of a lawsuit, not the college.)
The challenge for the Smith community moving forward, as P. rightly lays out, will be continuing to build a campus politics that adequately addresses both racial and class conflicts through solidarity, and, in the immediate term, keeping those on campus safe from potential escalations from roused white supremacists. The college administration’s previous attempts at addressing conflicts on campus did not inspire faith for P. “We’re having to wage a double front of struggle against these liberals and these right wing fuckers.”
Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor and new staff writer at The Shoestring. Photo by Kate Nadel.