So what can atheists do about the race and gender imbalance in our movement?
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.
Let’s start with what we can do about it. And let’s start with the self- fulfilling prophecy bit. Self-fulfilling prophecies can seem beyond hope: just another of those stupid hard-wired human behaviors that can’t be fixed. But that’s just not the case here. There are specific, practical steps that the currently white male- dominated atheist movement could take to derail this cycle, or at least to mitigate it. And self-perpetuating cycles can be used for the power of good as well as evil.
For starters: Atheist organizations could make an effort to reach out to women and people of color, and to get the women and people of color they have now into positions of greater prominence and visibility. Atheist conference organizers could make an effort to get more women and people of color as speakers…. both speaking on issues of race/ gender, and just speaking about atheism generally. Atheist speakers’ bureaus could make an effort to recruit women and people of color. Atheist writers could make an effort to cite the contributions and ideas of female atheists and atheists of color, both from history and from the current movement. Atheist bloggers could make an effort to cite/ link to atheist blogs run by women and people of color, and to include them in their blogrolls. Atheist leaders — writers, speakers, organization leaders — could make an effort to address specific concerns of women and people of color in the atheist community. Atheists of any degree of involvement with the atheist community could speak out when they see racism and sexism in the movement. Etc.
(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.
The “unconscious bias” thing isn’t hopeless, either. It can also be addressed by taking positive steps to make our movement more inclusive. One of the great things about having a more diverse community is that your unconscious biases get called into question: partly just by seeing counterexamples on a regular basis, and partly because there’ll be more people around to call you on your shit. (People who feel more safe in calling you on your shit, since they’ll feel like they have backup.) And again, this can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy for good instead of evil. The more conscious a community gets of its biases and the more it works to overcome them, the more welcoming that community will be to a more diverse population.
And ditto with focus. The more women and people of color we have in our movement — especially in positions of leadership and visibility — the more that the specific concerns of women and people of color will be heard and addressed. And the more those concerns are heard and addressed, the more inviting our community will be to a wider and more diverse population. Again, the power of the self-perpetuating cycle can be a force for good instead of evil.<br clear=all /.
I want to mention a couple of other specific things we can do about all this, before I move on to why I think we should. A very important one, and one that’s really hard for a lot of people, is this: When someone brings up the subject of racism or sexism in the atheist movement — listen. Pay attention. Don’t just get defensive and reflexively reject the idea out of hand. We don’t have to agree with the criticism — heck, I often see accusations of sexism that I think are bullshit — but we should think about it for more than ten seconds, and listen to what exactly people are saying about it, before we decide whether or not the criticism has merit.
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?
We need to keep talking about it. And talking, and talking, and talking. We need to keep talking about specific instances of this phenomenon… and we need to keep talking about the phenomenon generally, and why it matters. Making this case within the atheist movement is like the atheist movement making our case for atheism outside it: it’s like water on rock. The ideas can take time to penetrate.
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 idealistic reason? Because it’s the right thing to do. Because women atheists, and atheists of color, matter just as much as white male atheists. Because religion hurts women and people of color just as much as it does white men — more so, in many ways. Because women and people of color who are potential non-believers are just as important as white men who are potential non-believers, and it’s just as crucial to give them a safe place a place to land when they leave religion… as safe a place as we give to anybody else. Because fighting racism and sexism makes us all better people, and makes the world a better place. Because this conversation shouldn’t be about Us and Them: it should be about Us, all of us, all atheists and agnostics and skeptics and humanists and freethinkers and non-believers. Because we are all Us, all part of this movement, and we should all be treated as if we matter.
The pragmatic reason?
Because it will make our movement stronger.
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.
Two: In this world we live in, you’re really going to complain about the horrible injustice of discrimination against white men?
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.
Okay. Stepping back from Snarky Harshville now. The thing is, despite my visit to Snarky Harshville, I actually don’t think that this is about blame. I know that this is a difficult issue; I know that people get very defensive when it comes up; and I know that one of the reasons people are reluctant to act on it is that they don’t want to feel like it’s their fault. But this isn’t about blame. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be. As Cuttlefish so eloquently (and succinctly) put it in a comment on Part 1 of this piece:
“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.
Let me bring it back into practical terms, in a way I think everyone will get. The atheist movement has actually been quite good about being welcoming and inclusive of LGBTs. In fact, it’s very much taken the LGBT movement as its model (especially with the emphasis on coming out), paying close attention to the history of the LGBT movement and the lessons to be learned from its successes and failures.
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.
And we are paying for it today. Relations between lesbians and gay men, between white queers and queers of color, are often strained at best. Conversations in our movement about race and gender take place in a decades-old context of rancor and bitterness, and they can be a minefield, in which nothing anybody says is right. We still have a decided tendency to treat gay men of color as fetish objects, and lesbians as sexless aliens. And we still, after decades, have a decided tendency to put gay white men front and center as the most visible, most iconic representatives of our community.
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.
Atheists have a chance to not do that.
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.