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Column: Tackling Racism in Hartford



For the Valley News
Saturday, November 25, 2017

“Are you saying that all white people are racist?” After a short pause ... “Yes.”

This exchange was between a white New York teenager and a workshop leader on racism. It is among scores of powerful moments in a film called I’m Not Racist . . . Am I? I’m proud that the Calhoun School, which I headed until last June, produced the film in partnership with Point Made Films, a leading documentary film company.

In the film, 12 young women and men — white, of color, wealthy and poor — from public and private schools spent significant parts of a school year together to talk about race and privilege through workshops and conversations between and among each other and their families.

This moment from the film came to mind as I read of the disappointing implosion of the Hartford Committee on Racial Inequality, including the resignation of Committee Chair Olivia LaPierre and others. During an Oct. 17 meeting, LaPierre said, “white people are socialized to be racist,” igniting a heated response from several committee members and support from others. The matter has drawn passionate response from folks in the Upper Valley, including many who have written to the Valley News Forum.

In his resignation letter, committee member Dan Hillard inexplicably cited Hartford’s assets, including “ ... sports leagues, proximity to the White River Junction VA Medical Center, and the access to clean air and water.” Hartford Selectboard member Dennis Brown reiterated his previously stated objection saying, “I looked very deep into my upbringing. I just don’t think I was brought up to be racist.” School Board member Lori Dickerson suggested that the community would do better to focus on commonalities, rather than differences. Several writers to the Forum took umbrage at lumping all white people together, citing Jewish, Irish and other ethnicities that have suffered. Others claimed that racism is a two-way street and that people of color can be racist too.

I have empathy for the resistance LaPierre encountered. Talking about race is hard for white people. Denial, claims of color-blindness, citations of reverse racism and “can’t we all get along?” are common responses. (Although touting access to the VA Medical Center and sports leagues is a unique deflection!)

The folks who feel bruised at the notion that “white people are socialized to be racist” are, among other things, confusing racism with hatred, bigotry and prejudice. Anyone is capable of hatred, bigotry or prejudice. But racism is the systemic, institutional, pungent and potent marriage of bigotry and power. Racism requires the power to oppress, not merely the inclination to hate. We white folks have enjoyed the privilege conferred by power since the founding of America. We all carry the stench of slavery in our social DNA. Racism in the form of power and control was written into our Constitution, encoded in our ordinances, embedded in access to property and capital, enshrined in redlining and explicit in other forms of housing, financial and education discrimination. Racism is glaringly visible today in incarceration rates, rampant unemployment, racial profiling, disease, unequal schools, police violence, voter repression, gerrymandering ... I could go on.

All white people are complicit in racism. We benefited from families who owned property and inherited economic and social capital. We benefited from formal and informal preferences that supported our predecessors for generations. We benefit today from the unearned privilege we inherited by being white. This does not mean that any particular white person has an easier time than any particular person of color. But the “I was never given anything” argument as denial of racism is no more valid than a snowstorm disproving global warming.

To those who are genuinely confused by “whiteness,” I offer a simple definition: It is the “thing” that folks of color are told they are not. It is and has been an amorphous club that confers privilege on some and denies membership to others. To those who resist the idea of whiteness or white privilege, just consider whether you are in or out of that club. This definition does not deny the prejudice or bigotry experienced by Jews, Italians, Irish or others at some time in history. But racism is a particular and powerful life experience available only to those we have decided are not white or white enough.

So yes ... we white folks are complicit and we are racist. We may not be bigoted. We may not be prejudiced. We may be kind. But we must accept the history before we can face it. As I have often remarked, it’s not necessary to be so defensive. After all, admitting your white privilege doesn’t mean you have to give it up. You can’t. But admitting it might be a useful start.

I respectfully offer a suggestion to the Hartford community and to others in the Upper Valley. Consider a series of Undoing Racism workshops for the selectboard, school board and other groups. Powerful and provocative workshops are offered by The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. And local schools or community groups might consider a screening/workshop of I’m Not Racist ... Am I?

After this, perhaps Olivia LaPierre might be able to continue the work she had to abandon.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at stevehutnelson@gmail.com.