What Not to Say to Radical Atheists/Humanists of Color

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Preliminary observations from this weekend’s virtually all-white Moving Secularism Forward conference:

  1. We are all Africans—so don’t you (people) know that race is just a social construct

People of color say this all the time to:

a. The white police officers who stop them, frisk them and/or beat the shit out of them because they (five foot two and dark skinned) look like the identical twin of some black or Latino (six feet and light skinned) person suspected of criminal activity in the area

b. The white salespeople who follow them around in stores or the host/hostess who seats them and their families in the back of restaurants

c. The school administrators who suspend them for being “defiant” in the classroom while their white peers get a slap on the wrist for more serious offenses like theft, fighting/assault or drug use

d. The counselors of all races/ethnicities who don’t program them into AP or honors classes because everybody knows black kids can’t cut it in an academically rigorous environment

e. The film studio heads who don’t hire black, Latino, Native American or Asian directors, producers and casting agents due to corporate insider politics that keep them draining the same pool of connected white power brokers; thus giving the impression that the U.S. is a lily white nation in which only white heroes/action figures/politicians/historical figures/professionals/freshly scrubbed or dysfunctional middle American families and romantic heroes and heroines define American culture.

f. Add your favorites to this list

2. I don’t see color


3. How do “we” diversify the “movement”

If you are not willing to do the serious work, reading, re-education and organizing then don’t go there. Diversity in and of itself is a bromide. Anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-heterosexism and destroying white supremacy—that is what this work is about for many radical humanist/atheists. Trotting out “diversity” is guaranteed to make ears bleed rivers of pus when posed by the umpteenth clueless individual not willing to put the work into coalition building across issues with non-secularist organizations with a social justice, gender justice and/or LGBTQ orientation. Homelessness, reproductive justice, educational equity, and prisoner re-entry, and scholarship development are all intersectional issues that secular humanist groups can get involved in if they simply got up off the privilege of not seeing these as pressing daily bread and butter concerns.

4. I don’t understand why black people identify with the religion of the oppressor

And I don’t understand why white working class people (according to liberal-progressive theorists) supposedly vote “against” their economic interests and support Christian fascist oligarchs like Rick Santorum. This must have something to do with the very real economic interest of white race/class privilege or what DuBois termed the wages of whiteness. Number 4 is the rhetorical equivalent of non-black people saying the “N-word” out of either racism or because its hip/cool/cute and everybody else does it. When poor people of color need shelter, utilities’ assistance, computer access, etc. they don’t trot down to the local “inner city” humanist foundation of reason and science or, for that matter, the local community center. The former is an oxymoron. And due to the systematic dismantling of social welfare resources in urban communities of color the latter doesn’t exist. So don’t say this shit unless you have some nuanced historical grasp of the institutional and historical factors that inform black religiosity as a function of segregation, cultural identity formation, resistance to white supremacy and adoption of capitalism, heterosexism, patriarchy and sexism.

5.  There are no legal barriers to equality anymore

21st century de facto segregation, in which people of color have been virtually denied equitable access to living wage jobs, housing, and education, is more pernicious now than during legal segregation. A recent Brown University study reports that residential segregation is greater now than it was 20 years ago. Even black and Latino middle class people still live in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods that are more economically depressed than are the neighborhoods white working class people live in. The most segregated cities are in the more enlightened secular “north” and post Brown v. Board public schools have re-segregated in this so-called era of post-racialism. The criminal justice system disproportionately convicts and assigns harsher sentences to black juvenile offenders who are more likely to land in adult prisons than white juvenile offenders accused of identical crimes. Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book the New Jim Crow chronicles how a perfect storm of racist perceptions, racially disparate sentencing and discriminatory prisoner re-entry policies have effectively disenfranchised generations of black and Latino youth.

6. “We” still have a lot to do on “race” but “we” are mostly anti-racist

See above


What Not to Say to Radical Atheists/Humanists of Color

77 thoughts on “What Not to Say to Radical Atheists/Humanists of Color

  1. 1

    To my fellow white straight dudes… First step in dealing with issues of racism/sexism etc… Sit down, shut up, and listen to the people affected by racism/sexism etc…repeat as necessary.

    Seriously good post.

  2. 3

    Thank you.

    I am, other than commenting, not, in any way, part of the atheist community. I also think that I recognize my privileges (white, college-educated, etc.). Essays such as this help me realize that I, and others like me (whether active in the atheist community or commenting from the sidelines) still have a long way to go before the atheist community really is a community.

    1. 4.2

      Its apparent that racism is still very alive and kicking in the USA. Being discriminated is awful and hurting and we ought to listen to each others stories and feelings. I might myself fall in the `white, well educated’ group but #2 is IMHO is the most sensible thing. One’s skin color shouldn’t matter, the person does and if he/she is being discriminated because of that we should stand side by side.

  3. 6

    Terrific post, thank you. It amazes me when people I know claim segregation is a thing of the past. The elementary school I attended was one of the hundreds of private schools that sprung in the wake of the civil rights movement to preserve de facto segregation in the rural south. It still exists today and has a 98% white student body in an area of Georgia that is about 1/3 black. The “enlightened” neighborhood I live in now (Old Town Alexandria, just across the river from DC) is dominated by Democrats and progressives. Not only do we have black areas and white areas, we have black BLOCKS and white BLOCKS. One block of the street I live on is 100% white on one side of the street and 100% black on the other side, and has been that way for at least two decades.

  4. 7


    (Linked from Pharyngula, but I will definitely be reading more, particularly of the delicious snark)

    I am white working in a mostly white office, and I have heard the “I don’t see colour” trope trotted out a few times. To which my response is banging my head against the desk and grating out “Of course you do. But saying that you don’t allows you to wilfully blind yourself to how much you benefit from institutionlised racism.”

    There is no shortage of stupid in the world. Good to see you and others on FtB calling it.

  5. 8

    So don’t say this shit unless you have some nuanced historical grasp of the institutional and historical factors that inform black religiosity as a function of segregation, cultural identity formation, resistance to white supremacy and adoption of capitalism, heterosexism, patriarchy and sexism.

    Someone who has a nuanced historical grasp (or even a basic conceptual grasp) of all those factors will probably know better than to say that shit. Either they understand why, or they understand just enough to be interested in learning more.

  6. 9

    Thank you for what I think was more patience than deserved in pointing out the continued reliance on white privilege in a ‘community’ that wants to be progressive but clearly still doesn’t get it. PoC should not have to explain this again, nicely or otherwise.

    1. 10.1

      Not in the very near future; the national leadership likes to circle jerk on racial politics and many of the regional groups do the same. Humanist groups of color are still emergent, small and diffuse. Working with local orgs on coalition issues takes time, energy and some grasp of “intersectionality” that many people in this context will need a whole lot of re-training to see.

  7. 11

    “We are all Africans—so don’t you (people) know that race is just a social construct” Wow…seriously? I’ve heard the teeth-gritting “segregation is over!” or (my personal favorite) “we have Obama, race is done!” but “We are all Africans…”? Props to you for not blowing a blood vessel in frustration.

    Ah, the “religion of the oppressor”…yep. How lucky, how privileged does the speaker of that one have to be that they can completely gloss over the complex history of religion and people of color in the US. Yeah, secular options would be great, especially in that “local inner-city”, but who’s going to create, fund, staff, and re-fund them month after month? It’s certainly more comfortable to ignore the reality.

    Awesome post! Nice to see some needling of the atheist/secular scene.

      1. Atheist cartoons with that discursive gem in them…Looks like there’s a whole new area of stupid on the internet I’ll be skipping! Thanks for keeping me out of a pothole, Jadehawk 😀

  8. 12

    Thanks so much for this post. I just found the Black Atheist and Black Freethinkers on Facebook. Although I enjoy them it really annoys me that much of the discussions are spent “explaining,” “debating,” everything you’ve listed and more. To me it is a waste of valuable space and time. Plus I am so over explaining the obvious to people who don’t want to get it.

    Lou above said it best,

    “To my fellow white straight dudes… First step in dealing with issues of racism/sexism etc… Sit down, shut up, and listen to the people affected by racism/sexism etc…repeat as necessary.”

    Denying reality of a person of color is racist. Trying to convince someone who experiences racism that what they have experienced is not racist is racist.

    I think we need to switch it around. Dealing with racism (and any other -ism for that matter) has always been a matter of “helping” those who experience to overcome come it/deal with it/cope with it. That’s well and good but doesn’t take care of the problem. How about teaching white folks who get it teaching their fellow white folks not to be racist and to actually believe a person of color when they say, “This happened to me?” Folks like Tim Wise and other white anti-racist have made this their life’s mission.

    Thanks for the post.


    1. 12.1

      I certainly can’t claim to have done a lot of that type of thing, but as a white person I can say that IME getting other white people to acknowledge race issues has been like pulling teeth.

    1. 13.1

      Are you asking if that was something that was trotted out at the conference? Or are you suggesting that this is a legitimate idea for consideration?

  9. 15

    I am a bit confused by #4. It seems you think that if someone does not understand the issue, they should not admin their lack of understanding. But if they do have some understanding of the issue, then it is fine for them to say they don’t understand the issue. I think that if someone expresses a lack of understanding of this (or any) issue, it would be better to take that as an opportunity to help them better understand the issue rather than getting angry for their being honest about their lack of understanding. But maybe I just don’t understand.

    1. 15.1

      The problem, as far as I can understand it (from my white perspective), is that this confusion is rarely expressed as such. Far too often I hear people say that with the intent to intervene in the person’s life to save them from themselves. This becomes even more problematic when it’s a white person telling a person of color that “whitey knows best!”

      1. However it is expressed most of the time, the author chose to express it above as “I don’t understand why…” If I expressed that I did not understand something and got the kind of angry response the author gives, I would not want to talk with that person again.

        When someone says something to me about atheists that shows their ignorance, Rather than getting angry at them, I take the opportunity to explain why they are wrong and their statement is insulting.

          1. I don’t see how it’s lovely for anyone. When someone- often a compassionate ally- makes an attempt to understand the issues, why is it our reaction to assume they’re a bunch of ignorant, malintentioned “others?” Do we have some pamphlet to read which contains the party line that all oppressed groups implicitly subscribe to?

            I’ve heard similar comments from friends, as if everyone already knows everything about queer theory and are just being assholes when they call me “he” because they have no idea what’s happened in the 15 years since I last saw them.

    2. 15.3

      I believe the point is that this phrase rarely actually refers to a person not understanding something and wanting a clarification, but rather a condescending comment about how they’re being “irrational” (and specifically, more irrational than whites). same comment often gets made about women (and especially Muslim women)

      1. I’m a woman and I frquently find myself asking why other women identify with the religion(s) of the oppresser…

        But then again, I almost never wonder why people of colour identify with the religion of the oppresser because I just accept that the civil rights movement in the United States revolved around the church, and the above reasons listed in this article.

        However, when I read about Malcolm X rejecting Christianity because it was the religion of the oppresser, and then trading it for Islam, I have to admit, I was slightly baffled all over again. But not baffled enough to actually ask #4, because I’m assuming that if I was determined enough to find out, there would be an obvious historical reason for the swap.

  10. 16

    b. The white salespeople who follow them around in stores or the host/hostess who seats them and their families in the back of restaurants

    I had a taste of this about 40 years ago. I had been avoiding credit cards, and usually paid by check. When I was buying something at a large department store, I was given an unusually hard time in having the check approved. I had never previously had problems at that store.

    It was obvious why. They sales clerk was black, and the store apparently didn’t have the guts to tell her that she was only supposed to give black customers a hard time. That was the double standard in effect at that time, and there is still plenty of evidence of a double standard.

  11. 18

    Damn, I kind of like “we are all Africans”. Though this does make me think about how very different it is to point out that race is a social construct, and to pretend that race is meaningless. It’s not easy to get that point across; I suspect it might be because bigots like to claim biological essentialism?

  12. 19

    4. I don’t understand why black people identify with the religion of the oppressor

    Quoting Ed Brayton

    I’m always a bit baffled by the existence of black Mormons. The history of racism in the LDS church is clear and obvious, yet some look past it.

    Is this an example of something we shouldn’t be saying?

    1. 19.1

      There are actually a fair amount of accounts from black mormons (now and pre-1978) of why they joined. Brayton doesn’t have to wonder, he could look into it.

      I don’t think anyone is saying it isn’t okay to wonder about why someone would join a faith, but the people saying those things about marginalized groups typically don’t have a genuine interest. You can see a distinct difference in the way that “why would someone join a faith?” is treated vs “why would black people join a faith?” or “why would women join a faith?”. The people wondering could look into it if they were so interested, or listen to the responses they get, but they mostly are asking so that they condemn the people who join for being especially foolish in light of their marginalized status.

  13. 21

    BTW, “we are all Africans” probably works differently in Australia, where hardly anybody is actually recently African by descent. Except for some immigrants and some Somali and Ethiopian refugees, and it would obviously be bad to say it to them (or anyone) as a denial of racism.

  14. 22

    Hi Sikivu,

    PZ Myers just referred me to your blog.

    I posted on his thread about ways to get “black and brown intellectual leaders” into the “movement”.

    After disagreeing about the need to identify people by race and then attempt to get the “right” number of “racial” people into leadership positions he seemed keen on my posting here.

    Have you read his post and the comments?

  15. 24

    It seems that you are more interested in hijacking the atheist “movement” into some sort of leftist “social justice” league than attracting more “non whites” to its cause.

    Your list reads like it could have been written by Marxist theist, and self described “prophet” Cornel West.

    Good luck with that.

    1. 24.1

      There is a huge stylistic difference between what you said here and what you were saying at Pharyngula, and it’s not accidental. Why would anyone want to engage with you, myself included?

  16. 25

    Some of these statements are true but woefully inadequate. Yes the laws have improved. That’s step 1 of a long process. We’ve taken one baby step towards equality and yet some people want to stop there.

    Scientifically, race is a meaningless term. I believe that that is an important point to make but race is still a very important word socially.

    I don’t see color is pure nonsense. Everyone in the U.S. sees color. I’m working on seeing the color and not letting it affect my decisions. Do I always succeed, probably not but at least I recognize the cultural prejudice inherent in being an American. Prejudice is so ingrained in American society that it can only realistically be reduced.

  17. 27

    I said your ideas were very similar to those of Cornel West not that you were Cornel West.

    Your list reads like a litany of angry political complaints. You attended a conference about Moving Secularism Forward but you seem to have expected the attendees to be aligned with your ideological goals.

    1. 27.2

      Yes, and being the colorblind beneficiary of institutional racism and white supremacy (i.e., hand-outs and affirmative action for white people) means not having to give a fuck about any of the unearned advantages conferred upon “bootstrapping” whites by the criminal justice system, mortgage lenders, K-12 education, etc. Clearly that isn’t political but just the natural order of things.

    1. 28.1

      “insults”? lol

      the moment you say something that is identifiable as a distinct idea rather than sounding as if it came from the libertarian quote generator, I shall present you with constructive criticism. until then, I shall simply amuse myself at your expense

  18. 33

    Good article. I’m not too sure what to make of point #1 though. It seems to me to be that educated non bigoted people shouldn’t make the valid point that race is biologically irrelevant because other people act like bigoted assholes?

    1. 33.1

      It’s one thing to state that race is not a coherent biological category to people who are acting like it is a hard line carved in cytoplasmic stone. (See: list of A-E)

      It’s quite another matter to imply that race is not a sociologically significant category to people who frequently have to deal with being on the short end of the sociological stick. (See: people who want to bring more discussion of social justice issues into the secular movement.)

  19. 34

    2. I don’t see color

    Stephen Colbert has a great running gag where he uses that line and then puts up a picture of his “black friend”. It perfectly illustrates the utter cluelessness some of us white dudes have on this issue.

  20. 35

    Thank you – this was helpful to me personally as someone who is trying to excavate his own privilege. Do you think it might be valuable to develop some sort of explicitly humanist anti-racist group (if one doesn’t exist already)? I know I would value something like that very much.

    1. 36.1

      Are you aware you just expressed compassion, or a reasonable facsimile?! And after that doctor said human emotion was all but impossible for you!

      I’m on the phone with your parents! We’re crying tears of joy! They’ve never been so proud!

  21. 37

    Writing this post answered my own questions, which is wonderful. I wanted to ask the “would I be welcome or would I be intruding” question about participation in humanist groups for people of color. (Just what every black skeptic blogger probably wants – a white person asking for permission. Consider the question completely withdrawn. I’ll be a damn grown up and solve this myself.)

    Anyway, I grew up in and have lived and worked for most of my life in majority African American middle class suburban communities. I’m white (actually I’m pretty sure I’m mixed, but I didn’t know that until I was in my 30s, so I self-identify as white). I’m also fairly uncomfortable in totally white surroundings – something that other white friends who’ve grown up in this community have also reported. I tend to get a “you live WHERE?” response from folks who live in whiter suburbs, to be very aware of the fact that traffic from my community doesn’t get reported on the local public radio station, that there aren’t upscale stores and chain restaurants in my area (we didn’t have Starbucks until about 10 years ago – as if black people didn’t drink coffee? WTF?) As a citizen and a nature educator, I also deal on a daily basis with the astonishing political and cultural power of African American religious leaders, from the proclamations about gay marriage to having a kid text his family to come pick him up out of summer camp because I talked about evolution and refused to accept “God did it” as a correct answer for why frogs might exhibit protective coloration…

    So I would very much like to join AAH, but haven’t done so because I don’t want to invade someone else’s safe humanist space. Which is completely stupid, so I’m going to attend an upcoming AAH meetup in my community and if the members there don’t want me there, they can say something. And if everything works out fine, which is most likely, I’ll have found a place where I can feel more comfortable and work on humanist issues of concern to my particular real-life community.

  22. 38

    Hey Ms. Hutchinson,

    I see you have “cleansed” my, and Alex Martin’s, most recent comments. No actual response?

    Yes, you can control speech here in Sikivu World but fortunately the constitution will allow us to expose your irrational and hateful nonsense out in the real world.

    Maybe we can talk like adults at an upcoming atheist convention. You don’t seem to want a “dialogue” here so I’ll be moving on.

    As we say in Ethiopia, ciao!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *