Bigotry comes in many forms

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Thursday's forum held at Burr and Burton Academy provided an important step in opening a dialogue on issues of race and diversity in Manchester, but there's still plenty of work to be done when it comes to racial justice in the Northshire community.

The documentary "Divided by Diversity," by local filmmaker Duane Carlton served as an impetus for the discussion, drawing together MoveOn Manchester founder Jonathan Fine, Tabitha Pohl-Moore of the Rutland Area NAACP, and 2012 Burr and Burton graduate Naomi Johnson. The film chronicles the experiences of young athletes at Mount St. Joseph Academy; particularly the systematic racism that they faced as black athletes in a largely white state. One instance of the bigotry these students faced occurred right here in Manchester, during a basketball game at Burr and Burton Academy. During the game, students chanted "KFC" repeatedly in a largely unrecognized (at the time) act of racial bigotry.

"It's not totally clear who knew what, but whoever heard it and did not vow to not let it stand on their watch, did not gather at the headmaster's door, did not write letters to the editor somehow that didn't happen," Fine said. "Our goal as a citizenry is to never let something like that get away from us. To stay awake to these challenges."

Fine is correct that it's our duty as citizens to "stay woke" to the suffering and discrimination faced by Vermonters of color. Beyond serving as allies in the struggle for racial justice, it's equally important to not only recognize white privilege, but also the insidious iterations that racism continues to take in our community.

How do we do that? Open and honest community dialogues like the one held at Burr and Burton are a good start. Speaking up when you bear witness to injustice, and working fastidiously to remain awake to ongoing struggles for equality, are challenging but vital steps on the path to progress.

"These are really difficult and personal conversations. These are ideas and concepts that are going to shake you to your core," said Representative Kiah Morris of Bennington, a panelist at Thursday's forum. "They're going to make you question some things that you thought you understood, and that's important for transformative work. With that comes emotion, and with that comes confusion."

In the Manchester community, there is a desperate need to recognize injustice when it occurs, and to grapple with the issues that arise from it rather than turn a blind eye. There is also a need to create space for Vermonters of color to embrace all of the intersectional aspects of their identity -- including race, gender, sexuality, religion, and socioeconomic status among others-- and to allow for a constructive dialogue on issues of race that we can all participate in.

"It's not because I'm black that things are hard, it's how people respond to blackness," said Johnson, sharing her experiences as a black student at Burr and Burton. "That's why we need advocates."

According to Thursday's panelists, young Vermonters of color often choose to leave the state for good after years of feeling the need to conform in one of the whitest states in the union. After years of microaggressions and outright discrimination -- often occurring in the schools that are meant to provide a safe space -- there comes a point where enough is enough.

With youth retention a major issue in Vermont for all demographics, this should be alarming. But more importantly, it should alarm all of us a human beings that members of our community continue to face such abhorrent acts of discrimination. It should alarm all of us as Vermonters.

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