Dear Mr. VP,
Word on the street is you’ll be in Vermont this weekend.
We moved to Vermont when I was 14, and no — I wasn’t happy about it. But it’s a place that has grown on me and become a home, and so I feel compelled to have a chat with you about it on the day of your visit.
You might find that, for a state driven by tourism, this isn’t a place that’s particularly welcoming to outsiders, at first. You’ll be a Flatlander — I was too — and will continue to be one until your seventh generation of great-great-great-whatever-grandchildren are born on top of Camel’s Hump. This is a place where one-time Senate candidate Fred Tuttle defeated his primary opponent and suspected carpetbagger by asking questions like “How many teats a Holstein got?” His opponent answered incorrectly. That was the end of the line for him — Tuttle won the primary by ten percentage points and subsequently endorsed his Democratic opponent Patrick Leahy. Vermonters are fierce defenders of their small state, and keeping it independent and unique.
This shouldn’t be surprising. This is a place that, in 1777, declared itself independent both from the British Crown and the colony of New York. I won’t quote the 1777 Vermont Constitution at you, but it’s a pretty good read, if you find yourself bored by the shores of Lake Hortonia.
I will direct your attention to one thing: with this Constitution, Vermont became the first of the former British colonies to outlaw slavery.
In reality? As the Freep (apparently, according to a quiz I took almost a year ago, this is what we’re supposed to call the Burlington Free Press) pointed out in an article a few years ago, some wealthy Vermont landowners continued to own enslaved people into the 1800s.
And the state likes to ride on that first piece of history — not the complicated aftermath or reality, but the feel-good idea that we were right! before everyone else, and racism doesn’t happen here! not at all. In current reality, it’s easy to pretend there’s no racism in Vermont if you are a white person in Vermont, because it’s quite likely that in many places in the second whitest state in the country, you actually don’t interact with any people of color on a daily basis.
Here’s a reminder of reality, though: there was exactly one African-American woman in the Vermont House, and she just ended her re-election bid after her family was harassed and threatened because she’s not white.
As quoted in a VPR story, Kiah Morris said: “We had propaganda being left underneath the door of the Democratic Party. I had a home invasion, vandalism, even the woods near my house where we’d go and walk frequently as a family had swastikas painted all over the trees there.”
Morris noted specifically in her message about her decision to end her re-election campaign that the last two years have been particularly difficult. See what your party’s rhetoric has sown.
And of course, Bennington isn’t the only place white supremacy has reared its ugly head. Rutland, where I spent my high school years, is a place about which I’ve written before. A few years ago, the mayor made plans to welcome a group of Syrian refugees to the city. There was public backlash, and a group called Rutland First (huh — sound familiar?) was formed. Rutland First folks claimed they weren’t racist, but their rhetoric told a different story. One member accused DNC speaker Khizr Khan of supporting Sharia law — because, you know, he’s a Muslim so he must. Another frequent contributor to the page raised an alarm after he claimed he saw a man “wearing a head covering that looked Arabic to me” standing at a corner in the city. He believed the city was sneaking refugees in already; certainly, it couldn’t be that a Muslim already lived in his white haven. More blatantly, someone wrote that refugee resettlement would “…help the personal security industry in town, cause you’ll have to hire people to guard your women and children.”
Also, I would be remiss if I did not point out that Rutland has very happily played host to a cult (new religious movement?) for years. They operate a coffee shop and some other businesses downtown. The religious group has a long history of substantiated child abuse and child labor allegations. They’re white and Judeo-Christian. No one says boo, because this isn’t about legitimate fear of religious zealotry and what that brings to a community. This is about Islamophobia and fear of people who don’t look like us.
I love my adopted state, and I assume you’ll love it too. When I go home I can honest to god feel myself breathing more easily. I appreciate the valley in which my parents live, which affords incredible panoramic views of the Green Mountains. And I love the people. Some of the people I love most fiercely in my life are Vermonters, and they are strong, independent, a little quirky…
And, sometimes, afraid of difference, and afraid of outsiders. Afraid of things that are new, or feel uncomfortable. Afraid of the potential senator born outside Vermont who couldn’t come up with the fact that there are four teats on a cow, afraid of an African-American woman representing a majority white district, afraid of Syrians escaping their war-torn home.
But there are also plenty of residents who try not to cling to those fears. Who acknowledge the fraught history of their state, the racism currently manifesting there, and work to do better so that their neighbors — current and future — can also feel comfortable in the place they call their home. Those are the people I hope you get to meet this weekend — the ones working to do better. They have something to teach you.