During this past weekend’s Moving Secularism Forward conference in Orlando I was on a panel called Outreach and Advocacy with 16 year-old activist Jessica Ahlquist and constitutional lawyer Eddie Tabash. Ahlquist discussed her courageous activism against religious bigotry in Rhode Island and Tabash issued a call for secular vigilance on church/state separation. The panel was expertly moderated by CFI’s African Americans for Humanism director Debbie Goddard. Debbie kept the discussion lively by amplifying the themes of race/gender politics, church/state separation and that we raised during our respective presentations. At the end of the session I was approached by a young biracial African American woman who spoke passionately about her struggle with self-image, identity and mainstream white beauty standards. As the only woman of color in the audience (she, Debbie, and myself were the only women of color at the conference as a whole) she connected with my presentation on beauty standards, the cultural construction of femininity, and black and Latina young women’s organized resistance to sexism and misogyny during the modern civil rights movement era and in contemporary battles around educational equity. Coming from an interracial family in which she and her 9 year-old sister were largely socialized to believe white beauty ideals were the norm, she identified with discussion of my Women’s Leadership Project students’ activism on racist misogynist representations of women of color. For women of color, humanism can’t be understood outside of the historic context of black and brown women’s enslavement, sexual exploitation, and colonization. This legacy continues to shape the way black and Latina women are portrayed in a global image industry in which we are either hyper-sexualized as Jezebel super sluts or domesticated yet again as the noble self-sacrificing god-fearing “Help” to white women. Moreover, anti- abortion and family planning public policy (such as race-selection abortion legislation and GOP crusades to repeal birthright citizenship steeped in propaganda that demonizes undocumented Latinas as “anchor baby” breeders) targeting black and Latina fertility/reproduction institutionalizes this regime of dehumanization and invisibility. The psychological damage inflicted on young girls of color is played out in the multi-million dollar consumption of white Barbies, white princesses, and scores of TV shows featuring white girls as lead character heroines while girls of color (if present at all) add “spice” as the wisecracking/level-headed/sassy sidekick.
Four decades after the publication of Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye these cultural biases are also manifest in Americana’s obsession with missing white women and girls. In a climate where girls of color lap up the Bad Girls reality show and covet cheap dangerously unhygienic colored contact lenses sold on the street, Morrison’s meditation on the violent disfiguring of black girls’ psyches is nakedly relevant. Western paradigms of rationality, individual liberty, citizenship and objectivity were and continue to be articulated through the debased othered racialized bodies of women of color. And as I said at the Orlando talk, in all of my years of K-12 education no one ever handed me a book written by a black woman like Morrison and said that what she wrote is universal truth. Or that civilizations rose and fell on the power of her words. Or that entire belief systems sprung from her ideas and teachings. And no one ever taught me to believe that some of the world’s greatest intellectuals came from plantations, reservations, barrios and “ghettoes.” Instead, white male secularists were the heroes, leaders, intellectuals, and “creators” of all that mattered in American history. This is the life and death humanist struggle that women of color are spearheading—one that says that laying claim to our own bodies, destinies and right to self-determination is still a radical revolutionary concept. One that my students and the young biracial sister at the conference continue to fight everyday of their lives.