Humanism, Race, and Why NonHumanists Should Care

I am a white, female, humanist writing today about what I have seen and heard about the racial climate in humanism (and its relatives: atheism, skepticism, freethought, etc.). “Racial climate” all too often evokes the picture of white people and black people when the race (and racism) landscape is far more complicated than that. “People of color” is not synonymous with “black” any more than “Islamic” is synonymous with “middle eastern.” But they are often used as if they are. I cannot know the experiences of people of color in humanist communities. But I can tell you there is a problem there.

My perspective is white. The fact of the matter–the fact of this piece–is that humanism is dominated by white voices. This fact alone requires humanist voices of color push back on the narrative the humanist movement is telling. I refer to several through the course of this piece. Here are more humanist voices on race: Monica Miller, Anthony Pinn, Sikivu Hutchinson, Juhem Navarro-Rivera, and Leah Mickens. Also explore what some humanist, atheist, and otherwise nonbelieving communities of people of color are doing: Black Nonbelievers, African Americans for Humanism, and People of Color Beyond Faith.

Civil rights activists have said the most segregated time of the week in the US is Sunday morning. I don’t know how true that is in real numbers, but it certainly resonates instinctively and experientially. But I am not Christian. The segregation of Christianity in the US is not my fight any more than is the segregation of Islam in the US.

The racial segregation of religion in the US is only my business because it is part of the larger picture of human beings segregated from other human beings in general. Humanism is my particular business. And humanism, like all isms, has its own race and diversity problems.

Humanism is White

Humanism’s problem isn’t so much a racial segregation per se. It is, rather, more an absence of people of color in the membership entirely. At a recent atheist-related conference I attended, about 150 people were at the main event. I daresay not more than twenty were people of color.

Several people of color in the humanist community have shared relevant anecdotes within the movement. Most of them are not pretty. Norm R. Allen Jr. has told a story about a man who, to the black speaker at a conference, asked why black people are lazy and then defended his ignorance with “critical thinking.” Racial stereotypes are alive and well, even if we don’t admit it.

Humanism is well represented by white educationally and/or economically elite males–and drastically under-represented by people of color of either gender from any social class. A lack of understanding and care for the experiences of people of color implicitly keeps people of color unwelcome, or at the very least uncomfortable, in the community. Can we humanists not identify with the discomfort of sitting in a church where the term “humanist” is treated as a dirty word. The “H” word. We humanists need to look within our own enclaves to widen the comfort zones with “other” human beings.

A major conflict for black atheists is that the center of gravity for social and racial justice within the black community is so often in the church. Sikivu Hutchinson, founder of Black Skeptics, said

Most communities of color don’t have access to the kinds of social, recreational and economic resources provided by secular institutions and nonprofits in predominantly white, affluent neighborhoods. So in order to be relevant to communities of color … atheists and humanists of color must collaborate with progressive religious organizations.

For black, social minded atheists this creates a lose-lose choice: hide or remain silent about one’s atheism in order to be part of the church-based justice movement–or live openly as an atheist and live largely outside the visible and invisible windows of the churches which house the heart of the black justice movement. If one is black and an activist, joining the humanist movement can mean taking a giant step away from the existing black justice movement. For people coming out of the Black Baptist Church environment of Martin Luther King, “coming out atheist” is self-excommunicating from more than church.

I am happy to have found a corner of humanism where equality, particularly diversity of belief and racial justice, is a central concern in all we do. A corner where we are making a point of raising and highlighting–and shutting up and listening to–people of color within and without humanism (many of whom I have already linked to in this piece). This isn’t a matter of me as a white person welcoming people of color into my, currently white dominated, space. This is a matter of creating humanism anew with a diversity of voices creating the community and creating our path. As Mario Chávez said

To enrich our collective humanistic history, we need all the voices we can find and hear, in whatever language they speak and write.

Helping Ourselves is Helping Each Other

Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam, as the five major religions of the world, have an essential role in combating racism. I can and will be supportive of initiatives within and between those spaces that combat racism, but that is not the center of my own struggle. My fight is particularly in humanism. Humanism, where equality is at the heart of our beliefs, but where we are failing spectacularly to live and create our ideal.

The biggest hurdle to ending systemic racism is overcoming the overwhelming feeling that the problem is so big that the problem is without solution. But, as John F. Kennedy said in his 1963 Peace Speech at American University, “Our problems are manmade–therefore, they can be solved by man.” And by woman and by white people and by people of color. The most important place for a person who is a member of the racial majority to tackle racism–systemic or otherwise–is within his or her own particular ranks, whatever those ranks might be. Separate but equal communities cannot exist. Communities cannot survive in total isolation from one another, but only in celebration of one another–only in recognition of, and collaboration with, one another. If each of us works to solve problems of division in our own communities, our own congregations–all the while knowing our counterparts in other communities and other congregations are doing the same–all the while building bridges across belief divides, then the national (not to mention international) problem is surmountable and division begins to disappear.

The divisions that exist in our nation and our communities are deep and contaminated. Cleaning them up means getting down and dirty. May we join our dirty hands in cleaning up this ancient racist mess.

Image courtesy of @aahumanism.

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