Color. Blind.
Event organizer Ezlerh Oreste holds up a portrait of Shela Linton, taken for the “I am Vermont Too” project. Behind Oreste are panelists Z Muhammad and Dr. Avis Zawadi.

Color. Blind.

Panel of young people of color laments ‘ignorant’ attitudes by whites about racial issues

BRATTLEBORO — To those unfamiliar with the concept, the term “microaggression” can seem confusing.

If an affront is so small to be labeled “micro,” is it really such a big deal? What differentiates it from outright racial slurs, misogyny, or other forms of bigotry?

And is it happening here, in Vermont, where some claim “hatred doesn't grow well” in our rocky soil?

The organizers of the photo and story project, “I am Vermont Too,” held an event at The Root Social Justice Center on Feb. 10 to explore and challenge microaggressions in Vermont.

During the event, the walls of The Root were lined with framed photographs taken by organizers Alyssa Chen and Ezlerh Oreste around the state.

Each picture shows a close-up of a Vermonter of color holding a whiteboard with a short statement they wrote to respond to statements others have addressed to them. At this event, and at other stops on the project's tour, organizers offer people of color the opportunity to have their pictures taken with their personal message.

“No, I did not come here to escape gangs & thugs,” was Sharonna Henderson's message.

Reuben Jackson's sign says, “I'm not a drug dealer!”

“Yes, I am a native Vermonter,” reads Shela Linton's statement.

Sharing experience

Linton started the project with Shanta Lee Gander in 2014. They were inspired by the “I, Too, Am Harvard” initiative where people of color shared their experiences of racism and microaggressions at the college.

The “I Am Vermont Too,” photo-story project, according to organizers, “shines a light on the diversity of identities and experiences of people of color all across the state of Vermont.”

A goal of the project is to “provide an opportunity for reflection and dialogue for [people in] majority-white communities who may be unaware of their participation in perpetuating racial stereotypes and harming people of color,” according to the news release. Another goal, organizers say, is to connect Vermonters of color with each other.

After a brief introduction, event co-organizer Sha'an Mouliert moderated a panel discussion in which four local people of color - Antoine Cunningham-Cook, Gillian Mitchell-Love, Z Muhammad, and Dr. Avis Zawadi - talked about their experiences with racism in Vermont, and how it affected them.

Mouliert explained to the audience that racist acts can be covert. “Sometimes we think it has to be [...] a sledgehammer, but it's often subtle.” A microaggression, Mouliert said, “is any situation [that], due to something external, made you feel less than human.”

One of those situations - and one that was mentioned numerous times in the photographs and in the panel discussion - is the assumption, often by white Vermonters, that Vermonters of color are aliens in their own land and don't belong here. Where are you really from? Where were you born?

“People wanted to know my ethnicity, but they wouldn't say that,” said Mitchell-Love, who identifies as Latina. Instead, “I'd get, 'What are you?' which is very different,” she said. “I was always aware I was different.”

“Microaggressions are prevalent and damaging,” she said, and noted they are as damaging as blatant racism.

Struggling to feel proud

Nearly all panelists spoke of internalizing the racism and microaggressions they received on a regular basis.

Some struggled to feel proud of themselves, or wished they had blond hair and blue eyes.

Others doubted whether their career goals were worthy, because, as Cunningham-Cook explained, “I'd ask myself, 'Why are you trying to become a doctor when you're black?' I'm not going to get hired [...] Why waste all this time at medical school?”

“One of the biggest microaggressions I've faced has to do with my hair,” said Muhammad, who identifies as black. “Before I cut it, it was an afro, and I rocked it! But I got a lot of 'stuff' for it” from peers, adults, and teachers.

During an eighth-grade graduation party at a friend's house, the friend's grandmother asked Muhammad, “I wanna know why you're wearing your hair all out and curly instead of straight.”

The message Muhammad received pathologized Muhammad's cultural values and expressions. “I froze,” said Muhammad, and explained that in the face of this type of racism, “I don't know how to respond. I feel weak and powerless. I can't respond because it brings me back to all the times it's happened.”

“Some people are really ignorant and wouldn't understand how it's racist and hurts because they don't have the analysis,” said Muhammad. “I wish I would have been able to say, 'Why don't you wear your hair curly?' Because then she would have gotten it.”

“There's a lot of xenophobia here,” said Zawadi, who identifies as black. Sometimes it goes beyond race, and she gave another example of a group often disparaged as less-than: “flatlanders.” “So what? I'm not from here,” she said. “I still eat three meals a day, I still go to school, I still drink water.”

Zawadi told the audience she has lived and traveled around the world, including nearly every state in the union, and she “never saw Confederate flags” in conspicuous places “until I saw them flying outside of houses in a town next to Brattleboro.”

“I never saw that in the South,” she noted.

“People think it's a liberal community and everyone's equal here,” said Muhammad, “but there's a lot of racism here.”

“My mom, Shela Linton, was born here, so she knew what she was getting her kids into,” said Muhammad, and noted that almost every day, after school, “we'd talk about” the racism in the community.

'Our house got egged'

Cunningham-Cook said he didn't notice racism until he began attending Brattleboro Union High School. Until then, he had gone to private and charter schools, “where they were excited about the one black kid in class.”

He said his brother was involved in the drive to get rid of the colonel as BUHS's mascot.

“Our house got egged, people called him 'nigger,'” said Cunningham-Cook, who noted, “I finally understood what my parents had talked about when they talked about racism.”

As an adult, a racial microaggression he often faces has to do with ascriptions of intelligence, or, as the trope toward a black person often goes, “You're so articulate.”

This plays out in two scenarios, said Cunningham-Cook: “One: I sound white, and two, I dress white. My question is, what's the problem?”

“I'm sorry you have the impression that all black people are poor and don't enunciate,” he said. “That's so ignorant!”

“My mind's blown right now that I have to deal with that or even explain that to people,” said Cunningham-Cook. “I'm a full-time medical student and the dad of a two-year-old. I need my energy for that, not for dumb questions,” he noted.

Nearly all panelists described exhaustion, fear, and frustration at having to educate white people about people of color.

“I can't explain all the time. It takes a lot of energy,” Muhammad said. “I feel I always have to be strong, or call it out.” It's the pressure, said Muhammad, “of being seen as a 'strong black woman.'”

“It's not our responsibility to educate people about us,” said Mitchell-Love, who added, “There's this idea that those of us who receive microaggressions are responsible for educating people.”

“I'm a human being. I don't feel I should have to explain myself any other way,” she said, and added, “It leaves me with this feeling that I'm never going to escape [racism], and I don't want to live my life in fear of people.”

“For white folks, there are many places to receive information. You don't have to ask people of color every question,” Mouliert said.

“One of the slippery slopes is that white Vermonters know what's best,” said Mouliert. “That's why we have this panel, so people of color can tell the community their experiences and what they want.”

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