Joe Benning: Waking up to a world where systemic attitudes must be challenged
Years ago as a freshman in college I decided to become a radio disc jockey. Getting paid all day to play music seemed like a dream job. There was just one obstacle. Back then you had to have a third class license from the Federal Communications Commission to prove you could read a transmitter with some basic understanding of what it was doing.
Truth be told, I wasn't as savvy at electronics as my student colleagues in the college radio station. We studied the same manual of electronic gibberish before heading to Boston for the licensing test. They passed; I didn't. I studied that manual again, went back to Boston, and flunked a second time.
Embarrassed, yet determined, I purchased a new book on the subject. Unlike the previous manual of electronic gibberish, this one translated the subject into plumbing. Electronic lingo became hot and cold water faucets in a sink. It completely changed my perspective and suddenly it all made sense. Back in Boston for a third time, I knew I had passed the test before I had finished it.
Decades later I find myself in the position of being an old white guy. With pride and a love for Vermont and America, I live in relative comfort with friends and family, who think and look just like me. Like them, I've rolled my eyes when someone complains about what I've accepted as the "true America" or the "true Vermont." I've snickered at comedic cartoons displaying gender differences, and wondered what the fuss was about when female acquaintances objected. I've become defensive with the sudden appearance of a black flag containing three letters, like it is threatening my way of life. I've recoiled at news reports of rioting people pulling down statues and defacing monuments that I consider part of the fabric of my universe. To me, their anger and frustration were akin to the gibberish contained in that electronic manual I never did understand.
But recently I received an email from a 17 year old female constituent named Sawyer. She wondered if I'd sign her petition. As a politician I'm normally very hesitant to sign any petition for fear of angering some part of my constituency. Her petition was directed to the directors of our local fair. She told the story of how she and a friend were enjoying the fair until suddenly confronted with a vendor's tent selling souvenirs and trinkets. As she listed the sexist, violent and bigoted items for sale it dawned on me that I had seen them at fairs thousands of times and never given them much thought. If I'd given any thought at all it was usually to dismiss an objecting comment for making much ado about nothing. Sawyer's petition was asking for the fair directors to put themselves in the place of someone offended and request that they prohibit such items so all could enjoy the fair.
Like that different FCC manual, her email brought a change in perspective. For too long I had enjoyed what some might call the "privilege" of never having to think that way. It just wasn't relevant to my life. I realized my friends, parents and grandparents also treated anyone who might have objected as a momentary threat to normalcy, happy to move on and forget when the awkward moment ended. We truly weren't purposefully "sexist" or "bigoted," we were simply living in a multi-generational, willfully ignorant, blissfully complacent herd mentality. But to the recipient of our "systemically" dismissive attitude, we'd never considered that the impact was still the same.
Sawyer's request on the heels of the death of George Floyd was a wake-up call. We old white guys need to become engaged in the conversation so young white guys don't perpetuate our systemic attitudes. People like Sawyer aren't attacking our way of life. They are seeking to be included in the same American dream we white guys enjoy. They are entitled to that inclusion.
Sawyer, thanks for having the courage to reach out to this old white guy. It says a lot about your character. Someday you will live in a land that truly does treat people by the "content of their character," rather than by silly differences like gender and skin color. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the next fair. By the way, I did sign your petition.
State Sen. Joe Benning, R, represents the Caledonia-Orange District. He can be contacted At email@example.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.
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