“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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Below is a rush transcript of this American Thought Leaders episode from Jun 23, 2022. This transcript may not be in its final form and may be updated.
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: Well, so first of all, congratulations on being a Hero of Intellectual Freedom, an award given to you by ACTA. I think you’re the only nonacademic to have won this award, Dorian Abbot, Joshua Katz are co-winners with you. So congratulations.
Ms. Shaw: Thank you.
Mr. Jekielek: Why don’t we kind of go back to the beginnings where stuck your head out, so to speak, right? And then everybody noticed. I want to make sure everybody kind of knows the backstory here. So of course this is at Smith College. And you actually, you did your undergraduate studies at Smith College and loved it.
Ms. Shaw: Yeah.
Mr. Jekielek: So why don’t we start there and bring us up to the present?
Ms. Shaw: So 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. And then I left Smith and lived all over the country. I lived in Portland, Oregon for a little while and lived in New Mexico. And then I spent most of my adult life in Brooklyn, New York. I was a musician, very important to say. So I was living at a very much a hand to mouth existence for many years. And I was happy with that because I was doing something I loved.
And then I got married and had children. And then I realized very quickly that I was going to have to get a job and have some regular hours. So I became a librarian. And then my marriage ended. It’s very tough living in the city with children if you don’t have a lot of money. And so I thought, “Well, where could we go? Where could I convince my ex to move to with our kids where it’s still going to be a stimulating environment?” And I remembered North Hampton and Smith. Smith is a… You have to understand it’s a small town, so the town is heavily influenced by Smith.
I remembered North Hampton as this just very, very liberal lefty, anything goes, free speech kind of place. I’d always felt very comfortable there so I thought, “Well, let’s go back to North Hampton and raise our kids there.” So that’s what brought me back to North Hampton. And it had always been kind of a dream of mine. You know, “Well, 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 started working there. And there was something, it 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 the faculty and the students, there’s just something more cohesive and friendly about it. And 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. And 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, so all of these things… I mean, I’d been performing on the subway platforms. These kinds of discussions were pretty foreign to me. And I had no reason not to believe that they were necessary as being told this is necessary, this is part of fighting injustice, this is part of achieving social justice. And I thought, “Well, that sounds good. Social justice sounds good.” I think there’s 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 have to do something wild and crazy. And so I thought what’s the best way to transmit a lot of otherwise, very boring information? Too much of tired 18 year olds. I thought, “Well, of course a rap.” I’d had my musical background. And so I pitched this idea and it was accepted.
And so I worked on this rap over that summer. This was now summer of 2018. In the middle of that summer, towards the end, 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. And as far as I can tell, anybody really knew about it. The student made a Facebook post about it, and it went viral about this massive injustice 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 set 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: And I thought at the time, “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 apologizing to the student publicly. 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 and mandatory anti-biased trainings for employees and all that kind of stuff. They did this before they even began an investigation into the incident. And so 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, “Well, 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.
And then a month later after this incident happened, when I was about to do this orientation presentation to 600 1st year students, my supervisor approached me. It was less than a week before the event. I cannot emphasize enough how anyone who’s done event planning knows how hard it is to organize an event for 600 people, and I was the lead person. So it wasn’t just my own presentation. It was everything. So a week before the event, he approached me and he said, “You can’t do the rap.” And I said, “Why not?” And he said, “Because you’re white.” And 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.
And I asked him, I said, “Well, if I was a person of color, could I do it?” And I didn’t specify what color. And he just said, “Yes.” And so that was it. There was no rap. I won’t go get into the nitty gritty of the library job because I ended up… 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. But I ended up leaving and taking a job in the residence life department, which is part of the administration, granted like a lower part of the administration. And I took a job that was a big pay cut, lesser responsibilities, but much more material.
As the librarian, I was doing more teaching. I was on the academic side, but I thought, “Well, 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 wellbeing, the dormitories, ID cards, fixing locks, changing light bulbs, things like that, I thought, ‘Surely I can avoid all of this discussion about race and I won’t have to talk about my white privilege and my white fragility’.”
I think it’s important to know here that when I was told I couldn’t do the rap, something that I don’t talk about is that I was very confused, because here we had this incident on campus and everybody was very upset about it, it was a racial incident. And here 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’ve perhaps really made you a lot very competitive for this full time job you were up for.
I’m not getting too convoluted. And so I was very confused. I was like, “Well, wait a minute. That sounds like racial discrimination.” But because I was hearing this messaging that you cannot be discriminated against if you’re white, that racism is prejudice plus power and coming at you and because I’m a white person, I have power and therefore I cannot be discriminated against, I was in this like a lot of emotional turmoil about it.
I was very confused. I was like, “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. And 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 that I thought I would kind of lie low and be out of this kind of discourse. And boy, was I wrong.
I went to the residence life department, and I didn’t know this but residence life departments in general 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 stuff, that 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 part of my job was I was going to have to talk about my fixed characteristics, like race and gender. I was not happy about this. And also at the time I was still figuring this out like, “What does…” And so I started really taking a deep dive into, what do 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 innocently accused staff members who suffered. As a result, one left and never came back. Two more people were fired or terminated amicably for related reasons.
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 and information. It’s very hard when everyone around you is saying one thing and you’re having this feeling that something’s not right. So I really started to try to validate that feeling and find out why I was having it. And fall of 2019, I was mandated to attend a professional development training. And I asked, I remember asking, “Are we going to need to discuss our race for this training?” And I was told “Yes.” And so I went to my supervisor privately, and I said, “By then I had decided that…” 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 continued condition by employment?
So I went to my supervisor and I said, “I’m not comfortable discussing my race at work.” And she said, “No problem. Just say that when you go to the workshop.” So I went to the workshop. Lo and behold, we were asked to go around the room and talk about our race/culture in the context of our childhood, something like that. So now we have two things I’m not comfortable talking about at work. So everyone went around the room and said what they said. And it got to me. And I said, “I’m not comfortable discussing my race at work.” 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.” So I was humiliated in front of my colleagues and I actually felt the humiliation.
It felt like, I don’t know, like my heart stopped. I never dreamed that that would be the response. I thought maybe people would just be kind of irked and 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 my mouth shut. Now you can’t just not say something.
Now, if you don’t say something, it could be construed as an act of aggression just simply by remaining silent. That that’s a symptom of white fragility and that you don’t want to talk about your race. So I felt like, “Well, my hand’s being forced here. I’m going to have to do something.”
So that’s when I began the process of filing an internal complaint. And 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 amongst administrators when I started asking questions, “What do these words mean? What does social justice mean?” I believe it was a disingenuous investigation that was conducted. It was delayed, delayed, delayed.
And then I found out I was… So a couple weeks or within a week of when I filed the internal complaint, George Floyd died. And so Smith, much of 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, generating justice, 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 our white colleagues to educate themselves” something like that.
So that summer was just a barrage. This was right after I filed a complaint. I thought, “Gee, I don’t think they’re taking my complaint seriously.” But I kept going. And then when I was told I was going to have to… And you have to remember, put this in context, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. The college had just informed the staff or all of us that there were going to be furloughs. They did this in the same breath.
And 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, “And we’re also going to be putting a lot of energy and resources into this thing called racial justice at Smith. And we’re going to be doing all these initiatives.” So I thought, “Wow, well, they’re putting money in that. Meanwhile, people are getting furloughed.”
After what I had seen at Smith, the hostile environment, this was just like adding more fuel to this… Not more fuel. It is a wound, and they were stabbing the wound. So finally, 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 justices Smith stuff and another discussion about that 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. And I decided they’re not taking me seriously. I’m using the internal channels and they’re not responding. And so I thought, “What can I do, this regular person who has really 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 as a real problem here? Not just for me, but for all the staff.”
And I thought, “Well, I don’t think they like publicity very much. So I thought I’ll try to make a video.” So that’s what I did. I made a video, 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. And 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.” So 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. And then the next day, the president released a letter on the website to everybody. I forget what the letter was called, but it was about my video. And 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.
And it wasn’t really a critique of the initiatives. It was actually, I was very specific about what you 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. So she didn’t address that.
She did say that this individual has a right to do this under the… There’s a federal act that protects employees who want to advocate for a better working environment. And I’d mentioned that in my video, that that’s what I was doing. That was kind of… I interpreted that as her way of saying “We would fire her, but we want you to know for all of you people who are writing to us, asking us to fire her, 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. I also noticed at the end of the letter… 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 thing as their white counterparts. Don’t ask me to do that to them. That’s extremely disempowering rhetoric.” Because I think this ideology is disempowering to any one of any skin color.
And so I noticed at the end of her letter, she said, “After she had said all this stuff about the video, we don’t stand by this. We stand by our initiatives” At the end she said, “And 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 as if a student who’s not white is going to watch my video.” And somehow that, “We know you can’t handle this.
You can’t handle seeing somebody talking honestly about something in a very polite, respectful way, I might add.” That there’s that condescension there as she was doing the very thing that I asked her not to try to make me do, because I think that’s disempowering. So she exhibited the behavior in her letter.
So I made a respond, a responding video to her. I said, “I’m going to take this as a dialogue because I’d never had it.” She’d never attempted to have a dialogue with me. And I responded to her letter. And then she sent a letter. Of course, by now I was in touch with a lot of people at Smith I’d never been in touch with before who’d written to me privately. And some faculty sent me an email.
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, right?
Ms. Shaw: Yeah. Yeah. So it was good. I felt supported and I understood why they didn’t want to say anything, but I wish they did. Some of them did. Some of them spoke to the New York Times. So she sent an email out 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 on anything, on any of your professional accounts. Please don’t respond on your own.” Something like that. Like, “We’re going to maintain a unified front here.” That was my interpretation of it.
So then as expected, there was retaliation. Yeah, I mean I filed a complaint. I ended up filing federal lawsuit. Well, I’m sure we’ll talk about that. But yeah, there was retaliation. And I was eventually… Throughout all this, I was forwarding emails to myself from my account, from my work account to my private account that had to do with my complaint because this was documentation as it’s I believe my right, because I have a legal action against the college.
And they put me under investigation for this. They said “You’ve compromised the safety or the security of student information and college information,” something like that. “And therefore we’re putting you under investigation.” So it was obviously pretextual. And so I was put on leave with pay, so that was good. My furlough… I was also furloughed. I didn’t mention that, I was the only one in my department to get. I was halftime furloughed.
And then they approached me and said, “We would like to resolve this amicably.” And at that point I said, “Well, I would like you to apologize to the staff you’ve hurt because… I didn’t get into it, but a lot of staff have been hurt at Smith since that incident at that summer. “And I would like you to stop this programming, this kind of programming stuff, because I believe it’s harmful.” And they said, “Absolutely not.” And 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, it was the middle of winter and I thought, “I could take a settlement and be okay.”
Mr. Jekielek: But there’s strings attached.
Ms. Shaw: There were strings attached. Right. You can’t talk about us anymore basically. But yeah. Or I could continue along this path. In the end I decided… I thought I would regret taking a settlement. I also decided… I made a video about it. It’s a freedom versus comfort. I had to distill it down, “Okay. What are the two things…” I didn’t make a pros and cons list. It was like freedom on one side, comfort on the other. Most of us have had been lucky enough to have both for the most part. And now I was faced with the decision and I thought, “Well, I have to choose freedom. I just can’t give up my freedom.” And I had no idea what would happen.
And so they said, “Okay, well, I guess you can come back to work then.” But by then the environment was so hostile. We were getting emails, “Fire Jodi Shaw. Smith can’t support Jodi Shaw.” And I had been informed that my colleagues were very uncomfortable with what I had done. If it was hostile before, it was very hostile now to me. And I decided that there was simply no way I could continue to work there. And so it was a constructive dismissal in my mind, so I left.
Mr. Jekielek: And this is difficult because you have two boys, right?
Ms. Shaw: Yeah.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re not just thinking about yourself. How is it in the family this whole rigamarole?
Ms. Shaw: Thanks for asking that. I don’t really talk about that a lot. Well, I mean that obviously 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 this stuff started happening, I would’ve been like, “I’m out of here.” I’m just going to go move somewhere else and get a job somewhere else. But I did have a family, so I had to stay. And then when I ended up leaving, that was a big leap.
Having a family, I didn’t know what would happen. I thought maybe I’ll do snow removal. I was thinking about, like even more removed from all of this stuff, tasks, very physical things. But luckily, I’m okay. But on my family it’s been hard on my kids. They’ve gone without the full focus and attention of their mother for over two years now. This 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. And that when I hear them say that, when I hear like the kids at their school were watching a video of mine or something, it makes me feel bad. It makes me feel bad. And it does make me question did I do the right thing. You can never anticipate everything. I did think about all this before I made the first video. I thought it long and hard. I thought, “This will impact my family. 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. And so I did go into it knowing it was most likely going to impact my children, and that we do live in a small town.
It hasn’t been as bad for me as I thought it would be, because since most of the harassment’s online. But my kids. Yeah, I try to comfort myself by telling myself that either my kids could have seen me go along with this and watched because it was eating me, it was eating me alive, and watch that. 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. And when they’re older, some of that’s inside of them and that they can grow up and take some strength from that, knowing that their mother didn’t just back down because this affects them in the end.
And really, that was in there too. I didn’t mention that I don’t want my kids to inhabit a future in which they’re being told that they’re bad because of their skin color or their gender. That they’re just bad. If you boil it down, that’s pretty much what it is. Or that’s the feeling you get, you feel like you’re bad. And 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 their fixed characteristics that they were born with. That’s wrong.
Mr. Jekielek: I think when this history is written, I think your kids will have something to be very proud of. You described this as a kind of spiritual quest. I thought that was very interesting as opposed to a material quest.
Ms. Shaw: Well, this is where my background comes in as a musician playing on the subway. When people ask me what that was like, my response is it was one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. There’s something extremely honest about it. It’s not like you go to perform in a… When you go to perform in a club, people show up. They pay their admission, they sit down. You sing a song, they clap. But on the subway, you’re performing.
People only respond if they respond. There’s no pretense. They’re not like being polite. They’re just like, they either look at you or they don’t. And 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, it’s real. What’s more is that, I was noticing I was getting this response from people I’d never seen before, never met, didn’t even speak the same language as me, of all different races, ethnicities, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, you name it. And that was a beautiful, beautiful experience.
And so those kinds of, I guess I don’t want to use the word seeker, but I do have a hunger in me for meaning. I think most of us do. And that was my particular, how I went after it I guess, was through my music and through the connection with the audience. So I guess if somebody had asking my value, that’s a value of mine, is living my life in a manner so that I can make meaning out of it. The spiritual experience is just very, very important to me. And so I realized at Smith that that was more important to me than having the paycheck. I had to decide it was the freedom, comfort thing. The freedom to pursue the spiritual quest, I wanted that.
And then I learned quickly that there was something very spiritual about it when I publicly resigned. And 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, but…”
Mr. Jekielek: Why did you feel this sense of responsibility? What was the responsibility for exactly?
Ms. Shaw: Because I knew how it felt because people would write to me and say, “I’m working in this environment.” And it was all in 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. And they would say, “I haven’t told anybody else 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, something was not right. And they felt like they were the only one kind of questioning, “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 the same things that I feel.” And so they would reach out to me. I know how it feels to be the only person or feel like or believe you’re the only person. All evidence tells you, “You’re the only person that’s having an issue here, that seems to be upset by this.”
So I felt like I had a responsibility to help them in some way. That is in part why I kept making videos, like walking through my process. Because that was the only thing I could really do adequately and fully, was to keep making videos, just being really honest about what was going on in my head so that people could watch them because 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. It was very exhausting, meeting with people and having Zoom sessions and trying to help them suss out what was going on. But it was unsustainable.
Mr. Jekielek: But these also these videos, they weren’t off the cuff. That sense I get is you really thought about each one before you knocked it out, right?
Ms. Shaw: Yeah.
Mr. Jekielek: Yeah.
Ms. Shaw: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, so some of them are edited and some of them aren’t. Yeah, I would think through… It’s more of like I didn’t say, “I want to make a video today. What am I going to talk about?” It was more, “Another thing would come to me.” And I’d start thinking about it and say, “Yeah, I think I should make a video about this.” Outlining my process about how I’m thinking about this.
Mr. Jekielek: So you became a kind of a voice for all these people who, well at least at the time kind of we’re voiceless, right? Or just started speaking to you. And you became a kind of, I don’t even know the right term, but some kind of… offered an expression of collective angst or concern.
Ms. Shaw: Yeah. In a very non angry way more… I think the fact that I mentioned in the first video, I think I say, “And I’m a lifelong liberal,” I think that that’s important because it gave other liberals or left people, people would always associate themselves on the left, let’s put it that way. They could 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 my tribe, like the way we categorized, talking about this, it was almost like it gave them permission to be like, “Ah, yes, this is wrong. Here’s this other liberal saying it.” So I think that was part of it why it kind of was a lightning rod thing, because I was like the gateway drug to…
Mr. Jekielek: So this is now kind of coming circle to maybe why you are a Hero of Intellectual Freedom. Has there been some number of people that reached out to you that have subsequently made difficult decisions like you did because of your interaction?
Ms. Shaw: Yes. And that is very gratifying to me. Yeah, it’s been nice. I just had somebody write to me last night. I was reaching out, starting to get active again on social media. I’d taken a break for a while. I remember talking to her about a year ago, I think on the phone. She was in this terrible situation, similar situation. She’s now filed a complaint with her state office of civil rights. She would had just gone from only talking to me to now she’s filed a public complaint. And it felt really good.
And then another person, something I would tell people is you need to find one other person. You need to find another person in preferably in the same environment that you’re in, at your job or at the school, or wherever this is happening. Just one other person. I know it’s hard and it seems scary, but you suss people out. And then once that dam breaks and you start talking to each other, that it just… Just one other person can have such an impact.
And so there was somebody else who she came back and she told me, “I remember when you said that and I went out and I found one other person.” And now she has a really well functioning organization in Canada that she started for K-12 education and started with finding one other person. So one other person, that’s all it takes. So yeah, that’s gratifying. I feel like I have helped in some ways.
Mr. Jekielek: Now, you’ve said this before, and I can’t remember if it was to me or I saw it in some of the materials I was reviewing earlier, but the important thing is to somehow, in this bizarre cultural reality that we’re facing today, is to somehow have these support systems exist for people pre them, making the decision, right? To talk, right?
Ms. Shaw: Yes. Yes. A journalist asked me, “What would you say to somebody who’s just stood up? How would you support them?” or something like that. And my response was, “I think there’s actually more support needed before that happens.”
Mr. Jekielek: Right.
Ms. Shaw: Because it takes a while to build the conviction and to understand that there’s nothing actually wrong with you. That the feeling that something’s not right is because something isn’t right. And you have a right and you can stand up and say something about it. And so, I mean, a lot of people, they accidentally do something and then they find out. But for somebody who decides to stand up, it takes a long time to get to that point of understanding that not only that you’re not wrong, but that this stuff is wrong. And two, that to assess your resources, if you will, once you’ve decided you want to take action, what kind of action do I want to take?
And how am I going to handle the fallout? And kind of get your ducks in a row first. So that’s, I think when the most support is needed. Because if people don’t even know, if they’re still confused about social justice and “Am I doing the right thing and am I a bad person for questioning this?” Then you’re not even close to being able to withstand, standing up and taking action to prepare yourself.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, if there’s one thing that the last two years have taught me, it’s how incredibly strong the social pressure or social influence or something like that is on humans by other humans, right?
Ms. Shaw: Yeah.
Mr. Jekielek: I mean, I frankly did not understand this. This has been a huge lesson for me. I want to kind of follow up a little bit on something you said in your acceptance speech. It has to do with how you understand the importance or the value or 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. Tell me about this, yeah.
Ms. Shaw: Well, I was thinking. I was going to receive this award, Hero of Intellectual Freedom. So I was trying to think of, what is intellectual freedom? What does that mean really? So I started thinking about the intellect. I started thinking that the intellect is not a reliable narrator. That’s what I decided. And that intellectual freedom is only really freedom if we have ownership over our intellectual process in the first place.
So what I mean by that is, and something that’s not discussed often is, the realm of the emotions and the role that that plays in intellectual freedom. So I saw a bumper sticker one time, this just came to me before I was receiving the word, said, “Don’t believe everything you think.” And I think that’s important to remember. Something to remind ourselves.
So when I’m talking about feelings, when I have a feeling, the feeling, it’s basically alerting me something’s going on. I don’t know what it is because the feeling doesn’t have a language. It is in the thought process, just a basic feeling. It’s not good or bad. But it alerts, it calls attention to our intellect. It kind of says, “Hey, there’s something interesting happening over here. Ooh, something doesn’t feel good. Come check this out.” And then our intellect comes in and it acts as a translator and interprets that feeling and tells us what’s going on. “Oh yeah. I’m feeling jealous. Why?” And 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 felt bad about this ideology. And my intellect was fooled because my intellect was convinced by the [inaudible 00:43:57] faculty and administrators at Smith, that the reason I was having this doubtful feeling that something was off was an evidence of implicit racial bias. That my feeling of something went not quite right with this ideology was actually evidence of the ideology itself.
And so my intellect was fooled. And I went along for a while trying to suppress the feeling therefore. 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. It’s basically what the ideology says. And so that’s why we must be wary of the intellect. And that when our intellect interprets a feeling for us, we’re basically telling ourselves a story about that feeling. And we need to make sure that story came from us and not someone else, not Smith College. So Smith College, I had effectively allowed an outside authority to hijack my intellect and interpret a feeling for me. That was not my best interest.
And so I think many of us, this is not particular to this ideology, many of us have been telling ourselves stories that don’t belong to us since birth. And that is culture plays an influence. Like, you have these feelings, who to love and how you should love, and what’s funny and what isn’t. I mean, I think I’ve definitely had the experience where I find something funny, that’s a feeling I just laugh. And then my intellect steps in and says, “Oh, no, no, no, 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, as someone who’s very curious about psychology and other people and myself, I’ve worked for a long time to try to examine the stories that my intellect tells me, which are oftentimes in response to an emotion I’m having, and tried to suss out, “Did that story come from me or is that somebody else’s? Did I just unconsciously adopt somebody else’s interpretation there?” and tried to push out what’s not mine and develop my own story that works for me. And that process that I was already doing and that some of us have already been doing for a very, very long time, that is intellectual freedom, or that’s 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. And it’s 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’s 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 that stuff.
I think these past two years have really forced our hand here because the question that has been burning in my mind for a long time is, why do some people stand up and others don’t? And this answers that question for me. Which is that some of us have been working on freedom for a long time and other people, others of us have not. And so now the time has come. You can’t just suddenly go from zero to nothing. Some of us were already free, or already working on freedom. And so when the time came, we were able to step up in a way we had already prepared for that moment.
Mr. Jekielek: Maybe freedom is like a muscle, right? You have to kind of work it, right? To…
Ms. Shaw: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, no. And that’s interesting because there’s all sorts of good analogies. But the other piece though that’s very interesting is of course… And I remember doing this myself, right? Of course, we hear people give their perspectives on things. Sometimes you hear a really good one and you’re like, “Okay, I’m going to take that for myself,” right? We make our choice to bring in because we find the idea intellectually attractive, or there could be many reasons. Then we make those things our own. They come from outside. As a kid, we probably do it because it’s our parents and we look up to them. But with woke ideology, it sort of just demands that it’s story be the one that’s accepted. Either you do it volitionally or it will be done against your will. It has that feeling. Is it’s like that, right? And that’s just interesting in this model that you’ve described here.
Ms. Shaw: Yeah. Well it’s almost like the woke ideology, if you don’t do it, then that’s proof of the ideology, right? If you don’t participate, you’re just proving this ideology that-
Mr. Jekielek: It’s tautological. Yes. [inaudible 00:49:30].
Ms. Shaw: It’s tautological. Right.
Mr. Jekielek: Right.
Ms. Shaw: And it’s a potentiated version of something we’ve been doing all our lives, like cultural influences, influences of teachers and adults or whatever as we’re growing up. Yeah, this is like… So in some way, we’ve been preparing for this ideology. In some way it’s like we already have that tendency in it. But you’re right. There’s something a lot more demanding about this. And 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.
Mr. Jekielek: So earlier you mentioned this lawsuit that you filed against Smith. It’s pretty fascinating because in an academic setting, typically we see lawsuits in relation to freedom of speech. But you’re doing something a little bit different. You’re kind of tackling the question of racial bias head on here. So tell me about this.
Ms. Shaw: Well, I think that 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 and guarantee faculty, because we hear about a lot of faculty filing suits or complaints for speaking up. They have policies guaranteeing that freedom of expression or freedom of speech, that’s a tenant of most academic settings, that faculty will have this freedom. And that’s often what we hear about from 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, that this is racial discrimination and a racially hostile environment amongst other things. And so my case is not while the former is a constitutional violation, freedom of speech, and a violation I believe of the policy of the college too. One could say that if they state at the beginning we’re going to ensure your freedom of expression.
My case is a Title VII civil rights complaint. And it’s very different. It’s an employment matter. I was not publishing work and was canceled because they didn’t like what I was saying. What it boiled down to is adverse action was taken against me because I didn’t say something they wanted me to say because I would not utter words that I thought were discriminatory against myself or others in some way. So it’s 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 like 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 mean, I’m sure there have been cases, but the only thing that makes this case unusual is two things. One, that I’m white, and so it’s referred to as reverse discrimination or reverse racism, which people which woke ideology would tell us does not exist. But I want to point out even the term reverse racism is not a legal term, that in and of itself implies that there’s something different about the racism committed against a certain skin color, in this case being white.
That that’s a different kind of racism than other kinds of racism. It’s not, it’s very 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 anything else you can prove that happened to you because of your skin color. That’s racism across the board.
Mr. Jekielek: For some of the people that are watching this, it might be like a shocking thing to hear frankly.
Ms. Shaw: Something that Eli pointed out is “I’m still operating on the fundamentals of civil rights law. I believe, and I think a lot of people would agree with me and I think the law agrees with me the way I interpret the law and many of us do, 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 you’re singling somebody else out based on their race.
And that constitutes racial discrimination or harassment or hostility, whatever it is. Smith College, and increasingly other entities, appear to be operating in a different realm, which is, that no longer applies. That if you are that color is the basis upon which you can be singled out and told you must do this or that. And you need to believe that. If you don’t believe it, then you’re bad. And if you don’t go along with it, that 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. But they’re operating on a whole different set of assumptions now, this woke ideology. It’s a whole nother animal. And so this case really is important. 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 here?
Are we still interpreting civil rights law in the manner in which it was written?” which does include white people, which says, “Anybody of any skin color can be discriminated against. And if you are, you have a cause of action in court and that’s 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? I remember asking my lawyer this early on and she was like, “I don’t think that’s going to happen, but it could happen.” And that is what is so scary because that’s what’s at stake, is civil rights law and civil rights legislation. And 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 who worked very hard to get this legislation. And it is now at stake.
This reminds me of something that happened at Smith after I left. Bob Woodson of the Woodson Institute in the 1776 Project wrote a letter to President McCartney and told her that, “We, the undersigned…” It was 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, wrote a letter to her saying, “Cut it out. We know what we’re talking about. We believe in civil rights law. This is not good. What are you doing?” And she wrote back essentially writing 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 exactly the letter that you’re describing and how egregious they felt the Smith policies in response to this incident were.
Ms. Shaw: Yeah, signed by 44 black intellectual scholars and civil rights activists. People who actually work on the ground in poor black communities and who sensibly know what they’re talking about. They address Kathy McCartney in very point blank said, “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 asked that you stop, 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.” And so that’s 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 a staff cooking meals and cleaning toilets.
But Kathy’s response was quite dismissive. I found that very telling, seeing a 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 just kind of write it off with a few sentence response. I liked that Bob took the initiative to do that. And it meant a lot. I think it meant a lot to Jackie and Mark, the two staff who were falsely accused of this. And so I’m very glad, I feel like they felt some kind of vindication in this even though Kathy dismissed it.
I think this brings us to something interesting that I’ve thought about before, which is this notion of white privilege. Because the faculty and the administration, especially the upper administration and the faculty and some of the lower administration are recruited from all around the world. They’re recruited with diversity in mind. And because they’re recruited from all around the world, outside of North Hampton certainly, 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 last time I checked is less than 50% white. So that’s pretty diverse. And they’re 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 are 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, that they 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, he wasn’t even there when the incident happened, but the student accused him anyway. He said, “I don’t know about white privilege, but I do know about money privilege.” And that was the money line in that article, because that’s something that is largely ignored by, for lack of a better word, the woke, is 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, and 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: Well, 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. And I’m working on some musical projects and I am raising my two young burgeoning men, trying to facilitate their moving into adulthood. I’m also working to try to help people more in formalizing these networks because there’s not a lot 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 they need to do what they need to do, whether that’s… Not everybody might not want to file a lawsuit for some people. It’s just the moral conviction to quit their job or the moral conviction to just say something to their supervisor.
I think, 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. And people feel a lot stronger when they can find each other. And so if I can help in any way facilitate that, I think that’s really the only way we’re going to be able to do anything is if we’re able to find each other.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Jodi Shaw, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Ms. Shaw: Thank you so much, Jan. It’s 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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