It is hard to be a person of color in America. It may be harder still in a predominantly white state like Vermont, where students of color may be singled out and bullied by peers, according to a Jan. 23 discussion at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington.
The event, “How to start a conversation about race with children,” was led at the school by Keith Smith and Kerry Fantelli from the University of Vermont’s Center for Health and wellbeing.
Smith and Fantelli run a racial healing group and were on hand to educate the audience and address concerns.
One man said his adopted son was experiencing difficulties and said he didn’t want to have brown skin. The boy also came home distraught because a classmate told him he would be sent back to his country of origin if Donald Trump were elected president.
The father was upset and wanted to know what to do. “They are all sitting there saying ‘We are not racist here’ and it’s clear to us that they are. That the students are,” the man said.
While Vermont is known as a liberal leaning state, there is a long way to go. Smith, who is black, empathized with the son’s experience, saying, “The system will make him think something’s wrong with him. Remind him he’s not crazy.”
“I personally would never raise my children in this state,” Smith said. “If the community is in complete denial, what can be done?” He said white parents of non-white children often wait until their kids are teens to discuss race, “and by that point it’s too late. The damage has been done.”
Other parents he knows have decided to leave the state entirely to give their non-white children better lives. The concerned father hunched over, resting his head in his hands.
Fantelli, who raised her mixed-race child in Vermont, said the key is to build your child up every day and talk about race openly and regularly.
Smith and Fantelli said the most important thing for white people to do is to realize that everyone is implicated in the system of racism. It is an inescapable reality in our communities.
Fantelli said that while it may be tempting for someone to pretend they personally are not racist, it is impossible for white Americans to be aware of unconscious biases.
Her point was illustrated in a video, featuring Robin DiAngelo, the author of “White Fragility.” In the video, DiAngelo states: “We who are white tend to be fragile, in that it doesn’t take much to upset us around race.” She called the impact of our response “a kind of weaponized defensiveness. Weaponized hurt feelings.”
Fantelli said it may be difficult for white people to overcome defensiveness when confronted about unintentional racist behavior, but she encouraged everyone to push through hurt feelings to remain open to self-improvement. “We all have a lot of unlearning to do,” she said.
If defensiveness comes up when confronted by one’s own potentially offensive behavior, “just swallow it down and say ‘thank you,’” she said, encouraging white people to act with humility.
Smith pointed out that the system of white supremacy in which we live doesn’t just harm people of color. It also limits the experiences of white people in the world. He said white people are often ruled by fear and it must be very difficult. “There is a whole part of your experience that you don’t get to explore,” he said, “You are afraid of someone based on a myth.”
To be black in American is to be part of a minority group that has been historically oppressed. “When I learned that race is a social construct that really struck me because it went against what I had been taught, which is that race is a biological thing,” Fantelli said, “but it’s all about power. About having power over another group of people.”
To illustrate this point, one group participant, who is white, told a story of her time in Switzerland, where she and her husband had trouble renting apartments just because they were foreign.
She was shocked to see how easy it was to be discriminated against based on arbitrary factors and said the experience gave her a greater understanding of the arbitrary nature of oppression. “We were the same people when we went from one place to another,” she said. It showed her “how it is easy to see someone differently if it suits your world view.”