How can reasonable people discuss racial justice? Any secular group that focuses on people of color often gets ironic criticism for being exclusive. Though in my experience with American groups, I don’t know of any secular group that disallows whites from joining. As a biracial Asian-American, I have always been there doing my small part to help increase understanding of race issues in the movement. I have participated in discussions like during the Secular Social Justice Conference where some of the people have expressed how tired they are of persuading and educating white allies.
I understand. Let me make it clear to everyone this post is not about changing my style or just bowling in my lane out of justified frustration either. Also, sometimes a disruptive approach is necessary to stop the inertia of an ingrained system. Most people involved in secular politics know that giving a fact-based presentation on any topic where Christians are established is an uphill climb. How long have we been putting forth evidence-based and politely worded arguments against “In God We Trust” as our national motto to no avail?
Sometimes treating an entrenched but ridiculous and exclusionary argument with more respect than it deserves gets you completely ignored. A different approach like having the Satanic Temple ask for equal access to public areas like schools often highlights how ridiculous favoring any particular Christian sect is better than the most eloquently worded rebuttal. Though there is a time for those as well, and persuasion is my personal style.
Like religious privilege discussions, racial justice discussions are a prickly pear. There are a few whites, who are mostly fluent in race discussions; some because they can relate as a marginalized minority be it atheists, LGBT, women, etc. They get it.
However, I find even the most liberal of whites often can discuss racism amongst themselves, but if there is a person of color in the conversation they often play Devil’s Advocate and rather than trying to have a dialogue –they become defensive. For example, they can talk about how Donald Trump is clearly racist and/or sexist amongst themselves. However if there is a person of color in the conversation, who agrees that racist jokes at the expense of minorities, like Trump has made about Asians, are common and they experience this themselves that somehow becomes a horse of another color.
The rules of polite discussion dictate that the person of color sit patiently while a would be racial apologist explains how they have people of color as friends and they make racist jokes and they are fine with it. You can try to tell them that you know you have close friends and family where it is understood you are joking to no avail.
Clearly someone mocking Asian accents like Trump, or a stranger joking at an atheist conference that Asians like rice and a billion Asians can’t be wrong isn’t sharing a friendly joke. Then add to that joke where the only two visible Asians at the table and at the conference can hear you that “rice is an aphrodisiac”. Both situations actually happened in real life, and one of them happened to me personally. The organizer to their credit did understand and did not try to explain the joke to me like I don’t understand jokes.
However, often the most well-meaning whites can make a discussion labor-intensive and exhausting for a person of color. Racist joke apologetics aren’t the limit of what people of color have to endure when they are involved in racial discussions. No matter how well reasoned a case a person of color makes it’s often a tiresome discussion of whacking the various deflections that often come up. Ultimately, the discussion becomes a weary slog trying to get back to the point.
Here are a few of the things that people often say that derail productive discussions (paraphrasing all of these have come up in racial discussion I have been involved in):
1. I have a friend who is one of the various people of color and they agree with me.
2. Some sort of hint that the fault is yours that you don’t understand or you took something more seriously than intended.
3. Accusations of too emotional/sensitive/irrational even though what you are talking about commonly happens frequently in real life and not purely academic discussions.
4. Advice on how you should have handled it, or they would have handled it better.
5. Telling you that you make everything about race, even though you may just be joining their discussion on race and diversity. Not that it is wrong for anyone to bring up racial injustice first.
6. Hurt feelings no matter how often you emphasize you aren’t talking about them as an individual.
7. Bringing up a person of color who was hateful to them based on their skin color and equivocating that to systemic racism. This one is analogous to when you try to discuss Christian privilege, and a Christian says that an atheist was hateful to them.
8. Implying that there isn’t a larger problem and you are actually talking about something that just happens to you.
9. Related to that: your opinion is tainted by subjectivity. Example: But you aren’t even white or why do you hate white people?
10. Respectability. Maybe they don’t like your style, even though I am painfully polite by nature. I changed my hair to an unnatural color 2 years ago, but I still had problems before that.
11. This doesn’t happen in their group, circle, experience etc. I’ve been told one time by my brother, who passes for white, that race isn’t a big problem anymore. But other real people have said to me race is not a problem in Australia(wasn’t the organizers), in the secular movement, in the UK, restricted to America, etc.
12. Just ignore them/they feel bad about themselves/just be happy
13. It could be worse. The fallacy of relative privation.
14. Where’s your sense of humor?
People reading this are probably tired just going through that list. How tired do you think minorities are of hearing the same tired tropes? More than tired, how frustrating and frankly angering is it to get shut down with deflections in a discussion that the laws of politeness and basic human decency dictate compassionate listening instead? The worst failed attempts I’ve had getting a point about racial inequality across have resulted in the other person feeling upset because they made the discussion about themselves instead of the larger issue of racism. It turns the tables instead of offering appropriate sympathy; they feel as though as a white person they should defend whites in discussions of racism.
Despite all of the emotional labor involved, I will continue to get into these discussions to do my small part in increasing understanding of racial justice. It is as important to me as discussing and dismantling religious privilege. Which brings me to a final chestnut often offered by many atheists to deflect racial justice discussions. What does this have to do with atheism/and or secularism? Basically, the argument that atheists can only myopically focus on the question of whether there is a god/s. Atheists are individuals some may focus strictly on rebutting religion, others may feel as though a racially diverse atheist community is a stronger community, others are humanists in the truest sense of the word, and others do nothing at all. As a secular humanist, I don’t think a lasting secular society will be built on discarding questions of morality with religion.
I get around in the atheist community far and wide because my husband Aron Ra does talks all over the United States and now Europe and Australia. In these travels, I do see there is still a great deal of misunderstanding of racial justice. Some of that unfortunately spread by prominent atheist activists whose opinions on other matters I hold in high regard. I hear well-meaning people that can be reasoned with laboring under pernicious memes that confound a better understanding of social justice. For those reasonable people, who would like to understand things better, I will join in with others to wade into the minefield that is littering productive discourse in our community. Subjects like safe spaces, free speech, hate speech, political correctness etc in a series of posts. Hopefully, it won’t be as thankless as it often can be because I want to discuss this with people who can be reasoned with.