Skepticism

Let’s talk about racism.

A link popped up in my twitter feed today to a fairly in depth article by Tim Wise exploring the often overlooked ways racism can manifest in progressive and liberal movements. It struck me that this could speak directly to skeptical groups as well. If we are indeed concerned with fostering a diverse community, which will enable us to reach a broader base, these are important points to consider as we strategize and plan our outreach.

Below are several excerpts I found to be particularly salient to what we’re about here at Skepchick. I would, however, encourage our audience to take the time to read the article in full.

On the issue of movement demographics:

In short, while progressive formations should almost instinctively recoil from overwhelming whiteness — since it likely signals serious failings in coalition-building, strategy and tactics, as well as utter obliviousness to the way in which we’re going about our business and base-building — liberal-left colorblindness trades this critical introspection for a bland and dispassionate nonchalance. “Oh well,” some will say, “We put up signs and sent out e-mails, and we can’t control who comes to the meetings/rallies/protests and who doesn’t.” End of story, end of problem.
So in the case of progressive organizing, colorblindness means we’ll ignore the obvious questions we should be asking when trying to ensure a more representative and diverse movement for change. Namely, questions like: When are the organizing meetings being held and where? Are people of color in on the planning at the beginning, or merely added to the agenda after the fact, as speakers at the rally or some such thing? Are we organizing mostly online (which means we’ll miss a lot of folks of color who don’t have regular internet access), or really building relationships across physical lines of community? Are we speaking to the immediate concerns in communities of color, and linking these to whatever issue we’re organizing around?

Race as it relates to feminism:

Perhaps the classic example of how liberal-left activists can manifest white privilege is that of the white-dominated women’s movement. Although women of color have long engaged in feminist theorizing, activism and advocacy, the predominant strain of American feminism — and that which has been largely responsible for setting the political agenda for women’s issues for the past five decades — has been disproportionately white. As such, the way in which that part of the movement framed issues, and made their case to an oftentimes hostile public, reflected first and foremost the concerns of white (and, it should be noted, middle-class) women. Thus, to frame the fight for women’s liberation as a fight for the right to a career and to break free from the chains of domesticity (as was so central to the early feminist writings of women like Betty Friedan), presupposed that women were not currently working outside the home. But of course, most women of color in the United States had always worked outside the home (as well as in it) and so the struggle as articulated in books like The Feminine Mystique was implicitly white, and of little value to women of color whose lived realities were different. Even the notion of “sisterhood” so central to Second-Wave white feminism was largely exclusionary to women of color, who readily pointed out (and still do) how racism and white privilege limit the extent to which they have been treated as true sisters, or heard as members of the larger community of women.

On what we can do differently:

In other words, unless all of our organizing becomes antiracist in terms of outreach, messaging, strategizing, and implementation, whatever work we’re doing, around whatever important issue, will be for naught. Only by building coalitions that look inward at the way racism and white privilege may be operating within those formations, and that also look outward, at the way racism and privilege affect the issue around which we’re organizing (be that schools, health care, jobs, tax equity, the environment, LGBT rights, reproductive freedom, militarism or anything else), can we hope to beat back the forces of reaction against which we find ourselves arrayed. The other side has proven itself ready and willing to use racism to divide us. In response, we must commit to using antiracism as a force to unite.

I’m putting this out to our readers as a call for further discussion on the topic of race and skepticism. I don’t have much to add at this point, and look forward to participating in the ensuing conversation.

Tip o’ the feathered tri-corner to Kristjan Wager…yaaarrrrrrr…

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19 Comments

  1. I think this is a really important issue. I touched on it a few years ago when I started thinking about how white the humanist movement appears to be: http://oproject.wordpress.com/2007/10/01/black-history-month/

    And despite non-religious contributions to antiracism, antislavery in the past, humanists/skeptics tend to be quiet on these issues today. I think this could be because they are focussed on issues coming from the religious population (gender issues, education, sexual identity). I’m not sure that racism (in the UK at least, where I am) is really seen as a religious issue (even though some psychological studies have shown that people with rigid religious beliefs are more likely to be prejudiced).

    In fact racism has somewhat mutated into Islamophobia here and it seems hard to create a nonreligious/ secular narrative that can tackle this.

  2. Very good analysis. However I think we should add “Class” into the mix. For example first-wave feminism excluded working class women (who always worked and had their own money).

    And, for example how many people who read/post here have had the benefit of a further education? I’d estimate we’re in the majority by far.

    I think the writer is confusing “Race” and “Class”. Not all ruling class people are white.

  3. Taking some extra effort to invite, welcome, engage in conversation and make sure there’s an inviting and friendly atmosphere for people of color is not condescending or phony. Most skeptical events are already those things for the majority of us. I also think having more sensitivity concerning the issues many skeptical people of color have with religious family and friends. The Latin and African American community tends to be more religious and this can be a barrier when one often hears a lot ridicule directed at religious believers in skeptical circles.

    @russellsugden: agreed.

  4. The salient point I got from this article is that it’s appropriate and necessary to reach out to people of color through their existing organizations and neighborhoods. I feel like people avoid doing this out of a sense of cautious propriety, like it’s rude to overtly solicit support from people that aren’t your own race (or because they aren’t your own race). The outcome is whitewashing.

  5. Interesting article and good comments.
    Something I often think about is the potential for ‘layers’ of outreach that we can work on.

    For instance, 1. attracting a more diverse bunch of folks who share our views but who aren’t aware of the ‘movement’ for one reason or another; actually seeking out like-minded folks where we may not have expected to find them. 2. As @wicked-witch says, working with other organizations that may be sympathetic to our aims, even if they are not ‘Skeptical’ organizations so to speak (think science and education outreach, PTA groups, etc.) 3. General outreach, as in, ‘Hey, we exist and here’s what we’re about!’
    (And of course I’m not saying that these types of outreach aren’t already being used.)

  6. I always thought it was because people of color have better things to do than hang out with skeptics.
    That being said, maybe it is because folks ignore skeptical organizations that are not predominantly white. I sent links about this event and organization to PZ and it either escaped his attention or he chose not to publicize it: http://www.vancouversun.com/life/Astrology+skeptics+invite+swamis+prove+skill+prize/3347424/story.html
    I also tried sending it the Hemant Mehta, but his email would not accept the incoming message.
    It is kind of like a JREF prize, but was sponsored by an Indian group in BC. There is also an ongoing international challenge based out of India. It could be that skepticism is perceived to be mostly white because folks are blinded to these organizations.

  7. In fact, here’s the quote:

    And fourth, left activists often marginalize people of color by operating from a framework of extreme class reductionism, which holds that the “real” issue is class, not race, that “the only color that matters is green,” and that issues like racism are mere “identity politics,” which should take a back seat to promoting class-based universalism and programs to help working people. This reductionism, by ignoring the way that even middle class and affluent people of color face racism and color-based discrimination (and by presuming that low income folks of color and low income whites are equally oppressed, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary) reinforces white denial, privileges white perspectivism and dismisses the lived reality of people of color. Even more, as we’ll see, it ignores perhaps the most important political lesson regarding the interplay of race and class: namely, that the biggest reason why there is so little working class consciousness and unity in the Untied States (and thus, why class-based programs to uplift all in need are so much weaker here than in the rest of the industrialized world), is precisely because of racism and the way that white racism has been deliberately inculcated among white working folks. Only by confronting that directly (rather than sidestepping it as class reductionists seek to do) can we ever hope to build cross-racial, class based coalitions. In other words, for the policies favored by the class reductionist to work — be they social democrats or Marxists — or even to come into being, racism and white supremacy must be challenged directly.

  8. Reading that article brings back memories of activist groups I was involved with in college. The leadership said the same things about inclusion.

    Instead of trying to actually solve the problems, however, they tried to instill guilt into their followers as way to control them. Kind of like a secular version of original sin.

    So my advise to the skeptical movement is to acknowledge the problems of inclusion, and, more importantly, make a real effort to deal with those problems.

  9. This article espoused views I already held yet I still found myself wanting to disagree with it thanks to the introduction the purpose of which seemed to be to imply that anyone who disagreed with the argument that was to follow must themselves be a racist. That really bugged me and somewhat undercut the argument that directly confronting racism is the best political strategy. I think it would be interesting to read the research in this area but this stuff always goes over my head; too many variables that you can never possibly account for. Someone needs to simplify this down to physicist level.

    @russellsugden: Read the full article, to summarise he is saying class is a problem but racism is a problem too and can’t be adequately addressed purely by addressing class.

  10. How does having a majority in one group belonging to one race prove racism in of itself, no matter what the race?

    Both the Democratic and Republican parties are majority white parties. yet, there are most certainly racial and ethnic minorities in both parties, so you can still join either one if you are not of white European ancestry. Are either the Republican or Democratic parties racist or have an inherently racist agenda? Now in the past they did, but not today.

    Also, America is still a majority white European, country so you’d expect that most of the people in its two major political parties would be whites. Does the fact that America is still a majority white country prove that its a racist country? It may have been in the past but is it today? There are still some countries where you cannot become a citizen unless you have the right ancestry or you marry someone with the right ancestry, and than your children are not treated as full fledged members of the society. Aren’t those countries acting more racist than the United States is today, since you can become an American Citizen regardless of where you were born or what your ancestry is? Now add to that the fact that legally enforced racial segregation and state sanctioned race based slavery are a thing of the past here. Yes there is still racism in America, but its not what it once was.

  11. This was a fairly good article on the topic. Though it left out a sort of racism that I’ve seen fairly regularly. That is, white hating racism. I’ve heard many democrats and liberals decrying republicans and conservatives, not because of their ideological nonsense, but simply because they are white. This is still racism. If you find fault with someone simply because they have a different concentration of melanin in their skin, you’re racist.

    The article did make a good point about working to include everyone instead of just sitting around and going “Ohh well, they didn’t show up”. If you truly want equality amongst the human family, you need to reach out to everyone. Sadly, not everyone has the kind of access to the internet that we here obviously do. So this means doing leg work and talking to people. Sure, it means going out of the comfort zone for some, but if you really want some inclusiveness, you need to work for it.

    The whole thing of Liberals being racist isn’t really something new to me. The whole thing about saying stuff like “some of my best friends are black!” seemed so utterly contrived to me that it hurt. When confronted with the notion of being a racist, I generally retort with “some of my best friends are HUMAN BEINGS”. It’s pretty simple, we’re all human beings. We all dream, love, hurt, mourn, and hope for better days. Until we can learn to treat everyone else, with the same dignity and respect as we would have for ourselves, then we will not have progress as a society. In order to do this, we need to take a very sober look at ourselves in the mirror.

    I think some of the problem here lies in labels. We hear Liberal and we think things like progressive, antiracist, social projects, and the like. If we hear republican, we think neocon, racist, theist, and so on. But the problem with this is that labels are subjective things, that often get redefined as time passes. There was a time that Republican meant something completely different than it does now. This is one of the reasons I am hesitant about taking a political label. It’s just like saying you like a certain football team(and about as meaningful), you instantly gain certain friends and certain enemies. You do this all without even expressing your own world view. It’s a very absolutist way to look at things. Liberal/Democrat is good, Republican is bad. I think when people pick up the label of Liberal or Democrat, they feel like they’re instantly free from any racist tendencies. It’s akin to saying “I’m not racist, I voted for Obama”. As if saying it were a free pass, an exemption from questioning yourself.

    There’s a lot to be overcome. Some much of our society is geared toward destroying some and elevating others. This just shouldn’t be. That reminds me, while I’m ranting away like a mad man; I loathe the social image of womanhood that is projected onto young girls. I hate it with a passion undying. Every single time I see a Bratz Doll, I just want to burn it. Women have made tremendous strides in society, but yet young girls still get the worst stereotypes thrust at them. All of the scientific fields are still relatively male dominated. This isn’t because women lack some ability for it, but rather that the image society has of women is still very much antiquated. We need more Hypatias, more Marie Curies, more Ellie Arroways(she’s fictional yes, but I do so love her), and more Ann Druyans. Anytime we limit a portion of our population by one means or another, we’re essentially damaging our own progress. Our society becomes poorer for it.

    Well I should probably quit rambling on. I talk waaaay too much sometimes.

  12. @Damien: I don’t think the discussion of racism in the skeptical movement must necessarily be limited to the United States. The rest of the world is not majority white or European.
    I know the original article is discussing political parties in the US, but a lot of what it says can be applied to all of skepticism around the world.

  13. @k-rex:
    I agree. Though skepticism isn’t necessarily liberal opposition to racism flows naturally from skeptical thinking as it does from liberal thinking and it has identical problems with dealing with race issues. I’d say it’s directly applicable to the skeptical movement around the world.

    @Damien: You might want to read the first article in the series or even just the one linked above, it’s pretty thoroughly addressed.

  14. The comments on that blog are some of the most insane and genuinely hilarious that I have ever read on the whole of the internets. The “No wai! You have more privilege than me!!” dick measuring contests in particular were a real hoot. Additionally, the comments in response posted by Mr. Wise were especially….revealing. I have no argument with the main thrust of the piece here, which says that organizations like ours should reach out to minorities of all kinds. That’s a perfectly fine and worthwhile goal.

    But after reading several of this guy’s other pieces, I would take many of the things he says and the opinions he espouses, with a substantial measure of salt. He is clearly not a skeptic by any stretch of the definition and he obviously sees the world through a rather dogmatic and heavily jaundiced eye. He is a social commentator who profits from largely subjective, politically-laden opinion and sweeping assertion. In my view, this necessarily devalues the worth of a person’s insights substantially.

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