Recently I had the opportunity to listen to Bridgett “Bria” Crutchfield and Alix Jules tell their stories about growing up in the black community which can be very religious and adjusting to the atheist community. Bridgett asked me during the discussion if I understood what they go through. For video link click on the title.
I am not satisfied with the answer I gave her. As a person of color, I do understand what it feels like to be the ethnic odd man out. Growing up in Texas, I went to an upper class high school where the majority of students were white. I was often mistaken for the only other person with Asian ancestry that anybody could tell from their appearance -the Japanese exchange student. A girl once whispered in homeroom class, “she’s Chinese”. Nevermind we had the same Germanic last name because I’m Eurasian. That fact escaped her notice.
Anyways, I was basically invisible at that school invisible except for the passing curiosity about whether I was an exchange student. Again, never mind my English was sometimes more fluent than many other native speakers. I’ve also had experiences in a lower class elementary school where my ethnicity caused more overt racism like hair pulling and mock Chinese taunting in the hallways. I could go weeks without speaking to another child. Even as a young woman, a woman at a cosmetic counter told me my acne was a reason races shouldn’t mix. More often people keep their ugly thoughts hidden away like fangs behind a polite smile. If you wanted insight into what it is like to sometimes be an ethnic outcast because of being bi-racial or what it is like to be a person that doesn’t neatly fit in anywhere; I would be the person to listen to.
However, I can’t really say that I totally get what it is like to be a Black atheist. The only people, who can say what that is like are Alix and Bridgett. I haven’t had to live through many of the things they are forced to endure. I can’t say that I have ever had security called on me at an atheist conference like Alix has at a conference he was speaking at! Asians are generally not profiled as security threats by racist white people simply for their phenotype.
Although that incident is ugly it is easier to identify than being politely ignored like Bridget shared in the discussion. She told us that often when she goes to atheist conferences no one speaks to her. Then after she finishes a speech more people notice her and start talking to her. (American Atheists convention Austin was an exception she said) Cultural awkwardness like I pointed out to her can’t explain all of this behavior. It should go without saying that we are all human beings at this conference and can relate on some level. And we are all atheists, for no god sakes!
Having listened to her tell her stories and Alix’s, I have a few pieces of the puzzle to understand what black atheists go through. I genuinely want Black atheists to feel welcome in our community. Most well meaning people want the same thing. If that is going to happen a whole lot of well meaning folks need to start being better listeners.
My friend and Nones co-host Shanon Nebo just happened to finish editing the discussion yesterday. Yesterday, I also happened to notice a kerfuffle between my facebook friends some of whom are real life friends. It seems that some people are criticizing Bria for becoming angry at an insensitive question from a white person during a speech given by Mandisa Thomas. One person even labeled Bria’s reaction as “cruel” and “inappropriate” and suggested that she had the intent of shaming the person.
I have to reserve final judgment until I see the video of what happened. However, the question as posed reeks of cultural insensitivity. Why ask Mandisa about what blacks are going to do about black on black crime? That topic is a racist talking point. Let me pose this question to people, who think this person was merely ignorant and not deserving of being dressed down for it.
If a gay atheist had the podium and an audience member asked them what homosexuals were going to do about AIDS and you were homosexual too would you not be livid as well?
Would you wait and compose a calm response on your blog later, or try to calmly educate this person later in the hallway?
Would anyone expect you to?
Or more likely, wouldn’t you be stunned at the inherent stereotyping in that question that is an oft repeated homophobic talking point?
Would your shock give way to shame in a place you had thought was a social haven from prejudicial cognitive biases?
Or maybe you didn’t think that, and thought this community still had strides to make before homosexuals truly feel welcome there? Just maybe that is why you were there in the first place because you hoped that you could break through the ice and people would see a fellow human being. A fellow human being -not a person they had prejudged and decided they wouldn’t socialize with. Only to be reminded in front of the group that you are not a human being to be judged separately, but must somehow make valiant efforts to stop the unfair stereotypes that other people perceive about your minority community? The stuff you had heard your entire life. The same stuff you have had to bite back responding to for fear of reprisal such as a loss of your job. The stuff you have had to smile politely back to, as there was no other reaction that would remedy the situation.
Would the shame give way to anger?
After you struggled to calm down through another speech would you stand up in front of the group and set the record straight or let it drop?
Even without watching the video of what happened, it needs to be said that the atheist community is just going to have to do the work of actively listening to the stories of Black atheists if they want to understand what makes them feel welcome and unwelcome.
16 thoughts on “Some Insights from Bridgett “Bria” Crutchfield and Alix Jules on being a Black atheist”
Awesome post lilandra.
Same here. There seems to be a lot of jumping to conclusions and unwillingness to make the assumption of a charitable reading of events by both sides at the moment. I’m not shy, but I hate to take sides based on conflicting opinions.
I don’t think there is a way to read the woman’s question charitably, and I can understand why it angered Bria.
@machineintelligence: Mandisa Thomas has the quote and put it in context over at JT’s reply.
Dammit, I need to remember to note the blog author. I read the whole thing thinking Aron was a Eurasian transsexual person. Unblowing mind.
I’m biracial Eurasian. In some ways it is like not having an exact gender identity. I just don’t have an exact ethnic identity.
Lilandra I’m not sure if you left this out, but I don’t think it’s racist to talk about issues that uniquely or heavily affect a particular group, such as AIDS and the gay community…as long as it’s in the proper context. The question about black on black crime, as I’ve come to understand, was wholly unrelated to the talk. I just thought that should be clear.
No, it betrays a deeply ignorant state of mind.
Because if it actually interested the person they could very easily find the answers themselves. Instead they go for a very loaded question that carries a lot of social stigma for gay people.
OK question: “I read about your South River* Fucks Safe project where you work within the gay community to promote condom use. Can you tell us more about it?”**
Not OK question: “What do you gay people do about AIDS?”
**provided that this is somewhat related to the talk and you’re not just asking Teh Gay Panelist on a question about Art in the 1920th Chicago
I know but for for an outsider to ask the gay community what they will do about AIDS is at the very least culturally insensitive. If it is out of context for the discussion than the motives are questionable.
lilandra, is this the same video that was originally up a couple weeks ago?
No Shanon edited it.
Great post, lilandra.
Perhaps we should all – both sides of the Atlantic – ask every white person we meet for the next fortnight what they personally are going to do about the underperformance at school of white working class boys.
Yes, every last one we meet. Should be fun!
@9 I think that would be a proper question, by far more fair that the racist question Bria was asked. Working classes have a worst access to an education of quality everywhere so, on average, their performance tend to be worst.
On another hand, were you asking me (a working class person) what are you doing about that matter, the only thing I could say would be: I’m protesting to my government to avoid that education getting worst. It’s not really on my hands as my class doesn’t rule, it’s only allowed to vote every 4 years.
I think that would be closer to the question. It implies that black people have a higher rate of criminality -probably false- because of his color and not other economic facts -obviously false-, that they live in black ghettos -I don’t know if that’s true in your country-, and that they have some ruling and law-enforcing power (if she thinks the solution is policial) or some economic power (if she thinks the solution is socio-economical). Can she be more oblivious to the fact that economic and political power in the US is almost exclusively on white (and manly ) hands?
I’m in the UK, francesc, where we don’t have ghettos but we do have the decaying remnants of a class system. It’s most rabid fans would have feudalism back tomorrow if they could. Those fans are few but they are sometimes very loud.
More pernicious are the snail trails which class-based thinking has left on the collective mind. No-one is going to stand up and say that poor kids or Black kids or unlucky kids should have a very much worse education. Instead they complain about such children’s “failure to grasp this wonderful opportunity” and the like.
And while they are complaining they are doing all sorts of things which actually make it difficult for children to benefit – allow the class sizes for the tiny ones to shoot up, rely on untrained staff to “compensate” for problems rather than employ more teachers, introduce a school uniform which looks ridiculous to the children and which their families cannot afford, and generally change everything around at least annually so that there’s no continuity and no-one can feel secure. To name just a few of the problems!
As to what you can do, well, I was a school governor for a few years. Among the struggles I remember are – fighting against the amalgamation of two very different schools not because it made educational sense but because one piece of land was going to be very valuable in the near future, fighting to keep our additional funding for pastoral staff so that we could continue to make a good connection with the families of new students by going out to them rather than insisting they came to us like good little parents, accepting that there would be effort required – from us, not them – because their birth families spoke 40-odd different languages, some were refugees, some of the 11-year-olds had missed whole chunks of school and some had been educated in very different systems. Yes, it was a very inner-city school in London but my sister had been teaching then in semi-rural Derbyshire and facing exactly the same problems.
So, I’ve been close enough to the front line to feel the percussion shock but I’m white, I’m middle class and however daft I may become I hope I never interrupt a session on one subject to ask a rude question about another. I hope I never find myself telling someone else how to deal with her experience, either.
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