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Aug 27 2013

JT Eberhard Gets and Doesn’t Get It

I have been away for a while. I had work. Some of you know what’s up and others don’t. But this is not work to be mentioned here. Just assume I was dressed as a gigantic bat punching a murderous clown.

I came back to see a rather sad post.

It’s no secret that I like JT Eberhard. I was always a fan of his work so it’s painful to read this. I was a long time lurker on his blog and still play League of Legends with him.

What I see (unlike others) is a mistake. Of one person not getting it and another who has had to explain it so many times getting mad.

Like it or not, atheists of colour are rare. Like it or not we will have to field stupid questions. That’s the job we face. We face these questions today so that we don’t have to tomorrow. Not all of us can do it day in and day out. We can lose patience because we shouldn’t have to.

To be an atheist of colour or indeed just a person of colour is to be judged constantly. You live your life under the “scope” of racial expectations. Some of them are positive. Chinese kids aren’t getting strip searched by the cops. Asian and Black kids are. Just this week we saw the behaviour of the NSA and Airport Security strip search and delay a man because he wasn’t “white” and assume he was Muslim rather than Hindu which is a religion they knew nothing about. They made mistakes.

The very staff who make up the FBI were so bereft of diversity they didn’t even know how to deal with a Hindu or to tell the difference between iconography. The third biggest faith on the planet. If the FBI can fuck up then so can JT.

And JT fucked up big.

Black people have it hard in a different way to us “brown” people. We are “all terrorists”. Or in my case either a terrorist or a hard working barely literate corner store owner. It is astonishing that I speak so many languages, play so many instruments, draw, photograph, play sport and can do medicine because out of that gigantic list, only medicine is really associated with the Asian Indian stereotype.

We are constantly judged for what we are and people have no qualms about doing things that are  “racist” to push their ideologies.

A comparison of two photoshopped images courtesy of

The Patriot Nation, demonstrating class here (Click the picture for the original)

We live in a world where people don’t seem to think that there is anything wrong about portraying Black people as stupid and ignorant and promiscuous and bad at spelling as they are at contraception or catching bullets. Trayvon Martin can go fuck himself, white conservatives got to go portray Black people as promiscuous and illiterate. Right guys?

But here is the thing.

I operate behind anonymity to protect myself not because I am scared but because I am prudent. I keep work and blog separately. It’s why you don’t get to see a lot of glimpses into my life and it’s why I allude to things done rather than explicitly take credit for them. Why? Because I wish to be Avicenna here.

Many people think it’s a lack of courage. Maybe. I don’t have to demonstrate my willingness to deal with harassment online to demonstrate courage. Brave is something you don’t call yourself, so are titles such as hero, kind and funny. These are descriptions bestowed upon you by others.

Now any person of colour knows damn well that if they go out and are explicit and they fight for what they think is important, that their actions will be subject to a more intense scrutiny than what white people will endure. Anything we do is subject to abuse and we set ourselves up for abuse not just to us but our community or indeed our cause.

I am not represented in the atheist or skeptic community. For all you know, I am a talking horse.

But in my other life in International events I have to be on my “bestest behaviour”. I cannot cut lose like others. Why? Because people remember. One white boy getting a bit tipsy is “boys will be boys”. Me doing the same is “Indians like free bars”.

I don’t think JT realises what it’s like to be outside of a movement you wish to be openly part of. In the medical community by day? I have to be helpful. I must behave “well”. I cannot call stupid statements stupid. I have to have a thicker skin and more patience. I have to be “Better” than normal. I have to call “X” a “Y” and not rock too many boats lest I be set adrift with a small menagerie in a highly allegorical piece. JT didn’t understand why that anger exists. Some day there will be an Indian standing there mad as weasels yelling at someone who asked a daft question. But for now you got me. And that day is sooner than you think.

We shouldn’t have to be extra nice.  We shouldn’t be on notice. And for the love of god? The Question  was stupid as fuck. The day Black people have to deal with Black crime as if it were a massive problem caused by  Shaq’s coven of basketball witches (Actually… that’s not a bad idea for a Shadowrun game…. Just saying…). I mean when are white people going to stop producing so many spree killers? Or serial killers? Or can be trusted with economies without fucking things up over simple greed? It’s really that stupid.

Seriously JT? Sometimes we have to say “What the Fuck Are You Doing?” Do you know how many atheists say idiotic things about Islam? Hell my personal favourite is Taqqiyah or the rule that allows a Muslim to break any laws of Islam to save someone else’s life or to protect their own. Oh we may think martyrs are great but Islam was smart enough to realise that dying for your belief is stupid and living for them is better. Yet we see countless atheists claim you can use Taqqiyah to lie in order to kill when the Koran is explicit on it’s use to save lives ONLY.

Basically? If I held a gun to your head and told a Muslim to eat a Bacon Sandwich, this Muslim can eat the sandwich without fearing for his immortal soul. Specifically it’s a nuance that was used to protect and encourage Muslims to not worry about being forced to do things against their will.

Yet we still say things like this. I made it clear I don’t like a variety of atheist commentators, some of whom are pretty big names such as Pat Condell who’s videos on Islam is not the honest truth that we come to associate with the atheist movement but the sort of bigotry associated with the far right and the EDL (English Defence League – although from  the way it’s members speak, the best way to defend English is to ban them from speaking it).

There are ignorant people everywhere and while as representatives of minorities, we are often forced to be more thick skinned, it is not wrong to get mad and tell someone why they are wrong.

Different people respond to personal insults in different ways. Some get loud, some get quiet and some get verbose. We know that right? You cannot expect everyone to handle a stupid statement with patience. I often am told that I am patient with stupid questions. I am used to handling ignorance in my own way. And my way is just as insulting as hers. I would get very very simple and explain why they are wrong in detail. And if they kept arguing that they have a point I would respond with a “shut up” but that’s because of what I have learned.

But that’s me. My experiences and temperament give me more patience. I have to be more patient or India will break me. I live in a world where I know people who thought condoms work like chewing gum (they come in similar looking packets do they not? And flavoured too!) and where patients genuinely think they can get pregnant through anal sex.

And through this all I have to take a deep breath and go “They are ignorant, it’s my job to teach them too”. But that’s me. I cannot ask anyone else to do what I do or expect them to respond this way. I understand these people know more about some things than I do, and I know that Americans and Brits often are just as ignorant despite the massive level of education available to us. Why my uneducated, illiterate patients see the value of women’s contraception and abortions. Texas did not. Who’s the ignorant ones now?

I would have handled such a question differently and with more patience. But I also understand that I am “a rarer” beast. The Indian Skeptics are on the rise with us in the news more recently but Indian and Ex-Hindu atheists are still a rarity in western circles. So I wouldn’t be here if I were not more patient and willing to explain these things. I would be in an angry and ranty corner of the Internet. I know for a fact that some of my oldest readers (Lo Meowcenary! Hope You Get Well Soon!) like my gigantic, verbose and list laden rants. I know they get irritated when I swear even because they “like” the more eloquent statements rather than something as crude as “fuck”.

Black atheists are a bit more ahead of the curve than Indian ones. Or that’s my viewpoint from out here. I may be totally wrong since I am so far away from the western atheist community at the moment that I may as well be on Mars. The firebrand response is needed sometimes. Atheism as a social group needs a kick in the teeth to realise that just because we have no gods doesn’t mean we are enlightened and educated. We are still capable of stupid questions.

It is 2013. That question is NOT acceptable if you live in a first world nation and haven’t learnt about Black people from rap culture. It’s a stance that ignores all the other achievements of Black people and instead goes back to crime. This was not a topic for an atheist panel. And we need to demonstrate it.

Let’s look at facts here.

JT Eberhard appears to have stood up for a woman who asked a question that at best was “tasteless and unintentionally racist” and at worst “intentionally so”. That her embarrassment for asking such a question was more important than the embarrassment and hurt feelings of the Black people who had to hear that question. And it’s not “just African Americans”, it’s all atheists of colour who  have to deal with this. If I was in the UK would I have to defend and explain extremism in the Asian community?

JT Eberhard isn’t an open racist. He isn’t marching with the KKK or shouting “Go Home Paki”. His racism is a product of ignorance and not being able to see why we are so mad. Well I am disappointed more than angry. I expected more from him. And no one likes to be wrong. It’s hard to admit a mistake after all.

JT’s mistake is just that he cannot understand why we are mad. Why this is an insult. To him it seems like a genuine question, to the various atheists of colour it’s a statement of ignorance and a wrench in the conversation. White people are not associated with any crimes by the “norm” because white people are the norm. It’s always an anomaly for them rather than a stereotype. Even the most hurtful stereotypes of “White Men Can’t Fly” or “White people dance badly” are so insanely harmless?

You are never going to spend a night down a prison cell (I have) because of your skin colour. You are never going to be stopped from flying. You don’t have to be extra polite to people lest they call the cops on you. You don’t have to smile and agree to be strip searched. You can travel where you want, when you want and how you want. No one is judging you even when you are behaving normally.

Hell? Do you know I have had dates refuse to date me unless I demonstrated that I was “From the UK” and not after a passport. They didn’t understand why I was so mad that I left the date. This is not a single occurrence.

Yes, sometimes people don’t understand why we are mad. But that’s because it’s hard to understand someone who’s experience is so far away from yours.

And yes, social justice is important to me. Come on, I fight for women’s rights in India. I fight for the rights of Hijra. For sex workers. I fight for the poor and the untouchables. I try providing healthcare equally and to some of the people who have the least in the world. That’s part of who I am. The atheism is part of who I am too. As is the League of Legends and my love of Tiga and so many other different things. And I understand I carry a lot more weight than those who just write because I “am actually doing something” but as I said, “Not Everyone Can Do This”. Some people cannot manage this and some people only make it worse. Do what you can, don’t try and beat me. It’s not a challenge or a competition. It never has been.

We can be just like Hitchens and be a pure atheist. Or we can show off other passions that we have that are more varied. Other things that we do because of this. We can form communities of atheists who have other interests. Do not think of my atheism as involving social justice but me being an atheist who just happens to do social justice. And a lot of atheists think this way because  their atheism reveals more injustices in society.

Just 3 years ago when I started off, no one read about my work in Afghanistan (Reconstruction of Acid Victims and Prosthesis). Today? Taslima’s blog’s getting 100s of thousands of hits on the same topic! That’s progress guys. It really is. Why on earth is Acid Attacks an atheist issue? Oh? It’s not is it? I mean the reasons for the attacks are not religious. It’s just that it’s a clearly recognised line in the sand of a “bad” social issue that we can easily get behind because it rarely happens in the west and happens far away and rarely affects the atheist community. Atheists aren’t hurling acid at faces.

But we are saying stupid things about women and minorities though.

I am not a feminist or from Atheism +. In fact my contact with the Atheism + lot leaves me feeling like I have to walk on egg shells and many a time they deem my actions to be harmful but have no experience with the realities of field work or why we do something. It’s like being told how to fly a plane by someone who makes paper rockets. But I do understand the topics too. I am not as stupid as I sound.

I have to tell JT that his attitude to this is really harmful. Maybe we should be less angry, but we wouldn’t need to be so angry about race or indeed social justice if people would listen. I am not the “Cultural Appropriation” brigade (I think culture is more fluid and flexible than that and that cultural appropriation is how culture develops in the first place. It’s why the art on my blog is chintz (a Hindu artform of Muslim Geometrical design) and why I have Javanese puppets (An Islamic artform of Hindu stories).

And even I think you were wrong on this. Mate, it’s easy being wrong. It’s hard to accept it. I don’t think you (JT Eberhard) are a bad person or a racist, I just think you didn’t understand why atheists of colour are “angry” about stuff like this. You get why the question was stupid but you don’t get why we are mad about it.

But this has got me thinking.

I should be more openly active in the Atheist Community and Skeptical Community. I should represent more because if I don’t represent then no one will learn and we will keep hearing “stupid questions”. Someone’s got to answer them and I figure that the more we are seen the more questions we will answer and soon these questions will get rarer.

So as of now? I pledge to do more interactive stuff out in the atheist community and not just be a distant observer. Someone’s got to do it, may as well be me.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    maudell

    Good to read your point of view, Avi.

    The backlash folks of colour get for speaking out about their concerns in the atheist community is really sad. I think the bottom line for many excluded groups is that we are getting the message that we are not *really* part of the atheist community. Communities have each other’s back. I know that JT does not see his biases here, but I wish he’d considered the criticism. Not necessarily to the point of changing his mind, but he gives the net impression that he did not consider any criticism, he sees everything automatically as ad hominem.

    A ‘real’ racist hurts much less than someone like JT broadcasting his patronizing attitude. His flagging of the whole issue as part of his commitment to social justice is even more harmful and disappointing. I hope he considers his critics at some point. It’s time for us to be concerned about the large numbers of atheists who turn away from the movement because of this exclusion. It’s ok not to be a social justice warrior. I don’t understand the urge to stop others to care about the concern of minorities.

  2. 2
    maudell

    [edit: concerns (plural) of minorities]

  3. 3
    flex

    Well said.

  4. 4
    mattyarbrough

    I’m glad you are going to be more active, diverse voices are critical to the future growth and effectiveness of atheist and skeptic communities. I’m a middle class white guy, I know all about that perspective and frankly I stopped following blogs and writers in the atheist/skeptic world because there’s nothing new under the sun from that point of view. I mostly am only excited to see new posts from the assorted non-white-straight-male perspectives because I’m very likely to actually learn something from those.

  5. 5
    Ophelia Benson

    Well done with the punching of the murderous clown work.

  6. 6
    yazikus

    This was powerfully written, thank you for your perspective!

  7. 7
    Crommunist

    All I got from this is that you are a talking horse.

  8. 8
    HaifischGeweint

    Omg, thank you.

    So much, thank you. Especially this:

    “Atheism as a social group needs a kick in the teeth to realise that just because we have no gods doesn’t mean we are enlightened and educated. We are still capable of stupid questions.”

    O SIEM!

  9. 9
    rdmcpeek43

    Great post. And your condemnation (“takedown”) of Mr. Eberhard (but gentle defense) was well put.

    Look forward to you being more (openly) active in the atheist community; you have much to contribute.

    Oh, and I once knew a *real* talking horse.

  10. 10
    skemono

    And for the love of god? The Question was stupid as fuck.

    I believe your exact words were that he was “A fool. An arrogant, incompetent dilettante.” Which, you know… harsh, but when your time is taken up punching clowns, you’ve no time for niceties. He got better, any way.

    Or did you mean the question that prompted Eberhard’s indignant, condescending bloviating? Yeah, that was also stupid as fuck, and wholly out of place.

  11. 11
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    Well said, Avi.

  12. 12
    TaylorMaid

    So basically, we should keep an eye out for a horse-faced batman who is mad as a weasel?

    Love this post.

  13. 13
    Robert B.

    Huh. That’s the first time I’ve heard “Asian” used that way. The usage I’ve heard before was to use “Asian” to mean “Southeast Asian” – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, etc., so when I saw you contrasting “Chinese” and “Asian” I had to read twice. Must be a regional difference in idiom. (Of course India, Bangladesh, etc. are just as much “Asia” as China and Korea. For that matter, so are Russia and Afghanistan.)

  14. 14
    Pen

    @13 Robert B – It’s a British thing.

    A bit like Avi’s attitude for which many of us are very grateful and which has contributed a lot to getting as much progress in Britain as we have. Thanks Avi and hang on in there.

  15. 15
    David Marjanović

    Seriously JT? Sometimes we have to say “What the Fuck Are You Doing?” Do you know how many atheists say idiotic things about Islam? Hell my personal favourite is Taqqiyah or the rule that allows a Muslim to break any laws of Islam to save someone else’s life or to protect their own. Oh we may think martyrs are great but Islam was smart enough to realise that dying for your belief is stupid and living for them is better. Yet we see countless atheists claim you can use Taqqiyah to lie in order to kill when the Koran is explicit on it’s use to save lives ONLY.

    Taqiyya (short q, long y) is pretty much a Shiite thing, though, because Shiites used to be persecuted minorities everywhere except in Azerbayjan and then Iran.

  16. 16
    Ani J. Sharmin

    Thanks for writing this. And for the boot-on-the-ground work you do to help people who don’t have as much access to healthcare.

    I tend to favor the “explain things” approach (both due to my personality and because of my profession), but we all get angry sometimes, especially when dealing with discriminatory comments and actions very often. And the thing is, there are atheists who seem to realize this when it comes to discrimination against atheists, who are understanding when atheists respond in anger to religious people, but won’t extend their understanding to others who may feel similarly angry about other forms of discrimination.

    That her embarrassment for asking such a question was more important than the embarrassment and hurt feelings of the Black people who had to hear that question. And it’s not “just African Americans”, it’s all atheists of colour who have to deal with this.

    This was basically what bothered me most about JT’s posts—ignoring the effect on minorities who have to deal with this, and only taking the feelings of the question asker into consideration.

    As a side note, thanks for the points about Taqqiyah and about culture being flexible. On the first point, I’ve seen people who interpret it like you said, and it bothers me. Often, they seem to be denying that there are situations in which Muslims actually are discriminated against (and may therefore lie about their religious affiliation to protect themselves). Everything is seen as a plot by Muslims to lie to non-Muslims. On the second point, I do think there are times when people are insulting others by perpetuating stereotypes, but there are also lots of ways in which cultures change and influence each other, and I think that’s a good thing.

  1. 17
    Literate Perversions | Listening to Anger: Two Good Responses to JT Eberhard and Atheist Racism

    […] fuckup, and why it’s relevant to the larger atheist community. The first is by Avicenna, a British ex-Hindu medical student who’s working in India. He speaks well to how atheists have institutionalized our own […]

  2. 18
    A Brigade Too Far: The Cost Of Diluting Cultural Appropriation | HaifischGeweint

    […] came across the term “Cultural Appropriation Brigade” yesterday in a piece of writing that, while erroneously attributing “cultural appropriation” to the manner in which […]

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