Opinion: Vermont officially perpetuates its whiteness

By Phayvanh Luekhamhan

I  keep coming back to the question I frequently hear asked: “Why is Vermont so white?” It’s often accompanied by head scratching or a shoulder shrug, as if the phenomenon of our whiteness is inherent as part of our DNA, a natural law, and not something that can be reasonably explained. Vermont has historically been among the Top 3 U.S. states with the highest percentage of white residents. The 2022 Census lists us at 93.8% white.

One very obvious answer came to me when I viewed the three newest promotional videos that were tweeted out by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture earlier last week. Aha! I thought. Here’s an example of how Vermont perpetuates its whiteness!

You can view three of them down this page or find them posted to the agency’s YouTube channel. These are fairly recent videos, as they do address the effects of the flooding and local recovery effort.

I retweeted them, calling them a “commercial for white people.” Twitter/X trolls did not like that, and Vermont progressives didn’t offer conversation around whiteness except to agree that it does portray a current reality—rural Vermont is white.

Since tourism is vital to Vermont’s economy, it’s necessary to remind folks that this is a lovely place to visit. These videos are fairly bland – nothing controversial. It’s the same kind of blah that’s been pushed to the outside world for as long as I can remember. Vermont practically invented agrotourism.

The production value is great, and what we’d expect from a professional firm. The slickness and quality is not what I was referring to when I called it a commercial for white people. What I meant was that the absence of other cultural signifiers establishes whiteness as the norm. For decades, Vermont has been socially conditioning itself and others that our acceptable norm is dominantly white.

The fact that Vermonters question our whiteness means that on some level it matters. I think most of us are unsure how it got this way, what to do about it or why we should care.

Internalized white ‘normalcy’

Farmers of color exist in Vermont, as do purveyors, producers, markets and restaurants with professionals of many backgrounds. None is represented in these ads. What they farm, produce and provide are then also not included. Their customers and potential market are likewise not represented. We don’t even get to see what these folks like to eat or enjoy.

Persons who identify as white rarely have to think
about their racial identity because they live within
a culture where whiteness has been normalized.

National Museum of African American History & Culture

When the white story is the only story, then no other stories are allowed in. It’s erasure by omission. When that erasure gets regurgitated for generations, the prevailing message becomes the lie that we believe and ends up being the culture we create.

According to Anti-Racist Cumbria, concerning tourism in Great Britain: “These ‘oversights’ are actually systemic racism in action, we aren’t saying this is being perpetuated on purpose, but when things are pointed out it becomes the responsibility of the tourism industry to address the topic and make meaningful change. The tourism industry needs to understand that the colour of people’s skin, their faith, their sexuality and their culture are factors in their visitor experience, right from decision making to how much they enjoy their trip and crucially their likelihood of returning.”

It’s just a video, what does it matter?

No one likes to be tokenized and astute viewers will know when there’s a performative inclusion for the sake of checking off that diversity, equity and inclusion checkbox. Slotting in any melanated person is not what I’m suggesting. Nor am I saying that we should include the rainbow so we don’t mistakenly exclude anyone either. Savvy storytellers will be able to get their message across without resorting to obvious tricks like casting extras.

Black travelers, in particular, are increasingly
looking for ways to show their support for
Black-owned travel businesses.

The New York Times on post-George Floyd tourism.

“In fact, according to the international survey of nearly 4,000 Black leisure travelers by MMGY Global, 54 percent of American respondents said they were more likely to visit a destination if they saw Black representation in travel advertising.”

The Times quoted a travel agent: “These road trips and initiatives that speak to people of color in general are important because we’ve been left out of travel narratives.”

Back in 2017, the tourism department partnered with the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity to create Vermont’s African American Heritage Trail in a bid to cater to visitors who wanted a different kind of cultural experience. While this trail still exists, promotional efforts seem to have been shelved. It should be a project that is actively maintained. African American history is still being made in Vermont.

The problem with one-off solutions like the Heritage Trail getting archived is that it ceases to be an act of inclusion and becomes, predictably, a temporary acquiescence to the demands of inclusivity. Active inclusion could be taking the Heritage Trail assets and marrying them with our agricultural message.

None of us lives in a vacuum. When we do not allow ourselves an opportunity to meet and engage with people with different backgrounds, we lose out. As individuals, our circles become echo chambers. As communities, we deprive ourselves of new ideas and energy. As a society, we cloister ourselves, out of touch with the national and global conversation. We become more fractured, divided.

We cannot have important conversations of substance if we do not allow ourselves to interact with folks who are different from us. Think about why you are reading this. There’s a reason subscriptions to my newsletter jumped 50 percent in the last month. What are you learning and experiencing when you read this? Does it challenge or broaden your thinking? Allow that kind of conversation to happen in real life, wherever you are. Likely you’ll give someone something to think about, too. That’s my hope, at least.

What can we do about it?

One commenter asked me: “What video would you like to see from the Vermont Agency for Ag, [sic] Food and Markets? Asking seriously.”

Whiteness operates in covert and overt ways that affect all of us. It can appear as practices within an institution or accepted social norms. Since whiteness works almost invisibly, we may not always be aware of how it manifests in our daily lives.

National Museum of African American History & Culture

While this isn’t my work and more brilliant minds can come up with better, here are a few ways to speak to different cultures via film without exploitative tokenism. Feel free to add your other ideas to the comments.

  • Feature farmers of color. Let us hear their speech and why they choose to farm here, and what they choose to grow.
  • Evoke the farm to table ethos by showing how mint goes from the farm into a meal that is culturally evocative, like a bowl of pho, ribs slathered with sauce on a grill, or a mezze plate with doner kebab.
  • Make a process video showing how local corn gets turned into masa, gets turned into tortillas.
  • Show people of color who work in the industry: chefs, distillers, et al.
  • Show shoppers of color talking with vendors. Show items like okra, chili peppers, tamales, and whatever else is on offer.

As for style choices, choice of background music, tagline/hashtag, attire, clips of a “walking village” with wheelchair ramps, bilingual signage — there are so many ways to convey an openness to all sorts of visitors while still playing up our agricultural attributes.

I’ll close by stating that I genuinely believe that the state as a whole wants to do better on its inclusivity problem (yes, it’s a problem), which is why I offer this critique. We can do better. And we should try, since people of color do visit.

“We” is generally always the term I will use. Because I choose to live here and these commercials represent my tax dollars at work. I am complicit (though not directly involved) in these ads and so are my fellow Vermonters.

My Twitter days are numbered, as the app continues to implode. Follow me on BlueSky if you’d like to say hi. If you’re not yet subscribed to this newsletter, I’d suggest that too.

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Phayvanh Luekhamhan is a writer living in Central Vermont.

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  1. Deborah Costa says:

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article. While I feel that the videos cited did not direct any malice toward non-whites, it certainly portrayed the Vermont that any person of color might find noninclusive- I just need to defer to my grandson — part African American — who posed the question when visiting-“Why are there no black people in Vermont?”

    He lives in rich, culturally diverse NYC. I had no answer for him but to say we were the first state to abolish slavery in 1777 so all should feel welcome here. I went on to explain that we are a state that depends on agriculture and tourism-a pretty weak response but it was all I had at the moment of such an unexpected question from a 13 year old.

    I guess my view is that we all can’t be all things to all people. So do we now “cancel” Vermont? Do I feel racist? Hell no. We just need to move on, accept and celebrate differences and dynamics of all areas in this country without so many checks and balances. Just my opinion here.

  2. Charlea Baker says:

    Thank you Ms. Leukhamhan for your thoughtful article. Your observations are important to consider. Your list of suggestions for future videos is excellent. (I would love to see a farm to table video that highlights a variety of cultural cuisines!) I appreciate the opportunity you offered for gaining a broadened perspective and reflection about a state I love.