PUTNEY — State Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, knows that the comments she made during a Judiciary Committee hearing April 2 were racially insensitive, and that many people were not satisfied with her subsequent apology for those comments. She says she is sorry, on both accounts.
“I’m not trying to justify myself and say I don’t have prejudices and biases,” White said Friday. “I’m trying to learn all the time. But I don’t consider myself a racist.”
White, the senior senator from the Windham district, has been at the center of a firestorm since stories about her comments were published in news stories, blogs and social media. She’s gotten emails saying she should resign and heard pointed criticism within the state as well.
But White said she has also been supported by her colleagues and by people in her district, as she tries to move forward from what she acknowledges was a serious error.
“I am so sorry that I said things that were offensive to people,” said White, a Democrat representing the Windham district since 2003. “I did not not mean to be offensive to anybody.”
A previously scheduled training session for senators on bias and microaggressions was moved up to Tuesday at the behest of Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Windham, who was unhappy with White and with Sen. Joe Benning’s questioning of Rep. Taylor Small, the state’s first transgender legislator, on a bill addressing the so-called “panic defense.” The committee approved the bill unanimously on Thursday.
The trouble started in the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 2, when White was trying to make a point about use of the so-called “panic defense” in cases involving assaults against persons over their sexual orientation or gender.
White explained she was trying to make a point about whether, if the state was going to prohibit the use of the “panic defense” in cases based on gender or orientation, whether it would also prohibit that defense in attacks on other groups of people.
In retrospect, White said she should not have attempted to think out loud or use a hypothetical.
“What if I’m the nice little white woman, and I get attacked by or I think I’m getting, not attacked, but a Black man is coming on to me and I say, it just made me so nervous that I had to shoot him?” White said.
“I mean, shouldn’t we, or, a guy from — with a motorcycle jacket on was coming on to me, so I’m so afraid of motorcycle people because I know about the Hell’s Angels, so I had to shoot him. I mean, aren’t we going down some kind of a slippery path here?” White added.
It wasn’t long before White realized what a mistake she had made. Friday, she used words including “inarticulate,” “clumsy” and “pretty stupid” to describe her actions.
“It set off all kinds of emotions, and justifiably,” White said. “In retrospect I would never, never have used that.”
White apologized during a subsequent Senate Judiciary Committee meeting. But that apology did not satisfy some observers, who said it should have been more direct and less qualified.
“Over the past few days, I’ve received numerous emails and phone messages, some of them pretty vitriolic, accusing me of being racist, homophobic and in general not a good person,” she said. “First, let me apologize to anyone I offended for anything I said. My comments and questions were not meant to be hurtful, nor offensive.”
That criticism included Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, who said he was “deeply offended” by White’s comments. White said she had not heard from Campion about the incident as of Friday morning.
Friday, White said she ran her apology past others before offering it in public. But she’s not saying who. “This is all on me and I take it,” White said.
Rights And Democracy, a grassroots political action group whose leaders include former state Rep. Kiah Morris, was among Vermont groups to issue a statement criticizing White for her comments, and for her apology.
“The senator’s subsequent apology demonstrated a failure to grasp both the issues at stake in H. 128 as well as the broader impacts of a public official using biased and harmful language,” Morris, the group’s political director, said.
“At this very moment, when we are still grappling with overt and covert racism, and violence against people of color in this state and nation, this kind of dangerous rhetoric has massive implications for all Vermonters,” Morris said in the statement. “It is our understanding the legislature previously held anti-bias trainings which we once again see had little impact on some of the membership. We cannot minimize or disregard the impact of what the senator said on the lives and safety of Black men in Vermont.”
Morris left her House seat representing Bennington in 2018 after enduring racial harassment, including from a self-described white nationalist. Her tormenters were not charged following an investigation by Attorney General T. J. Donovan.
Morris is not alone. Alicia Barrow, a Black woman and former Hartford Select Board member, resigned from the board in January, saying she was tormented by racial slurs and death threats over the phone, in person and by email.
White said her upbringing, in mid-20th century northern Minnesota “among Norwegians and Swedes,” lacked diversity.
“[Race] wasn’t an issue for me growing up and I didn’t ever have to confront it,” she said. “But I’ve tried to be very careful. I’ve tried to think about the things I say and how I say them. I’m constantly learning terms I used growing up tend to have a racial background or component I never knew. “
White said the conversations she’s had with fellow lawmakers and people in Windham County “whom I consider pretty willing to tell it like it is and not pull any punches” have been understanding. But she has yet to have conversations with BIPOC community leaders in greater Brattleboro about the situation.
“I understand I should not have said what I said how I said it, and that it really did hurt people,” White said. “The thing that is the most hurtful to me is not those people who are really angry, but people who in the past have supported me but now said I’m too old and don’t understand the circumstances of today’s world, or that I’ve been there too long and haven’t done anything for the state of Vermont or Vermonters.
“I thought I’ve represented Windham County really well and worked really hard to make this a better place.”