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Oct 10 2012

Next Wave Atheist Leaders and White Privilege

By Diane Arellano

Recently the blog “Considered Exclamations” featured a post by AH Tripp challenging the selective endorsement of the “Next Generation of atheist activists.” This “crop of next wave leaders” is virtually all-white and lauded for tackling perennial secular and atheist issues such as questioning prayer in school. Tripp wondered why the social justice work of secular activists like Sikivu Hutchinson, founder of the Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) and Black Skeptics Los Angeles, are under-recognized by the media and secular/ atheist communities.  He challenged white atheist groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation to get out of their bubbles and see how communities of color approach secularism.

As an atheist and program coordinator for the WLP, a feminist mentoring and leadership training program for young women in South Los Angeles, Tripp’s post resonated with me because Sikivu was my college professor and mentor.  Over the past several years, we’ve worked at schools where students who aren’t considered gifted or “college material” aren’t encouraged to prepare for college.  For example, African American students are disproportionately shut out of college prep Advanced Placement and Honors classes.  And undocumented students are often told straight up by racist teachers that “my taxes shouldn’t pay for you to go to college.”  Black and Latino students are searched, profiled, and basically considered guilty until proven innocent.  Girls of color are ritually silenced when it comes to speaking out about basic rights like freedom from sexual harassment or access to birth control.

Most of our students come from highly religious backgrounds that discourage any form of questioning about gender roles.  At sixteen and seventeen, girls are already saddled with the double and triple burdens of schoolwork, housework, caregiving, and child care for younger siblings.  Being involved in WLP they begin to see the sexism in these double standards, in the constant misogynist policing of their sexuality, and the racist bitch/ho/mammy/maid roles that society stereotypes them into.  Hardly a week goes by when one of our girls isn’t absent because she has to help with child care or work to support her family.  Hardly a quarter goes by when we don’t hear a story about a pregnant tenth grader who is keeping her baby because she can’t “kill” God’s creation. For our girls, abortion is freedom and reproductive justice is life, period.  So, no, trying to get Ten Commandments displays taken down or challenging prayer in school are not our priorities as atheists and freethinkers of color teaching in urban schools.  Sikivu willingly and patiently mentors, supports, and promotes, not just myself, but many young people of color who are unsure about how to begin to openly question religion or declare their identities as secular/ atheists in hyper-conservative religious communities.

For me, Sikivu’s humanist approach is powerful because it helps our students become critical about the influence of racism, sexism, violence, poverty, and religious dogma on their lives.  But, more importantly, it goes beyond “atheist” enlightenment, gives them the tools to understand how all of these things are connected and allows them to pushback as young women who the dominant culture—religious, secular, and all points in between—says don’t matter.

Diane Arellano is a photo documentarian and program coordinator for the Women’s Leadership Project and AB540 crew

 

33 comments

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  1. 1
    No Light

    Yours is the important skeptical and atheist work. Not taking down prayer plaques or bloody debunking Bigfoot. They’re the purview of the privileged, those without real problems to contend with.

    Thank you for your work and for speaking out. If I was in the US I would be supporting you with more than just words.

    Organisations like yours. are the true atheist change we need to see in the world.

    1. 1.1
      Diane Arellano

      Thank you! Your comment is very much appreciated.

  2. 2
    Andrew Tripp

    I am delighted that the piece resonated with you. You and Dr. Hutchinson are doing incredibly important work, and I want to do whatever I can to help it succeed, and spread it around to other communities.

    1. 2.1
      Diane Arellano

      Thank you Andrew! I am extremely fortunate to have been mentored by Sikivu. I’ve learned so much working with her and from working with our students. I can’t wait to read Sikivu’s forthcoming book, Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels.

  3. 3
    oolon

    Cool post, interesting to hear your viewpoint on what is a priority for the atheist movement in your community. As you say obviously different to the current largely white atheist communities.

    Your post says white atheist groups are being challenged to get out of their bubble and see how communities of color approach secularism. Is this to promote their work / support it or both and how could they help more?

    1. 3.1
      Diane Arellano

      The point I want to stress is that as secular/ atheist people we could ALL be more invested in promoting trailblazers like Sikivu, who are expanding models of secular/ atheist activism, and to pushback against atheists/ secular circles who consistently prioritize the issues of middle class whites.

      1. oolon

        Well the reproductive rights angle I’ve seen presented from other arenas – specifically a TED talk I think Bill Gates wife did on the correlation between access to contraception and the increase in status and well being of women in those societies. So I guess it makes sense that in black communities in the US and elsewhere where religion and religious oppression of women’s reproductive rights is a problem then it is going to have the same effect. It must be difficult for atheists to push that in those communities however – almost that by an atheist promoting it there will be the opposite effect. Atheism=evil attitude. I’ll read more about Sikivu and what she is doing as she must have a pretty good method to make headway!

        1. Diane Arellano

          Bill Gates wife’s name is Melinda. As far as I know her work does not have a secular/ atheist lens
          In fact I don’t think either Bill or Melinda has publicly identified as secular, agnostic, or atheist. When Bill and Melinda began there humanitarian campaign they had intended to focus on education. However, they soon realized the devastation that lack of access to basic healthcare causes. It’s difficult to educate children who haven’t met age appropriate developmental markers because they have starved throughout their lives. As Bill and Melinda delve deeper into health related issues, it soon became apparent that helping women access and control their health would be significant towards accomplishing their initial humanitarian goals.

          When people of color are marginalized or their issues are referred to as “the issues of those people,” racism and indifference become an implicit part of the conversation. I’ve often heard white atheists say that believing in science will cure the social ills that plague communities of color. However when I look at the complex realities of my students I see racism, sexism, poverty, and violence impacting their daily lives. Sikivu and I have a student who is African-American and has a 4.0 GPA. This student is constantly reminded that as a young black woman she does not belong in honors classes and is constantly told that if she stays she will fail by her mostly white teachers and administrators. She does her best to ignore the racism and perseveres as an academically gifted young woman. Still I can see the impact of the anger and stress she has to navigate on a daily basis. This particular student is not from, “one of those societies,” she was born in California but , like most people of color characterized as a “foreigner” or “other.”

          You can find Sikivu’s book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars on amazon:

          http://www.amazon.com/Moral-Combat-Atheists-Gender-Politics/dp/057807186X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349963473&sr=8-1&keywords=sikivu

          1. oolon

            I’ve often heard white atheists say that believing in science will cure the social ills that plague communities of color.

            You must have an outline of your hand on your face by now. Facepalm! Wow I’m pretty oblivious to these issues but that makes me feel good that I’m not that bad at least!

            Your example of the student makes me pretty angry, how can America stay at the top academically and economically with attitudes like that. I’m British so I hope that is less prevalent over here but I don’t hold out much hope… Anyway bought the book, should be interesting to read about something so different from my experience. Like F below my area is very white-british, there is literally only one Asian family in my village, and that is it! So I’m sure it will take me time to really appreciate the issues.

          2. Pierce R. Butler

            Ftr: Melinda Gates identifies as a practicing Catholic.

            Which makes her campaign for contraception even gutsier.

        2. F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

          Thing is, if white atheist men, who are already the status quo, would help to promote the recognition of atheists who aren’t members of the privileged group, but who do have a lot going on, there would be more awareness in, say, black communities, already. Which would probably help a lot when black atheists are trying to reach people in a community to do good things for education, opportunity, and social justice.

          Instead, you have a lot of white men either embracing or lazily supporting, by silence or habit, the same old racism, misogyny, and other bigotries.

          And it has been pointed out often enough, for quite some time now, how everyone but white guys are underrepresented in discussion, in recognition, in organization leadership, and at conventions. So when the white dudes come out with yet another list like this, it show a complete lack of skepticism of their own list at best. This does nothing to raise awareness with not-white-guy groups, and certainly doesn’t offer a sense of openness, inclusiveness, and welcoming for not-white-guys. And that doesn’t help black atheists at all with projects in black communities, whether the project is explicitly atheistic or not.

          1. blackskeptics

            Well said; the ignorance, paternalism and swaggering entitlement are legion, but unfortunately many are still drunk with the delusion that they are magically exempt from racism and white supremacy simply because they’re atheists.

          2. No Light

            but unfortunately many are still drunk with the delusion that they are magically exempt from racism and white supremacy simply because they’re atheists.

            May I offer another example of privilege denial/blindness among progressive groups?

            Feminism, like atheism, suffers badly from the same shared delusion, “Oh no, I’m not racist/homophobic/transphobic/ableist/classist. I’m a feminist, I’m progressive!”

            If atheism and skepticism is white, financially secure, able-bodied, cisstraight men fighting against Gideon bibles or belief in Yetis, feminism is it’s twin sister. White, financially secure, able-bodied, cisstraight women campaigning against ballpoint pens in a pink box, labelled “For Her”.

            Disclosure – I am white. It took me entirely too fucking long to realise how racist mainstream feminism is. Too much privilege, too little exposure to POC. I grew up in a part of the UK that is 98.6% white, 1% Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi), and where most of the remaining 0.4% are Chinese. I’m 35 so my primary, secondary and tertiary education were pre-internet.

            It wasn’t until I was introduced to ‘Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’ that the weight of my upbringing (with the racist attitudes that came with it), smacked me in my stupid face. After that I saw it everywhere. Sadly, nowhere was it more apparent than in mainstream feminist circles. I finally realised why many of the WOC I knew online refused to label themselves as ‘Feminist’.

            Just as in atheism there’s an almost constant cycle of POC pointing out racist literature, elision of the work done by WOC and outright plagiarism of their writing, followed by white feminists denying, doubling down, and dismissing the concerns of the women of colour they should be fighting alongside, not against.

      2. ewanmacdonald

        The point I want to stress is that as secular/ atheist people we could ALL be more invested in promoting trailblazers like Sikivu, who are expanding models of secular/ atheist activism, and to pushback against atheists/ secular circles who consistently prioritize the issues of middle class whites.

        Easy for me to say as a white, straight male, but at this point I’d accept people just not trying to atively impede the expansion of atheist activism, not telling those who are blazing trails that they’re being “divisive” or “diverting resources” from “what’s really important.” If they don’t want to help – fine, Rome wasn’t built in a day. But to say “no, you’re wrong, do what we say” is sadly par for the course among many leaders in this movement.

  4. 4
    fronkey

    Thank-you for reminding me of my privilege, and of the relative importance of different goals.

  5. 5
    Les

    Your statement on the impact of reproductive freedom on the very real lives of young women was spot on and succinct. The idea that religion is a chain binding women (of all races) to stereotypical roles is powerful and should be part of our atheist dialogue. It is also a concrete example of the negative impact that religion can have on the poor and underserved. Thanks for the great work.
    Les

    1. 5.1
      Diane Arellano

      Thank you Les! I couldn’t agree more with you.

  6. 6
    skeptixx

    Wow – what important work. Thank you! In lifting the veil (as the saying goes), you’re not only letting more non-theists know about this work and about Dr. Hutchinson (who sounds amazing!), but also providing inspiration for us to put our energies into more human-centered endeavors that can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.

    1. 6.1
      F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

      About Sikivu Hutchinson:

      This blog quite a bit hers, so you can read the archives, too.

  7. 7
    ZJSimon

    Hug an Atheist’s Facebook page sent me here, where I read this, some of the comments, and the AH Trip post. I can only offer a hint at the obstacle: White atheists have a hard time confronting how most white atheists are because they have a hard time saying

    ‘Your ancestors were forced or coerced into their faith by my ancestors so that my ancestors could more easily exploit yours.’

    It’s hard to face this, not simply because pre-Christian faiths were not without their misogyny/slavery, or because white guilt creates paralysis as much as apathy, but because few white ancestors had a peaceful conversion either.

    1. 7.1
      F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

      More so a lot of white atheists have unconscious or conscious racism issues. Privilege issues. I somehow doubt embarrassment over “what my group did and does to your group” has a whole lot of bearing on making a list.

      (I’m not saying that this sort of embarrassment isn’t real, but it mostly exists in personal encounters with strangers, not in an organization recognizing and promoting the efforts of people active in their communities.)

  8. 8
    geocatherder

    I, white atheist female, should have no thoughts worth typing on this subject — and indeed, I am very much a student here. But I did have the experience of attending an integrated Catholic all-girls school, where the message of the day, to all students, was: you are enlightened, valued, strong, able to chart your own course through life, and we are here to prepare you for that. Most got it. Most believed it — and that included the scholarship folks who came from the inner city. I wish I could encapsulate that message and broadcast it into the brains of all young people, especially those who are struggling. This has very little to do with atheism, and a whole lot to do with humanism… but it needed saying.

    Your student in matters of white privilege and many other things,
    Karen/geocatherder

    1. 8.1
      Naima

      I don’t often have time to read much of what’s on websites but this is a trail blazing string of thoughtful commentary! One reply after the next provides mind-blowing answers to what ails the majority of the leadership of the so-called secular community. The ‘work’ that is being done often goes unrecognized and unsupported because we have people in the leadership of the secular community who see themselves as popes. Yes, popes!!! They get to define what is non-belief; atheism; humanism, etc. They get to say what is relevant and irrelevant; they get to say who gets published; who’s work gets reviewed; who’s books end up being used in book clubs; if they don’t see a problem, it doesn’t exists, etc. These replies represent exactly what freethought, free speech, and activism are all about! Thanks so much.

      1. Pierce R. Butler

        … we have people in the leadership of the secular community who see themselves as popes. Yes, popes!!! They get to define what is non-belief; atheism; humanism, etc. They get to say what is relevant and irrelevant; they get to say who gets published; who’s work gets reviewed; who’s books end up being used in book clubs; if they don’t see a problem, it doesn’t exists, etc.

        Name names, please, and substantiate your accusations.

      2. mikecline

        Great comment, on a great article, on a great blog. It’s all like some religious/atheist Animal Farm. The atheists overthrow the religious and the first order of business is donning non-holy vestments, establishing heierarchy, recognizing secular saints, codifying dogma, appointing holy priests and even justifying the priests perversity.

        Everybody, especially us white dudes, must do a little extra to make sure the secular atheist humanist movement isn’t sabotaged by people who if given the choice might go back to god if being an atheist means having to treat everybody fairly.

        1. blackskeptics

          Love the Animal Farm analogy!

  9. 9
    dustinarand

    If you are a parent of a child whose teachers are trying to indoctrinate him/her with religious ideas against your wishes, you’d better believe you would feel that was an urgent problem. I don’t think minimizing anyone’s concerns is a productive way to build coalitions between secularists.

    1. 9.1
      SallyStrange

      What do you mean by “minimize”?

      1. dustinarand

        Hi Sally
        What I meant was that while I understand prayer in school may not be a priority for the author or others who are similarly situated, it is a priority for others who are not so situated. The author seems to be saying that her priorities should be the priorities of all secularists, and that “white groups” like Freedom From Religion ought to be directing their efforts at less, shall we say, first-world problems.
        But FFR is just representing the interests of its members (and btw, calling it a “white group” makes about as much sense as calling the National Hockey League a “white group” because the vast majority of its players are white; being white had nothing to do with the reason the group was created or why any of its members joined). If most of FFR’s members are white, that’s probably because most atheists are white. It’s not like there’s some conspiracy against non-whites going on in the larger secular organizations.
        I give the author credit for bringing our attention to the issues she discusses, and I hope that in doing so they become more salient to people who otherwise wouldn’t encounter them in their own lives (and who therefore might be more motivated to do something about them), but it’s just not true 1) that being white is a salient feature of any atheist’s identity (being an atheist in a very religious country pretty much crowds everything else out), or 2) that white atheists are ignoring more important issues to focus on things like school prayer because their white identity causes them to care more about problems faced primarily by whites; rather, it is the case that for many white atheists things like school prayer are highly salient problems, and are experienced subjectively as just as terrible as the author experiences the problems that she describes.

        1. blackskeptics

          Your ignorant response is one of the reasons why Diane Arellano wrote this post. Clearly you did not read or understand the crux of the article, and that is precisely why this kind of white atheist swaggering keeps this “movement” lily white and balkanized. Being an atheist in a religious community does not “crowd everything out.” As a white person in the U.S. you enjoy the wages of whiteness, period. It doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist, Christian, Satanist, demonist, Wiccan ad nauseum. If you’re a person of color in theocratic Christian fascist America it doesn’t matter if you’re atheist, Christian, Satanist, animist, ad nauseum, you’re subjected to a racist educational system that dehumanizes you as a non-achieving violent potential dropout, a racist criminal justice system that automatically criminalizes you as a dysfunctional crack-snorting, gang banging scourge, a white supremacist media that promotes white beauty ideals, white heroism, white leadership, and white humanity as the universal norm, and a racist mortgage lending system that segregates you (regardless of socioeconomic class, income or education) into neighborhoods with lower property values, zero access to living wage jobs, and minimal social services, recreational spaces, quality grocery stores, and health care facilities.

  10. 10
    SallyStrange

    What I meant was that while I understand prayer in school may not be a priority for the author or others who are similarly situated, it is a priority for others who are not so situated.

    Tautology is tautological. Thanks for that.

    The author seems to be saying that her priorities should be the priorities of all secularists,

    I actually agree with her. I don’t see what’s wrong with expecting secularists to expand their secular activism to encompass areas where religion meets racism, sexism, and economic injustice. In fact I think it’s necessary if the secular movement is going to make a real difference in the world. Focusing only one areas where the issue is purely of religious privilege will limit our activism and prevent us from reaching as large an audience as possible.

    and that “white groups” like Freedom From Religion ought to be directing their efforts at less, shall we say, first-world problems.

    Ooh. Um, this is awkward, but I feel compelled to point out to you that African-Americans are AMERICANS. They live in the first world. Their problems are first world problems. Referring to them as other than first world is revealing: apparently you consider yourself to be in an entirely different world from people of color. Well, perhaps you are. But we’re all in the first world, here in the USA. If you still subscribe to that dated 1st/3rd world system of categorizing the world, which is based on the geopolitics of a world where the Soviet Union still existed.

    But FFR is just representing the interests of its members (and btw, calling it a “white group” makes about as much sense as calling the National Hockey League a “white group” because the vast majority of its players are white; being white had nothing to do with the reason the group was created or why any of its members joined).

    1. The author did not use the phrase “white group” anywhere in her article. She did talk about a list of atheist leaders as being “virtually all-white.”

    2. Being white (or not) has enormous influence on the sports you play, the politics you espouse, and the groups you join.

    If most of FFR’s members are white, that’s probably because most atheists are white.

    The fact that most self-identified atheists are white is a problem. We should do something about it. Do you disagree? I firmly believe that many people of color have abandoned their religious faith but don’t take on the atheist label because they do not see that it’s worth compounding anti-POC discrimination with anti-atheist discrimination. I am very interested in doing everything I can to mitigate both forms of discrimination, because this would allow more people the freedom to be who they are without encountering negativity from complete strangers for it.

    It’s not like there’s some conspiracy against non-whites going on in the larger secular organizations.

    You are talking to skeptics here, you know that right? Conspiracy theories are usually wrong. Complex systems have emergent properties. These are concepts that are in common usage around here. Are you unfamiliar with them? If not, what’s your excuse for assuming we were? And what’s your excuse for attributing a conspiracy theory to a person–the author–who never espoused it? Strawmanning is not polite.

    I give the author credit for bringing our attention to the issues she discusses,

    I’m sure she’ll be eternally grateful for the credit you so generously grant her. /sarcasm

    You should work on sounding less condescending.

    and I hope that in doing so they become more salient to people who otherwise wouldn’t encounter them in their own lives (and who therefore might be more motivated to do something about them)

    This doesn’t include you, apparently. How sad.

    but it’s just not true 1) that being white is a salient feature of any atheist’s identity (being an atheist in a very religious country pretty much crowds everything else out),

    If you’re white, straight, able-bodied, cis-gender, neurotypical, male, and atheist, then anti-atheist discrimination is the ONLY form of discrimination you will experience.

    So there’s really nothing to “crowd out” here. If you are a woman or a person of color, those things are immediately visible to other people, whereas atheism is something you can choose to reveal or conceal, more or less, so anti-woman and anti-POC discrimination tend to dominate your interactions with the world. It’s certainly true for me, as a white woman, that sexism is something I encounter far more often than prejudice against atheists.

    or 2) that white atheists are ignoring more important issues to focus on things like school prayer because their white identity causes them to care more about problems faced primarily by whites;

    It’s human nature that people care more about things that affect them personally than about things that don’t affect them personally. Are you saying that white atheists are somehow magically immune to this totally natural, understandable psychological tendency?

    rather, it is the case that for many white atheists things like school prayer are highly salient problems, and are experienced subjectively as just as terrible as the author experiences the problems that she describes.

    I think you just contradicted yourself.

    Better luck next time.

  11. 11
    jesse

    i simply cannot imagine as a teacher telling ANY kid they will fail if they stay in an honors class.

    I mean, WTF?

    I sometimes teach a martial arts class. There are kids there who are various backgrounds — and FFS I never say “you will fail” or “you don’t belong here.” I mean, holy crap. Why would you say that to anyone? How does it help?

    I know, I shouldn’t be surprised. But still.

  12. 12
    Richard W. Powers

    Dianne Arellano’s comments are well taken but, as a long time FFRF member, I wonder at the fairness of AH Tripp’s designation of FFRF as a “white atheist group”. That jarring designation makes it sound like FFRF is an atheist KKK! FFRF is not an organization with a racial mission. It is, and always has been, an organization that fights for the constitutional separation of church and state and the rights of atheists and freethinkers. Criticizing FFRF for not paying enough attention to racial issues is akin to criticizing Black Skeptics for not paying attention to the plight of women in Afghanistan. I also note that FFRF is an organization that welcomes members of all races and ethnicities and there have always been persons of color within the organization. Don’t get me wrong, I recognize a need for organizations such as Black Skeptics. I see no reason why an individual of color (or not) could not be a member of both Black Skeptics and FFRF. The missions of these two organizations are somewhat different but complement each other; they do not conflict. The founders of FFRF are highly concerned with women’s issues and this concern is still evident today within the organization and would certainly include concern for women of color.

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