Thoughts From A Diversity Hire

Those of you who follow FTB as a whole, or were keeping up with the Target Audiences comment thread, are probably already aware of a rather nasty remark John Loftus made insinuating that I’m not really qualified to be writing for this network and was only brought in for the sake of diversity.

This post is not going to be another discussion of Loftus or his remarks. There’s not really any need to carry that any further, I feel comfortable with how this resolved and like there isn’t much left to be said. I also feel for the most part that his comments speak for themselves, and my colleagues at FTB have already done a great job of defending my worth and discussing why his diversity-hire comment was not okay and crossed the line.

But I do want to talk about the issue of diversity, and “tokens”, both as a general thing and within the skeptic, atheist and humanist community. The issue goes well beyond Loftus’ remark, of course, and has been coming a lot lately, most notably perhaps in the Staks Rosch “Hitchie award” controversy. When these kinds of comments are made, claiming that the presence of women or minorities is mere “tokenism” and that it is overlooking merit and qualification, there are a few particular issues we tend to focus on. Usually, our first instinct is to defend the actual merit and qualifications the person does have, such as Dan’s post saying all kinds of entirely too flattering things about me, or people pointing out the degree to which women like Rebecca Watson, Greta Christina, Taslima Nasrin and Amanda Marcotte were at least as influential within atheism during 2011 as were George Takei and Ricky Gervais, who were included on Rosch’s list. Many people didn’t even know Takei was atheist until that list of finalists was issued! This kind of clarification is of course important, but it doesn’t cover the entirety of the issue.

Another common area of focus is describing how the merits and qualifications of women and minorities are often overlooked, as is their absence from spaces where by all rights they should be present. A lot of people didn’t even notice the conspicuous absence of women on Rosch’s list at all, though they almost certainly would have noticed if the list was comprised entirely of women. This is also important, and is an excellent way of pointing out the insidious nature of subconscious biases.

And then there are the usual counter-attacks, such as people suggesting that if a certain number of people in a given list or community or network or whatever is reached, then the absence of women, LGBTQ people, PoC, PwD, etc. becomes conspicuous and problematic, but only once a certain quota of white, straight, cis men is accounted for. This one is pretty easy to counter. And there are the usual insinuations that including someone on the basis of being a “token”, or on the basis of diversity, is “patronizing”. This one is especially infuriating in that presuming to speak for us about what would or wouldn’t be patronizing to us is itself patronizing in the extreme, and one also need consider the degree to which the deck is stacked (Staksed? Okay, that’s horrible…sorry) against us by bias, assumptions, discrimination and the absence of privilege -to such a degree that people, as said, won’t even notice when we’re being overlooked- that conscious acts of inclusion are pretty much the only means by which our voices and accomplishments will be recognized and acknowledged at all. It is not patronization, it is actually doing something about the problem.

Then there’s the sort of Catch-22 this places us in. If we don’t actually push forward for inclusion and acknowledgment on the basis of our identity, we will end up being overlooked, or, as the saying goes, have to work twice as hard and be twice as good to receive half as much recognition. And if we do assert our identities and be forward about our right to be heard on that basis, and the perspective that our background can bring to a discussion, such as saying “hey, um,  there’s only two LGBT people on your network of 30-ish bloggers, don’t you think adding another might be helpful in adding a little perspective?”, then we are accused of only getting ahead due to tokenism, and our “playing the gender / race / gay / trans / whatever card”.

I hate when people play the playing the card card.

But in all of these discussions, as important as they are, what gets sort of lost and shuffled aside is the actual value of diversity itself. Responding in this way to the people making the hostile accusations of tokenism allows the discourse to be framed as though diversity for the sake of diversity is indeed a bad thing and our community should be a pure meritocracy. When our defenses focus on the merits and qualities of the alleged token, and talk about how unconscious bias causes those merits and qualities to be overlooked, and how the “tokenism” accusations undermine the credibility of women and minorities and put them in a no-win situation, we implicitly allow the underlying assumption that diversity is not in itself meritorious or valuable to go unchallenged.

One of the problems I see pop up a bit regularly in the skeptic community is how often terms like “objective” or “neutral” in terms of perspective or position will covertly overlap with privileged perspectives. For instance, I’m a transsexual blogger, Ophelia and Stephanie are female bloggers, Greta and Chris R. are queer bloggers,  Ian and Sikivu are black bloggers, Maryam is an ex-muslim blogger, and so on, while PZ, Ed or Greg are just… bloggers.

While the particular ways in which the identity of women or minority bloggers (or members of any profession, really) impact their subject position and perspective are widely acknowledged, the ways that identity impacts subject position and perspective amongst those who belong to privileged categories goes largely unnoticed. For each identity that is privileged enough as to be regarded as “neutral” or “default”, so too is their subject position assumed as neutral and therefore objective. While my writing is going to be openly contextualized and interpreted through the lens of my being a transsexual woman, the writings of Richard Carrier (just pulling the name from a hat, really) are comparatively not going to be contextualized and interpreted through the lens of him being a white, cisgender man. Instead his writing is much more likely to be interpreted as uninfluenced by identity, coming from a sort of subjective non-position, and therefore just a teensy little bit more “objective”.

The problem with this is that the subject position of privileged parties is not any more objective or neutral than that of non-privileged identities. There exists in those cases just as much potential for their particular experiences and background to impact and influence their perspective. They will, by default, have certain blind spots, assumptions and biases. When you have a community or discourse dominated by people from particular, specific backgrounds, those blind spots, assumptions and biases are going to be compounded.

This has immediate consequences for the discourse, for thought… for freethought. It’s not just an ethical and political thing. If you leave certain perspectives out of your discourse, then lots of important things are going to get missed, just because there was no one there for whom whatever that thing is falls outside hir blind spot. Particulars are going to be lost. Everything will be interpreted through the same lens, same context, same framework, same background, same basis of comparison. Vital concepts will be neglected because the dialogue lacks anyone who understands their importance. Misinformation and misunderstanding may go unnoticed because the dialogue lacks anyone who understands the errors. And most importantly, when the dialogue inevitably turns to issues that directly concern a given identity, there will be no one there to communicate the particular subtleties and nuances of those issues.

This is sort of difficult to properly articulate, but I hope my point is coming across… basically that a diversity of perspectives is necessary to ensure a healthy, diverse discourse and free exchange of ideas. In a homogenous pool of voices, the discourse stagnates and will inevitably overlook important considerations. As said, diversity isn’t just for the sake of ethics and political correctness and creating a more just world… it actually benefits dialogue, and creates a healthier intellectual exchange, healthier movement and healthier community.

Concrete examples are a bit tricky, just in terms of how many there are… but off the top of my head: Crommunist’s response to accusations that Schroedinger’s rapist was comparable to racism, or how Siri’s testers and developers were predominantly male so the lack of information on abortion resources went unnoticed until it had become a PR disaster, or how it sort of takes an LGBTQ presence in the atheist movement to precisely articulate just how directly damaging and harmful heterosexist religious bigotry can be and put a human face to an otherwise abstracted, academic concern.

Basically, diversity is a qualification, a merit and a value. While I may not be as qualified to discuss theology and apologetics as a man like Loftus, I am far more qualified to discuss gender theory, trans-feminism, LGBTQ rights, addiction and probably a bunch of other little things, like Ferdinand De Saussure, pataphysics, Italo Calvino, Paul Celan’s Bremen speech and, of course, how the Cult Of Skaro tore itself apart and why Fluttershy is the best pony in the mane cast.  A network made entirely of people with a specific background of formal education in philosophy, logic and theology may be better qualified to address Christian apologetics, but that would be a poorer network than this one, because they’d only be able to address a singular issue (or set of issues, I guess), in a singular manner, and would be unable to handle much else. Which brings me back to my original point in Target Audiences And Playing Nice about the value of our movement being built upon a diversity of approaches, and the strength of FTB coming from the same diversity.

…Which includes a diversity of backgrounds, and diversity of identities.

Achieving that diversity can’t happen blindly. Given the various socio-cultural forces working against us, some of which I mentioned earlier, we’re just not all on an equal playing field. To imagine that we even could create an identity-blind meritocracy is to demonstrate profound naivete about the ways that power, privilege and bias operate. Creating a community or movement with a diverse range of perspectives requires a deliberate effort in this regard. Affirmative action, basically… which is a pretty aptly named policy.

You can’t just claim you’re open to diversity, open up your doors, and expect the diversity to come to you. The fact is that VERY different challenges are faced by bloggers who come from different backgrounds. The risks, sacrifices and emotional difficulties faced by a woman blogger, a queer blogger, a trans blogger, a blogger from a racial minority, or any number of other disadvantaged starting points, are VERY different from the challenges faced by someone coming from a privileged position. A woman blogger is, for instance, far more likely to face hostility, anger and trolling than is a man, particularly sexually-based hostility. A trans blogger is taking a very extreme risk with very real consequences in rendering her gender status a publicly available fact.

In order to accommodate for those unequal risks and sacrifices, creating a diverse community requires deliberately seeking out and reaching out to bloggers who are in those positions, and considering their backgrounds and qualifications relative to the social and cultural context. Failure to do so will inevitably lead to a homogenous environment and all the consequences that go with that.

This applies to the atheist, skeptic and humanist communities and movements as a whole, as well. We can’t keep presenting this “one size fits all” model and expecting absolutely everyone to fit themselves into it, and then blaming the women, the people of colour, the LGBTQ people, and all the other noticeably absent groups when they don’t show up. We need to create a space that is welcoming and accommodating of differing backgrounds. We need to reach out, and be willing to adapt our community to meet different socio-cultural needs.

And we DEFINITELY need to stop turning up our noses at diversity and “tokenism” as though they’re petty concerns beneath our enlightened perfect minds, and crying “reverse discrimination” or “colour-blindness” or “political correctness gone mad!” whenever people try to take actual, concrete actions in the direction of creating a more diverse community.

To be honest, I have no idea exactly what considerations came into play during discussions of whether or not to invite me to Freethought Blogs. But I imagine that my ability to offer a particular perspective on particular issues was indeed part of it. At the very least, I know that was part of the decision to invite me into Skepchick, which is how I became a blogger in the first place. The fact that my background and identity were part of the consideration does not render me merely a “token” or “diversity hire”. The fact is that that background and identity ARE a qualification, and enable me to better discuss certain issues than other bloggers would be able. Of course, I have other qualities too. It’s not like I’m JUST a trans woman and nothing else, or that I’m interchangeable with all the other intelligent, gifted trans atheist/skeptic writers out there. But I refuse to feel ashamed of the fact that my identity and background, and the perspective they provide,  is part of what I offer this community. And I think those who sneer at me or others for these things being factors in our success rather ought to be ashamed instead.

And you know, even if I am just a token, I’m okay with that. If being trans is going to make my life so much harder in so many other ways, at least it can make things a bit nicer for me in this one way, eh?


  1. jamessweet says

    Wait wait wait, I’m sorry to get hung up on a tangential point, especially when I have not yet read most of this post (I am looking forward to it!)… but Takei *very* recently said on Facebook that he is a Buddhist. Like, a couple of weeks ago.

    Clearly, he is somewhat of a functional atheist, if you understand my meaning. And he is unabashedly critical of religious dogma. But I don’t think you can really call him an atheist…?

    • Anders says

      Buddhists can be (and often are) atheists. They have a bunch of other wacky beliefs but they’re typically not into gods.

      • jamessweet says

        I wish I could recall the exact subtext, but it was pretty clearly implied that he was Buddhist and not atheist. IIRC, he posted a pretty explicitly antitheistic meme, and said something to the effect of, “I can’t entirely agree because I’m a Buddhist, but I see where this sentiment is coming from.”

        • Gabbeh says

          Yup, on Facebook. As I recall, he said something along the lines of “As a Buddhist, I would amend this to read extreme religion” on the meme in question. Wikipedia is also clear on the issue.

      • Cara says

        This is a really brief overview, so I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies. Buddhist beliefs span a spectrum from belief in and worship of gods, though most theistic Buddhists think about their theism differently from Abrahamic theists; to belief in but not worship of gods; to a variety of deist/panentheist/pantheist beliefs; to true atheism, even though I don’t think most atheist Buddhists would pass muster with the skeptics around here, because of belief in e.g. reincarnation. I don’t know what kind of a Buddhist George Takei is, but it is possible to be both.

  2. jamessweet says

    And now that I’ve read the whole thing, YES! I wanted to say something along those lines in the discussions about it, but I never quite got around to articulating it well. You worry here that you are getting your point across correctly, but I think you have done an excellent job of it.

    This was something that took me many years to accept, that diversity is a positive thing for its own sake, and that trying to erase the effects of privilege by just declaring everyone equal is idealistic bullshit. Of course it would be rather shabby to have a lousy trans blogger just for the sake of it… but surely people can accept that adding a good trans blogger has more marginal utility to FtB than adding (yet another) good straight white cisexual blogger.

  3. says

    I went through some similar mental spin when I first started. Being thrown into the mix with people who were WAY more prolific and longstanding contributors than I was made me feel like the “affirmative action hire”. Those doubts still haunt me periodically, and I use them as fuel to work harder to establish myself as a bona fide FTBorg.

    That being said, there are things that I talk about that don’t get a lot of press on Pharyngula or WWJTD or B&W – not because PZ, JT, and OB are bad people, but because no person can write about everything. I think the stuff I write about is important in its own right, and readers seem to agree.

    It is the same for you – I was paying very close attention when your name came up in the discussions, and at no point was it “well here’s a list of better people, but we’ll pick Natalie so nobody criticizes us.” It was, from the get-go, “fuck yeah, she’ll make us better as a network.”

    • jolo5309 says

      I thought you and Natalie were the token Canadians…

      Seriously, I assumed you and Natalie were brought on for diversity. I can’t understand what either of you go through (being a white straight male), but you two give me an insight into how other people live, and allows me a tiny glimpse into your worlds.

      I started on FTB as a reader of Pharyngula but I discovered I tend to read yours, Natalie’s and Ophelia’s blogs first, because they are always entertaining (even when I disagree with you) and they teach me something.

      Never would I have expected to read either of your blogs because your and Natalie’s issues were not something I would think of until they were presented to me. For this, I appreciate the diversity brought to FTB by the two of you.

  4. Anders says

    There is one danger with immediate quotas that I’ve seen at a University where I studied. There was this one woman who was the only female professor in her field, but there were quotas for all committees and boards and stuff. So she ended up on all of them, meaning she had no time for her own research and couldn’t keep up with the others when it came to publications. Obviously they should have hired more female professors from the beginning but they were stuck with the one’s they had, couldn’t fire them and couldn’t make new chairs for more women.

    This was not the case of her being unqualified for any of the positions she ended up in, she was eminently qualified, but it had unfortunate consequences. So sometimes you must allow for a transitional period (no pun intended) before you can implement full diversity.

    What are your thoughts on blinded application forms?

  5. Sally Strange says

    Yep, here’s the link:

    Anyway, great piece. I’m reminded of the controversy over Sonia Sotomayor’s comments about how being a “wise Latina woman” provided her with a perspective that her white male colleagues might be missing… *shock horror* from the right wing when she was nominated for the Supreme Court! It was the same thing, the erasure of the fact that being an elderly white man gives you a certain perspective that is NOT objective. The automatic assumption was that seeing things through the lens of a Latina woman would *flaw* your perspective in some way.

  6. Dalillama says

    I find that you routinely blog about things of interest to me, and have a very insightful view on them. In addition to being an excellent blogger in your own right, I doubt that you are actually any less qualified to rebut apologetics than those trained specifically in philosophy and theology, possibly moreso. Those trained in philosophy and theology try to attack apologetics on its own ground, treating it as though complicated language actually adds complexity to the argument. At bottom, though, every apologetic I’ve ever encountered has been complete bafflegab, and the apologists add all manner of frilly philosophical terminology to it to try to confuse people into believing there’s an argument under there. Just calling apologists on their bullshit is therefore a perfectly valid approach.

  7. Anders says

    BTW, Natalie, while it is excellent that you bring a new perspective to the group (although I’m not sure what an Arcane Trickster brings…), don’t let yourself be typecast. That would be a waste of a brilliant mind.

  8. ringo says

    Well, as a trans reader I’m terrifically glad FTB recognised the diversity of their readership and brought you on board. Some days when I read your posts I feel like I don’t know a thing about being trans, and that’s good.

  9. ashleybone says

    Although I’ve supported and advocated for diversity for most of my adult life, until I started reading this blog, Crommunist, Almost Diamonds, and others on this site, I don’t think I ever really “got” diversity. I never fully realized that it is more than an issue of equality, it is something with inherent value that is critical to clear thinking and to the growth of this movement. It’s also made me aware how painfully stale much of the discourse in the broader atheist and in particular the “traditional” skeptics movements has become, and how much we need these new voices if we are to make gains socially and politically.

    • Praedico says

      ^ this.

      Being white, cis, male and straightish, I never really understood privilege and discrimination. I always hated affirmative action and regarded it as simply swapping one type of discrimination for another. “Why can’t we just treat everyone on merit?” I would (metaphorically) cry.
      I got better.
      I got better thanks to bloggers. Bloggers like Natalie. Like Rebecca Watson, Jen McCreight, Crommunist, and so on. People like John Loftus never had any impact on me. I find discussions of religion interesting and amusing, but largely inconsequential, at least as far as my viewpoint is concerned.

      Natalie, your writing makes me think. Occasionally, it makes me uncomfortable. Often, I’ll want to comment on a post, but be stuck processing for the rest of the day… and when I’m finally to a point where maybe I could have something intelligible to say, there’s another post to read.

      Diverse perspectives are crucial if you really want to influence people. The people that influence me through blogs are not trained debaters, or philosophers. They may not even be particularly well educated; they’re just SMART. They’re just people sharing ideas and viewpoints, which is what freethought is all about. Declaring someone ‘unqualified’ to share their ideas is the very antithesis of freethought.

      I hadn’t read the comments on the ‘Target Audiences’ post, but I just read it and… wow.
      It seems to me that if narcissism and insecurity had weight, you could put the evil stepmother from Snow White on one end of a see-saw, and John Loftus on the other, and the evil stepmother would achieve orbital velocity at the very least.

  10. says

    Well, Natalie…maybe they did hire you because there was a desire to add more diversity to FTB. But as you’ve noted, perhaps that’s a good thing.

    Without going into too much detail, I just want to say that with the group of people we hypothetically have reading here are supposed to have open minds. They’re supposed to challenge their own perspectives, and that’s what SNR has done, at least for me, in terms of any transphobia or thoughts regarding trans people. Made me re-evaluate the way I talk or think in certain areas.

    That being said, I doubt FTB would have brought onboard anyone who they didn’t think can hit home a point. So yeah, diversity hire or not, the blog is fucking good. Ant it makes people (me, anyway) think.

    • says

      The hiring process started with a list of perspectives we wanted to add, the best bloggers in those categories were then named, other criteria were explored to narrow those names, the candidate was vetted, and asked to join. We are in fact still working these lists and more are coming.

      For example, we were (and are) interested in an atheism and parenting blogger. We might not find one, or the slots might get filled by others hitting other perspectives we are interested in, so no guarantee that will happen.

      But the point is, we want FtB to represent and speak to as many perspectives as possible, and we want the best people we can get in each. Natalie clearly was an awesome get. And her name appeared on multiple lists, since she filled more than one category.

      As to the general issue, Natalie is quite right in all the points she makes in this post.

      She uses me as an example, and it’s instructive to point out that in fact I am a token, too: I am FtB’s token ancient historian, the only one with top quals in ancient languages and cultures and the origins of Christianity (as well as ancient science and technology). Yet no one accuses me of being the “token” historian of antiquity. And that may well be because I’m a white guy; and because my subject field is assumed automatically to be what white guys do, and what atheist blogs do, which is precisely the problem. It isn’t, and shouldn’t be. It’s one thing we should do. It’s not “the” thing we should do.

      My academic credentials are matched by Natalie’s experience in her own categories, and it’s that experience she was hired for (and her brilliance and acumen as a writer that got her hired). And like her I have other quals: I’m also a philosopher, a veteran (another “token” category where we sought specific voices and several bloggers here to represent the military community; yet again, no one bitches about us doing affirmative action for soldiers, and this is an even better analogy because experience, not college degrees, are the only thing that really qualify you to speak for that group; so, too, the trans community–no disrespect to gender studies grads, but there’s a difference between reading about it and living it), and I’m married (another perspective not all of us represent), so I represent several communities and perspectives at once. As do we all, Natalie included.

      We can’t get everything in, surely, but the more the better, because that increases the depth and breadth of information, background knowledge, social connections, and vantage points we end up with in result. Monocultures are infamously weak. Polycultures thrive and adapt more easily and quickly to new challenges. This is actually one of the many things we have over Christianity: most Christians want everyone to be the same and to stifle progress, experimentation, and creativity. They want to deny reality, instead of learn from it. We have quite the opposite view of what’s best for society.

      • Cynthia says

        Just wanted to throw in on the idea of an atheist parenting blogger – that would be awesome! Although finding one may be very difficult. The amount of time blogging takes can conflict with parenting, especially when the kids are young.

        My kids are in their teen/tween years and we’ve covered a lot of ground with them. At this point, the two oldest are self declared atheists and the younger ones are non believers. There’s no way to tell how it will go as they get even older – they may meet the perfect partner and decide to join a church for them. But I doubt it. And once they all read the Percy Jackson series, they saw the flaws in religious thought. Don’t think that’s going to change, even for love.

        In any case, I’d love to read a blogger who talks about that kind of thing. There’s a parenting beyond belief group that has sprung up in my area, but all of the parents have kids much younger than mine. So there’s a real hole to be filled in that area. Please keep looking!

      • sisu says

        Completely agreeing with Cynthia here that an atheist parenting blog would be an AWESOME addition! I don’t know of any but I really hope you find one… I’d love to see parenting issues addressed with the same thoughtfulness that is given other topics around here. My kids are younger – my older is starting kindergarten in the fall – so I have issues rattling around in my head like science education and public schools generally, answering questions about other people’s beliefs, and talking through some of the Big Questions (i.e. death, is Santa real, and where do babies come from?).

        • a miasma of incandescent plasma says

          Sisu @2
          an atheist parenting blog would be an AWESOME addition! I don’t know of any but I really hope you find one… I’d love to see parenting issues addressed with the same thoughtfulness that is given other topics around here…

          Check out Dale McGowan’s and book by the same name. Addresses in his blog and book many of the exact issue you cited.
          Here’s one of my favorites, regarding Santa Clause –

          “Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one… By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside…”

          • sisu says

            I’ve read the book, but I didn’t know there was a blog associated with it. thanks for the recommendation!

      • carlie says

        A parenting blog would be very nice, but I think would have to have several co-bloggers by default with each dealing with a different major age category of children. Parenting teens looks a lot different than parenting toddlers, with accompanying differences in issues.

      • says

        Agree with “parenting” (preferably both from a working parent and a stay-at-home parent perspective, if possible).

        Also: someone who can raise awareness about ableism, particularly with regard to mental disability.

          • says

            I am aware of that and think it is moving in a positive direction. However, there is a difference between blogging about mental illness and being an anti-ableism blogger. I see ableist language splattered all across FTB from people who are clever enough to work out for themselves why they shouldn’t.

      • Alice in Wonderland says

        I’ll just pile on and agree that it would be AWESOME to have a blog on FTB devoted to the intersection of freethought and parenting.

        Others above have already mentioned Dale McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief blog, but I don’t think anyone’s yet linked the affiliated “Parents Beyond Belief” blog, which features posts by many different writers:

  11. says

    As Crommunist noted, I don’t think anyone can say for sure what the considerations were for what you had to offer FtB. “Natalie? YESSS!!!” isn’t very informative. 🙂

    I do find it sourly amusing, though, that so many people who claim to value perspective and the use of tools to overcome our cognitive biases don’t see an inherent value in diversity.

  12. Zinc Avenger says

    Hey, Natalie, so far your blog has interested me every time I have read it.

    Once or twice I’ve even been offended. This has allowed me to examine why I experienced that reaction, and, hopefully allowed me to uncover and work on prejudices I thought I was above.

    Keep interesting and offending me.

    • says

      Just out of curiosity, do you mind if I ask what ideas you initially found offensive? You don’t need to go into detail, but I’ve been chatting about offense and free expression with some colleagues lately and am curious about this. We’ll accept (okay everyone?) that you’re describing positions you used to hold and initial reactions, acknowledging that you’ve since rethought things, and not attack you for them or ask you to defend them.

  13. Rasmus says

    Great article.

    The only thing I’d like to add is that if you are any sort of political organization there is actually a moment where your lack of diversity begins to be an immediate obstacle for you. It’s the moment when your political opponents or the media first begin to talk publicly about it.

    I think the white male quota that you mention is essentially the number of white men that you expect that you can safely get away with before people start talking.

  14. Ace of Sevens says

    Great article. These things can often get into weird asides about who counts as a token. For instance, is JT a poly blogger or just a blogger? He’s a white guy who’s into women and all, so people who complain about diversity tend to overlook him. These complaints tend to all focus around sex and gender issues and race, in fact. Also, religion, but that’s not as much an issue here because of the nature of the network. Does anyone ever say Ed is unqualified because his degree is in journalism and not critical thinking?

    • says

      Yeah, even I often forget about JT when considering queer* bloggers within our community!

      But I absolutely believe a diversity of backgrounds, even when straying from clearcut issues of identity, is important, so having people from a variety of fields -like journalism, for instance- is as important as having people from a variety of sexualities, genders, ethnicities, nations, etc.

      Someone mentioned earlier about how Rebecca Watson is often attacked for her “lack of qualifications”. If I remember correctly, she’s an ex-magician. That provides CONSIDERABLE qualification in understanding skepticism, and how easily human perceptions are tricked. Skepticism, atheism and humanism are broad fields of inquiry, and there are many different KINDS of qualifications a person can have. I learned my skepticism and critical thinking skills as a result of studying linguistics and literary theory, plus a lot of significant life experiences. It’s not the same kind of qualification as having formally studied logic and philosophy and stuff, but it IS a qualification, and does provide me the intellectual tools I need. There are so many ways by which a person can become a skilled critical thinker, each provided particular areas or issues for which a person can be particularly well-suited or adept at handling. That’s exactly why the diversity of backgrounds and approaches at FTB is such a strength. Individually, we’re limited by our specializations, but collectively, we can handle an incredibly broad range of topics.

      *I do consider poly to fall under the rubric of queer even if someone is het- …”queer”, as I use the term, means any noticeable deviation from social norms of gender or sexuality, and polyamory is definitely that… especially since poly typically ends up overlapping with bisexuality or pansexuality.

  15. abb3w says

    Meh. Even if you were unqualified, regularly arguing with a few hundred people of moderate intelligence tends to build ability for such argument, presuming you withstand it.

    And it seems that even if a perspective is only introduced by a “token”, it would seem thereby to be introduced into the marketplace of ideas regardless. Dismissing you as “token” would seem to be a covering source derrogation for those who want to write your ideas off without the tedious effort of counterargument.

  16. says

    I always have to deal with the question of diversity when making characters, myself. In some ways it’s easier than in reality since you can make your “diversity hires” as qualified as anyone else, but in others it’s a bit more difficult because you actually have to make them believably whatever category to which they belong while at the same time not making them a complete stereotype. Unfortunately, you also often have to justify to your audience why a character is gay, Indian, or left handed lest you be judged a lazy writer (though no one ever asks you to justify an all-white male cast).

  17. MaNonny says

    “I hate when people play the playing the card card.”

    I think this is my favorite sentence from this post. It sums up the ridiculousness of stifling diversity and then blaming it on the marginalized group. And it made me giggle.

  18. Pen says

    I am far more qualified to discuss gender theory, trans-feminism, LGBTQ rights, addiction

    I was appreciating reading your posts on those subjects. Only a few weeks ago, my husband and I were going over the list of things we didn’t understand, and now, since you’re here, I do – at least a bit better.

    I got to wondering what subjects about human diversity have to do with atheism as such, a part from making a friendlier atheist community. I came to the conclusion that since atheism does imply a whole new set of ideas and ethics about the status of human beings and how they should treat each other, all the recent debates about issues related to diversity are pretty relevant.

  19. ambassadorfromverdammt says

    I’ve only been around ftb for a month or so. You’re all new to me except Ophelia Benson (and Natalie from Skepchick). To me, you are all just… bloggers. Token? Token is something you use for riding a bus.

    As for diversity – wtf am I going to learn from someone who thinks like me and has similar interests and experiences? If I want to hear the choir, I’ll go to a recital.

  20. says

    Excellent, excellent stuff on the value of diversity. Really appreciating your work. I no longer identify as part of the “mainstream atheist community” (if we even have one) for a number of reasons, one of them being that as a person of minority background, my experiences were being dismissed and marginalised.

  21. says

    I can’t personally see how more diversity is ever bad.

    I do think it would be fantastic for FTB to add an asexual voice, but that’s my personal crusade (and feel free to delete this if it’s considered derailing).

  22. echidna says

    I was one of the people who constantly got put on management committees as the token female (heavy industrial/technical environment). I know that’s why I was appointed: to me the important thing was what happened once I was on the committee, because I was determined not to be “token”.

    I can report the standard thing of men simply not hearing women’s voices. The giveaway was when they were suggesting what you had said 10 minutes before as their own idea. It wasn’t intentional though, if I can judge by the truly astonished face when I thanked the guy for his support. Fortunately, there were always one or two people with enough recall to confirm, and astonishment was replaced by furious blushing.

    One thing I can say, is that with a woman on the committee, the standard macho behaviour of an all male committee gets toned down. I will go further, and guess that any increased diversity in any group will alter the group dynamics. This is a good thing. Anybody being viewed as “token” is really only a sign that the group is currently not diverse enough.

    Token is as token does, and there is no need to accept the derogatory connotations of the label.

    • Diane says

      “I can report the standard thing of men simply not hearing women’s voices. The giveaway was when they were suggesting what you had said 10 minutes before as their own idea. It wasn’t intentional though, if I can judge by the truly astonished face when I thanked the guy for his support. Fortunately, there were always one or two people with enough recall to confirm, and astonishment was replaced by furious blushing.”

      SO FUCKING ANNOYING. I know it’s not done on purpose, but that’s still no fucking excuse. Once you put on your big kid pants, I expect you to listen like a big kid. I have to try talking 3 or 4 times before my own damn friends will let me into a conversation… It always makes me feel like an ass and want to talk less, which of course makes people expect less talking from me, and be less likely to recognize when I’m speaking.

      There’s a lot of really depressing information on that sort of thing recorded in cold, hard numbers by sociolinguists…

      • says

        What sucks even worse is when I come up with an idea, voice it well, am heard, and then later on the idea is credited to my boyfriend. People have been doing that on a regular basis since high school. The best I’ve been able to improve those types of situations is to get credit for “both of us” for my ideas.

  23. Kara says

    I’m very pleased to see that we agree about which pony is Best Pony.

    I’m also pleased by the rest of this post, which I agree with as well; but obviously the Fluttershy part was the most important. 😉

    (Sorry for sullying a serious post with more silliness.)

  24. Greta Christina says

    We can’t keep presenting this “one size fits all” model and expecting absolutely everyone to fit themselves into it, and then blaming the women, the people of colour, the LGBTQ people, and all the other noticeably absent groups when they don’t show up.

    Yes. This.

    Actually, there is so much “Yes. This.” in this post, I’m tempted to just copy and paste the whole thing and put it in blockquotes. But this really jumped out at me. Probably because it touches on something I’ve written and said before: If we try to be a “one size fits all” movement, that size will be the size it already is — a size that comfortably fits straight, white, college-educated, middle-class men.

    • Anders says

      Isn’t there a risk that we end up with a movement that fits no one though? We can’t please everyone – we can’t have a movement that pleases both feminists and MRAs at the same time for instance. Now, which to choose of these two is hardly worth asking but I think we would do well to remember that if we choose one we may be forced to send away another.

      Another example: I’m a libertarian and the skeptics’ movement is heavily slanted towards liberals. Has there been times when I’ve felt excluded by comments or wisecracks? Yes. Natalie wants us to apply skepticism and empiricism to social issues and I agree completely. But I fear that if we do one of us will end up feeling… not like an outcast but like a second-class skeptic. And given the demographics, that person would probably be me.

      • says

        How likely is it for everyone to be comfortable all the time? The argument from demographics does not suggest that someone with a set of values and views about the world that agrees with the common vox populi isn’t going to have their opinions challenged in some way, at some time. I think that’s actually beside the point Natalie and Greta have made.

        What they are pointing out, I think, is that we don’t want an atheist or skeptical community where the same demographic realities – to mention, for example, that the majority of people in the world are heterosexual, and that all but a vanishingly small proportion of people are gender variant – allow it to perpetuate the same oppressions experienced in society at large. The same applies to cultural issues such as racism and sexism devaluing the contributions of people because of their identity, as opposed to the actual argument they are bringing.

        If you are feeling pushback because your political views aren’t widely espoused in skeptical circles, then that doesn’t make you a second-class person… maybe it’s just that there are good reasons for critiquing those political views that overlap with certain groups within skepticism (and I see no evidence to suggest the field is homogenous). If you feel that your views are being dismissed because of a presumption of them coming from a position of privilege owing to your being male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, etc. then there may be some justice in them being given less weight than you might expect, because society has probably esteemed them with greater weight for the same identity-related reasons that I mentioned before.

        Wisecracks and mocking people deservedly or undeservedly is a bit of a crap shoot, unfortunately, so I’m sorry for the times you’ve felt excluded. There are some atheists and skeptics who I think are assholes, and I try to both avoid them, and avoid being one of them.

        • says

          and that all but a vanishingly small proportion of people are gender variant

          Whoops, total fail on my part.

          Sometimes I wish that were true… but in fact, the way I phrased that is the reverse of reality. Please read that round the other way, however you wish to modify it, e.g. all but a vanishingly small proportion of people are not gender variant.

        • Anders says

          Judge the argument, not the person… yes, I see what you mean.

          The problem with critiquing political issues is that you must bring in values, and values are iffy to argue. My view of justice is likely much different than yours (I’m assuming you’re a liberal here) – can we really say which view is correct? That’s why pragmatism fails; I’ve had arguments with people saying we should have as large a state as is necessary. But they don’t answer the question ‘necessary for what?’

          As for me being stung – well, I expose myself to it so I shouldn’t complain too much. It’s easy to avoid a website, not so easy to avoid an entire society (if you’re a woman or trans person, for instance).

          But you are probably right in the main point. I just didn’t see exactly what they meant.

      • SallyStrange: bottom-feeding, work-shy peasant says

        Diversity =/= everyone. Obviously adopting the value that diversity is beneficial will exclude people who don’t dig diversity.

        By the way, eventually libertarians are going to wind up feeling excluded from skeptical communities anyway, because libertarianism just doesn’t hold up to rational inquiry.

          • says

            One of my faves is libertarianism requires both belief that human beings are rational agents, and that libertarianism is itself the rational choice. So if humans make rational choices, and libertarianism is a rational choice, why aren’t we already a libertarian society?

          • Anders says

            Straw man. You could read Hayek, for instance, and learn that libertarianism requires no such thing. Many libertarians argue from that standpoint, of course, but that’s another matter.

          • says

            Well, I’m hardly an expert on libertarianism and its philosophy. But I do know that much of the basic premise is assuming that when left to their own devices people will not make self-destructive decisions. I feel that in so far as history has taught us anything…

          • Anders says

            No, I notice you don’t know much about it. There are many forms of libertarianism and not all share that basic premise. Mine does not.

          • Anders says

            I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped like that. My afternoon has not been good. I had a tiff with Aoife and Ariel on Twitter. This sent me into crying fit that lasted for half an hour and two hours fun of obsessing with some questions that had already been answered. I’m not in the mood for this right now.

            And I probably won’t be for some time. I don’t want to argue about this for three reasons.

            1. It’s abundantly clear that I’m not strong enough right now.

            2. I have yet to see an ideological debate on the Internet that led to anything constructive. It’s always eristics and never dialectics.

            3. I’m not sure what I should defend. I have changed ideological systems two times in my life so far. I test my ideologies daily and they are always under construction. At the moment I’m heading in the socialist libertarian direction. If you haven’t changed ideology a few times in your life then there is a considerable risk that you haven’t debated it as much as spent a lot of time in a mutual support group.

            Now that I have infuriated everyone in this thread can I be left alone?

  25. lordshipmayhem says

    I’m a transsexual blogger, Ophelia and Stephanie are female bloggers, Greta and Chris R. are queer bloggers, Ian and Sikivu are black bloggers, Maryam is an ex-muslim blogger, and so on, while PZ, Ed or Greg are just… bloggers.

    You are all “just” bloggers. All bloggers have something to say, something they consider important.

    OTOH, you are all FTB bloggers. There is no “token” this or “token” that. To get to be an FTB blogger, you need much more of an incisive mind than possessed by the average blogger.

    The first thing I concern myself with, when encountering a person, isn’t what’s outside – I confess that until the person opens their mouth, I have nothing to go on but their dress and deportment and physical characteristics, but I make the effort to go that step or two beyond that. What is this person’s mind like? I prefer to deal with people who are intelligent, and capable, and have a mind that adapts quickly to new situations.

    And those are the kinds of minds I encounter with the FTB bloggers. Incisive minds. Capable minds. Questioning minds. Curious minds. All of them are good, some are more into the things I’m interested than others are, but I’d drop none from this source. As I said, none of them are a token anything. I enjoy hearing from each one.

    Keep it up.

  26. redmcwilliams says

    As a white, cisgendered (I didn’t even know that was a word) male, the way I understand this post reminds me of Kurt Russell, as Herb Brooks, in the movie Miracle. He’s discussing which players to invite to the team with his coaches. One player gets brought up as being the best college player out there. Brooks says “I don’t want the best players, I want the right players”. In other words, the top performers don’t always make the best team.

    That’s certainly not to denigrate Natalie’s work, it just means that having the very best person in every field doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to have a great blog community. As Natalie points out, she’s not the foremost expert on apologetics or evolution, but she offers a perspective and insight on many of those topics that the foremost expert cannot. She’s the right fit. She makes the team better than just having Dawkins write 20 different blogs.

    To borrow another sports analogy, a football team isn’t going to win many games if every player is a wide receiver. Sure, they’ll be able to run real fast and jump real high, but a winning team also has people that can throw the ball and block and tackle.

    Natalie, and the other “diversity hires” seem to be great fits on a great team.

  27. noastronomer says

    I guess I missed Loftus’ comments and I don’t really feel the need to read them now. I suppose he misinterpreted ‘freethought’ to mean ‘myfreethought’


    PS I don’t have a favorite pony, is that wrong?

  28. ibelieveindog says

    “You can’t just claim you’re open to diversity, open up your doors, and expect the diversity to come to you.”

    I suspect you’re brilliant.


  29. chimera says

    “…the subject position of privileged parties is not any more objective or neutral than that of non-privileged identities. There exists in those cases just as much potential for their particular experiences and background to impact and influence their perspective.”

    From what I’ve seen, failure to understand this concept is EXACTLY why the prospect of minorities achieving equality is decried as “special rights” by the privileged. Privilege blinds people into thinking that everyone already has everything they deserve, and any further requests are not only whining, but actual affronts on the much more bountiful liberties that the privileged already possess. Gay marriage rights = “redefining” marriage and attacking religious liberty. Affirmative action = unfair advantage, “racism” towards whites (gee, suddenly they care about racism.) Demand for fair access to birth control and abortion = using tax money on “special interests” (women are a special interest group that requires “special” care and not 51% of the population, apparently), attacking religious liberty. (I could go on, but I just ate.) The constant refrain of the privileged is to steal the grievances of minorities and make it about them. Because this is what they think equality actually is.

    I would venture to go even further and say that not only is diversity crucial to objectivity, but that having privilege actually *warps* objectivity, and the only way to address is is through exposure and intellectual honesty. WONDERFUL post, Natalie, you’re quickly becoming one of my favorite blogs.

  30. says

    Concrete examples are a bit tricky, just in terms of how many there are… but off the top of my head: Crommunist’s response to accusations that Schroedinger’s rapist was comparable to racism, or how Siri’s testers and developers were predominantly male so the lack of information on abortion resources went unnoticed until it had become a PR disaster, or how it sort of takes an LGBTQ presence in the atheist movement to precisely articulate just how directly damaging and harmful heterosexist religious bigotry can be and put a human face to an otherwise abstracted, academic concern.

    Yep… and that’s a lesson that I learned in large part from reading your posts. This seems like as good a place as any to thank you for opening my eyes to the fact that it is wrong to treat things that impact people in a meaningful personal way as though it is an intellectual exercise that I can puzzle out while ignoring other people’s real life experience.

  31. says

    You are just full of awesome, Natalie. One of the best articulations of the argument for diversity that I’ve read.

    For me, the only problem with having such a great diverse network as FtB, is that I can’t stop reading. Everyone always has such interesting things to say. Even when you all cover the same issue, it’s like looking with different lenses. Once I’m finished one blog post, there are five others of interest to be read.

  32. says

    The thing about tokens is that at some point in our society, every group of people has had one in the march for equality. There have been token women in positions that we wouldn’t even consider as a big deal today. There have been token men too, I use the example of male nurses as a female dominated environment and culture where men are routinely harassed and bullied for their gender since “male nurse” is a culturally acceptable target for ridicule. It’s getting better but the ratios are still heavily skewed towards women unlike medicine where the ratio of students attending and graduating medical school is roughly the same. Many male nurses have complained about “sexism” and indeed discrimination but most have to grin and bear it. It’s basically a system where women have had the sort of privilege men have had to work in. I generally use this to bludgeon MRA’s over the head with since they like mocking them too. It’s changing slowly in the west but in the rest of the world Nursing is a near exclusive field for women.

    Remember, universities once encouraged women and people of colour into medicine by displaying “tokens” and “getting tokens” through the system. They would prominently display such people on prospectuses and indeed at open days and community events and the like in the hopes of encouraging (back then atleast) women and black people into medicine. We now see the same game with nurses and men.

    Sometimes tokenism is a good thing. It lets you see someone you wouldn’t normally see in the lime light EVEN if they may not deserve that lime light because they aren’t “genuinely popular” or “common”. We sadly still live in a world where people divide themselves by religion, colour, gender, sexual orientation, creed and this does mean some people are under-represented in some parts of society and sometimes inspiration can come with being “a token”.

    So even if say… Natalie Reed were a token (I don’t think so, unless she was hired because Freethought Blog has insufficient advocates for My Little Pony), she is still a transgendered person who has been given a soap box and even if the other transgendered people DISAGREE with what she says, more will come out to disagree and more will stand on their own soapboxes and thus more will be out in the open to discuss serious issues with the community and be more visible.

    When a token person gets a soap box, we have three responses.

    1. It’s a token! Going to go away and sulk because I hate Tokens!
    2. Hey that’s new, I haven’t heard anything from that “group”.
    3. Hey! I am from that group! I should go say something too!

    So sometimes being the token isn’t so bad. You say token, I say pioneer.

  33. Diane says

    Absolutely true. We saw this with Justice Sotomayor, who made the tactical mistake of stating aloud that, as a minority woman, she offers more than a white man of similar qualifications.

    The fact is that if you are a member of a minority group, you must work harder to succeed. If you do succeed, you are successful not just in your own sphere of influence, but also in the sphere of influence of the dominant culture (white, male, cisgendered, hetereosexual, Christian, Standard American English language, able-bodied, etc.) Thus, you are more skilled than a successful member of the dominant culture.

    This is too hard a pill to swallow for most members of the dominant culture, so they’ll just convince themselves that the accomplishments of minorities don’t matter…due to some reason or another. And hey, if you keep yourself surrounded by people just like you, and always “wait till tomorrow” to help out minority groups, how will you know any better?


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