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Voices / Viewpoint

Moments of awkwardness

As a community, we often believe ourself to be beyond issues of discrimination that are still very real and happen daily. Sometimes these issues are not blatant, but they are ever-present.

Jessica Weitz is a writer, artist, photographer, and librarian.

“Pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity….pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference...It means holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another...pluralism is based on dialogue.”

—The Pluralism Project at Harvard University (pluralism.org)

Marlboro

Having heard that the Brattleboro Union High School school board has proposed to cut Mikeala Simm’s position as director of diversity, equity, and social justice, I would like to share this essay written in 2017, based on the daily experiences of people of color in our community. I strongly oppose this high school budget cut and would strongly support diversity curriculum that starts in kindergarten.

I warn you that this commentary might leave you with more questions than answers. But that feels appropriate because it is really about how we can live more from our complexities, the undefinable aspects of ourselves, than from generalizations and assumptions.

How can we listen more for who the being is in front of us? Pause to see where our words might fall in conversation? How important language is in how we think about ourselves and others?

These were the thoughts buzzing through my head after talking to a friend about her experience of being a person of color and in an interracial marriage in the Brattleboro area. The current political climate has proven to be just the motivation I needed to sit down to talk and write.

* * *

I grew up in the Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Mount Pleasant in the 1970s and 1980s between one predominantly white neighborhood (Cleveland Park) and another predominantly black neighborhood (Columbia Heights). I am white, and my neighborhood was a mix of first-generation families from Central America as well as African-American and caucasian families.

In my neighborhood, I would hear frequent gunshots — it was the era of drive-bys. I watched African-American and Latino men thrown to the ground by police officers; I saw one man’s head bashed in.

I saw knife fights between drunk unemployed Latino men in the middle of the day. I walked by crack houses.

I watched at my private school across town while an African-American student was expelled for bringing a knife to school even though they needed it for protection when returning home.

I listened as wealthy white classmates joked that they should lock their car doors before entering my neighborhood to drop me home.

I spoke to my neighbors of the beauty and pain of our daily lives.

Can you imagine the stress of this environment for people of color? Of just leaving the house? Of trying to provide for a family? Of not having an authority figure to turn to whom you could trust to help you? Of losing loved ones to violence? Of having your pleas for help fall on deaf ears?

To be told that you are the problem? For multiple generations to have to persevere?

* * *

In high school, my best friends were an adopted half black/half white girl being raised by a middle-class single white mom, a half Latino/half white boy being raised by a middle-class single white mom, and a white boy from a poorer hippie family living in the black ghetto.

All we knew was that large parts of our truths were not being represented by the stories told about us, about race and humanity, in school, in the news, and in all-white communities.

The stories that support racial violence and inequality have been a part of our culture, particularly for people of color in urban neighborhoods, for generations.

People have fought with their lives for attention to this violence for a long time. Now we have phones showing the most extreme manifestations of violence on the black community by white people.

Is that enough to make a difference? For us to collectively say that none of us is safe until all of us are safe, on our home turf as well as around the globe?

The problem we face is institutionalized racism.

In the recent generations of African-American families are the stories of murder, slavery, families torn apart, rape, financial hardship, and discrimination based on skin color — in the living history of an entire population in our country.

The anger is real, and reconciliation as a culture is desperately needed. The more these conversations are in public, and not just by black public figures, the better.

* * *

Back to Vermont in 2017.

I know a number of women in the area who have the unique perspective of being either multiracial themselves or in interracial marriages. Their ability to live with complexity and heightened awareness offers a valuable perspective on race and racism in our communities.

What they see from their vantage point is a community that sometimes seems to be looking through rose-colored glasses, believing itself to be beyond issues of discrimination that are still very real and happen daily. Sometimes these issues are not blatant, but they are ever-present.

Being the children in a family that has Cuban, European, Jamaican, and French-Canadian heritage but being identified as only black in their town and school can have a distressing and at times darkly comical feel to it.

What do you do when you wear a bandana to school only to have your teacher say you look like Aunt Jemima (a cultural reference that you don’t even know)? Or when you go into a store to get a job application and all the store owner can think to say is, “You know we don’t sell Adidas or Nike here?”

The beautiful moment in this case is the kid took the application and mentioned politely that he is a college student studying biochemistry.

The moments of awkwardness when you are in line at the grocery store in your own town and the cashier says that she, too, has a mulatto daughter. The word “mulatto” hangs in the air. Your mind goes right to “slavery,” “rape,” or “mixed-breed.”

Do you speak your mind? You have spent years instilling a sense of self-respect and celebration in your children and would never use this word to describe them. How about “bi-racial”?

Or when the older white woman you work for decides she wants to share a story with you: “My daughter had a black friend and they both had babies at the same time. The black girl took her baby home and tried to scrub her until she turned white.”

Silence.

This story does not feel malicious, but what is its intent? Can the woman not think of anything else to say to a person of color? Is she using humor to cover her discomfort?

And why is the onus of the silence on the receiver and not on the person speaking to consider their words, how they might be received?

* * *

My friend describes the many ways she and her husband are different. In addition to she being black and he being white, she loves cities, the ocean, malls, travel; he loves the woods, hunting, animals. She is passionate about immigration issues and her husband finally came around while watching her navigate visas and citizenship for her parents.

The only time there was any issue in their respective families about their marriage was when she was expecting her first baby boy and wanted to name him Germal. The response from her husband’s family: “That name is too black.”

And what does “too black” mean? Too African-American urban?

This issue emerged for her kids in middle and high school as they wore their hair in cornrows, with backwards baseball caps, bumping music, looking for an identity other than that of white rural New England.

Can a community accept that their members are many things at once?

“I taught my kids that they could be a leader or a follower but no matter what, if you witness something that is wrong or mean, you need to step up and say something,” said their mom, who had to be a ferocious advocate for her son in middle school when he faced racism straight on for the first time while he was called all the names in the book on the bus and in the halls.

She said she had to read up and know her rights so she could walk in and demand action, not just philosophy. She knew she could turn to places like the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity if it came down to it.

We agreed that, although having a high school diversity class is good, it is too little, too late. A lot of prejudice comes down to ignorance when kids don’t have experiences with people from different backgrounds (except on the news) and they parrot the attitudes they hear at home and on TV.

* * *

The conversations and expectations around mutual respect, deep listening, and multiple perspectives has to start very young and should be an integral part of a school’s curriculum.

One parent had some sound advice for white parents and teachers of all children of color: Believe them when they say they have been discriminated against.

It might not be anything as easy as someone screaming a slur in their face or someone taping the ace of spades to their locker. It might be as strange as a teacher asking that child something about hip-hop, or about what deities Beyonce is representing, or about the symbolism of Kwanzaa, or about what hair products they use or who cuts black hair in town — information a teacher can just as easily look up.

“As an 11-year-old, I was once shamed that I had never listened to Paul Robeson,” this parent said.

Pluralism must be learned and upheld as an expectation. And each and every one of us deserves the chance to self-identify, not to be told who we are or are not, who we can or can’t be.

These issues are not unlike those experienced by many women, members of the LBGTQ community, and people who suffer from mental illness. Pride in oneself and one’s way of life is not in itself a problem, but speaking from that place can come at the unconscious expense of another’s self-worth.

Are we as a community still willing to ask questions about how to make this area welcoming to others, to pause and listen to our citizen’s range of experiences, to believe we can always keep growing and learning?

To make a commitment to keep asking daily how we can become more aware, listen deeply, and welcome pluralistic living?

I believe these questions are central to Vermont’s growth and future.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #441 (Wednesday, January 10, 2018). This story appeared on page D1.

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