Some of the exclusively white faces in recent ads produced by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.
Some of the exclusively white faces in recent ads produced by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.

When foliage is the only color we’ll see

For decades, Vermont has been socially conditioning itself and others that our acceptable norm is dominantly white. The latest example? The state’s new agritourism videos.

BARRE — I keep coming back to the question I frequently hear asked: "Why is Vermont so white?"

It's often accompanied by head scratching or a shoulder shrug, as if the phenomenon of our whiteness is inherent as part of our DNA - a natural law - and not something that can be reasonably explained. Vermont has historically been among the top three U.S. states with the highest percentage of white residents. The 2022 Census lists us at 93.8% white.

One very obvious answer came to me when I viewed the three newest promotional videos that were tweeted out by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture earlier this week. Aha! I thought. Here's an example of how Vermont perpetuates its whiteness!

You can find them posted to the agency's YouTube channel. These are fairly recent videos, as they do address the effects of the flooding and local recovery effort.

I retweeted them, calling them a "commercial for white people." Twitter/X trolls did not like that, and Vermont progressives didn't offer conversation around whiteness except to agree that it does portray a current reality - rural Vermont is white.

Since tourism is vital to Vermont's economy, it's necessary to remind folks that this is a lovely place to visit. These videos are fairly bland - nothing controversial. It's the same kind of blah that's been pushed to the outside world for as long as I can remember. Vermont practically invented agrotourism.

The production value is great - what we'd expect from a professional firm. The slickness and quality is not what I was referring to when I called it a commercial for white people. What I meant was that the absence of other cultural signifiers establishes whiteness as the norm. For decades, Vermont has been socially conditioning itself and others that our acceptable norm is dominantly white.

The fact that Vermonters question our whiteness means that on some level it matters. I think most of us are unsure how it got this way, what to do about it, or why we should care.

* * *

"Persons who identify as white rarely have to think about their racial identity because they live within a culture where whiteness has been normalized." -National Museum of African American History and Culture

* * *

Farmers of color exist here in Vermont, as do purveyors, producers, markets, and restaurants with professionals of many backgrounds. None of them are represented in these ads. What they farm, produce, and provide are then also not included. Their customers and potential market are likewise not represented. We don't even get to see what these folks like to eat or enjoy.

When the white story is the only story, then no other stories are allowed in. It's erasure by omission. When that erasure gets regurgitated for generations, the prevailing message becomes the lie that we believe and ends up being the culture we create.

No one likes to be tokenized, and astute viewers will know when there's a performative inclusion for the sake of checking off that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) checkbox.

Slotting in any melanated person is not what I'm suggesting. Nor am I saying that we should include the rainbow so we don't mistakenly exclude anyone, either. Savvy storytellers will be able to get their message across without resorting to obvious tricks like casting extras.

* * *

"These 'oversights' are actually systemic racism in action, we aren't saying this is being perpetuated on purpose, but when things are pointed out it becomes the responsibility of the tourism industry to address the topic and make meaningful change. The tourism industry needs to understand that the colour of people's skin, their faith, their sexuality and their culture are factors in their visitor experience, right from decision making to how much they enjoy their trip and crucially their likelihood of returning." -"What Does Racism Have to Do With Tourism?," a blog post by Anti-Racist Cumbria, a nonprofit in Great Britain

* * *

Back in 2017, the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing partnered with the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity to create the Vermont African American Heritage Trail in a bid to cater to visitors who wanted a different kind of cultural experience.

"Black travelers, in particular, are increasingly looking for ways to show their support for Black-owned travel businesses," writes The New York Times about post–George Floyd tourism.

"In fact, according to the international survey of nearly 4,000 Black leisure travelers by MMGY Global, 54 percent of American respondents said they were more likely to visit a destination if they saw Black representation in travel advertising."

The Times quoted a travel agent: "These road trips and initiatives that speak to people of color in general are important because we've been left out of travel narratives."

While this trail still exists, promotional efforts seem to have been shelved. It should be a project that is actively maintained. African American history is still being made in Vermont.

The problem with one-off solutions like the Heritage Trail getting archived is that it ceases to be an act of inclusion and becomes, predictably, a temporary acquiescence to the demands of inclusivity. Active inclusion could be taking the Heritage Trail assets and marrying them with our agricultural message.

* * *

What can we do about it?

One commenter asked me: "What video would you like to see from the Vermont Agency for [Agriculture], Food and Markets? Asking seriously."

While this isn't my work and more brilliant minds can come up with better, here are a few ways to speak to different cultures via film without exploitative tokenism. Feel free to add your other ideas to the comments.

Feature farmers of color. Let us hear their speech and why they choose to farm here, and what they choose to grow.

Evoke the farm-to-table ethos by showing how mint goes from the farm into a meal that is culturally evocative, like a bowl of pho, ribs slathered with sauce on a grill, or a mezze plate with döner kebab.

Make a process video showing how local corn gets turned into masa, gets turned into tortillas.

Show people of color who work in the industry: chefs, distillers, et al.

Show shoppers of color talking with vendors. Show items like okra, chili peppers, tamales, and whatever else is on offer.

As for style choices - background music, tagline/hashtag, attire, clips of a "walking village" that also show wheelchair ramps, bilingual signage - there are so many ways to convey an openness to all sorts of visitors while we play up our agricultural attributes.

* * *

"Whiteness operates in covert and overt ways that affect all of us. It can appear as practices within an institution or accepted social norms. Since whiteness works almost invisibly, we may not always be aware of how it manifests in our daily lives."-National Museum of African American History and Culture

* * *

None of us liveS in a vacuum. When we do not allow ourselves an opportunity to meet and engage with people with different backgrounds, we lose out.

As individuals, our circles become echo chambers. As communities, we deprive ourselves of new ideas and energy. As a society, we cloister ourselves, out of touch with the national and global conversation. We become more fractured, divided.

We cannot have important conversations of substance if we do not allow ourselves to interact with folks who are different from us.

Think about why you are reading this piece. What are you learning and experiencing when you read this? Does it challenge or broaden your thinking? Allow that kind of conversation to happen in real life, wherever you are. Likely you'll give someone something to think about, too. That's my hope, at least.

I'll close by stating that I genuinely believe that the state as a whole wants to do better on its inclusivity problem - and, yes, it's a problem - which is why I offer this critique. We can do better. And we should try, since people of color do visit.

"We" is generally always the term I will use. That's because I choose to live here, and these commercials represent my tax dollars at work. I am complicit (though not directly involved) in these ads, and so are my fellow Vermonters.

Phayvanh Luekhamhan, a Laotian refugee who came to Brattleboro in 1975 and grew up here, describes herself as a creatrix, a trickster, and a nonprofit executive focused on community building through arts and being a visible leader of color in mostly all-white spaces. She serves on the board of directors of Vermont Independent Media, which publishes The Commons. This piece was originally published on her Substack site, where readers can support her writing.

This Voices Viewpoint was submitted to The Commons.

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