This is a collaborative perspective piece with the mirror done with my friend and colleague Dr. Zachary Moore. We reflect and ruminate on a common experience regarding one of the more controversial local DFW campaigns a few years back. In it, we address privilege and the diverging secular community. I welcome you to read his piece here – either before or after mine. I’ve also included an audio version at the bottom for those that would enjoy the conversational experience. Thanks, Zach.
As I saw the pastors sitting there, perched with their looks of righteous indignation claiming yet another attack on the Black community, it was clear…
Zach screwed up.
As an 80’s kid growing up in Brooklyn, my memories are full of examples of being addressed by men like these pastors. I knew a few White people here and there (mostly landlords), but for the most part I lived a very segregated life, like so many people of color, relegated to several of the affordable slums of NY. After school I took daily lessons from my multi-ethnic friends at Sesame Street only to be reminded that I had to leave them behind while dodging the dealers on the Ave. LeVar taught me to “read more,” but the only rainbows I saw came from the occasional spray of a fire hydrant—or the double rainbows reflected in the oil-stained asphalt. For many people in the outer boroughs much of the work was in the City. That’s where many of my lessons on diversity came from, as I watched people that looked like me service people that looked like him.
My elementary and middle schools were almost entirely Black, except for this one girl I fancied named Sharon who had the darkest hair, palest skin, the softest voice when speaking to me, and the first set of blue eyes I’d seen up close. I remember she’d occasionally get teased for being different by bullies, but she knew how to hold her own. As for Black History month, my very Black principal, Mr. Gober, made it last year round. We had many of the same textbooks as Zach did, but they were supplemented with a library of multiculturalism grounded in a heritage of pride. Not “Black Pride” per se—but a “pride in self”. That “knowledge of self” helped later in life when facing my own veil of “double consciousness”. So when these men looked down at him from their religious pedestals screaming “Martin help us all!” that familiar feeling of being taken to the principal’s office set in. The only difference was, although Mr. Gober didn’t care much for corporal punishment, these men were looking for flesh.
When I went into the world I felt ready to face many of the stereotypes and misconceptions people would have of me. I spent most of my academic years learning to respect other cultures and listening, but as a Black male I understood many of the dangers of challenging authority. I did not have privilege to. Within the confines of my own community—or surrounded by my “fam”—I could speak freely, but my tongue had been trained in the presence of others.
My ability to wear a whitewashed uniform worked in my favor when I entered the corporate world. I was confident to the point of being arrogant, but still non-threatening. I was surrounded by people that didn’t look like me, so whenever I felt truly “snowed out” the Black church served as nomadic shelter. I’d be accepted until my doubt revealed. We had communion with a cause, shared struggles, and similar social needs grounded in points of common heritage. I also didn’t have to explain or eschew my Blackness. I knew what the Black Church represented.
When I stepped into the secular community, hoping to find a similar kind of support, I didn’t. I found something different. I was alone and it was obvious to many (including Zach). Someone else gave me the nickname, “Token” (a la South Park), and it stuck. Seriously, that was the public term of endearment given to me. And yes, it was a blatant pejorative that would have pushed many other people of color rightfully away—but my uniform came with a shield of thickened skin. So I let the name stick because it made people uncomfortable when they heard it. To this day I’m not sure if they were more uncomfortable with the name or its accuracy.
It was a recurring indictment.
Not too long after my coming out locally, the secular local leaders (predominantly white men) decided to make their message of “godlessness” more public. Atheist Billboards were all the rage. The local ad had the words “” placed in the middle, buttressed by a collage of “diverse” smiling atheist faces including mine. It was to be placed on four of the buses of the Transportation Authority of Fort Worth (colloquially known as “the T”).
It’s a transportation system that is used primarily by… African Americans.
“The response from the Black community was almost immediate, and it took us completely by surprise.”
Surprise!? Not I! Could explain why he looked like he sat in judgment. (Aside: perhaps a prior conversation with one of the only visible people of color in the local movement would have helped. Perhaps having me at the first meeting with them—to translate—might have helped diffuse the racial component just a little. But in fairness, I was in the infancy of my activism).
“A coalition of Black pastors organized themselves from the earliest announcement of the campaign, and used their traditional tools of social justice activism to fight against us.”
Yep – textbook and predictable… to me.
“As the media picked up the story, it became apparent that this criticism had a racial component; none of the white pastors who were invited to comment on the story had similar criticisms of our campaign.”
They were going to have a field day with he who calleth himself the Chair of the Coalition of Reason.
I’ve learned that for many local White ministers, the church is an extension of “what” they are and it informs their world view, but does not define “who” they must be to cohere to the normative standard of race or self. Although the Black identity really isn’t monolithic (it’s more of a spectrum), some of the standards for acceptance include religion and ties to the Church. For many of those Black ministers, it wasn’t just an attack from the devil, it was an attack from the outside—criticizing their uniquely Black way of life, which is an ongoing struggle for African Americans. It is a contributing factor to their “veil”. Zach was a thief after their hope. He castigated the vehicle that helped set them free. Sure, it was a tool used for slave management but that’s not what THEY saw. It was an unwanted barrage of a contradictory message that challenged their identities and threatened their coalition. Though I welcome the challenge this represents as a Black atheist, I certainly understood the backlash against a White one.
In fact the inclusion of my round brown face in the ad didn’t help much. It pissed a few of them off even more! At the public hearing that brought much of this to a head, the glares and stares at Zach intensified. They didn’t expect to see me standing in his defense defiantly glaring right back at them, as only “one of theirs” could, like a rebellious child that would not give them the satisfaction of a whimper during the beating. I could hear them think “sellout.” I could feel their betrayal. My whitewashed suit, which had worked well in the corporate world, left me feeling naked in their eyes.
Honestly, if I could’ve just pulled them aside to explain that it’s the message and the method, not the people we were addressing—perhaps that might have been different. But for a minister who is the message and embodiment of his people, how would that have been any different. And how would I have defended the dismantling of a system that provides so much for so many. Even many of our historical Black Humanists and Freethinkers who personally shunned the church, advocated “reform first” because of the latent but apparent needs it served.
Zach looked stuck. I knew Archbishop Moneybags in the gators was playing on his White guilt, but for the rest of them—this was real. The community would side with them regardless because it had become a racial message and no matter my opinion or my oration, which was cut short, the battle was done. The result: no more religious ads of any sort on “the T”. A WIN! But one championed by a White patriarchal deaf savior, offering salvation with an ulterior motive, condemning their beliefs while singing hymns of reason with the refrain “you’re not good enough.” Another atheist “win” and a PR “fail” and Zach knew it. He looked like he needed a big black bro hug. I sat with him.
I could tell. I remember the whole American Atheist Slave billboard thing. Wow. That went over real well in the Black community (believers and non-believers felt that one). Then there was that recent dust storm where a popular White atheist YouTube guy decided to joke about eating watermelon and fried chicken on MLK’s birthday to celebrate it, then told us to get over it. Then there was that time when my fellow BN Organizer was left to answer “What Would Bria Do” about Black-on-Black crime by another well-meaning White atheist who felt that, regardless of the presentation topic, “this” was the issue. Ahemm… Still wondering why you need minority groups? And let me answer that Black-on-Black crime one— we should do the same thing that all Humanists should do—address the underlying contributors to the conditions that create that socio-economic environment where “people” regardless of race, “kill people” because they feel they can or feel as if they must. (That’s a tag for the Wall another day).
So many well-meaning atheists try but are blinded by the “white-out conditions” of their personal storm of privilege—and others remain silent and paralyzed altogether. All the while, the Black and minority secular community is autonomously organizing itself. These new secular groups continue to amass like remote protoplanets fed by the pieces of a multi-shaded accretion disc, orbiting a dystopian system of white secularists enjoying the growth in their angular size but failing to measure the shift from black and brown satellites. The relative movement has us seeing red, while the privileged see blue. (On the outskirts I see a “not so distant” ring forming with my Asian friends who remain yet unheard. From my remote outpost on Iapetus —I see you too. #Cosmos4Live!)
The sad fact is that the mainstream secular community, while priding itself on packing its speaker list with colorful faces, has yet to address many of its own biases due to its own indulgent belief that it is “better than” many of its religious counterparts. To be fair, as Zach has noted, it’s not just a secular thing. It’s something we also see in modern Christendom.
“I’ve seen hip, young, white Christian pastors, currently building churches surrounded by trendy, gentrified, urban neighborhoods who are struggling with this as well. They’ve done a good job learning about privilege and power, about the diversity of experience, and about the intersectionality of race and religion. But they’re still limited by well-intentioned tokenism, bolstered by the earnest hope that Christ really can make everyone colorblind, even if he’s two millennia late in doing so. But perhaps they will break through before the mainstream secular community manages to do so, and make the connection with the Black community that we’re too scared, or lazy, or both, to make. Perhaps they’ll even partner with Black Nonbelievers or Black Skeptics on some critical project while the mainstream secular community sits, unmoving. Wouldn’t that be ironic?”
Yes, it would be. Though we may NOT AT ALL agree with MANY of the beliefs our religious earthly co-inhabitants share (particularly those with names like Jakes, Cash, Sharpton, Tatum, Farrakhan, De Jesus, Jakes, Rodriguez, Perez, Martinez, Jakes (and did I mention Jakes?), many of them are succeeding in addressing the kinds of humanistic issues for people of color to which much of the general population remains ambivalent (or ignorant).
It would take more people looking in the mirror on this side of the fence to bridge much of the reflective nature of insular racial isolation that merely exist because we exist. I may be less optimistic and more jaded now about having a Big Tent, all-inclusive, Atheist movement of equals rocking out everyone’s favorite “Imagine”—but I cling to my hope in building relationships with people. Watching my dear friend Zach struggle with and learning to own his own privilege, occasionally stumbling—but aware of it, then becoming my staunchest ally—gives me hope. Maybe that’s where change starts.
When I set out, that’s what this was for me. Finding friends my family and I could relate to. It became more over the years, but at its core that’s what it was. I didn’t gain a white friend, I gained a friend who over time learned to be unafraid to talk to me about anything including race; a friend who proofreads my articles, blogs, and previews my talks. And when my AAH Billboard went up and I had to face a mind-bending anti-evolution Black minister whose argument was based on shame and the lack of clothing on human fossils as his premise (I KID YOU NOT)—he was right there with me (chuckling a little on the inside, but there). It was important to me and so it then became important to him. He’s no stranger to my children or my home and those that know us might say we sometimes make our bad ideas worse and though we may not agree on everything we often find ways to collaboratively succeed.
Maybe there’s something to that.
For the audio: