I want to talk about a few incidents that happened earlier this month, at the American Atheists convention in Memphis. I’ll explain why they’re relevant in a moment.
* I was sitting in the hotel bar, talking with a friend and colleague who’s African-American. A man, white, sat down with us, joined the conversation — and in about five minutes, he started telling us, entirely unsolicited and out of the blue, about a time he went to a Halloween party in blackface. He defended this at some length — in the face of my friend clearly being appalled and uncomfortable, in the face of my own obviously appalled expression, and in the face of me explaining that this was seriously not okay and why.* He said that that since black performers wear whiteface, white people should be able to wear blackface, it’s totally the same thing, and besides it’s not like he was dressed as someone from a minstrel show, he was dressed as a specific black person (Michael Vick), so it was okay.
I’ll say that again: Blackface. A white guy sat down with a black colleague and me, and out of nowhere, said that he’s done blackface, and explained why he thinks it was fine and why criticism of it is unfair.
It turned out, by the way, that more than one person had already talked with him about this — including my friend, who had explained to him in the past how and why many African-Americans find blackface dehumanizing and degrading. Despite that, he still thought blackface was okay — and he still thought it was okay to casually mention it at a convention social event, with someone he had never before met, and with an African-American person who had already told him it wasn’t okay. To be fair, he quasi-apologized when he left, saying he was sorry he had upset me, and acknowledging that it was “a touchy subject.” He still, apparently, remained oblivious to the notion that since this is a “touchy” subject, perhaps he ought instead to choose one of the 85,000,000,000 other possible Halloween costumes available to him, and perhaps he ought not to casually mention it at a public social event with one person who’s the subject of this “touchiness” and another person he’s just met. He also apparently remained oblivious to the fact that I wasn’t the one he should apologize to.
(BTW, if you don’t understand why white people wearing blackface is profoundly messed-up, or why black people doing whiteface is not the same as white people doing blackface, read this, and this, and this and
this and this, and this, and this, and this. If you still don’t understand, piss off.)
* Moving on to some other incidents: Heina Dadabhoy — blogger on this network, and writer/ speaker on (among other things) their experiences as a Muslim and an ex-Muslim — had more than one person come up to them at the conference and explain what being a Muslim means and what Islam is. (And yes — these folks did this knowing that Heina’s an ex-Muslim.) This included one man who told Heina that true Islam was all about conquest, and that if Heina had never believed this, they hadn’t been a true Muslim. He did this, ironically, after the workshop Heina co-hosted on intersectionality.
* Rebecca Hensler, founder and co-moderator of Grief Beyond Belief, got into a Twitter argument with Pro-Life Humanists representative Kristine Kruszelnicki, who was tableing at the convention. (Yes, the Pro-Life Humanists had a table at the convention. It’s hard to imagine that American Atheists would give space in their exhibit hall to an organization called Humanists for Jim Crow, or Humanists Against Gay Rights. But an organization dedicated to the eradication of the bodily autonomy of anyone with a working uterus — they were given a table.) When Hensler questioned how Kruszelnicki could claim “common ground” with Vyckie Garrison — a mother of seven, formerly in the Quiverfull movement, now an atheist activist and winner of American Atheists’ 2014 Atheist of the Year award — and at the same time collaborate with the movement backing crisis pregnancy centers, Kruszelnicki replied that the crisis pregnancy centers are, quote, “far from perfect,” but that they “work w them to help improve them.”
* Heina Dadabhoy told someone at the convention that the more credible threats to their personal safety come from within their own community — feminist-hating atheists in the US — rather than from random Muslims overseas. He then said that he, himself, was an anti-feminist — but it was okay, he would personally protect Heina from other anti-feminists who wanted to physically harm them.
How is all this relevant to American Atheists, and the issue of courting conservative atheists?
Here’s why it’s relevant:
Courting conservative atheists is saying, “Incidents like this are fine with us.”
Actually, it’s worse than that. Courting conservative atheists is saying, “Incidents like this are fine with us — and it’s fine with us if they happen more often, in ways that are even uglier.”
To be very clear: I’m not saying these incidents were representative of the overall tone of the convention. And I’m not saying American Atheists actually wants racist, sexist, homophobic, or other marginalizing incidents at their conferences. Courting conservative atheists is not saying, “We want incidents like this to happen.” It’s saying, “We’re okay if incidents like this happen.” It’s saying, “We are deliberately courting people, and are seeking to swell our ranks with people, who do crummy things like this and worse.” It’s saying, “We don’t like incidents like this — but there’s a cost/benefit analysis here, and we’ve decided that this is an acceptable cost.”
The reality is that conservatives are more likely to say and do things that are racist, sexist and even misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, ableist, ageist, and more. Liberals and moderates say and do these things as well, of course — I’d guess that at least some of the people involved in some of these incidents would describe themselves as liberal or moderate — but conservatives do it more. They’re more likely to say and do these things repeatedly, persistently, unapologetically, even proudly. American conservatism is deeply racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. American conservatism is — to give just a handful of examples — perpetuating racist police policies and the racist drug war, dragging back reproductive rights (including birth control access as well as abortion), pushing students into perpetual debt, turning disability support into a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, making poverty an inescapable hamster-wheel so rich people can become obscenely super-rich, opposing not only same-sex marriage but all LGBT rights at every turn. And they’re doing it by (among other strategies) targeting these marginalized people with hatred, fear, and contempt.
(And don’t come at me with “fiscally conservative, socially liberal.” That’s bullshit. I’m working on a separate piece about the nineteen thousand reasons it’s bullshit, but in a nutshell: You can’t separate fiscal policy from social policy, they’re deeply intertwined, and conservative fiscal policy is deeply racist, sexist, ableist, and otherwise oppressive. And even if “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” could theoretically be reconciled, the reality is that in practice, American conservatism is not reconciling them. American conservatism is fueling racial hatred, sexist bile, sexual fear-mongering of LGBT people, and more, to perpetuate (among other things) a retrograde platform that impoverishes and disempowers hundreds of millions of Americans in order to entrench the power and wealth of a handful of grotesquely rich and powerful people.)
If American Atheists is successful in courting conservative atheists, and if more conservative atheists start coming to our conventions and joining our local organizations, then incidents like the ones I described are going to happen more. They’re going to happen more at conferences, in local community groups, in online forums — anywhere our community gathers.
You can have all the harassment policies and codes of conduct you want. You can say in your conference program and your conference website that you prohibit “harassment related to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, age, religion.” Those are good things, and many of us in this community fought hard for them. But if you’re deliberately courting people who are seriously retrograde on these issues, the effect of that policy is going to be limited at best. At best, it puts marginalized people attending your events in a position where we’re coping with a barrage of microaggressions; a position where we have to decide which microaggressions rise to the level of a policy violation, and whether we even have the energy to deal with reporting them. At best, it sends mixed signals: your code of conduct says one thing, but your dog-whistle to conservatives says another, and the people your policy is supposedly there to protect are not going to trust you to take action. At worst, it sends a signal that’s crystal clear: We don’t want to be perceived as racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. — but we’re going out of our way to court members who are all those things.
You can’t be welcoming to ex-Muslim atheists, and also be welcoming to atheists who think all Muslims are terrorists and Islam is inherently violent in a way other religions aren’t — or to atheists who have never been Muslims and are not Islamic scholars, but who still patronizingly explain Islam to the people who have lived it.
You can’t be welcoming to women atheists, and also be welcoming to atheists who think women are nothing but sperm receptacles and that it’s okay to target feminists with death threats — or to atheists who think women** don’t have the basic human right to bodily autonomy, and should be required to non-consensually donate their organs. And you can’t be welcoming to women atheists, and also be welcoming to atheists who think it’s okay to identify with the hateful anti-feminist movement, since they, personally, promise to protect women from the physical harm being threatened by that movement.
You can’t be welcoming to African-American atheists, and also be welcoming to atheists who think African-Americans are lazy and ignorant and controlled by their emotions — or to atheists who think it’s okay to show up at a Halloween party in blackface.
Stop trying. You’re alienating the wrong people. If only for purely practical reasons: You’re alienating the millions of female atheists, African-American atheists, LGBT atheists, Latino/ Hispanic atheists, Asian-American atheists — for the purposes of (a) courting a handful of conservative atheists (the Secular Census shows that self-identified seculars are overwhelmingly liberal) and (b) getting into the news cycle for a day or two. And let’s not forget the ethical reasons: You’re alienating people who have already been treated like aliens for most of their/our lives, who are often in much greater need of atheist community support than their more privileged counterparts, and many of whom already mistrust the atheist community and see it as having nothing to do with them. You’re doing this to court people whose values, as revealed by their politics, are toxic and vile.
Knock it off.
* My friend has asked to not be cited by name, so I’m respecting their wishes. Because of this, I’m also not naming the blackface guy.
** To be more precise, cisgender women and transgender men.
Crisis Pregnancy Center callout photo via exposingfakeclinics.tumblr.com.