West Lebanon — What does systemic racism look like? What does it mean to be an ally for racial equality?
Organizers of a three-hour meeting Saturday afternoon at Kilton Public Library hoped participants would leave with a clearer answer to those questions. And to open up what can be a difficult discussion.
“We all have ‘-isms.’ We all have some work to do,” said panel speaker Mark Hughes, executive director of Justice for All, a Vermont nonprofit.
Earlier, he noted, “We need to be able to say, ‘oops’ and ‘ouch’ when we have these conversations.”
The event, Confronting Racism Around Us and Within Us, was sponsored by Upper Valley Young Liberals and the Twin State chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. It attracted more than 150 people, far more than anticipated. Those who couldn’t sit, stood, with the crowd spilling out into the hallway.
“I’m blown away,” said Patricia Shine, one of four panel speakers. “This does not happen.”
They could thank “he who shall not be named” — President Donald Trump — for galvanizing people, she added, to laughter.
Much of Saturday’s conversation focused on racism and what it means to be an ally — someone who recognizes the privilege he or she receives based on factors such as gender, class, race or sexual identity, and works to dismantle that inequality. It’s a job that may require homework.
A Q&A included questions from the audience, some of which were written on slips of paper and dropped into a basket. Given the political situation, what can we do to lift up our more vulnerable? someone wrote.
“Maybe the first step is to look at your own oppression. Look at how you are confined in order to work on your own liberation, and then we can work on liberation,” said Sha’an Mouliert, an artist, community organizer and teacher who serves on the board of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform.
“That’s the dynamic of oppression, one over. … I don’t want you to come help me. You’re bringing your crap, bringing your stuff, and that’s not helping me,” Mouliert said. “I want you to be able to understand how you are … straitjacketed.”
Several people said that, for them, white privilege brings specific benefits, such as freedom from certain fears.
“There are significant advantages, economic, health, psychological, employment,” said Shine, a Lyndon State College professor whose grandparents immigrated to Boston from Ireland.
When she moved to Vermont, she didn’t have to worry that her co-workers would think she’d been hired because of affirmative action, said Shine, whose courses at the college include “Exploring Race” and “Challenging Racism in the United States.” She didn’t have to be fearful of the police during traffic stops, or stressed because her skin color happens to be different than that of people in power.
In her talk, Shine also described her reasons for doing racial justice work: The list included caring for her own soul.
Being aware of suffering and doing nothing about it “dehumanizes me as a person,” she said. “In some ways I’m not an ally. I’m in the struggle because I need to for me.”
Several other participants also talked about privileges derived from being white, or educated. They included Alan Johnson, who wondered whether the term “white privilege” might raise feelings of guilt and blame, or be off-putting, especially to “downtrodden” white people who might not see themselves as privileged.
Hughes said he appreciated the question. “You just opened your heart up to us, and that’s kind of a big deal to me,” said Hughes, who recommended focusing instead on existing disparities.
“Let’s stop being too concentrated on saying, ‘I’m not a racist’ … and step back and acknowledge the fact there is systemic racism as a result of who we are,” he said later in the discussion. “There’s no blame game. It’s a reality game. It’s a wake-up game. It’s a re-education game.”
Because people are influenced by their biases when they make decisions about other people, “the deck is stacked,” which creates disparities, said Hughes, who described Justice for All’s work tackling institutional racism in the criminal justice system. One in 10 prisoners in Vermont is black, yet black people make up only 1 percent of the state’s population, and one of 14 male African American Vermonters is in prison, “leading the nation,” said Hughes, a retired Army officer. “That’s systemic.”
He and other speakers stressed the importance of action — holding police and public officials accountable, and ensuring they have the tools they need, such as sensitivity training, to do their jobs.
Preparations for the meeting had started in October, after the subjects of race and privilege had come up among the group’s members and between friends, Ashley Andreas, chair of the Young Liberals group, said in an interview during a break.
Her fellow organizer Olivia Lapierre said she was inspired to hold the meeting because she and other black people in the Upper Valley feel unsafe.
Lapierre’s family moved from Ethiopia to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom in 2000. She experienced overt racism there, but never felt confident enough to speak out, she said. She recently moved to the Upper Valley, which she expected to find more progressive. Yet she’s experienced “microaggressions” and racism here as well.
People have called her and her friends the “N-word” and come up out of the blue and touched her hair, the Lyndon State College student said after yesterday’s meeting. But having created a support network locally, including joining the Young Liberals group, she’s started speaking out.
Although the event had been months in the making, the date proved timely.
Last week, Hartford Selectboard Member Mike Morris apologized online and in a letter to the editor for an image he’d emailed to a reporter and others depicting the Obamas and former U.S. Attorney Eric Holder as The Beverly Hillbillies leaving the White House in a jalopy. The posting led to an exchange on Facebook and listservs, in which a number of people thanked Morris for his apology.
In the light of the email, Lapierre organized a meeting to discuss racism, held Friday at the Main Street Museum. There, as at Saturday’s event, attendees included Selectboard members, said Lapierre, who will also speak at the Hartford Selectboard meeting Tuesday. The board’s agenda includes a discussion on race relations in the town.
On Saturday, organizers and participants said the meeting was one step in the right direction.
“It’s not like coming here, now I’m done with that,” said Charlie Goldensher, of Thetford, who’s vowed to pay attention, listen more and talk less. “If I am going to be an ally of people who are in a disadvantaged group, I need to learn what their stories are.”
And many, including Lapierre, were heartened by the conversation. Having this many people speaking up for racial justice “speaks volumes for the potential in the Upper Valley,” she said.
Aimee Caruso can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3210.