Two graduate students, one African-American and one Latina, were accused of stealing beer from Hannaford. It took multiple steps for the incident to get cleared up, and as of my writing this letter, Hannaford still has not apologized directly to the students who were wrongly accused. Thankfully, there is ongoing pressure from community leaders at Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity and the Community Equity Collaborative for Hannaford to take further action to ensure that incidents like this won't continue to happen.
Is this an isolated incident in Brattleboro? I'm afraid not. People of color in Brattleboro are routinely treated differently in the stores, on the streets, stopped more often by police, treated unequally by doctors, landlords and banks. I could go on and on. The point is, people of color experience discrimination here.
The incident at Hannaford is a wake-up-call moment that causes us to pause and take a deeper look at ourselves, and the society we live in. Why is it that racial discrimination continues to happen on a daily basis, even in what is considered to be a progressive town like Brattleboro?
It is easy to point fingers and blame others, but what about myself? Do I also have this racism inside of me? Absolutely.
Each and every one of us looks at people and the world through racialized eyes. We do this because we are taught from the time we are born to judge people by the color of their skin. Even after spending years and years trying to get rid of the racism within us, it is impossible to be colorblind. The false notion of colorblindness is harming us in many ways because it keeps us from being honest about the reality of racism and how it impacts people and our society as a whole.
Starting with our families, then our teachers and peers, the TV, radio, newspaper, and then the textbooks that we have to read, we consistently see images of white people as good, and often saviors, and we just as consistently see images of black and brown people as bad, and often criminal. It takes a lot of work to interrupt or counteract these very strong messages that we have received since we were born.
If those are the messages we receive, how does our brain react when we see a white person walking out of a store carrying a six-pack without a receipt? "Oh, his friend must have bought that and given it to him to carry," we think. And what if we see a black person walking out of the store carrying a six-pack? The "black = criminal" warning sign flashes in our brains and we instantly jump to the conclusion that the beer was stolen. I'm sure many of us would jump to that conclusion. It doesn't mean that we are bad people; it means that our brains have been overloaded with racist messages.
Can we interrupt those racist thoughts? Yes, we can and we must if we are going to change this society. An important step is to recognize them for what they are, racist thoughts, instead of truth. The next step is to want to change those thoughts. And then we must learn, or rather "un-learn." This process of un-learning is lifelong, and it has to start somewhere.
Racism has become such a part of our culture and our individual psyches that we have a lot of work to do to create something new. As we undo the racism in our society by challenging racial discrimination and policies that negatively impact people of color, we must also work on undoing the racism in our own heads. The work of undoing racism is much more powerful when we do it together, it can bring about societal transformation. We saw this happen to bring about the end of slavery, we saw it happen during the civil rights movement of the 60s, and we are seeing the need for it again RIGHT NOW. Economic disparities between white and black are more extreme than ever. The rate of imprisonment in the USA is astronomical and people of color are disproportionately affected. And we are seeing deportation of immigrants (mostly people with black and brown skin) at a higher rate than ever.
Racism is real and it is alive and well in our country. We know that what happened at Hannaford in October is not unusual; it is the norm. Racism is harming Chris and Victoria. Racism is harming Hannaford. Racism is harming us all. We all have a part to do in ending racism. Let's join together to interrupt the racism in our heads, in our community and in our country.
Angela Berkfield is the director of the group ACT for Social Justice and a collective member of The Root Social Justice Center. She writes from Brattleboro.