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A warning about increasing diversity

Regular readers will probably have noticed that my post this morning was a bit more verbose than they’re used to seeing. In the interest of not making these things too ponderous (and also in the interest of serving my own short attention span) I try to cap blog posts around 1,000 words. Sometimes the ‘Monday Think Pieces’ go a bit over, but today’s post was knocking down the door of 2,000 words. In my defense, there was a lot of ground to cover and I wanted to make sure I didn’t leave any ideas unexplored.

That being said, there is still one thing that I didn’t say in this morning’s piece. Part of it was sheer post length, and part of it was that inclusion would have severely interrupted the flow of the piece by introducing a topic that is only tangentially related to what I was trying to convey. If you’ll forgive the indulgence, I’ll raise it here (if you won’t forgive the indulgence, then fuck you; this is my site :P).

I met Jen McCreight once when she came to Vancouver to discuss women in the atheist movement. Since then I have seen her write several blog posts about the importance of women in the atheist movement, sit on ‘diversity panels’, and give presentations at meetings all around the continent on pretty much the same set of topics. Given the frequency with which she is asked to give these presentations, it is fairly easy to forget that Jen is a biologist. Her life is devoted (at least in part) to discussing gene expression and mapping and all kinds of neat biology stuff; all of which seemingly tends to take a back seat to the fact that she owns a uterus.

This phenomenon seems to be fairly typical – women are invited to speak about “women’s issues” rather than skepticism at large. Greta Christina is perhaps my favourite atheist blogger, and it has almost nothing to do with the fact that she’s a woman. Her writing is what does it for me, and while she does offer her insights when it comes to gender diversity in the freethinking community, she writes some really great stuff about atheism in general that isn’t a “women’s issue” in any sense.

So here’s my point: while diversity is an important topic, and while many people (myself included) are happy to talk your ear off about it, it may in fact be the case that not every member of a minority group wants to spend all of their time focussed on being a member of a minority group. We have interests that go beyond our sex/gender or ethnic background, and insofar as we are good at discussing those interests it might be nice to be invited to speak on them, rather than offering our alternative perspective.

I am not not not suggesting that this is a recurrent and exhaustive phenomenon – Neil Degrasse Tyson, for example, is a black freethinker that spends hardly any time talking about race. He brings it up when he chooses to, and when he feels it’s relevant. Hemant Mehta spends more time talking about education and youth activism than he does about being brown. It is not always the case that minority members are pigeon-holed as I describe above. I want to make that clear.

That being said, as we begin to embrace diversity and come to a better understanding of what it means and why it’s important, I just want to raise general caution at how easy it is to embrace tokenism and type-casting at the same time.

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