By MEGAN JAMES
MIDDLEBURY — Sometimes when Sue Schmidt and her sons are shopping for groceries, a stranger will come up to them and ask if she can touch the boys’ hair. Schmidt’s sons are both adopted — one is African American, the other biracial — and the soft dreadlocks on the younger 6-year-old attract a lot of attention.
Schmidt’s answer is always the same — no — but she tries to use the interaction as an opportunity to bring up a topic often overlooked in Vermont, where according to the 2006 U.S. census, 96.7 percent of the population is white.
“We don’t talk about race in Vermont, as white people we have the privilege to not talk about race,” she said. “My children don’t have that privilege. They will never have it.”
In her own family Schmidt, who works as Middlebury’s Agency of Human Services Field Director, seizes every opportunity to discuss the issue with her sons, whether it’s in the grocery store or on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“My youngest son, earlier this month, said, ‘What means assassination?’ So I explained it. You have to make sure he understands the world that he’s living in,” Schmidt said. “But there was also part of me that was really sad… because I don’t want him to be afraid.”
Schmidt is a panelist in an upcoming community discussion on race following a screening at Middlebury College of the Vermont film, “Living on the Fault Line: Where Race and Family Meet.”
The documentary, which explores the emotional costs of racial discrimination and white privilege as it plays out in the privacy of trans-racial Vermont families, starts at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 1, in Twilight Hall.
Following the screening — which is sponsored by Vermont Children’s Aid, the United Way of Addison County, Middlebury College’s Alliance for Civic Engagement and People of Addison County Together (PACT) — the audience is invited to participate in an open-ended discussion on race in Vermont.
Facilitating the conversation, in addition to Schmidt, will be local and state panelists, including Robert Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission; Alice Siegriest, director of the day camp for adopted children Camp ForMe and a social worker with the Vermont Children’s Aid Society; Arlinda Wickland, a parent of a trans-racial family; and the Middlesex filmmaker, Jeff Farber.
Farber was living in Montpelier in the mid-’80s when inspiration struck for “Living on the Fault Line.” A white neighbor had just adopted an African American girl from Texas, and Farber couldn’t help but wonder how the family would confront its racial differences in one of the country’s whitest states.
“At this time if you walked down the street in Montpelier you’d see a person of color every other day, and that would be unusual,” he said.
Before moving to Vermont Farber, who is white, was part of a film collective focusing on anti-racism issues in Philadelphia.
“I wasn’t afraid to talk about race,” he said. “I wasn’t afraid to acknowledge that there is a racial divide in this country, and that my experience isn’t necessarily the correct one.”
In the 10 years after his neighbor adopted, he noticed more and more children of color in Montpelier, but no corresponding increase in adults of color. His curiosity about trans-racial adoptive families grew stronger.
In 2006, he interviewed nine families in north and central Vermont who had adopted children of different racial backgrounds. It was important to Farber to focus on adopted children of all ages and ethnicities, living in both urban and rural areas.
What he found running down the center of these families was a racial fault line.
“There are few places were people of color and white people have an emotional commitment to each other,” he said. One of those places is interracial marriages and the other is adoption.
“The parents are acting on their primal urges to have a family, so they’re making a lifelong emotional commitment to this child, and the children have no say in it, they’re just being absorbed into a family, which is great… for the parents, when their children start to experience the race stuff, it’s a good place to look at how white people view their role in society.”
Judy Mayer is a member of a trans-racially adoptive family of two generations. She grew up in Philadelphia with an adopted multi-racial sister and now lives in Bristol with her nine-year-old adopted daughter, Rachel, who is African American, Native American and Caucasian.
“It’s harder being the mom than the sister,” she said. “I’m much more emotionally involved. Anything that hurts her, hurts me. I felt my sister’s pain, but I feel my daughter’s pain much more deeply.”
In Vermont, Mayer said, it’s more difficult to deal with racism than it was in Philadelphia in the ’70s; racism here is mostly unspoken and hard to identify.
Rachel has encountered overt racism at school — a white child didn’t want to hold her hand because she is black — but more common is the subtle discrimination, like the times she isn’t invited to other children’s parties.
Once when Mayer brought her daughter along to pick something up from a downtown store, the clerk acted hatefully toward the two of them. When Mayer returned a month later, this time without Rachel, the same clerk waited on her, acting noticeably more friendly.
“I’ve thought about those different transactions,” Mayer said. “I have no idea if it was just a bad day, if it was racism, and because I’m white I don’t have a lot of experience with racism. I think that’s the hardest part of being in a trans-racial family.”
At the same time, white parents often become a buffer zone for their adopted children; the white community feels more comfortable interacting with those children because of the racial familiarity of the white parents, Mayer said. In her sister’s case, it wasn’t until after she grew up and left home that she came face-to-face with the racial divide.
It was a difficult transition for Mayer, too, leaving the multi-cultural home of her childhood.
“Growing up with a black sister, I didn’t understand; I thought the world was as harmonious as my family,” she said. She left for a rural college that was highly segregated and was called names like “Oreo” and “Double Stuff.”
She doesn’t regret the experience, though. She made a commitment to educating herself about the black community, confronting her racial identity through the experiences of others.
“I’ve worked through those things and come out the other side, and I hope to be able to teach my daughter the same,” she said. “Frankly, I don’t think of myself as a white person now. I think of myself as a multi-cultural person.”
Still, she acknowledged the world doesn’t always see her that way.
“The world perceives you as white and the world perceives your child as someone of color. You still need to know how to navigate that.”
And sometimes even she overlooks her privilege.
“One of the things that always surprises me is that how in my own self, I can miss it,” she said. “I can miss ways that I’m privileged, ways that I don’t experience racism, ways that it’s easier for me… most white people think that there isn’t any racism, that it just isn’t there because they aren’t experiencing it. When I have experienced it, it’s been a great shock.”
Issues of race are lower on the radar for Middlebury resident Jenn Staats, who adopted her four-year-old daughter, Holly, from China. When asked if anything has surprised her about raising a daughter of a different ethnicity, she reacted as if it had never really crossed her mind.
“When you were initially saying trans-racial adoption, I was swallowing it like a horse-pill, because we’re so distant from that idea,” she said.
Staats and her husband, Michael, chose not to incorporate their daughter’s Chinese name into her new name because they wanted to give her a sense of belonging in the family. In the weeks leading up to the adoption, the Staats asked a dozen family members to pick out a word to dedicate to Holly.
Those words — love, create, peace, treasure, joy — now run up and down the Staats’ stairway. Holly has memorized them all and runs her fingers along the colorful letters, recalling who gave her each one.
“Holly is not our adopted daughter, she is our daughter,” Staats said. “She didn’t come to our family, we were all ‘familied.’ It’s a two-way process for us. It’s not about China, it’s not about the politics or the girls.”
Her family has gotten the occasional rude comments and funny stares because Holly doesn’t look like the rest of them, but like Mayer’s family, the Staats don’t think of themselves in black and white.
“She’s just a ‘regular Joe’ kid. If anything Holly has this real way of … she’s like the pepper you put in soup,” Staats said, laughing. “Soup is soup and it’s good and satisfying but once in a while you get a piece of pepper.”
Still, like any mother, Staats is protective of her child.
“You worry about your children and the things that they’re going to confront with people being pointedly hurtful,” she said. “You look for ways you might be inadvertently hurtful.”
For Sue Schmidt, one way to lessen the hurt of racism is to keep talking about it. White people especially have a responsibility to engage in the conversation, she said.
“We are a very, very white state, and that doesn’t make us more or less racist, it just makes us a very white state,” she said. “In the absence of these conversations it really is a breeding ground for racism.”
Have her children encountered racism here in Vermont?
“I can’t speak for my kids,” she said. “I have no idea what it means to be raised as a person of color so I can’t speak for them. They’re young enough that that’s their story now.”
When they are older, she said, they will speak about their experiences themselves.
“Hopefully, I won’t be surprised by what that story is.”