White Atheism and the Billboard Problem

A thoughtful, if also very pink, gathering of Secular Humanists.

Sikuvu Hutchinson has written an important piece (“Slaves like Us: American Atheists on the Plantation“) that I want to bring to your attention, but there is some context and background that goes with it. Well, background and context that goes with my understanding of her excellent blog post, that I thought I’d share with you.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Sivuku Hutchinson speak at the Moving Secularism Forward Conference in Orlando Florida. She gave an excellent talk which I hope you will be able to hear at some time in the future (you can hear it now if you want to make a donation!). Something interesting happened at the conference outside the immediate context of her speech but very relevant to it. During the Q&A period for one of the talks, an older gentleman (white, and that matters here) made what I’m sure he felt was an appropriate comment intended to be helpful and encouraging vis-a-vis the issue of diversity in the Humanist movement. He told us in his comment that he himself does not feel that he has a “color.” This was a variant on the claim of “color blindness” that we often hear mentioned in relation to policies or procedures or organizations or jobs and occasionally individuals, and it is meant to put racism in its place by denying it purchase. And that would be nice, but that is not how it really works. Both Debbie Goddard and Sikuvu Hutchinson later responded to the “I haz no color” remark quite properly by pointing out that people do have color and that this color is seen by … [fill in the list of all the people who see the color, including landlords, cops, employers, and although they did not mention it they could have included neighborhood watch Captains].

Sikuvu and Debbie’s remarks came during the morning prior to my own talk on political orientation of the Secular Humanist movement. I had been a bit nervous about that talk because I was thinking that maybe the Secular Humanists at this conference were like many Atheists and Skeptics I’ve met, who insist that there is not a political aspect to these movements. Frankly, when I hear that line being spoken I tend to check my wallet right away to see if it is still there, because it really is a line, and a rather dishonest one at that. But the session Debbie ran, in which Sikuvu spoke, was very clear on the centrality of politics in humanism. This allowed me to step back from the argument about whether or not there were details to discuss, and to discuss the actual details.

And two of those details, two things that I said to the audience, were left unresponded to and I’m not entirely sure why. So I’ll tell you, dear reader, what I said, and you can then proceed to pat me on the back or yell at me about how wrong I am, as you chose:

1) The Secular Humanist movement is at least 15 years behind where it needs to be on matters of race and racism. The good intent is there but the knowledge, training, and action are lacking; and

2) If you are a Secular Humanist, then you need to be able to honestly say the words “I am a feminist.” And if you find yourself disagreeing with that, then perhaps you don’t know what that word … “feminist” … means and should find out. And if you find out and you still don’t think you are one, then perhaps you should find a different movement.

I hate it when I say profound and provocative things like that and no one jumps to their feet to scream about it, one way or another. It is possible that the audience was waiting for me to finish so they could listen to Pat Schroeder and then get on with the business of going after the Libertarian on the panel.

… Steering back to the main point … The talks given by Debbie and Sikuvu, as well as a talk the next day by Anthony Pinn, all touched on the engagement of African American communities, or other communities of color, by humanist and atheist groups, and the nature of Atheism and Humanism in those communities. Between these talks and conversation on the floor, something I’ve felt for some time was strongly reinforced and clarified; If repulsion from anything religious shapes the nature of Atheist political engagement, then Atheism is going to remain mostly white. This is not because non-white/pink people are extra religious or need to have one foot in each community or anything like that. Rather it has to do with the structure of communities, which is partly historical, partly political, and largely beyond the scope of this blog post.

To make my point clear to the average White Atheist, let me provide an example of something I observed a couple of years ago. Oh, what the hell, I’ll even sort of name names.

When I mentioned the YWCA to fellow atheists at the Secular Humanist Conference, the universal response was "what does their mission statement say"? I don't know, but I do know that their motto and logo are cool.

For some reason that is not important, I attended a meeting of the Minnesota Atheists board. At this meeting, the problem came up that there was a date for which a speaker had been arranged, but no venue for the talk. As the board discussed possible venues, I opened my mouth (out of turn, I’m sure) and suggested the South Minneapolis YWCA, which had pretty good facilities and was centrally located and so on and so forth. The idea was summarily rejected because the YWCA is a “Christian” organization.

I felt at the time, and still feel, that this was an incorrect decision. The “Y” in Minneapolis is not a “Christian” organization. Or if it is, it is one that harbored for a couple of years a Mosque, which was also a set of basketball courts, for recently arrived Somali people in the neighborhood, that had on their schedule during the entire time that I was a member (the Y was my local gym) exactly zero religious looking public events, that provided regardless of creed or color or even political orientation sliding scale membership, daycare, and all sorts of public services that were distinctly secular in their delivery, and a place where every single member that I personally knew (again, this was my neighborhood gym) was an atheist. To this day, I know a number of staff members at the Y and they are not religious in any way.

On top of that, who cares? Wouldn’t it be good if the occasional Minnesota Atheist meeting was held in this or some other “Y” (-W- or -M- as the case may be)? Minnesota Atheists (the organization) would get to have a sign saying “This way to Minnesota Atheist Sponsored Talk on Some Cool Topic or Another, all Welcome” on a sandwich board in front of a busy community center. Why would we not want that? For the most part, I can see not bothering to have meeting in churches and temples and mosques, but the Y is not a church or a temple or a mosque, and by systematically excluding it from consideration one is actually systematically excluding a community that we need to engage.

So, when I went over to Anthony Pinn at the conference and said something like “I think many Humanist and Atheist groups need to rethink what they are doing at their own edges, in how they engage with religious or semi-religious groups,” his reply was something like “from where I stand, I don’t see that conversation as being worth the breath.” Strictly avoiding engagement with a ymCa or ywCa or whateverwhatever-C-whateverwhatever was simply not an option for him, made no sense, and constitutes an entirely unworkable strategy for developing Humanist and Atheist movements outside of Whitedom.

Which brings us to the Atheist Billboard in Harrisberg Pennsylvania. Read Sikuvu Hutchinson’s blog post about it, carefully, and send a link to her post around because it should be widely read. A lot of Atheism is White Atheism and White Atheism is a self perpetuating phenomenon, much to the chagrin, I am sure, of many White Atheists if they only thought about it.

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13 Responses to White Atheism and the Billboard Problem

  1. Pingback: Something about politics and race : Greg Laden's Blog

  2. Jeff Sherry says:

    Within the atheist community we do need to shut up and listen to other voices within our community. If we don’t we’ll remain an all white male “club”.

  3. robertbaden says:

    I have problems with people who say “white males” when talking about racism.
    The privileged group in that discussion is whites, including women.

  4. Darryl Pickett says:

    Hi Greg,
    I was there and greatly enjoyed your talk. (If your photo revealed more seats to the right, you’d be able to see me.) I was greatly cheered by your comment #2, and figured the lack of vocal response to it signaled more assent than anything else. Perhaps too optimistic an assumption. We do have a long way to go. (Really, I have a long way to go.) Sikivu Hutchinson’s talk was the most challenging and eye-opening to me, as she said things that I had never heard before, and I felt immediately how out of touch and out of date my views and assumptions must be. I bought her book and thanked her in person for shaking me up. (And I’m getting a lot out of reading it, in particular, how much more I have to learn.) For me, the conference was a series of wake-up calls and revelations. It was my first such meeting, but it won’t be my last.

  5. Lovely framing for this discussion, Greg. Your questions are right on the money, and I wish I could say I’m surprised to hear about the nonreaction they prompted. I’ve raised similar issues at skeptical and atheistic events here in New York, and have been frustrated by the lack of concern with the problem of exclusion. As I often say, the fact that so many white secularists don’t see this as a problem is itself a major problem, and one that needs to be addressed loudly and often. It’s a great joy to me to see it being addressed in this forum.

    As for the white gentleman who isn’t white, the normalization of whiteness is old news, and something I address with my students every semester. Cognitive biases certainly are amazing things.

  6. Egaeus says:

    Sorry Greg, but Ronald Bailey had riled me up, and I agreed with you on your profound points. Ron and I debated later in the bar as well.

    In other news, I finally made it onto FtB! Too bad it’s just a picture of my crazy hair, and I’m apparently very interested in my arms.

  7. Hey, that’s me in that picture there! I think that’s about the point when I was calling Ronald Bailey’s graph misleading.
    I enjoyed your talk, but I must say Sivuku Hutchinson’s was probably one of the best of that weekend.

  8. Darryl Pickett says:

    StarStuff, I enjoyed your turn at the mic with Ron Bailey.

  9. Here’s another take on the Kony issue. Apparently, Invisible Children has taken a lot of money from extreme right wing groups such as Focus on The Family (over $4m), the Family Research Council (over $2M) and others.

    As so many have said, Kony needs to be stopped, but he exists in a larger cultural and political climate. Removing him, while supporting the Ugandan government may not actually help the people. Perhaps it will, I just don`t know.

    http://blogs.alternet.org/speakeasy/2012/03/11/invisible-children-funded-by-antigay-creationist-christian-right/

  10. Egaeus says:

    StarStuff, I personally enjoyed your turn at the bar with Ron Bailey, though it wasn’t exactly what I would call a constructive dialogue.

    And darn it, now you know my alias, and I can’t trole u now…. :)

  11. barfy says:

    What makes you think the man was “white?”
    Was it his skin color? His nose?
    According to your words, he self-identified as having no color.
    Then you charge him with the overtly and offensive racial slur, “I haz no color,” as if his declaration was, prima facie, racist.
    Maybe it was. I don’t know. But unless he denied racism exists, which your entry does not address, you can’t know either.
    Your pejorative and racist labeling was every bit as offensive as any racist epithet meant to denigrate any human being. You owe him an apology.
    If your argument was that we are not in a post-racial society, and that we need to recognize this as fact – I agree.
    You, however, just promulgated and encouraged MORE racism.
    People have to be allowed to self-identify as a basic human right if society is to evolve – no irony intended.
    Secular Humanism must strive to be the vanguard of human rights.
    It’s time we all recognize just what that really means.

    I am truly sorry for you that you consider yourself “pink.”
    Hopefully, someday, you’ll recognize how self-denigration does not mean self-awareness or self-improvement.

  12. Greg Laden says:

    barfy, actually, IIRC, he said he was white when he introduced himself. Also, I did not say that his remarks were racist. That is something you added. I actually state that his remarks, while not helpful and while indicating that he did not understand the situation, showed a positive but unlearned attitude on his part.

  13. barfy says:

    Thanks for the clarification.
    Keep up the good work!

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