New England’s White Open Spaces

Say What?

Ehem. This title is 100% intended to catch your attention and to entice you to read on. It is also a near-100%-accurate phrasal snapshot of the demographics of rural New England,

which is where one finds the state of Vermont,
which is where I am looking to move.

New England has been the focus point for envisioning my rural future for a little over a year now. Its diverse open spaces however, the rocky coastlines, thick forests, pine trees, maple trees, various bodies of water, and Green and White mountain ranges with their gorgeous rainbow display of autumn foliage, are also hella white.

As I sat down to write this piece, thinking about the Northeast’s beautiful, four season, natural landscapes, hoping for an emptier schedule soon to explore the northern outdoors in Spring and in good company, I also thought of the focus of this post: the fact of minimal racial diversity in northern rural regions and in some New England states as a whole.

As these two pools of thought coursed through my brain, the Dixie Chick’s 1998 hit country song, “Wide Open Spaces, released on their Grammy winning album of the same name, hummed to memory. Then, in this poet-mind of mine, “Wide Open Spaces” transformed into “White Open Spaces”; I had found my hook for this post, a hook bearing truth.

The Whitest States in the Nation

Of the Top 5 states in the United States with the highest percentage white populations, THREE of them are in upper New England, and they are neighbors: Maine (#1), Vermont (#2) and New Hampshire (#4). Below is a screen shot of the race/ethnicity percentages for these states from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Quick Facts. I have also included the state of Massachusetts for perspective on the distribution of ethnic minorities in the region. Massachusetts is home to the most populous New England city, Boston, a city 400,000 people larger than the next largest city, Worcester. The Greater Boston metropolitan area is also nearly 3 million people larger than the next largest New England metropolitan area, Providence (Rhode Island).

Race New England

If I could meet every black person in the state that would be… how many people?

Vermont is less than half the size of both Maine and New Hampshire and less than one tenth the size of Massachusetts in population. (BTW: Because I am black, my pinpointed focus is on numbers regarding black populations. Please also note the numbers for the other minority groups as well!) Between Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, their percentages of Black alone are comparable, but applying these percentages to their population totals, black population totals are not:

  • Maine is home to about 21,500 black residents (1.6%),
  • New Hampshire is home to about 21,700 black residents (1.6%), but
  • Vermont is home to about 8,800 black residents (1.4%)
  • Massachusetts, with an 8.8% Black alone population, is home to 600,000 black residents

First response: I am unsettled at the 8,800 black residents figure in similar way that I was unsettled at officially discovering Vermont was the 2nd whitest state in the country. I had figured Vermont was white. The only people I’d known to visit the state were white people! But this here, the bullet points above, this is actually my first time going through total black population numbers–right now, as I am writing. 8,800 people equals 2 to 2.5 suburban or urban public high schools… That doesn’t feel like very many black people at all for someone living in the city.

The percentages for whitest states, which I’ve been acquainted with since early last year, signaled to me how difficult it could/would be to be visible, to be seen, to be heard, to be acknowledged, to be considered, among the majority white population, especially when adversity would be encountered and self-advocacy would be required. These black population totals signal how many other people will share this particular Otherness of blackness in the state. They signal the number of people with whom I can potentially empathize, who could become a refuge, a  support, with whom we could affirm each others’ lived experiences of racial adversity in particular, with whom I could hope to find emotional solidarity in the shared experiences of hyper-visibility and a sense of invisibility (percentages). I will continue to think and pray about this. Please join me! I do look forward to meeting and connecting with more black Vermonters and Vermonters of color as the months roll on. 🙂

National-Awareness & State-Awareness of New England’s Racial Distribution

Saturday Night Live made some fun of Vermont last weekend, with a sketch featuring a group of Southern white nationalists who discuss where to find a “Caucasian paradise.” The skit contrasts Vermont’s liberal, bucolic image with some uncomfortable realities, and was welcomed by people inside and out of the state.

Emily Corwin, VPR News, “Laugh Because It’s Funny… Cry Because It’s True‘: SNL Sketch Skewers Lack of Diversity in Vt.” October 2, 2018

Please view the skit for yourself (3’45”):

This SNL skit was a critique of Vermont from outside of the state, on the national stage. Vermont and Maine are also aware of their lack of diversity internally, as states. It did not take long for me to come across some evidence of Vermont and Maine’s observation and reflection (of different depth at first surface scratch*) in my research. *I perceive that each states’ unique political, social and economic history results in a different depth and manner of reflection when it comes to diversity and racial justice.

Vermont

On March 3rd, 2017, the Vermont Public Radio (VPR) broadcast Brave Little State attempted to respond to a listener-posed question, “Why Is Vermont So Overwhelmingly White?. The broadcast lasts about 30 minutes with links to longer (3-5 minute) testimonies of Vermonters of color on their website. I link to those stories here for easier access: Vignette 1; Vignette 2; Vignette 3; Vignette 4; Vignette 5; Vignette 6. I first encountered this episode around April of 2018 and to be honest, when I first heard the testimonies above, I asked the question to disembodied voices coming through my speakers, “Oh my goodness! WHY are you still in Vermont!? Why STAY?” I then asked myself, Really? You’d still think of moving there? After what you just heard??

I strongly encourage you listen to the vignettes. Be a witness to another form of what racism can look like, to how racism manifested itself toward these individuals, in the North, and how it impacts their sense of safety, community, their lives. They have dared to share with the world. That is bravery in vulnerability. Racism has so many varied manifestations, all rooted in an Othering, fear and dehumanization.

The episode begins like this:

We tried to come at Eva’s question from two directions: by trying to understand some of the historical, economic and social forces that have shaped Vermont’s “whiteness” over the years, and by interviewing people of color living in Vermont about what it’s like to be a resident of this state.

“But before all that, two quick disclaimers: First, one of the most visible sources of diversity in Vermont is our state’s refugee population, which is mostly in and around Burlington. But given that refugees don’t exactly come to Vermont by choice, we decided to focus on other demographics. Second, it should be noted that any and all white Vermonters were preceded by the original Vermonters, before Vermont was Vermont: Native Americans. We actually devoted an entire episode to Vermont’s Abenaki tribes a few months back, so give it a listen if you missed it.”

– VPR, Angela Evancie & Rebecca Sananes, March 3, 2017 (emphasis added)

Maine

On February 19, 2019, a Mainer asked the Maine Public Radio broadcast Maine Things Considered, Why Is Maine So White? And What It Means To Ask The Question“. Maine Things Considered produced an “episode” to answer that question. After admiring VPR’s efforts to delve into the issue from different angles and provide additional resources, I was disappointed when Maine Things Considered’s attempted to reply the question–nearly identical to the one posed in Vermont–in a mere 6 minutes 10 seconds. Perhaps it is not fair to compare the two programs, but as a person of color, I do feel the question merited a longer time slot and therefore greater platform, more dedication to educating, questioning, explaining in detail. The very brief overview of Maine’s history with regards to race did give me a starting point to find more information elsewhere. I appreciated the starting point.

Towards the end of the clip, Daniel Minter, a black artist and educator of Portland, Maine shares:

“… he says African Americans, Latinos, Asians and a growing number of African immigrants all call Maine home. Plus, Minter says, it is important to acknowledge that Maine’s first population wasn’t white.

There are people of color here,” Minter says. “There have always been, there were, I mean, you know the Wabanaki were here forever. And how often do you hear of them being called ‘Mainers,’ you know?”

Minter doesn’t dispute the census numbers. There are significantly more white people in the state than people of color. But, he says, the very practice of emphasizing Maine’s whiteness creates its own air of exclusion.

– Willis Ryder Arnold, Maine Public, February 19, 2019 (emphasis added)

To close, I would like to end with Mr. Minter’s assertion. I re-paste a variation of his statement below:

“…the very practice of emphasizing __[a state]__’s whiteness
creates its own air of exclusion.”

What do you think?

 

Until next time!

 

Photo: Québec, Canada, north of New England 😉

Copyright © 2019 A.M. Wilsonne

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