We can’t opt out

There is a contingent of the freethinking community, and I have no idea how large it is statistically, but a contingent nonetheless that believe the conversation about social justice lies well outside the list of things we should be talking about. Science, religion, skepticism – these are clearly part of the relevant topics for us to discuss. Why do people believe crazy things? How do we get them to stop? What is the evidence? Other things like racism, feminism, sexual expression and identity issues – these sorts of crazy beliefs and evidence are obviously not relevant to our group. These folks rankle and agitate any time any of these subjects are even broached, replete with admonishments to focus on the ‘real issues’, and to claim that people are ‘overreacting’.

Of course, anyone who honestly agrees with any of that is hereby invited to fuck right off.

An animated .gif of Jeremy Piven (as Ari Gold) saying "Get the fuck out!"

Now my self-inclusion into the feminist argument could rightly be described in terms of rational self-interest, but aside from highfalutin arguments about ‘making the world a better place’ and whatnot, my existence in this discussion is pretty much entirely voluntary. At any point I could, theoretically, decide to stop talking about issues of sexism and patriarchy and retreat back into my cloud of male privilege. After all, I’m never going to have to deal with the consequences of ignoring my privilege – that’s why it’s a privilege. The fact that I don’t leave the conversation is because a) I think it’s important and interesting, b) I think I can be helpful, and c) if I (and those like me) don’t help, progress won’t get made.

See, that’s the other part of these fights that doesn’t seem to get much press. Privileged folks can ‘opt in’ to the discussion if they want. Those lacking privilege simply can’t opt out:

ABC’s 20/20 put 20 of the “blackest” and “whitest” (as determined by D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s book,Freakonomics) male and female names to the test, posting identical résumés with different names at the top. Guess which ones got ignored? OK, that wasn’t a hard question.

Those with the white-sounding names were actually downloaded 17 percent more often by job recruiters than the résumés with black-sounding names, according to ABC News. Sad (and probably dumb on the part of those doing the hiring, considering that they’re passing over people with qualifications that meet their needs), but not really surprising.

Job applicants with the ‘wrong’ kind of name don’t have the option to live outside of a racist system. Those with the ‘right’ kind of name can choose whether or not they care about that fact.

And even though it is technically possible to ‘opt out’ by acquiescing to the racist ideology underpinning this discrepancy and changing your name, there are some things that, no matter what you do, you can’t change:

Nineteen-year-old Kendrec McDade was shot at point-blank range by one Pasadena police officer and handcuffed after being struck by a total of seven bullets, according to the autopsy report released Friday by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office. McDade, of Azusa, was killed when Pasadena officers Jeff Newlen and Mathew Griffin responded to a report of an armed robbery at a taco truck in northwest Pasadena. One of the officers pursued him on foot and the other from his police cruiser.


The first officer who fired did so while seated in the patrol car as McDade approached with his hand at his waistband. McDade and the officer were “within a foot” of each other, according to the autopsy report. After he was shot, authorities determined McDade was unarmed and that the theft victim, Oscar Carrillo, had lied about his assailants having weapons in order to get a quicker response from police.

Kendrec McDade – an unarmed kid who, for all appearances, just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, was murdered by police officers. He didn’t have the option to exchange skins into something that would be perceived as less threatening to the responding officers. At no point was he consulted about whether or not he would like to be seen as a scary thug instead of a teenager.

Tamon Robinson couldn’t opt out either:

Tamon worked in as a barista at the Connecticut Muffin café on Lafayette Avenue in Fort Green, Brooklyn. On the side, he collected bricks, stones and other discarded building materials and sold them for scrap. Around 5:30 a.m., on the way to his car that morning, Tamon stopped to collect some old paving stones that the Seaview Houses were throwing away. He had permission from the building’s management to take them.

Officers in a patrol car spotted him and assumed he was stealing. When two officers began chasing him, Tamon ran toward the building where he had, until recently, lived with his mother. He had moved into his own apartment, but still had a key and stopped by to visit her every day.

He was barely 100 yards away from the entrance when a third officer drove a police cruiser onto the sidewalk and ran him down. A witness reported seeing Tamon fly up into the air and then land on the ground. Officers were overheard telling him to get up before picking him up and throwing the unconscious man onto the hood of the car. When they realized he was not responding, they finally called emergency medical services.

What people seem to struggle to grasp is that there is no “right way” to be if you would like to opt out. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how employed or educated you are, if there’s anything about you that seems ‘too black’, you’re signed up for treatment that ranges from patronizing to deadly. There’s no way to escape that.

This is why we need lots of people to be having this conversation – it’s a voluntary exercise for those who aren’t directly affected by it, and the second we grant the legitimacy of the assertion that there are “better” things to talk about (i.e., those things that do affect the majority group directly), the sooner we will be forgotten and abandoned when the topic gets tough enough to force people to retreat. We need more people to ‘opt in’, because the consequences of not being able to ‘opt out’ are serious.

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  1. MadHatter says

    I have nothing substantive to say except…I love this post and this is what I so wish I could get across to people I have this argument with all the time.

  2. brucemartin says

    I agree with everything in this blog post. But we can also add the reminder that one of the biggest reasons why gender discrimination is an issue is because of its promotion by religious traditions.

    The immorality of gender discrimination (as with the immorality of slavery) is additional evidence against any validity of religion. And it is evidence in favor of our Free-thought position. So, raising awareness and resisting gender discrimination is actually a key and central aspect of any and all self-consistent skeptical and rational movements.

    Being reasonable isn’t just a good idea. Being reasonable is what we do, and why we have to come together to speak out.

    As a white person, and as a male, I have the choice to opt out of racial and gender conversations. But as a person who wants rationality to be accepted, I have no choice but to participate with and to support equality.

  3. Rabidtreeweasel says

    This is what bothers me about the myth that if women are just tough enough, gruff enough, and participate as “one of the boys” that we have nothing to fear. It’s all well and good until they meet someone who a)doesn’t think the woman is acting enough like a man or b) just doesn’t care.

  4. Cipher, OM, Fighting Fucktoy says

    Or thinks she’s acting too much like a man and needs to be reminded of her place. There’s no winning on so many levels.

  5. 'Tis Himself says

    Speaking as an extremely privileged person, I feel I have to opt in when those not privileged suffer because of their lack of privilege. Despite what many people assume, ending discrimination is not a zero sum game. Everyone wins when discrimination ends.

  6. KT says

    Excellent points (and sad stories). What I have seen is people saying they are not opposed to social justice but they just do not like “radicals.”

    From what I can gather, the “radical” means “requires me to examine,evaluate and perhaps change my own behavior,thinking and speech” as opposed to the “good” kind of social justice where everyone gets to complain together about some other people and the terrible things they are doing.

    For example, these people would wholeheartedly agree that wage inequality is wrong, but would not want to hear that certain ways of speaking about minorities (that they participate in) could be a factor in contributing to an environment in which wage inequality is seen as justified.

  7. A Hermit says

    One of the reasons I began questioning my religious beliefs all those years ago was the contradictions I saw between the talk about love and compassion and reality of injustice and intolerance in the practice of religion. For me being an atheist/skeptic/freethinker is inseparable from social justice issues.

  8. Dunc says

    This is exactly why I get the red mist whenever someone says “I hate identity politics – why can’t [insert disadvantaged group] just think of themselves as individuals?” (And yes, I have seen pretty much exactly that, from self-identified “sceptics”, on more occasions than I’d care to count.)

    I do kind of enjoy the irony of the fact that such complaints are self-refuting – because the complainer is treating [insert disadvantaged group] as a homogeneous stereotype, rather than individuals, simply by making this argument – but not enough to make it worthwhile.

  9. says

    That was one of the things that got to me, too. I have a long story about it that should probably be reserved for my own blog, but let me just say that an incident about the entire church membership laughing at a joke about drunken Indians really disappointed me and I wondered at a young age why there was such a disparity between what they taught and what they practiced.

  10. Dianne says

    But, Crommunist, this simply can’t be true. Obama being president proves that racism has ended in the US.

    I’d like to add a snark tag, but I’ve heard people making this argument seriously, saying that there must be something more to the story. That Robinson must have done something threatening or maybe that he deserved to be run down by a car because he ran from police officers. That racism can’t possibly be the answer because racism doesn’t exist any more, except maybe in Mississippi. Certainly not in enlightened NYC.

    WTF were they thinking, anyway? How could anyone believe that a person they’d just run a car into was a threat? How can anyone believe that mowing someone down with a car is a good law enforcement move, no matter what they were doing to provoke the attention of the police?

  11. says

    This is great and a good reminder that there are a lot of equality issues we should be addressing in the community. It’s my hope that we won’t settle for the sort of “our community is better than X community, therefore, we shouldn’t discuss inequality in our community” BS that’s been pulled out time after time. Our goal shouldn’t be to expect disadvantaged groups to put the privileged groups at ease, it should be the other way around. We shouldn’t just strive to be better than other groups, we should strive to be as open and welcoming and diverse as we are able to be, full stop.

  12. says

    Absolute word to that. I not only feel as though it is a good thing for privileged people to opt in; I feel as though it is our moral obligation, because our privilege is earned on the backs of the marginalized. It is our obligation to try to pay it back in at least that way.

  13. says

    Yeah; I think of it as the “this shit happens in a vacuum” attitude. Sure, it’s bad when it happens, but they’re all just individual instances of bad behaviour that have absolutely no connection to one another, so what do you want ME to do about it? I don’t use the n-word! God! What are you calling me, some kind of bigot?


  14. John Horstman says

    Hmm, I would eventually like to dismantle most of the constructed in-/out-groups we’ve formed; the problem is that that can’t happen instantly, and the view that e.g. racism would end if Black people simply stopped agitating about racism is anywhere from hopelessly naive to intentionally reinforcing of oppression, depending on the individual. Because these divisions exist and because they are vectors for the exercise of power and the establishment of class-based power differentials, we can’t simply ignore something like race in order to end racism, even if we think dropping conceptions of ‘race’ from social identity is a desirable end goal (some – many? – may disagree with me about that).

  15. Besomyka says

    I don’t understand people who say that discussing and combating racism, sexism and all the rest don’t belong in the skeptic movement. It all comes from the same sort of mental flaws that we’re always combating. Cognitive biases, presuppositions, motivated reasoning and all the rest.

    Asking the question why someone would assume a young dark-skinned kit is a thief is the same sort of question as asking why someone would think that UFOs are real.

    I don’t need to point this out here, but I will anyway: the consequence of allowing the racism to go unaddressed is a LOT more harmful to people that letting people go on believing in UFOs. To me that makes it a higher priority than Bigfoot and all that.

  16. says

    This is related, and I spent a good deal of time working on it. I’m’a self-spam.

    Excellent post, Crommunist. It is all kinds of fucked up that people are fighting against the very idea of addressing social justice in the freethought community, and I am agog at the pushback we see. It’s completely unfathomable to me.

  17. sphex says

    I’m a little behind on my reading, but even belatedly I just had to chime in and say that this post *rocked*!

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