Intersectionality, Social Justice & Secularism: An Interview with Sikivu Hutchinson

Intersectionality, Social Justice & Secularism: An Interview with Sikivu Hutchinson March 17, 2015

While it can be nifty to specialize in a narrow niche, I always tip my hat off to those capable of addressing a broad stream of concerns with poise and academic prowess. I’m not sure how many can devote themselves to educating the public on a multiplicity of significant matters – but I am acquainted with one woman who can and does.

2013 Secular Woman of the Year, Sikivu Hutchinson confronts issues related to culture, gender, and atheism with a passion for acutely advocating for misrepresented and marginalized communities.

I’m honored to call her a friend. Her battle against the opposing tide of debilitating social constructs of privilege and the many consequent expressions of disparity is, too, my fight. Her dedication to disabusing denigrating misinformation attributed to people of color is, too, my struggle.

I was able to interview Hutchinson last year but have since updated it with additional info more germane to present-day events.

SINCERE KIRABO: Right out the gate, I want to ask you – what are your feelings towards the “New Atheism” movement? Also, and more specifically, what challenges do you see facing godless people of color midst their majority white brethren?

SIKIVU HUTCHINSON: African American atheists and freethinkers have a different trajectory from mainstream white atheists in the New Atheist movement. We come from communities that are still predominantly faith-based due to the legacies of capitalism, white supremacy, and racism. We live in a country where black lives — from that of Barack Obama to Trayvon Martin to Renisha McBride and Marissa Alexander – are actively devalued and criminalized.Given this nexus of disenfranchising conditions, most African American atheists don’t have the luxury/privilege to explicitly reject or repudiate religion because for some it symbolizes a rejection of community, culture and history.

Hence, some progressive black atheists and freethinkers recognize that traditional atheist issues like church/state separation and fighting creationism simply have no deep cultural relevance for black folk precisely because we are disproportionately impacted by egregious racial wealth gaps, segregation, mass incarceration, unemployment, and homelessness. Consequently, the black atheist lens has to be broader, more intersectional and more politicized than that of the mainstream.

SINCERE: You are the author of a few books which address race, gender, secularism, and politics; could you please tells  us a bit about them?

SIKIVU: Godless Americana addresses the need to create a just society based on the principles of anti-racist Godlessness whilst rejecting supernatural, faith-based explanations for the universe and the development of morality, ethics and accountability. I argue that broader humanist/secular/atheist movements have not addressed social justice issues of women’s rights, civil rights, anti-racism, heterosexism, the racial wealth gap, and educational apartheid.

Moral Combat is an overview of black secular humanist thought, activism and social history from an African American feminist perspective. It also examines the insidious impact of the Religious Right on public policy and its intersection with the Tea Party movement in the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election.

SINCERE: Educate me more on the plight of being not only Black, not only a nonbeliever, but also a female. Describe to me the uphill battle women such as you face that many either ignore or, more likely, don’t consider.

SIKIVU: In both books I critique black humanist traditions through an appraisal of the lived experiences, social capital and economic context of segregated African American communities. The lived experiences of black female non-believers are informed by negotiating sexism, racism, heterosexism and poverty in highly religious communities that often depend on the social and institutional resources provided by churches and other faith-based institutions.

Given these realities and the degree to which African American women are constructed as the hypersexual amoral other, it’s extremely difficult for some women to reject religious orthodoxy because there simply aren’t any secular humanist institutions in our communities that give voice and validity to our experiences.

There are certainly no secular entities that provide some of the social welfare, professional, cultural and educational resources that liberal/progressive faith institutions provide to poor communities of color. These are some of the key deficits of capitalism and neo-liberalism (under an ostensibly secular society) that the mainstream white atheist movement simply cannot and will not address.

SINCERE: In what way does the media alter the public’s perception of Blacks in the US?

SIKIVU: The mainstream media, because it is a corporate capitalist entity, is almost singularly focused on presenting African Americans in the most negative caricatured light. If you go abroad the dominant perception of African Americans is that we’re all shiftless, lazy, gang-banging, drug-dealing violent criminals (who rap and play basketball).

The media has a huge impact on the self-image of African-American youth because they’re only exposed to a very limited objectified view of themselves and their communities. This leads to them having low self-expectations, and often, limited horizons/ambitions.

For example, when I talk to African American girls about their life and career aspirations the majority occupations they reference are nurse and cosmetologist. Black girls can’t see themselves as scientist or doctors because they don’t see themselves represented in the media and the dominant culture as anything other than caregivers.

Black boys often wind up internalizing the violent images they see of themselves—such that these “models” become a self-fulfilling prophecy for how they behave in their schools, communities, and interpersonal relationships.

Study after study confirms that white Americans form their opinions about Blacks based on dominant media stereotypes. Hollywood films that continue to feature whites as “universal” symbols of heroism, romance, leadership, beauty and political agency seriously deform white views of people of color because when we are present at all in these depictions we’re the colorful backdrop to the white enterprise.

Stats from the Actor’s and Writer’s Guild indicate that white males (surprise surprise) continue to dominate lead/speaking roles in Hollywood films as well as the majority of behind the camera positions.

SINCERE: I enjoy reading your work. I came across something you wrote and it really hit home to me. On your blog, you said, “For many humanists of color who live in communities where Black and Latino youth are being relentlessly pipelined into prisons—redressing educational apartheid overall is more critical than the mainstream secular emphasis on creationism and school prayer.” Please, elucidate on this point.

SIKIVU: Simply put, secular white folk have the luxury and the privilege to focus exclusively on these two issues because they do not have to worry about being criminalized, policed and dehumanized by a regime of mass incarceration which begins in elementary school for African American children. Black children are the most suspended, expelled and incarcerated youth population in the US and this fact shapes their limited access to and long-term prospects for a college education, professional jobs, and housing.

SINCERE: In relation to the illusory hierarchy of New Atheism and the much heralded Four Horsemen of its movement: Do you see a point in time where godless Blacks could rise to prominence in the public eye?

SIKIVU: The only way I could see an atheist of African descent becoming a mainstream commodity like Dawkins or Harris is if they espoused similar views, i.e., views which are not threatening to the existing patriarchal capitalist white power structure. Truly critical black intellectuals are reviled by the dominant culture and politically radical or progressive atheist black thinkers would be perceived as doubly traitorous/dangerous.

SINCERE: For the majority of Blacks in the US, their cognitive sails are still attached to that of Christianity. In your opinion, what is the best way for us to neutralize its anesthetic and regressive bondage on our people?

SIKIVU: By promoting the fact that there is an alternative tradition of freethought, humanism and skepticism within African American communities which stretches back to Frederick Douglass. Christian dogma can also be actively challenged by pushing for greater representation of these traditions in school curricula, print publications, youth leadership programming and social media.

Humanist educators, activists, and writers need to show that there is a connection between this tradition of African American freethought and a more progressive vision of human rights, gender equity, sexuality, economic justice and anti-racism. They also need to do the hard work of outreach and community development in African American neighborhoods to create alternative cultural, social and professional institutions that provide some of the same social welfare resources as churches and faith-based organizations.

Even though the Millennial generation is less religious than previous generations, many foster care and homeless African American youth seek assistance from churches and faith-based organizations because there are no other institutions offering support in the community. So as always, intersectional coalition-building with progressive believers on LGBTQ rights, women’s and reproductive rights, environmental rights is essential.

I believe that this has the potential to challenge conservative Christian notions of women’s roles vis-a-vis the family, heterosexual relationships and life ambitions, as well as homophobic/heterosexist notions of traditional “family values” that demonize LGBTQ people.

SINCERE: Last year, you pioneered the “Moving Social Justice” conference, a first ever event primarily dedicated to ever-pressing social issues and the shared struggle of secular humanist people of color and their allies. Please, share with me how this event first got started and why you think it’s important.

SIKIVU: The MSJ conference was designed to bring social justice activism to the fore of radical humanism and atheism as it relates to the particular struggles of people of color within the context of hyper-segregation, downward economic mobility, mass incarceration and the neoliberal privatization of public education in black and Latino schools.

These systems have had the most devastating impact on our communities and have only intensified the grip of organized religion and faith precisely because there is no comprehensive social welfare safety net that addresses these disparities.

Black Skeptics Los Angeles had long discussed organizing a conference around these issues. Last year’s conference was organized by BSLA, the People of Color Beyond Faith network, Black Freethinkers, and Houston Black Non-Believers. It focused on school-to-prison pipelining, confronting homophobia and transphobia in the Black Church, women of color feminism and racism in the atheist movement.

In addition to spotlighting speakers from a variety of regional people of color secular organizations, the conference featured a range of local activists and organizers from the faith, news media and nonprofit sectors who were receptive to humanist perspectives. The majority of the local organizations were ones that I’ve worked with in the Los Angeles community.

The long-term goal is to gain traction with community-based and progressive organizations to coalition build around these issues. For example, Black Skeptics Los Angeles recently became part of the national Dignity in Schools Campaign against school push-out and prison pipelining (African American students have the highest suspension, expulsion and juvenile incarceration rates in the nation).

We also spearheaded the First in the Family Humanist scholarship fund for foster care, homeless, undocumented and LGBTQ youth. These youth populations have some of the highest incarceration rates and lowest college-going and college graduation rates. So a secular social justice focus must address the significant barriers students of color have in receiving a culturally responsive, quality education that prepares them for college and substantive careers (rather than prison and low-wage employment or chronic unemployment).

SINCERE: Unsurprisingly, I have taken some flak for my tenacious analysis of social inequalities and how these views are also present within secular circles.

What is your take on the dismissal or criticism you’ve received due to, as some perceive, “going against the grain” in your very public dedication to having conversations about race, social oppression, and privilege?

SIKIVU: I don’t ever expect to receive anything but pushback on my social justice organizing and critique of white supremacy/white privilege in the secular movement because this movement is based on a disavowal that these are institutionalized/systemic within American society and beyond.

Because they view religion as the ultimate social ill, white secular elites have long believed that they are magically exempt from being privileged by and implicated in institutionalized racism and white supremacy. They don’t understand or choose to ignore the socioeconomic and class-based firmament of organized religion vis-à-vis capitalism.

Many simply don’t see themselves as benefiting from invisible, systemic advantages and entitlements that “white” people (acknowledging the historical construction and malleability of that category over time) have always enjoyed in a society based on racial apartheid, residential segregation, educational inequity and gross wealth disparities.

SINCERE: The term intersectionality has been highlighted more as of late. What, exactly, does it mean? How may we – at least those with egalitarian ambitions – attempt to achieve greater awareness and progress regarding the many issues that put certain people/groups at a disadvantage?

SIKIVU: Intersectionality means respecting and validating the full nexus of difference that makes up our identities, experiences and world views. Intersectionality for me means that my personhood and subjectivity are shaped by being an African American middle class, straight, female cisgendered, able-bodied, college educated, Standard English-speaking sexual assault survivor who lives in a highly segregated, overpoliced, underserviced predominantly African American and Latino community with few living wage jobs.

Thus, intersectionality has everything to do with occupying multiple locations in time, space and history, as well as having multiple sources of social and cultural capital. Traditional “single variable politics” (exemplified by the First and Second Wave women’s movements, early American socialist and communist liberation movements and, of course, the modern civil rights movement) focus on racism, sexism, class inequality or homophobia to the exclusion of an analysis that considers how these dynamics “intersect”.

For example, due to Eurocentric white supremacist paradigms of femininity based on slavery, imperialism and colonialism, black women have never been considered fully human nor fully female. Hence, they are targeted and criminalized by systems of policing/mass incarceration in disproportionate numbers than are white women while having the lowest levels of class mobility and household wealth, as well as the highest levels of sexual violence.

Historically this nexus was not considered to be a “feminist” issue by mainstream white women’s organizations. It has been only recently, due to the activism and scholarship of women of color, that it’s been viewed as a focus for “legitimate” feminist struggle. So intersectional discussions must go beyond the usual tokenistic “celebrations of difference” and should be based on a willingness to develop a critical consciousness of the historical, structural and institutional ways the “nexus of difference” is manifest in peoples’ lived experiences.

Again, it’s not simply about inclusion, diversity or making disenfranchised groups more “visible” within the fabric of hierarchical structures—intersectionality is about gaining agency, control and the right to self-determination.

Sikivu Hutchinson is a feminist, atheist and author. Sikivu blogs at blackfemlens and can also be found on twitter.


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