By Ben Moger-Williams
Bob Walsh, a tall, 73-year-old ex-Marine with a north-of-Boston accent, might seem an unlikely ambassador for promoting racial equality, and he is the first to admit it.
“One of the questions I get asked all the time is: ‘What is a white guy doing talking about black history?’” he said.
Speaking at the Dorothy Alling Library on Monday to a room of about 15 people, three of whom were people of color, he described his journey from a childhood in white-bread Swampscott, Mass., to the racially charged melting pot of the Vietnam war-era Marine Corps.
Eventually he answered his own question.
“I became aware for the first time that African Americans were no different than me,” Walsh said during his hour-long talk. “I was afraid of getting killed and so were they. It changed my life to realize that all this stuff about differences between people is just so much stuff. We’re all the same.”
Walsh came to Vermont in 1976 and began teaching African American history at South Burlington High School in 1980 after retiring from the Marines. He taught at South Burlington until 1995, when he was hired by the University of Vermont to teach in the Race and Culture program. Currently retired, he is anything but inactive. Walsh just completed his second book on racism, “Through White Eyes: Color and Racism in Vermont.”
Walsh said he has found that many people in Vermont, which is 96.9 percent white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, do not believe racism is present in the state.
“The main problem is denial that racism exists,” Walsh said in an interview after his talk. “If you deny it, it’s hard to correct.”
Denise Dunbar, coordinator of the school program Reading to End Racism, attended the talk and agreed with Walsh.
“I believe it’s a national issue and a national problem,” she said. “And I think the problem is the obliviousness to racism from people of privilege and also the denial that goes along with that.”
Dunbar, who identifies as a black Indian, said she faces racism in many different situations every day. Sometimes the acts are blatant, such as being called names; and sometimes the racism is what Walsh calls “unaware, unintentional racism,” such as being ignored by a clerk at a store, or what Dunbar calls “micro insults that we face on a daily basis.”
Ken Dunbar, Denise’s brother, was also in the audience. The 26-year Vermont resident said that when he wakes up in the morning he must prepare himself for a day filled with racial discrimination.
“It’s really scary,” he said. “It’s masked and it’s disguised here. … I’m stepping out into America and I’m already on guard.”
Ryon Price, a minister at the United Church of Colchester was also in attendance. Price is a white man whose wife is African American.
“Obviously these issues of race in Vermont hit home closely for us,” Price said.
He said he believes that talking about the problem of racism is key to solving the problem.
“One of the important things about Bob’s work is that he’s a white voice speaking to the truth of some of the darker forms of racism, and how they’re not just myth.”
‘WE CAN ALL DO SOMETHING’
Walsh said in his 30 years in Vermont, he has not seen any real improvement in race relations.
“There’s a greater amount of diversity because there are more people of color coming to the state,” he said. “But I haven’t seen any marked improvement in the atmosphere about racism or the denial of racism.”
In order to try and remedy some of the racist attitudes, Walsh said people need to understand the African American experience in America. To that end, he recently started a nonprofit foundation, the Vermont African American History Project, whose purpose is to encourage the teaching of black history in Vermont schools. The foundation will provide tuition assistance to Vermont teachers who take college-level courses on African American history. Walsh said the foundation also leads workshops in schools on how teachers can integrate African American history into their curriculum.
Despite his bleak analysis about the lack of progress in Vermont in terms of racist attitudes, Walsh is not without hope.
“My take on it is, we can all do something,” Walsh said. “It can be something as simple as, when you go to a cocktail party and they start talking nigger jokes you say ‘I don’t want to hear it.’ That’s not easy to do… but that’s what it’s going to take.”
To donate to the Vermont African American History Project, send a check to VAAHP, 17 Mountain View Road, South Burlington, Vt., 05403