The intersection of race, gender and class is making it difficult to tell the bullies from the bullied.
Two highly publicized instances of alleged bullying involve black women who are members of society’s elite, Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markel and Oumou Kanoute, 21, a student at Smith College, an elite all-women college that charges $80,000 a year in tuition.
Both claim to be bullied in the face of evidence that they bullied others.
The more troubling case involves Oumou Kanoute, 21, a student at Smith College, an elite all-women college that charges $80,000 a year in tuition.
According to press accounts, Kanoute claimed she was targeted in July 2018 for “eating while Black” in the un-air conditioned living room of an unoccupied dormitory reserved for young children in a college summer camp. Four months later an independent investigation by a law firm hired by Smith College found no evidence of discrimination.
Not only was Kanoute not bullied but it appears that both she and Smith College bullied the low-wage staff who were involuntarily swept into the controversy.
A veteran janitor in his 60s, with poor vision, spotted what he thought was a sleeping man who seemed to be “out of place.” He followed policy and called security. A security guard politely asked Kanoute for identification. Satisfied, he apologized for her discomfort and left.
Kanoute posted a video that night of the incident on social media, which she encouraged views to share, claiming her existence at Smith was questioned because she is a woman of color. She posted a picture of the security guard, labelling him a “racist punk.” She posted the photograph, name and email of a cafe worker who had no part in calling security but simply told her the cafeteria was supposed to be reserved for young summer students.
Meanwhile, The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN jumped on the story and the American Civil Liberties Union took up Kanoute’s case.
Smith College President Kathleen McCartney immediately apologized to Kanoute and placed on paid leave the janitor had who had followed college policy when he called security.
McCartney then subjected cafeteria and grounds staff to what some felt were psychologically intrusive anti-racist trainings and set up “White Accountability” groups where faculty and staff meet on Zoom to explore their biases.
The lives of the staffers were profoundly disrupted by Kanoute’s social media posts accusing them of racism
The cafe worker received threatening calls, emails and notes accusing her of being a racist, though she had nothing to do with contacting security. She was reassigned to a different dormitory and furloughed at the start of the pandemic. A potential employer asked if she was the one involved in the Smith incident. The stress exacerbated her lupus and landed her in a hospital.
One of the two veteran janitors who were involved quit.
Meghan Markle, wife of Prince Harry, has participated in a “tell all” interview that is set to air on Sunday with Oprah Winfrey where she reportedly claims bullying forced her to leave England.
On Wednesday, The Times of London published an article entitled, “Royal aides reveal Meghan bullying claim before Oprah interview.” The Times obtained a 2018 email by Jason Knauf, one of Markel’s closest advisors at Kensington Palace, stating Markel bullied two personal assistants out of the household and was undermining the confidence of a third staff member. “The Duchess seems intent on always having someone in her sights,” writes Knauf, a communications executive.
Markel’s spokesperson called the Times report a “smear campaign.”
Later Wednesday, Buckingham Palace announced it will investigate the bullying claims lodged against Markel by interviewing staff past and present to see if “lessons can be learned.”
Is There A Lesson?
No one disputes that African Americans and women can be and are targets of bullying but it is also true that no one is above bullying. Many harassment and discrimination lawsuits are filed against black and female supervisors. And not just by whites.
Bullying is an equal opportunity offense. It most often occurs when the bully is in a position of power and control, and the target is not. The Markel and Smith cases show the need to investigate misconduct claims before reaching a conclusion, especially when they involve subservient staff.