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Iowa Nice. It’s the slogan for the state, a marker of the camaraderie and neighborly kindness that supposedly permeates the region. A tourist can catch the phrase on a magnet at or T-shirt at a gas station. It’s a cultural label of the Hawkeye state based on the perceived stereotypical behaviors of agreeableness and friendliness, similar to that of Southern hospitality.
While the sentiment is nice, and there are plenty of people in Iowa that are nice, the label is a superficial one that does not actually reflect the true conditions of the state.
Where Iowa was once recognized as nice for its progressive ideals with civil rights pioneer Edna Griffin in 1948 (who preceded Rosa Parks), The Des Moines Human Rights Commission in 1951 (which preceded LBJ’s Civil Rights Act of 1964) and legal recognition of same-sex marriage in 2009 (which preceded Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015), it is now recognized by outsiders and short-term residents as a place of complacency, where discrimination and prejudice are tolerated in favor of supposed cordiality.
Case in point: House File 802, passed last month in the Iowa Senate by the Republican majority, which bans state and local government entities from teaching certain concepts in diversity and inclusion training, such as the understanding that the United States or Iowa is “fundamentally or systematically racist or sexist.” On May 6, the Iowa House passed the amended bill and it now awaits the signature of Gov. Kim Reynolds.
“I think it's just one more thing that makes Iowa seem less welcoming to diversity and people of color,” Dr. Jessica Welburn Paige said, an expert on post-Civil Rights era experiences of African Americans, including social mobility prospects and strategies for navigating persistent racism and discrimination. “Iowa has significant problems with systemic racism. For example, the ACLU has pointed out disproportionately high rates of incarceration of African Americans; we have very big gaps in the economic prospects of African Americans and whites in the States. So, this just sort of adds to what already is happening in the state.”
In arguing for the bill, sponsored by Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, lawmakers insisted their constituents believe children are being “indoctrinated” to accept progressive ideals. This comes after a failed attempt to ban the 1619 Project by Iowa native and New York Times investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her essay in the project. It also comes after a failed attempt by Republican lawmakers to limit or ban Black Lives Matter week and the affiliated documents shared with teachers and students after Ames school officials participated.
It’s difficult to recognize Iowa Nice when Iowa seems so hellbent on enabling the continued discrimination and inequality of minority people via gatekeeping of education and encouragement of principles that overlook or ignore real, systemic inequities.
As a queer woman of color, and the person who’s writing this column, I’ve been no stranger to hate and discrimination, especially in the classroom during my time at the University of Iowa. Most of my negative experiences fall under microaggressions, like being interrupted or silenced in meetings, the assumption that my life experience equates to that of all other Black women, policed over the tone I use (which is assertive, not aggressive — cue the angry Black woman stereotype), judged as unprofessional over the way I present myself (hair in its natural curls and/or Afro), tokenization for my apparent exceptionality — the list goes on.
What most people don’t understand is that these instances don’t stem from intentional acts of meanness or a conscious attempt to engage in racist behavior. Rather, they might seem to be well-meaning, postulating in their own special form of gaslighting.
What really seems to be happening in Iowa, and across the nation, is a weaponization of language and manipulation of how people are using it to reassert their preconceived beliefs and values in lieu of the push for social progress after the upheaval of the summer of 2020, when racial injustice, health care disparities and inaccessibility, gender inequality, LGBTQ+ issues and more were thrust into public discourse. The idea that the United States, and Iowa as a byproduct, is fundamentally racist or sexist is not a new idea — and it is not an unfounded one. Critical race theory is a concept that’s been around for decades, originating in the 1970s, to understand inequality and racism in the U.S. It’s a well-founded theory that many experts in academia agree upon. That’s why it’s rather interesting to see the pushback on teaching its concept to impressionable young minds that want to participate in civic engagement.
“Every major scholar, political leader, thought leader, knows that this is not a new thing,” Dr. Paige said. “There is systemic racism in the U.S. It's not been up for debate by anybody who knows anything about racial inequality in the US.
“It also sets Iowa back. I don't even know what you would include in a diversity training, based on this vague language, because it's such an accepted social fact that our institutions have racism embedded in them … At the core, the most problematic thing is that it's just not true. It's a backward way of thinking about things. It's anti-social progress, it's anti-intellectual. It wouldn't be something that any well read person in the U.S. would really advocate for,” Dr. Paige said.
The land of Iowa was formerly ruled by Indigenous people before it was forcibly taken from them. Many of the counties and cities in Iowa have names stemming from tribal language and territories. The very economy of the United States, and Iowa by extension, was made possible by enslaved people who turned this country into a global power based on the proliferation of goods, abuse of power, and exploitation of labor. Racism has impacted every part of life for people in the United States, historically — that is a fact. It still does, according to scholars, researchers, experts and more at the Urban Institute and elsewhere.
Changes in the state like House File 802 are clear examples of how Iowa is actively working to undermine social mobility and progress for the sake of avoiding conflict and staunchly cementing the current Iowan way of life. However, changes like these are in no way indicative of the Iowa Nice the state claims to have. In fact, changes like these show just the opposite.
Life as a queer woman of color, Iowa has not been nice. It’s part of the reason why this writer is leaving to do work on the ground in Chicago, where there are a large share of similar issues, but definitely a more open market for public discourse that isn’t attempting to silence the voices of the youth, of minorities, and of academics. It’s why Dr. Paige is also leaving elsewhere to complete research and present that research in a place more receptive to doing real groundwork.
Iowa Nice is a myth, because when the government begins to target educational institutions to ban teaching, that’s a sign that there’s no real interest in intellectual growth and social progress.
Nichole Shaw is a 2021 honors graduate of the University of Iowa, where she studied journalism and English on the publishing track with a keen interest in issues of social and racial justice, particularly as it concerned diversity, equity, and inclusion. Comments: email@example.com
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