TWIN FALLS — “What is the story that we’ve always said about Arabs and Muslims?”
Adrienne Evans looked into the group gathered downstairs at First Presbyterian Church. Several uncomfortable seconds passed. And then, a few quiet voices answered, “They’re terrorists.”
She posed another question: “What are the stories we’ve told about black men?” The audience members responded with phrases such as “thugs” “drug addicts” and “angry.”
And women? Or “the perfect wife?” Someone who is subservient, one attendee said. Or not as bright as a man, another added.
Through interactions such as this one, Evans wished to illustrate how stereotypes and language affect a community and its members who are often seen as “the others.”
“The words that we use and the way we talk shapes the way we think,” Evans said. “It shapes the way we act.”
Evans, the executive director of United Vision for Idaho, presented these ideas to a group of more than 30 area residents on Sunday evening. Her lecture, “Words Matter,” was co-hosted by local residents Catherine Talkington and Deborah Silver.
Evans has taken this anti-discrimination lecture to schools across the state. She came to Twin Falls to teach people ways in which they can combat hate speech used by groups that have spoken out against refugees and immigrants. She handed out posters to all the attendees and encouraged them to share them with schools.
“I want to help, but I don’t know how to help — that’s why I came here,” Buhl resident Aimee Wright said. “I’m excited about the posters. It gives me a direction.”
Wright said she felt more supported by how many people showed up.
Sarah Cameron, a visiting student from the University of California — Santa Cruz, felt the lecture was a good beginner discussion on white privilege and what people’s roles in society are.
But the lecture was really just a jumping-off point to unpack how people have been conditioned, she said.
“I think it’s really important to introduce people to these concepts and ideas in a place where it’s safe to ask questions,” Cameron said. “I think we need to go farther.”
Much of Evans’ talk focused on how people can recognize how language, avoidance and discrimination affect others — even when they are done unintentionally. Instead of calling a person “disabled,” she said, say they are a person with disabilities — emphasis on the person. And instead of calling someone “illegal,” say they are a person “without documentation.”
“Every single person is a racist,” Evans said. “You can’t live in this society and not be. We are products of our environment.”
City Councilman Chris Talkington, whose wife was one of the organizers, said he was in favor of broadening the community’s perspective. He believed many of those who attended did so because they were curious.
The City Council passed a resolution earlier this year declaring Twin Falls a “neighborly community.” Two council members voted against the resolution, Talkington noted, and the Council has repeatedly heard from people opposing the city’s refugee center.
While some of that talk has subsided at meetings, “I don’t think it’s going away,” he said.
Evans encouraged people to think about what phrases they use — even commonplace ones such as “don’t be such a girl” — and to become an expert on issues by reading and talking about them. But she warned against going too far by victimizing people or trying to speak on their behalf.
She didn’t expect immediate change, but said something needed to happen.
“We did not get here overnight,” she said. “We’re not going to get out overnight.”