Ways of seeing: Seeing (BLM) signs of progress
In 1969 I adopted a biracial daughter. Though she has not searched for her heritage, she has always believed herself to be half African American. Jasmine was born in Vermont and grew up in Addison County, graduated from Middlebury Union High School and the University of Vermont, and then left for our country’s largest cities to live amongst far more diversity.
When Jasmine and I drove around Addison County this month, she felt encouraged by Black Lives Matter signs. She did not always feel at ease and acknowledged here and feels that her treatment was the tip of the iceberg for how other folks of color might experience Vermont. By this she meant that she could imagine that if she felt this way, people of color new to Vermont would feel it far more acutely. Since she grew up here, she feels more safe and familiar than many others presumably would. People knew her and her name. But even though she had lots of friends, she lacked a support system as a person of color.
A Black Lives Matter sign on a tree beside a dirt road in Bridport especially impressed her. When she sees the signs posted in Los Angeles where she lives, she wonders about the reasons behind putting them up. Do people authentically stand for the cause? Or is it to protect themselves? Perhaps it is so that their businesses, homes, and neighborhoods are not affected negatively. In the rural countryside of Vermont, it could be the opposite. By publicly stating their belief, people with signs here may actually be sticking their necks out rather than trying to protect themselves.
When we drive to Branbury Beach, Jasmine says, “Four sightings.” Not of signs, but of Black people. “Well, that’s four more than there used to be.” Upon reflection it hits me how much representation matters.
My point of reference for being in a racial minority is when I am in Mongolia where I am usually the only white person. Yet, there is a tremendous difference. While I seldom ever see anyone who looks like me — and I even remember one time when I was there for months, looking in the mirror and being shocked to see a white face — Mongolians embrace white people, especially Americans and Europeans. Some use whitening cream to make their stunning faces whiter. City people look down on countryside people who are darker from the sun. So even when I am a minority, it is still a privilege to have white skin and to have more opportunities and income than most Mongolians do.
Jasmine explains that from a place of privilege, a Black Lives Matter sign could educate others in the community. It is understandably a stretch for each of us to see experiences beyond our own, yet this is how we expand and grow. A person posting a sign in Vermont is choosing to take a stand as a white ally for Black folks whose issues, lives, and challenges are not very visible here. A sign can give a message of being a teacher and guide for other white folks. It can spark feelings and conversations. The Black Lives Matter signs keep this subject on our radar.
While I haven’t posted a sign so far, Jasmine’s perspective on them has convinced me to display one. As Martin Luther King, Jr. says, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”
Sas Carey is usually in Mongolia during the summer learning about culture on another continent. This year she is enjoying swimming with her daughter in beautiful Vermont and learning about other cultures and perspectives from her.