In a December talk session with three local high school students, Tyeastia Green, Burlington’s director of racial equity, inclusion and belonging, shared her views on reparations, racism and “changing the rules” in Burlington — and what it’s like to live in “the second whitest place in America.”
“I’m not focused on changing people’s minds, I’m focused on changing the rules,” Green said of her position as director. “So it’s like, you can be racist, you can hold onto your racism, I don’t care. But this is how we’re going to do it, and these are the rules that we are going to abide by.”
In one part of the program broadcast on Town Meeting TV, Green, who was appointed the city’s first REIB director in February 2020, said reparations need to be made to black people due to the past legacy of slavery in America.
“So white people are very rich, right? They have a lot of money, they have fancy houses, and all of that came from us,” she said. “All of us doing their work and then not being paid for it.”
Green said reparations have been made to other ethnic groups in the past, so a precedent exists for reparations for black Americans.
“There have been other harms done to other groups of people in this country,” she said. “The indigenous population got treaties, land and money for white people stealing their land. The Japanese got money for white people putting them in internment camps, the Chinese got money for white people being racially offensive to them, the Jewish got money even though we didn’t have the Holocaust here in America. The only group of people who have not gotten any kind of relief from the damage done by white people is us. So that’s what the reparations is about.”
Asked by one of the students why reparations have not been offered for black Americans, Green replied, “It hasn’t happened yet because I don’t think people can get over the fact that their grandfather owned my grandfather. So for them, I’m always going to be less than them, because their grandfather owned mine, regardless of what I do with my life.”
Not all Burlington’s public servants agree with the idea of reparations. Last year in an interview with True North Reports, Burlington City Councilor Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7, said, “For that reparation, how’s that gonna happen, because it’s now 400 years later? It has been a very, very long time and things have changed,” he said.
Burlington’s racial equity director also offered her views on America’s best known civil rights icons, whom she disparaged for their approval among whites and teaching of nonviolent civil disobedience.
“If you look at what you’re learning in your textbooks, what are you learning besides Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Who are the black heroes of this country besides him and Rosa Parks? So [white people] have taken people who they find acceptable … and they have catapulted them, and they say ‘this is the standard of what you should aspire to be,'” Green said.
“Martin Luther King, Jr. did a lot for black people in this country, but he also ensured that we wouldn’t fight back when people are beating us and spitting on us and killing us. You know, we’re going to turn the other cheek, and white people like that. That’s what they’re going to teach you: ‘be that docile black man so you can be acceptable to us, don’t step outside of that.’ And that’s wrong. You can step outside of that if you want to.”
Towards the end of the session, Green asks the students to discuss their experiences of living in Vermont. One student’s views about being black in America differed significantly from Green’s.
Jeremia, an immigrant from Tanzania, told Burlington’s racial equity director, “You said ‘you guys need more opportunities for the black community,’ and stuff like that. But to us, the people who just came here like four years ago, I feel like this is the land of opportunity. I feel like I’m getting all the opportunities I can get.”
“Are you saying that you have not experienced any racism here in America because of your black skin?” Green replied?
“Not personally, not personally,” the student said.
Later, Green told the high school students blacks have to face violence in America for being black, no matter what their past nationality or when they arrived.
“If we’re walking down the street together, me and J[eremia], they’re not going to say, ‘Oh yeah J, we know you came from Tanzania so we’re going to let you go, but we know Tyeastia, she descended from slaves, so we’re going to beat the crap out of her.’ Are they going to say that, or are they going to see us both the same? So you have the legacy of slavery at your feet, too.”
Among other initiatives Green has for the city are listening sessions, which will be offered to local BIPOC youth.
“We’re going to have some listening sessions with the youth. It’s going to be BIPOC only — so black, indigenous, people of color only. And eventually we’ll get around to the white people,” she said.