First in an occasional series about racism in our communities.
When it comes to race, Vermont is a state caught up in a puzzle over itself and its identity, and the government is looking toward a shift.
Gov. Phil Scott recently appointed Xusana Davis to be Vermont’s first executive director of racial equity, and in March signed into law a bill establishing an Ethnic and Social Equity Standards Working Group to adapt educational standards about diversity for Vermont’s schools.
The bill cites studies dating back 20 years that say racial issues are pervasive in the state’s schools.
According to a U.S. Department of Justice report, 35 hate crimes were reported in Vermont in 2017, and just over half were motivated by racial bias.
The bill also noted hate symbols are popping up with “disturbing frequency” around the state.
Recent wounds in Lamoille County include an incident last summer when a driver on Mountain Road in Stowe called a group of children of color the N-word and referred to them as “monkeys.” Twice, swastikas were found, one carved into a desk at Stowe Middle School, and one spray-painted along with the MS-13 gang symbol on a field near Peoples Academy in Morrisville.
A coalition was formed earlier this year to address these incidents. It’s met twice, and hasn’t yet defined its mission.
So, is Vermont a racist state?
Identity and perception
The Rev. Devon Thomas, 34, of Waterville said the racism he’s experienced in Vermont is different from what he experienced while living in New York.
Thomas, who’s black, was born in Connecticut, and his family moved to Vermont when he was 13.
He says it took him a while to be able to identify racism in Vermont after spending time studying in New York City as a young adult.
“The racism that I encountered in Vermont stemmed from a place more of ignorance, of not really knowing what it meant to be black or how one could treat a person who is black with dignity,” Thomas said. “Truth be told, at that point in my life, I didn’t really know how to identify it myself. It didn’t really register with me as racism.”
In part, that’s because just 1.4 percent of Vermont residents are black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (census.gov).
Nationally, about 76.5 percent of the population is white, 13.4 percent black, 5.9 percent Asian and 18.1 percent Hispanic or Latino.
“In my youth, a lot of the encounters I had with racism were from other children or other teenagers at that time. It was basically, I think, from misunderstanding of what black identity was, and who and how I was perceived to be,” Thomas said.
He grew up in the Mount Mansfield School District.
“A lot of kids in the school I was attending felt that black people should behave like the black people they saw on TV, and the black people they saw on TV were really their only example of who a black person was.
“When they saw me, a person with black skin, a person who identifies as black … they transcribe that image, that television image, onto me,” Thomas said, but the stereotypes he saw of black people didn’t hold true for him.
“I was never really good at things like sports. At that time, I didn’t really have the appreciation for rap music that I do now. I was a kid that was focusing as well as I could on doing school well, and so, there were a few kids that were confused by that,” he said.
“I think it came from just not having any actual contact with a person who is black, other than myself,” Thomas said. “In every class that I was in, I was the only person that was black. Even though there were a few other black people in the school and in the town, I didn’t really know them. The only role models or contemporaries I had who were black were my immediate family.”
Intention and otherness
Eva McKend was an on-air television reporter and anchor for about three years for WCAX-TV in Burlington. She recently moved to Washington, D.C.
“As a black woman living in America, racism is institutional and systemic, and so it is always something that’s going to be felt. But, I would not say that Vermont is plagued with more racism than any other state in the country,” McKend said. “I think it’s unfair to sort of characterize Vermont as a place that has a disproportionate amount of racism.”
She, too, experienced a sense of racial “other”-ness.
McKend said when she started her job, she straightened her hair, but after some time at WCAX, McKend transitioned into wearing her hair naturally.
“There was a lot of curiosity from the community and a lot of comments and emails, both for and against my choice to wear my hair as it naturally grows out of my head,” McKend said. “I do wonder, would there have been that sort of hyper-scrutiny and fascination, criticism, praise, all of it, had it been in a state that was not so predominantly white?”
Some comments were hurtful — she said a white mother with a biracial child told her she looked “messy and unkempt and unprofessional, and certainly someone like me, looking how I looked, would no longer be a model for her biracial child,” McKend said.
But most times, McKend thought that people who made biased comments seemed to mean well.
“One time, a woman said to me, ‘Your hair and your style is just so beautiful, you’re like a rare bird.’ Which was just kind of odd. Obviously, she came from a good, well-intentioned place, so I didn’t say anything to her. I just said thank you and I smiled and I moved on,” but questions lingered in McKend’s mind.
“If I were a white person, would she have called me a rare bird? I was standing next to someone else who was not of color when she said it. It’s just awkward, you know?”
Thomas said he feels it’s his responsibility to break down the stereotypes people have of black people, and it gets tiring.
“It can be something as simple as you meet somebody for the first time and they instantly ask, ‘Where are you from?’ And you know that they mean, which city are you from? The assumption is that you’re definitely not from Vermont because you’re black,” Thomas said.
At times, Thomas feels as if he’s expected to speak for all black people.
“Your colleagues, your teachers, the people in your life are going to be white, and they’re going to want to know about you. When you’re black, that is an inseparable part of who you are. You’re going to find yourself as an educator almost 24/7,” and as a pastor, he sees that as an opportunity and an obligation.
“Yes, that exhaustion is definitely present, and there are times I have to admit where I wish that the message, the things that I were saying, would register. There are times when I have to admit in frustration that, for some people, the story that I’m telling about what it means to be black in Vermont will not register.
“It’s human to be frustrated, but I think if you’re a black person living in Vermont, unfortunately, you don’t really have a choice.”
Where to go from here?
To McKend, Vermont is not a racist state.
“I do not think it is fair to characterize Vermont as a state that’s excessively racist, or more racist than other states in the country. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. Perhaps it’s more visible, because there are so few people of color, but I don’t think that it’s worse than any other place,” she said.
She sees Vermont as a progressive state that makes efforts to be welcoming, but it has challenges, and there’s always work to be done.
“I’m really encouraged about the announcement of the new person at the state level,” McKend said, referring to Davis. “I think that’s a great sign.”
But McKend cautioned Vermonters that one person can’t cure racism all on her own.
She said public discussions about race are instrumental in beginning to dismantle prejudice, bias and hate.
“There should be both public and private conversations. A lot can happen within a private conversation that can’t happen within the public. I think those two things can happen simultaneously,” McKend said.
“There needs to be private, small-circle gatherings to have one-on-one, really personal, authentic conversations, but then there also needs to be public forums, so that people can go on record on where they stand on these issues,” McKend said.
At its last meeting, some members of the Morrisville-Stowe Coalition said they felt uncomfortable sharing their process with the press, including the News & Citizen/Stowe Reporter.
As a journalist, McKend said, accurate and honest reporting on racial issues, including coverage of public forums, is also key, and it was something she focused on at WCAX.
“I did stories about New Americans. I did stories about the first hijabi cadet at Norwich. I challenged Bernie Sanders about his civil rights record when he ran for president the last time; he was very active in trying to court the black vote in places like South Carolina. There were concerns from people of color in his own backyard that felt invisible, like they were not getting his attention. I’ve challenged Sen. Sanders on that,” McKend said.
She says it’s also important not to alienate white people trying to grapple with racial issues.
“That sometimes troubles me, how hard I think that some activists of color can be on well-meaning, well-intentioned white people who are trying to understand and who are really deeply invested in this issue but who may not know the language, or who may say something that’s inadvertently racist,” McKend said.
“We have more documented incidents of white supremacy now, and those people certainly are not interested in conversations about diversity and equity. … If we know that faction exists, why would we then be so hard on white activists who are committed to understanding more about their place in this conversation?”
Thomas and McKend agree — access for people of color to good schools, well-paying jobs and social standing is of utmost importance.
Education is a key factor in breaking down barriers to that access, argued the proponents of the bill for racial equity in educational standards.
“One of the main suggestions for accomplishing this was to ‘teach children from an integrated curriculum that fairly represents both the contributions of people of color (as well as indigenous people, women, people with disabilities, etc.), while fairly and accurately representing our history of oppression of these groups,’” the bill reads.
“I hope that that isn’t being lost in the conversation,” McKend says. “People of color are just as deserving of all the clean air and all the opportunities” Vermont can afford as white people are, and she doesn’t want accusations of racism in Vermont to push them away.
“Ultimately, I chose to come back to Vermont because, while I recognize that I do have a black identity, I also grew up here,” Thomas said. “I have a Vermont identity as well.”
“Being a person of color in this country does put you in a liminal space. You’re sort of in between places. I think black people in this country are in transition. We are African American, but we don’t have the option of going back to Africa. We don’t belong there anymore,” Thomas said. “We belong here, in America, but America is not a country that was made for us, and so we need the help of people who do have power and privilege to make this a place for us too.”