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After racist mass killing in Buffalo, NAACP leaders reflect on threat of white supremacy in Vermont

A Black woman carries a pink sign that reads "Black Lives Matter" in front of the Buffalo, New York supermarket where a racially-motivated mass shooting occurred.
Matt Rourke
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Associated Press
A person visits a makeshift memorial last week near the scene of a racist mass shooting at Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York.

The killing of 10 Black people by a white supremacist in Buffalo earlier this month has elicited an outpouring of grief. It’s also spurred a call to action by one of the nation’s most prominent civil rights organizations.

VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld recently spoke with Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland-area branch of the NAACP, and Steffen Gillom, president of the organization’s Windham County branch. He began by asking Schultz and Gillom about the threat that racism and white supremacy pose to Black people and other people of color in Vermont.

Mia Schultz: So before we can inform that threat assessment, we have to educate, and specifically educate surrounding what white supremacy really is. I mean, there is a misconception that white supremacy is only intentional, that it's only people in hoods, or only people who use racial slurs, et cetera.

But really what white supremacy is, is it's embedded into everything. It's our culture. It's our systems. It's an ideology that whiteness — whether it's being white or whether it's the cultural values that come along with being white placed on us — is superior to all. And so for Vermonters … it might not look like a man walking into a store specifically to target Black people and murder them. But it could look like an onslaught of racial microaggressions, or overt racism that's going unchecked, or actually uplifting racist people instead of centering the people who are really harmed, right? It looks different here.

But then that leads to the terrorism that we saw in Buffalo. It's the proliferation of gross white supremacy over time that told that individual that it was basically his civic duty to slaughter Black people. So it led up to that. It wasn't one specific trigger. It was a lifetime, and this country's lifetime, of uplifting white supremacy.

So it forms over time, and so the assessment of threat varies certainly, but it's certainly ongoing and daily for people of color in Vermont and in the nation.

"What does that mean to have a declaration of inclusion if we're going to see BIPOC people leaving the state for racial violence that they experience?"
Mia Schultz, NAACP

Steffen Gillom: And I also think that we have to paint a picture, right? Because I don't necessarily know if we're having the conversation about what the actual picture is.

In Vermont, you know, we're a mostly white state, but we have an increasing number of BIPOC people, and that number is not going down. It's going up. And it's a diverse and nuanced group of people of color, right? Which is what I mean by BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, people of color. And those folks, right, all of us are people from different types of diaspora. Some folks are from international backgrounds, immigrant backgrounds, domestic backgrounds, and across a skew of economic backgrounds.

And so if you take that, and then you add it to the economic struggles around housing and resources that are already here in Vermont, right, that everyone, regardless of their race, is struggling with, you create a potential perfect storm for incidences of hate to brew, right?

There are reasons for this type of behavior that go deeper than just spur of the moment, bad decisions. You know, we can't rely on our presumed ideology that we are a progressive state as a buffer for hate. I tell everyone, you know, think of it like a cake, right? That good talk is like the icing on the top. And it's pretty and it smells good. But we have no idea what the cake is like underneath until we take a big bite into it.

Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County chapter of the NAACP.
Courtesy
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Steffen Gillom is the president of the Windham County branch of the NAACP.

Vermont is just at the place where we're prepared to take that big first bite. I don't even necessarily know if we've taken it yet. I would say, arguably, no, we have not. But we do see institutions having the conversation, or just starting to have the conversation about this issue.

So like I said, perfect storm could be brewing. We can I think beat this back as a state. But we have to name it for what it is and paint the actual picture in a way that's easy and accessible for … everyone to understand.

Peter Hirschfeld: As you survey the landscape, what does Vermont need to do to make sure Black Vermonters, other Vermonters of color, are safe and protected in their communities, and I guess perhaps as importantly, feel safe and protected in their communities?

Mia Schultz: I just want to first point out that Vermont has come a little bit of a way in at least acknowledging that racism exists here. Because there was a baseline before — I know that there were many people that could not even acknowledge that racism even exists here ... in a progressive state like Vermont. So we're getting there.

And I think over time, that awareness has generally been shifting. And that's also due to a lot of the qualitative and quantitative data that has been demonstrated over the last few years to support that it's now time to shift … to acknowledgement, right?

But now we need to shift from performance, and by that I mean these performative ways that Vermont has really been using to remedy the very real and embedded threat that racism imposes on our society. So, for example, what does that mean to have a declaration of inclusion if we're going to see BIPOC people leaving the state for racial violence that they experience? I mean, I just met a family the other day that's moving down to North Carolina because the schools here were not safe for their kids. Think about that: they're moving to North Carolina from Vermont. So what does that declaration of inclusion mean? We have to really implement it.

More from Vermont Edition: In the wake of the Buffalo shooting, how are Vermonters fostering diversity, equity and inclusion?

Another example of things that we see that might look like change, but it's really performance at this point: What does it mean to have a DEI committee, for example, if you're not seeing any actual accountability in the workplace for racism that people are suffering? And what does it mean for the state to declare racism as a public health emergency when we're still experiencing inexplicable deaths of Black and Brown people in our hospitals, like we are here in Bennington?

I mean … it's shifting from acknowledgment to performance, but we need to go deeper, dig deeper, and acknowledge that it's embedded in … our systems. It's embedded into our beliefs, in our psyches. And we need to start listening to our communities of color and letting them lead the conversations for their own safety, and then enforce what they're saying. Believe it and enforce it, and put in strategies that don't perpetuate that harm.

A person holds up a dry-erase board that says Because I fight for my kids does not make me sensitive..... #IamVermontToo
Courtesy
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Courtesy
Mia Schultz serves as president of the Rutland area branch of the NAACP.

Steffen Gillom: Yeah, you know, I agree with my sister president. I think that we have to take their security seriously as a state … and that is creating structures that are fast-acting and easily accessible. So, you know, that looks like the encouragement … of organizations … private and public across the state to actually do this. It looks like offering incentives, you know, insisting on implementation and, as Mia was saying, enforcing it.

You know, those are four steps that I think the state is taking but should be prioritizing even more. Plus, the executive and legislative branches should be in sync better on this. I think that there has been a lot of politic playing, to be honest with you, around a lot of this language, around a lot of these initiatives.

But at the end of the day, as we're seeing, these are people's lives. These are families who are not getting their brothers and sisters back. Parents who are not coming home. And at the end of the day, Vermont is not immune to that. And so politics have to be put aside. And I think that's a conversation for another show. It's probably even … a bigger can of worms open. But we have to name it, you know? We have to name that there are agendas at play that stop good work around what it means to keep people, especially people of color safe, and to actually enforce equity, not only across the state, but within individual and public and private institutions as well.

Peter Hirschfeld: You both have made decisions to involve yourself in this work through leadership roles in the NAACP. What kinds of barriers have you encountered as the organization tries to advance its mission here in Vermont?

Steffen Gillom: First and foremost, the biggest barrier, at least for the Windham branch — I'll speak only for the Windham branch in this particular instance, even though I'm sure that Mia shares sentiments with me — is that there is an over-focus on the structure … There is a focus from a lot of organizations to make themselves look good, right, focusing on their structure to make themselves look good and an under-focus on the individual's actual experience, right.

It's almost like people are viewed as collateral damage. You know, the people who are lost, the people who suffered some of the discrimination or some of the hardships in these organizations, it's almost like the organizations … want to just kind of put a blanket over that and say, "Let's just focus on the structure. Let's create a DEI committee and make it kind of all go away."

And there has to be questions asked about that, such as: "What does that do to those who are currently being impacted? And how does the trauma of that ripple through the community?" Vermont is a state that is made up of a conglomeration of small towns, for the most part, so when something like that happens, it travels quickly, and in circles with BIPOC people it travels even quicker. It's almost like there is an addiction to analysis paralysis, right? To bide time and maintain white comfort. But on the backs of who and at what cost is the real question.

"It's almost like there is an addiction to analysis paralysis, right? To bide time and maintain white comfort. But on the backs of who and at what cost is the real question."
Steffen Gillom, NAACP Windham County branch

Mia Schultz: Yeah, to that end, you know, right on our — on the national NAACP website, it states that we envision an inclusive community rooted in liberation, where all persons can exercise their civil and human rights without discrimination. That is literally on the national website.

And one of the barriers that I see in my work is this idea of tokenism. That's not really inclusion, right? Because let's face it, when we're talking about racism, when we talk about white supremacy, it's scary, it's uncomfortable, and therefore, learning about it, when you're showing up in the individual is really scary, right?

So it feels really good just to see inclusion, like inviting a BIPOC member as part of your group, but still enforcing some of these ideologies and white supremacy ideologies, into your group, asking that person to just kind of conform to your norms, right? Instead of inviting them there to be their whole complete selves, right?

And frankly, it's a personal barrier for myself. People quite frankly villainize me for pushing for structural change and real inclusion that includes really difficult conversations and uplifts other BIPOC people. And instead, they find people who will kind of like do and say what they want to, so they can take some pictures with them, and they can say, "Look at how diverse we are! Look at how welcoming and inclusive we are!" When in actuality, those people are too being harmed in those systems, and still experiencing, you know, microaggressions and macroaggressions, and going back to that whole performative piece that we were talking about.

We need to do things that are substantial in inclusivity, right? We have to learn and listen and center the people that have not been centered. And so that means uplifting their voices and not silencing them, and not just using them for photo opportunities, or using them to make themselves look good. So that is a barrier that I see for myself in particular, and in my area working with the NAACP and beyond.

"... we need to start listening to our communities of color and letting them lead the conversations for their own safety, and then enforce what they're saying. Believe it and enforce it, and put in strategies that don't perpetuate that harm."
Mia Schultz, Rutland-area branch of the NAACP

Peter Hirschfeld: To people that have an interest in doing work on this, what are things that they can do as individuals to begin to eliminate or erode some of the barriers that you both just talked about?

Steffen Gillom: Well, you know, I think it's important that they do their own work, right? And so the therapist in me wants to give a task, but there is something called the genogram. And a genogram is something that you can Google … But really what it does is it helps you map out the ideas and patterns that you've learned over time, you know? Not only communication wise, but also ideologies. It allows you to ask yourself questions like, "What ideologies have been passed down to me? Do I like those ideologies? How does my upbringing impact my behavior and emotional reaction around things like race? What have I done about it personally that has worked? And why or why not?"

We're talking about core identity development, going back and asking yourself, "What did it take to develop who I am? And am I comfortable in 2022 with some of those realities? Am I comfortable with some of those ideologies?"

A lot of people rush to what we call "do the work," but are not really so knowledgeable on their own upbringing and processes. And so you might be reading ad nauseum, but you might be targeting the wrong part of yourself. You might be looking at it asking the wrong questions. And so I think you have to go back into your lineage, and you have to do what a lot of people of color do when they're trying to, you know, dispel a lot of notions and ideologies that they picked up and empower themselves in other ways, you know? It's the same process.

I think that a lot of white people in the U.S. have become so comfortable because of where they are, right? … But at the same time, that personal work, and that core development work, I believe it's key.

More from Brave Little State: How To Support Vermonters Of Color: An Illustrated Guide

Mia Schultz: Yeah, that's what I was going to say — that personal work is absolutely key. Learning, what is white supremacy? But further than that, how does it show up in me? How does it show up in my everyday interactions? How does it show up in the world around me, right?

And there are plenty of resources out there to talk about that — lots of books, lots of seminars and trainings and that sort of thing that you can do. But then you have to take the next step, you have to interrupt it. You can do all of the learning in the world, but the individual has to interrupt it when they see it … to be among other white people and interrupt them when they are being racist. And saying, "Look, that is racist," and teaching other white people, interrupting it instead of sitting silently, right?

I mean, that is one of the ways to not normalize it anymore. It has become normal for groups of white people to be together and to say racist things and for people to let it slide. So it's important for it to be interrupted. And once you've done that self-evaluation and learning, educating, all of those things, it's important to spread that out into the community so that they can do the same things.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld:

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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