House File 802: If we don’t talk about injustice, all is right with the world
Interview with Billie Wade, Guest Writer and PrairieFire graduate
Interviewed by Terri Mork Speirs, Director of Community Relations
August 2021 — This month we offer a different format to Billie’s blog. We have interviewed Billie to dig deeper into some of the concerns and opportunities on the topic of racism.
Terri: Hi Billie! To help our readers understand our relationship, I want to start by sharing that you and I have known each other for over ten years. We first met at a networking event, following our unfortunate experiences with job-loss in the 2009 recession. Fast forward to 2020 and the renewed awakening to the horrific realities of systematic racism. You have served as a teacher to me and many of us who want to learn how to be an anti-racist. (More on that later in the interview.) Can you tell us about Iowa House File 802?
Billie Wade: Hi Terri! I am glad to share my perspective of Iowa House File 802, signed into law on June 8, 2021, by the governor. The Act steps toward eliminating discussions about racism, diversity, and inclusion, beginning with government agencies and public institutions of education. Dialogue about how Black people continue to be subjected to systemic—also known as systematic—denial of human rights is now illegal. The law specifically prohibits some fundamental rights of free speech.
Terri: This law seems to make illegal exactly what you and I have been doing: discussing racism past and present, and seeking to understand how it works. Is this law unique to Iowa?
Billie Wade: Iowa is part of a trend of state legislatures across the United States that are enacting laws to eliminate discussions addressing continued racist tyranny. Talks of inequitable treatment of certain groups of people—usually Black people and people of color—can no longer be presented if such training is classified as “mandatory.”
However, the Sec 2. NEW SECTION. 261H.7 of the law also specifically outlines prohibited topics.
Terri: I don’t understand how this law will help our community grow.
Billie Wade: We cannot create change if we cannot speak, teach, and learn the truth. We are severely restrained in our ability to do so just as the law is designed. Students at all levels, K-University graduate, are placed in a bubble in which they learn only what others want them to know, a very dangerous move.
Terri: In my own journey of racial reckoning, I’ve evolved. I used to think that I was a good person because I myself believed all races were equal. In my mind, I treated everyone the same. I’ve come to learn that racism is much more complicated. That racism is not just about me – it’s about deeply intertwined systems built on centuries of policies. How do you define racism?
Billie Wade: In my February 2021 column for the Center, An invitation to sit with your discomfort, allow it to speak to you, I define racism as “a system consisting of rules, laws, policies, and practices designed to disenfranchise nonwhite people. The organism systematically perpetuates the unfounded belief that Black people are inferior and, therefore, suitable for subjugation and exploitation.” Because racism is a system the tenets create self-defined—systemic or systematic—situations. A few examples:
- laws that make voting more difficult for Black neighborhoods by closing convenient polling locations and restricting voting hours;
- résumés not considered because the applicant’s name sounds “ethnic,”
- a White illicit drug dealer sentenced to five years in prison for possession of five hundred grams of powder cocaine while a Black illicit drug dealer is sentenced to five years for five grams of crack cocaine.
Terri: It’s like peeling an onion – the more you learn, the more there is. For example, recently I became aware of the “remember the Alamo” myth. I grew up believing the Alamo story was about freedom. Now I’m learning it was about preserving slavery. If learning actual history, backed up by research and facts, is the kind of education that House File 802 prohibits, that is concerning.
Billie Wade: Exposure by the stark light of the truth is our greatest weapon, of which the lawmakers are quite aware. They can no longer say, “I didn’t do it,” or “I didn’t know about it, so I’m not culpable.” These statements are excuses of self-exoneration and self-permission to continue reigns of unfounded persecution. HF 802, Section 2. 261H.7 specifically lists under “Race and sex stereotyping—training by institution prohibited” concepts that cannot be discussed. Black people have been subjected to “scapegoating,” “stereotyping,” and “Specific defined concepts” since our ancestors were brought to this country for slavery. Now, when White people, as a “collective” are called out for racist behaviors, there is a law prohibiting such. Black people cannot bring to the awareness of others the injustices and disparities of our daily existence. We cannot identify patterns of discrimination or seek reparations for injustices of the past that perpetuate today. We cannot protest denial of the only thing we have ever requested—Equal Opportunity.
Every generation is overwhelmed anew. We are called upon to pull from deep within to mobilize our individual resources—however meager we believe them to be—and to galvanize with the strengths of others. Our hope lies in synergy. We refuse to go away. We refuse to be cowed. We refuse to be eradicated. We have to keep going. We have to.
Terri: You already know this, but for the purposes of our readers I would like to mention that I am a bit self-conscious of placing you in a position of “my personal racism teacher.” I know that White people need to do their own learning and not rely on one individual to represent the entire Black experience. For me, I’ve learned much about racism through books, television and movies. (Happy to make recommendations.) I also count myself as one of the lucky ones who get to learn from you directly. You have said that you feel called to share your perspective.
What is your advice to White people who want to learn more?
Billie Wade: Learn all you can about racism in whatever way you can. Terri, the sources you mentioned are excellent. Genuine sensitivity and compassion are our only hope. We all must look to each other for the hard questions and for the hard answers. Because institutions are powered by people, people at the macro level must power the change. A difficult task at best, the onus is on each of us to consciously step into the discomfort of self-examination. We cannot change what we do not know. We cannot unknow what is brought into our awareness. When we are called out about a painful misstep, we can seek to recognize the feelings of the person we have hurt and reach out with sensitivity and compassion. We also can ask the person to listen to our story to resolve conflict. Reciprocation is key. An important question to get started is: “How can I see this differently?” We are then positioned to move forward.
Terri, thank you for your time and willingness to discuss a tough subject. You are paving the path for others on this interdependent journey in which we find ourselves. With joy, gratitude, and peace to everyone.
Terri: Thank you, Billie. I love how you say we are on an “interdependent journey.” I’m grateful to be on this path together with you and so many others.