IMPORTANT NOTE: This post has a different comment policy than my standard one. It’s at the end of the post. Please read it and respect it. Thanks.
At the Secular Student Alliance conference earlier this month, the organizers did something really smart, something I’ve never seen before. At the lunch on Saturday, they had cards on the tables with discussion topics, topics that had been announced ahead of time in the conference packet — so you could pick which table to sit on, based on what you wanted to talk about. Not all the tables stuck to their topic… but ours did, and I’m really glad we did, and I want to report on the conversation.
I sat at the “Diversity — Minorities” table. And we had an excellent conversation. We talked about how, as difficult and painful as our community’s conversations about gender and sexism have been, at least we’ve been having them — in a way that we haven’t been, nearly as much, about race. The community has done a lot more work on gender diversity than we have on racial diversity, and we’re a lot further along in making practical progress. We talked at this lunch about some of the reasons this might be. (Some ideas floated: Our society is often racially segregated, and white people can ignore race in a way that men can’t ignore gender. Also, liberals and progressives often see race as a minefield, and are often scared to even talk about it for fear of starting a fight, opening old wounds, or saying something stupid.)
We talked about some of the obstacles to increasing racial diversity and making people of color feel more welcomed in the atheist movement. And we talked about what specific, practical action items people could take — individuals, local groups, national organizations, thought leaders, etc. — to improve this situation. I wanted to share that list, and talk about it, and solicit other ideas.
Here’s the list of action items we came up with:
* Speakers — invite more people of color as speakers, at conferences and for individual speaking events. (Here’s a list of prominent atheists of color, many of whom do public speaking. The list also includes organizations of atheists of color, some of whom have speaker’s bureaus or can put you in touch with speakers.)
* Don’t be afraid to talk about race. (This one is HUGE.)
* Do joint events with groups/ organizations of people of color. (Examples: speakers or discussions groups on the history of freethought among African-Americans, or the golden age of science in the Arab world.)
* Support appropriate events hosted by groups of people of color, such as service projects. Don’t just ask them to co-sponsor your events — ask them what events of theirs they’d like your support for.
* Don’t glom onto people of color when they show up at your group or event. (People of color sometimes say that, when they show up at all- or mostly-white atheist groups or events, they’re swarmed by overly friendly people who are SO DELIGHTED that a non-white person has shown up, in a way that’s overwhelming, and that’s clearly directed at their race. Don’t do this.)
* Don’t expect individual people of color to speak for their entire race.
* Listen to people of color — actively.
* Get your “Race and Racism 101” on Google or at the library. Don’t expect people of color who come to your group or event to bring you up to speed.
* If someone calls you on your stuff — apologize.
* If someone calls you on your stuff, and you don’t agree — don’t immediately get defensive. Think about it, ask questions, take some time before you respond. “I’m not sure I agree, but I thank you for bringing it up, I need to think about this” can be your best friend.
* Don’t assume people of color are religious.
* Co-protesting – show up at protests about racism, and about issues that are strongly affected by race, such as economic justice or the drug war.
COMMENT POLICY FOR THIS THREAD: This conversation is for people who already agree that increasing racial diversity is important to the atheist community and the atheist movement, and who think positive action should be taken to improve the situation, and who want to discuss how to go about that. If you want to debate this core proposition — if, for instance, you think the atheist movement should be entirely race-blind, and that paying any attention at all to race and racism is itself racist — this comment thread is not the place. Read these two pieces first: Getting It Right Early: Why Atheists Need to Act Now on Gender and Race, and Race, Gender, and Atheism, Part 2: What We Need To Do — And Why. Actually read them. If, after reading them, you still think we can and should ignore race and racial diversity, please feel free to debate that question on those posts. This is not the place for that debate. Attempts to derail this conversation, away from what the problems are and we can do about them and into whether this is even a problem and whether we should be doing anything, will be met with warnings, disemvoweling, banning, or any/all of the above. Thank you.