by Guest Contributor Ian Cromwell, originally published at The Friendly Atheist
I suppose I should say, by way of introduction, that this is something of an example of the squeaky wheel getting the grease. While Hemant was on a well-deserved vacation (this daily blogging stuff ain’t easy), he had a number of members of the SSA contribute guest blogs. I took offense to one of them, and got up on my horse to shout about it. In a fit of self- aggrandizement I tweeted a link to that post to him, and then promptly went on with my life, my rage spent. Upon returning, Hemant has invited me to write this response and expand somewhat on my argument.
To summarize as succinctly as possible, Derek Miller wrote a guest post in which the basic thesis was that in order to attract more members of minority communities (particularly, in that case, African Americans – it will be to this group I refer for the remainder of this post, but there are similar barriers faced by members of other ethnic groups as well) to the secular/freethought movement, the only thing that could be done was to make the movement more friendly and welcoming in general. A sort of Field of Dreams approach to attracting members of communities of colour – if you build it, they’ll start showing up. I was a bit apoplectic because Mr. Miller has clearly not consulted with, or bothered to listen to, anyone who has been talking about this issue from the minority perspective. This kind of laissez faire approach to recruitment is doomed to fail for reasons I will explain. I’ll also offer some of my own suggestions as to what steps can be taken to more actively include people of colour (PoCs) into the freethinking discussion.
Why don’t black people come to atheist meetings?
The freethinker community has been struggling with this question of late, as more and more speakers have become sufficiently emboldened to decry the lack of ethnic diversity at things like conferences, meetup groups, and other atheist-friendly activities. Increasingly, demands have been going up for a simple answer to this question, and have not been forthcoming. This was, I think, the general thrust of Mr. Miller’s post – there are no simple solutions to this problem. It does not follow, however, that there are no solutions to the problem at all, and we must simply wait for black and brown folks to get over their shyness and start showing up. There are a number of overlapping potential explanations, and until we can begin to see them as a larger context (instead of trying to tackle them one at a time), we’ll simply be spinning our wheels.
There are a few commonly-cited explanations for why black folks just don’t seem to show up:
Atheism as a ‘white people thing’
The face of atheism is, or at least has been, a white one. It’s intimidating for a member of any visible minority community to walk into a room and be the only dark face in the crowd. Whether or not people actually are staring at you (and yes, people do stare), it’s tough to get over the feeling that you don’t fit. Many black people, particularly those in the sciences, are used to being outnumbered, and have figured out a way to deal with it. At the same time, if you’re iffy about showing up to the campus freethinker club or the skeptics in the pub event or the atheist book club, knowing that you’re going to be an outlier is certainly not a point in favour of attendance.
Atheists being racist
If I can echo a statement made by Jen McCreight, it’s not necessarily the case that atheists are more racist than the general population (my suspicion is that we do a pretty good job, by and large), but that it’s more shocking to hear racist talking points from people who pride themselves on rationality and evidence-based decision making. When race comes up as a topic, I’m often mildly amused/horrified to hear the kind of 19th-century ‘scientific racist’ slogans that come out of the mouths of my confreres. I personally have a thick skin about it, knowing that people are well-meaning but just not well-educated. My experience is perhaps a bit atypical, and it only takes a couple of bad experiences to sour the whole idea for you permanently.