In the summer of 2018, Oumou Kanoute read a book and ate her lunch in a common room area of a residence hall that required keycard access at Smith College. Since she was in a program teaching high school students over the summer, she was able to access it.
That simple moment became a national story when campus police arrived a short while later, and the officer told her that an employee reported “a black man demonstrating suspicious behavior.”
She posted the incident on Facebook, then the school, in the face of significant backlash during a year where “living while Black” incidents were frequently reported, announced an investigation which ultimately “did not find that the evidence was sufficient” that Kanoute was discriminated against for her race.
This 2018 incident was brought to light again after the New York Times reported last week on the fallout on campus, in particular after an employee resigned on February 19, citing the “racially hostile environment” for White people at the school.
Some Smith College employees complained that the school is a pushover to student complaints regarding race, and apologizes too quickly without looking at all of the facts, according to the New York Times story. Some of the staff mentioned in the article also said that the anti-bias training required by the school made them feel uncomfortable, as if they were accused of being racist.
The incident at Smith College is just one of many that’s happened at college campuses in the last several years and highlights the struggles many colleges have had in combating implicit racial bias on campus. Yale University in Connecticut, Barnard College in New York City and Ball State University in Indiana have all dealt with similar incidents since 2018 and have promised school initiatives to address what happened.
While schools are trying to work on effectively addressing these biases, some experts say that it’s not easy to prove negative intent in these interactions.
“In implicit stereotyping, there is a belief of how we expect those students to behave and what they should or should not be doing,” said Nao Hagiwara, Associate Professor of Health Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“The issue with the case is that implicit stereotyping is it’s associated with microaggressions. It’s really subtle behavior, and can easily be justified. It’s really hard to look at the intention of the individual.”
Research has also shown that many White people react negatively to the types of anti-bias training that is currently used by most institutions, Hagiwara said. While these types of training can bring awareness to the issue of bias, she continued, they often do not provide the tools on how to fix behavior, leading to many White people becoming anxious and reacting negatively.
When CNN reached out to ACLU Massachusetts, who represents Kanoute, executive director Carol Rose said that the case “highlights the need for a systemic equality approach.”
“The problem with ‘see something/say something’ policies is that dispatchers too often are instructed to always dispatch the police—even when there was no suspicion of a crime or danger” she said in a statement.
“We urge colleges and universities to adopt policies that require dispatchers who receive calls from staff who ‘see something suspicious’ to collect specific facts, so that the dispatcher can determine the right person to send to the scene—such as a Resident Assistant or student life expert—rather than always dispatching the police.”
CNN has also reached out to Kanoute directly.
How universities are trying to combat bias
Schools are using a myriad of techniques in an attempt to combat racial bias, including policy changes, efforts to maintain and hire a diverse staff and anti-bias training, according to plans shared with CNN.
When asked about Smith’s training, the school directed CNN to a February 22 letter shared with the campus by Smith College president Kathleen McCartney. In addition to denying the former employees claim of racial hostility, she also addressed concerns over equity and inclusion training, saying that “the goal is to facilitate authentic conversations that help to overcome the barriers between us.”
“Redressing the reality of racism requires asking ourselves how we might, even inadvertently, reinforce existing inequalities or contribute to an exclusionary atmosphere,” she said. “While it might be uncomfortable to accept that each of us, regardless of color or background, may have absorbed unconscious biases or at times acted in ways that are harmful to members of our community, such self-reflection is a prerequisite for making meaningful progress.”
Smith also has a Bias Response Team, which “track[s] bias incidents, collect aggregate data, identify educational responses, and connect individuals affected by bias incidents with supportive resources,” according to its website. The team is not part of investigative or disciplinary action.
Other universities are focusing on policy reform through recommendations from the school community.
After an incident at Ball State University where a professor called campus police on a student for not moving to a different seat, the school started working to address the situation through a series of policy measures.
The university launched an “Inclusive Excellence Plan,” which looks to address several areas, including policy changes in public safety, classroom management and the effectiveness of current bias reporting systems. In June, they launched a pilot group to test the effectiveness of cultural awareness and competency training, which submitted a report to the college president on January 1, 2021 with their findings.
A spokeswoman for the school said that the school is planning on providing an update on their progress on these initiatives in two weeks.
Barnard College also came under fire in 2019 after a Black Columbia University student was pinned to the counter top by campus police after trying to take free food. In response to the incident, Barnard formed the Community Safety Group, which comprises faculty and students, to examine the existing public safety structure.
In December 2020, Barnard announced a new three-prong structure of first-response, community safety, and title IX and nondiscrimination. Of these branches, the first response team specifically looks to restructure what the public safety department looks like, responding to both physical and mental health situations. They aim to “take a new approach to inclusive first response, with new expertise and training” while serving an “an array of student and community needs,” according to the announcement.
Hagiwara emphasized that for any changes to have a meaningful impact, schools should keep in mind that racism is structurally embedded into these institutions. It is better to work from a place of acknowledging that the racism exists and how to move from there instead of trying to prove racism played a role at all, she said.