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Anti-Racism Practice Sessions Teach White Vermonters to be Better Allies

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People break into groups during one of the Practice Sessions at the Unitarian Church in Montpelier. Photo by Liza Earle-Centers

The Unitarian Church and Showing Up for Racial Justice Central Vermont will team up from 6-8 pm on January 15 to facilitate the second of four workshops called “Practice Sessions: Interrupting Hate and Addressing Unintended Bias.” The first hour of the practice session addresses the importance of speaking up when a racist comment is made.

Participants will learn about the Anti-Defamation League’s “Pyramid of Hate,” which posits that preventing the normalization of racial comments and jokes breaks down higher tiers of bias that can lead to violence and systemic racism. The second hour gives participants an opportunity to work in groups of three to confront real-life scenarios of racial bias and offer suggestions for how to successfully address such situations.

“A biased or racist comment is flashed up on the screen and one of [the group] practices saying the comment, the other person practices responding, and the third person is just an observer,” Director of Lifespan Spiritual Exploration Liza Earle-Centers said. “They have a sheet with some sample responses, and they’re encouraged to dive in and see how it feels. They use certain statements to interrupt racism.”

The practice sessions are one example of ways the church is working to fulfill its motto: “We welcome all to build a loving community, nurture each person’s spiritual journey.” According to Earle-Centers, part of creating a loving community and personal spiritual growth is identifying biases and making necessary changes.

“As a faith movement, Unitarian Universalism across the nation is looking at this idea of a culture of white supremacy,” Earle-Centers said. “It doesn’t mean people going around with hoods on, but that there are benefits and advantages to being white, and how to name that and observe it, and how to get it out of our culture at large and dismantle it within our congregations.”

For the Unitarian Church of Montpelier, that has meant individual and group soul-searching.

After concluding that a mural in the church’s preschool classroom was offensive to people of color, the church decided to paint over it. The mural, painted in the 1960s, depicted 12 white characters and one naked character of color, Little Black Sambo, a racist caricature created by Scottish author Helen Bannerman in 1899.

The experience helped Earle-Centers understand the pervasiveness of racism in our culture, she said.

“Many people from the congregation said, ‘I never really looked up and looked at the mural.’ I think that right there defines a lot of what we’re talking about with this culture of white supremacy,” Earle-Centers explained. “It’s around us and we don’t even notice it without giving a critical eye to it.”

By facilitating practice sessions at the church, SURJ hopes to educate white Vermonters and mobilize them as allies for people of color.

“Every time I’ve co-facilitated or participated in one, there’s this really amazing transformation that happens,” said SURJ leadership member Anders Aughy. “At first, participants seem a little unsure, uncomfortable, or maybe a little nervous about how to respond and participate. I think it’s really confidence-building for people to dive in and try practicing having hard conversations even when it’s not perfect.”

In addition to the practice sessions, SURJ organizes the political education series “Livingroom Conversations,” which brings anti-racist curriculum to rural areas of Central Vermont. The conversations occur in residents’ homes, in small groups of approximately eight to 12 people.

Aughy and Earle-Centers believe engaging white people is an essential part of changing the system. “White supremacy is everyone’s problem,” Aughy said. “We see white people as having an important role in ending racism.”

When asked about the dearth of people of color attending the practice sessions, Earle-Centers said that the sessions are designed to educate white people.

“My sense is that when people of color hear about these programs, they are excited to know they’re happening, but Waking Up White (the book used in church discussions) would not be a book they would need to read,” she said, adding that white people need to take responsibility and challenge themselves.

“There’s so much work to be done just through conversations with each other. It’s an unfair burden to ask a person of color to explain what their world is,” Earle-Centers explained.

The groups’ efforts to create and nurture allyship for non-white Vermonters come as incidences of white supremacy in Vermont are on the rise. Last year, the Anti-Defamation League reported 35 incidences of Patriot Front propaganda; a steep increase from the five incidences in 2018. While the majority of white supremacist incidents were in Williston and Burlington, Montpelier is not immune. During the weekend of the Climate Encampment, Earle-Centers said she removed two Patriot Front fliers from the School Street bridge.

In Waking Up White, author Debby Irving writes, “I’ve learned that when it comes to race, there’s no such thing as neutral: either I’m intentionally and strategically working against it, or I’m aiding and abetting the system.” In speaking of the importance of active anti-racism work, Earle-Centers reiterated the sentiment.

“All we need for racism to continue,” she said, “is for good people to do nothing. We need to actively undo racism at this point.”