This morning a letter crossed the editorial desk (so to speak — it really crossed the computer screen) from a woman inveighing against the newly-appointed Vermont Executive Director of Racial Equity. In the letter writer’s view, there is no racism in Vermont: it’s all just made up to take taxpayer money away to pay for positions such as this executive directorship.
It’s a mass emailed “letter” so it was probably sent to a bunch of newspapers. Our editorial policy is to call or email letter writers to confirm their identity, and we haven’t received a response. We encourage letter writers, and we give priority to people who actually live here and read our paper. Around October, the email queue gets crowded with mass emailings on political issues — pretty clearly written by people who have no idea where Claremont, New Hampshire is, and couldn’t find their way to Springfield, Vermont if you dropped them in front of the movie theater. There are a lot of good reasons to have a policy against using mass emailed letters.
That being said, the letter raised an interesting question. The writer is white, and the woman selected to be the Executive Director for Racial Equality is, you guessed it, not. It’s awkward for a white person to insist that racism isn’t real, but especially when she’s saying we (Vermonters) don’t need a person of color to tell us how not to be racist.
How can white people, surrounded by white people, tell if they’re racist? We’ve heard this same theme in Market Basket, where a fellow in a scooter was loudly telling the guy behind the deli counter the real problem with racism is people talking about racism. “I can’t even say the word race, that word is the problem. If I say it someone will get offended,” said the (white) shopper.
It stuck in our minds because we’d heard almost the exact words at a local hair salon the week before. The hairdresser, leaning over another client, said, “I can’t say race, if I say race someone will get offended.”
Both the woman in the salon and the man in the store insisted that they themselves are not racist, not prejudiced. They probably have a pretty firm idea of what racism is, and they don’t do that thing that makes someone a racist in their mind. They don’t burn crosses on people’s lawns or throw bricks through black neighbor’s windows. They watch a Denzel Washington movie once in a while; they may laugh at Madea movies or Dave Chapelle.
Closer to home, a fellow in our office, discussing such things, described himself as “color blind.” The discussion went to incarceration rates; why are people of color such a high percentage of Vermont’s prison population when they’re such a small percentage of the rest? This perfectly nice fellow, who insists he is not racist, offered his opinion that more black people end up in prison because more black people come from broken families. And that is a racist opinion. It’s not a fact, and it’s not supported by hard data: black people in Vermont prisons do not come from worse homes than the white people behind bars with them.
The fact that you don’t burn crosses on someone’s lawn doesn’t make you not racist, not prejudiced. Prejudiced means you judged someone in advance. You didn’t look at facts. You didn’t question yourself or what you were told by someone else. You believed something in a lazy way, without struggling to understand or making yourself uncomfortable.
In 2019 in the United States, to be racist is bad. It’s an insult: “Racist.” Racists are bad people, so if you’re a good person, and you probably are, you’re not racist.
At least, that’s the thinking. Unfortunately, we all are guilty of lazy thinking on any number of issues. Our prejudices can be harmless (“Such-and-Such a store is a rip-off”) or they can be pernicious (“Irish people are all alcoholics”). And we’d like to think we’re better people than we are, so it’s nice to say “I don’t see color when I see people” or some other version of “I’m not a racist.”
The problem is, when you’re white and surrounded by white people, or even surrounded by white people and one or two people of color, you can say this and nobody will challenge you. And so you blunder on, because the people who FEEL racism and don’t have to have it explained or pointed out to them are the people who are its targets.
Lionel Trilling said, “To be Jewish is like walking in the wind or swimming; you are touched at all points and conscious everywhere.”
When the people who walk in the wind of prejudice and swim in the water of racism say the wind has stopped freezing them and the water isn’t drowning them, then we can all say our country, our state, our town isn’t racist anymore. For white people to declare there’s no racism anymore is just arrogant and silly.
That’s why Vermont needs someone like Xusana Davis to direct the state government’s efforts to make it a fairer, more open and inclusive state. In her own words, to make it “more accessible to all, regardless of ethnicity or origin.” Davis begins her new job July 29.
Glynis Hart is the editor of the Eagle Times.