Confronting racism — together

If we hope to get beyond rhetoric, we need to risk being real people, speaking from the heart

BRATTLEBORO — When my roommate, Frank Parker, was stopped by the doorman in the fancy lobby, it could only have been racism.

My therapist's office was on the fifth floor; I had invited Frank to attend a session. We were in our early 20s. Frank always dressed well and was impeccably groomed. In those days, I was perennially scruffy, yet I always walked past the doorman, apparently unnoticed.

By his skin color and features, Frank was identifiably “black.” Regardless of my ancestry and DNA, people tend to identify me as “white.”

(I put those terms in quotes because I see “race” as a myth. In my world, we are all human individuals. Nonetheless, it is not possible to discuss racism without utilizing the racist lexicon.)

In effect, Frank and I unintentionally had been testers for disparate treatment - racial discrimination. Ordinarily, though, when a non-white person is treated rudely, it may be impossible to be certain whether it was racism or the rude person is just an equal-opportunity lout.

Nonetheless, it is indicative of a racist milieu when - all other things being equal - a non-white person is, for example, suspected of shoplifting when a white person would not have been.

* * *

At the recent Brattleboro Food Co-op annual membership meeting, an incident of a black woman having been falsely accused of stealing became the focal point of a discussion about racism at the Co-op in general.

Aggravating the mistaken accusation was the fact that a Co-op staff member had called the woman's job! Regardless of whether or not it was racism, it is unfathomable that a staff member would take it upon herself to jeopardize someone's livelihood.

At the meeting, Co-op General Manager Sabine Rhyne was on the hot seat. The reckless action of the staff member who pursued the accusation is indicative of a lack of training and a policy failure. Sabine took responsibility: The buck stops at her desk. But she also was the face of the Co-op in the ensuing discussion about institutional racism.

More than half of those who spoke recounted personal experiences and spoke authentically about their feelings. Personally, I feel that we did well to depart from a choreographed meeting in order to address racism.

Nonetheless, I felt uncomfortable about hearing too much “them” and “us.” I heard “mea culpa” guilty confessions; and in one instance I heard an accusation disparaging “Kumbaya” white insincerity.

At one point, Sabine asked for continued feedback: “Please let us know how we are doing.”

Immediately, a young white woman - perhaps reciting what she had learned in a college course - admonished her: “It is not up to 'them' to solve the problem. 'We' are responsible to fight racism.”

Is “them” and “us” really the solution? If our social environment is toxic with racism, then is it not a problem for all of us to solve together?

Without doubt, the Co-op annual meeting was a good place to start. Still, at a big public meeting, how many people were holding their breath, feeling unsafe to say what they really feel?

If we hope to get beyond rhetoric, we need to risk being real people, speaking from the heart. That may be less possible at a large meeting than face to face at a kitchen table.

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