It’s not about white people’s victimhood

Right now, the usual trolls are doing their best to lie about Skepticon: they’ve seized on that one incident in which Mark Schierbecker was unfortunately given a slot to speak as an excuse to rant about how Skepticon hates autistic people (nope), how Skepticon called him a racist (nope again — that was what his own publicist said), that they were abusing an “autistic kid” (no way — he came to Skepticon fresh off interviews on Breitbart and Fox News), and how evil SJWs are. I saw people calling in biased outsiders like Milo Yiannopoulos, Thunderf00t, and Sargon of Akkad to contribute to the propaganda, and I’m sure we’ll see more noise from them soon; it was also somehow magically tied to #gamergate and the standard anti-feminists.

I thought about writing a rebuttal, but decided the best thing to do was just present the views of a few black people who have a genuine interest in this matter.

Here’s Terrell Jermaine Starr on the failures of the media.

In many communities that historically have been marginalized and unfairly portrayed by the media, there’s good reason people do not trust journalists: They often criminalize black people’s pain and resistance to racial oppression. We saw it in coverage of Ferguson and Baltimore, when news stations seemed more concerned with the property damage than with the emotional damage that prompted it. Though peaceful protests in Ferguson had been going on for days, reporters didn’t descend on the town in large numbers until there were clashes with police. Suddenly, coverage spiked, but most of it was about “cars vandalized” and “buildings burned.” On Fox News, the channel most watched for Ferguson coverage at the height of the unrest, protesters were called “thugs.” Reporting from the protests, CNN’s Don Lemon noted, “Obviously, there’s a smell of marijuana in the air.” We heard comparatively little about the residents’ long-held grievances about police harassment and brutality.

The unfair portrayal of black people in the news media is well documented. One study analyzing news coverage by 26 local television stations, black people were rarely portrayed unless they had committed a crime. A 2015 University of Houston study found that this imbalanced coverage may lead viewers to develop racial bias against black people because it often over-represents them in crime rates. Recognizing this kind of bias in news media, black Twitter users started the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag to call out news images of Mike Brown that many felt criminalized him in his death.

That black students would be skeptical of media is understandable. We’ve already seen the kind of headlines they undoubtedly feared. In an Atlantic piece headlined “Campus Activists Weaponize ‘Safe Space’,” Conor Friedersdorf calls the protesters a mob and insists they are “twisting the concept of ‘safe space.’” Again, a journalist criminalizes black people for expressing their pain. It was another piece centering the reporter’s privilege over the students’ trauma. Friederdorf’s piece completely ignores the intolerable racial climate that forced the students to establish a safe space in the first place.

There were other ways to cover these students’ protest without breaching their safe space and without criminalizing them.The human chain students formed provided ample b-roll and still photos. Students could have been interviewed outside of that space. I would have pitched a story to my editors with the headline, “Why Black Students Were Forced To Secure A Safe Space On A Public Campus.” But to do that requires self-reflection and not a condescending, self-absorbed soliloquy about the First Amendment.

For journalists, the Missouri protests are a big news story. For the black students we’re covering, however, it’s a fight for their humanity and liberation. Tai is correct: he was doing his job. But in that stressful moment he may have failed to realize that the space he wanted to enter was a healing one that black people had worked to secure.

Black pain is not an easy subject to cover, but the lesson we can take from this encounter at Missouri is that our presence as journalists, with the long legacy of criminalizing blackness that comes with it, may trigger the same harmful emotions that led to the students’ protests in the first place.

Somehow, once again, the deep structural racism in this country is being asked to take a back seat to the tragic story of a white man who was made to cry because black people asked him to put someone other than himself at the center of the story.


  1. says

    Using Autism to excuse racism and being an asshole is being a fucking asshole. Seriously, autistic people have enough problems with being stereotyped as uncaring and empathy deficient. If anybody is throwing autistic people under the bus it’s those who are excusing Schierbecker’s behaviour with his autism.

  2. qwints says

    First and most importantly, I’d like to also recommend #BlackOnCampus which has a wealth of stories of just how common the experiences at Mizzou for Black people were and how big the impact of the Mizzuo success has been around the US.


    that they were abusing an “autistic kid” (no way — he came to Skepticon fresh off interviews on Breitbart and Fox News)

    Don’t do that. Autistic people are perfectly capable of doing interviews. You are not in a position to question whether someone is autistic. Schierbecker can be autistic and truly distressed by unplanned social interaction (which is not the audience’s fault at all), and still be wrong because of his white privilege. Using the latter to invalidate the former is failing at intersectionality and just feeds the derail.

  3. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    a white man who was made to cry because black people asked him to put someone other than himself at the center of the story.

    tsk tsk tsk. let’s not use misdirecting terms for the incident.
    Rather, a white man cried, because he was asked, by the oppressed, to focus on the story rather than himself.
    excuse me for trying to be the internetz editor of a blog post not of my own posting.

  4. heather says

    qwints #2, I think you misunderstood. “No way” referred to the idea that he was being abused, not that he is autistic.

  5. Bernard Bumner says


    I could be wrong, but I don’t think the question is whether Schierbecker is autistic but of whether the language “autistic kid” (an actual quote) is an appropriate description of an adult photojournalist on a PR tour.

    Clearly, the labeling of him as an “autistic kid” is meant to convey that he is a naive of child-like innocence – quite cynically playing on inaccurate, unfair, and harmful stereotypes of autistic people.

  6. says

    Correct. I put “autistic kids” in quotes because that was precisely how he was referred to by the trolls, and my point was that he is perfectly capable of deciding how to promote his views. Skepticon was just one place where he was trying to make his case, in addition to Fox and Breitbart, so blaming Skepticon for giving him a venue is misplaced.

  7. Becca Stareyes says

    Speaking as a person with autism, if I have my fly open, I’d expect people to say something, and if I am acting a bit (or a lot) racist, I expect people to comment on it. Because I’d rather know I was inadvertently stepping on someone’s foot than continue doing it.

    (Also, while I’ll probably cry, I also cry any time I am stressed in a social situation, and can usually handle it myself or with my own support system. Most of the time it’s not on the people who seemed to cause it. I’ve cried because of being overly stressed about exams, and I didn’t expect the professor to do more than maybe give me a few minutes in the bathroom to calm down and start dealing with things.)

  8. qwints says

    Thanks for the clarification. It might be worth editing to make the point (this was one appearance among many he chose to do) more clearly. As written, it reads to me like scare quotes followed by a parenthetical criticizing the use of the term quoted.

  9. says

    Giliell @1,

    Using Autism to excuse racism and being an asshole is being a fucking asshole. Seriously, autistic people have enough problems with being stereotyped as uncaring and empathy deficient. If anybody is throwing autistic people under the bus it’s those who are excusing Schierbecker’s behaviour with his autism.

    Exactly! This is like the “soft bigotry of low expectations” or some variant thereof.

    Professor Myers @6,

    Skepticon was just one place where he was trying to make his case, in addition to Fox and Breitbart, so blaming Skepticon for giving him a venue is misplaced.

    That he was welcomed at venues like Fox and Brietbart should have been a big red flag. The Skepticon organizers were intending to do right by this issue but unfortunately the reality of the situation turned into something very different.

    From the OP:

    …the best thing to do was just present the views of a few black people who have a genuine interest in this matter.

    This! Wonderful advice for the con organizers as to how they can do better next time round.

  10. Pumpkin Brewer says

    Interesting that people here are still calling Schierbecker both a racist and an asshole. Would someone be so good as to quote exactly what he said that was racist?

    That is what skeptics do, last time I checked — take an objective look at the facts and try to form conclusions based on them. I don’t see much of that happening here. Interesting that PZ Myers isn’t calling anyone out for these baseless allegations.

    I have to say that the extent to which skeptic and atheist circles have been infiltrated by the divisive politics of victimhood and white male bashing is disturbing. Perhaps that explains why there were so many empty seats. Despite being a life-long atheist, I’ll never attend Skepticon or any similar convention for exactly this reason, and I’m hardly alone in that regard.

    How’s that “Atheism Plus” thing working out for the community, anyway? It didn’t seem too popular, last time I checked. If focus was on the core message of skepticism and atheism and less on ill-thought-out social justice crusades, the cause might draw more popular support.

  11. says

    I have to say that the extent to which skeptic and atheist circles have been infiltrated by the divisive politics of victimhood and white male bashing is disturbing.

    Feature, not a bug. You’re supposed to be disturbed.

    I guess the Deep Rifts™ aren’t deep enough yet, otherwise you’d have realized that the sort of people who avoid Skepticon because they find “white male bashing” disturbing are exactly the sort of people you need to keep out to ensure that everyone else has a good time.

  12. Rowan vet-tech says

    Well, the ‘journalist lives matter’ thing is one grand example, just as ‘all lives matter’ is. It’s an attempt to take over or downplay a very serious racial issue. And the worst part is that journalists DO have dangerous lives…. in other countries. So it’s also rather like those christians yelling ‘PERSECUTION!’ because someone said “Happy Holidays” to them instead of merry christmas.

  13. Pumpkin Brewer says

    One last thing. I noticed that PZ Myers defended the use of the condescending and dismissive “White tears. Stop it.” quip from the audience member at the Q&A session. This was after Schierbecker noted that he was going to cry after the session because, as an autistic man, he had trouble dealing with that much social interaction. You really think that such a quip is defensible, PZ? What about the tears that I shed at my grandmother’s funeral recently — were those “white tears” too? Would you also defend someone who dismissed my pain as “white tears”?

    Of course you won’t have the courage to answer that question, because it would make you look either like a hypocrite or a heartless, hateful person. That’s what happens when you dig yourself into a hole of indefensible positions.

    Oh well. I suppose that using reason to defend the positions that you have taken is something that an actual free thinker would do. Evidently, expecting such from today’s purportedly skeptic community is too much to ask.

  14. doubtthat says

    After thinking about it for a day, I’ve moved over to the “it was a mistake to hold THAT panel in THAT way” side. I still get the impulse – current event nearby, a person involved in…well, something already there…it seems like a chance to capitalize on a decent opportunity.

    But as others have said, there was no controversy from the journalist’s perspective. There was no “it’s ok to assault the media” side to argue against. Basically it became a platform for Schierbecker to explain why he wasn’t racist, which was a pointless diversion. Look, the ACLU defends the KKK; there’s a very legitimate 1st Amendment, here, but it’s also not really one that’s under debate, and if it was, there sure as hell wasn’t anyone there to debate it.

    I don’t know what was gained from that conversation.

  15. Dreaming of an Atheistic Newtopia says

    The white tears comment is apropriate because while i, as many others do, acknowledge that social interactions of that nature can be stressful for anybody, it’s more likely to have a higher impact on someone who has some form of autism. We sympathise. However, the fact that one man had a bit of a rough time dealing with a particular social situation pales in comparisson to the fact that multiple POCs are facing systematic and quite violent racism in their own fucking campus. That people like Pumpkin are so keen to focus on the poor white guy that had a bit of a cry because antagonistic social situations can be stressful, even when perfectly civil, rather than on the systemic discrimination and disgusting racism experience by students at that university, is, in fact, racist, and disturbing.
    The comparisson between tears of grieve at the loss of a loved one and Schierbecker’s response to an stressful situation of his own creation, is disingenuous in the extreme, but then again, that’s not surprising coming from the “white people’s fee fees”, antiSJW contingent…

  16. Pierce R. Butler says

    Per my dictionary: Accomplice: a person who helps another commit a crime.

    Per’s top (only) definition:

    1. Someone who works with another to get something done. A person who helps another carry out some plan…Usually bad.

    2. Partner in Crime

    Have I missed out on a new mutation in street slang, or does Diane B. imply more than meets the eye?

  17. specialffrog says

    @Mike Hamilton: I’m not sure it is a matter of a specific comment. My take on it is that while it is clear to Schierbecker that his video has been gleefully embraced by right-wing entities– with his participation in some cases (Fox, Breitbart) and without in others (Stormfront) — and that he is essentially distracting from the more important issues, he will keep pushing his story until the professor involved resigns or is fired.

  18. unclefrogy says

    I do not mean to make a criticism of autism a subject I admit I do not know enough about. I am wondering why someone who has by their own admission some degree of autism and suffers distress with more intense social interaction would even try to be a journalist who must seek out strangers and ask probing type question in fact to seek out just such interactions that they have the most difficulty with. OK, they have that right and I might even give them some credit for demonstrating courage in challenging their problems but I am sorry I am not very sympathetic to them then winning about it. No one is forcing them to do any of that they sought it out.
    If I went and played football and complained that the other team kept knocking me down I would look a fool wouldn’t I.
    uncle frogy

  19. says

    Whew! That’s mighty shaky. The fact that he doesn’t denounce his video because others are using if for their own purposes makes him a racist asshole? I’ve been a Pharyngula reader, mostly a lurker, for many years, but I’ve got to admit that the direction PZ has taken it over the last year or two has dimmed its attraction for me. Ah well…

  20. specialffrog says

    @Mike Hamilton: Are his only options to a) denounce his video or b) to keep promoting it in the right-wing media and making his story the focus of reporting? If not you are making a false dichotomy.

  21. says

    Since the left, or at least those on the left represented here. only want him to denounce his work, what are his options? If someone could give an example of something that he’s done that has truly racist connotations,that might be different, but simply promoting his work where ever he can doesn’t make him a “racist asshole.”

  22. specialffrog says

    @Mike Hamilton: Who exactly “only wants him to denounce his work”? I can’t find any use of the word “denounce” in this thread before you used it. And if you are “simply promoting your work” and the only people interested in it appear to be racists, should that not give you pause?

  23. says

    Nobody’s asked him to “denounce” his work. On the contrary, Danielle Muscato tried to gently steer him towards a graceful exit. They agreed that people should watch the longer video that provides more context, and when Danielle tried to prompt him that yes, maybe it was time that the discussion turned back to the concerns of the black students, he went on and on and on about how his demands have to be met first.
    IN short, he saw his chance of having his 15 minutes of fame on fucking FOX news, double fucking Breitbart and even Stormfront (though he didn’t grant them an interview) at the expense of Concerned Student 1950, furthering the hate mongering against and stereotyping of black students because somebody made a mistake.

  24. Bernard Bumner says

    @Mike Hamilton – where does PZ call him a racist asshole? PZ has pointed out that it was his own publicist who called his words racist, and PZ disagreed (on this blog and on twitter).

    On the other hand, Giliell used the words racism and asshole, but not quite in conjunction in the way you’re suggesting. Are you conflating PZ and the commenters?

    What is very clear is that there are people who couldn’t care less about about racism or assholish behaviour who are mounting the worst sort of defence on behalf of Schierbecker, and worse that there are active racists who are exploiting his video to attack black people. That is that this thread is about.

    There are other posts addressed more directly to Schierbecker’s behaviour and response.

  25. says

    The “racist asshole” came from the comments here. You want to complain the the commenter called him a racist and an asshole separately,…OK, I’ll give you that. I’m not defending ANYONE here. I just cannot grasp how something like this gets turned into the humongous incident that y’all are making of it. Think about it, the fact that racists use “On the Origin of Species” to justify their racism is not the fault of Charles Darwin.

  26. says

    Like most such cases, it becomes a humongous incident because lots of rabid ‘defenders’ jump in to attack anyone who thinks racism (or sexism) is a bad thing or still exists. That’s what turns it in to a big fight.

  27. chrislawson says


    1. This story was turned into a “humungous incident” by Schierbecker himself, Muscato, Brietbart, FOX News, and Skepticon. Of those, Muscato and Skepticon have taken a step back and expressed regret about the way they involved themselves in the story. PZ’s role in this was tiny (and in fact, his largest role was to be blamed, deceitfully by anti-SJWs, for what happened at Skepticon).

    2. The story might seem “overplayed” to you, but I think you might find plenty of students directly affected by what was going on at Missouri U who would disagree with you. And I hope you can excuse me for editorialising here, but I find your attitude quite hard to respect when it comes attached to a post where a huge proportion of the content is quotes from people at Mizzou explaining why this is so damned important to them.

  28. moarscienceplz says

    I have only watched the first third or so of the Skepticon video, which includes the 6 minute edited version of Schierbecker’s video. I’m not sure I care to get into the incident-about-the-incident, but I think I have seen enough to spot some serious problems with Schierbecker’s position:
    1. Schierbecker himself says his fight to get into the “safe space” was on day 8 of the tent camp being placed on the lawn area. AFAIK, he made no effort to try to interview anybody there in those early days before it became the center of a circus. If he had done so in a fair way, he might have established a relationship with somebody in the camp and possibly could have gotten an invitation to go in on day 8. Instead, he just showed up in the midst of the bullfight and expected to do whatever the fuck he felt like doing.
    2. Schierbecker seems to subscribe to the paparazzi theory that any interesting person owes anybody with a recording device all the time and access the reporter wants. This is bullshit.
    3. Schierbecker seems to think that “public property” guarantees him unlimited access to every square foot of that property any time he feels like going there. IANAL, but I suspect that most park-like public property comes with a presumed right of “quiet enjoyment” to the first persons to claim the use of it on any given day. In other words, if I go to the park and spread my blanket on an available piece of that park, I’m pretty sure I have the right to chase away some stranger who tries to sit on my blanket. Since the tent camp was set up in order to conduct a legal protest, and apparently was operated within all legal restrictions regarding use of that park, I think the residents of that camp do indeed have the right to chase away interlopers, First Amendment notwithstanding.

  29. Trickster Goddess says


    But, sometimes hands are overplayed.

    What — you think this is all just a game?

  30. Athywren - Frustration Familiarity Panda says

    I get that Pumpkin Brewer’s been kicked, but does anyone else think it’s ironic that someone who felt the need to hold an impromptu lecture on skepticism would be so offended by criticism of racism as to call it “white male bashing”? Maybe I don’t fully understand these things, but I’d always thought that a part of being good at skepticism was the ability to take and process criticisms without getting all grumpy about it? It’s really weird how many self-described skeptics don’t seem to recognise the value of that. Sometimes I wonder if there’s something in overtly adopting the label that’s corrosive to reason – that thinking of yourself as a skeptic makes you less likely to engage with things skeptically, because you think you’ve already got it covered in your basic, now automatically skeptical, thought processes?
    So many of these events would be so much less controversial and combative if more people actually processed criticisms instead of lashing out at the perceived [insert privileged group here] bashing.

  31. says

    Pumpkin Brewer sounded like the trolling section of the skepticon hashtag threw up in the comments box.

    I attended the first part of that hot mess and left right when I realized this was more of a PR stunt than a damn Q&A.

    Now that I’ve seen the entire video, I’m glad I left when I did, because I would have been screaming, and we already know how some of the movement loves to treat loud black women.

  32. Dreaming of an Atheistic Newtopia says

    @35 Athrywren
    You are thinking of skepticism as the valuable tool, but Pumpkin was thinking of Skepticism as in the ability to be an abrassive, condescending arsehole to everybody you disagree with and not ever take a look at your own views.

  33. says

    Whenever you discuss systemic oppression and privilege, which actually moves the discussion away from individual acts by identifying structures that give somebody an advantage and cultural messages that socialise somebody in a certain way, those people howl that you’re “bashing white males” and “you’Re the real racist”.
    Similarly they will claim that they win the argument if you decide that picking your nose is a more intellectually satisfying occupation and that you’re just playing your hurt feelings.
    Make of this what you want.

  34. Lesbian Catnip says

    While I’m glad more people have grasped Racism 101 as shitty behaviour like using racial slurs or calling for racial purity, I’m frustrated that the number of people who don’t recognise Schierbecker’s tactics are also racist. Appropriating a platform in the middle of the black student body’s protest at the local (state?) University to make a statement about how white people aren’t so bad isn’t just shitty timing. It’s shittier, Racism 201 racism. This is what Muscato apologised for. A white man’s PR stunt to say how Not Racist he is should not take priority over the black student body’s protest.

    Also isn’t Daniel Muscato a man? Or am I confused with another Muscato.