Moving Social Justice: An Interview With Sikivu Hutchinson

As marginalized and minority voices in the United States seek to bring attention to social justice-oriented causes, one of many groups joining that fight are humanists & atheists. But despite a continued push for more diverse voices within the movement, mainstream & organized atheism/humanism continues to be represented predominately by white men. While progress has been made within the past few years, the current landscape still leaves much to be desired. That’s why I was excited to hear about the first ever Moving Social Justice conference, started by People of Color Beyond Faith to bring the attention of atheists/humanists to issues of race in the United States.

I recently reached out to Sikivu Hutchinson, founder of the Black Skeptics Group, and board member for People of Color Beyond Faith, to discuss the importance of discussing these issues in humanist circles. If you’re interested in hearing more of what Hutchinson and other people of color in our community have to say (and you should be), the conference will be held on October 11th and 12th at CFI-West in Los Angeles. Tickets can be purchased here.

Was there a particular instance that spurred this conference into existence? Or was it more an awareness of a recurring need?

Last year, the Black Skeptics Group, a 501c3 organization, was the first atheist organization to address educational inequity in communities of color with our First in the Family Humanist scholarship for undocumented, foster care, homeless and LGBTQ students.  Over the past three years we’ve also sponsored forums on culturally relevant STEM education, prison-pipelining, safe spaces for LGBTQ youth and gender justice to highlight the challenges confronting youth of color in under-resourced high poverty schools.  Since our founding in 2010, we’ve collaborated with faith organizations, schools and nonprofits to amplify the connection between humanism, anti-racism and social justice. Yet neither organized atheism nor humanism have ever addressed social, economic, gender and racial justice from the perspective of communities of color. These issues don’t have any traction in mainstream atheism/humanism because white people do not face hypersegregation, educational apartheid, mass incarceration and police terrorism in their communities. The conference is being coordinated by the People of Color Beyond Faith network board which consists of myself, Kimberly Veal, Raina Rhoades and Donald Wright.

I’m glad that the school to prison pipeline starting to be discussed in humanist circles, and specifically at this conference. People have tried to argue that issues such as the school to prison pipeline aren’t explicitly humanist issues – what would you say to them?

By Robert Singer
Image by Robert Singer

These are humanist issues because the majority of the juvenile prison population is black and Latino and these young people are disproportionately suspended, expelled and pushed out of schools that deem them to be less intellectually qualified to succeed in college and professional careers. As I’ve argued many times, the lack of equitable access to culturally responsive instruction, curricula and leadership opportunities in schools of color contributes to youth mass incarceration. Humanists claim to care about global human rights yet there is no critical consciousness about the human rights crisis of mass incarceration in this country whereby the U.S. is the most prolific jailer in the world. Liberal/progressive faith organizations and churches of color get this because they are often called on to provide re-entry services (i.e., jobs, training, housing, etc) to juvenile ex-offenders in the absence of nonprofit, government and secular resources. This particular panel will feature activists from organizations like the Youth Justice Coalition and the Beat Within that are all involved in providing leadership development for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated youth.

Have you experienced any major pushback or harassment because of planning this conference, outside of what women (and more specifically women of color) generally face in the atheist community?

I and others always get pushback because anything that falls outside of the accepted terrain of straight white male cis/academic science n’ reason besotted myopia is deemed other and deviant. I get overtly racist comments all the time at public appearances and on my blogs from atheists and believers alike smearing me for being a race-card playing black nationalist from a culture of welfare queen savages. It comes with the territory.

By  Vinoth Chandar
Image by Vinoth Chandar

One of the topics being discussed at the conference is homophobia and transphobia within the black church. Have you found any interfaith programs willing to work alongside humanists on that issue? Do you think interfaith activism is potentially useful for humanists?

Yes there are interfaith programs that are receptive. Humanism in the U.S. is a white-dominated movement that is not explicitly opposed to the major issues of institutional racism and white supremacy that impact all people of color regardless of their belief systems. The vast majority of people of color in the U.S. are religious or religiously identified because, again, these are the most visible and active institutions in our communities. Hence atheists and humanists of color cannot do viable community work without engaging proactively with humanistic religious and interfaith organizations.

One of the panels on the schedule is “Feminism(s) of Color: Beyond #solidarityisforwhitewomen.” Without giving too much away, what can people do to make positive change in light of the discussions that #solidarityisforwhitewomen brought about?

I’m assuming you mean what can white women do to make positive change? This panel will explicitly push back against mainstream America’s identification of white women and white women’s issues as the face and agenda of feminism—a deficit that really emerges from racial schisms in 19th century first wave feminism which took its cue from the abolitionist movement. Recently, a middle aged African American woman here in Los Angeles was brutally beaten by a white California Highway Patrol officer. The attack was captured on video and went viral. To my knowledge not a single mainstream white feminist organization issued a statement condemning the beating and the institutionalization of excessive force in communities of color. Imagine if this had happened to a white “Mama June”-type–there would have been mass insurrection in Middle America. This kind of silence underscores the deep divide within contemporary feminism. As a child the first protest I ever attended was after a black woman named Eulia Love was murdered in cold blood at her home by the LAPD. That’s how my feminism was forged. Similarly, the long struggle that women of color have waged for reproductive justice (which does not frame “choice” and birth control access in a vacuum separate and apart from issues of economic equity, criminalization and respectability politics) has never been fully acknowledged nor appreciated by mainstream white feminist “pro-choice” activists. The panel is multigenerational and will feature Los Angeles feminist of color activists and organizers who live and practice “intersectionality” in the work they do with local communities. Participants include moderator Andrea Plaid of The Feminist Wire, Nourbese Flint of Black Women for Wellness, Yolanda Alaniz of the socialist organization Radical Women, undocumented activist Marlene Montanez and Heina Dadabhoy of FTB. It will take on the narrow gender politics of traditional feminism and examine why the word is problematic for many women of color and how we can forge a humanistic feminist of color agenda.

To put it bluntly: organized atheism has a race problem. From lack of diversity, to blatantly ignoring race issues, to general “colorblind” ignorance, we have a long way to go. Do you think things have progressed over the past few years? What do you think are the “next steps,” so to speak? 

Image by  Daniel Lobo
Image by Daniel Lobo

One of our panels will address racism in the atheist movement and the myth of colorblindness. Insofar as there are now more atheists of color speaking out against white supremacy in the movement some progress has been made. However, tokenism and single issue fetishism still abound at most atheist confabs. There is only a lazy, half-hearted click-tivist effort to acknowledge, much less redress, how economic, racial and social injustice informs patterns of religious observance in communities of color. Unfortunately it still takes a Ferguson, Missouri to remind post-racialist white people (even the ones who consider themselves “allies”) that they benefit from race/class privilege on a daily basis. The atheist “universe” is nothing more than a microcosm of a broader national and global context in which institutional racism is discounted as a prevailing influence. The Moving Social Justice(MSJ) conference is based on the not-so-novel notion that you must coalition-build and include organizers and thinkers from across the religious/secular spectrum in order to seriously confront social inequality. Most of the progressive people of color I know–the ones who are on the frontlines fighting against police terrorism, educational apartheid, prison pipelining, environmental racism, homophobia and corporate control of our communities–are either religious or spiritual, live and work in intensely segregated neighborhoods and certainly don’t see a whitewashed ahistorical secular humanism detached from liberation struggle as any kind of magic bullet. White secular saviors don’t live in our neighborhoods, attend our schools or have to navigate the American nightmare of unrelenting downward mobility and titanic wealth gaps. As far as organized atheism is concerned, MSJ is a groundbreaking next step because it’s building on activist work that many of us are already doing across POC communities and making explicit connections to radical humanist traditions.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of the Black Skeptics Group and the Women’s Leadership Project.  She is the author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels (2011), Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (2013) and the forthcoming White Nights, Black Paradise, a novel based on Peoples Temple and the Jonestown Massacre.


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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  1. “People have tried to argue that issues such as the school to prison pipeline aren’t explicitly humanist issues …”

    I know there are people who think this way, but reading this was just such a WTF moment. How can the systemic destruction of human beings _not_ be a humanist issue? Is it because the people in the pipeline aren’t human? Or because humanism is about not caring about humans?

    If this sort of thing _isn’t_ a “humanist issue”, what is? Does something have to be fully devoid (or sterilized) of all human content before it becomes a proper subject for “humanism” to consider? If so, as far as I’m concerned, “humanism” is worse than Catholicism. At least Catholics _say_ they’re concerned about what happens to people.

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