Tag Archives: atheists

Jamila Bey? CPAC Atheist? Huh?

The American Conservative Union’s Annual CPAC conference was last week. The Conference plays host to the most conservative right-wing portion of the Republican party. Many identify as tea partiers and are pro-gun, anti-immigration, anti-union, anti-big government (and by extension many federal and public programs), and they are huge fans of free market capitalism. And given some of the extremely racist sexist, nativist, and homophobic things that have come out of this movement, it is a wonder that a so-called humanist organization would choose to be among them, to recruit, or to increase the visibility of atheist conservatives. What may have been more perplexing though was the appearance that was made by social and political commentator, columnist, and podcaster, Jamila Bey in conservative Stepford Wife drag complete with a wig.

It was baffling to many of us. Those of us who have often thought of Jamila as a liberal progressive given many of her prior stances on issues. Her program SPAR with Jamila certainly gave the impression of someone with a liberal progressive consciousness. We’ve heard her speak on everything from reproductive rights, gay rights, to other issues affecting the underprivileged and disenfranchised. So to see her rubbing elbows with the CPACkers, many of whom are undermining the the rights of women, those that identify as LGBT, and people of color is disheartening. Just as it is disheartening to see Dr. Ben Carson, who grew up poor and who should know how important the expansion of healthcare is, to condemn “Obamacare” as “the worst thing that has happened to our country since slavery.” SINCE SLAVERY! In another demonstration of mind-boggling ignorance Carson blamed feminism for single motherhood which he thinks led to the death of Michael Brown, despite the fact that both of his biological parents were involved in his life.  Equally infuriating is Congresswoman Mia Love, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, who favors policies that might have kept her own parents from staying in the US and who spoke of wanting to destroy to Congressional Black Caucus from the inside. Demonizing and pathologizing black people and other minorities has been a strategy of the Republican party for a long time, and having people of color willing to engage in this sort of behavior helps the party to justify their rhetoric as simply “tough” or “patriotic”. But no matter how they deflect, these types of statements are racist and bigoted and are designed to appeal to their largely white male base.

So, it sucks to see someone who you have admired use “we”, “our”, and “us to describe vague points of supposed agreement she shares with right-wing extremists, especially when she is known for challenging people and being outspoken on many progressive issues. For instance, I think many of us were proud of her when she openly challenged the representative for the Coalition of African American Pastors when they came out publicly against same sex marriage. But seeing her throw immigrants under the bus as she did came out of left field. She chose to say that children from outside the US had a better chances of getting into elite schools than American children, instead of challenging the conservative republican ideal of decreasing taxes and the size of government that has reduced state funding of institutions of higher learning. Reductions that in turn drive up the cost of tuition, reduces student financial aid, and reduces enrollment. And it is a little ironic and sad to see Jamila plea for acceptance and to be embraced by a group of mostly white male affluent bigots, whilst representing a self-professed “humanist” organization that appropriates civil and social justice language. A “humanist” organization that has expressed little to no commitment to causes that don’t concern privileged white males. A humanist organization whose president talks about equality and freedom but only for a narrow group of mostly white anti-theists and only when it puts him and the organization in a position to antagonize the religious.

In her brief speech she echoed the familiar revisionist history that so many Republicans use to try to appeal to the black community: that their party fought for abolition. As party they share a name with the Republicans of old who labored to help free the slaves but I doubt very seriously that the Republicans of the 1860’s would support the current incarnation of their party. I don’t think that Republicans like Frederick Douglass, who supported universal suffrage and spoke against abuses of the carceral system (which really amounted to re-enslavement), would have looked favorably upon the GOP’s support of voter suppression laws or an unregulated economy where rich corporate interests are free to run amuck.

Recently Jamila wrote a piece about her experience, and I’m not sure if she is being deliberately obtuse or what. But it is difficult to believe someone as polished and politically savvy as she seems to be would really think it odd that people are interested in knowing about her political views, after she decided to appear before CPAC and out herself as a Republican. Now all of a sudden she is “purplish”? I don’t get it. But I agree with James Croft, that coming out as a Republican (at CPAC of all places), whatever her views on social justice or civil liberties may be, tells you more than a little bit about her priorities-whether she cares to admit it or not.

Recommended Reading
CPAC: Hackneyed and Hollow

Yes, Atheists Can Be Conservatives. But Why Would We Want To?

American Atheists’ Outreach at CPAC: Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Conservatives? I Am.

The Lobbying Game

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On Division and Solidarity

Discussions about solidarity and division in the secular community are nothing new. There are people in the larger movement that feel that only strict matters related to church and state separation or science advocacy, secular hallmarks, should be central. Feminists and those interested in addressing homophobia, transphobia, racism, xenophobia, are termed as “Social Justice Warriors”. A term that is meant to be derogatory and dismissive, as though those concerns are not “real”. When we offer critiques on the larger movement, we are seen as divisive.It is funny that within the secular movement that even organizations and leaders who claim to be humanist would regard our calls for inclusion, for compassion, and for even the very recognition of the value of lives who are not afforded the same type of regard extended to white cis-hetero bodies as divisive. What kind of humanism is that? None that I recognize.

Thankfully this hasn’t deterred brilliant leaders, bloggers, and activists like Sikivu Hutchinson, Greta Christina, Kimberly Veal, Heina Dadabhoy, Rebecca Watson, Surly Amy, and others from speaking out and confronting many of the contradictions of the professed humanism of the secular “elite”. I have taken the same position that many of them have taken regarding these “divisions”: they exist for a reason and they are necessary. Not all divisions are petty or small. And those divisions which concern deeply held principles, should not be disregarded for the sake of petty solidarity.

Petty solidarity is simply falling in line, never challenging the status quo, not speaking out when you or when you see others dehumanized. Petty solidarity demands SILENCE. Petty solidarity makes one complicit in VIOLENCE. Petty solidarity never seeks out root causes. Petty solidarity loves it’s empty slogans.

Some divisions exist for good reasons.

Not all “solidarity”, not all “allyship” is productive. Not all “solidarity” or “allyship” lives up to true humanistic ideals.

We can see examples of this throughout history in the struggle for abolition, civil rights, and gender equality. We can see where on the surface those fighting for their humanity and their so-called “allies” appeared to have similar goals but beneath the surface we see how phony and how the beliefs, actions, or inaction of so called allies undermined the overarching goal of achieving full recognition as a human being. Within the abolition movement, for example, there were white abolitionists who fought against the institution of slavery but ultimately did not believe that black people (or any people of color) were in fact equals and deserving of full human and civil rights. The video below illustrates this fact using the example of Tobias Lear:

This video, which is obviously intended to be humorous, is truthful in its depiction of the problem of the popular depictions of white abolitionists as universally heroic and humanistic in their motives. Even while abolitionists like John Brown, and his raid on Harper’s Ferry, are usually regarded with disdain. As Frederick Douglass himself noted, discussion of this incident and various insurrections (if they are ever mentioned) usually focuses on his violence towards the “peaceful” white populace, ignoring the violence that the participants were attempting to end.

Differences existed between Frederick Douglass and other prominent black leaders such as Henry Highland Garnet. Douglass regarded Garnet, who by the way was the first African American to speak before Congress, as “too radical”. Though, I wish he might have heeded, as we all should, some the wisdom of Henry Highland Garnet who once said, ” Eternal justice holds a heavy mortgage against us and will require the payment of the last farthing.” Perhaps, if he and others had heeded those words, the work of Reconstruction, The Civil Rights Movement, and other movements might not have been left unfinished and people of color, in particular, would not be as we find ourselves today.

Frederick Douglass was also a supporter of women’s sufferage even found himself contending with white supremacists within that movement just as Ida B. Wells and black suffragists did. He specifically spoke out against these elements and named Frances Willard, a women’s suffragist, who like many whites in that movement, defended mass lynchings and violence towards black men as necessary for the preservation of white womanhood.

Should Douglass or Ida B. Wells have remained silent? Should they have allowed women like Frances Willard to say those horribly racist things and simply continued raising the banner for women’s suffrage? Should Ida B. Wells have been content marching behind the white delegations just so that she could be in solidarity with the overall goal of women’s suffrage? Surely not.

Even within the activist movements of the Reconstruction Period and the 1960’s there were divisions among black men and women regarding “the place” of women in that movement. Some black men in those movements felt that black women’s clubs and black women leaders like Daisy Bates undermined their black masculinity, something they felt these movements would redeem. What was missed by them and remains missed by many is that the focus on this narratives erased the struggles of black women. Black women were not seen as having suffered as much due to racism because they were able to find works as domestics at times when black men were deliberately excluded from the work force. But black women didn’t exactly have it made, as salve nor as domestics. In addition to sexual harassment and sexual violence black women faced the were also vulnerable to wage discrimination and other unfair and now illegal practices. We still are to a  certain extent.These narratives have also excluded how racism and sexism made black women vulnerable to domestic and sexual violence within their own communities as well.

Similar divisions continue to plague the mainstream feminism movement, as women of color, poor women, and women in the developing world struggle to have their voices heard in a movement where the lives of white upper middle class women are centered. A movement where some of these white privileged women tell the rest of us to “lean in” while ignoring the systemic discrimination that keeps us out.

None of these issues are trivial. None of these divisions are meaningless.

And so too, when we look at the state of the secular community with it’s divisions, we should keep in mind that some divisions, some stands, are necessary. We cannot be expected to trade our humanity and dignity for separation of church and state, atheist memorials, and meaningless rallies where we gloat over how smart we all are for coming to non-belief. Some of us need and desire more. Some of us want to challenge dogmas beyond what deity may lurk in the cosmos. Some of us don’t want to dehumanize the faithful. Some of us don’t want to blame faith for “crippling” communities of color without acknowledging the more significant impact of white supremacy and institutional discrimination. We don’t want to be Charlie Hebdo, because while we value free speech and freedom of the press, we recognize that speech can also contribute to violence and that speech can also dehumanize. We recognize that satire can also contribute to the oppression of others. And, yes, we love science and reason but we know that they aren’t enough. We know that they are tools. They are tools that can build better futures or destroy lives, humanity of others, and even the planet itself. And because we know these things we are comfortable with division. Because sometimes divisions matter.

So what is solidarity?

It is putting aside your privilege to stand in defense of others like Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who lost their lives along with James Chaney in their efforts to fight for the right of black people to be represented. Solidarity is not affirming that #AllLivesMatter when black and brown ones are ended by state violence or banished by disproportionate incarceration. It isn’t engaging in narratives that claim that the “moral arc” that Martin Luther King said “bends towards justice” is somehow pulled by “science and reason” (as is claimed by Michael Shermer*), without at the very least acknowledging that both have pulled that arc in the opposite direction as well. It means we do not simply defer to power or the privileged. And we don’t just give them credit because they utter nice things about diversity, or even because they allow a small number of minorities to have a voice in their movement. It isn’t being able to point at a single black friend (who probably has never been to your house). And as beautiful and as touching as some moments of altruism can be, that time you did a favor for a black person doesn’t count either. Solidarity is recognizing the humanity and the needs of your fellow human being EVEN WHEN IT IS NOT CONVENIENT FOR YOU TO DO SO, and responding. And it means that we challenge one another to be and to do better. That, is what solidarity is.

*Michael Shermer wrote a book, The Moral Arc, that makes the grand claim that reason and science are the forces that are driving humanity towards a better morality.

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How to win friends and influence people in the mainstream secular community as a person of color

This is a list I have compiled based on observations of some of the so-called black leaders in the atheist/secular communities:

1. Allow yourself to be tokenized. Don’t let the fact that you are the only or one of 2 faces of color represented in the leadership or speaker’s list of [insert name of conference here] after years of discussions on the lack of diversity in the atheist community bother you. Remember: You are special (Even if all you can do is bash the religious and social institutions of the community you claim to represent with little to no meaningful critique of white supremacy or patriarchy.).

2. Do cover for organizations that make little to no meaningful efforts to improve diversity or address intersectionality. Tell people that the lack of inclusion is accidental or that the problem is that minorities don’t seek after mainstream organizations (and not the other way around). Say that you have to give them credit for trying despite the lack of measurable progress.

3. Do make sure to fill your presentations that invoke racist dichotomies and stereotypes. Be sure to say things like “the black community does rely heavily on dogma, superstition, and religion”, refer to black leaders as “chitlin circuit” personalities, be sure to characterize black Christians as violent and hostile, etc. You can make passing references to the long-term effects of racism but make sure to emphasize that black people are uncritical, frivolous, and superstitious and in desperate need of salvation via non-belief.

4. Engage in a lot of self-promotion. Don’t highlight other organizations or leaders in the community. Don’t partner with other groups to make progress towards addressing problems faced by communities of color.

5. Do not speak out against racism or injustice in general. AND don’t attempt to use your influence to convince atheist/humanist organizations, even those whose boards you sit on, to commit to agendas that are pro-social justice even when those agendas intersect with mainstream secular issues like science education.

6. Do throw parties and rallies. And only parties and rallies.

7. Do castigate religious (especially black religious) organizations for their lack of transparency, while making little to no effort towards transparency yourself. Do have programs that collect money annually but post no annual reports or demonstrate how the funds are utilized.

8. Do inflate your membership numbers  and rally attendance. 

9. Never criticize or correct the mainstream movement, it’s leadership, or anyone who makes statements that are racist or insensitive. It’s not that people are intentionally racist or forwarding agendas that are white supremacist by nature, it’s all in your mind. It’s simply your perception. Stop being offended so we can all have fun, ok? Cause being offended is a choice. The offender bears no responsibility.*

10. Do repeat all the trite slogans like “good without god”.

* These are sarcastic paraphrases of things I’ve actually heard people say in this community. 

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Why I need spaces for POCs…

Earlier this year, I wrote a blog entitled: “Ain’t I a Skeptic?”. The piece was written primarily out of my frustration with the skeptical and secular (AND feminist) communities and their post-racialist color-blind stance that generally assures that white experiences/ cultural perspectives/ philosophies/ etc. take precedence over those of people of color. It is because the views and experiences of people of color are ignored or purposely cherry picked that we are rendered invisible. And it never fails that when we as people of color begin to speak up for ourselves and share our narratives that the post-racialist “we are all Africans” crowd attempts to put us in our place. Observe:

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Imagine the level of entitlement a white male in this country must feel when he labels the event described in the photo as an example of discrimination. What little must he think of the discrimination that people of color face on a daily basis? Forget stop and frisk, forget the school to prison pipeline, and the economic and health disparities that exist between white people and other groups- because here we have a conversation where whiteness and the perspectives of whites are not given priority.

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That is a question best addressed to the landowning,slave-holding, white male Christians of the the past who prior to the 1700’s offered slaves the opportunity to gain freedom in exchange for religious conversion and later changed the laws to make servitude indefinite and a condition based primarily on skin color. You can also ask them why they infused their racism into scientific theories and movements while you are at it. Meanwhile, I and others will attempt to untangle how this legacy of racism and religious ideology has contributed to some of the problems we face as people of color. Next!

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I’m so glad she asked that question, it is a question most people of color ask themselves from the time they are children. That is the very same question we ask when we want flesh colored band-aids, dolls, action figures,  when our lives and bodies aren’t valued, or when we are denied justice. But I’m guessing that isn’t what she meant…

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Once again, we come against this ignorant reduction of racism. We aren’t merely coming together on the basis of skin color we are coming together on the basis of our experiences as people who live in a society that discriminates against and marginalizes us because of skin color and ethnicity. This is not about dehumanizing, marginalizing, or disparaging white people. It is about educating, empowering, uplifting, understanding and coalescing with others of like mind and experience. And that is why It doesn’t shock me to find that those who unconsciously uphold white supremacy, and are loathe to deal with what racism and discrimination really are, can’t seem to understand why the decision to reveal non-belief as a person of color could be paralyzing. Image

These are not even the worst responses to this project or towards similar spaces devoted to giving a voice to people of color. But these responses are an example of why I and many others seek spaces for and created by people of color to discuss how our race, ethnicity, and culture intersect with secularism, politics, sex, gender, feminism, etc. And these responses are why many organizations and spaces struggle with diversity because when they fail to take into account race/ethnicity impact the experiences of their target audiences they assume heterogeneity. And because we live in a culture that assumes that whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality are the norm, so follows the assumptions of organizations that practice “blindness”. But I argue that this “blindness” is not benign but a strategy to maintain the status quo. Remember the words of Alice Walker: “No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.”

And if the responses to Thursday night’s #POCBeyondChat are any indication, then there are voices that will not be silenced and people who are both willing to grow and support the growth of communities of color. If that sounds like you, feel free to join us this Sunday @ 2 pm EST on Youtube as well as #POCBeyondChat on Twitter (Black Freethinkers will continue the conversation on Blogtalk Radio @ 1 pm EST) I hope to see you there.

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Billboard Brouhaha

Recently, Sikivu Hutchinson wrote a wonderfully insightful piece taking down the responses by many atheists to the topic of diversity and whether the movement should concern itself with issues of social justice. I highly recommend you read it, there are few others in the secular community that are as masterful at articulating these issues as she is (though Jamila Bey, Ian Cromwell, and a handful of others come to mind).

I bring this up because the need for people like Sikivu and so many others to continue fighting for diversity and to hold discussions of issues concerning white privilege, race, etc is underscored by recent events surrounding this:

In case you aren’t familiar with this story, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives have called this the year of the Bible. The resolution among other things says that the bible “inspired [the] concepts of civil government” contained in our nation’s founding documents. **Barf** It also suggests that by “Renewing our knowledge of and faith in God through holy scripture” that our nation can be strengthened. **Double Barf**

So understandably atheists and secularists, along with anyone with any understanding of history, can understand why those and other statements in the resolution are not only wrong but also offensive. They are offensive because not only was our nation was founded on the separation of church and state, but this sort of resolution also ignores all the citizens who lack faith but those who share in other faiths as well. Then there are a whole slew of reasons I could get into about how the bible is not the wonderful moral document that its advertised to be but I won’t- at least not today.

In response to this resolution the Pennsylvania Chapter of American Atheists decided to protest this resolution by exercising their first amendment rights and putting up this billboard. The message according to Ernest Perce of the PA chapter is that,”Slavery is brought to you by the bible and the House of Representatives.” I am not sure how slavery “is brought” to you by the legislature but I think taking a dig at the bible to show that it’s not the epitome of moral truth is warranted. That is a perfectly valid discussion to have since the bible condones and sanctions a number of horrific acts.

But what was the reaction to this billboard? Hostility and a great deal of it.

The billboard was placed in a predominantly black neighborhood in Harrisburg and residents there were extremely offended by  the image of a slave in chains. Some, including at least one member of the NAACP viewed this as a racist message targeting blacks and viewed it as a hate crime. Now that was clearly an overreaction.  But not all the criticism of this billboard amounts to an overreaction.  I think if anything this incident just demonstrates a lack of cultural sensitivity on behalf of the American Atheists. Slavery and its history in our country is a very difficult subject to discuss particularly in relationship to blacks in this country.  It’s true that many of the horrific and brutal aspects of slavery were defended using the bible, which is what I think American Atheists were trying to convey, but the bible is not the primary reason blacks were enslaved.  Talking about why blacks were enslaved and continue to deal with discrimination and economic and political disenfranchisement  means having a long uncomfortable conversation about  white supremacy, privilege, power, etc. That is just the reality of the situation. One cannot boil down slavery to the bible. Unfortunately, by choosing this image they have invoked that history, whether they choose to own that or not. What kills me is that I’ve seen folks defend the use of this image by saying “blacks are not the only ones who have experienced slavery”  and what have you. And its true enough that black people are not the only group to have ever been enslaved but images like other types of stimuli affect us. They hold meaning. And when one uses an image connected to such a troubling  moment in history you have to be ready to discuss the issues that are bound to come up. As a black person I am offended to see the history of my ancestors used to attack others in this manner seems flippant. Even if the intention wasn’t to be flippant, one still has to remember that any good advertisement has to reflect a number of things including (Bear with me if I miss anything important, all my advertising “expertise” comes from middle and high school class projects. :-)):

  • it has to be attractive or catchy (which can include controversy)- So half a check there maybe. Ok, I’ll be generous and give a full check due to controversy.
  • it has to have a message that is immediate and easily understood– FAIL 
  • it needs to reflect its audience- EPIC FAIL


This ad failed to consider its audience. Now I don’t believe they were trying to target African-Americans because from what I understand they bought space on this billboard because the price was right. But I still don’t think that means they get a pass, the fact that they did not consider that the price of ad space wasn’t connected to socioeconomic conditions in Harrisburg demonstrates either a profound lack of sensitivity or a deep disconnect with these types of issues. Of course while many black will have an emotional reaction to an image like this, so will many whites. This is because references to the history of slavery in the US and elsewhere invoked by this image are liable to make many white people defensive and put off by this as well. And while controversy can be a good thing to stir up, it seems to me that many folks within our community are ill-prepared to deal with courting the kind of controversy that comes when you bring up our not so distant racial past. And this in a way explains to me why so many of them are unwilling to deal with issues of social justice or expanding the scope of the movement in such a way the it will attract a more diverse array  of non-believers, secularists, and skeptics to our ranks.

Like I said before, I don’t take issue with criticizing the bible but the quote is powerful enough on its own. Why not lose the image increase the text size and leave it at that? I don’t think this t-shirt is less powerful because it isn’t accompanied by a picture of the middle passage, do you?

Sometimes the truth doesn't need much help.

 For those who can’t make out the text:
“Slavery is Ok. Homosexuality. Not So Much
Leviticus 20:33, Leviticus – 21
Sincerely God”

So the question is… how do we proceed? Should we blame religiosity or ignorance for the response to this ad? Or do we take some responsibility and consider how incidents like these effect the perception of what it means to be an atheist, skeptic, freethinker, non-believer, and all the other categories we label ourselves within the secular movement?  Do we try to educate one another and try to broaden our perspective in this movement so that we can correct the misunderstandings and attitudes that have led to the perception that atheists are assholes lacking social awareness? Or that atheism/secularism is boy’s club?  A perception that I struggled with before I came out as an atheist myself. Whats it going to be?

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