I wasn’t going to write about the one hiccup from JT Eberhard about an incident at the Great Lakes Atheist Convention (as Greta Christina already did), but someone on twitter has convinced me that I need to. First, I’ll say that I heard the convention was freaking awesome and that the organizers were phenomenal. It was seriously one of the best-run first-time conferences JT had ever attended.
The problems all started when, after the Q&A of Mandisa Thomas’s talk, JT complained about a response to a woman who asked Mandisa what black people were doing to fight black on black crime. Was the woman’s question naive? Yes. Very. Especially since Mandisa’s talk was about what the atheism movement can learn from the hospitality industry (irony meter pegging out here) and had nothing to do with crime in black communities or even race. Oh, and there actually is no glut of black-on-black crime, that’s actually a racist belief all too often innocently bought into (the rate of white-on-white crime is actually comparable, and when controlled for economic rather than racial variables, is pretty much the same), since the whole notion is a false belief based on racial inferiority (‘black people are worse’), which is, by definition, a racist belief.
Anyway, he is sure her naivety resulted in her asking a question that certainly had racist undertones, even if the woman was not intentionally being racist. Although that of course is kind of the problem with racist beliefs. One does not have to be maliciously or consciously a racist to hold them or act on them. Yet those beliefs and behaviors are still racist. And still do harm and offend.
Nevertheless, I’m told Mandisa handled it well.
But then, during the Q&A of Darrel C. Smith’s talk, Bria Crutchfield stood up and proceeded to give the woman an angry tongue lashing. This went on for about five minutes (or maybe it just seemed like that long). While Bria did answer the woman’s question, it was very embarrassing to the woman and trailed off into a number of red herrings such as “I’m here, get over it” as if anybody was suggesting that Bria or black atheists were unwelcome at the conference or silently sneered at by…anybody.
Well, except maybe the woman who asked a question so insensitive and off topic that it gave the distinct impression that she harbored some negative beliefs about the black people in the room and even derailed a talk about hospitality to put the black speaker on the spot over it. As if “black on black crime” was particularly “black people’s responsibility” and “what are ‘you people’ going to do about it.” It’s not as if anyone asks a white person what ‘white people’ are going to do about “white on white crime,” least of all in the Q&A of a talk that has nothing to do with race or crime or even social problems generally, and is even about learning from the hospitality industry, an industry you’d think would practically have as rule number one “don’t derail convention talks with wholly unrelated questions tinged with racist undertones…and certainly don’t do that when the speaker herself is black.”
Anyway, JT and several others wound up leaving the room during Bria’s monologue. Even though this means he didn’t actually in fact hear her whole speech, putting him in the worst position for being one to criticize it. But never mind that. It just seemed so unnecessary to him. He was sure the questioner was ignorant of what would make her question offensive (she at least did know it was off topic), and this could’ve been solved without Bria embarrassing her (and herself) by usurping another speaker’s Q&A. You know, exactly like the original woman did to Mandisa’s Q&A. Even though it is commonly a rule when someone steals speaking time unfairly in a discussion, the other side is awarded a similar exemption from the standard format. And although the speaker Darrel Smith was okay with it. And most of the audience, too (as indicated by their applause).
But whatever. The woman merely needed information, not to be screamed at, and certainly not to be screamed at through a long diatribe in the middle of a conference when the floor was not hers. Although, to be fair, Bria didn’t actually scream. And maybe I shouldn’t automatically refer to a black woman speaking passionately as screaming at people. But whatever. The woman who asked the insensitive question and derailed Mandisa’s Q&A just needed information, because she was just ignorant. And insulting public displays of racial ignorance never warrant expressions of racial exasperation and outrage. And when black people are so offended like that, they should keep their mouths shut and not vent because we never do that (except that we do) and we’re better than they are (except we’re not, because racism is false).
Anyway, our community is usually big on dispelling ignorance, and even JT does this brashly in public all the time. Like, you know, in the way he’s treating Bria now. Which isn’t all that different from what Bria did. Actually, kind of not even at all. Except people don’t usually refer to white men writing passionately as screaming. But apart from that. Embarrassing Bria by writing lengthy talk-down lectures at her online is totally okay. But a passionate outburst by a black person offended at the way black people at the conference had just been publicly treated, that’s totally uncool and should be condemned. With tens of thousands of words.
Anyway, while JT believes there’s a place for drawing note to improper things people have done in public, he’s a big advocate of trying to resolve it personally first (after all, for good people usually all they need is to have attention drawn to their blind spots and they will feel sufficient contrition on their own…and we in this community only ever deal privately, one-on-one, with every ignorant and misinformed individual there is, we wouldn’t think of more efficiently communicating our facts and feelings publicly so as to get through to more people than just them).
Well, okay, JT’s a big advocate of trying to resolve things personally first…except when he doesn’t. Like when he didn’t talk privately to a single one of his critics before responding to them on his blog. He thought (and still thinks) that Bria had a blind spot there (but evidently doesn’t think any of his critics now do), so rather than immediately write a blog, he pulled Bria aside later that day to tell her that he thought she was out of line (in the hopes of helping her to see her blind spot without publicly humiliating her…whereas his critics, evidently not having a blind spot for him to point out, didn’t require anything comparable…or maybe, they didn’t because they are white, and blind spots are, like, totally a particular problem black people have).
Okay. So that happened. Anyway…
It…didn’t go well.
JT was just going to leave it there, but then someone on twitter started messaging him. He thought it was obvious that Bria was out of line, but apparently not. This convinced him that there may be a bigger overall problem with people thinking that any slight (like Bria’s), even if it’s the result of ignorance rather than cruelty (like Bria’s supposed blind spot), can merit intentionally humiliating or yelling at someone (or dressing them down in lengthy public blogs). I have seen this elsewhere, where a disproportionate response takes place and someone defends it by saying they were justifiably angry, as if every action taken on account of justifiable anger is therefore justified. Except that sometimes it’s by visibly seeing that justified anger has been produced that we learn we’ve done something wrong. And maybe those offenses keep happening so often that what we’re seeing is the end result of finally blowing someone’s top, who is sick of silently taking this again and again and again and again and again and again (you know, when it’s like this, because people who have lived with racism all their lives will tell you it’s like this). Because no one flies off the handle at a single slight. Except black people, who everyone knows can’t control themselves.
Anyway, JT needed to get Bria out of the way before he moved on to the tweets. When he spoke with Bria, he opened by telling her that he didn’t wish to imply that she’s a bad person (I know, I know, a white guy saying that to a black girl in preface to a criticism of her does look kind of bad in the context of American race relations, particularly in Michigan, but never mind that). He followed by saying he thought she was out of line (he even told her that he had been out of line before and he doesn’t think he’s a bad person–it happens). He explained that the woman in the audience who took over another speaker’s Q&A to ask even an unintentionally racist and insensitive and completely off-topic question, didn’t mean offense, and to then take over another speaker’s Q&A to yell at her (or passionately rant on what was offensive about it, however you prefer to describe it) was probably a disproportionate and unproductive response (at least in terms of helping the woman to feel positively about Bria’s cause and to recognize where she may have misstepped). Unless, of course, she got the point…as most people would when they see something they said produce such a reaction, being then made curious to know why it would do so, which would result in them learning something about race relations and why minorities get sick of this stuff because it keeps happening to them so often that any white person would blow their top, too, if they had the same experience of it over years and years.
Anyway, Bria responded that she’d heard that JT likes to criticize other speakers at conferences. He told Bria that this is news to him, although it seems he didn’t think to ask which speakers had told her this and thus he wasn’t all that interested in this news apparently, but if he thinks someone is out of line, of course he lets them know. This is what he would want someone to do to him. As many have since done. And he ignored them just as Bria ignored him, so I guess that’s how he likes it. Only, of course, he’s not black and hasn’t been on the receiving end of shit like this relentlessly everywhere he goes the whole of his life. But context is irrelevant. And when you ignore the context (as you totally should, since it’s irrelevant), their situations are obviously identical. I mean, if a white guy went off on a rant defending vegetarianism against some remark against it earlier, and derailed a Q&A with a passionate tirade over it, that’s totally exactly like a victim of a lifetime of racism going off against yet another public display of it at a conference.
Admittedly, under the surface JT was insulted by the suggestion that he was conveying his displeasure to Bria out of some need to feel superior, and not for his stated reason. Even though he didn’t mention her saying that exactly, it just kind of looks like that when a white guy dresses down a black girl who speaks out against a public display of implicit racism making her feel unwelcome and not understood at a conference. But he let that drop.
Bria then told JT she was offended, to justify her earlier explosion. He said he didn’t blame her for being offended. The question was offensive, he admits. But surely, he asked, she doesn’t think that the offense was intended? Bria did not answer, which suggested to JT she thought it was intended. Because one always assumes what an answer will be when none is given. Anyway, he honestly didn’t see how anybody could possibly have reached that conclusion. Even though that need not have been the conclusion Bria reached in the first place. Ignorance is still offensive, and getting sick of it being publicly thrown in your face and othering you is usually quite justified. Indeed, we usually empathize with that side of the argument, rather than with the ignorant offense that is making the victim of it feel unwelcome and poorly understood. Imagine the same scenario and something homophobic or transphobic was said and a gay or trans person went off over it…I think we’d usually sympathize with the offended party there, rather than the offending one. But whatever.
JT assures us he can very much relate to Bria’s offense (and the offense taken by others at the question). He’s offended every time a person suggests that people who have a mental illness need to “toughen up.” Although Michigan didn’t endure appalling riots over that just a generation ago. And if JT kept getting that shit thrown in his face over and over again, in public, while he had to keep staying silent, he’d probably eventually feel justified making as public and forceful an answer to it as it deserved, and in the exact same manner and venue.
However, JT can realize that such admonishments of the mentally ill are not the product of a disdain for people with mental illness (except when often it is, and one often cannot tell the difference, which is what is particularly problematic about it), but the product of ignorance caused by there not being nearly enough information readily available in our society about this subject (and repeated, persistent ignorance paraded in public should never engender outrage). He can draw the difference between those who are good people, but ignorant, and those who are assholes (even though that’s irrelevant to whether repeated offense and ignorance deserve public expressions of outrage).
JT can also realize that if he yelled at and publicly humiliated each of them (rather than just one of them, on one particularly appropriate occasion), he’d drive good people away from his cause while hamstringing his ability to create another eager voice for it (all while believing they were at fault for insulting him to start out with!), although he actually has no evidence of this whatever (there is no scientific data supporting his assumptions about the social effects of well-timed public outrage–and the audience reaction, in open support of Bria, would tend to be evidence against him, and in my own case if I had said something that produced such an outburst I would want to know what I did, rather than become an even more entrenched racist simply because I don’t like being yelled at). But pulling them aside and educating them? Perhaps telling them his own story so they can understand? That’s doing right by other human beings, it’s placing value on good intent and rewarding it with information, and it’s fulfilling his stated goal: changing minds.
Except that sounds kind of like, you know, physically impossible and condescending…as if a black woman is supposed to pull aside every white person on earth who publicly says something ignorantly racist (because obviously white people get to speak their ignorance in public, while the victims of their inadvertent racism have to communicate one-on-one and in private), rather than simply broadcast to all white people that maybe they should stop saying shit like that and treat black people with enough respect to actually ask them relevant questions–and to maybe take the trouble to learn some things on their own first rather than expecting black people to personally tutor them all the time.
Anyway. Bria then told JT that some people in the audience appreciated what she did. He’s sure there were many that did. His argument isn’t that nobody applauded Bria’s behavior, but simply that those who did were wrong to do so. Because JT knows better than his own community what proper decorum is. Bria then told him that “the only people who concern her were the people who agreed with her.” Which is basically the same thing JT has said on countless occasions about religious bigots and even fellow atheist blowhards like Justin Vacula. (She reiterated this later on her facebook page by saying “At the end of the day, ALL that matters in MY life are those who are in MY corner”).
JT told Bria that’s a great way to feel like you’re always right, but that dismissing the concerns of those who disagree with you out of hand is a terrible way to be made aware of your own blind spots. Then JT promptly dismissed the concerns of those who disagree with him, out of hand. But even apart from that, this was an odd thing for him to say, since he is supposed to have agreed that what the questioner asked was indeed wrong and Bria’s response to it was indeed right–it was only the tone supposedly, and the venue, that was incorrect, even though she used exactly the same venue and circumstance as the person she was criticizing (and no one else who matters minded), and her tone was justified in the context of black people’s lived experiences in the face of this constant imbalance between white people getting to say stupid shit in public and black people being told (by white people no less) to keep quiet about it and not get so angry and like, sheesh, chill already.
(BTW, has JT never read any of Sikivu Hutchinson’s books? He’ll freak out when he does.)
JT told Bria he understood that the woman’s question had racist undertones, to which Bria responded “I didn’t say I had a problem with that, I had a problem that she embarrassed Mandisa.” JT lamented that Mandisa was embarrassed (Mandisa, in everyone’s experience, is a wonderful person and a fantastic hugger). But he pointed out that Bria then embarrassed the woman who asked the question, the only difference being that Bria had the full intention of doing so. Well, that and the fact that she warranted and provoked it in precisely the way Mandisa didn’t. You know, except for that one other difference. (Precisely the difference that provoked Bria to outrage….in other words, precisely Bria’s point.)
JT then asked Bria if she felt that engaging in the same behavior she found distasteful was the best way to advocate for her cause. Even though Bria didn’t engage in the same behavior, since nothing she said was ignorantly racist. It was just passionately expressed. She was, in fact, answering in kind (same venue, same circumstances). Which ought to be an offended party’s right. Anyway, Bria responded that she doesn’t care what people think of her. Just as JT has said on many an occasion about offending religious people or other blowhards and putzes, since he doesn’t care what they think about him, either, as long as he’s telling the truth and answering them in kind. But he’s white, so that’s okay.
He told Bria he can appreciate not being bothered when people unfairly think ill of you (he likes to think he has that down himself), but asked if that made adopting what Bria had already said was distasteful behavior acceptable (i.e., embarrassing a speaker by hijacking their Q&A). What he got next was a series of statements like “That’s how I roll” and “I chew the meat and spit out the bones,” as if those things even remotely addressed the issue of Bria being out of line. Well, except that they are kind of the same things JT says when asked why he is so mean to religionists. And they do address the issue because they partly explain why she spoke truth to power rather than meekly avoided offending the white people who offended her (no doubt because she’s sick of being told that, and of the ultimate consequences it entails: that white people get to say stupid shit in public, while black people aren’t allowed to say even true shit in public response).
After going down all these routes and making no progress, JT asked Bria if she thought that was the best way to change a person’s mind. Bria said she didn’t care if the woman’s mind was changed. As sometimes JT has said of the religious wingnuts he has taken on. He then asked Bria, if her intent was not to change the woman’s mind, what she had hoped to accomplish. Bria responded that she didn’t have to tell him that. He agreed, but told her that it might help him to understand her position better. Bria reiterated that she didn’t have to tell him what she had hoped to accomplish. Maybe because JT was being condescending, and she’s sick of white men lecturing her over speaking publicly about what she feels and why. But whatever.
Anyway, the conversation went on like that. JT never derided Bria (in fact, a couple times he told her that he didn’t think being out of line made her a bad person, even though she made several jabs at his character, with more later that he won’t get into). But he just wants people to know the full context of what happened (except for all the details he left out, which kind of very much change how all this looks), and to know that he tried to resolve this personally (even though when he came to be criticized for this, he totally dropped that principle). He wouldn’t even have tried to resolve this publicly if not for being convinced that the problem extends beyond Bria.
That’s where his twitter interlocutor comes in…
[Insert here thousands and thousands of words of fisking tweets that ultimately demonstrate the complete uselessness of twitter for communicating ideas; demonstrate, that is, to everyone except JT, who doesn’t get the irony of using a vast blog post to explain what’s wrong with tweets.]
Once upon a time an atheist was at a debate mostly attended by Christians. The topic of debate was simply does God exist. During the Q&A a Christian in the audience asked the atheist debater why he is not a supporter of Hitler and the Nazis, since they were atheists, too, and atheism only leads to dehumanizing societies like Stalinist Russia. The atheist debater explains that that isn’t relevant to whether a god actually exists or not, but takes a little time anyway to also note that Hitler and the Nazis were overwhelmingly Christians and Stalin committed his atrocities because he was a sociopath and megalomaniac, not because he was an atheist.
Near the end of the Q&A an atheist in the audience took the mike and attacked that questioner, ranting with open anger that the things he said were offensive and bigoted and insulting to the atheists in their company, the atheist debater in particular, and that this nonsense about Hitler being an atheist and atheism causing Stalinism has to stop, and Christians need to start treating atheists with the respect their actual actions in American society deserve, because there are a lot of us (“we’re here”), and we are good people, doing good things, and our reputations in their community should be based on reality, not demonizing myths. He got loud and was clearly outraged.
The other atheists in the audience clapped. And for probably the first time, the Christians in the audience realized how many were there, and who thus had to listen to that offensive question. This no doubt shamed many of the Christians in the audience who had gloated at the question, but were now forced to realize these people were right there sitting next to them and were ordinary, everyday people, and not Nazis and rapists, and that maybe, just maybe, they kind of deserved that dressing down, and should be ashamed of thinking what they did, and maybe they should check their facts and be more respectful next time.
And no one blogged about how awful that atheist audience member was for getting angry and speaking his mind. No one took him aside and told him he should have kept quiet and taken that one single Christian aside and had a one-to-one over it. Everyone who mattered felt better that it had finally been said, and that a lot of Christians heard it, and saw how angry a question like that made us, and why.
So maybe we should cut people like Bria some slack. And treat her like one of us. And not an angry screaming black woman for all us white folk to tsk tsk at. Because what she did, wasn’t all that different.