Photo: Hanging in a meeting room at the Hartford Town Offices, this image represents the “typical”, white Vermonter.
-McKenzie Imhoff, PJC Racial Justice Intern
Vermont’s whiteness is not an unknown fact: in light of the recent Saturday Night Live skit where character Jim and his neo-confederate counterparts present the need for finding an all Caucasian place to live (and then concluding this place is Vermont), the homogeneity of Vermont’s population is nationwide knowledge. While we may have been able to laugh at Jim’s insistence on finding an “agrarian community where everyone lives in harmony because every single person is white,” we all felt its brutal truth: Vermont is nearly 97% white and this fact is affirmed in our everyday lives.
Moving from a very white, small town in Wisconsin to Vermont last year, I was shocked to be immersed in an even more white place. My college criteria included rigor of academics, proximity to outdoor opportunities, and amount of financial aid, but never once did I consider the racial make-up of the community I would enter. Being in classes with all white students and never once having a black professor at the University of Vermont, I have been struggling with the question of how this could be: How is there such a lack of people of color here? How can 97% of Vermont’s population be white? What factors have contributed to this racial makeup?
Recently listening to Vermont Public Radio’s podcast, “Why is Vermont so White”, I found that my questions about Vermont’s homogeneity can largely be explained historically: never having a large slave population (due to the existence of small farms instead of plantations and large factories), Vermont has always been dominated by Anglo-Saxon peoples. As a result, during periods such as the Great Migration, there was no pull for African Americans to move to Vermont. Having no family or friends in Vermont and having no job openings in large factories, African Americans went to other Northern cities, leaving Vermont primarily white.
While this explains the historical reasoning for why Vermont has been historically white, it does not address why it continues to be so today. With greater ability for mobility and an increasingly integrated nation, it remains puzzling why Vermont remains in such a white bubble. Shouldn’t people of color be attracted to the endless supply of Ben and Jerry’s and the liberalist ideologies present in our state?
As it turns out, it is just the opposite. According to Robert M. Vanderbeck, who wrote an article called “Vermont and the Imaginative Geographies of American Whiteness”, Vermont continues to perpetuate an imagined geography of whiteness that serves to exclude and discriminate against people of color. He writes, “Particular spaces and landscapes (as is the case with Vermont) are popularly imagined and coded as white…themselves implicated in the reproductions of understandings and imaginings of racialized difference and “who belongs where”. He continues to accentuate that in constant representation and affirmations of Vermont’s whiteness (such as the traditional white, New England space Vermont is represented as), Vermont has sent long-term messaging about what Vermont looks like and who is welcome here.
But wait, you may ask, Vermont is one of the most inclusive, accepting states in our nation. We were the first state to abolish slavery in the United States, the first state to sanction civil unions (recognizing same-sex couples), and the first state to elect a democratic-socialist mayor, how could people of color not want to live here? Ironically, it may be these widespread liberalist ideologies themselves that are sending messages of exclusion towards people of color; in accentuating how inclusive we are and in constantly promoting our love for “diversity” (all 3% of it, that is), we often employ a colorblind approach in which our failure to acknowledge the racism and supremacy we are perpetuating, again, makes Vermont a hostile, unwelcoming place for people of color.
Hence, it is vital for us to realize that the presence of widespread liberal ideologies does not correlate to messages of inclusion for people of color. Even more, it is essential to acknowledge that a lack of black people does not correlate to a lack of racism. While the majority of us have been taught that racism is individual acts of prejudice directed at someone because of their skin color, racism also takes form in the structural forces perpetuating white supremacy in our society; it is more prevalent in the advantages white people receive in school, health care, the criminal justice system, the housing market, etc., solely for being white. Because of this, racism penetrates every white space—paradoxically, being most evident in spaces like Vermont where we all carry around a “knapsack” of unearned, invisible privileges (Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack”).
In order to change the lack of diversity and homogeneity present, it is clear that Vermont and the 97% of white people who live here need to start sending different messages towards people of color: messages of recognition rather than colorblindness; of inclusion rather than a superfluous pride of progressiveness; and messages of a true desire to live by, work with, and be with people of color rather than continuing Vermont’s white, New England tradition. While it is easy to laugh at the Saturday Night Live Skit and to dismiss the deep problems it addresses, we must take deliberate efforts to change this place of whiteness–beginning with the messages we send to people of color.