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.
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.