Whistleblower Jodi Shaw: How CRT Training Is a Violation of Civil Rights Law
“We were asked to go around the room and talk about our race/culture. … And the hired facilitators said any white person who displays discomfort or distress when asked to discuss their race is not actually feeling distress. What they’re exhibiting is a power play. And that is white fragility.”
I sit down with Jodi Shaw, who has become an influential figure in the growing movement opposing training based on critical race theory, in academia and beyond. She made waves when she started speaking out in 2019 about the increasing illiberalism she saw at her then-employer and alma mater, Smith College.
“It takes a while to build the conviction and to understand that there’s nothing actually wrong with you—that this feeling that you have, the feeling that something’s not right, is because something isn’t right.”
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Jan Jekielek: Jodi Shaw, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Jodi Shaw: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.
Mr. Jekielek: First of all, congratulations on being a Hero of Intellectual Freedom, an award given to you by ACTA (American Council of Trustees and Alumni.) You are the only non-academic to have won this award. Dorian Abbot and Joshua Katz are co-winners. Congratulations.
Ms. Shaw: Thank you.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s go back to the beginning where stuck your head out, and then everybody noticed. I want to make sure everybody knows the backstory. Of course, this is at Smith College. You actually did your undergraduate studies at Smith College and loved it.
Ms. Shaw: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Why don’t you start there and bring us up to the present?
Ms. Shaw: Yes, it is true I studied at Smith College and I graduated with my BA in anthropology in 1993 and I loved it. I loved Smith. It was my number one choice. I was elated to get in, and I learned a lot there. Then I left Smith and lived all over the country. I lived in Portland, Oregon for a little while and lived in New Mexico. Then I spent most of my adult life in Brooklyn, New York. I was a musician, it’s very important to say. So I was living very much a hand to mouth existence for many years. I was happy with that because I was doing something I loved.
Then I got married and had children. I realized very quickly that I was going to have to get a job and have some regular hours, so I became a librarian. Then my marriage ended. It’s very tough living in the city with children if you don’t have a lot of money. So I thought, “Where could we go? Where could I convince my ex-husband to move to with our kids where it’s still going to be a stimulating environment?” I remembered Northampton and Smith. You have to understand it’s a small town, so the town is heavily influenced by Smith.
I remembered Northampton as this very, very liberal, Lefty, anything goes, free speech kind of place. I’d always felt very comfortable there so I thought, “Let’s go back to North Hampton and raise our kids there.” So that’s what brought me back to Northampton. It had always been kind of a dream of mine, “If I have to have a job, it would be great to have a job at Smith.” So I was really excited to get a job at Smith as a temporary librarian and I started working there. And there was something that felt different. It felt it wasn’t just about the free speech. There was something that felt more corporate about Smith.
I remember when I was a student there, it felt like a real community. It felt like with the faculty and the students there was just something more cohesive and friendly about it. It didn’t feel the same when I went back, but I thought, “Well, I’m in a different role.” I was a staff member. I thought maybe this is how it feels. So I began my job with much gusto. I did notice, however, there were a lot of discussions about whiteness and white privilege and systemic racism. I hadn’t been in academia for a long time. I had been performing on the subway platforms. These kinds of discussions were pretty foreign to me. I had no reason to believe that they were not necessary. I was told this is necessary, “This is part of fighting injustice, this is part of achieving social justice.” I thought, “That sounds good. Social justice sounds good.” There are few people who would hear that phrase not knowing what it is and think that it was a bad thing.
So I went along with this and participated in it. During this first year, I was tasked with giving an orientation to 600 incoming first year students. I was told I had to do something wild and crazy. I thought what’s the best way to transmit a lot of otherwise, very boring information to tired 18 year olds. I thought, “Well, of course a rap.” I had my musical background, so I pitched this idea and it was accepted.
I worked on this rap over that summer. This was now summer of 2018. In the middle of that summer on July 31st, there was an incident on campus with a student. A black student accused a white custodian of engaging in racially motivated behavior against her because he called campus police. And that was really all I heard. As far as I can tell, that was all anybody really knew about it. The student made a Facebook post about it, and it went viral about this massive injustice that had occurred because she was black.
[Narration/ Oumou Kanoute]: My name is Oumou Kanoute and I’m an undergraduate student at Smith College. On July 31st while I was eating lunch at a common space, a Smith College employee called the police on me because I seemed out of place. I was said to be demonstrating suspicious behavior. Some might say this wasn’t such a big deal because I wasn’t touched or harmed, or physically harmed I should say, during this incident. But I want people to understand the underlying message that this caller sent by calling the police on a student for eating lunch and simply trying to enjoy the break.
Ms. Shaw: At the time I thought, “Wow, that’s terrible. I can’t believe it.” I didn’t even bother to look into the situation that much, and neither did Smith by the way. They immediately began publicly apologizing to the student with a lot of profuse apologizing, announcing they were going to embark on a campaign of new initiatives to fight the systemic racism and the bias with mandatory anti-bias trainings for employees and all that kind of stuff. They did this before they even began an investigation into the incident. This was supporting my own belief that, “Yes, this is a horrible thing,” because I had placed my trust in this institution, my Alma mater, my employer. I thought, “Surely they know what they’re doing. Surely this is a problem. We need to do better and we need to implement all these things.” It was just an assumption.
A month after this incident happened, when I was about to do this orientation presentation to 600 first-year students, my supervisor approached me. It was less than a week before the event. Anyone who’s done event planning knows how hard it is to organize an event for 600 people, and I was the lead person. It wasn’t just my own presentation. It was everything. A week before the event, he approached me and he said, “You can’t do the rap.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Because you’re white.” Then he went on to document this in an email. He said, “The presentation of a rap by white staff can be seen as culturally insensitive.” I don’t know if I’m getting the quote exactly right, but that’s pretty much what he said.
I asked him, “If I was a person of color, could I do it?” I didn’t specify what color. And he just said, “Yes.” So that was it. There was no rap. I won’t go get into the nitty gritty of the library job. I was up for a full-time position, but I ended up leaving. There’s a lot of details that I won’t get into. I ended up leaving and taking a job in the residence life department, which is part of the administration, granted a lower part of the administration. I took a job that was a big pay cut, with lesser responsibilities, but much more material.
As the librarian, I was doing more teaching. I was on the academic side. I thought, “If I move to the staff side where I’m helping students navigate the more material realm of their existence at Smith, like their physical well-being, the dormitories, ID cards, fixing locks, changing light bulbs, and things like that, I could avoid all of this discussion about race, and I wouldn’t have to talk about my white privilege and my white fragility.”
It’s important to know that when I was told I couldn’t do the rap I was very confused. Because we had this incident on campus and everybody was very upset about it, it was a racial incident. I had just been told that because you’re a white person, you can’t do this professional thing that you wanted to do, which would have perhaps made you very competitive for this full time job you were up for.
So I was very confused. I was like, “Wait a minute. That sounds like racial discrimination.” But I was hearing this messaging that you cannot be discriminated against if you’re white. Racism is prejudice plus power coming at you, and because I’m a white person, I have power and therefore I cannot be discriminated against. I was in a lot of emotional turmoil about it.
I was very confused. I thought, “Maybe I should report this, but then maybe people are going to think I’m racist because I think I’ve been discriminated against and that’s impossible.” So there was a lot going on. I also thought if I reported it, I would never get a job at Smith again, ever. So that was a reality. So I left and I took this other job where I could kind of lay low and be out of this type of discourse. Boy, was I wrong.
I went to the residence life department. I didn’t know this, but in general, residence life departments in are staffed with people who have received their master’s degrees in higher education, which is now very much saturated with the social justice ideology. This is their job and they have to teach these things to students. It’s kind of like they had a co-curriculum that went along with the academic curriculum, teaching students about social justice.
It was made clear to me pretty early on that as part of my job I was going to have to talk about my fixed characteristics, like race and gender. I was not happy about this. At the time I was also still figuring this out. I started really taking a deep dive into what these terms mean. What does social justice mean? What does equity mean? What does diversity mean? Time went on and a lot of things happened on campus. That incident involved two innocent staff members who were accused and who suffered. As a result, one left and never came back. For related reasons, two more people were fired or terminated amicably.
I was watching all this from my little perch in residence life. That’s when I really started questioning this ideology a lot more and started doing more research. It’s very hard when everyone around you is saying one thing, and you’re having this feeling that something is not right. So I really started to try to validate that feeling and find out why I was having it. In fall 2019, I was mandated to attend a professional development training. I remember asking, “Are we going to need to discuss our race for this training?” I was told “Yes.” So I went to my supervisor privately. My logic was, you’re not supposed to ask about somebody’s race at a job interview, so why am I being asked to do it as a continued condition of my employment?
I went to my supervisor and said, “I’m not comfortable discussing my race at work.” She said, “No problem. Just say that when you go to the workshop.” So I went to the workshop. Lo and behold, we went around the room and were asked to talk about our race/culture in the context of our childhood, something like that. So now we have two things that I’m not comfortable talking about at work. We went around the room and everyone said what they said, and then it got to me. I said, “I’m not comfortable discussing my race at work.” The hired facilitator said, “Any white person who displays discomfort or distress when asked to discuss their race is not actually feeling distress. What they’re exhibiting is a power play, and that is white fragility.” I was humiliated in front of my colleagues, and I actually felt the humiliation.
It felt like my heart stopped. I never dreamed that would be their response. I thought maybe people would just be kind of irked and then move on, but that didn’t happen. I was singled out for my skin color and I felt ashamed. That was when I decided I’m going to have to say something about this, because now I was in a position where I couldn’t just go along, keep my head down and keep my mouth shut. Now I just had to say something.
Now, if you don’t say something, it could be construed as an act of aggression just by simply remaining silent. It is a symptom of white fragility if you don’t want to talk about your race. I felt like, “My hand is being forced here. I’m going to have to do something.”
That is when I began the process of filing an internal complaint. I exhausted all my remedies at Smith. I talked to my supervisors. I filed a very lengthy internal complaint. I sent emails to administrators. I was passed off among administrators when I started asking questions, “What do these words mean? What does social justice mean?” I believe the investigation that was conducted was disingenuous. It was delayed, and delayed, and delayed.
Within a week of when I had filed the internal complaint, George Floyd died. And so Smith College, much as it had done after the July 31st, 2018 incident with the student, went into hyperdrive. “We’re going to be doing a lot more workshops to generate social justice. I was invited to white-only staff events where we could talk about supporting our colleagues. I was sent emails by the president. She sent emails to everybody saying, “We’re going to celebrate Juneteenth. This is a day for our colleagues of color to rest and rejuvenate, and for our white colleagues to educate themselves,” something like that.
That summer was just a barrage. This was right after I filed the complaint. I thought, “Gee, I don’t think they’re taking my complaint seriously.” But I kept going. You have to remember, to put this in context, we are in the middle of a pandemic. The college had just informed the staff that there were going to be furloughs. They did this all in the same breath.
By the same breath, I mean the same period of time that they announced there were going to be furloughs because there was a financial shortfall, they also said, “We’re also going to be putting a lot of energy and resources into this thing called racial justice at Smith. We’re going to be doing all these initiatives.” So I thought, “Wow, they’re putting money into that while people are getting furloughed.”
After what I had seen of the hostile environment at Smith, this was just like adding more fuel, no, not more fuel. It really was like a wound, and they were stabbing at the wound. So then I was waiting for this investigation to be completed and it kept getting delayed and delayed. That summer I was informed that I would have to start going to discussions about the racial justice at Smith stuff and I thought, “Gee, I’m going to go to this discussion. I’m not going to say anything. Am I going to be construed as racist?” It was really, really stressful.
I decided they are not taking me seriously. I’m using the internal channels and they are not responding. So I thought, “What can I do, this regular person who really has no power?” I don’t have a PhD. I’m not a faculty member. I’m a staff member. “What can I do to get Smith to respond? How can I get them to pay attention to what I see is a real problem here, and not just for me, but for all the staff?”
I thought, “I don’t think they like publicity very much. I’ll try to make a video.” So that’s what I did. I made a YouTube video and I had no idea what would happen with it.
“This is what I’m asking of Smith College. I ask that Smith College stop reducing my personhood to a racial category. Stop telling me what I must think and feel about myself, because I feel like you do that a lot. I know you do that a lot, and I need you to stop doing that.”
I published it. Then I sat on the couch watching a show with my kids and checking my phone and it was like, “Okay. A thousand views. Okay. Oh my God. 10,000 views.” That’s when I knew, “Okay, this is it. They’re probably going to pay attention now.” And they did.
Mr. Jekielek: So what happened next?
Ms. Shaw: So what happened next was I went to work the next day. Not everybody had seen the video yet, and so I went about my business. Then the next day, the president released a letter to everybody on the website. I forget what the letter was called, but it was about my video. She said, “A staff member on X date released a video.” She characterized it as “a critique of our social justice initiatives” or something like that, “a critique of our diversity and equity initiatives” or something like that.
It really wasn’t a critique of the initiatives. It was actually very specific about things they were asking me to do. I wasn’t critiquing your theory or what you think about social justice. These are things that you were doing to me. She didn’t address that.
She did say that this individual has a right to do this under a federal act that protects employees who want to advocate for a better working environment. I had mentioned in my video that’s what I was doing. I interpreted that as her way of saying “We would fire her, but we want all of the people who are writing to us and asking us to fire her to know that we can’t.” So I made a video in response to her letter.
Even at that point, it felt like she had written me off, because in my video I was very specific. I said something about, “Don’t ask me to disempower students of color by sending them the message that they are somehow so oppressed or don’t have the same abilities as their white counterparts and can’t achieve the same things as their white counterparts. Don’t ask me to do that to them. That is an extremely disempowering rhetoric.” Because I think this ideology is disempowering to any one of any skin color.
At the end of her letter, after she mentioned all this stuff about the video, she said “We don’t stand by this. We stand by our initiatives” At the end she said, “To our students of color, we want you to know that we stand with you” or something like that. And I thought, “Well, there it is. There’s that condescending thing, in case a student who’s not white is going to watch my video.” She is implying, “We know you can’t handle this.” She is saying they can’t handle seeing somebody talking honestly about something, in a very polite, respectful way, I might add. There is that condescension and doing the very thing that I asked her not to try to make me do, because I think that’s disempowering. She exhibited the behavior in her letter.
So I made a video in response to her letter. In it I said, “I’m going to create this as a dialogue, because I haven’t had one yet.” She had never attempted to have a dialogue with me, and I responded to her letter. And then she sent a letter back. Of course, by now I was in touch with a lot of people at Smith I had never been in touch with before, who had written to me privately, and some faculty had sent emails.
Mr. Jekielek: Now they were writing to you saying, “I agree, but I’m not ready to say so publicly” or, “I support you,” or this kind of thing, correct?
Ms. Shaw: Yes. So it was good. I felt supported and I understood why they didn’t want to say anything, but I wish they had. Actually, some of them did. Some of them spoke to the New York Times. She sent an email to the faculty through the provost that basically told them “Hold the party line. If you get any media requests, send them this way. We don’t want you to respond to anything on any of your professional email accounts. Please don’t respond on your own,” or something like that. “We’re going to maintain a unified front here.” That was my interpretation.
Then as expected, there was retaliation. I ended up filing a federal lawsuit. I’m sure we’ll talk about that. But yes, there was retaliation. Throughout all of this, I was forwarding emailsto myself from my work account to my private account that had to do with my complaint, because this was documentation. I believe I had a right to do that, because I have a legal action against the college.
They put me under investigation for this. They said “You’ve compromised the security of student information and college information,” something like that. “Therefore we’re putting you under investigation.” So it was obviously pretextual. I was put on leave with pay, which was good. I was also furloughed, I forgot to mention that. I was the only one in my department to get furloughed. I was halftime furloughed.
Then they approached me and said, “We would like to resolve this amicably.” At that point I said, “I would like you to apologize to the staff you have hurt.” I haven’t gotten into this, but a lot of staff at Smith have been hurt since the incident that summer. I also said, “I would like you to stop this programming, because I believe it’s harmful.” And they said, “Absolutely not.” Then there were some more negotiations, which I won’t get into. But in the end, I remember agonizing in front of my wood stove in the middle of winter thinking, “I could take a settlement and be okay.”
Mr. Jekielek: But there would be strings attached.
Ms. Shaw: There were strings attached, correct. Basically, I couldn’t talk about them anymore. Or I could continue along the path I was walking. In the end I decided that I would regret taking a settlement. I made a video about this decision. It was about freedom versus comfort. I had to distill it down into, “Okay, what are the two things?” I didn’t make a pros and cons list. It was freedom on one side, and comfort on the other. For the most part, most of us have had been lucky enough to have both. Now I was faced with this decision and I thought, “I have to choose freedom. I just can’t give up my freedom.” And I had no idea what would happen.
They said, “Okay, you can come back to work then.” But by then the environment was so hostile. They were getting emails, “Fire Jodi Shaw. Smith cannot support Jodi Shaw.” I was informed that my colleagues were very uncomfortable with what I had done. If it was hostile before, now it was very hostile. There was simply no way I could continue to work there. In my mind, it was a constructive dismissal, so I left.
Mr. Jekielek: And that was difficult, because you have two boys.
Ms. Shaw: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re not just thinking about yourself. How is it with your family, this whole situation?
Ms. Shaw: Thanks for asking about that. I don’t really talk about that a lot. Obviously, that factored into my decisions. If I didn’t have a family and I happened to have still moved up there and worked at Smith and all this stuff started happening, I would have said, “I’m out of here. I’m just going to move somewhere else and get a job somewhere else.” But I did have a family, so I had to stay. Then when I ended up leaving, that was a big leap.
With having a family, I didn’t know what would happen. I thought, “Maybe I’ll do snow removal.” I was thinking about jobs even more removed from all of this kind of stuff, tasks, very physical things. But luckily, I’m okay. But it has been hard on my kids. They have gone without the full focus and attention of their mother for over two years now. This situation has kind of taken over my life, and it’s distracting. We live in a small town.
I know it’s had an impact on their social life. When I hear them say that the kids at their school were watching a video of mine, it makes me feel bad. It does make me feel bad. It does make me question if I did the right thing. You can never anticipate everything. I did think about all this before I made the first video. I thought about it long and hard. I thought, “This will impact my family, and this will impact me.
Will people be coming to my house throwing bricks at it? How am I going to deal with online harassment?” I had to really think through all of the things that might happen. So I did go into it knowing that it was most likely going to impact my children, because we do live in a small town.
It hasn’t been as bad for me as I thought it would be, since most of the harassment is online. I try to comfort myself by telling myself that my kids could have seen me go along with this, and watch as it was eating me alive. Or they could watch me tell the truth and be honest and take a risk and lose something in the process. Hopefully some of that will sink in. When they are older, some of that will be inside of them. They can grow up and take some strength from that, knowing that their mother didn’t just back down. This will affect them in the end.
And really, that was in there too. I didn’t mention this, but I don’t want my kids to inhabit a future in which they’re being told they are bad because of their skin color or their gender, and that they are just bad. If you boil it down, that’s pretty much what it is. That’s the feeling you get, you feel like you’re bad. I didn’t want my kids feeling that. I want them to feel bad if they do something bad. If their behavior is bad, that’s an appropriate response, but not feeling bad because of the fixed characteristics that they were born with. That’s wrong.
Mr. Jekielek: When this history is written, your kids will have something to be very proud of. You described this as a kind of spiritual quest, as opposed to a material quest.
Ms. Shaw: This is where my background as a musician playing on the subway comes in. When people ask me what that was like, my response is it was one of the most spiritual experiences I have ever had. There is something extremely honest about it. When you perform in a club, people show up. They pay their admission, and they sit down. You sing a song, and they clap. But on the subway, you’re performing, and people only respond if they are moved to respond. There’s no pretense. They’re not being polite. Either they look at you or they don’t.
So it’s honest. If somebody approaches you and puts a dollar in your basket or looks at you or has a tear in their eye, it’s honest, and it’s real. What’s more, I was getting this response from people I had never seen before, never met, and who didn’t even speak the same language, of all different races, ethnicities, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds, you name it. That was a beautiful, beautiful experience.
I don’t want to use the word seeker, but I do have a hunger for meaning. Most of us do. I went after it through my music and through the connection with the audience. A value of mine is living my life in a manner where I can make meaning out of it. The spiritual experience is just very, very important to me. With this Smith situation it was more important to me than having the paycheck. I had to decide, was it freedom or comfort? I wanted the freedom to pursue the spiritual quest.
I quickly learned that there was something very spiritual about it when I publicly resigned. It was kind of like what happened on the subway. Thousands of people sent me emails and said, “I know how you feel.” Something in that video moved them and something in my resignation moved them, so that they could tell their story to me. It felt important to me. It also felt like a huge responsibility. I couldn’t respond to everybody and I felt, “Oh gosh, I want to help all these people.”
Mr. Jekielek: Why did you feel this sense of responsibility? What exactly was the responsibility?
Ms. Shaw: I knew how it felt, because people would write to me and say, “I’m working in this environment.” It was in all different kinds of fields and discipline. It wasn’t just people working in colleges. It was doctors and psychotherapists and lawyers, people from all over. They would say, “I haven’t told anybody else about this.” It was like there was nobody else in their immediate proximity that they could talk to.
They had been harboring this feeling that something was not right. They felt like they were the only one asking the question, “Is there something wrong with me that I feel this way, and nobody else seems to feel that way? Oh look, here’s somebody who has said the words and the same things that I feel.” So they would reach out to me. I know how it feels to be the only person or believe that you’re the only person. All the external feedback tells you, “You’re the only person that’s having an issue here, and who seems to be upset by this.”
I felt like I had a responsibility to help them in some way. In part, that is why I kept making videos, walking through my process. Because that was the only thing I could really do fully and adequately, keep making videos, just being really honest about what was going on in my head, so that people could watch them. There was just simply no way I could write back to every individual person and start talking with them. I tried that for a while, and it was very exhausting. I was meeting with people and having Zoom sessions and trying to help them suss out what was going on, but it was unsustainable.
Mr. Jekielek: These videos weren’t off the cuff. The sense I get is that you really thought about each one before you knocked it out.
Ms. Shaw: Yes. Some of them are edited and some of them aren’t. Yes, I would think them through. I didn’t say, “I want to make a video today. What am I going to talk about?” It was more like another thing would come to me. I would start thinking about it and say, “Yes, I should make a video and outline my process about how I’m thinking about this.”
Mr. Jekielek: You became a voice for all these people who were voiceless, and they just started speaking to you. You offered a response for their collective angst or concern.
Ms. Shaw: Yes, and in a very non-angry way. In the first video I say, “I’m a lifelong liberal.” That’s important, because other liberals or people who would always associate themselves on the Left could then look at me and say, “Ah,” because there were already a lot of people on the Right talking about this.
But to see another person like me in their tribe, like the way we are categorized, talking about this, it was almost like it gave them permission to say, “Yes, this is wrong. Here is this other liberal saying it.” That was part of why it kind of was a lightning rod thing, because I was like the gateway drug.
Mr. Jekielek: This is coming full circle to why you became a Hero of Intellectual Freedom. Have there been people that reached out to you, that have subsequently made difficult decisions like you did?
Ms. Shaw: Yes. And that is very gratifying to me. Yes, it has been nice. I just had somebody write to me last night. I was reaching out, and starting to get active again on social media. I had taken a break from it for a while. I remember talking to her on the phone about a year ago. She was in a similar terrible situation. She has now filed a complaint with her state office of civil rights. She has gone from only talking to me, to filing a public complaint. That felt really good.
Something I would always tell people is to find one other person. You need to find another person, preferably in the same environment as your job or school, or wherever this is happening, just one other person. I know it’s hard and it seems scary, but you have to suss people out. Then once that dam breaks and you start talking to each other, just one other person can have such an impact.
There was somebody else who came back and told me, “I remember when you said that, and I went out and I found that one other person.” Now she has created a really well-functioning organization in Canada for K-12 education, and it started with finding one other person. So all it takes is one other person. So yes, that is gratifying. I feel like I have helped in some ways.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve said that in this bizarre cultural reality we’re facing today, we need support systems for people to help them make the decision to speak out, correct?
Ms. Shaw: Yes. A journalist asked me, “What would you say to somebody who has just stood up? How would you support them?” My response was, “There is actually more support needed before that even happens.”
Mr. Jekielek: Right.
Ms. Shaw: Because it takes a while to build up your conviction and to understand that there is actually nothing wrong with you. You have the feeling that something’s not right, because something’s not right. You have rights and you can stand up and say something about it. A lot of people accidentally do something, and then they find out that way. But for somebody who decides to stand up, it takes a long time to get to that point of understanding that you’re not wrong, but that this stuff is wrong. Then it takes time to assess your resources, if you will. Once you’ve decided you want to take action, what kind of action do you want to take?
How are you going to handle the fallout, and get your ducks in a row first ? So that is when the most support is needed. Because if people don’t fully understand, and if they’re still confused about social justice and think, “Am I doing the right thing and am I a bad person for questioning this?” That means you’re not even close to standing up and taking action.
Mr. Jekielek: If there’s one thing that the last two years have taught me, it’s how incredibly strong the social pressure or social influence is on humans by other humans.
Ms. Shaw: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Frankly, I did not understand this. This has been a huge lesson for me. I want to follow up on something you said in your acceptance speech. It has to do with how you understand the role of the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world. You make this distinction between stories that are ours and stories that come from outside and and how these stories impact our emotions. This is a very interesting perspective. Please tell me about this.
Ms. Shaw: I was going to receive this award, Hero of Intellectual Freedom. So I was trying to think, “What is intellectual freedom? What does that really mean?” So I started thinking about the intellect, and how the intellect is not a reliable narrator. That’s what I decided. Intellectual freedom is really only freedom if we have ownership over our intellectual process in the first place.
Something that’s not often discussed is the role emotions play in intellectual freedom. Just before I received the award, I remembered a bumper sticker I had seen which said, “Don’t believe everything you think.” That’s important to remember and important to remind ourselves.
When I have a feeling, it’s basically alerting me that something’s going on. I don’t know what it is, because the feeling doesn’t have a language. It is in within the thought process, and it’s just a basic feeling. It’s not good or bad. But it alerts our intellect. It kind of says, “Hey, there’s something interesting happening over here, something doesn’t feel good. Come check this out.” Then our intellect comes in and it acts as a translator and interprets that feeling and tells us what’s going on. “Oh yes. I’m feeling jealous. Why?” Then we explain that feeling or we assign meaning to it.
Sometimes the intellect gets it right, and sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of this ideology at Smith, I had a feeling something was bad about this ideology. My intellect was fooled, because my intellect was convinced by the learned faculty and administrators at Smith. The reason I was having this doubtful feeling that something was off was evidence of implicit racial bias. My feeling of something being not quite right with this ideology was actually evidence of my implicit racial bias, as stated in the ideology itself.
So my intellect was fooled. Therefore, I went along for a while trying to suppress the feeling. After a long time of wrangling with my own mind and seeking outside sources, I came to understand that the reason I was having a bad feeling about this stuff was because this stuff was bad.
But prior to that, I thought the reason I’m having a bad feeling about this stuff is because I’m bad, which is basically what the ideology says. So that’s why we must be wary of the intellect. When our intellect interprets a feeling for us, we are basically telling ourselves a story about that feeling. We need to make sure that story came from us and not someone else, and not Smith College. So with Smith College, I had effectively allowed this outside authority to hijack my intellect and interpret a feeling for me. That was not in my best interest.
Many of us, and this is not particular to this ideology, many of us have been telling ourselves stories that don’t belong to us since birth, and culture also plays an influence. You have these feelings about who to love and how you should love, and what’s funny and what isn’t. I’ve definitely had the experience where I find something funny. It’s a feeling and I just laugh. Then my intellect steps in and says, “Oh, no. You’re not supposed to laugh at that. You’re not supposed to laugh at that. You’re not supposed to find that funny.” And then I try to suppress the laughter.
As a spiritual seeker, as an artist, as an anthropologist, and as someone who’s very curious about psychology and other people and myself, I’ve worked for a long time examining the stories that my intellect tells me, which are oftentimes in response to an emotion I’m having. I have tried to suss out, “Did that story come from me, or is that somebody else’s story? Did I just unconsciously adopt somebody else’s interpretation there?Have I tried to push out what’s not mine, and develop my own story that works for me?” That process that I was already doing and that some of us have already been doing for a very, very long time is intellectual freedom. That is how you get to intellectual freedom.
What I learned at Smith and what I learned in thinking about intellectual freedom is that freedom is not something that somebody grants to you or gives to you. It’s something you do. It is something you practice over and over again until you get it right. It’s a journey that starts at birth and goes until we die. That is freedom. Those of us who have been on this journey for a long time, we cherish the freedom because we had to work for it. It’s not easy doing this stuff.
These past two years have really forced our hand. The question that has been burning in my mind for a long time is, “Why do some people stand up and others don’t?” The answer to that question is that some of us have been working on freedom for a long time and other people have not. Now the time has come. You can’t just suddenly get there from zero. Some of us were already free, or already working on freedom. When the time came we were able to step up, because we had already prepared for that moment.
Mr. Jekielek: Maybe freedom is like a muscle and you have to work it.
Ms. Shaw: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Sometimes we hear people give their perspective on things. Sometimes you hear a really good one and you think, “Okay, I’m going to take that one for myself.” We make a choice to bring it in, because we find the idea intellectually attractive, or for other reasons. Then we make those ideas our own. They come from outside. As a kid, we probably do it because it’s from our parents and we look up to them. But with woke ideology, it demands that its story be the one that is accepted. Either you do it volitionally, or it will be done against your will. It has that feeling. It’s like that, correct? That’s just interesting in this model that you’ve just described here.
Ms. Shaw: Yes. It’s almost like with woke ideology, if you don’t participate, then the woke ideology says you are wrong.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s tautological.
Ms. Shaw: It’s tautological. It’s a potentiated version of something we’ve been doing all our lives, like cultural influences, influences of teachers and adults as we’re growing up. So in some way, we’ve been preparing for this ideology. In some way it’s like we already have the tendencies that this ideology promotes. But you’re right. There’s something a lot more demanding about this. The consequences are not just loss of internal freedom, but actual material fallout. You will lose your job or you will be socially censored if you do not go along with this ideology.
Mr. Jekielek: Earlier, you mentioned the lawsuit that you filed against Smith. In an academic setting, typically we see lawsuits in relation to freedom of speech. But you’re doing something different. You’re tackling the question of racial bias head-on. Please tell me about this.
Ms. Shaw: It has to do with the fact that I’m not an academic and most academics in the academic environment have found their freedom of speech stifled in some way. Most academic settings have a freedom of speech policy. We hear about a lot of faculty filing suits or complaints about suppression of free speech. Most educational institutions have policies guaranteeing freedom of expression or freedom of speech. That’s a tenant of most academic settings, that faculty will have this freedom. That’s often what we hear about in cases having to do with academia.
My case is different because I am not alleging that my freedom of speech was trampled upon. I am alleging that I was discriminated against based on my skin color. This is about racial discrimination and a racially-hostile environment, amongst other things. The former cases are constitutional violations of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is also a policy of the college, at the beginning they state that they will ensure freedom of expression.
My case is a Title VII civil rights complaint. It’s very different. It’s an employment matter. I was not publishing work and canceled because they didn’t like what I was saying. What it boiled down to is an adverse action was taken against me because I didn’t say something they wanted me to say. I would not utter words that I thought were discriminatory against myself or others in some way. So it is a civil rights case.
When this happens in other work environments, as far as I know, it’s never going to be a freedom of speech issue, unless it’s within a governmental agency. This kind of woke stuff is a civil rights violation. This is racial discrimination and this is a civil rights violation.
I’m sure there have been other cases, but the only thing that makes this case unusual is two things. One, I am white, so it’s referred to as reverse discrimination or reverse racism. People in woke ideology would tell us that reverse discrimination does not exist. But I want to point out even the term reverse racism is not a legal term. In and of itself, it implies that there’s something different about the racism committed against a certain skin color, in this case, white.
It implies there is one different kind of racism from all other kinds of racism. Actually, it’s not different, it’s just simply racism. Racism is an adverse action taken against you and your employment because of your skin color, or you don’t get a job because of your skin color, or it’s anything else you can prove that happened to you because of your skin color. That’s racism—across the board.
Mr. Jekielek: For some people watching, this might be a shocking thing to hear.
Ms. Shaw: Something that Eli Steele pointed out is, “I’m still operating on the fundamentals of civil rights law.” I believe, and I think a lot of people and also the law would agree with me, is that if you do something to somebody and say, “You have to do this or you have to do that” in an employment setting because of your skin color, that constitutes singling someone out based on their race.
That constitutes racial discrimination, harassment, and hostility, whatever the action is. Smith College, and other entities increasingly appear to be operating in a different realm where that law no longer applies. They say that color is the basis upon which you can be singled out and told you must do this or that, and that you need to believe this ideology. If you don’t believe it, then you’re bad. And if you don’t go along with it, then we are probably going to fire you.
They do it in a sneaky way, though. They don’t come out and say, “We’re firing you because you don’t go along with this ideology.” What usually happens is they try to find some other unrelated reason to fire you, or put you under investigation. This woke ideology is operating on a whole different set of assumptions now. It’s a whole other animal. So this case really is important, along with anyone else who’s bringing suit. There’s another suit coming up in Philadelphia soon, I hope. This is important, because now I am asking the court to decide, “Okay, which set of principles are we going by?
Are we still interpreting civil rights law in the manner in which it was written, which does include white people?” It says, “Anyone of any skin color can be discriminated against, and if you are, you have a cause of action in court. That discrimination is illegal.” Or is the court going to decide, “Actually we’re going to go along with this woke stuff and we’re going to reinterpret civil rights law.”
Is that possible? I think it is. Why not? Early on, I remember asking my lawyer about this and she said, “I don’t think that’s going to happen, but it could happen.” That is what is so scary. What’s at stake is civil rights law and civil rights legislation. That is why there are a lot of people who marched along with Martin Luther King. A lot of non-white people and white people alike worked very hard to get this legislation. Now it is at stake.
This reminds me of something that happened at Smith after I left. Bob Woodson of the Woodson Institute and the 1776 Project wrote a letter to President McCartney and told her that, “We, the undersigned…” It was from 44 black and scholars, intellectuals, and civil rights leaders, people who actually go in and work in black communities on the ground, and see the issues that are affecting black Americans, They wrote a letter to her saying, “Cut it out. We know what we are talking about. We believe in civil rights law. This is not good. What are you doing?” She wrote back and essentially wrote them off.
Mr. Jekielek: Just over a year ago, I had Bob Woodson on the show. He’s been on the show a number of times talking about the letter that you’re describing and how egregious they felt the Smith policies were in response to this incident.
Ms. Shaw: Yes, it was signed by 44 black intellectual scholars and civil rights activists, people who actually work on the ground in poor black communities and who ostensibly know what they’re talking about. They addressed Kathy McCartney point blank, “What you allowed to occur on your watch and what you helped support and promote this narrative that this had been a racial incident at the expense of working class staff members who happened to be white is egregious on your part.
We ask that you stop this programming. Stop teaching kids that this is okay, or to feel that everything they feel somehow has a racial tinge to it, at the expense of working class people.” That is something that I liked about that letter. Because Bob, as you know, is concerned as we all should be about communities that are not functioning, unlike the Smith College community, that aren’t very privileged and don’t have staff cooking meals and cleaning toilets.
But Kathy’s response was quite dismissive. I found that very telling. The Smith College administration talks a lot about listening to black voices and that kind of thing and then they get a letter from a prominent black man who’s done a lot of work in civil rights and they ignore it or write it off with a few sentence response. I liked that Bob took the initiative to do that. It meant a lot. It also meant a lot to Jackie and Mark, the two staff who were falsely accused. And so I’m very glad, I feel like they felt some kind of vindication, even though Kathy dismissed it.
This brings us to something interesting that I’ve thought about before, which is this notion of white privilege, because the upper administration, the faculty, and some of the lower administration are recruited from all around the world. They’re recruited with diversity in mind. Because they’re recruited from all around the world, and certainly from outside of Northhampton, they are more diverse, at least on the surface if you look at skin tone.
We’re talking purely about skin tone. The students are more diverse. The student body at Smith, the last time I checked, is less than 50 per cent white. So that’s pretty diverse. They are also recruited from all over the world. The staff who are mowing the lawns, cooking the meals, changing the light bulbs, they are not flown in from all around the world and interviewed and wined and dined. They pretty much come from the local area, and the local area up there is pretty white.
This is also the lowest paid group on campus, if we had to divide into groups, faculty, students, and staff. That’s the lowest paid group. It also happens to be the whitest group. And yet we are teaching this concept at Smith College, the people who are getting paid the least have the most privilege somehow. There was a New York Times article by Michael Powell that came out right after I resigned.
And in it, one of the custodians who was falsely accused who wasn’t even there when the incident happened, but the student accused him anyway, said, “I don’t know about white privilege, but I do know about money privilege.” That was the money line in that article. That is something that is largely ignored by the woke, any discussion of class. There’s lots of talk of intersectionality, which supposedly takes into account class. But if we’re really talking about privilege here, we need to be talking about class. I don’t think Smith College wants to have that discussion.
Mr. Jekielek: So as we finish up, what’s next for Jodi Shaw?
Ms. Shaw: I am working on a book about my experience at Smith. I’m really excited about that. It’s something creative, which I really enjoy doing. I’m working on some musical projects. I am raising my two young burgeoning men, trying to facilitate their moving into adulthood. I’m also working to try to help more people formalize these networks, because there’s not a lot of support out there for people.
Aside from some good podcasts and some good films now, there’s not a lot of what we talked about earlier about helping people to build the moral conviction that they need to do what they need to do. Not everybody might want to file a lawsuit. They just need the moral conviction to quit their job or the moral conviction to just say something to their supervisor.
As I said before, that’s really important, these networks in finding other people, finding just one other person and then another person and another person. Because if you think about it, that’s how the civil rights movement happened, and that’s how any movement happens. People feel a lot stronger when they can find each other. So if I can help in any way to facilitate that, it’s really the only way we’re going to be able to do anything. We need to be able to find each other.
Mr. Jekielek: Jodi Shaw, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Ms. Shaw: Thank you so much, Jan. It’s been a pleasure.
[Narration/Jan Jekielek]: Smith College said it “stands by its actions and offerings in support of DEI, meaning diversity, equity, and inclusion,” that it will continue to defend against the latest version of Ms. Shaw’s claims.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you all for joining Jodi Shaw and me on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek.
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