I don’t remember exactly how it came up, but Sally asked me what my background was (I think she said something like “where are you from?”) I told her I was from Canada, and then (predictably) the conversation went something like this:
Sally: No, but where are you from really?
Sally: Fine, what’s like, your background
Me: I’m black
Sally: Okay, but where are your parents from?
Me: They can’t be from Canada?
Sally: Why are you making this so difficult? I’m not being racist or anything, I’m being complimentary! I love black people!
Me: You love all black people?
Sally: Yeah totally! You guys have good taste in music, and you’re so laid-back!
This is conversation I’ve had more times than I care to recall. First of all, there’s a lot of things that I do that don’t fall into the “black people” stereotype: I am an accomplished classical violist; I have two university degrees in science; I grew up in a small mountain town in rural BC. You’re not going to see a guy like me on BET or TBS, unless it’s as a completely tokenist character (“wow, this black guy is so different from the other ones on the show! We’re diverse!”) The only black people I’ve ever seen who even remotely resemble me are Alvin fromThe Cosby Show and Lem from Better off Ted, and even then they were socially awkward turbo-nerds. I’ve long made peace with the fact that I’m not archetypal, it doesn’t really bother me. What does bother me is the implication that my entire identity can be boiled down to the colour of my skin, or more specifically the colour of my father’s skin. While my racial identity does inform my outlook on life, so does my scientific training and my musical background. It doesn’t matter that Sally wasn’t saying anything negative about me, the fact is that she was attributing to me the characteristics of people who may or may not be like me in any way, simply because we have similar skin colour. I was at a different bar talking to a different girl who told me that I was probably good at scaring people because I’m black, and that “(us) guys” are good in a fight. Again, not necessarilynegative, but definitely not true (most of the time I’m about as threatening in a fight as an asthmatic koala bear).
This perhaps wouldn’t be a big deal if it didn’t go any farther than conversations at bars with drunk girls. The reality is, however that we form impressions of other people based on race, whether we acknowledge it or not.
In another post, he marvels at how bewildering the reality of genuine religious belief is:
While I am obviously aware that people believe ridiculous superstitions and allow their actions to be guided by them, on rare occasions I will be struck by a deep realization that this is not simply a fun thing to argue about on the internet. Somewhere in the world right now there is a young woman married to a grotesque old man that she doesn’t love, who honestly believes that her fate is justified by the will of her deity. Somewhere else, a young gay man contemplates suicide because he honestly believes that the way he feels is an abomination in the eyes of his creator. Somewhere else, a world leader with access to a massive arsenal of weapons makes his decisions guided by his interpretation of an ancient book. Somewhere else, a mother instructs her children that their neighbours deserve to die because they worship the wrong gods.
These are things that happen every day. They’re so wildly surreal that my brain doesn’t seem to connect them to reality, treating them as abstractions much the same way it copes with the physical laws of the universe – things that are true, but not viscerally so. Occasionally their deeper semantic truth pokes through for a moment and completely throws me for a loop, but most of the time they just putter away in the background.
I can only surmise that this comes from the fact that I am surrounded, for the most part, by people for whom faith is either a non-issue, or who agree with my position on it. I don’t really get into religious debates often, and even when I do I don’t really connect with the fact that this person actually thinks this is true. It’s operating from a position of priviliege, wherein I can’t even start to see what colour the sky is on their planet, because their entire way of belief is foreign to me. Even when I was a believer, I wasn’t so completely god-swarmed that my faith meaningfully coloured my day-to-day reality. I have never believed in the way that someone who is willing to strap a bomb to her/his chest and detonate it in a crowded market believes. That kind of blind faith is beyond me.
Even if you are a theist (and would you please de-lurk so I know you’re out there?), I think we can build a consensus around the merits placing absolute trust in individual people. There is no shortage of examples of religious leaders who have demonstrated the capacity to lie and distort theological claims to dupe unwitting followers. Those examples include violence against self and others, betrayal of family, complete inversion of ethical principles – any thing that one might describe as ‘sin’. Even if you do believe that some kind of god exists, surely we can get together on the premise that trust should not be given to those that claim its favour.
But this is my main gripe with religion: I don’t really have to speculate what the mechanism is for these kinds of slime to gain the unquestioning trust of their followers. Religion is built on the promotion of unquestioning trust. Trust in the absence of evidence is the fundamental stuff of theistic religion
Most well said, and a perfect excuse to play one of my very favorite songs of all time, which is all about the nightmare of controlling, over-powerful religious teachers:
Finally, Ian has actually stopped by Camels With Hammers before, to offer his thoughts on whether atheists should build traditions deliberately, on Christian opposition to meaningless sex, and on the importance of trust in polyamory. He replied to my post Islam, 9/11, and “True Religion” (Or “What Could George W. Bush Mean When Talking About True Islam?”) with remarks in his own post “No True Nigerian”. (Though in that case, he thought we disagreed, whereas I completely agree with him–the only kind of completely “true religion” there could ever be would be a distinctly faithless kind).
And, most flatteringly, in his first comment ever on Camels With Hammers, he suggested that something I said “needs to be nailed to a church door in Wittenberg”. I expect similar accolades to be coming his own way regularly. I for one expect to be nailing his posts to my blog regularly. The camels’ hammers are all ready for action.
It is an honor, for now, to return the gracious welcome he offered me when I came to Freethought Blogs, here on the occasion of his blog’s own arrival down the street. Welcome to the neighborhood, it’s great to see you move on up thanks to the Freethought Blogs bump!