Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: Racism in Vermont

For most people in Vermont (by most here, I mean white) racism is something you know exists, but it’s easy to think it doesn’t happen here and isn’t something you have to be concerned about. The fact that Vermont has such a small population of People of Color and Black people limits the extent to which we as white people observe racism and limits our second-hand experiences of it as well, like hearing about it from our non-white friends. This limited scope can cause us to be blinkered to what is going on and believe that we are doing a good job, or that it isn’t really an issue in Vermont. 
Another factor that makes us brush off the idea that there is innate and systematic racism in ourselves and in our state comes from the very fact that we live in such a small state. We live in small cities, small towns, and small communities. In these communities once you know someone, they become a neighbor, a colleague, a friend; your perception of them is altered. It is harder to be racist toward someone you know. Unfortunately, there still remains in so many of us, often without us realizing it, that initial bias — your first perception of a stranger. 
In the wake of a national movement to shine a light on systematic racism, more and more people in Vermont have been telling their stories and sharing their experiences of racism here. From this we can clearly see that racism is a problem. We cannot claim that racism does not exist or is not a pressing issue that needs to be addressed. 
I’d like to tell you a story about my ex-husband’s first visit to Bristol. This was over 10 years ago, before we were married. Mohamedou is a Black African man. It was his first time visiting the United States and it was fall. We did all the usual activities — we drove around to look at the leaves, we went apple picking, we hiked up to the ledge. Later during his visit my parents and I had all gone somewhere and Mohamedou was alone in our house in the village. He went out for a walk, came back to the house, then went inside to listen to some music.
Soon after he had gone back inside he heard someone in the house, so he headed to the stairs to see who it was. He found a police officer with his gun drawn coming up the stairs. Unbeknownst to Mohamedou, a neighbor had called the police when they saw him entering the house.
Luckily, having a gun pointed at him was as far as it escalated. After showing the police officer his ID and answering some questions, the officer was satisfied and left. But imagine your first experience with police in America to be having a gun pointed at you when you are simply visiting someone’s house.
Later when we lived in Bristol for some time, Mohamedou came to know people around town and never had a similar issue as he was no longer a stranger. That initial bias we don’t like to admit we still unconsciously have was overcome as people got to know him.  
Of course the bigger question is, would this have happened if he were white? Would the neighbors have made the call? Would the police officer have responded in the same way? 
We must all be more aware of our first perception of a stranger, especially when it is a Person of Color or Black person. What is our initial reaction to them? Is it valid or is it based on stereotypes our society can’t seem to shake? We must consciously work to remove this unconscious bias. 
Claire Corkins grew up and lives in Bristol and studied Human Ecology at College of the Atlantic in Maine. After college she worked abroad teaching English as a second language. She currently works with her father in such various endeavors as painting houses, tiling bathrooms, building porches, and fixing old windows. She hikes, reads, plays ice hockey, travels, and wishes she could wear flip flops all year round.

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