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Gillom: Exclusionary Language

Exclusionary language and some cultural stereotypes may contribute to subtle forms of racism.

I’ve been wondering if we may be promoting a stereotype that no longer reflects the reality of a contemporary, inclusive Vermont – even perhaps contributing to some of the racism we’ve seen lately, like the public attacks on Bennington Representative Kiah Morris and her family, or the incident at a Stowe youth camp where racist remarks left children shaken and afraid. A societal norm is a set of informational understandings that governs the behavior of a community. And I worry that our collective fascination with what it means to be a “real Vermonter” could be quite easily co-opted by those wishing to promote exclusion, to divide us as a community, and to stop people of color from participating in or even visiting Vermont.

The language we speak and the words we use deeply impact the way we think. It is in the nuances of language that hate-based exclusionary norms can easily take root and grow. This is a subtle type of racism that goes undetected by well-intentioned White allies still looking for overt forms of racism to condemn. Likewise, they can trick people of color into thinking they’re the ones with the issue and even persuade a perpetrator that they’ve done nothing wrong.

I asked a close friend of mine, who’s also of color and who was raised here, what she thinks about the “real Vermonter” image and her answer surprised me. She said that to her, it signifies a sense of “ownership” that she can’t share simply because of her physical appearance. And she finds it ironic that the heritage of many white Vermont families is only a bit longer than her own. And she notes that most people she knows are only 1st or 2nd generation Vermonters, whatever their racial or ethnic backgrounds. So maybe it’s time we revised our notions of a “real Vermonter.”

We could start by changing the way we refer to our collective identity in our everyday lives. For instance, before asking someone “how long they’ve lived here” or “how long they plan to stay” we might ask ourselves instead what message this might send and how it could be interpreted – especially if we’d rather be seen as a friendly neighbor instead of a defensive gatekeeper.