A post on social media by an alderman has spurred backlash and discussions of white privilege and racism among some in the community.
This week, Alderman Paul Clifford posted a meme photograph to his Facebook page depicting a white woman and her three children seemingly in poverty-stricken circumstances, with the caption reading “White privilege: The ability to suffer life’s universal indignities without blaming another ethnic group,” according to a provided screenshot of the post.
Clifford confirmed that he posted the meme, but subsequently refused to offer comment on Monday.
Rutland High School history teacher Jennie Gartner said the photo in the July 14 post was brazen and proved that the ongoing conversation around white privilege had a long way to go.
“When we say white privilege, we don’t mean ‘I make $150,000 a year and drive a Mercedes,’” Gartner said. “We mean systemic racism.”
The post quickly circulated. Alderwoman Lisa Ryan said she found the post disrespectful and deeply offensive.
“It’s hard for me to now be able to sit in chambers,” Ryan said. “I would have a difficult time ... knowing that those are the types of things he is portraying and sharing, things that are just untrue.”
As a longtime Rutlander, public servant and person of color, Ryan said it was common for white people to cringe from admitting that being born white — regardless of their financial status later in life or their level of education — entitled them to freedoms that people of color do not have access to.
“For somebody who’s white, they’re not going to know how a person of color feels because they’re white,” Ryan said. “And to be in the role where he’s in as a community leader, when across the state and country, there’s a huge problem with racism. ... ‘white privilege doesn’t exist’ is just not wanting to research it. It’s putting up a blinder to it.”
Ryan encouraged Clifford to have conversations with people of color, and to attend any of the meetings hosted by the NAACP to better understand white privilege, and how it limits opportunities for people of color.
While the notion of the term “white privilege” is a fairly recent social focus, Gartner called it a pipeline, a direct result of the centuries-old exploitation and abuse of people of color.
“It’s so broad and so ingrained that it’s impossible for a person who is not a person of color to try to perceive what it’s like to be a person of color today,” Gartner said.
The term “privilege,” Gartner said, is often incorrectly inferred as financial station, misleading many to believe that if one suffered financial hardship, they were not a beneficiary of white privilege.
Fellow Rutland resident Greg Zullo, who recently reached a settlement in his lawsuit against the state over racial profiling leading to his 2014 arrest, said he engaged Clifford online and tried to inform him that the meme that he had posted was offensive, and advised he do some research on white privilege.
“All I was trying to get across was just that, regardless of politics, what it comes down to is understanding peoples’ backgrounds over the course of history,” Zullo said. “To an extent, I see where he’s coming from ... but it’s also disregarding history that is still relevant today.”
Just one generation ago, Zullo said, his mother had to go to a segregated school system.
“Black people seem to be easy targets and white people seem to not do anything wrong,” Zullo said. “You have to listen. You can’t just dictate. ... It’s divisive. History is not a partisan issue.”
Though Zullo, 27, said the demographic in Rutland is changing to a more progressive societal stance, there are still many who have yet to understand exactly what white privilege is, let alone working to stop the effects.
“It seems like (Clifford) already made up his mind,” Zullo said. “Regardless of political affiliation, you are representing citizens of every color and creed, and maybe we should acknowledge that we don’t know everything. ... They’re not going to be doing their best work if they don’t listen to anyone but themselves.”
Tabitha Moore, president of the Rutland Area chapter of the NAACP, said she wasn’t surprised by the comment and cited what she called “The American Mystique,” the goal of associating one’s existence with an independent, self-made attitude, and using that pride as a buffer against acknowledging white privilege.
“It’s OK not to be perfect,” Moore said. “(But) it’s something that the United States is not super good at. ... The people in this country are not comfortable with reckoning with what the United States has done. ... It’s a scary time, but also one of great opportunity.”
Moore said she would call for public accountability, and an explanation of why Clifford thought the meme was acceptable to post on a public forum.
“My first question would be, ‘Do you want to understand or do you want to remain in your bubble of ignorance?’” Moore offered. “That type of slippery-slope thinking certainly has an impact on other people’s ways of thinking. ... He just made it very clear how he treats the citizens of color.”
Alderman Matt Reveal expressed shock after hearing about the post, before declining further comment.
“I can honestly say, I don’t know what he was thinking,” Reveal said. “It surprises me.”
Mayor David Allaire declined to comment on Monday.
“I think we all have subconscious biases regarding race, and it’s important that we recognize that in order to make everyone’s lives better,” said Alderwoman Melinda Humphries, referencing the post. “We need to work on social justice and systemic racism in our community, and without acknowledging that exists, I don’t know where to start.”
Ryan suggested the elephant that’s been standing in the room for centuries.
“White privilege and white supremacy affect all of our lives,” Ryan said. “This is the problem. This is how problems start.”