Reilly: Discussing Race at Dinner

Sep 13, 2017

Reports of an incident in which an eight year old biracial boy was airlifted to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for evaluation and treatment took my breath away. As a parent, there’s no greater fear than imagining my children victimized.

The boy was allegedly attacked by several older children with rocks, sticks, and racist epithets. And whether by accident or intent, somehow a rope became twisted around his neck, leaving him marked with deep, red welts.

The incident is still under investigation, but no matter the outcome, there’s a painful lesson here – a reminder that’s bigger than the children involved and the injuries sustained, which were eventually determined to be mercifully minor… because of what it says about our collective responsibility.

Children learn bigotry from bigoted adults… But they observe the consequences of bigotry from everyone - racists and non-racists alike.

So when even well-intentioned people witness racism and fail to speak up, they grant passive permission for the behavior and become complicit in future incidents.

In just the past few months, racially charged incidents have been reported in Burlington, Milton, Greensboro, Rutland, and elsewhere, so we can’t just tell ourselves these are isolated incidents in an otherwise enlightened region. To do so would be an abdication of responsibility by all of us, whatever our ancestry.

Black Lives Matter Vermont and immigrant rights activists have made great strides in raising awareness of entrenched institutional and cultural biases in the region… But it’s not a job they can do alone.

All Vermonters have an obligation to recognize racist behavior, forge past personal discomfort, and speak up.

This means bearing witness and demanding legal justice.

It also means raising a new generation of Vermonters who actively reject hatred. It means cultivating an environment where racist incidents are simply unthinkable.

Issues of race can be topics for the dinner table until they’ve been robbed of all their silencing power and our kids can articulate for themselves why inclusion is a family value - and equal justice an essential element in a healthy democracy.

We must turn headlines about racist incidents into teachable moments and have candid conversations with our children about them.

That racist behavior is wrong should go without saying… but sadly it doesn’t.

Not yet.

We still need to say it.

And say it again.

Because it isn’t enough to shake our heads in dismay and assume that our children know better.