Downtown Boise seen from the Boise Depot on March 20, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
That’s not who we are, Idaho.
It’s a phrase that over the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time sitting with, weighing its true meaning in my mind.
It’s a phrase I used to accept instantly at face value. I trusted it, believed in it to my core, because I was raised to believe that although we may all have differences, in the end, we step up as Idahoans and come together for the common good to do the right thing for one another.
Now it’s a phrase I have to take a step back from, evaluate from all sides and truly ask myself if it lives up to the ideals it so simply but powerfully professes.
We have been forced to adopt “That’s not who we are, Idaho” in times of trouble more and more often lately, as if by now, it’s simply reflex or, worse, habit.
When Nazis proudly sporting SS images on their bodies and badges disrupted a Black Lives Matter rally in downtown Boise last summer and our own beloved Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial was defaced with swastikas in December, we said that’s not who we are, Idaho.
When groups of protesters descended on private homes with lit torches, effigies and bullhorns to intimidate state and local politicians, a law enforcement officer and a judge, we said that’s not who we are, Idaho.
When a 19-year-old legislative staffer accused Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston, of rape during public testimony before the House Ethics Committee and she was openly laughed at and chased from Idaho’s most treasured state building, we said that’s not who we are, Idaho.
Then on Monday, Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise — the only Black man to serve in the Idaho Legislature — rose to speak.
He debated in favor of fully funding our public education institutions by taking, head on, disingenuous and dangerous multi-million dollar cuts proposed by conservatives that would slash diversity programming at our universities. During his emotional debate, he was interrupted by several members of the body, including Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard — who has been photographed in the past proudly holding a Confederate flag.
Republican Reps. Scott and Ron Nate were made so uncomfortable by a Black man giving his perspective on racism and how we talk about it that they argued he couldn’t bring up critical race theory and how it affects us as Idahoans after they themselves invoked the very same topic during debate against the budget bill not 13 minutes before.
Already, some of us are saying that’s not who we are, Idaho.
But if we can’t stop making national headlines for our most egregious embarrassments, if we can’t agree we must stop racism in its tracks, if we can’t pass common sense legislation that protects officials, their children and their neighbors from being harassed at their own homes, if we can’t hold accountable Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, who posted online the photo and name of the young staffer in the von Ehlinger case, perhaps it’s time to admit: This is who we are, Idaho.
It may not be what we want to believe about ourselves. Many of us want better for our state, and from our fellow Idahoans — especially those in power.
But if we want to finally shed Idaho’s harmful stereotypes that still link racism and our state in outsiders’ minds, perhaps it’s time to admit that we’ve been here before. And in the same breath, perhaps it’s time to meaningfully call upon — and financially support — our humanities groups who have worked so hard to eradicate the ugly aspects of our past like the Ayran Nations’ foothold in North Idaho.
Perhaps it’s time to stand up en masse and say we do not accept the continued assault on our K-12 education system and actively defend our dedicated and underpaid teachers, who are already at a breaking point due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If we really want the educated workforce that we undeniably need to propel Idaho’s economy forward, perhaps it’s time for the lobbyists and the business leaders who pay them — from all industries from all corners of the state — to completely and continuously denounce the 1950s Southern-style rhetoric shared on the House floor that calls for financial divestment in our diversity and inclusion efforts at our higher education institutions.
Perhaps it’s time to listen to people of color who have experienced racism in this state, to believe them when they say we can and should do better for all Idahoans.
Perhaps it’s time.
Now, we must come together to fight this fear-driven rhetoric by staying involved with the political process, holding our public officials accountable for the things they say and do, and voting backward thinkers out of this legislative body once and for all.
We must and we will.
Because while this might be who we are right now, I refuse to accept that this is who we will continue to be, Idaho.
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