Xusana Davis has a big job to do.
Davis, 30, started her job as Vermont’s first racial equity director at the end of July, and says before she can begin to make a plan to help dismantle racial stereotypes and micro-aggressions in Vermont, she first needs to get a handle on where it’s happening.
That’s not easy, Davis says, since systemic racism looks different to everybody.
“Depending on who you ask, it doesn’t look like anything to some folks,” Davis said. “It essentially doesn’t exist in some minds. To me, what it looks like is very different to what it looks like to a person of African-American descent, or Indian descent, or south Asian descent. A lot of these groups experience it in very different ways,” she said.
Finding a definition for systemic racism that would help her root it out in Vermont took Davis a lot of thought.
When she thinks of systemic racism, “I think of deeply engrained practices, aided by government, aided by non-government forces, aided by society itself, that create and foster and perpetuate and encourage bias and discrimination on a racial or ethnic level.
“The thing about it being systemic is two things — it often goes invisible … (and) it often seems insurmountable. People often feel like it’s going to go unchecked, because how do we dismantle it?”
And, that’s Davis’s job.
She was appointed by Gov. Phil Scott in June as Vermont’s first director of racial equity in response to a bill Scott signed last year that created both a five-member racial equity advisory panel and Davis’s new cabinet-level job.
Previously, Davis worked for New York state government as director of health and housing strategic initiatives. She has a degree in anthropology from Fordham University and a juris doctorate from New York Law School with a concentration in international human rights law.
Davis sees her job, first, as listening and tracking down where barriers exclude people of color and make opportunities harder for them to access.
“My first step is to go on a listening tour and to see, not only from state employees but also from other Vermonters who don’t work for the state, where are the blind spots? Where are the gaps? What are we doing that we’re not doing?” Davis said.
Talk about it — please
Davis says white people sometimes think they can’t talk about racism or racial issues because they’re afraid they’ll be targeted as racists.
“Having a conversation about race and discrimination is really difficult because these days everybody subtweets everybody. ‘What if I get labeled as a racist?’ ” Davis says people worry. “ ‘What if I’m the next person to get some alliterative name because I said something or did something?’ … Part of my hope is that I can help more Vermonters understand that they are equipped to identify it, to call it out, to work against it. You don’t have to be a person of that experience to understand that experience,” Davis said.
“That means that we have to reserve judgment. … We talk about people being ignorant and there are two kinds of ignorant when we say that. There’s literal ignorance — you simply did not know. And then there’s ignorance like, you knew and you were being a jerk. Sometimes, it’s easier to assume” a person means harm, she said, but if that’s not accurate, shaming him or her can shut down an opportunity for learning.
And hiding doesn’t help dismantle either systemic racism itself or the culture that leads to finger-pointing and name-calling.
People need to know “not just that it’s OK to talk about it, but that it’s our duty to talk about it, because it is an unresolved problem that still plagues us today,” Davis said.
Conversations about race, as uncomfortable as they can be, are key to finding pain points for people of color.
“You don’t have to be … non-white to speak up on behalf of non-white people. Just sort of helping people feel comfortable having these conversations is extremely important,” Davis said. “You have to create the space to have the discussion. Again, I think that community-based organizations on the ground have been doing this for years. I’m coming into well-established territory.”
How best to create those spaces depends, Davis says.
She remembers when she was working with the New York state health department, she’d help present information to stakeholders that wasn’t meant for public eyes, “and sometimes, before we’d show those slides, we’d say, ‘We want to be able to share this with you but we also need to make sure it stays confidential,’ ” she said.
That approach could work with small groups just starting to sink their teeth into the topic of racism.
But that clashes with another key component to turning tides against systemic racism — bringing the public into those discussions, a task usually taken up by local and statewide media.
Striking that balance is “really difficult,” Davis admitted. “I see members of the press as I see photographers. A lot of them like to be behind the camera, and many of them are very uncomfortable being the subject of a photograph. One big tenet of objectivity is not to insert yourself into the story, but people with press credentials are people too,” and showing some vulnerability can be helpful in encouraging people to open up.
What’s the government’s role?
Davis, a government employee, says there are plenty of opportunities for the state government to help move Vermont’s racial equity and understanding forward, but it will take time.
“Americans forget that we made this government, and the same way that we made it, we should be able to rein it in. In the same way that the federal government has historically hurt people of different ethnicities, it can also help. In no way should we consider the status quo as fixed in stone and permanent and unchangeable,” but because the government is made up of people, those people will have to embrace the concept of openness.
People don’t like to hear negative things about the things they love, she said.
“If I am a very proud patriot, I don’t want to hear somebody telling me negative things about my country, whether that’s something my country did 300 years ago or today. People letting down that defensiveness and acknowledging ‘I’m proud to be here, and I’m proud to be from here, but we did some really messed up stuff and we have to own that,’ that’s critical, because if you don’t acknowledge that there’s a problem,” it can be impossible to fix it, Davis said.
It’s not just white people and black people, Davis said, discussing her biggest goal. “There’s a real spectrum, and so many of us get left out of the conversation,” said Davis, who racially identifies as Latina, with Dominican heritage. “It’s understandable because the U.S. is and has been dealing with a legacy of slavery in this country and that was almost exclusively done against black people, but by no way are they the only group that has been systemically disadvantaged in this country. If we really want to diversify the state and make it a haven for all, then we’ve got to acknowledge that the all includes more people” than many immediately think to include.
“Understanding that we’re a collection of individuals is important,” Davis said.