Day of Solidarity with Black Atheists/Nonbelievers

Day of Solidarity
As Naima Washington’s blog-post on Black Skeptics noted, these sort of events tend to be decried as “balkanization”, “dividing the Movement”, or similar crap:

when we ask everyone in the secular community to celebrate along with us, and we set aside one day out of the entire year to do so, there’s a problem! Last year, some very intelligent and insightful atheists declared efforts to organize a Day of Solidarity for Black Non-believers as segregation! Those same people are otherwise dead silent about the segregation, hostility, and alienation directed towards black atheists within the secular community year-round.

This is bullshit.

What events like the Day of Solidarity, the Women in Secularism conference, the African Americans for Humanism conference, etc. do is a)discuss issues not given much space or weight in the “general” (rea:, male, white, straight, cis dominated) conferences, groups, or writings; and b)highlight speakers and activists not given much space in the same “general” venues. To complain about them because we “shouldn’t have to” have such separate events is a lousy, blinkered argument for not having such events, or not supporting them. After all, we “shouldn’t have to” have skeptics or atheist conferences either, since that’s how all people ideally should deal with the world anyway, right?

So on that note, here’s my (admittedly measily) list of black atheists, skeptics, and nonbelievers that write stuff everyone should read:

Bridget R. Gaudette, contributor to Black Nones, blogger at Freethoughtify and Emily Has Books; she also currently has a kickstarter going for her next book: Grieving for the Living, so go contribute!!
Ian Cromwell, also a contributor to Black Nones, blogger at The Crommunist Manifesto
Anthony Pinn, author of African American Humanist Principles and The End of God Talk
Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Moral Combat and the forthcoming Godless Americana, contributing blogger at Black Skeptics
G. Andrews AKA Flexx, blogger at Human2O

A G+ hangout about A+

In which I fail at technology for 10 minutes and consequently only participate in the last 20 minutes of the conversation.

And here’s the transcript, courtesy ofA+Scribe

An interesting MRA argument

…and by “interesting” I mean that I’ve personally not run into it before, and that it’s actually one that deserves dissection rather than merely being laughed out of the room for sheer dumbosity. Somewhat unfortunately, this post has been incubating in my brain for so long that the blog in which I originally found the comments (No, Seriously, What About Teh Menz) seems to have moved to a new host, and now I can’t find anything there. So, this will be written from memory and therefore I can’t guarantee the full accuracy of the examples used to support the MRA’s talking point.

Anyway, the argument goes as follows:
We know that women have a higher status than men because women who “descend” into masculinity are tolerated , but men who are trying to do things “above their station” and adopt feminine things/behaviors are punished*; this is similar to the way rich people can affect the “ghetto” look and be cool, while poor people affecting upper class style and behavior are posers and fakes**; or similar to the way blackface is cool, but a black person trying to “pass” for a white one is considered to be transgressing.

The reason I find this argument interesting is because at first glance, that kinda sorta makes sense. Privileged people have more freedoms, and one of them is to appropriate things from the oppressed classes. Cultural appropriation for example is a huge problem with imperialism/colonialism/white culture***. But a closer analysis of the two claims in this argument makes it clear that that’s not quite how it works. So, let’s have a closer look at these claims:

1)The oppressors are permitted to be like the oppressed
This is only superficially true. As I mentioned, affecting and appropriating things that culturally belong to oppressed groups is certainly quite common. But there are “rules” about how you’re supposed to do that. For example, there’s a difference between appropriating/devaluing and adopting/supporting someone else’s oppressed identity. Wearing a hipster headdress is not the same as “decolonizing” and becoming involved in Native culture and society as an ally and/or as a spouse and parent to tribal members; donning blackface is not the same as becoming a student and promoter of Critical Race Theory; dressing up as a woman for Halloween, for a comedy show, or for a pride parade is not the same as living as a trans woman; and I’m willing to bet affecting a lower-class accent is not the same as abandoning your upper-class social ties and becoming a miner and moving to a working-class neighborhood. Point being, it’s ok to mock and play pretend, but it’s absolutely not ok to actually become part of, or a supporter of, the oppressed group. And in many ways, this can be seen by how the privileged classes define themselves, which is often by what they are not****. For example, pale skin was a sign of nobility when it meant that you were not a peasant; and then the Industrial Revolution happened, labor moved indoors, and suddenly suntanning became a sign of not being working class. Another example is Upper Class Etiquette (AKA “being classy”), which is basically an elaborate set of completely superfluous rules designed specifically as an artificial Upper Class Habitus setting the Upper Classes apart from the lower classes; and, sure, you can occasionally adopt what you think is a lower-class habitus, but only when it’s kinda obvious that it’s for shits and giggles; otherwise, it may well be perceived as a giant faux pas. A third, and probably the best-known example, is the one drop rule: whiteness being treated as such an endangered commodity that a single drop of black blood contaminated it permanently and made you non-white. Masculinity works much the same way, i.e. it identifies itself as what it is not, i.e. feminine. That’s why enforcement of transgressions out of masculinity and into femininity exist: they threaten the established hierarchy, and unlike in the cases of racism and classism, there isn’t even an equivalent ideology in the broader culture equivalent to “colorblindness” or “meritocracy” that would temper old-fashioned***** gender-policing the same way it sometimes does temper old-fashioned race- and class-policing.

2)The oppressed are forbidden from being like the oppressors
It is true that in order to properly maintain a hierarchy, it’s necessary to make sure the oppressed don’t just weasel out by becoming or passing for the oppressor. Further, since I just explained that the oppressor group often defines itself by what it is not, making sure that the oppressed don’t start doing oppressor-stuff is a way of preserving for oneself the permission to do these things#. However, internalized oppression and the hierarchy itself make it so that the stuff that “belongs” to the oppressor is seen as good, moral, “classy”, etc. while the stuff that “belongs” or identifies the oppressed groups is seen as inferior. Consequently, internal hierarchies within oppressed groups emerge, which state that even while being in the oppressed group, it’s “better” (more moral, more civilized, more normal, etc.) to be more like the oppressor and shun/abandon those things that mark one as a member of the oppressed class. Colorism is one such example, in which lighter skin color is higher in a racial hierarchy than darker skin, even among people of color themselves; similarly, African-Americans who have internalized a white habitus are considered more cultured than those who have a habitus associated with an African-American subculture (it’s probably not a coincidence that the first black president of the US is a biracial man raised by white people. Or, as Joe Biden noted is his typical foot-in-mouth kind of way: a “mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”). Another one is the “normal gay” and “flamboyant gay” bullshit: gay men who are otherwise performing masculinity are seen as better, i.e. higher up on the hierarchy, than gay men who are seen to share more “feminine” attributes than just being attracted to men (incidentally, this is also where the weird thing about how it’s not “gay” to receive a blowjob from a man comes from: receiving blowjobs = manly, while giving blowjobs = womanly; and gay = womanly)##. In the trans community, this internal (self-)oppression based on how closely someone manages to conform to cisnormative and heteronormative rules is called the Harry Benjamin Syndrome.
And exactly the same happens to gender-roles. Because men are higher in the hierarchy, masculine things have higher status, whereas feminine things have lower status. The consequence? Femmephobia: the belief that feminine self-expression and things associated with femininity are inherently less good, moral, fun, valuable, etc. than masculine self-expression and things associated with masculinity. This is why women who do traditionally masculine things can sometimes be perceived as being “better” than those doing traditionally feminine things.
It should be noted that a lot of this “it’s better to be like the oppressor” stuff is a symptom of a transitional culture: in a static hierarchy, “upward mobility” of this kind is strictly punishable and control and suppresion of it seen as absolutely necessary for the survival of society. When it occurs within segregated minority communities, it’s only tolerated insofar as it’s invisible (or useful in a divide-and-conquer sort of way) to the oppressor group; the moment it spills out into the “mainstream” (read: the oppressor-dominated culture), it will be swiftly punished. In a transitional culture on the other hand, the oppressor culture becomes a “norm” and “ideal” that becomes a requirement for acceptance into a supposedly egalitarian/democratic/colorblind/whathaveyou mainstream. And when these two aspects clash, you get the faliliar Catch-22 that is being a member of an oppressed group: if you act in ways identified as belonging to your group, you’ll be shat on because of the low status of those social signifiers; if you instead act in ways identified with the oppressor group, you’ll be perceived as “uppity”, bitchy, a trap, a poser, etc., unless you somehow manage to do this while also helping maintain the hierarchy. See also “not like other women” and “model minority”.

So, to sum it up: oppressors are only allowed to appropriate oppressed-group-signifiers for the purpose of mockery and “play”, but not actually adopt them in any meaningful way; conversely, in transitional cultures with delusions of egalitarian ideals, the hierarchy itself mandates that acceptance into the “mainstream” requires emulation of the oppressor class on behalf of the oppressed. Therefore, the fact that women wearing pants is cool, but men wearing skirts is not isn’t a sign that women are the oppressor class; it’s a sign that masculinity has higher-status than femininity, and that we’re in a transitional culture which both enforces the masculinity-over-femininity hierarchy and uses the language of meritocracy and equality, thus basically saying that women have the right to abandon their shitty, feminine qualities and exchange them for the better, more masculine ones, while at the same time assigning lower status to anyone choosing to be more feminine than masculine###.

Conclusion: another MRA being wrong, albeit more creatively and cleverly than usual.

P.S.:I apologize for the ridiculous amount of footnotes. The topic got away from me a few too many times, and there’s entirely too many tangents kinda-sorta-relevant to this topic.

– – – – – – – – – –

*women wearing pants vs. men wearing skirts; the fact that trans men face less violence than trans women; etc.
**to use my own example of this, take for example British class consciousness. It’s kinda fashionable for upper class Brits to affect lower-class accents; OTOH, someone from a lower class background trying to affect an upper class accent could be interpreted as uppity, fake, a poser etc. Also, from what I understand, there’s also a thing among younger folks of “dropping” aristocratic titles to be cool; but you’d get your ass handed to you if you instead wanted to take one on when you don’t have one. So, down-classing yourself = cool; up-classing yourself = punishable
***for example, here’s an entire excellent blog about appropriations of Native American culture by whites, especially by hipster culture: Native Appropriations
****that’s actually one of the identifying characteristics of being a privileged group: being the default, the un-modified state; being defined in common language as that which lacks distinguishing characteristics. That’s why “ethnic” never refers to WASPs, even though that’s technically a kind of ethnicity, and a human figure lacking secondary (or tertiary) sexual characteristics is interpreted as male.
*****”old-fashioned” vs. “modern” bigotry is a discussion in and of itself, but basically it’s the difference between being a blatantly prejudiced and discriminatory bigot (what we traditionally call “a racist”, “a misogynist” etc.) and someone who perpetrates microaggressions. Don’t know where dogwhistles fall here; probably the former masquerading as the latter
#and actually, it just occurred to me that of course appropriation is a way to allow the oppressor-group to do oppressed-people-stuff without losing their status and identity: Pat Boone’s career is in fact based entirely on this principle.
##the issue with “lipstic lesbians” vs. butch lesbians doesn’t neatly fit here because of the intersectional nature of it: on the one hand, feminine lesbians are considered “straighter” and more gender-role-conforming than butch lesbians, and thus are rewarded for that; on the other, femmephobia means that a feminine form of self-expression is considered lower-status than a masculine AKA butch one.
###while simultaneously still enforcing the old gender-roles. this intersectionality means that gender-non-conforming cis women and gender-non-conforming cis men both end up suffering along two axes of oppression while being in the oppressor category on one; and it’s also this intersectionality that synergistically ends up super-shitty for trans women, because they suffer from femmephobia (pretty much regardless of how butch their self-expression; but femme trans women tend to get more of this), gender-non-conformity (when they’re treated as supergay or superfeminine men), and misogyny.

A kitteh and a link dump

I was going to write a post using most of these, but I changed my mind. Still, the links are informative reading, so I’m just going to post them without the article that was supposed to go around them. And just to make the post more than just a dry linkdump, here’s a picture of Dusty:

Not a safe space — a good 101-level explanation of what the term “safe space” even means.

Michigan Legislators Demand Control of the Organ Which Must Not Be Named — summary of what thedrama in Michigan, with summary of the effects of their anti-woman bill

Chicago Police misclassifying trans women of color in the sex trade as “johns” in its “end demand” initiative — article on how the police manage to turn a anti-procurers-of-prostitution campaign into a campaign to arrest, out, and shame poor trans women of color

Despite The Evidence, Anti-Choicers Persist in Lying About Emergency Contraception — article by Amanda Marcotte about something I’ve been saying repeatedly: the science has already shown that hormonal contraceptives, including Emergency Contraception, doesn’t cause implantation failure.

Respect as it applies to anti-harassment policies — A conference organizer states his opinion about the relative importance (or lack thereof) of whether anti-harassment policies will make it harder for people to get laid.

An ally by any other name…

The recent, aggressive fights over who is or isn’t an ally, and who can or cannot call themselves or others an ally made me really think about what the word means, and how it has been used.

Traditionally, “allies” are two (groups of) people aligned for one common cause. Such allies are, in theory if not always in practice, equals in terms of investment in the common cause and power/privilege at least in regards to the issue at the core of the alliance. It is a word that designated collaboration, the co-working of different and maybe even otherwise opposed groups and individuals on a particular common cause. There’s however a newer use of the word now. I don’t know where that particular usage originated, but personally I blame the naming of the Gay Straight Alliance for its propagation. In any case, such an alliance is completely different from the traditional one. An alliance of gay and straight folks on the issue of gay rights, to stick with that example, is not an alliance of equals. It’s an alliance of, on the one hand, people for are the cause, i.e. people who are directly affected and oppressed by the axis of oppression being allied against; and, on the other hand, people who have privilege on that axis and thus aren’t directly affected. This new “alliance” contains a power-imbalance as well as what I’d call a salience-imbalance, which doesn’t exist in the traditional meaning of “ally” and “alliance”. This is a significant difference, and I think that the non-differentiation between these two meanings can even make the difference worse, because it erases the imbalance and the completely different dynamics that are a consequence thereof. And, it gives the privileged “half” of such an alliance more power without acknowledging that it does so (by using a word that implies equality).

A word that would more accurately describe the Gay Straight Alliance kind of ally is actually “supporter”. “Supporter” acknowledges the difference in salience: I can support someone in their fight for their rights, but it’s obviously wrong to say they support me in my fight for their rights; allies, on the other hand, support each other in the fight for a common cause. “Supporter” also addresses the issues of power imbalance, because it relegates the privileged groups/individuals to a supporting role by definition, reserving the center stage for those whose issues are actually at stake. Without that, you end up with “allies” who feel that, because of the nature of alliances, they get to speak for their allies, and that they have the same rights to leadership positions in the movement as all the other members of such an alliance. Which is a nice, liberal idea right up there with being “colorblind”, and with the same effect: pretending equality when an obvious power imbalance is present hands more power within such an alliance to the already privileged. “Supporter” is also a word that’s more evaluative, and specifically evaluative of actions: someone who is “for” a particular social justice issue, but doesn’t do anything to make it happen is at best a cheerleader or bystander, or at worst a de facto supporter of the status quo. In order to gain the title of “supporter”, one actually has to be doing some supporting. Allying on the other hand is simply aligning onelself with a cause, which requires no further action. This part especially, I think, has been the cause for some of the drama recently: I can declare my alignment with a particular cause, issue, or movement freely, and being told that actually I’m not thusly aligned can feel like mind-reading and invalidating one’s feelings and agency. But it doesn’t make sense to declare oneself a supporter unilaterally, even when the people I claim I support are telling me that my actions are not supportive but counterproductive. Hence the blowups about the “you’re not my ally” type comments: they’re generally meant in the newer sense of supporter-ally, indicating that the person’s actions are less-than-supportive. but the privileged person to whom such a comment is generally addressed perceives it typically in the older, common-cause-ally meaning, and will thus assume that a counter-supportive intent or alignment is being implied, and their right to self-identify by naming their alignment is being trampled.

Now, I’m not asking for people to stop using the word “ally” in the newer meaning. I can’t, not being that kind of influence on social justice movements everywhere, and not being able to command other people’s use of words. That ship has sailed. But I do think it’s fair and reasonable to demand that people distinguish between common-cause-ally and supporter-ally when using and hearing/reading the words, to avoid pointless arguments. And it’s not like it’s difficult to know which of the two meanings is used at any given time, since the common-cause-ally is bidirectional (for example, a black gay dude and a black straight woman are both each other’s allies in the fight against racism) while supporter-ally is unidirectional (The same dude can be an ally of the woman in fighting for women’s rights, and the woman can be his ally in fighting for gay rights; but it’s incoherent to say that a gay person is an ally to a straight person in the fight for gay rights, or that a woman is an ally to a man in the fight for women’s rights). Making this distinction in conversation and argument, I think, is quite important. Because without it, you get things like this article from Stephanie Zvan, which is an excellent description and analysis of the traditional common-cause-alliance, but completely fails to note that the word now also means “supporter of someone else’s cause”. Her article is an excellent description of alliance if it were about how atheists of different backgrounds can work together for the atheist cause; or how liberal atheists, liberal Christians, and liberal Muslims can, despite their differences, ally to fight against environmental destruction or for better education in public schools. But when it’s about straight people being allies to LGBT people in fights for LGBT-rights; white people being allies to people of color in the fight against racism; etc., then the old model of alliance fails: if your support is conditional on not having your fee-fees hurt; if your support amounts to a libertarianish “I already see/treat all people as equal”; if your support, because it’s based in the ignorance that comes with privilege, actually ends up counter-productive; then the people you claim alliance with absolutely get to point out that you’re not being much of a supporter-ally to them.

And just to make this very clear: while I think it would do good if everyone were more careful and conscious of this dual meaning, it’s primarily the privileged halves of such alliances I want to see take greater care in seeing the distinction, so that we can avoid dealing with pointless flailing about hurt pride when someone points out that one’s behavior hasn’t been very ally-like (read: has not been supportive of the people one claimed such an alliance to).

EDIT: one more important point about the difference: when someone uses the “you’re not my ally” line when it’s clearly about supporter-allies, it also makes no sense to assume that this is a statement about all alliances of the common-cause-category the two people in question may be in. I’ve seen people make the much stronger statements that social justice movement X isn’t for them because it’s insufficiently intersectional; I’ve seen people make statements claiming that a particular individual can make potentially harm a movement by making it less appealing to people on other axes of oppression because of their behavior, political position or whatever; but both of those are distinctly different than pointing out that a person with whom one is common-cause-allied in fights about X, Y, and Z is not an ally in the fight for one’s own rights.

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**

Inequality in science, race edition

I’m surprised none of the science-related blogs I read have picked up on this story yet(which has been reported by the NYT, as well as Democracy Now), so I guess I’ll have to do it myself. From a study just published in Science showing that black scientists less likely to receive NIH-funds than white scientists:

Although proposals with strong priority scores were equally likely to be funded regardless of race, we find that Asians are 4 percentage points and black or African-American applicants are 13 percentage points less likely to receive NIH investigator-initiated research funding compared with whites. After controlling for the applicant’s educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, we find that black applicants remain 10 percentage points less likely than whites to be awarded NIH research funding.

That’s unfortunately unsurprising, but sad nonetheless. If I understand the paper properly (and there’s no guarantee that I have, so take the following discussion with all the skepticism it’s due), it seems to indicate that a lot of the discrimination isn’t directly related to bias in the selection, but to bias in career advancement elsewhere (access to resources). That’s probably a large chunk of it, and certainly racial discrimination as well as cultural hurdles aren’t improbable. But AFAICT from the study, even taking into account all of these, there’s still a remaining bias. So is it possible that there’s bias in the selection process itself?

My main question, which the article doesn’t answer, is how the NIH would know the race of their applicants; and if it doesn’t, what the factor that leads to this discrimination could be. A particular focus in the research? Maybe it’s not so much the race of the scientist that’s being discriminated against; minority researchers often try to fill the gap of lacking research about the special circumstances of the groups they belong to, so possibly it was the “race” of the proposal that was being discriminated against (I hope that sentence makes sense; obviously proposals don’t have a race, but may have a “non-standard” (AKA non-white) focus that could be identified as less-than by subconscious bias or even outright bigotry). This may also explain the much lower citation count (but doesn’t explain the much higher citation count for Asian and Hispanic authored papers; it would be necessary to see whether Black, Asian, and Hispanic authors are comparably likely to focus on minority-relevant research topics, and whether minority-focused subjects correlate with citation count to figure out what’s going on there). If the bias is indeed related to research topics, it would be very difficult to circumvent subconscious bias, since there would be no possibility of blind applications for obvious reasons.

The study shows a few other interesting things aside from that main point. For one, the ridiculously low number of Native scientists in biomedical research (only 41?! That’s fucking tragic in and of itself). Two, it seems to me from the data that the reason Asians and Hispanics don’t show the same disparities might not be because they’re not discriminated against. I can’t precisely parse what it says on this subject, but doesn’t it seem to say that Hispanics and especially Asians outperform whites on certain measures, but that those don’t translate in proportionately higher rates of proposal acceptance? It’s either that, or it says that these measures are irrelevant for proposals by non-blacks, and only seem to matter for blacks, who have the lowest citation and publication counts, and the fewest last-authored papers as well. *confused*