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Racism — And Anti-Racism — In Vermont

Three people holding signs.
Elodie Reed
From left, Myla Jacobs, Phinnize Brown and Yasmine Nsame hold their signs for a portrait before Saturday's protest for George Floyd in Burlington.

Protests erupted across the country over the killing of George Floyd in police custody one week ago. Calls for justice and the overthrowing of systemic racism in the U.S. echoed from Burlingtonto Seattle. In this hour, we talk about race, racism and anti-racism in Vermont,  and ways Vermonters can support change amid a national crisis. 

Our guests are:

Broadcast live on Wednesday, June 3, 2020 at 1 p.m.; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can find the full transcript from this episode, here.

For more conversations from this show, andinformation about systemic racism and ways to combat it, keep an eye out for future stories on Vermont Public Radio’s home page over the next two weeks.

Jane Lindholm: You were talking at Gov. Scott's Monday press conference, about things that people can do right now to address racism, to be more anti-racist, to take action. Why do white Vermonters need to do something now?

Xusana Davis: One of the biggest misconceptions about equity – and I'm not just talking about racial equity, I mean equity for any marginalized group, LGBTQIA plus community, people living with disabilities, sex, gender, gender preference, gender identity, socioeconomic disparity – any kind of equity or justice work.

One of the biggest misconceptions that dominant group members make is that it doesn't affect them.

More from Vermont's Racial Equity Taskforce: Action and Allyship: On-Ramp Towards Equity

We hear a lot of times, a lot of men think that women's rights don't affect them. And often people who don't live with disabilities don't think that disability rights affect them. People who are heterosexual often think that LGBTQIA plus communities’ issues don't affect them. And this is so untrue.

"If it were up to subjugated people to end subjugation, it would be over by now. The fact that certain people hold more power and privilege in our society means it is up to those people to wield that power and privilege in a way that dismantles the inequity." - Xusana Davis, Director of Racial Equity

There is a collective benefit to equity and a collective harm brought by inequity. And so one of the things that I urge white Vermonters to remember is that you may not see as many Vermonters of color as you as we hope eventually we do see in the state, but that doesn't mean that we're not here. And that doesn't mean that [racism] doesn't impact you.

One example I like to give is that in 2015, if the state of Vermont had had wage equity between racial groups, that is to say, if people got paid the same or similar wages for the same work between ethnic groups, our state GDP would have been $0.42 billion higher.

Everybody in the state benefits from a bigger, more robust economy. That's one out of many, many ways that you can see inequity. Racial inequity has a negative impact on everyone in the state.

Another reason that it's really important for white Vermonters to do something, specifically, is because if it were up to subjugated people to end subjugation, it would be over by now. The fact that certain people hold more power and privilege in our society means it is up to those people to wield that power and privilege in a way that dismantles the inequity.

It’s interesting to hear you talk first about the idea that equity benefits everyone. But, it shouldn't have to be that somebody can see a benefit to making sure that other people have equity, correct?

It really shouldn't. We should care for equity for the sake of doing what's right. But for those who are not convinced by moral arguments, there's also a business case to be made. And that's one we just can't deny.

When you bring in intersectionality, you see that there are so many people who have an extra hurdle to jump over based on their gender, based on having a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth, based on their race or based on their abilities.

Does that intersectionality sometimes cause us to lose the focus that we have right now on the very specific ways that black Americans have suffered in this country?

Because you can say, well, I'm a woman so I also have had difficult experiences or, I'm queer, I am also a marginalized person. Does that diffuse the conversation right now about the ways that black Americans have suffered and been treated over a couple hundred years now?

Sometimes we do hear people from different marginalized groups who do that sort of “what about-ism.” I think that's a tactic that dominant group members often use to divide people by saying, “Well, your struggles are different than the struggles of this other marginalized group, but we'll prioritize your issues and then you can forget about supporting their issues.” It's definitely a way that's used to divide people.

But I think far more often I see these different marginalized and historically oppressed groups coming together and really supporting one another's work.

I'll give you one example. I have gotten so much support from different organizations around the state that are focused on women's issues, who have said, “Listen, we know that in particular, women of color in Vermont doubly experience discrimination at a number of turns along the way, and so our focus aligns with your focus and we want to help.”

So I think more often than not, we do see groups recognizing the intersectionality and wanting to help out in one another's causes.

How do you think parents of all different backgrounds, but especially white parents who maybe have not had conversations about race and racism before and white privilege, how do you think they should be talking to their kids right now?

Children are like sponges. We all know that they pick up on the things that we say and the ways in which we say them. So if we treat conversations about race as if they're taboo, and if we treat the topic of race as if it's taboo, children will pick up on that and they will internalize our discomfort and turn it into their discomfort. So it's especially important that white people and white parents gain comfort speaking about race, because your children do pick up on how you view it.

"If we treat the topic of race as if it's taboo, children will pick up on that and they will internalize our discomfort and turn it into their discomfort." - Xusana Davis, Director of Racial Equity

In the same way that you need age-appropriate clothes and age-appropriate media, you also want to talk to your children about hard-hitting social issues in age-appropriate ways.

I’m reminded of one particular guide that I found very helpful, which is called Beyond the Golden Rule. It's written by Dana Williams, and it's a guide for parents that is broken down by age group to help parents understand different ways and perspectives through which they can engage their children on conversations about equity.

Peg wrote in to say, “As a 78-year-old homebound, white female, what can I do?” What can someone like Peg do? What should someone like Peg do?

The first thing Pegs or someone like Peg can do, she's already done, which is to ask the question and to demonstrate that this is an issue that deserves attention.

The important thing is that you are not just doing token symbolic things that aren't moving the needle.

Apply to be part of the Vermont Racial Equity Taskforce

I mean, those are important too – symbolic gestures are important because they demonstrate solidarity and they let people know that you stand with them and that you stand for justice. However, we've been doing this work for so long and so little has changed, so what really matters is that we're doing things that can move the needle.

You don't have to have advanced degrees and credentials; you don't have to even leave your house, really.

I could run through a whole laundry list, but I'm just going to run through a couple of really quick things that folks can do:

  1. Find out from your local or county level or state level law enforcement agencies if they outfit their officers with body-worn cameras and dash cams, which have been demonstrated to help keep law enforcement accountable for their conduct. It protects police officers as well, by documenting incidents. If you are unable to find out that information or if you find out that they don't have body-worn cameras, write to your local representatives. Write to the chiefs and the sheriffs and those who are in leadership in law enforcement to advocate for that. Tell a friend to do the same and multiply your voice.
  2. You can look into the training and de-escalation policies that your local- and county- and state-level law enforcement agencies are adhering to. If they don't have policies on the books, write to your representatives and advocate for some. Vermont State Police has made really great strides with its fair and impartial policing policy. And there's a whole lot more work to do. I don't pretend for a second that that VSP necessarily is has got it all figured out, but I think that they really have done a lot of forward-thinking work on this topic. And they're a great model for other agencies around the state to look to.

More from VPR: Amid National Protests, Vermont State Police Don’t Expect Body Cameras This Year

  1. Think about things like incarceration and mandatory minimums.
  2. Keep abreast of bills that are coming through the Legislature today. More than ever, our state legislators have been holding meetings through digital platforms. So you're able to actually listen to what's being said in hearings. If you find that an issue might have a negative racial impact, take the opportunity to testify or to contact your representative or a member of the committee and voice that concern.

More from VPR: Vermont Is Trying to Shrink Its Prison Population, But 350 Inmates Are Locked Up Past Their Minimums

  1. You can choose to frequent or not frequent businesses that adhere to certain social justice practices and policies. For example: what companies are advertising on websites that promote hate? Believe it or not, companies like even Whole Foods advertise on media sites that are labeled as white supremacist media. That is to say, they're funding those websites.
  2. Do you buy from companies that use prison labor?
  3. Do you buy from companies or live in a town that's invested in the Dakota Access Pipeline? Do you support minority-owned businesses?

These are just a few of very, very many things that people can do to get involved.
Any final thoughts on where people can go with this conversation, what the next concrete step might be for someone listening?

Go ahead and buy White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo but also Vermont poet Rajnii Eddins’ book, Their Names Are Mine. I read it and I am better for it because it’s very deep and telling.

I'm reminded in this conversation of a thing that we have in Spanish, which is ‘el maco no es pez porque está en el agua,” which translates to, “a frog isn’t a fish just because it's in the water.”

To think about something that Tabitha Moore, president of the Rutland Area NAACP said: “Make sure that people not only need your help, but that it's the correct kind of help that you're offering.”

It's really important that white folks here check in with communities of color and not just say, “I want to help,” but make sure that you're helping in a way that the community actually needs.

Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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