Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Racial diversity in the atheist community IS our problem

The Guardian has an interesting article up by Alom Shaha on "The accidental exclusion of non-white atheists." I'm not sure if this was intentional, but it's a timely follow up for the recent kerfuffle about the apparent lack of women in the atheist movement. One of his main points is that the atheist movement needs to actively try to fix its diversity problem. I think he's spot on, and the same applies to women:
While black and Asian people may not be actively excluded from atheist and sceptic gatherings, the lack of black and Asian people as speakers or audience members might be one reason why many black or Asian people feel such events are not "for them". So, even if there's no deliberate exclusion, there is accidental exclusion. Perhaps some people are genuinely unaware of this, but perhaps others are just hoping the problem does not really exist.
We're not saying we need to go knocking on doors of religious minorities and target them for atheist evangelizing. We're saying we want minorities who are already atheists to feel comfortable within our movement. One way to promote inclusivity is to invite minority speakers to conferences or local events, or to encourage current minority members to consider more active leadership positions.

Shaha repeatedly states that he does not think the atheist movement is inherently racist or purposefully excluding minorities. I thought he was being overly polite until I started reading the comments at The Guardian. They're almost unanimously oblivious, stating there's no such thing as an atheist movement or community. Look, just because you're an atheist who doesn't feel the need to be outspoken or talk to like-minded people doesn't mean we don't exist. Is this a British thing, since atheism is so much more common and accepted there?

But my main beef is with the comments that deal with race, which have no excuse. For example:

"This article is a disgrace. Why is it that anything that happens to be white must become more diverse to become a "community"? What a crock of poo. Very expensive deficit causing poo, I might add. You fools would be better off worrying about the genocide of Iraq's Christians, and the general bad feeling towards minorities in the mulsim world, than worrying about atheists being too white."

"If people really are so simple-minded as to prefer the company of people of their own colour, then that's their problem, and neither atheists (nor Christans nor Hindus nor Muslims nor Jews nor anyone else) are under any obligation to go out of their way to accommodate them."

"oh god ... AGAIN! what is wrong with these awful "white men"?? Why are we so bad? just out of pure contrarianism, i am going to campaign for the atheist movement to be a 'white males only' movement. i want it to have clubs, and bars and so on, where we are allowed to keep females and other races out. just so so bored of "minority" bleating on the subject of "white men" - gone far too far."

"What, practically, do you think white atheists should do to encourage black and asian involvement? It's hardly their fault that asian people (for example) feel a cultural pressure not to get involved, and it is not their fault that asian people feel more comfortable with their own kind (as you suggest). You seem to be blaming whate atheists for a problems which are not of their making. The onus is on minorities, not the audience to which your article is addressed."

Those are facepalm worthy to say the least. But maybe that sort of stupidity and insensitivity is only from people who think the atheist movement doesn't exist?

Then I read this comment at the Richard Dawkins Foundation website, presumably from someone within the community:

"We (like there is a 'we' in the atheist community) should have second best speakers at events, choose them solely on the colour of their skin, otherwise we might appear racist.

We should have second best speakers at events, choose them solely on the colour of their gender, otherwise we might appear sexist."

Whoooooooosh.

The assumption that minority speakers are inherently second best? Now that is racist and sexist.

This is identical to atheism's so called "women problem." It's not that we lack worthy non-white atheists: It's that we have plenty of wonderful non-white atheists who we forget about. If you think people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Maryam Namazie, Hemant Mehta, Ariane Sherine, Salman Rushdie, and Debbie Goddard are "second rate," you are part of the problem.

Where it really needs to be improved is at conferences. Events like TAM seem to be improving its representation of women, and it's not just tokenism - I thought all of the female speakers were brilliant. But you know who some of the most disappointing speakers were? People who keep getting re-invited because of their fame, but just re-hashed old talks, gave crappy Q&A sessions, or bored everyone to tears. When all of those people happen to be old white men, it certainly doesn't look good. Even if it's the unintentional effect of attempting to sell tickets, it makes it seem like someone is choosing second-rate old white male speakers over first-rate minority speakers.

I'm sure it's not deliberate, but if we don't fix our diversity problem now, we're going to have oodles of problems down the road (check out Greta Christina's talks about the parallels between our movement and the GLBT movement, and you'll know why). We need to start being more inclusive if we want the atheist movement to be successful. This is already starting to happen, with groups like the African Americans for Humanism and L.A. Black Skeptics becoming more and more active.

But denying we have the problem and that it's our job to fix it? Not helping, people.

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