I want to talk about race and sex in the atheist movement.
I’m writing this because of the recent kerfuffle in the skeptical community, in which Carrie Iwan and Rebecca Watson of the Skepchick blog did a podcast interview about sexism at The Amazing Meeting (and about sexist remarks made at that meeting by “The Big Bang Theory” creator Bill Prady)… and were met with a barrage of hostile comments over the suggestion that the skeptical community might not always be the most welcoming place for women, and that maybe skeptics should be doing something about it. (Comments arguing, among other things, that women who complain about sexism in the skeptical movement are just being whiny, unreasonable, and politically correct.)
And I’m writing this because of the interview I ran here in this blog with Sikivu Hutchinson, on being an African-American in the atheist movement… in which a surprising number of commenters reacted very strongly, and very negatively, to the idea that maybe there was a problem with the fact that the atheist movement is so predominantly and visibly made up of white men, and that maybe the movement should be doing something about it.
I want to talk about the fact that the atheist movement is so predominantly, and so visibly, made up of white men.
I want to talk about why this is a problem.
I want to talk about how this problem plays out, and how it perpetuates itself.
And I want to talk about why we need to do something about it.
Now, I don’t want to get deeply into overt racism and sexism in the atheist movement. (Not today, anyway. I may get into that in some later post.) For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that, when it comes to gender and race, everyone in the atheist movement is completely well- meaning, and has every conscious intention to not be sexist or racist. (I don’t actually believe that… but for the purposes of this post, I think it will be a useful assumption.)
Instead, I want to talk about why it’s important for the atheist movement to start paying attention — now — to race and gender. I want to talk about why it’s important for the atheist movement to start paying attention — now — to the fact that it is largely a white male movement… and to how that’s likely to affect the future of the movement, for everyone in it. I want to talk about into how, exactly, a movement that starts out being mostly white and mostly male, with mostly white men in positions of visibility and leadership, has a tendency to stay that way… even with the best intentions of everyone in that movement. And I want to talk about why this matters: why it’s a serious problem, why it’s going to matter more and more as our movement grows… and why it’s important to nip the problem in the bud, early, while our movement is still relatively young.
First, let’s talk about how this happens. Let’s talk about three distinct ways that racial and gender imbalances in a movement can perpetuate themselves… even if there is absolutely zero conscious intention to discriminate. (BTW, these apply to other marginalized groups as well; but race and gender are what’s on the table right now, so that’s what I’m focusing on. And yes, I know there are more than just these three ways. These are just the big, obvious ones that I’m familiar with. Comments about others are very much welcomed.)
1: Unconscious bias. Even with the best of conscious intentions, people tend to be more comfortable, and more trusting, with people who are more like them. This has been well and thoroughly documented. It’s one of the most important reasons behind affirmative action: people in charge of hiring decisions will automatically gravitate towards people who are more like them. So if the people doing the hiring are white men, they’re more likely to hire white men… and then as the people they hire rise to positions of power, they in turn will be more likely to hire white men… and so on, and so on, and so on. If there is no conscious, deliberate attempt to seek out qualified women, people of color, etc., this process will perpetuate itself indefinitely.
This isn’t just true in hiring. It’s true in any community, and any movement. If a movement starts out being mostly made up of and led by white men, and there is no conscious, pro-active attempt to seek out and welcome women and people of color, then that movement will have a very strong tendency to continue being dominated by white men.
What’s more, people can have racist or sexist attitudes without being conscious of them. You don’t need to be a torch- wielding member of the KKK or Operation Rescue to say and think dumb things about race or gender. (As someone who has said and thought plenty of dumb things… believe me, I speak from experience.) A lot of racism and sexism isn’t grossly overt: it’s subtle, and it’s woven so deeply into the fabric of our culture that we often aren’t aware of it until it’s called to our attention. But you can be damn well sure that the people on the receiving end of those attitudes are aware of it… and it can put them off from participating in a community that they might otherwise be drawn to.
2: Focus. People have a natural tendency to focus on the issues that concern them most directly. And if a movement — however unintentionally — is being dominated by white men, then that movement will tend to focus its energies on issues that concern white men… at the expense of issues that concern women and people of color.
You want an example? Sure. As just one specific example, I’ll cite the tendency of the atheist movement to provide an Internet community more than in- the- flesh communities… a tendency that ignores the powerful social bond that churches provide in the African-American communities, and that neglects the alienation and isolation that many African-American atheists feel when they leave their churches, and that fails to offer a replacement.
3: Self-fulfilling prophecies. Let’s pretend, just for a moment, that #1 and #2 aren’t happening at all. Let’s pretend that there is no tendency, not even an unconscious one, for the leaders and organizers of the atheist movement to default to white men in citations and event organization and so on. Let’s pretend that there are no racist or sexist attitudes in the atheist movement — not even subtle or unconscious ones. And let’s pretend that there is no tendency in the atheist movement, not even an unconscious one, to focus on issues that largely concern white men, at the expense of issues that largely concern women and people of color.
Let’s pretend that none of that is happening. Let’s pretend that the atheist movement is largely and most visibly white and male, either because most women and people of color just naturally aren’t that interested in atheism, or because of pure dumb random luck.
Even if that were so? The tendency of the atheist movement to be dominated by white men would still tend to perpetuate itself.
Remember what we talked about before. People are more comfortable with other people who are like them. And that isn’t just true for white men. It’s true for women and people of color, too. If a movement is largely made up of white men, and if the leaders and most visible representatives of a movement are mostly white men… women and people of color just aren’t as likely to join up. They — we — are more likely to feel like fish out of water. We’re less likely to see the movement as having to do with us.
And maybe more to the point: If a community is mostly white and male, a lot of women and people of color are going to assume that #1 and #2 are probably going on. I know that I’m less comfortable going to an event that’s mostly male… since the chances of having my femaleness be inappropriately sexualized are a lot greater. Women and people of color are naturally, and not unreasonably, going to be cautious about joining up with a movement that’s mostly white and male. We’re going to wonder why that is.
So even if the predominant whiteness and maleness of the atheist movement had somehow happened purely by accident, with no sins of either omission or commission on the part of white male atheists… the predominant whiteness and maleness of the movement would still tend towards a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if those hypothetical winds of fate that innocently led the movement to be largely white and largely male were no longer blowing in that direction, even if women and people of color suddenly sprouted an interest in atheism that they’d somehow never had before… this self- perpetuating tendency of largely white male movements to stay largely white and male would still tend to, well, perpetuate itself.
Plus, of course, all this is assuming that there is no overt racism or sexism in the atheist movement. An assumption that, obviously, isn’t warranted.
A lot of this is fixable.
Or at least, it’s addressable.
And it’s much, much easier to address in the early stages of a movement than it is down the line, after patterns have been established, and bad feelings have had time to fester.
So how do we fix it?
And why should we care?
That’s Part 2.
(The second half of this piece will appear tomorrow. I’m not going to turn off comments, but if you can hold off on commenting until Part 2 appears, I’d be much obliged.)