Not too long ago, Dr. Annalise Fonza, a former minister now an atheist, wrote about her experience in a facebook Freedom From Religion Foundation “fan” group that got what to me seemed a disproportionate reaction. And where many it seemed were trying to put her in her “place”. She wrote a rather inoffensive post in which she responded to a Washington Times article that focused on some feminist’s views on Michelle Obama’s work as a first lady:
I wholeheartedly support Michelle Obama’s choice to be there daily for her children. Many black women have not had the luxury of this choice. They have had to work, sometimes two jobs, to survive and to provide for their children and partners The unapologetic commitment to her children, to ensure their safe arrival to young adulthood, is one of the best policy statements that a black woman can ever make!
This post should not be offensive to anyone who is familiar with the history of African Americans in this country. Black women have rarely had the ability to be stay at home mothers nor many of the other issues that
mainstream white feminists have sought to resolve. If you want to glimpse my meaning you can begin with Sojourner Truth‘s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech given in 1851 to a Women’s Convention and carefully consider the following:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Between reading Dr. Fonza and Sojourner Truth I am reminded of the struggles of many of my relatives but I will share one. My great-grandmother, some eighty years later would work long hours cleaning the homes of whites and washing out their laundry while my grandmother came home to a usually empty house, a sandwich in the ice box or a meal on the stove. This is not the life she would have desired for my grandmother whose young life was already complicated by being the only child of color in her hometown. This was not a single income home. Then and now black men and black women can expect to make less than their white counterparts even for the same work. Her mother was determined her daughter’s life would not be spent toiling in other’s homes. Her options were few, as they were for many black women at that time, but only two were considered acceptable or suitable for upward mobility; nurse or school teacher. She opted to be a nurse and and somehow managed on what I can only imagine to be little sleep to devote herself to her family and eventually earn a master’s degree in nursing. But anyone who knows my grandmother knows that nursing was not her passion. Her passion was her family. Had she been given a choice she would have devoted more attention to helping her children with homework than she did to the health of others. A choice many black women would have given anything and everything to have.
I don’t share this to defend Dr. Fonza, she is far more eloquent and she needs no defense from me. I shared this part of my life because this kind of story is typical of what many black people have known. It informs the position of black feminists who lie outside of the mainstream politic. In my mind feminism has always been about choice. And having said that, this is not a defense of Michelle Obama, who needs neither my approval nor my consent to make a decision as a grown, educated, accomplished, and capable woman to stay home and raise daughters to be the like. And before I move on, I find the charge that she is not doing enough by feminists insulting given the mainstream feminist dialectic about how undervalued domestic work and child-rearing are- you know the same domestic work that was outsourced to my great-grandmother and many of the women in my family before her! The same labor that many of the upper class outsource to hispanic women today. But this is not about that. This is about skepticism rather the problem that we have in the atheist/skeptical/freethought community and blindness to white supremacist patriarchy.
I am referring to the uncritical dismissal of race as a influencing factor in political, economic, and social affairs simply because we now know that it is not the biologically distinct category that we once thought it was. As though this fact somehow erases systematic institutional discrimination in numerous forms including failing educational systems, disproportionate sentences handed to defendants of color, wages, etc.
I am referring to the uncritical dismissal of the harm done to women and men by patriarchy. I am talking about the homophobia, misogyny, and harassment that is experienced by many of us in the so called community of atheists, skeptics, and freethinkers and the need for greater diversity.
So because so many people fall into this category let me liken it to something else you might understand or accept more easily- religion. In the very first chapter of “The Christian Delusion”, contributor David Eller, PhD, discusses Christianity within the context of culture. He makes the point that even when we leave the faith we still exist within cultures deeply rooted in religion. From our concepts of time, to our language, to our dress, etc. you can see the influence of religion everywhere. So leaving our houses of worship is just the beginning of transforming our consciousness and understanding, that is if we wish to understand, those who remain faithful.
Just like you have to understand Christianity as culture, you have to understand white supremacist patriarchy as culture. We have to understand how its art transforms bodies of those who aren’t white male heterosexuals into objects to be used for sexual pleasure or objects of curiosity. We have to understand how its politics disenfranchise and its economic systems are used to enslave and perpetuate a cycle of poverty. We have to understand how its language is used to demean and unfairly label others as weak, dangerous, inferior, and unworthy. And we have to understand that there may in fact be any number of ways in which this culture of white supremacist patriarchy, like any other culture, may impact things we haven’t begun to recognize.
And there are some in this community who have written fairly extensively on these issues, like Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson in her book Moral Combat who describes how African American adherence to christianity in some way relates to the “Great Chain of Being” where christian males with property are assumed to be fully human. This group is followed by the “lesser” classes, women, children, and the rest of the animal kingdom. Dr. Hutchinson details how acceptance of Christianity was at one point in time was a means of gaining freedom and a degree of acceptance but due to increased trade trading and demand for slaves laws were repealed which previously granted freedom to converted slaves. It was around 1680 when it became less common to refer to oneself as “Christian” and more common to refer to oneself as “English” or “free” and later “white”. This addition to the great chain of being meant fundamentally that blacks and other people of color were something less than authentic. They weren’t English, certainly not American, and for many not even human. This extension of the “Great Chain of Being” would justify the abuse, experimentation, and insult inflicted on black bodies for many years to come. It would justify the display of black bodies in zoos and parlors and the denigration of black culture, beliefs, contributions, and intellect that continues to this day. And for many the question has been: how could it be any other way unless god had sanctioned it? Blacks became the offspring of Ham, the cursed son of Noah. Despite all of this many slaves found comfort in the messages of deliverance from suffering, eternity in heaven, and being washed “whiter than snow”; a line that has literal and figurative meaning in black religious consciousness. This only begins to describe the complexity of the relationships blacks have with religious faith (and ultimately the American white Christian identity) as well as its connections to the very roots of myriad forms of oppression blacks have and continue to face (outlined well in Dr. Hutchinson’s Moral Combat). Similarly, religious belief is connected with other types of oppression and discrimination.
I say all of this to say that when we become atheists, skeptics, and freethinkers I think we need to understand the concept of culture and identity and how that discarding the explicit beliefs of a particular mindset that there still remains a whole set of assumptions and cultural patterns that you have to consider and discard. How can we expect to change this community and increase diversity if we continue to blind ourselves to the ongoing issues of sex and gender politics, or race, or handicap, or the numerous intersections therein?
How can it be different if we only want to use our intellectual tools and perspectives in this community to focus on a narrow set of interests?
If skepticism as skeptics we are interested in gathering information and considering all the facts how is it possible for some of us to dismiss all this history, all of the critical work in sociology, political science, and sociology? All of these lived experiences because they can’t be neatly quantified?
Oh wait some of them can be… Secular Census
And while there are several caveats to be made with regards to samples size (it might be nice if that were made apparent) and what have you but I believe that many of the findings would hold up even if you were to address them. they are telling us that women and minorities don’t feel welcome. And if the response to Dr. Fonza’s original post is an indicator, and I believe it is just one of many, then it should be no surprise as to why. I have seen it over and over again the attempts to silence and shame people in this community like the Skepchicks, Greta Christina, and others. I have seen white people in this community demand, as though they are owed an answer, for black atheists/skeptics/freethinkers to justify the way we identify ourselves and whine with phony accusations of reverse racism that they don’t feel comfortable or welcome. And in their dismissals and harassment of “others” I can always read their meaning: “your experiences, your opinions are not legitimate without our seal of approval.” And very little in my experience gets the seal of approval in this community unless it assumes whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality. And if you ask me, this is one more piece that supports the same conclusion.
And yet many in our community are still hesitant to educate themselves and recognize that freeing yourself from religion takes a lot more than switching your religious status to “agnostic” or “atheist” on Facebook and being a skeptic means more than reading scientific literature or blogs. The only thing that I am left to imagine is that many within the movement are happy to see its leadership and conferences filled with white males like the ivory towers many of them aspire to or worship; convinced that their meritocracy is above racial, gender, and other socioeconomic biases. Well the data is in… so now what?
I think its time to reflect and ask ourselves honestly about what we would like this community to be like- to look like? And I think that we have to stop burying our heads in the sand to avoid the discomfort of confronting these issues. I think some of us have to stop making the focus of skepticism so narrow that it excludes and makes us hostile to others. Who’s with me?
**Before anyone accuses me of trying to win the oppression Olympics (because I know that charge and inevitable the race card will be thrown out), all I can say is I was born what I am, when I was, into the world as it is, and I can only describe it from that perspective- from that lens. This lens doesn’t have the privilege of being rose colored and I don’t have the luxury of believing that being a black woman has nothing to do with how I am treated or regarded within this culture. **
Recommended Reading (In no particular order):
Dr. Annalise Fonza
Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson
Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars
The Christian Delusion