Notes Towards an Intersectional Humanism


While I try to figure out how to import all my stuff from my old blog to my new one, here’s something I originally wrote a few months ago. The opening is slightly outdated because Reason Rally has since added more speakers, including more people of color. The rest is still relevant though. Enjoy!

Last week, Ashley F. Miller wrote about the lack of racial diversity among the seven scheduled keynote speakers at this year’s Reason Rally. Out of the seven, only one, Cara Santa Maria—who is part Puerto Rican—is of color, which is strange because the 2012 rally included Hemant Mehta and Jamila Bey. I don’t have a full list of events for this year’s rally, so perhaps there will be other speakers, and hopefully they will be of color. However, this brings up something that I hear a lot of critics say about the atheist movement, and that it’s mostly a white, straight, cisgender, male thing.

Last year my friend Sincere Kirabo interviewed Sikivu Hutchinson for his blog about the lack of black representation in the atheist community. According to Hutchinson:

Simply put, secular white folk have the luxury and the privilege to focus exclusively on [creationism and prayer in public school] because they do not have to worry about being criminalized, policed and dehumanized by a regime of mass incarceration which begins in elementary school for African American children. Black children are the most suspended, expelled and incarcerated youth population in the U.S. and this fact shapes their limited access to and long term prospects for a college education, professional jobs and housing . . .The only way I could see an atheist of African descent becoming a mainstream commodity like Dawkins or Harris is if they espoused similar views, i.e., views which are not threatening to the existing patriarchal capitalist white power structure. Truly critical black intellectuals are reviled by the dominant culture and politically radical or progressive atheist black thinkers would be perceived as doubly traitorous/dangerous.

The solution to this lack of representation, according to Hutchinson, is intersectionality, which she defines as “respecting and validating the full nexus of difference that makes up our identities, experiences and world views.” Some skeptics, like Peter Boghossian, dismiss the term “intersectional,” saying that it’s just something a “morally motivated ideologue” would say “to sound intelligent.” However, intersectionality can help us see systems of injustice that extend beyond our limited peripheral visions.

In Adrienne Rich’s essay “Notes toward a Politics of Location”, she talks about how her limited peripheral vision had been shaped by her identities:

I was born in the white section of a hospital which separated black and white women in labor and black and white babies in the nursery, just as it separated black and white bodies in its morgue. I was defined as white before I was defined as female. The politics of location. Even to being with my body I have to say that from the outset that body had more than one identity. When I was carried out of the hospital into the world, I was viewed and treated as female, but also viewed and treated as white—by both black and white people. I was located by color and sex as surely as a Black child was located by color and sex-though the implications of white identity were mystified by the presumption that white people are the center of the universe. To locate myself in my body means more than understanding what it has meant to me to have a vulva and clitoris and uterus and breasts. It means recognizing this white skin, the places it has taken me, the places it has not let me go.

She goes on to explain how she has faced oppression as a woman, but has also inadvertently participated in the oppression of women of color. She concludes her essay by challenging white feminists to look beyond their peripheral visions to explore black feminist and social theorists. “To shrink from or dismiss that challenge,” she writes, “can only isolate white feminism from the other great movements for self-determination and justice within and against which women define ourselves.”

As atheists, we all face similar discrimination. We’re less likely to be hired for child care services, less likely to be elected president, and least desired to be potential sons- or daughters-in law. We face discrimination in child custody hearings, the Boy Scouts, and volunteer organizations. I even know a few public school teachers who are afraid to be openly secular because they live in the heart of the Bible Belt and might lose their jobs. However, those of us who belong to other marginalized groups—women, people of color, LGBT people, disabled people, etc.—face even more discrimination than those who are white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, and male.

Let’s use an example, shall we? Kirabo and I share similar experiences being marginalized as atheists, but in terms of race, gender, and sexuality, we couldn’t be any more different. He is a black, straight, cisgender man. I’m a white, bisexual, genderqueer person. Kirabo will never know what it’s like to be afraid to hold his lover’s hand in public without being harassed. I will never know what it’s like to be followed around in a store. He will never have that moment of panic trying to decide which public bathroom to use. I will never have that moment of panic about possibly becoming another statistic when a cop pulls me over for speeding. We both know this, and we work together for each other’s liberation.

As the third Humanist Manifesto states, we humanists “are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views.” This, I believe, includes a more intersectional approach to humanism where we, as Audre Lorde famously said, “recognize, accept, and celebrate” our differences, and work together for each other’s liberation.


    • says

      Still learning, to be honest. I’m still listening to my friends of color.

      I don’t have time right now to watch the video. But when I do, I promise I’ll let you know what I think.

    • says

      Oh no, it was because at the time my ADD was distracted by other stuff and I couldn’t handle a lot of information overload. Sorry about that. But now that I’ve had a chance to watch the video, I like it!

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