And why should we care?
In yesterday’s post, I asked the question, “Why is the atheist movement so predominantly white and male?” I talked about how, even with the best of intentions, a largely white male community can become a self- fulfilling prophecy. I talked about unconscious bias, and the tendency of a group to focus on the concerns of the people who currently dominate that group. And I talked about how the longer a community stays imbalanced, the more this bias and focus get perpetuated… and how this turns into a self-perpetuating cycle, in which women and people of color don’t feel comfortable joining because the movement is already largely made up of white men.
Today, I want to talk about what — specifically — we can do about all this.
And I want to talk about why we should care.
(This is just the tip of the iceberg. Anyone who has other suggestions, please speak up in the comments.)
And as these efforts take hold and the movement becomes more inclusive, with more diversity in our leadership and our public figures, more women and people of color will feel comfortable and welcomed about joining.
Inclusivity can also be a self-perpetuating cycle.
Some organizations/ bloggers/ writers/etc. are already doing this. Good for them. More of us need to be doing it… and those of us who are doing it need to be doing it more.
As Cubik’s Rube so eloquently put it in his excellent piece, Isms, in my opinion, are not good: “Don’t let your first response to a potentially legitimate complaint — made in as calm and reasoned and generous a manner as you could ask for, lodged by a demographic that consists of half the population of the planet and who have a history of being beaten down by the other half — be to tell them to shut up because they’re wrong to feel the way they do. That should not be where you instinctively, immediately go to when someone’s not happy with the way things are.”
I mean — if our immediate, instinctive response to criticisms about racism or sexism is to say, “That’s ridiculous, how dare anyone suggest such a thing, this is just PC whining”? That’s a good clue that what’s going on isn’t really a thoughtful, considered response, but is instead a reflexive rationalization of something that isn’t right but that we don’t want to think about.
And one last strategy bit before I move on: Those of us who are already on board? Those of us who see how racial and gender imbalances can perpetuate themselves, even without anyone intending them to? Those of us who think this is important, and that it needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later?
People with privilege will go to great lengths to (a) hang to to our privilege, and (b) deny that we have privilege so we can keep hanging on to it without feeling guilty. And people of all stripes will go to very great lengths indeed to avoid having to change our behavior. So we have to keep this issue — and the cognitive dissonance so many people seem to have about it — on everyone’s radar. We have to make it more of a pain in the ass to ignore ths stuff than it is to just deal with it already.
But why should we care? Why should it matter so much that the atheist movement is largely white and largely male, with so many white men in positions of leadership and power? Don’t we have other issues to worry about?
I’m going to answer as I so often do: with Greta’s unique blend of pie- eyed idealism and Machiavellian practicality.
The pragmatic reason?
Numbers will make us stronger — and making the movement more inclusive will bring more numbers. Thinking through our ideas will make us stronger — and making the movement more inclusive will challenge us all to think more clearly. And diversity itself will make us stronger. It brings new ideas to the table. It multiplies our abilities to make alliances with other progressive political movements. It brings a broader range of ideas and viewpoints to the public debate. It makes us not look like elitist douchebags in the public eye.
Now, some people will likely respond that this is unfair. To take just one example from all of these issues: Some people will likely argue that making a conscious effort to move women and people of color into positions of visibility and leadership is reverse discrimination, unfair to white men who have worked hard for their prominent positions.
I have two responses to that.
One: The self-perpetuating cycles I talked about yesterday? The ways that unconscious bias can keep a movement largely white and male, and the ways that a largely white male movement will be off-putting to women and people of color, and the ways that a movement that doesn’t make an effort to address everyone’s concerns will wind up focusing on the concerns of the ones who traditionally run the show? Those cycles aren’t going to be broken by everyone just saying, “Okay, we promise not to be racist and sexist.” Those can only be broken by recognizing that there’s a real problem — and taking positive action to address it.
I mean — really?
I’ve been restraining the impulse to unleash the snark in this piece. But I’m feeling extremely irritated at the fact that I have to even explain this, and I’m going to let the snark off the leash for a moment. People — this is basic. This is Political Organizing 101. This should not be controversial. The self-perpetuating reality of racism and sexism, and the necessity of taking action to counteract it? This is not rocket science. Every serious progressive political movement on the block knows about it, and is at least making a gesture towards pretending to care about it. If we want to be a serious progressive political movement, we need to take this seriously.
In fact, I’m going to get even harsher here for a moment. When we say things like, “The reason there aren’t more women/POC in the atheist movement is that women/POC have special reasons for staying in religion, or for not coming out as atheists”? When we say things like, “How dare you accuse me of even unconscious racism and sexism — I’m not the problem, the unique personality and culture of women and people of color is the problem”? When we say things like, “Sure, our movement is mostly white and male — but that’s not our problem, and we shouldn’t be expected to do anything about it”?
What we’re really saying is, “White male atheists are the real atheists. White male atheists are the ones who count. The reasons white men stay in religion, or have a hard time coming out as atheists — those are the real reasons, the ones we should be addressing. Women and POC — they’re special, extra, other. We shouldn’t have to change our behavior to include them in the movement. This should be a One Size Fits all movement — and that size should be the size it already is, a size that fits white men.”
And I hope I don’t have to explain why we shouldn’t be saying that.
“It is worth remembering that we can disagree honestly about the causes, but still agree that a problem exists, and most importantly, still work towards solutions to that problem. The solutions, after all, may even be independent of the causes (a headache is not caused by lack of aspirin), and a common agreement as to the problem, if not the causes, still allows us to evaluate our interventions to see if they alleviate that problem. And whether or not white males are a (or the) cause of the situation, it would be difficult to argue that they are not the ones in the position of having the most power to change that situation.”
And that’s a big part of my point. My point is that it doesn’t much matter whether this is happening on purpose. What matters is that it’s happening — and if we want it to not haunt us for the entire future of our movement, we need to learn to recognize it, and to take action on it, now. This is our responsibility… even if only in the most limited sense that we have power to do something about it.
So here’s a very important lesson the atheist movement can learn from the LGBT movement and our history:
We screwed this up.
We still screw this up.
And we are still paying for it.
The early LGBT movement was very much dominated by gay white men. And the gay white male leaders of that movement had some seriously bad race and sex stuff going on: treating gay men of color as fetishistic Others, objects of sexual desire rather than members of the community… and treating lesbians as alien Others, inscrutable and trivial.
That makes it hard on everybody in the LGBT movement. It creates rifts that make our community weaker. And it has a seriously bad impact on our ability to make effective social change. We have, for instance, a profoundly impaired ability to shift homophobic attitudes in the black churches… since those churches can claim, entirely legitimately, that the gay community is racist and doesn’t care about black people. If we hadn’t ignored black churches for the last decade, if we had done any serious outreach and alliance building with the black communities for the last decade, we might not have lost Prop 8.
We screwed this up. We still screw this up. We are paying for our screwups.
We’re not going to single-handedly fix racism and sexism overnight. Even I’m not enough of a pie-eyed optimist to think that. But we have a chance in the atheist movement to learn from the mistakes of the LGBT movement, and the mistakes of every other progressive movement before ours. Our movement — at least, the current incarnation of our movement, the visible and vocal and activist incarnation of our movement — is still relatively new. We have a unique opportunity to handle this problem early: before these self-perpetuating cycles become entrenched, before decades of ugly history and bad feelings poison the well.
Let’s take that opportunity.
Let’s take action on this now.