by James A. Bacon
Michelle Vermillion was raised an old-fashioned liberal. She grew up thinking that people should be treated as individuals, judged, as Martin Luther King once dreamed, by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. She supports civil rights causes and endorses diversity in the workplace. Getting to know people of different backgrounds at work, she believes, is key for America to move beyond its racist past. When you get to know your coworkers as fellow humans, she says, you learn they want basically the same things you do.
But as a library staffer working at the University of Virginia Library, Vermillion felt increasingly increasingly ill at ease in the past few years. Rather than seeing a person’s race as an incidental part of his or her identity, the UVa Library administration began putting racial identity front and center. Town hall meetings and training programs made race a person’s defining characteristic.
“I’m not the one who changed,” Vermillion says. UVa changed. The traumatizing 2017 Unite the Right Rally in which white supremacists (almost all from out of town) clashed with counter-protestors, precipitated a bout of introspection about the role of slavery and segregation in the institution’s past. The Ryan administration doubled down on a commitment to recruit more Black students and faculty with its “Inclusive Excellence” program. The end result: library administrators today are fixated on race, and they are dedicated to imposing their ideological framework derived from Critical Race Theory upon library staff.
There is no escaping the obsession with race, she says. Many employees have reservations, but, for all the administration’s happy talk about engaging in a “dialogue,” they are afraid to speak out.
By this summer, Vermillion couldn’t take it anymore. She tried introducing different perspectives and sparking a conversation. The administration shut her down. Submitting her resignation, she worked her last day at the library Sept. 3.
Vermillion reached out to Bacon’s Rebellion to share her story and provide documentation of what she had encountered. In our conversations, she gave no evidence of personal spite. For the most part, she was reluctant to single out individuals for criticism. She stepped forward because she was distressed by the rise of what she sees as a corrosive culture at the library and UVa generally.
Moving from Northern Virginia to Charlottesville in 2004, Vermillion later took a temporary job with UVa’s School of Nursing. She moved to a permanent job with the UVA Library in 2007. Beginning in 2010, she supervised a student team to maintain Alderman Library’s stacks (reshelving returns and keeping the book stacks in order), and in 2015 she was promoted to serve as a library manager responsible for all UVa Library open stacks spaces. She was an employee in good standing, she says, and she was highly rated in her performance evaluations.
After the Unite the Right debacle, the library implemented a mandatory “Understanding Difference” annual performance goal for all library staff. Library employees select an activity designed to broaden their empathy for people who are different from them. For example, a library employee might go to a public library event to hear an immigrant talking about his or her experience of being an immigrant, and then write a summary of the experience.
Then came the Inclusive Excellence “framework,” which had the purpose, according to UVa’s Inclusive Excellence (IE) web page, of “synergiz[ing] and support[ing] our collective diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging efforts.” While UVa had a dedicated DEI bureaucracy already, the IE framework bureaucratized diversity and equity initiatives in every corner of the university. Teams were created. Action and accountability plans were drafted and reviewed. Protocols were implemented, and impacts measured. Because administrators at each unit within UVa were allowed to put their imprint on their own IE plans, no two were identical. Vermillion speaks only of her experience with the IE plan at the library.
UVa Library engaged an external consultant, Kathy Obear, co-founder of the Social Justice Training Institute. Her website biography notes that she has helped more than 3,000 people “deepen their capacity to be effective organizational change agents to create greater racial and social justice.” Obear used a document in training sessions, “Racial Equity & Inclusion: Suggested Competencies for Leaders & Change Agents,” as a self-assessment tool for employees.
Library staff were asked to rate themselves on a variety of topics, such as “Knowledge about race, racism, dominant white culture, white privilege,” how to “use race as a lens to notice and respond effectively to interpersonal dynamics,” “engage whites effectively,” “deepen partnerships with People of Color,” and — for white people — “learn with a community of white allies and change agents.”
Here is a sampling of the kinds of ideologically loaded statements that library staff were told to “rate how often you effectively demonstrate each of these.”
I understand the damage and devastation white people have perpetuated [sic] on People of Color and Indigenous peoples over the centuries and currently.
I understand how the cumulative impact of multiple, persistent racist microaggressions and institutional racism negatively impact People of Color and the quality of their lives.
I recognize how institutional racism permeates societal institutions, including the legal, policing, and justice system, housing, health care, education, employment, the military, politics, media, entertainment, etc.
I understand how white privilege, and white cultural values and norms, are infused into formal expectations and workplace culture as well as informal, unwritten rules for success.
I recognize the full breadth of unearned white privileges that white people receive in society and in organizations.
I effectively bring up and discuss issues of race and racism. I “keep race on the table” as one of the factors to be considered.
If a white colleague tries to shift the focus to one of their marginalized groups, I effectively acknowledge the dynamic and redirect the conversation back to race and racism.
I continuously use a Race lens to self-reflect and examine my behaviors, thoughts, feelings, biases, and attitudes as well as my impact on others.
I help other white people recognize and release the fears, guilt, shame, and racist biases that are fueling their behaviors.
Obear also provided a “Training Packet” that developed those and related ideas in greater depth.
Another document used in the DEI Training focused on microaggressions. The article was ideologically loaded, advancing a form of circular logic in which it is impossible for any white person to argue that he or she is not racist. Whites today fear appearing racist, the article states, but they are unwilling to admit their privilege. A sample:
White privilege could not exist outside the confines of White supremacy. … The doctrine of White racial superiority is manifested in many insidious and invisible ways that allows Whiteness to be a default standard. … If one accepts the possibility that Whites are the recipients of White privilege, then the belief in meritocracy must also be challenged. Whites must confront the fact that they did not acquire their position in life primarily due to their own efforts, but to a system normed and standardized on the experiences of Whites.
As Dean of Libraries John Unsworth made clear in an email to staff, attendance at each training session is mandatory. Unexcused absences will be noted in the employee’s performance evaluations. Employees must annually confirm that they have read and understood the Library Code of Conduct, Vermillion says. The library measures attitudes through its annual “climate survey” asking questions about inclusivity and microaggressions. People are encouraged to report infractions through the Respect@UVA program.
Not content simply to instruct the staff in these ideologies, the library leadership updated its Code of Conduct to incorporate principles from the training sessions. The “Principles & Expected Behaviors” of the Library Code of Conduct includes the following:
Diversity. We are committed to building a workplace where everyone feels emboldened to bring their authentic selves to work. We know through research and experience that different ideas, perspectives and backgrounds create a resilient and creative work environment.
“We treat every individual with kindness, dignity, and respect, regardless of position or status,” the Respect@UVA program website says. “UVA cannot realize its bold ambitions for excellence — in teaching, research, public service, and patient care — unless every member of our community embraces these values, and promptly reports misconduct. (My bold)
If someone feels they are subject to “disrespectful” behavior, the first step is to ask the perpetrator to stop. If the problem persists, UVa has mechanisms for lodging formal complaints through the Respect@UVA Complaint System.
Meanwhile, the library’s Inclusive Excellence plan takes race into account in the hiring, the naming of spaces, the reassessing of art displays, and sponsorship of social justice research. Library exhibitions and programs use an “anti-racist framework” for curation, design, writing, and production. To show how serious it is, library leadership tracks a metric on the number of exhibitions and programs that use intentional anti-racist and anti-oppressive themes.
Vermillion found the new rules oppressive.
“My intent when saying something matters not,” Vermillion says. The system revolves around how statements are perceived — perceived by people who have been encouraged to be hyper-vigilant about and offended by microaggressions. She’s on board with the idea that people should not be subjected to racism and sexism in the workplace. But the new rules are stifling. In effect, the person with the most sensitive psyche sets the standard — a standard that others don’t know until it is sprung on them.
“Being race conscious is not something I’m particularly comfortable with,” she says. “I wasn’t raised that way.” Despite the boilerplate in the IE documents about respecting different “ideas and perspectives,” it was painfully clear to Vermillion that heterodox ideas would not be entertained. Not that anyone, other than her, ever pushed back. People were too scared to express dissent of any kind. “It comes to feel oppressive. I’m not the only one who’s uncomfortable. People are terrified to speak. People are very afraid.”
As she became more concerned about the new orthodoxy, Vermillion began seeking out perspectives she’d never explored before. She read articles and watched videos by non-woke Black intellectuals such as John McWhorter, Glenn Loury, and others. She read viewpoints from political conservatives, moderates and even liberals, some of them Black, that countered the views present in the library’s DEI training. She found that many thinkers still support anti-racism efforts founded on the traditional civil rights movement rather than the modern race-conscious theories of anti-racism and white fragility.
On July 21, Vermillion made one of the most consequential decisions in her life. She sent an email to the entire staff of the UVa Library, about 225 people. She wrote:
Each of the first three videos below is under 10 minutes long. I’m sharing them with you as a way of expressing my concern about what is happening in our society, in our University, and in our Library. … I am concerned about where we might all be headed, and I will admit to being frightened about my job because I am choosing to speak up. (As some of you may know, I have always been willing to speak up when the situation demands.) I am also concerned that I may lose work friends over this. But I believe this matter to be of such importance that I have had to determine what I am willing to risk, and to hope for the best on all fronts. My hope is that this message will call attention to what is (or may be) happening and to show there are alternative ways forward, all humans together, that don’t seek to shame and divide us.
She provided links to seven online videos and articles that presented other sides of the story. If anyone shared her concerns, she invited them to contact her confidentially.
Dean Unsworth responded to Vermillion’s email with a message to the entire staff co-signed by seven other senior staffers. First he admonished her for sending her missive to a shared communication channel. “If your message is controversial or triggering,” he wrote, “ask yourself whether a different form of communications might be more constructive.”
He also took exception to Vermillion’s fear that she might be subject to retaliation, saying that the insinuation was not “necessary or constructive.” He urged staff to share ideas with colleagues in an honest and in-person conversation, and then listen to what they say. He went on to say that UVa Library was trying to encourage the recognition that “there is a problem” that needs to be addressed, establish a shared understanding of the facts, and design a process to make necessary changes.
Wrote Unsworth: “There’s certainly room to discuss different analyses of the problem and different strategies for addressing it in our process, and room to bring up all kinds of data, so we appeal to you to engage the issues from wherever you are — and then be prepared to learn from one another.”
Vermillion found the rhetoric to be empty. The fact was, Critical Race Theory is dogma, not just in the library but throughout UVa. The trainers don’t tolerate alternative perspectives. Deviation from their framework for viewing the world is branded a form of racism. No one expresses different thoughts because no one wants to be called out as a racist. While some people are perfectly happy going along with CRT, some aren’t. Several co-workers contacted her and expressed their reservations privately.
Vermillion is still looking for a job, but she feels as though a great weight has been lifted from her. While she is relieved for herself, she feels remorse for colleagues who are stuck in a “rather unpleasant workplace” and don’t have the same latitude to leave. She sees little prospect for change. “It was made clear by the leadership that differing viewpoints on the matter are not welcomed in discussions.”
By taking her concerns public, Vermillion says, she hopes to inform others about the new orthodoxy spreading at UVa.