Talking about race
Now more than ever, the conversation about race needs to be brought to the dining table in every house, especially to those where white people have shied away from examining it.
For people of color in this country the conversation has so saturated their lives that they express anger and sadness in the many workshops I have conducted. Still others of both races are adamant that a white person has no business trying to lead a discussion about a subject in which their personal experience is as an observer.
Why bring it up in a place like Vermont where people think of themselves as tolerant, where there continues to be only a small segment of the population whose skin has a dark complexion? Surely, if there are so few people of color, then racism doesn’t exist. But with very little effort it is possible to uncover the depths of racism that lurk even in Vermont.
Are there problems in Rutland? Emphatically, yes.
Here are a few stories of events involving African-American male adults that have occurred right here in Rutland. A college professor tries to go into Walmart with his small personal shoulder bag, no larger than a woman’s purse. He is stopped and asked to leave it at the desk. A therapist is in the grocery store shopping when a young mother pulls her daughter to her side protectively. A retired school teacher is waiting to cross at the corner of Merchants Row and Center Street. A car stops for the red light, and the passenger pointedly rolls up the window.
Three men happen to have a dark complexion. Their stories all hint at a bigger problem in the community. The problem is that people are constantly led to conclusions about people of color that have no basis in reality. Rich, poor, good, bad, it doesn’t matter when the only measure that is used is the color of one’s skin.
When unconscious racism occurs, it is just as hurtful, in some cases more hurtful, than blatant racism. It leaves people of color constantly in a state of anxiety. “Was I treated like that because of the color of my skin?” is often the predominant worry and immediate thought after an incident, especially for black males. What happens when the 911 call reports a suspicious person and the only identifier is that they are a black man? I heard that some time ago that actually happened to someone who was walking on Grove Street in Rutland.
There is no easy way to understand these events. Racism is often mixed in with other serious issues. It’s hard to sort through the mix to discover the real source of the problem. Some people will no doubt read this and think that each of these examples can be explained on another level, but to me, and to many people of color whom I have talked with, the underlying racism is clearly not to be whitewashed. It’s real. It’s destructive. It’s hurtful. It undermines our well-being as a community.
But we are fortunate in Rutland: We have a police chief who from day one has made anti-racism a priority. Within the first month of his tenure as chief, he met with local activists to determine the climate on race in Rutland. Within the first three months he brought in an expert on race and law enforcement to talk to his officers. He has continued his efforts to address the issue of race in policing even as he himself has come under attack for the behavior of some of his subordinates. And now he is working with Curtiss Reed, the executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, to bring the discussion to other community leaders, including Mayor Louras and the Board of Aldermen.
This is not easy work. To confront racism means that one puts oneself in a spotlight that tends to attract controversy and criticism. It’s not uncommon for someone, particularly when they are white, to be attacked from both sides of the issue.
The greatest challenge facing Rutland and Rutlanders is to understand that there is no easy fix, no easy answer. Each situation involving race prejudice, bias, discrimination is complicated by social, economic and political elements. That is why the conversation is so important. It is a conversation that should involve both black and white voices, our leadership and our citizens. No one group can bear the responsibility of moving us forward on this issue. We are after all part of one large community as residents of the United States. And we are part of a large world family, the family of humankind, brothers and sisters across oceans and continents. Our local experiences may differ, but our human experience is the same. We laugh, cry and feel pain the same as anyone, anywhere in the world. To think that we can use racism to divide us is to create a fog that hides our likeness, our humanness.
We need a community response that says Rutland does not tolerate injustice and unfair treatment based on the race or ethnicity of an individual. Bringing the issue of race to the table in each of our homes opens up the possibility of moving closer to understanding the realities of racism and how it affects our community. It is important for Rutlanders to join the national dialogue on race and racism as they consider what is best for our human family.
Dr. Alis Headlam is director of One World Consulting Inc. in Rutland.