I remember being in the Davis Center and just seeing a sea of whiteness and just getting dirty looks as if I wasn’t supposed to be there,” Joe Oteng ‘15 said.
Oteng said he experienced some form of racial discrimination on a daily basis while at UVM.
He said people used to wipe their hands after shaking hands with him.
“If it wasn’t a microaggression it was something deeply impactful,” Oteng said. “It was something I dealt with all the time.”
If it wasn’t a microaggression it was something deeply impactful. It was something I dealt with all the time. Joeseph Oteng '15
“Having relationships and building relationships puts me in a different place in how I consider racism as a white person,” Stevens said. “I think white people have a lot of work to do.”
Acknowledging race and social impact is a step in the right direction, she said.
Students Reflect on the Current Racial Climate
A group of first-year students once walked past Oteng’s room during the first week of school and shouted racial slurs, making him feel unsafe, he said.
“I think that good experience was darkened by all the things I dealt with,” Oteng said. “If you asked someone how my college experience was they would say it looked great, but I was wrestling with a lot of things internally…having to constantly defend myself against racial discrimination.”
“I think UVM has really taken steps in terms of education,” Stevens said. “It’s all about education.”
Ball said she thinks that one flaw in the diversity education is that she didn’t even know about the Kake Walk before she came to UVM and only found out about it by doing research on her own.
There’s a plaque at the entrance of the Bailey/Howe Library recognizing those who contributed to the construction of the Guy Bailey Library in 1969, which was rebuilt as Bailey/Howe in 1980.
Among those listed are the Kake Walk Disbursement Committees of 1964 and 1965.
The plaque seemed to be placed there “sneakily,” sophomore Bri Ball said.
“[If] you have a powerful position at the school and you are aware of the past history and you are trying to build diversity on campus,” Ball said, “that’s something you should have thought about when putting that there.”
Former SGA President Aya AL-Namee ‘15 said she first saw the Kake Walk footage her junior year.
“That moment was where kind of like a switch went off inside of me,” AL-Namee said.
I still remember just sitting there and tears pouring down my face like, ‘How can a place that I love and respect so much have such a strong tradition that is hurting a lot of people and so underlying that no one can even pick up on it, and yet affects and hurts a lot of people on campus, including myself. Aya AL-Namee
“I still remember just sitting there and tears pouring down my face like, ‘How can a place that I love and respect so much have such a strong tradition that is hurting a lot of people and so underlying that no one can even pick up on it,’” she said, “and yet affects and hurts a lot of people on campus, including myself.”
“Many people still don’t want to admit that the Kake Walk was a highly racially discriminatory event and the impact that it had on campus that has an imprint on UVM today,” AL-Namee said.
The University currently requires all students to take two diversity courses, often called D1 and D2’s, which institutionalized the University’s commitment to provide a more diverse education at UVM, Stevens said.
AL-Namee spent a lot of time afterward working on a committee with associate provost for curricular affairs, Brian Reed, to reevaluate the D1 and D2 requirements, she said.
Oteng said after a gathering to discuss the problems associated with the Ferguson shooting in August 2013, President Thomas Sullivan invited students of color to his house to discuss what needed to be done regarding the racial climate at UVM, including how to improve diversity courses.
“He asked whether we would prefer to have smaller, discussion-based classes where students talked about critical race theory, intersectionality, sexuality [and] gender expression,” he said.
The goal of this was to broaden the courses beyond just race and ethnicity, Oteng said, allowing students to talk about their own identity and relationships with race.
The diversity requirement classes should be teaching about the history of UVM’s racism as well, including the Kake Walk, sophomore Bri Ball said.
Oteng said the staff and faculty at UVM were some of the most amazing people he’s ever known.
The ALANA community provides students of color with the opportunity to recognize instances of racial discrimination that aren’t necessarily overt, Ball said.
“It’s hard to know when someone is being discriminatory towards you unless someone calls them out for it,” she said, “or unless we have all these safe spaces where we have to go and talk.”
Through her role as a student-leader at UVM, Stanley has learned how to walk a line between being patient in understanding everyone’s level of understanding of social justice issues, including race and allowing people to “walk over you and others,” she said.
“I have been trained to think about how my [social] identities impact the situations I am in and how I can handle the situation,” she said.
According to a 2011 Campus Climate Survey Report, one-third of faculty and one-fourth of staff and students have experienced discrimination, and two-thirds of faculty and half of staff and students have experienced bias.
Non-white students are twice as likely to have experienced discrimination than white students, and 50 percent are as likely to have experienced bias, according to the report.
“The toughest aspect I dealt with was just talking to students and being real with them about the climate on campus,” Oteng said. “Those who are involved in social justice are an exception maybe, but some other students could care less about your racial background.”
It is easy to say it is a mistake and apologize...it is easy to say, ‘It’s 2016, a Kake Walk won’t happen again.' Senior Robert Parris, president of the Black Student Union
“It is easy to say it is a mistake and apologize…it is easy to say, ‘It’s 2016, a Kake Walk won’t happen again,’” Parris said.
The key to progress is acknowledging the impact that the smallest of our actions have on the people around us, he said.
“We have emotions, we affect each other and the things we do, even the things we don’t intentionally do have an impact,” Parris said.
Greek Life's Diversity Training
Phi Gamma Delta never wore blackface during the Kake Walk.
The University chapter of Phi Gamma Delta was not founded until 1969 and only competed in the final Kake Walk, wearing white face to protest the racism inherent in the event, Jeff Blais ‘71 said.
“Since our foundation [Phi Gamma Delta has] been leaders on that front,” sophomore August Siebs, president of the Interfraternity Council, said.
In fall of 1969, Phi Gamma Delta released a statement to the Burlington Free Press stating they would not be participating in Kake Walk that year because “it is a degrading activity not fit for any winter weekend or celebration, particularly at this period in our nation’s history.”
“We’ve never been a part of [discrimination]; we refuse to participate in it,” junior Ian Ball, a member of Phi Gamma Delta, said.
Though the Kake Walk ended in 1969, many people felt the University did not do enough to eliminate discrimination from its grounds, Stevens said.
Past UVM students agreed. This resulted first in a 1988 student takeover of the Waterman building for five days, until then-President Lattie Coor signed the so-called “Waterman Agreement,” which was supposed to bring in more culturally diverse faculty and students, according to a webpage on UVM’s history of diversity.
Over the next three years, Coor resigned, and his successor President George Davis refused the agreement, leading to a second Waterman takeover in 1991, this one lasting 22 days.
On May 10, 1991, two days prior to the removal of the occupiers, supporters of the protesters constructed a collection of tents on the Waterman Green and called the makeshift community “Diversity University.”
Diversity University aimed to provide alternate coursework to make up for UVM’s lack of cultural diversity.
Panhellenic President senior Jenna Nash said the Panhellenic Council and the Interfraternity Council hold a new member orientation twice per year, and one part of the program focuses on the history of Greek life at UVM, usually with outside speakers.
Kake Walk was mentioned and briefly kind of discussed as to what it was, but unfortunately due to time constraints and programming, we didn't have time to dive any deeper. Senior Jenna Nash, president of the Panhellenic Council
“Last semester, Pat Brown was actually nice enough to do that for us,” Nash said. “And Kake Walk was mentioned and briefly kind of discussed as to what it was, but unfortunately due to time constraints and programming, we didn’t have time to dive any deeper.”
“So I would say the majority of our members have at least heard of what Kake Walk is and have some awareness of it,” she said.
However, senior Caitlin Lynch, a member of Kappa Alpha Theta, said Kake Walk is not something they are intentionally taught about.
“It’s something that we just learn about through the grapevine of because we see old pictures or whatever it may be,” Lynch said. “It is not something that we are formally taught and given exposure to.”
“We have a history section at our New Member Orientation and it is mentioned; however, due to time at that event, it is not only about the Kake Walk,” Kimberlee Monteaux De Freitas, assistant director of Fraternity and Sorority Life, said. “Typically other offices offer programs and many of our students attend.”
Siebs said it’s “amazing” to learn the fraternities’ histories and where the founding brothers stood on it.
“It’s amazing how so many years ago, this school let [Kake Walk] happen,” Ian Ball said.
Monteaux De Freitas said she even teaches a Greek leadership class and two weeks of it are spent discussing the Kake Walk.
Oteng said the class Monteaux De Freitas teaches touches upon the history of the Kake Walk.
Nash said fraternities and sororities can decide what their chapter’s needs are at the time and schedule diversity training accordingly. Most do it at least two to three times per semester, she said.
“It sort of depends on the chapter,” Monteaux De Freitas said.
It varies depending on what people feel they need to achieve that semester or year, Nash said.
Last year, the Phi Mu Delta fraternity did a program relating to diversity, social justice or multicultural confidence roughly once per month, but other Greek chapters may not do it as frequently, Monteaux De Freitas said.
This was because they were just an “active chapter” in philanthropy and social justice training, Nash said.
There is also a social justice retreat for chapter leaders every year, called CLIMB, according to their website. During these two nights they cover gender and other social issues in small groups.
“Unfortunately, we are only there for a weekend, so we can’t cover everything,” Monteaux De Freitas said.
UVM’s Greek community was awarded the Diversity and Social Justice Initiative Award from the Association of Fraternity and Sorority Advisors in 2009 and 2012, in part because of the CLIMB retreat.
Racism in Vermont
One thing that does benefit students of color at UVM is the “very open” community, Stevens said.
“However, sometimes once you leave the campus that’s not necessarily true and people can have different interactions outside of the campus,” she said.
Burlington residents rallied on Church Street after two people of color discovered Ku Klux Klan fliers on their doors Oct. 31, according to a Nov. 11 Cynic article.
“Racism is alive and well in Burlington,” Sanowa Mize-Fox, Burlington resident and member of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, said in the article. “It’s an uncomfortable topic but we need to tackle it head on.”
Anna Steeley, a first-year at Champlain College, said there needs to be a curriculum, especially in high school, that allows the community to better discuss issues of race. She said she was discriminated against in class Feb. 26.
“This white student attacked me and said white privilege isn’t a thing and that there’s no evidence [of it],” Steeley said. “[The student said] black people need to stop playing the victim in every situation.”
“That was pretty hard,” she said. “I was pretty mad all day about that.”
Steeley said racism is definitely on her mind as a person of color.
“It is still going on all the time,” she said.
Mark Hughes and Allyson Sironi are co-founders of Justice for All, an organization whose goal it is to create a dialogue on race, according to their website.
Hughes and Sironi were present at a march to end racism in schools in St. Albans, Vermont Feb. 27.
“To me, racism is different in Vermont because we are a majority white state,” Sironi said. “So when we started our organization, a lot of people would come to me and ask why we would want to do racism work in Vermont and it was hard for me, at first, to articulate that because we’re white, there is a lot of denial.”
It's refreshing to start a conversation with someone who says, ‘Let’s discuss racism in Vermont,’ Mark Hughes, co-founder of Justice for All
That’s why Hughes said he started the organization.
“It’s refreshing to start a conversation with someone who says, ‘Let’s discuss racism in Vermont,’” he said.
One place where Sironi said she feels racism appears invisible is in Vermont’s prison system.
“I was looking at incarceration rates in the U.S. where Louisiana has the largest incarceration rate in the world and Vermont has the lowest,” she said.
“Louisiana’s incarceration rate is something like over 900 per 100,000 and 27 people out of that amount that are black,” Sironi said, “while Vermont has 220 per 100,000 people, which makes you think it’s one of the best.”
“But then you realize that it has over 2,200 black people per capita in prison, which makes it almost comparable to Louisiana in terms of how many black people are imprisoned,” she said.
This often gets hidden because of the small population in Vermont, especially regarding people of color, Sironi said.
In 2013, Louisiana’s incarceration rate was 1,420 people per 100,000 adults, according to the 2013 U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics report. That same year, Vermont’s was 410 per 100,000 adults, according to the report.
In 2015, blacks made up 67.7 percent of Louisiana’s prison population, according to a report by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
Black Vermonters make up just 1.2 percent of the state’s population, but 10.7 percent of its prison population. This makes Vermont the state with the second highest black-to-white ratio in prisons, according to a July 2007 report by The Sentencing Project.
According to a 2014 report on the racial and ethnic disparities in Vermont traffic stops by economics professor Stephanie Seguino, white drivers were issued a ticket in 41.8 percent of all stops. Black drivers were ticketed at a rate of 51.4 percent, according to the report.
Blacks were 61.8 percent more likely than whites to be arrested following a stop, while Hispanics were 83.8 percent more likely, according to the report.
Hughes said he thinks that in terms of data that he’s collected over the past seven years, he’s seen a progress in Vermont.
“The process drove the first piece of legislation that directly speaks to racial disparities in the criminal justice system of Vermont called act 134 in 2012,” Hughes said. “That’s history.”
That prompted the beginning of a conversation on the necessity of a fair police policy, he said.
“It’s a slow and a painful process,” Hughes said, “but think about it – if we figured out in 2012 that we have serious problems in racial disparity in the criminal justice system, why are we moving at such a snail’s pace? You would think we would get some progress going with this because it’s that important.”
He said he can recognize that the state has made some progress, but Vermont should also acknowledge that it could do better.
Originally published in The Vermont Cynic on March 2, 2016.
Reporting by: Bryan O’Keefe and Sarah Olsen.