HIDIN’ OUT IN HONKY HEAVEN: ON RACE RELATIONS IN VERMONT

An essay about race relations in Vermont.
This essay first appeared in Seven Days on 15 December 1999

I came to Vermont in 1969 for a lot of reasons. I’d saved some money and I wanted to take a year off to write. As a city boy, I had that eternal dream of going to the country, to the wilderness. I came here also because I believed in Black Power.

During the school years 1967 through 1969 I taught at an all Black college in Pennsylvania. It was the late 1960s: assassinations, revolutions in Africa, riots in the streets of America, ghettos on fire. One Christmas vacation, one of our students was shot to death by the police in Trenton, New Jersey, for nothing more than standing on the street. Another student, an African, spent that same Christmas vacation in Sweden buying ambulances and sub-machine guns for the revolution back home in what was then called Southwest Africa.

Here in America, Black Power was at its peak. As the Self-Appointed Chairman, at the college, of the White Folks Auxiliary of the Black Power Movement, I sincerely believed that the time of “Black and White Together” was over; each race had to go take care of its own. My job was to deal with my own racism and the racism of my people.

I also felt it was my duty to get my white face out of that Black school. I believed that sincerely, but my exit from that world was not, rest assured, pure altruism. I took seriously–I approved of!–the militants who shouted, “Move on over, Mutha’, or we gonna move on over you!” Such slogans seemed to me to be the only appropriate response to ubiquitous white power and calcified white privilege. Thus my move to Vermont occurred in a public as well as a personal context.

But how, I ask myself now with hindsight, could moving to the whitest state in America be a way to deal with racism?

When I first came here a T-shirt popular at that time said: VERMONT: THE WAY AMERICA USED TO BE. In other words: clean, wholesome, community oriented, small, rural and . . . white.

I also ask myself, again with hindsight, how many of us white people, people like me–recently or not so recently immigrated–came here because it was easier NOT to confront the racial conflicts inherent in American life? Here in this land of whiteness we could relax, live with less stress, not have to confront daily the tensions inherent in a more ethnically and racially diverse place. How many of us escaped here to live simpler, cleaner, whiter lives?

By running to this bastion of whiteness 30 years ago, I had become, willy-nilly and only half-consciously, a part of the opening salvo in what became known as White Flight.

All these years later, I am still asking myself how we can, here in Vermont, deal with the issues of race and ethnicity when we live in what, compared to the rest of America, is essentially a segregated society.

The answer is coming to live with us.

In less than 20 years the majority of United States citizens will be non-white. Already more than half the population of California is non-white. Yet we white Americans still go about our business acting as if we don’t know these simple and inevitable demographic facts. We white people have always been a tiny minority of the world’s population, but our imperialism and ethnocentricity let us forget that.

Now however America increasingly looks the way the world really looks. White America knows this, if only half-consciously, and that knowledge propels rampant fear, more and more white flight from our cities and many other forms of ethnic and racial tension and reaction all across the country. We all know our white world is changing color.

Vermont is changing too. Between 1980 and 1990 the absurdly small non-white population of Vermont doubled; it went from .5% to 1%. My guess is, between 1990 and 2000 the non-white population here will have at least doubled again.

At the same time that non-whites arrive here in increasing numbers, Vermont also becomes more and more a place for rich white people, and with that increase comes a gentrified and self-satisfied smugness that settles down over this place, a smugness that can come only from gobs of white privilege, the Hidin’ Out In Honky Heaven mentality, so to speak.

It is easy to be white, liberal-minded and politically correct, in this bucolic and essentially segregated place. However, as Vermont begins to REALLY look like the rest of America and the rest of the world, how will Vermonters react?

I fear there may be serious trouble ahead when white privilege collides with a growing non-white population. The liberality of Vermonters is yet to be tested, but that test, it seems to me, is just around the corner.

Crisis, however, is also opportunity. As Vermont becomes more and more non-white we will have the chance to admit that the way we have lived here in the past is not only odd, but seriously at odds with the rest of the world.

The new millennium will offer us the chance to open ourselves to a bigger, more diverse and colorful life.

We will have the chance to admit that the segregated life we have lived here in the past has limited us severely. It has hurt us and made us small.

© 1998, 1999, 2000, by David Budbill, all rights reserved,
permission to reprint must be gotten in writing from
David Budbill: david@davidbudbill.com
or from the publication in which the essay first appeared.