My comments on the American Atheists racefail; and their defenders

So you made a sign highlighting a pro-slavery line, with an old image of an African slave, to make an argument that African Americans should reject Chistianity because it supports their enslavement?

Well, isn’t that just fucking cute. I thought you knew that all Christians cherry-pick their bibles, since that book is so contradictory it’s absolutely impossible to follow all of it? And if you knew this, why the fuck would you think that African Americans would recognize that line as in any way relating to their Christianity? And as a consequence, why do you think they’ll consider you relevant to their lives, if you’re attacking something that isn’t part of their flavor of Christianity, while using the struggle of their ancestors as a rhetorical tool without any visible sign that you are also engaging with the struggles that are part of their everyday experience?

Let me explain:
Sure, many African Americans won’t care either way about this sign; some might even agree with the message, and that the message you meant to send was the one that’s being received (but those would have agreed with you before, so you’ve just wasted a fuckload of money to preach to the choir). But many don’t see it that way. Many members of the African American community don’t see their religion reflected in that quote. What they do see, however, is a billboard that ambiguously declares that slaves should obey their masters; one that could, in almost exactly the same design and wording, be run by a white supremacist organization as supporting black slavery, rather than repudiating religion. What they might also perceive is a stereotypically white organization using them as a rhetorical device, instead of seing them as real people: they won’t see atheist organizations helping their friends who got in trouble with the racist cops (the churches do that); they won’t see atheist organizations helping kids in neglected urban neighborhoods finish school (churches do that); they won’t see atheist organizations fighting voter-registration laws that disenfranchise them (churches do that); they won’t see atheist getting together to make sure members of their communities who have lost their homes find shelter (churches do that); but they will see atheists using the struggles of their ancestors for cheap point-scoring.
So, they will conclude that atheists are racist; that they are unconcerned with the actual lives and struggles and beliefs of African Americans, and instead just want to score rhetorical points.

Do you think that will convince the doubting and the closeted atheists to break their ties to the churches and join an atheist organization? really?

Oh, you say that’s not at all what you were trying to say with that billboard? That you didn’t mean any of what I just “read into” your billboard? Tough shit. Advertising (and that’s what you’re doing when you put up a billboard; you’re advertising yourself) is not about you. Why do you think companies shell out ridiculous amounts of money on customer-data? It’s because advertising is about your target audience, not about you. You want an effective message? You have to put in the bloody effort of researching what issues are perceived as relevant by that target audience; you have to make the effort to understand the cultural, historic, and socioeconomic context in which your message will appear, so that you can understand how to create one that will be read the way you want people to read it. Because it’s your fucking responsibility to make yourself understood. Because intent isn’t magic; not in any form of communication, but especially not in advertizing. If you don’t want to do that, if you’d rather whine about people misunderstanding and criticizing you than put in the required effort and research your target audience, then:

stay the fuck out of advertising, and stay away from demographics you are not part of, and thus lack any useful knowledge about.

**EDIT: and, in case this is unclear to some of the troglodytes who stumble upon this post: a failure to do the relevant research yet assuming that you can get your message across anyway is a manifestation of privilege (in this case, racial privilege); and the public recognition of and involvement with African Americans only when it’s rhetorically useful to score points against religion is just plain racist, because it erases them and reduces them to rhetorical devices; and because it ignores their perspectives by making an argument from a dominant (in this case, white) perspective even when the target audience is an oppressed minority (in this case, the African American community)**

**Post inspired by (and partially paraphrased from) this post by Sikivu Hutchinson, as well as the massive outbreak of stupid in this thread on Pharyngula**

12 comments on “My comments on the American Atheists racefail; and their defenders

  1. reytfox says:

    Yes.

  2. efogoto says:

    You nailed it here: “It’s because advertising is about your target audience, not about you.”

    A link in that Pharyngula thread shows that they’re doubling down on their dumbassitude: http://atheists.org/content/moving-next-project.

  3. Moggie says:

    This. And that’s the charitable interpretation. The alternative is worse: that African Americans weren’t the primary target of the ad, that it was aimed at non-racist white Christians, and that the feelings of African Americans were of secondary concern.

  4. Brownian says:

    Very nice takedown, Jadehawk.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    + 1

    And that’s the charitable interpretation. The alternative is worse: that African Americans weren’t the primary target of the ad, that it was aimed at non-racist white Christians, and that the feelings of African Americans were of secondary concern.

    That’s already in the post: “What they might also perceive is a stereotypically white organization using them as a rhetorical device, instead of seing them as real people: [...]“

  6. Jadehawk says:

    And that’s the charitable interpretation. The alternative is worse: that African Americans weren’t the primary target of the ad, that it was aimed at non-racist white Christians, and that the feelings of African Americans were of secondary concern.

    it’s a possibility; but the placement of the ad in a predominantly black neighborhood indicates that the primary target audience was supposed to have been African Americans

  7. [...] in particular, with the insensitivity of certain white male atheist activists to issues of race and gender, and with the excessive focus of some atheists on mocking and denigrating religion at the [...]

  8. Bolan says:

    …a failure to do the relevant research yet assuming that you can get your message across anyway is a manifestation of privilege (in this case, racial privilege);…

    I think you are assuming that no relevant research was done. Do you know this as a fact?

    Surely you realize that many of the audience of that message are very resistant to disconfirmatory ideas, and that it might take something that might seem offensive, at first, to wedge a small crack in that mental shield, something that might be remembered, and thought upon, eventually, hopefully, yielding the same kind of collapse of the belief structure under which I was burdened for two decades.

    This might be arrogant, but I wouldn’t attribute it to “privilege”. If it was a mistake, such mistakes are also made by the oppressed. Atheists are oppressed in this religion-dominated country, remember?

    On the other hand, I really don’t feel that there is any wrong with “appropriation”, in and of itself. (Maybe that’s ’cause I’m so “privileged”.)

    There are some appropriations that are wrong: misappropriations, such as applying the history of the Holocaust or of the Slave Trade to issues that pale by comparison. While the poster might have suffered from poor graphic design, subverting its message, I don’t believe that this was a case of misappropriation.

  9. Jadehawk says:

    I think you are assuming that no relevant research was done. Do you know this as a fact?

    unless I’ve been given incorrect information, yes, I do know this for a fact. Asking a handful of black members of your organization != researching the target audience

    Surely you realize that many of the audience of that message are very resistant to disconfirmatory ideas, and that it might take something that might seem offensive, at first, to wedge a small crack in that mental shield, something that might be remembered, and thought upon, eventually, hopefully, yielding the same kind of collapse of the belief structure under which I was burdened for two decades.

    I know atheists have a very hard time telling the difference between these two things, but only some kinds of offense work in this way (the ones that challenge privilege by cracking its protective bubble; not the ones that are microaggressions). Also, studies in psychology show that badly argued points actually strengthen people in their previously held opinions; and when your sign can be run, completely unchanged, by a white supremacist organization, your sign is a really fucking bad argument.

    This might be arrogant, but I wouldn’t attribute it to “privilege”.

    and just why do you imagine these are two different things, in this context?

    If it was a mistake, such mistakes are also made by the oppressed. Atheists are oppressed in this religion-dominated country, remember?

    “opressed” and “oppressor” are not black-and-white absolutes, since there are many axes of oppression. But being the oppressed along one axis in no way protects from being privileged along another, and doing stupid-ass shit as a result.

    On the other hand, I really don’t feel that there is any wrong with “appropriation”, in and of itself. (Maybe that’s ’cause I’m so “privileged”.)

    Most members of ethnic minorities tend to experience appropriation as another act of colonialism, so yeah, it’s wrong, in and of itself: it’s not yours, so don’t appropriate other people’s cultures and histories to make a point.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    Surely you realize that many of the audience of that message are very resistant to disconfirmatory ideas, and that it might take something that might seem offensive, at first, to wedge a small crack in that mental shield, something that might be remembered, and thought upon, eventually, hopefully, yielding the same kind of collapse of the belief structure under which I was burdened for two decades.

    That’s a high-risk shot in the dark. It’s reckless.

  11. […] targeted specifically at Christians from ethnic minorities have had racist overtones, such as the controversial American Atheist billboards. But that is a discussion for another […]

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