"You're Not Oppressed, White Atheist Dudes"

It’s the Dear Muslima of atheist progressives, so knock it off.

Not enough? Okay, we’ll do this the long way.

No, not all atheist progressives. (Do I really have to do this?) Plenty of atheist progressives manage to critique the actions and priorities of atheist organizations without suggesting that the enterprise as a whole isn’t needed because the atheist oppression white guys complain about isn’t real. It still happens, particularly among a subset of well-educated, urban, white, progressive atheists.

Oppression of people who are otherwise well able to withstand the oppression does not stop being oppression.
The inability of Jewish merchants to be elected or appointed to local office across much of Europe for much of our recent history wasn’t “not oppression” because they were able to otherwise live comfortably or to flee when things got bad in a particular neighborhood or town or country. They were still oppressed.

Mild forms of oppression are not the same as a lack of oppression. We know what microaggressions are. We understand how they affect access to spaces. That doesn’t change when we’re talking about atheists, even atheists who annoy us.

Mild forms of oppression don’t historically stay mild. When a group is an acceptable target for hostility in normal times, this increases their acute risk under more unusual circumstances. Marginalized groups are more likely to be scapegoated in times of economic stresses or societal upheaval. People from marginalized groups are more likely to be considered “safe” targets of random aggression or to be the object of the rare dangerous paranoid delusion.

Hearing from comfortable white men about oppression doesn’t mean other people aren’t experiencing the same oppression in far less comfortable circumstances. When you complain about a problem, you get pushback from people who are happy with the status quo and from people who just don’t have any tolerance for strife. White men can afford to complain more because they are more insulated from the risks posed by that pushback. It is easier to complain about how your employer treats you when you live in an urban center with lots of other jobs available to you as a white man.

If you’re hearing complaints from white guys about oppression that isn’t some form of “reverse discrimination”, you’re likely looking at an iceberg. If people feel comfortable discriminating against people at the top of the totem pole, they’re going to feel more even comfortable discriminating against others with less power to fight back. Whether you hear from those people or not, they’re facing the same or greater risk.

When you tell white men to shut up about real oppression, you’re telling everyone else who faces similar oppression that you deny the validity of their experience. If you say it’s not oppression for a white man to be pressured into prayer as a condition of schooling or employment, what are you going to say to the black atheist who only has the local Catholic school as a reasonable school choice or the rural latina whose single local choice for decently paid employment is a company where her boss expects everyone to pray at the daily employee huddle? How can they expect you to take them seriously if you won’t do the same for the people everyone defers to?

Look, I understand that it’s frustrating to watch groups spend their time and money disproportionally on comfortable people. I know it’s hard to see good programs go unfunded and unsung, particularly while watching proponents of easier work get so much praise.

Nonetheless, that doesn’t make Dear Muslima or “first world problems” right or helpful. It’s time to drop “You’re not oppressed” too. We can do better.

"You're Not Oppressed, White Atheist Dudes"

17 thoughts on “"You're Not Oppressed, White Atheist Dudes"

  1. 1

    Well said. I do think, at least some of the time, that it’s not a direct criticism of atheist activism but an understandable response to people who are privileged on other axes changing the subject to atheist activism from another topic.

  2. 4

    Christ, I hated the #firswordproblems meme, not least because complaining on Twitter about other people complaining on Twitter is the very definition of first world privilege.

  3. 5

    Shatterface: I’ve only ever used the ‘First World Problems” phrase to talk about my own gripes, for similar reasons. Ie, I know I’ve got it good, relatively speaking. So if something that most people on the planet would love to have as a problem is irritating me, the FWP thing is my way of making sure I keep my perspective while still letting me vent.

    And Stephanie, excellent post as always. It would be a solid element in an “Intersectionality 101” series.

  4. 6

    Using #firstworldproblems in a self-depricating manner is different from using it to dismiss the genuine complaints of people who just happen to have the good fortune not to be sex slaves in a uranium mine.

  5. 7

    I’ve never interpreted #firstworldproblems as a dismissal of the problem – after all, it’s directly acknowledging the problem as a problem. I take it as an acknowledgement of one’s position of relative privilege, while also pointing out that it does not mean one faces no problems, which makes it, to my mind, very much in line with the position this post is taking. I like it.

  6. 8

    I’ve also apparently had a very different experience of the phrase (almost always people using it to describe their own issues, not to dismiss those of others) than some have. I agree that if it’s used to try to dismiss the legitimate concerns of people with relative global privilege, that is bad.

  7. 9

    I nearly unfriended the person who put that up on her Facebook post, considering that she is someone who had to defend her own PTSD from people who told her she couldn’t have PTSD because she has never been to war. You would have thought she would have learned that “Your problems aren’t as bad as the worst problems so they don’t count” is not a very nice thing to say.

    But ultimately, I didn’t unfriend her.

  8. 10

    I like the iceberg imagery, and recognise that I’m very much the person this post is squarely aimed at.

    So thanks for this post. I’ll keep it well in mind as a reminder that I need to knock it off and do better.

  9. 12

    Well said Stephanie. While we’re at it could we sink the trope that goes “atheists shouldn’t expect cookies for getting the easy question right”? It’s not always an easy question. A lot of people who are quite privileged in other areas really struggle with the philosophical and emotional elements to living as an Atheist. If it’s easy for you good, that’s your privilege.

  10. 13

    Improbable Joe @2:

    Any specific examples?

    I don’t think I’ve participated in the specific discussions that have apparently given rise to this post, so I don’t really know which alleged forms of oppression were being dismissed. Still, I think this fits the criteria set out in Stephanie’s post:

    Here’s an example that I [Eugene Volokh] think is particular[ly] egregious: The discrimination in favor of religious parents and against irreligious ones, or in favor of more religious parents and against less religious ones, in child custody cases, on the theory that it’s in the child’s “best interests” (that’s the relevant legal test) to be raised with a religious education.

    Mississippi is the most serious offender, though I’ve seen cases since 1990 in Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Texas; there are similar cases in 1970s Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, and New York. (I give cites below.) In 2001, for instance, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld an order giving a mother custody partly because she took the child to church more often than the father did, thus providing a better “future religious example.” In 2000, it ordered a father to take the child to church each week, as a Mississippi court ordered in 2000, reasoning that “it is certainly to the best interests of [the child] to receive regular and systematic spiritual training.”

    – Eugene Volokh, “Discrimination Against Atheists

    Volokh wrote a lengthy scholarly article listing published judicial decisions he’d found in which a religious parent won custody at the expense of an atheist or religiously apathetic parent (one of the latter lost out for belonging to the Church of the Subgenius), and in which the court explicitly listed the religious disparity as a basis for the custody decision. Volokh found 72 cases—which is a staggering number, in light of the fact that the vast majority of decisions in custody cases never make it to a published decision. To reuse a metaphor that’s apparently in vogue in this thread, those 72 can only be the tip of a much larger iceberg.

    It’s a situation that freaks me out a little. I’m a (white cis straight able-bodied financially-comfortable male) atheist married to a nominal (but basically non-practicing and not actually particularly theistic) Catholic. We have a (fabulous) two-year-old son. We also have a happy and healthy marriage—but let’s say hypothetically that, five years from now, that’s no longer true. In light of the fact that a few of Volokh’s 72 cases came from the state I live in, there’s ample reason to worry that, if my wife and I were to divorce and then fight over custody, my status as an atheist, and an outspoken one at that, could lead to my losing custody of my son. Which is harrowing.

    Now, chances are that none of that is actually going to happen. Given that my marriage has never been in trouble (and hopefully never will be), it’s all very theoretical. But I wouldn’t react terribly well to the suggestion that the fear that this kind of discrimination instills in me isn’t a symptom of some very real oppression.

    Just to finish out the “Dear Muslima” on myself, I have no illusions that the discomfort in my life I’ve just described is somehow worse than, or indeed anywhere near as bad as, the varieties of oppression suffered on a regular basis by very large numbers of people, including many readers of this blog. Compared to, say, the experiences of a trans* person who lives with an all-too-justified fear of being subjected to brutal and potentially fatal violence if she is outed under the wrong circumstances, the damage that atheophobic oppression inflicts on my life is pretty damn minimal. But it’s nonetheless real, and sneeringly brushing it aside as “white male problems” or some such would seem callous and ugly to me. I benefit from massive privilege on a large number of axes (more or less all of them besides the religious one, basically), but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck to know that my one disempowered-minority status could easily come around to bite me in the ass someday.

    I’d like to think that the experience of being on the nasty end of some very potent prejudice helps me understand, and lend some kind of support to, the huge number of folks who get screwed by the forms of privilege I happen to benefit from. To the extent that the “white atheist dudes” of the title feel oppressed by atheophobes, one hopes that that makes us more sensitive to the concerns of people facing forms of discrimination that we personally don’t have to worry about. But the (albeit informal) data suggest that that’s not how it actually works for a very large number of people—and I’m not just talking about white male atheists. Being the victim of unjust privilege clearly does not reliably lead people to recognize, and to take seriously the damage inflicted by, the other forms of privilege that we benefit from. Alas.

  11. 14

    Another example: To all appearances I’m a white male. My mom was Mexican American, and when she took me and my sister along with her when she went shopping in the racist little town we lived close to, my sister and I would have to wait along with her while the white saleswomen waited on every white person in the store, even those who came in afterwards, before they would wait on mom.

  12. 15

    I agree with this, which is why, despite all the poop the “movement” dishes out, I hesitate to walk away and leave my rights as an atheist in the hands of people I wouldn’t trust not to punch me in the face for no reason.

    But (oh, no, the dreaded but), I think that you can tell a lot about someone by just how outraged they get by any sort of pushback. Y’know, “Gaza’s getting shelled, Detroit’s shutting off people’s water, transwomen are being murdered in Baltimore… but SOMEONE AT AN AIRPORT MADE A NASTY COMMENT ABOUT MY ATHEIST SHIRT!!! THE WORST THING EVAR!!111!!!!11!!” No. Get a grip. Fight the fight, please, but don’t pretend a snippy comment about a shirt is some sort of human rights apocalypse.

  13. 17

    It’s a little less poignant now that the Social Justice circles FTB and Tumblr tend to be part of are mostly through the process of being dragged kicking and screaming into admitting that allistic privilege is a thing, but I really appreciate this.

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