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Watching and Waiting

Sometimes you come across things that shouldn’t be ignored but about which very little can reliably be known. AJ Johnson’s lawsuit against American Atheists, along with American Atheists’ response is one of those things. So I put this here to observe the occasion.

I can’t speculate about any of it without being irresponsible. I can tell you that, of the people involved, I’ve liked everyone I’ve met, both those who are still at American Atheists and those who have left, including AJ. My liking people doesn’t mean they can’t screw up, however, or that others I haven’t met can’t screw up.

Even taking AA’s statement as a statement of facts doesn’t tell me what happened. People sometimes do their job unhappily. Performance often suffers in a hostile environment. These things don’t put me on any firmer ground.

All I can do with regard to this lawsuit is watch and wait, continue to pay attention as the case goes through discovery and litigation (or settlement), object to people drawing conclusions without facts or that are unwarranted by the facts, and know that no outcome will make me wholly happy.

Outside this lawsuit, however, I can do my small part to create a warmer atmosphere in general in the secular and skeptical movements and I can push others to do the same. That includes acknowledging that this is happening and working to make it obvious that, if this lawsuit pinpoints specific problems in American Atheists, I will push to have those fixed too.

It doesn’t seem like much to say, but I still think it’s important to say it.

Comments

  1. says

    I think you’re right that speculating on this specific incident would be irresponsible given the information that’s currently available. But, as I’m sure you agree, and as many others have already said, I also think we can reasonably accept that, whether or not a court of law finds that it happened to her personally at AA, AJ’s claim of a racially-based hostile environment is hardly an extraordinary one, and is probably happening or has happened, to greater or lesser degrees, to many African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Middle Eastern, and other atheists who might otherwise be making great contributions to our movement.

    The gender issues that have created so much upheaval of late are important, and are definitely a long way from “solved”, but I do think we’ve made a lot more progress in dealing with those imbalances than in dealing with the fact that our movement is still pretty pastily white, and with the problems that cause that and are caused by that. As far as I can tell, there are proportionately far many more women in positions of influence in our movement than there are similarly-placed non-white people, and far more women in general, and it definitely shows in what we talk about the most.

    It seems to me that race issues need to become a much greater priority for everyone, not just the designated token not-white activists (preferably skipping the sorta grotesque stage of handwringing about “Where are all the black people?” that we had to do with women’s issues in the beginning). Instead, in the same way that so many male activists have stood up to help to focus attention on and amplify the concerns of the women in the movement, I think it’s time for us Caspar the Ghost lookalikes to do our part to *actively* listen to those already in our midst who *do* understand and/or have personal experience of the racial issues in our movement and in the world at large, and guided by what they tell us, to throw our strength into the process of making real changes.

    And not to dilute the message, but trans* issues, disability issues, and class issues seem to often get the short end of the stick in secular conversations too. This also needs to be corrected. (As far as I can tell, gay people’s concerns are the one set of minority issues we *usually* don’t fuck up too badly, and are mostly able to correct course pretty easily when we do, but maybe that’s my might-as-well-be-straight privilege showing. I’m happy to be educated on this, and I’m not trying to say that these issues should be ignored, just that we might be doing *relatively* better in this area than in some others.)

    I think we can do all of this without rushing to judgment on the specific issue of the AJ/AA dispute.

  2. rumblestiltsken says

    well said, stephanie and anne!

    Watch and wait. I echo Anne in saying that even if this is not an example of racism in the workplace, I have no doubt that such issues exist throughout the atheosphere workplaces.

  3. Jackie, Ms. Paper if ya nasty says

    Thanks for posting about this, Stephanie.
    Anna, your comment was great too.

  4. says

    Thanks, Jackie. However, I’m horrified to note that I appear to have misspelled Casper the Friendly Ghost’s name. As a common recipient of erroneous e->a substitution myself (as you just reminded me — don’t apologize, it’s my parents’ fault), I really should have been more careful. :D

  5. says

    Also, thinking about this a little more, it seems to me that, even if we were to operate under the assumption that AA is in the right in this suit, it would still be reasonable to call upon them to take part in the kinds of actions I described above, as much as they can without prejudicing their case. I don’t know if I could say off the top of my head exactly what form that participation might take, and I imagine it would probably be a delicate process for them to navigate around the contours of the lawsuit, but that doesn’t mean that we should be okay with them standing aside from the larger issue entirely.

  6. says

    Anne, we already see some of the same responses when we ask, “Why is our movement not more racially diverse?” that we saw when people asked, “Why are there not more women in our movement?” Anything from appeals to genetic differences to the idea that “some people” just don’t do/value “thinky” to the idea that thinking about appealing to particular groups is either racist or pandering. I think the only reason we’re not seeing more is that black atheists in the U.S. have set up parallel groups to meet their needs more than pushing to be included where some people obviously do not welcome them.

    As for American Atheists, I can’t speak to anything about the workplace, obviously. Nor do they provide many places for people to gather together. Outreach for them is mostly their magazine, their advertising, and their conventions. However, their most recent convention was lauded as one of the most racially diverse conventions in the movement, both on and off the stage. So they’re getting that right at least, and when I interviewed Dave Silverman a few weeks ago, he said it’s something they’re doing consciously.

  7. says

    Anne, we already see some of the same responses when we ask, “Why is our movement not more racially diverse?” that we saw when people asked, “Why are there not more women in our movement?”

    Yeah, I’ve seen that too. It’s yet one more of the unfortunate parallels between the two issues. And I know AA has done some good stuff in this regard. It’s just… I don’t think we, as a movement, are doing anywhere near enough yet. For all the things that *have* been done, I don’t see this issue getting nearly the same prominence as the gender issues, even though, as far as I can see, the disparity is significantly greater. As long as that’s true, I think we’re falling down on the job. Now, maybe there are some sorta-not-horrible reasons for this, like the presence of parallel black atheist groups in some cases, but I don’t think that reduces the obligation other groups have to reach out to those groups for joint events and other forms of fellowship, and to be proactive about ensuring that *all* atheist groups are as welcoming as possible to atheists of color and attentive to the issues that matter to them (not that I think you were trying to imply otherwise).

    I’m not trying to criticize you or anyone else in particular, or to claim that there aren’t many good people working on this. I could probably pretty easily go through and pick out plenty of examples of good activism and progress on these issues myself. It’s just, as long as we’ve got this kind of disparity, we’ve got a problem, and I think it’s a problem that ought to be bumped up higher on our collective priority list. The other parallel I *really* don’t want to see between this issue and the gender issue is the one where we point at a few good things that a few people have done as an excuse for not doing more, when the problem is far from gone.

  8. elly says

    Also, thinking about this a little more, it seems to me that, even if we were to operate under the assumption that AA is in the right in this suit, it would still be reasonable to call upon them to take part in the kinds of actions I described above.

    I’m not sure “right” is the correct word here, since – in a court of law – what is “right” is what is provable, which is not always the same thing. Ultimately, the court may rule in AA’s favor, but that doesn’t mean that Ms. Johnson did not face a hostile work environment. AA’s billboard screwup strongly suggests there’s a lot of tone-deafness at the top.

    As such, I agree with Anne’s point above. Even if AA wins the suit (in some form or fashion), it doesn’t mean there wasn’t – or isn’t – a problem. As such, I think there’s more to be done than simply watching/waiting for a resolution to this lawsuit. Sikivu Hutchinson has been completely clear on the deficiencies of mainstream skeptical/atheist orgs in general:

    Further, when people of color are constantly bombarded with bullshit claims from Internet cowards about separatism, reverse discrimination and “self-segregation” when they point to the absence of social justice, anti-racist community organizing, coalition-building and visibility (outside of white suburbs and gentrified urban centers) amongst secular organizations, it merely underscores the burning need for authentic real-time grassroots organizations of color beyond the mainstream atheist power structure.

    Thousands of words were poured into holding Ron Lindsay and CFI accountable. And that’s good… but it seems to me that the larger issues raised by this lawsuit could use at least as much time/attention.

  9. says

    The other parallel I *really* don’t want to see between this issue and the gender issue is the one where we point at a few good things that a few people have done as an excuse for not doing more, when the problem is far from gone.

    That isn’t what I want either. I do want, however, to point to things that have worked in order to both set a standard and combat the ever-prevalent “But we said we’d welcome them if they’d just show up.”

    As such, I think there’s more to be done than simply watching/waiting for a resolution to this lawsuit.

    Agreed. Said as much in the post.

    Thousands of words were poured into holding Ron Lindsay and CFI accountable. And that’s good… but it seems to me that the larger issues raised by this lawsuit could use at least as much time/attention.

    Agreed.

  10. says

    I’m not sure “right” is the correct word here, since – in a court of law – what is “right” is what is provable, which is not always the same thing. Ultimately, the court may rule in AA’s favor, but that doesn’t mean that Ms. Johnson did not face a hostile work environment. AA’s billboard screwup strongly suggests there’s a lot of tone-deafness at the top.

    Agreed, elly. I wasn’t really happy with that word when I wrote it either, as it kind of merges together two concepts that shouldn’t really be conflated. One is, as you said, that even if AA wins the lawsuit, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong at AA. But the second is, even if we were to make the (ridiculously overgenerous to AA, not to mention insulting to AJ) assumption that AA is an eden of racial harmony, and that AJ’s complaints were completely without merit, that’s almost certainly not true of any other part of the secular movement, so we’d still have to do something about it. But either way, almost none of what we need to do hinges on passing judgment in advance of the legal system on this particular case.

    I agree with you that Sikivu made several good points in that post, and I would love to hear more from her on this.

  11. says

    That isn’t what I want either. I do want, however, to point to things that have worked in order to both set a standard and combat the ever-prevalent “But we said we’d welcome them if they’d just show up.”

    This is a really good point. Talking about things that we’ve already done that have worked is a really good way to help get past the notion that there’s no point in trying, because it’s just the way things always have been and always will be.

  12. CaitieCat says

    I’ve been watching it, and hoping to hear more about the situation, but my instinct is that there’s probably some merit in AJ’s contention, given the overwhelming prevalence of hostile workplaces for POC – and particularly Black workers – in Canada and the US.

    Also, there are ways in which every point made by AA in response can be influenced heavily by the invisibility of problems that privilege can afford. That a worker may not feel able to speak up at work, in the face of collegial enthusiasm for a given campaign that zie finds problematic, doesn’t seem unlikely to me at all. And so forth for the other points in the AA response.

    I hope that AA takes this chance to listen to what’s being said, and to give a good-faith reception to AJ’s ideas for how this could be done better, just as AA hopes for a good-faith reception of what they have to say.

    I hope this, but hopelessly. Please don’t disappoint us, AA. Be willing to re-evaluate what you’re doing through someone else’s senses. Be better than the religionists. Please. Making mistakes isn’t what defines you. Responding to your mistakes can, though.

  13. elly says

    I agree with you that Sikivu made several good points in that post, and I would love to hear more from her on this.

    There’s a good audio interview with her and AJ Johnson here: http://voicerussia.com/radio_broadcast/72286564/116102005.html on the billboard issue. In addition, her newest book, “Godless Americana” is available on Kindle for only $5.99 – a bargain (I love Kindle/e-books ’cause I can read them at night – my sleeping schedule and the hubby’s aren’t entirely in sync, lol).

    The interview is short (less than 20 minutes), but it’s pretty interesting – since Ms. Johnson’s support of the billboard is a point of contention in the lawsuit.

  14. freemage says

    My primary reaction to this story has been, “Ms. Johnson deserves her day in court. AA’s reaction has been within the acceptable bounds–they maintain their innocence, but do not engage in gratuitous bashing of the plaintiff. If the court case goes to Ms. Johnson, then AA needs to accept the significance of that, including a major house-cleaning and correction of policies. If not, then they would still be well-served by a sincere internal review; just as it is necessary to ensure that there is no appearance of conflict of interest* by a professional organization, so too should they work to ensure there is no appearance of bias or discrimination.”

    What a lot of the pit crew have failed to grok is that there’s a difference between assessing a public speech and comments on Twitter, and allegations of workplace conduct. In the former, the evidence was there for all of us to see right away, and evaluate; in this case, however, there is much we just don’t know, but can hope will be clarified by the trial process. I do hope that there’s no ‘settlement’ with a NDA, though–I’d rather an actual verdict or admission, either way, than that.

    *: I’m not saying that eliminating the ‘appearance’ of such things is more important than ensuring there is no actual examples; rather, that the appearance is the thing you take care of after you ensure that there is no actual unprofessional conduct.

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