How do we know the Hilltowns aren’t a racist place?

To the Editor:

“The Hilltowns aren’t racist.” “I’m not racist.” “Stop making trouble.” “Race baiter.”

In discussing the existence of prejudice and racism in the Hilltowns with acquaintances, friends, neighbors, and family these past two months, the above are examples of the most common reactions I’ve heard from those who don’t share my belief that “Black lives matter, period.”

There is no arguing — the Hilltown community is very white, with each of the four towns reporting that 96 percent or more of their populations are white alone, and 1 percent or less of residents are Black.

Despite these statistics, it’s heartening to see hundreds of locals standing in solidarity with Black lives in Rensselaerville, Berne, and Greenville. We’ve all borne witness to the spectrum of backlash in this moment, too — ranging from “All Lives Matter” clap-backs, to threats that protesters would be mowed down by plow trucks in Greenville.

And in some forums, the issue of race has been banned from discussion altogether because it’s divisive, including in the 2,000-plus member “Helderberg Hilltowns” Facebook group.

Still, many insist, racism isn’t a problem here.

I was born and raised in Knox, graduated from Berne-Knox-Westerlo, and have been a member of the Hilltown community my entire life.

Throughout my life, I’ve heard and witnessed prejudice and racism in the Hilltowns — be it bullying by my schoolmates; holiday n-bombs with the extended family; being hushed quiet when friends’ grandparents went on a racist rant; ignorant jokes and snickers when I showed up at a teenage bonfire with a Black friend; comments about undervalued laborers by old farmers; jovial stereotypes over happy-hour beers in the auto shop; repeated rumors of a KKK cell in Westerlo; or innuendo of shooting BLM protesters like clay pigeons.

It’s horrific, and exemplifies the explicit reported reason why so many of my former BKW classmates left the Hilltowns when they were 18 and never looked back — they see their hometown as a bigoted bastion of the past.

But, “this isn’t a racist place,” sings the chorus.

Don’t get me wrong, I live here, too — which makes me culpable. And, I’ve chosen quite actively to live here — I didn’t “get stuck.” I very truly love these hills for all their beauty and potential. That’s precisely why I have to challenge …

How do we know this isn’t a racist place if we are so rarely confronted with anything besides whiteness, here, to test our prejudices? How can we justify saying that?

And if we’re categorically “not racist,” why aren’t the Hilltowns as diverse as our neighboring communities?  I mean, it’s not just white people who like fresh air, lush greenery, open space, and mountain views — right?

Saying “I’m not racist” is cheap lip service. And, as well-intentioned as we like to think ourselves, as white hill critters, our moral muscles unwittingly hibernate year-round here — blanketed in the privilege of not having to think about the implications of race, simply because we are not routinely confronted by anything other than whiteness.

If our surroundings don’t hold us accountable for flexing those muscles, we’re responsible for checking ourselves. For this reason, I created a survey to collect contact information for an online directory of Hilltown businesses that support Black lives.

I started the survey after I went looking for a new Honda mechanic, troubled by the prejudiced hate speech I’ve heard blaring on the radio of my usual local shops. I put out a request for recommendations on Facebook, and aside from one “All Lives Matter” shop that stood up (and was, to its credit, willing to engage in an even-keeled discourse), I heard crickets.

In spite of deafening silence, and subscribing to the mantra that silence is violence, I saw an opportunity to force a conversation about race in a community insulated from it — because if we can’t check ourselves, how can we say we’re not racist?

I’ve made a personal pledge to put my money where my mouth is. Buying local is very important to me, but not so much that I’ll blindly do it whilst financially sustaining local racism. So, if I can’t find a Hilltown service provider willing to stand up and say, “Black Lives Matter,” I’ll be taking my money to the nearest Black-owned business that can help me.

So far, the survey has attracted 18 local business respondents willing to take the pledge that they:

— 1. Believe Black lives matter; and;

— 2. Affirm that, if they hear racist comments in the course of their business, that they will constructively confront them, rather than let the moment silently go by.

Nine trolling responses have also been received, returning racist and sexist remarks that have gone so far as to include my own home address.

My hope is that this survey forces a conversation about racism in the pockets of our community most resistant to having the conversation, and that it gives people an opportunity to take an action that speaks louder than simply saying, “I’m not racist.”

I also hope it creates a moment for self-reflection in which Hilltown citizens can consider what they’ve done recently to step outside of their safe zone to demonstrate that they’re not racist.

And finally, I hope it creates space for minds to be changed.

We, as white people, are all guilty of implicit bias. I have moments that I now look back upon and cringe — we all do.

We need to normalize being able to admit that we have been wrong, value the fact that we have the opportunity to listen and learn to do better, and view the people that choose to grow with esteem, and as the transformational leaders they have proven to be.

Until we do this, we have no ground on which we can stand to say, “We’re not racist.”

To the Hilltowners willing to see a new point of view — you make a difference. Thank you for your courage.

View, or add your business to, the Anti-Racist Hilltown Business directory here:

Sarah Gordon


Editor’s note: See related story.

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