Ways of Seeing by Joanna Colwell: Open letter to Sen. Bernie Sanders

One of my husband’s favorite t-shirts bears your image, or at least an image of your wild hair, and your glasses. It also bears the number 2016, the year we hoped you would prevail in the Democratic primary, and then continue on to become our 45th president. You don’t need me to tell you that things didn’t quite work out the way we wished.
I’m writing you this letter because I was dismayed to read a quote from you that seemed to excuse voters who chose not to cast their ballots for politicians of color, like Stacey Abrams or Andrew Gillum, who were running for Governor in Georgia and Florida, respectively. In your interview with the Daily Beast you said, “I think you know there are a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist who felt uncomfortable for the first time in their lives about whether or not they wanted to vote for an African-American.”
Later, in a clarifying statement to NPR, you said that any votes Gillum or Abrams lost over their race were entirely due to what you called racist campaigns run by their Republican opponents.
It seems like you are willing to characterize the campaigns as racist, but not the voters who lapped up that racism and marked their ballots accordingly.
I am writing this because I think you, like many older, Progressive, white Americans, seem to be on the cusp of making an important realization about white supremacy and the way it plays out in all of our lives. On the one hand, you know that racism is real, that it causes untold pain and suffering to Americans of color. On the other hand, you are reluctant to admit that you, or really any white working person in America today, is actually racist. 
So allow me to offer a little help, in the hopes that this may also be useful to other white, Progressive, Liberal Americans. We are racist! We can’t help it! We have been raised in a country that insists we are all created equal, yet patently denies equality on the basis of skin color in every institution in our supposedly democratic society. Just a quick reminder (all statistics from the excellent book by Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility”): The ten richest Americans are 100 percent white. The U.S. Congress is 90 percent white. U.S. governors are 96 percent white. People who decide which TV shows we see are 93 percent white. Full-time college professors are 84 percent white. 
With all of this whiteness dominating our governmental, educational and cultural institutions, is it any wonder that biases against people of color continue to poison our minds and hearts? 
Think of it this way, because I know you care deeply about the environment: pollution emanates from coal powered plants, oil refineries, and manufacturing. These toxins affect our air, water, and soil, and make their way into our bodies, even affecting our DNA. It’s not our FAULT when we get sick from breathing poisoned air; we couldn’t help but absorb the pollutants into our lungs. Racism is a little like that. It surrounds us in the news we read, the curriculum at our elementary school, the movie that depicts yet another Black man as a drug addict or criminal instead of as a loving father, brilliant scientist, or caring school principal.
The pollution of racism is not only found in images depicting Black criminality, but in messages of white superiority. We are inundated with these lies from our youth until our old age, and the only way to undo some of the bias is to consciously WORK to untangle it every day. 
Bernie, I know you care deeply about people of every race and ethnicity. But you need to do a better job refining your ability to speak about these matters with sensitivity and intelligence. Yes, income inequality is terrible for almost all Americans. But it hurts people of color worse. Yes, lack of access to affordable healthcare is a travesty in this country, but health outcomes for the Black community are even worse, due to food apartheid (huge areas where no fresh food is available, often where communities of color live), as well as inequalities in treatment by biased doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators.
Please allow me to suggest the following steps to increase your racial IQ: 
• Recognize that as a progressive politician, you are not immune from bias, and you still have learning to do. 
• Hire a great team to help you learn and do better. Use some of the resources working Americans have poured into your campaign coffers to hire young people of color who can help you craft policy and write speeches. You’ve done it before! 
When I read the Racial Justice portion of your website, it is clear that you have some very smart people working for you. Keep diving in and learning more about how white supremacy and racist ideology hurt everyone. When you show us you are willing to do your inner work to dismantle racism in yourself, and call it out wherever you see it, even among the coveted white working class voters of America, it will be a powerful example of lifelong learning.
Joanna Colwell is the director of Otter Creek Yoga in Middlebury’s Marble Works District, and is a certified Iyengar yoga teacher. Joanna serves on the Board of Directors of WomenSafe, and enjoys working with her allies to dismantle the Patriarchy. She lives in East Middlebury with her family, and welcomes feedback for this or any column: [email protected].

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