It's been a challenging year, and an even more challenging six months. In July 2019, I was honored to begin work as Vermont’s first Executive Director of Racial Equity. Six months later, a global pandemic threatened everything we thought we knew about markets, community, personal responsibility, social responsibility, and the value of a person’s life. Two months after that, yet another black American was murdered on camera by the government … only this time, white people noticed. And they were livid.
Part of me felt glad that so many more people had been awakened to injustice and were ready to do something about it. Another part of me wrestled with the incredulity of it all: this had happened hundreds and hundreds of times before—not just to adults, but to children. Why was this the event that spurred so much sudden action by white Americans? Nevertheless, here we are, amid a surge of people who have decided that enough is quite enough, and that they cannot remain complicit in upholding systems that have brazenly fueled inequity since their very inception.
So what now? Many of us want to act, but aren't sure how to do so effectively and within our abilities. Well, you've already done the hardest part: admitted there's a problem and refused to contribute to it. But that's only a piece of the difficult work you'll need to do, both as an individual and as a member of a broader collective. Systemic racism is “systemic” because it pervades every institution in our society. It is present in housing, education, physical and mental health, finance and commerce, the workplace (yes, even your workplace), hospitality, fashion, music, television and film, government, politics and elections, recreation, tourism, advertising, environmental conservation, and so forth.
Because of that, the only way we can make measurable change towards equity is to address systemic inequity in all of those sectors and at every level. How? It starts with mindset. To be a member of a dominant group (that is, to be a member of a group that has not been historically marginalized, oppressed, or otherwise systemically disadvantaged) makes it very easy to feel personally attacked when you hear people talking about systemic inequity like racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, or anti-LGBTQIAism*. I get it: you might have spent many years thinking that people in society were generally happy and generally getting along, and now it feels like suddenly you are the bad guy for reasons outside of your control (after all, you “didn’t ask” to be born as a member of a dominant group).
But don't succumb to feelings of defensiveness. Instead, lower your guard and consider the following: society isn't mad at you because you are white or male or heterosexual or wealthy or otherwise privileged. Society is rebounding from having teetered on the far end of an imbalanced scale because that privilege is more often than not the result of centuries of biased policies that have cost too much and killed too many. It's not your fault if you are a member of a dominant group, but it is your responsibility to acknowledge any unearned privilege you possess and to support the systemic change needed so that we don't have these disparities and people’s access to opportunity and their life outcomes are not determined (in part or in whole) by factors such as race. Acknowledging our privilege can be difficult at first, because it forces us to grapple with the question of how much of our success is the result of our hard work and how much of it is the result of discrimination. It doesn't have to be an exercise in self-shaming. For example, I openly acknowledge my unearned privilege and always remember that I, too, have benefitted from unjust systems. And if I, as a non-white, non-male, non-wealthy millennial child of immigrants can still identify unearned privilege in my own life, then surely you can too. And please believe me when I tell you that the more you do it, the easier it becomes. A simple way to start is with Peggy McIntosh’s “Invisible Knapsack.”
Next, look at the demographic trends in your community and in our state. Despite the fact that the rest of America has become more multicultural, Vermont remains the second whitest state in the country (second only to Maine). Additionally, Vermont is the second oldest state in the country, with a median age of 42 (again, second only to Maine). But if we look more closely at that data point, we find that the median age for Asian, Latino, and Black Vermonters is in the mid-20s. That means it’s Vermonters of color who are keeping Vermont young, which makes sense, considering the Millennial and Gen Z cohorts are the most diverse generations in America's history. And yet, our state’s population doesn’t reflect this. It's easy to shrug our homogeneity off as a result of the cold winters here and the stereotype that people of color don't enjoy skiing, but that's not it. Not even close. The fact is, people want to visit and live in places where they feel welcome and safe. Do we make people feel welcome here? If not, why? There's the old trope about how many generations it takes to be a “real Vermonter,” but how much longer can we afford to make neighbors and visitors feel like they’ll never belong, with so much at stake? Think about the school enrollment numbers in your district. Do you feel confident that the district will exist in another couple of years? Think of the quality and availability of housing for young adults and new families. Know any recent grads who have left for greener or more affordable pastures? Think of the state’s job market, and how instrumental Vermonters of color have been to it. After all, immigrant-led businesses in Vermont generated $84M in net revenues from 2006 to 2010, and some of the most essential workers to our state’s economy happen to be undocumented.
It’s not all doom and gloom, I promise. Racial equity work doesn’t have to feel solemn or somber—we’re making things better and fairer … You’re allowed to smile about it! Vermont is a wonderful, charming special place to all of us, and it’s getting better every day. Let’s keep pushing forward by doing business in new ways, and by looking to other jurisdictions for models—and those jurisdictions might be closer than you think. I am occasionally contacted by residents of different towns seeking to develop equity and diversity work, and it is usually the case that these towns don’t know about one another’s efforts. That is to say, they think they’re going it alone. They aren’t. Not all of our towns and counties are able to move at the same pace, and that’s okay. What matters most is that we’re all moving forward.
Xusana Davis, Esq.
Executive Director of Racial Equity
State of Vermont
* The letters LGBTQIA refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and asexual or allied.