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PR Representative Brings Racism to Skepticon 8

Skepticon, the annual atheist convention, is taking place this weekend in Springfield, MO. Skepticon tends to be one of the more social-justice friendly atheist events, so I was a bit surprised when I heard that Danielle Muscato was organizing a segment about the recent events at the University of Missouri. The last-minute slot was scheduled to be a Q&A with Mark Schierbecker, an officer for MU SASHA, and the person responsible for trying to derail a conversation about racism into one about free speech.

There’s a significant number of reasons to be wary of letting Muscato organize such a panel. Danielle was doing pro bono Public Relations work for Mark Schierbecker, which makes the whole thing stink of opportunism. Additionally, not a single person of color or even allied protestor involved in the events at Mizzou would agree to be on stage with Schierbecker.

Needless to say, it did not go well. Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers writes:

Right away, a problem: no black students were on the stage. No one was representing any other side of the story, and there was no plan to let anyone else speak. It was a disaster of a one-sided event.

I tried to listen, but I gave up when Muscato asked a ridiculous question: “Are you a racist?” Apparently, the purpose of this event wasn’t to actually address the issue of racism, but to make sure the white man with a camera got a chance to rehabilitate himself.

Shortly after the event, Muscato resigned as Schierbecker’s pro bono publicist, posting the following to her public Facebook page:

On stage, I attempted to give Mark several chances to clarify his apparently racist remarks as not racist, but in my opinion, I was unsuccessful. I no longer wish to be associated with him in a representative way. I deeply apologize to everyone present, and to the Skepticon organizers, and to anyone else who may see footage of this online later. Mark has a lot of white privilege to address. He acknowledges this. He should not have been given a platform at Skepticon to say these things, especially at the expense of discussion about the deeper and more systemic issue of racism, which is being pushed even further to the wayside because of my actions.

I want to acknowledge publicly that I made a mistake in hosting this session. I apologize and take responsibility for it. This should not have gone forward without #ConcernedStudent1950 voices.

Schierbecker for his part, seems to only be upset that he got caught being racist. I’m also told by friends at Skepticon that the organizers have a response forthcoming – I hope that they take accountability for not vetting speakers better.

As far as Muscato is concerned, I’m glad to hear that she is sorry for her hand in what happened at Skepticon today. I truly hope this isn’t another one of her poor attempts at PR spin. But given how many people tried to tell her this was a bad idea, I think the fact that she didn’t listen to those people deserves accountability. She gave someone who is openly antagonistic to social justice a platform to speak on racism (someone with a history of being wrong on this topic). That deserves accountability.

I’m glad she’s sorry, but I’m not really ok with that just being the end of it. Because when white people fuck up, the narrative is that it’s a learning experience, they were just “too trusting” and everyone moves on. When black people are even perceived to make mistakes, they are thrown from their desks at school, shot, assaulted at a pool party, and sent death threats.

Maybe at some point we as a society should find some sort of middle ground between those two extremes and hold all people to those same standards of accountability.

Update: Skepticon has released a statement taking full accountability for not doing a better job vetting the Q&A.

Featured Image by NonOrganical.

Courtney Caldwell

Courtney Caldwell

Courtney Caldwell is an intersectional feminist. Her talents include sweary rants, and clogging your social media with pictures of her dogs (and occasionally her begrudging cat). She's also a political nerd, whose far-left tendencies are a little out of place in the deep red Texas.

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16 Comments

  1. November 14, 2015 at 9:12 pm —

    That video!!! I can’t handle it. I can’t handle the tears. Wow. WOW. He was upset at being asked if he was a racist. That’s what they in the PR world call “a softball.” JFC.

  2. November 14, 2015 at 9:50 pm —

    She’s sorry?

    If she’s a “PR pro” she should be really embarrassed as well.
    Sorry is OK…but why the hell doesn’t she know better?

    People should know better at this time in history.

  3. November 14, 2015 at 11:18 pm —

    I’ve been looking everywhere but I can’t seem to find the actual details, just people talking about how terrible it was. What was the racist thing he said?

  4. November 15, 2015 at 9:18 am —

    First, does anyone know what racist remarks he made?

    Second, Schierbecker posts video of UM faculty denying him and another student journalist access to what is arguably the biggest news story about race relations issues in MO since the Michael Brown shooting, and HE’S the one responsible for derailing the conversation?

    I get it, no victim blaming around here, unless the “victim” has a message you don’t like…

    • November 15, 2015 at 12:47 pm —

      There are two stories here. There’s the history of blatant racism at the school and the refusal of the administration to do anything about it. And there’s a single incident in which a faculty member denied a white student access to a public area.

      It’s fine to talk about both, but maybe a whole lot more time and energy should be spent on the one which lasted a lot longer and which affected more people. Trying to focus on the singular event (for which the faculty member has apologized and resigned a position over) is derailing from the larger event.

      • November 16, 2015 at 11:18 am —

        You know, a couple years back Dawkins said something about “Muslima” in response to Rebecca’s recounting an incident in an elevator. Dawkins was wrong then, and you are wrong now. Just because one kind of wrong affects more people doesn’t mean another kind of wrong should be disregarded. The internet has plenty of room to discuss BOTH kinds of wrong.

        I don’t believe Shierbecker went to film the protest with the intention of derailing the discussion. If anyone has evidence to the contrary I’d sure like to see it.

  5. November 15, 2015 at 10:54 am —

    Slight correction. The protests took place at the University of Missouri, not Missouri State. Missouri State is in Springfield, MO, so I understand why there might be confusion.

    I finally saw the video, and I agree with the protestors, They reserved that space, and for the time allowed, they could decide who go in and who couldn’t. The reporter could have interviewed people outside the circle, or spoken to other student leaders and faculty.

    If a reporter walked on the football field in the middle of a game, the “this is university property and I have free speech” argument would be laughed at.

  6. November 15, 2015 at 1:20 pm —

    I have kind of an open ended question that’s only tenuously related to this post, but I hope this might be a suitable place to ask it.

    I’ve been calling myself a skeptic for more than ten years, after having been raised as a very fundamentalist Christian. I’ve been an imperfect-but-trying intersectional feminist since more recently (in part thanks to Rebecca Watson’s influence).

    My girlfriend is a very passionate feminist/progressive as well, and although she’s an atheist and generally agrees with me about topics related to skepticism, she feels a lot of ill will towards the skeptical community — understandably, in my opinion — due to its cultural dominance by white male libertarians, Islamophobes, and anti-social-justice sentiments in general.

    This leads to heated arguments sometimes — for example, recently, when a skeptic page I had been following on Facebook posted a very “free-speechy” commentary re: the UM protests. It’s in these moments that she pressures me on why I insist on counting myself as part of a movement and a community that’s often so unabashedly oppressive. The best I can seem to come up with in response is #notallskeptics, pointing to folks like PZ Meyers and Rebecca Watson, but that seems like a pretty thin argument.

    As a notable community of skeptico-feminists, I’d love to hear your perspective. How would you defend your identity as a skeptic to someone deeply concerned about the problematic aspects of skeptical culture? Why do you feel it’s important to wear that label, in spite of the fact that some of our most notable contemporary figureheads are people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Michael Shermer?

    • November 15, 2015 at 1:40 pm —

      How would you defend your identity as a skeptic to someone deeply concerned about the problematic aspects of skeptical culture?

      Speaking for myself, I don’t. That is I don’t identify with the atheist and skeptics community even if I am an atheist and a skeptic. In the same way I’m a feminist, but don’t identify or agree with all branches of feminism.

    • November 15, 2015 at 1:44 pm —

      I should first point out that of course, I don’t speak for all of Skepchick, only for myself. But the short answer to “Why do you feel it’s important to wear [the skeptic] label?” is “I don’t.”

      I don’t actually identify as a skeptic at all, nor do I think that label is particularly important (specifically because of the people who have hijacked it). What’s important to me is that people practice skepticism as they go through the world, regardless of what identity banner they align under. It’s not about putting on the skeptic label and attempting to convince people that’s a Good Thing (despite the notable people you mentioned doing their best to prove otherwise). It’s about using sound judgment when making decisions about the issues we face as a society. And you don’t have to wear the label to do that.

      I suppose my question back to you would be, why do you feel a need to defend the label? If you and your girlfriend generally agree on the actual issues, is the defense of the label itself that important? I identify as a Buddhist, but my husband does not. He agrees with many Buddhist practices and philosophies, and we go to temple together, but he does not label himself a Buddhist. And I’m fine with that, because identity is a funny thing and I feel no need to make others align to my identities.

      I would be careful about being too overzealous in your defense of the label, especially when it sounds like you are generally aligned on the issues. I would also be wary of trying to force the label onto your girlfriend, simply because she agrees with many of the tenets. That probably isn’t what you’re doing, but sometimes an overzealous defense of an identity can come across that way.

      Hope that helps!

  7. November 15, 2015 at 5:57 pm —

    I didn’t see anything particularly racist in that video. It looks to me like Danielle Muscato jumped in to profit from her “friend’s” sudden status, organized a panel where she did most of the talking, saw some people react negatively to the panel, then drop her “friend” and call him a racist without any justification.

  8. November 17, 2015 at 7:09 pm —

    I get that some people don’t really care about Schierbecker’s narrative. It’s just a small part of the Missouri story. As is always the case, partisan media look for whatever furthers their cause, and rightwing outlets seized on Schierbecker’s treatment and video, and used it to paint the Missouri protests in a bad light.

    None of that is Schierbecker’s fault.

    Those who challenged him during the Q&A, and those who challenge him in articles like this one, have refrained from attacking his case or his rights, and instead attack him for his privilege and whiteness. Two more things that aren’t his fault.

    Scheirbecker isn’t guilty of racism in this instance, he’s guilty of furthering a story that progressives would rather not hear at the moment. Progressives can and should further their own narratives, but shaming this guy for telling his narrative is wrong. Some of us do want to talk about the culture of free speech. Any progressive that wants to add to the conversation is welcome. Just don’t try to silence us. Your efforts will only lead to more media attention anyway. By trying to shame Schriebecker, you aredoing the very same thing that you accuse of him:- you’ve drawn attention away from the debate on racism and here we are, debating free speech again..

    • November 19, 2015 at 3:13 am —

      If I’m not totally misunderstanding your argument, you’re saying we shouldn’t feed the trolls because that deflects attention away from the troll’s derailment to the fact that the trolls are engaged in derailing.

      Whack! Whack! No, my irony meter is still broken. Maybe it needs a new battery?

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