Being Black @ VLS: The inaccessibility of the ordinary

By Jameson Davis, Forum Columnist

When I arrived at Vermont Law School in 2017 and introduced myself to Black students on campus, I was taken aback by the elegance on display. The Nubian Queens had their hair freshly braided, and you could smell the perm, lotions, and oils they used to keep it laid.

In class, many wore scarves and du-rags to make sure that their hair would last as long as possible. The men had the freshest haircuts and lineups, thanks to steady handed barbers with single-edge razors. Honestly, you would’ve thought you were on the set of Marvel’s Black Panther. (Wakanda forever!)

This freshness was the result of skilled barbers and beauticians with magic hands from the cities and towns we had left to attend VLS. There is nothing like keeping yourself fresh to maintain your confidence, regardless of race.

Essential services, such as haircuts, and social outlets available to our white peers are often not available for Black students. I asked some of the Black students on campus what they felt this area lacked compared to more diverse places. Some of the answers included: places to gather with like-minded people outside of school, Black places of worship, mentors, music venues, Black entertainment, and cultural festivals (i.e., Puerto Rican Day parades, West Indies parades). Many also missed markets to purchase lotions, soaps, oils, and hair products.

To be Black at VLS is to leave behind the many comforts closely linked with your identity—or having to deal with micro-aggressions on your journey to access them.

About a month into my first semester, my waves started to dissipate like the ocean tides going from high to low, turning into what we refer to naps or bee dee bees. It was time for a haircut.

A friend and I drove up to Burlington for our first haircut in Vermont. The sole black barbershop we could find did not welcome us with open arms. The barber’s white co-worker seemed very displeased we’d chosen to get a haircut there.

There is an unspoken rule in Black barber shops that the order is based on who was there before you, no reservations. So before you even sit down, you do a quick look-around to gauge when it is your turn. This universal, unspoken rule was not honored there.

After waiting roughly 45 minutes with people taken ahead of us who came in after, we left. We drove around Burlington for another two hours and stopped in at least four different shops. We were turned away by everyone, told they don’t or couldn’t cut our type of hair. I couldn’t even get a simple shave.

Being in a completely white-dominated space comes with consequences you cannot always see until you pursue the comforts you have been accustomed to, only to realize that they are unattainable. Access to diverse styles and flavors of food is a comfort for many people of color.

As daytime grows shorter and exams nearer, most law students gravitate towards things that are comforting. As Black students, you are often reminded how different you are when you try to find or duplicate those comforts.

Many students of color find themselves at the nearby grocery stores unable to find spices and seasonings to create meals that remind them of home—Jerk chicken, Chicken Tikka Masala, Lanbi an Sòs Lanbi Kreyol, Jollof rice, or Egusi soup, to name a few.

After a few months of this accumulated sense of non-belonging, some have trouble staying focused on the sole reason they came here: to earn a degree and work towards creating a better world for those in their community and around the world.

Many suffer in silence, knowing that what they do may impact how other students who look like them are treated. While we all find ourselves fighting battles in law school, some battles are more unequally fought than others. It is important that these additional burdens are acknowledged, and that the VLS community encourage and assist students as they try to retain their cultural identity in a state that often lacks acceptance.

Jameson Davis has served the Town of Hartford as Selectman since 2017. He received his Master’s Degree from Vermont Law School in 2018.

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