A Critique of White Privilege Midst Secular Reason

A Critique of White Privilege Midst Secular Reason February 6, 2015

Last Revised: 7/30/2015

The opinions expressed here are my own and do not reflect the views of any organization I may be affiliated with.


There’s been an article once again circulating, referring to a 2012 summit centered on women’s rights at the University of Qassim that saw representatives from 15 Arab countries in attendance. The problem: It was attended by all men. Literally.

It’s an easy thing to point out seemingly blatant hypocrisy of another while justifying our own, or to notice the biases of others while overlooking one’s own skewed perceptions. As well, with higher intelligence comes a higher capacity to rationalize decisions. I don’t think the latter applies here, as I think insularity and unenlightened considerations are the chief culprits. But judge for yourselves.

In December, I was interviewed by The Humanist Hour. Midst the discussion of Black Lives Matter and social justice within the secular movement, I defined white privilege as “A right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by white persons beyond the common advantage of all others; an exemption in many particular cases from certain burdens or liabilities.” Further, in Chris Stedman’s (“Faitheist”) article applying skepticism to privilege within the secular community, he used a definition of mine that states:

Privilege refers to the myriad of social advantages and benefits associated with being a part of an in-group. Said benefits exist, whether or not one has earned them or consciously vied for them. Almost universally, privilege is something conferred upon one without them having any say in the matter. Thus, when announcing the existence of privilege, it isn’t about shaming someone or pointing an accusatory finger. It’s about awareness and deflating inequality.

Why do I mention all this? Allow me to unpack.

False impressions sometimes buttress irrational, contradictory or mistaken beliefs. I mention this for two reasons. First: During the early stages of my heathenism, I was utterly sold on the assumption that nonbelievers were smarter and had (somehow) acquired the ideal tools of “logic and reason” to see the world for what it really is, and to be overall better human beings.

It all sounds so astonishingly naive now, but I used to believe this. I never experienced an “ah-ha” moment, instead encountering instance after instance in which experience and observation slowly chipped away at my false impression of the godless. I found that humanists, atheists and secularists, too, can and do believe in all manner of woo and superstition. Eventually, skepticism replaced certainty, and varied sources of philosophy supplanted the typical Four Horsemen rhetoric. I found myself no longer infatuated with the usage of the hollow buzzwords “logic and reason”, but rather, more concerned with the underlying implications of each given situation and proposition.

Most of all, I found that my prior belief forced me into a corner that I could not escape without admitting that, paraphrasing Hitchens: Even if nonbelief is established, you’ve got all your work still ahead of you to becoming a better person.

This brings me to the second reason I referred to false impressions: Referring to this article’s subject, what is inescapable within the ranks of the iconoclasts and self-described “freethinkers” is the continued tradition of selective perception, tribalism and privilege insofar as the focuses of certain groups, organizations and perceived leaders are concerned.

Consider Stormfront. As many know, Stormfront is an abysmal refuge frequented by White nationalists who readily gulp and dispense various brands of delusional “White’s Only” kool-aid. What some may not know is that one sub-forum within the theology section is dedicated to “Agnosticism/Atheism”.

In order to attain intimate knowledge, I had to infiltrate the hidey-hole of bigotry as a White man (of course). Due to needing a specified number of interactions on the forums before I could plummet into the depths of the atheist board, I was forced to partake in some incredibly debauched and backward conversations. Amid the fractal wrongness was, among other things, a proliferation of disbelief – outright rejection – of white privilege, as well as intense disrespect for Martin Luther King, Jr.

Stumbling across these recurrent themes brought to mind issues I continue to encounter beyond virtual space designated for uncolored, dulled acuity. A species of white privilege denialism looks like this:cults phelp wn post4

Nathan Phelps, son of former Westboro Baptist Church head Fred Phelps, has – or had, not sure he still believes this claptrap – a stance etched in an utter lack of understanding of what the term means that he’s censuring. I cut off the “like/share” numbers to not shine a spotlight on others, but this disjointed factoid (read: speculation sans corroboration, not fact) of verbiage was liked by 198 people and shared 32 times.

Thankfully, many detractors (including many Whites) attempted to disabuse the erroneous nature of this uneducated attitude that denied a palpable layer of reality. Still, there were those who co-signed Phelps’ grievously misguided sentiments. After witnessing comments contesting his stance, he doubled down, among other things saying: “I’m saying those labels don’t tell us a thing. They muddy the water. If I hold a bad idea, challenge the bad idea. The term ‘white privilege’ is simply a shaming tactic.”

Appeals to “female privilege”, to Ferguson and “black male bias” (huh?), and the absurd equivocation of white privilege with some imagined universal white perspective calls to mind Wolfgang Pauli, Nobel Prize-winning Austrian theoretical physicist. When presented with theories he found preposterous, Pauli would critique them as being “Ganz falsch!” (Utterly wrong!) – Such is the case here.

White privilege isn’t an arbitrary tag exploited for the purposes of obfuscation or to deviate from a topic. It references what I earlier fleshed out, and alludes to the power (dominion, clout) of the majority. This inequitable supremacy was crafted over a long period of time within this nation beginning with colonialism and sowed its way through the Charters of Freedom (or, “The Deeds of White Men Only”) and the everyday mindset of European descendants which infused with cultural norms and was passed down generation after generation.

Disparity isn’t always wrought by purposeful intent, but by implicit biases informed by the established transmission of contrived standards and stereotypes. Even the noblest of spirit, whether a common civilian, law enforcement or those who work for human rights, can be influenced by the insidious nature of such narratives.

This sovereignty and purposeful engineering of social systems to benefit Whites doesn’t all magically disappear just because one is unaware of it or incorrectly deduces that, because Blacks are no longer “living tools”, because the Civil Rights Act passed (note: Jim Crow still affected us after this edict), because public spaces are no longer segregated by overtly oppressive laws, because the U.S. is becoming more accepting of multiculturalism, because our president is Black, that everything is “Even Steven” now. If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.

Privilege is about majority rule, and the traits that become normalized, knitted into what is considered status quo. Do you think those who attended the all-men women’s rights conference recognized their male privilege? Do you think they fully comprehended the flaws within their strategy and concepts of equality? I would wager, though, that they (at least some percentage) had the best intentions. This is how the dispensation of class, male, cis-gendered, straight, religious – and white – privilege works.

I display this not to shame the man, but the very wrong idea submitted by an admired individual within the secular community whose error infects or reinforces the minds of others who may absorb and further transmit the falsity.

After all, it’s no secret that people are more susceptible to information given by those they revere, appreciate or trust. This is a key aspect of childhood religious indoctrination, where a child – whose prefrontal cortex, which plays a part in modulating judgment, is still developing – is engulfed by a particular belief that most “coincidentally” come to conclude as the truth for psychological and not philosophical reasons.

For another glimpse at intentional word vomit, here’s someone who has carved out a cult following with a peculiar brand of “pro-rationality” (even has a clever hand sign for “logic” that some enjoy mimicking). The man is adored by many, and recently said:cults wn post3

I truly hope pointing out the ignorance and poor form of this message isn’t necessary. But wait, there’s more. Surprisingly, Smith was surprised to find he was being criticized for his benighted attempt at humor. He took down the status but went on to say:

cults wn postEdited

cults wn post2Edited

Hundreds “liked” these smug, daft quips drenched in a distinctly foul stench of white privilege that commands the attention of those who either don’t know or don’t care about the adverse implications involved. Because “Hey, it’s all in good fun!” The jesting is on par with, and subtly hints at, fallacious arguments that detect “reverse racism” as being an actual thing.

Again, revisit my established definitions of white privilege. My commentary on Phelps can also be applied here to a point. Additionally, this complaint about “Black”-labeled groups and organizations is a common one that sails wide of a fairly gargantuan target. We are ridiculed for desiring forums for issues that uniquely affect us precisely because these needs aren’t being met by most mainstream platforms and spaces. This is similar to the issue womanism has with mainstream feminism, which tends to omit the necessity of intersectional feminism.

More appropriate integration would be awesome, and when that happens, the need for such institutions will fade. Until then, organizations like Black Nonbelievers and conferences like Secular Social Justice are integral in addressing a various issues that would otherwise shrivel in atrophy due to marginalization and neglect.
I’m wary of the individual who calls themselves a proponent of reason, evidence, or humanist ethics, yet are characteristically selective in the form, goals and values they promote. A lack of intersectional attentiveness leads to paternalism (whether intentional or by indirect, silent complicity). The tentacles of supremacist and privilege-based persuasion do not automatically dissolve once we disavow *hocus-pocus and god-beliefs.

A vital mode of thought synonymous with skepticism – and to a marginal degree, atheism and humanism – is the desire to question or inquire after things asserted or taken for granted. This act of mindfulness and reconsidering means that we engage in the principle of metacognition: thinking about our thinking. This standard ought to be incumbent upon all who wish to truly lead others down a more progressive path, one that departs from the dead-end trail of credulity, uncritical assumptions and traditional concepts that fortify factors that influence inequality.

One can both lobby for scientific literacy and social justice, criticize both religious harm and structural racism, promote evidence-based decision-making and equal human rights, seek to extinguish religious privilege (chiefly Christian privilege in the U.S.) and other forms of privilege. Don’t stop at scorning the favor that works against you, scorn the favor that works to your benefit but hinders others.

But perhaps I desire too much.

Yes, I know better now: A lack of belief in some imagined intentional agency doesn’t preclude cognitive error and multilayered failings of reason.

*Note: “Hocus pocus” is likely a corruption of the Catholic incantation “hoc est corpus”

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