Ways of Seeing: Flag and mural are reminders of justice

Valentine’s Day falls smack in the middle Black History Month, and the state of Vermont started things off right with a historic raising of the Black Lives Matter flag at Montpelier High School. Although the student body of Montpelier High is only five percent Black, the school board voted unanimously to support the student-led Racial Justice Alliance in their efforts to increase racial awareness at the mostly white school.
Many of my Facebook friends have been posting videos of the history-making flag ceremony. It features students, teachers, administrators, and community members of all races and ages talking about why this is a perfect way to celebrate Black History Month. Ebony Nyoni, director of Black Lives Matter Vermont, said she was proud of the students “…for taking the initiative to do this in their school, for being bold, for making their voices heard.”
Thirty-nine miles northwest of Montpelier, the city of Burlington is also engaged in a public debate about race. The “Everybody Loves a Parade” mural was installed in 2012 to commemorate 30 years of the Church Street Marketplace and the 2009 quadricentennial of explorer Samuel de Champlain’s arrival at the lake that now bears his name. The problem with the mural is that the people it depicts as being central figures in Vermont’s history and present-day life are almost entirely white.
Critics of the mural, which include Burlington City Council member Ali Dieng, say that public art that is meant to highlight the history of Vermont’s largest city should celebrate the shared humanity ALL the people who have contributed so much to Burlington.
Community Racial Justice organizer and Burlington native Vicki Garrison, says the mural effectively erases people of color from Vermont’s history. “The mural upholds and perpetuates European racism by endorsing the historic lies of colonization and misrepresenting and under-representing contributions of people of color and other marginalized groups. As such, the mural is highly problematic and fails to uphold Vermont values of being “liberal” and “progressive.”
Abenaki Chief Don Stevens, says “We are a sovereign nation. We are not victims. We are survivors. The mural is problematic because it does not represent Abenaki people. We will speak for ourselves. We want to promote our culture in a positive manner.”
Gentle Reader, how do you feel about the removal of the mural? The hoisting of the Black Lives Matter flag? You may have some kind of reaction, and that reaction may have something to do with your race, your culture, your background. Many white folks have a defensive reaction to the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” They will say things like “All Lives Matter.” But then they are strangely silent when Black lives are treated so poorly. The All Lives Matter crowd are nowhere to be found when there is a gruesome incident of police brutality, or when a family is separated by a deportation. “All Lives Matter” is a silencing technique, which can generally be deciphered to mean, “Stop speaking up for your human rights,” or “Know your place.”
This discomfort with conversations about race has a name, “White Fragility.” It’s the tendency of white people to push back against the stress we feel when our ideas about ourselves are challenged. Dr. Robin DiAngelo, who coined the term, explains that the systemic and institutional control (the fact that almost all institutions are run by white people) insulates white people from race-based stress. We certainly experience other forms of stress, but we do not get hurt BECAUSE we are white. When our ideas about ourselves are challenged, for example by people of color telling their stories without protecting white feelings, we often lash out. I see this daily in the online behavior of white people who are deeply uncomfortable with the racial reckoning happening in 2018.
So what can we do to be less fragile, and more resilient? We can start by recognizing that racism affects all of us, like pollution. If you live near an oil refinery you are breathing in toxic chemicals. Those poisons are going to affect your health. It’s not your fault that you breathed in something that surrounded you. White supremacy is a lot like those poisons in the air. We didn’t make a conscious choice to ingest this substance, but it is all around us.
This might be a good time to point out that actual oil refineries are far likelier to be placed in communities of color. Environmental racism is a real thing. So while Black people in America live with the generational trauma of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and unequal access to housing, healthcare, education, and good food, many white people are still unwilling to even listen. Let’s follow the example of Montpelier’s school board. Let’s make ourselves vulnerable by listening to the people of color. Let’s make ourselves strong by placing ourselves firmly on the side of justice.
Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works, and lives with her family in East Middlebury. When not practicing or teaching yoga, Joanna enjoys taking walks, cooking, serving on the board of WomenSafe, and working with the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Feedback welcome at: [email protected].

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