EllenBeth Wachs and Rebecca Watson were at the Humanists of Florida Association conference this weekend, and so was Kelly Damerow of the Secular Coalition for America. They both separately chatted with her face to face about the appointment of Justin Vacula as co-director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the SCA. They also asked questions during the q&a after her talk.

Rebecca told Damerow that Vacula had written for the site that called Rebecca a stupid whore and that he had harassed Amy Davis Roth. Damerow was obviously upset by this, but she gave no ground.

During the q&a Rebecca described Vacula’s activities for the audience, and she reports that there was an audible gasp and then things got very quiet. EllenBeth asked about the percentage of women in leadership positions on their state boards, and Damerow floundered as she admitted only one leader was a woman.

Do a thought experiment here. Imagine that this is not about women. Imagine that it’s about race. Imagine that Vacula had posted on a notoriously racist site. Then imagine the SCA appointing him co-director of a state chapter.

It seems incredibly unlikely, don’t you think?

Well what we keep wondering is – why is sexism so fucking much more acceptable than racism?



  1. says

    Holy fuck.

    And yes, always change the nouns around and see how it feels. Change Atheist to Jew, Woman to Black, Feminist to Republican. (but then change that last one back right away because that does not feel good)

    Sexism is more acceptable than racism, but it is also true, that anti-sexism is less acceptable than anti-racism. I suspect that pro-racism people felt burned and were more ready for anti-sexism. Even as the concept of being “politically correct” started to be spoken of more widely in mixed company, the term was being uttered in smarmy tones by the haters, back in the 70s.

    This is all why the SCA has to be hit very very hard on this. This can not stand.

  2. xmaseveeve says

    You couldn’t make it up.

    At a literary conference, I once asked a very famous woman editor about why she didn’t publish female poets (apart from Liz Lochhead).

    She said that women couldn’t write poetry! I prodded her with more questions, and then she went totally nuts, shouting, and, before she stormed off, said, ‘I am totally unaware of being a woman’. Everybody heard her, so I turned to them and said, ‘What? Doesn’t she menstruate?’

  3. says

    I get really uncomfortable at assertions that racism is less acceptable than sexism when the conversations are mostly among white people. That isn’t really my call, ya know?

  4. GeneralBosco says

    Rebecca told Damerow that Vacula had written for the site that called Rebecca a stupid whore and that he had harassed Amy Davis Roth.

    Should Ophelia Benson be “banned” (or whatever you want to do with Justin Vacula besides burning him at the stake) because she is associated with Greg Laden, and allows that certain person to comment on her website?

    During the q&a Rebecca described Vacula’s activities for the audience

    So, having failed to convince Damerow in a face-to-face meeting, Watson resorts to her next move (obviously preplanned) of using her privileged platform to present “her side”. Sound familiar. I didn’t see Rebecca Watson “calling out” Greg Laden, but I do recall she shared a panel with him and congratulated him on his anti-harassment policy. Funny stuff.

    and she reports that there was an audible gasp and then things got very quiet.

    Yes, they were appalled Rebecca was again using her platform to present her own biased opinion. They were also appalled that this was yet another part of the latest “witch hunt”.

    EllenBeth asked about the percentage of women in leadership positions on their state boards, and Damerow floundered as she admitted only one leader was a woman.

    Floundered? In what way? Women are outnumbered by men at FTB, white people vastly outnumber other ethnic groups. Obviously, this infers FTB has a problem with women and ethnic minorities? Right? You’re floundering! And this is a blog network, not an actual position working in the community.

    Do a thought experiment here. Imagine that this is not about women. Imagine that it’s about race. Imagine that Vacula had posted on a notoriously racist site. Then imagine the SCA appointing him co-director of a state chapter.

    If Benson associates Vacula with the Slyme Pit (and sexism in the process), I’ll associate Benson with Greg Laden (and violent threats in the process). How about THAT thought experiment.

    Anyway, as this is somewhat opposed to the FTB narrative, we’ll see what happens.

  5. tekanji says

    Ophelia, I think it may be “this obvious” only because 1) white privilege makes it easy to ignore/underplay atheism’s race problem, and 2) race issues haven’t hit the fan like gender issues have. That doesn’t mean that they won’t and it doesn’t mean that we won’t see similarily high profile hideous scenarios play out. It also doesn’t mean the issues aren’t already a problem; sexist shit was seething under the surface for a long time before it got thrust into the spotlight. Racist shit is seething under the surface, too.

    Saying “x-ism is treated more seriously than y-ism” is part of something called “oppression olympics” and is considered to be pretty toxic to people who fight against multiple oppressions.

    I understand your frustration and I understand feeling like other issues get taken more seriously than sexism. But I also understand that not being directly affected by an issue makes it harder for me to see what’s really going on in those areas in which I am privileged. The bottom line is that white people don’t get to make the call about how serious/non-serious racism is treated.

  6. gabby27 says

    No, oppression olympics is “Group X’s problems are worse than Group Y’s, so Group Y needs to shut up!” What Ophelia was doing was more along the lines of “Group X and Group Y both have problems that should be taken seriously, but for some reason Group Y’s problems are often dismissed. Maybe if I ask people to consider how they would feel if this was Group X, they’ll see why they need to take Group Y’s problems seriously too.” That’s what I got out of it, anyway.

  7. jenniferphillips says

    The bottom line is that white people don’t get to make the call about how serious/non-serious racism is treated.

    I don’t see anyone doing that. In the OP, I see a lot of question marks and the word ‘thought experiment’. At best, it’s a hypothesis.

    As for GeneralBosco at #5, your analysis is as inept as your blockquoting skills.

  8. says

    I’m not going to make a statement about the level of racism in the atheist/secular movement/community. However, I can not imagine a scenario where some one who had written for a white supremacist site and who had treated prominent atheist people of colour with the same level of open virulence with which Vacula has unleashed on prominent atheist women over the same period of time, and would be tolerated and even approved of by an organisation like the SCA as their representative.

    Pointing to this discrepancy isn’t about oppression olympics. It’s about trying to show people how they have learned to condemn racism (even if they aren’t always perfect at purging it on either an individual level or systemic level), but that we don’t even come close to condemning sexism and misogyny to the same degree. Why do we have a cultural consensus that racism is wrong but that sexism is tolerable?

    Again, this isn’t about comparing how much racism or sexism people face or how intense it is at large in society or even just in the community. It’s about moving sexism and misogyny to the other side of the border into Unacceptable territory, along with racism.

  9. says

    I don’t see any of this discussion being a matter of oppression Olympics. Racism v. sexism do not have to calibrated to each other for the thought experiment Ophelia proposed to work. It is a very powerful way of making an important point, and the frame shift can be from any one area of oppression to another, including rephrasing some racist comments to refer to something else. That’s why I made the Republican reference above. It all depends on who you are trying to shake up.

    Of course, the beauty and power of this style of argument gets ruined when the discussion is sidetracked by an ill-fated fine tuning of methodology.

    Maybe we can put it a slightly different way: Edwina Rogers is trained to understand when to shut up about certain things, but not other things, when to emphasize certain things and not other things. The whole PC feminism thing has probably been an annoyance to her for her entire adult life, certainly for her entire career as a Republican operative. She knows enough to avoid saying too much wrong about women’s reproductive rights, but she seems to retain a conservative’s attitude towards sexism.

    But, she probably has good self regulation on race and racism. Thus, the frame shift from sexism to racism. Ophelia’s thought experiment is dead on the money.

  10. Riptide says

    I wonder if there’s any correlation between people who hope to shout down women’s concerns as “oppression olympics!” and those who claim someone is “islamophobic” as long as that someone doesn’t preface *every single criticism* of Islam with “Well, here are a bunch of examples of Christians/Jews/Buddhists being extremist dickweeds, too.”

    If so, it wouldn’t be surprising.

  11. says

    For the record and what it’s worth and all that, I wasn’t saying that women as a group are more oppressed than non-whites as a group or as groups. I wasn’t and I wouldn’t, because that’s not what I think.

  12. says

    Does anybody think that a racial equivalent of Elevatorgate is really that unlikely? A scenario where a prominent non-white skeptic denounces a racist incident and receives a torrent of abuse. It wouldn’t be naked racism, but accusations of self-pity, attention seeking, and anti-white racism.

  13. says

    This example is outside the Skeptics’ community, but I got about a quarter of a metric fuckton of abuse from alleged progressives for criticizing blatant racism toward Native Americans from John Aravosis in a post I made on Pandagon in 2007. This included allegations of white guilt, attention seeking and lefter than thouism, and a few of my own special obsessed trolls that followed me for months from place to place.

    The abuse I received wasn’t anywhere near the amount that women in the Skeptics movement are getting, but it was substantial, and I have little problem imagining the same happening “here.”

    Also noted in an August Pharyngula thread, which I found last night: commenter derailing a discussion when another commenter mentioned that his hometown was racist. Off. The. Rails.

    Blatant racism and N-bomb throwing? probably not tolerated. Allegations that charges of racism are made up, oversensitivity run rampant, PC-groupthink and/or completely unfair? All the time. Presumably it’s really that dynamic, rather than the blatant slurs, that is the root problem — though of course the slurs are odious and hurtful.

  14. A. Noyd says

    Given how hard it is for white people to even recognize racism outside of the sheet-wearing, cross-burning extreme, I’m guessing the acceptability of racism among skeptics/atheists just hasn’t yet been sounded out well enough.

  15. says

    Oh Jebus! Can I say, as a young black male, that there is nothing wrong with comparing sexism and racism. I really don’t see how after reading Ophelia’s post, someone would take issue with the fact that she compared the two. Why do we have to pussy-foot around the idea of feminism all the time? We’re completely aware that feminism and racism are two separate issues. We’re just not quite sure why people seem to prioritize one over the other, if you’d give us some good reasons why there should be this disparity, we’ll shut the fuck up, but generally I’m appalled by the way people are inconsistent about the two.

    When black people were being lynched, it wasn’t always simply because they were black, often times it was a punishment for a crime like rape or murder, we look at that now and clearly see that even if all the accused were guilty, lynching them in mobs just isn’t appropriate behaviour. We see it as plain wrong and we look down on the lynch mob as sick and depraved. If a woman is raped or ends up in a physically abusive relationship, on the other hand, somehow she gets included in the equation. Maybe she wasn’t dressed properly, why didn’t she just leave him, maybe she wasn’t clear enough about her intentions, what did she do to deserve it? People tend to try and alter women’s behaviour to sort out the issue, instead of vice versa and that depraved behaviour is seen almost as normal. Yet in the case of the lynch mob, we’re clearly able to see that the fault is on the part of the mob, the actions of the victims, rapists or not, isn’t part of the equation.

    Ophelia makes a good point, if you compare any of these excuses with any other minority it just doesn’t sound right.

    “Oh, you can’t compare us lynching black people to gay people being lynched, I’m just not feeling it, I don’t see black people’s problems and gay problems the same, that’s just oppression Olympics.”

    “I can understand the first time a black person was lynched, but after the second time and third time, they’re just asking for it if by staying in the country.”

    “Oh, he was beaten up for being gay? Was he dressed a bit too gay? Maybe they thought he was into BDSM and didn’t realise?”

    Somehow, in every other situation than those that involve women.

    Okay, I’m done.

  16. thetalkingstove says

    @ 5 – what are you talking about, ‘privileged position’?
    It was a Q&A. Rebecca asked a question. It wasn’t her giving a speech. People attending Q&As and asking questions are privileged?

  17. Jim Farmelant says

    Isn’t it only a matter of time before racial issues begin to surface in the freethought/humanist/skeptics movements? I think the reason we have been seeing a lot of discussion about sexism in these movements is because in recent years there have been a lot more women participating in them, than had been the case in the past. As more African-Americans and other minorities begin to participate in these movements, I think we will begin to hear much about racism too.

  18. William S. Hart says

    A person was strolling along the bank of a river. Suddenly he/she noticed someone waving to him/her across the river. “How do I get to the other side” came the query. “You ARE on other side” came the answer.

    Internecine warfare: Ugly

  19. John Phillips, FCD says

    #24 but sometimes necessary, at least for those of us who think that other issues in the community are more important than just atheist solidarity. Though I don’t really consider it internecine, as the only thing I share with those I consider on the wrong side of this issue, is a lack of belief in god/s and possibly the label, but not the application by them, of genuine skepticism. Though many of them do like to practice their hyper skepticism, but only on feminist issues.


  1. […] Ophelia Benson is concerned about the direction SCA is taking, and recounts some events at this past weekend’s HFA conference. Hey, I was there! Also of note: Ellen Beth mentioned that the obsessed clown posting as “ElevatorGate” was specifically excluded from the event. […]

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