Enough about white men!


Alex Gabriel’s recently compiled list called “100 of Britain and Ireland’s Secular Thinkers You Should Know About, Who Aren’t White Men” includes some really wonderful people (many of whom I have worked with closely). It also includes people who are not so great. Given the inconsistencies, it does give me a sense of a “racism of lower expectations”. It seems you don’t need to have done much to be on the list; you don’t even need to live in the UK or Ireland or be “secular” or a “thinker” for that matter – just as long as you aren’t white and male. [Also, many who have spent a lifetime working for secularism haven’t even got a mention.]

Of course, it’s always good to find out about secularists we might not know of but the list starts by denigrating white men rather than promoting secularists on their own merit. The title of the original list of which this is an updated one is even worse: it was called “100 interesting atheists in Britain who aren’t old, white, privileged straight men”.

Frankly, I find the practice of reducing people in this way – white and male – to be just as abhorrent as reducing them to let’s say “Muslim”. There’s an implication of a homogeneous community where none exists and an assumption that based on one’s colour, age or sex, one is automatically a certain way or privileged, which is not the case. Reducing people in this way ignores where people stand on issues, their politics, their choices, and their struggles. It ignores class politics. Plus it’s demeaning and dehumanising.

I would stand with Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling (mentioned in the list as examples of “white men”) any day of the week and not with someone like Saeed Kamali Dehghan who is on the list and is Iranian-born like myself but who has made a career (at the Guardian no less) out of defending the “reformist” faction of the Islamic regime of Iran. He wouldn’t be called a secularist unless you redefine the term to mean only those who are not “white men”.

Of course this is not to say that we shouldn’t be promoting secularists and atheists who aren’t visible and aren’t given a platform. As someone mentioned on the list, I know full well the difficulties of not being seen or heard and the importance of support like that which Alex is trying (albeit poorly) to give. There has to be better ways of doing it.

Also, this is not to say that sexism and racism don’t exist (read this piece by Soraya Chemaly on why there aren’t more women in atheism) but one doesn’t choose their allies and friends based on their colour or their sex or age…

I know it has become fashionable with multiculturalism and cultural relativism to create imagined communities based on identity politics but it is regressive to do so. This point of view basically sees all white men as problematic and makes excuses for Islamists in the name of tolerance and respect. I know this is not what Alex is doing but this type of thinking is what leads to liberals and lefties defending Islamism as a defence of “Muslims” and “minorities”.

Megan McCauley’s recent Tweet is a good case in point in what happens when one sees things this way. She says:

…Islamophobia is an act of white supremacy when it comes from a white perspective, like say Dawkins

What nonsense. Of course Megan is free to defend Islam and Islamism all she likes but she will need a better argument for it than hiding behind Dawkins’ skin colour. Most importantly, from my point of view, these types of “arguments” in addition to being regressive also hurt international and human solidarity. You can’t speak out against Islamism’s barbarity if you’re a “white male”, if you’re an “old white male”… Where does it end?

What happened to good old fashioned solidarity where you spoke out against injustice just because it was unjust? And even if Megan doesn’t see it, Islamism – under the banner of Islam – is slaughtering countless human beings across the globe and we need people to speak out – “white” or not.

Speaking out doesn’t make Dawkins a “white supremac[ist]”, any more than my opposing the Islamic regime of Iran makes me a defender of US militarism or vice versa. You need to see people’s criticism’s within a context and by looking at where they stand on issues, their politics, and so on.

Cultural relativism has been bad for so many reasons including defending the holocaust of our era but it has also been bad for people like Megan – making lazy criticism acceptable.

Either way, we can’t stop our criticism of Islam, religion or Islamism, which by the way Megan kills more “Muslims” than anyone else.

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks Maryam – I think you say some valid things, but I’d also like to offer some comments in my defence.

    As far as the contents of my list, there’s no one on there I can’t imagine making a worthwhile or substantial contribution to the kinds of discussions we have as atheists, secularists and so on. This being said, I’m certainly aware there have been public disagreements between people on it: you and Peyvand Khorsandi, Brooke Magnanti and Joan Smith and various others. In general, I’ve no problem with this – but if there are important facts I’m missing about Saeed Kamali Dehghan or anyone else which could threaten their suitability for inclusion, I’m happy to look into that and reconsider.

    I don’t accept, though, that saying the atheist community should not be as dominated as it is by white men demands ‘racism of lower expectations’. (And as for your pointing out no everyone on it lives in Britain or Ireland – I chose the title carefully so not to mislead people on that – who wouldn’t want to include Mina Ahadi and Leo Igwe in a list of recommended figures?) As I said in my FAQ to the list, which also addresses some of the other suggestions you make here, the fact these people aren’t white men isn’t why they should be taken notice of – they should be noticed because they’re talented, articulate, interesting and relevant – but I think it’s likely at least to be part of why they haven’t been noticed by lots of people to date. I would also point out that the list doesn’t comprise ‘THE 100′ or ‘the top 100′ non-white-male atheists I know of; just, arbitrarily, 100 of them. There are lots of noteworthy people it misses out, including people from last year’s list and names I’ve only learned since writing it, and I’m happy to put time into promoting those people too. (I’ve invited people to list extra suggestions in the comments below the list.)

    I don’t think my discussion reduces people to being white men or homogenises them – I should know, I’m (pretty much) a white man who criticises and disagrees with prominent other secular white men all the time. I’m not a cultural relativist or a multiculturalist in the way I think you mean, but I do think considering how things like race and gender contextualise discourse is important – and also, speaking as an anarchist, that a Marxism which is purely materialist and only deals with class concerns (very valid as that is) won’t be well equipped to effect far-reaching change.

    A case in point: I think that if Richard Dawkins weren’t a white Englishman, there’s a significant chance he wouldn’t use very racialising language around Islam and Muslims, playing into a critique of Islamism for being “alien”, “foreign”, “unBritish”, out of line with “Western values” – I’m not making whole groups into monoliths, he is – which, in view of his public (in the former case, financial) support of figures like Pat Condell and Geert Wilders, are difficult to view charitably. The fact he’s a white, secular Englishman from an established and privileged social class, and the fact his religious background was ‘moderate’ and Anglican (I think there’s something very problematic about his failure to acknowledge the Church of England’s fascistic wing and appeasement of figures like Peter Akinola) does mean he fits exactly the profile of a media figure very likely to be co-opted by UKIP or EDL members, who’ve been tweeting his comments. There’s only so far, for example, that I think the EDL could retweet your comments on Islam in their support the same way, as someone who’s visibly communist and an immigrant, without some dissonance being created.

    I’ve been very clear about saying I’ve got absolutely no problem criticising Islamism, or criticising beliefs held by followers of Islam – including critiquing Islam ‘as the banner of Islamism’. But I think we need to do it in ways that are carefully pitched and don’t prop up the racist, xenophobic rhetoric of people like Condell, Wilders, the EDL and so on, which I think Dawkins is guilty of doing to a serious extent. And I think some consideration of the way we talk about things, particularly on the part of white non-ex-Muslim atheists, would be conducive to better critique of Islam and Islamism, where they’re criticised for being oppressive, foundationless, violent, inhumane, guilty of human rights violation and so on – not for being un-Western or ‘culturally alien’ or ‘other’.

    • says

      Alex

      A case in point: I think that if Richard Dawkins weren’t a white Englishman, there’s a significant chance he wouldn’t use very racialising language around Islam and Muslims, playing into a critique of Islamism for being “alien”, “foreign”, “unBritish”, out of line with “Western values”…

      Almost identical language to that used by Richard Dawkins, however one feels about it, has been used by V.S. Naipaul, Patrick Sookhdeo, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq. More inflammatory language has been used by Wafa Sultan, Brigitte Gabriel and Nonie Darwish. The most anti-Muslim figures in the world, meanwhile – who actually perpetrate violence – are Hindu nationalists in India and Buddhist militants in Myanmar. Wherever one stands with regards to Islam and its adherents, it makes no sense to attribute a particular perspective to ethnicity, gender or other such characteristics.

    • spitz says

      I’m just going to repeat my thoughts when I first saw your list, but I hope you remember to talk about the people on it and what they’re doing outside the context of “they’re not white men” lists. While I’d hope you’ve brought some of them up on your site before(there are 100, after all), no other articles popped up when I searched for some of their names. If the only context someone gets brought up in is as a blurb in a smorgasboard of non white men, it’s pretty trivializing.

      Best case scenario for such a list being made: each “blurb” is a link to you covering the individuals in the past, or each name gets a genuine article focusing on why they actually deserve attention. I

      Also, while I’m sure people are to be understanding and sensitive to social issues, I hope they begin to realize how ridiculous it sounds when they try to stand up to racism while accusing people of acting like a white guy. Especially when, on the internet, those kind of accusations can easily be aimed at people who are neither whites nor guys. I’ve had to deal with this several times, and it’s kind of annoying to have to clarify your skin color before people are willing to listen to your point. Probably isn’t much better to have your points ignored for the same reason. It’s real easy for new stereotypes to develop this way, and the people using them may not notice because they don’t match the format of the ones they’re “supposed” to find offensive.

      So… you know

      be careful

  2. SudoNim says

    I wholeheartedly agree Maryam.

    We should stand together united against all forms of repression irrespective of our cultural/racial/geographic origins.

    I read an article from the Guardian (what has happened to that paper? Is it just me who has noticed a sharp degree of bias being formed in recent years, or perhaps it was always that way?) yesterday by Nesrine Malik indignantly berating Richard Dawkins “tweeting” about the deafening silence when it comes to “islamic discoveries in science” (I dont think those words have been written/typed too many times not in jest) since the middle ages. Specifically regarding the lack of noble prize winners if memory serves. I think it was due to it being at the specific time of Eid that got her proverbial “goat… I presume all islamists stop preaching hate at xmas time ;)

    There is an all pervading fear of “words”. People terrified of thinking outside of their presuppositions. The need to tear down anyone who would inspire freethought.

    “Words are wind” I was always told. When your mind is made of dust that could pose A problem I suppose

    O:)

  3. Chris Moos says

    Unfortunately, Alex, Maryam has more than a point here.

    If you really think that “the fact these people aren’t white men isn’t why they should be taken notice of – they should be noticed because they’re talented, articulate, interesting and relevant”, why are you then reducing these people to their role as “non-white” “non-male” etc..? You call your list “100 interesting atheists in Britain who aren’t old, white, privileged straight men” – so the basic qualification for these people to make their list is age, colour of skin, privilege, sexual orientation and gender. I do see how people can find your reasoning behind this abhorrent, and clearly, essentialist.

    Not to say that I don’t understand your motivation behind that – giving a voice to the new kind of atheists which we so clearly need. Great. But you won’t achieve that goal by compiling lists which by their title clearly imply that race and gender are the most important issues when it comes to being an atheist or secularist lead figure. Essentialism won’t help anyone who wants to create an equal and secular society.

    Just a side point on the EDL/UKIP using Dawkins slogans. While I agree with you that Dawkins has to revise his language urgently, your argument that he needs to do so because his words are being used by the far right is ludicrous. It’s not only since Bush that the far-right has used the language of human rights and even secularism to bring “freedom” to other countries. The far-right has happily picked up this language to give themselves an air of legitimacy. Just tell me about one human rights expression that has not been used extensively by the far-right to bash Muslims?
    The very fact that idiots are misusing secularist and emancipatory language to disguise their agenda cannot have any bearing on us. “Thoughts are free”, and we cannot give the faculty to the far-right to dictate the language we use, just through them misusing our words.

    • says

      Actually that was what I called last year’s list. This year’s title was just ‘secular thinkers who aren’t white men’. And er, no, that’s not the basic qualification – if I just wanted a random 100 people who weren’t white men for the sake of it, I’d have found Facebook groups for atheist women and POCs and typed up the names of the first 50 members in each. Everybody on the list is there because of what I think they have to say, what they have said and why people should listen to them.

      Don’t really see how ‘essentialism’ comes into this – how am I essentialising gender/race? If anything we need to combat the rather essentialised image of atheism, and organised atheism in particular, as being wholly white and make (among other things) – that image is holding back our outreach and our effectiveness enormously.

      There certainly is an issue about the way that ‘progressive’ language has been colonised (ahem) by the far right, and how to get around that is a difficult problem. But at the very least, I think Dawkins needs to publicly denounce the EDL, along with ending his associations with people like Condell and Wilders.

      • Chris Moos says

        Acccording to your alma mater essentialism is defined as “a belief that things have a set of characteristics which make them what they are”. You imply very clearly by your list that not being male and white is an essential qualification of these people. Not their accomplishments. No, their gender and colour of skin. I admit that it is a lot more difficult to write up a good justification why each and every of these 100 people are important to the secularist community. That would require a book rather than a quickly compiled list. But you went rather for the sensationalising effect of reducing them to race and gender. You are very concerned about the use of language, so I must assume you know what you are doing by reducing people to external qualifications which a priori have nothing to do with atheism or secularism.

        If your concern is really “what I think they have to say, what they have said and why people should listen to them”, why didn’t you call your list that way?

        I think the image that atheism is white and male is mainly in your head. Despite the many atheists being white and male (if you really think that white males are in the majority you might want to have a look at China), there is nothing a priori that relates atheism or secularism to colour of skin. If you really want to combat that image, you are not doing a great job by perpetuating the “white male atheist” stereotype.

        Agreed on Dawkins having to denounce Wilders, Condell and the EDL.

        • says

          “You imply very clearly by your list that not being male and white is an essential qualification of these people” – well, in order to be named on a specific, dedicated list of people who aren’t white men, yes… in order actually be noticed or hired or paid attention to, no.

          “Not their accomplishments. No, their gender and colour of skin. I admit that it is a lot more difficult to write up a good justification why each and every of these 100 people are important to the secularist community” – er, you have actually looked at the list, right? There’s a detailed bio of every single person on it including what their experience is, links to their writing, speaking and campaigning achievements and the kind of thing they’d be good at discussing. So I don’t see how you can claim the only reason I’m promoting them is because of their genders and/or races…

          “If your concern is really ‘what I think they have to say, what they have said and why people should listen to them’, why didn’t you call your list that way?” Because I think it’s legitimate to devote specified time, research and attention to raising awareness of people who can be added to speaker rosters and so on and don’t reflect the ‘pale male’ image of the community.

          “I think the image that atheism is white and male is mainly in your head” – um… okay, just no. This is a literal Google search for images of famous atheists. https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=atheists&rlz=1C5CHFA_enGB503GB503&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hl=en&tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi&ei=aN4EUt3SFuOY0QWnnYGIBQ&biw=1280&bih=633&sei=ad4EUq7oNOby0gWNrYHYBw#bav=on.2,or.r_cp.r_qf.&fp=7f3ee712501f6641&hl=en&q=famous+atheist&sa=1&safe=off&tbm=isch&um=1

          “Despite the many atheists being white and male (if you really think that white males are in the majority you might want to have a look at China), there is nothing a priori that relates atheism or secularism to colour of skin” – no, of course not, but I’m not talking about ‘members of the human race who just happen not to think there’s a god’, I’m talking about specific ‘movement’ or ‘activist’ atheists (and related things) in the context of UK-and-Ireland organising. And I also think that in specific ethnic populations with generally much-higher-than-usual religious observance, e.g. black Pentecostal communities, Muslim populations etc., a general lack of exposure to atheist or skeptical activism/writing/thinking of the kind we tend to organise around (and in particular a lack of prominent secular figures who are members of those communities) probably does seriously impede secular outreach.

          • Chris Moos says

            Again, I agree with your sentiment.
            But you can’t be surprised that when you frame a debate in terms of race and gender people are coming back to you and point out that you are not only missing the point, but actually promoting stereotypes.

            Had you said, “here is a list of 100 people who think need a voice because they are still being ignored in mainstream atheism/secularism because their experience is very different from the dominating Christian/Jewish backgrounds”, I would have been with you all the way. And that would have helped to promote the secular outreach.

            Again, fighting the “pale male” image by framing a debate (as per the title) in terms of race and gender is not helpful. By touting that some great thinkers are somehow different or important because they don’t happen to be male or white, you reduce people to their race and gender, rather than empowering them. No wonder that some have reacted to you list by saying cynically that they “made the list cuz I’m brown”. You might want to think about whether the people you try to promote really like to be on list where race and gender are their main distinguishing attributes.

  4. says

    Who’s said that, Chris? I don’t think I’m touting what you say I’m touting, and I don’t know what stereotypes I’m promoting. Actually, I don’t think there was a debate there that I was framing at all.

    • Chris Moos says

      Ok, let’s re-read your title then: “100 of Britain and Ireland’s Secular Thinkers You Should Know About, Who Aren’t White Men” – no race and gender frame here, of course. Sorry for the sarcasm.

      I think the way to go about that would have been to compile that list, and in the end say something like “well, and incidentally, this list is also much more diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.. than the current representation of mainstream atheism. That’s great, because we need people from more varied backgrounds, as not all atheists, secularists, and apostates are alike. E.g. atheists from a protestant background are far over-represented as compared to backgrounds such as Muslim or Christian Orthodox….”

      Not trying to get smart on you telling you how to write, I just think the way you framed your article through the title opens you up for a heap of criticism, which might actually detract from your original laudable goal of presenting new and different atheist and secularist points of view.

      • says

        But that’s not a debate. That’s just ‘people you should know about’. And the fact they’re not white men wasn’t a way of framing it, it *was* the blog post. Think we may just need to part ways here.

        • Pitchguest says

          Tsk tsk tsk.

          Aren’t we just klaxons number to infinity? For what it’s worth, I think Maryam is bang on the money. I think your article is a lot more condescending than empowering to those people who are not, as you say, “old, white, privileged straight men.” I don’t think Neil Degrasse Tyson thought any less of Carl Sagan, simply because he was “white” and Tyson was “black.” I think their qualifications should speak for themselves, regardless of the colour of their skin. Don’t you?

  5. aavid a.osorio s. says

    This is happening right here, in your own blogging network, Maryam. Is good to see you’re better than them!

  6. jedgardee says

    Bang to rights Alex. What a shame you can’t just tell everyone here who disagrees with you to f*ck off like you do on your own blog….

  7. logicthoughtsisatroll says

    When so called intellectuals (conspirators) couldn’t understand the message of the following video. They keep banging their head (arguments on this page) on the wall to break Islamic teachings.

    • logicthoughtsisatroll says

      correction 9 :
      When so ocalled intellectuals (conspirators) couldn’t understand the message of the following video. They keep banging their head (arguments on this page) on the wall to wipeout Islam.

  8. Sparksintolife says

    Excellent post, I couldn’t agree more. Reducing the complex influences that could shape a person’s point of view along simplistic lines of gender/race/ethnicity/age can lead to pretty lazy stereotyping in my opinion. Serious inequalities exist in our culture for sure; but I’m not sure using “privilege” as the basis for responding to what someone might say, instead of focussing in the content of the argument, is the way forward. Unfortunately I’ve seen this going on with alarming regularity in skeptical discourse of late, its disappointing.

  9. Rob Mills says

    I agree entirely with your article. As an aside, I find this whole concept of race, especially used in this context, particularly misleading when one contrasts definitions of “white” from across both sides of the Atlantic. I have a friend from Afghanistan, one of the Nuristani in fact. She has blonde hair, her eyes are green, she isn’t white under the definition used in the UK. Furthermore, why are Maltese considered white whereas, say, Syrians or Lebanese are not? I think I prefer the American use of “white” to mean “Caucasian”.

  10. says

    I think there isn’t a need for me to comment any more on this. My position is clear and I agree with BenSix, Chris Moos and others who have supported my position so don’t need to go into it further. It is self-defeating and a wee bit condescending too. I’d like to be included on a list on my own merits rather than because it’s a list that needs to find 100 people who are not white or male…

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