I don’t think Mark Schierbecker said anything racist on his Skepticon panel.

I don’t think Mark Schierbecker said anything racist on his Skepticon panel. November 16, 2015

UPDATE: Danielle Muscato has issued an apology to Mark.


I was asked by Lauren Lane, current head organizer of Skepticon, to put this at the top of the post (and, obviously, obliged):

I am no longer involved with Skepticon and that your views are not the views of Skepticon or the organizers.  I was also not present for the event.

I figured that I wasn’t at the event would be implied by the fact I had to watch the video, but yeah, definitely wasn’t there.

I try so hard to avoid this type of drama, I hope that’s clear.  But in this case I feel like I ought to say something.  I also want to first say that I know this is a departure from my usual style.  Ordinarily if I think somebody has made a mistake I’ll wait for things to calm down and then talk to them privately to make my feelings known.  This approach gives a situation a chance to get resolved without it becoming a public spectacle.  However, as you’ll see, this one started public and therefore has to be addressed publicly.

At Skepticon 8 this last weekend a panel was held that included Mark Schierbecker (the photojournalist and MU student who captured MU teacher Melissa Click trying to eject him and other media from one of the recent on campus protests) and Danielle Muscato.  I did not attend, but soon after I began hearing of how Mark said racist things on the panel.  Even Danielle Muscato (who was Mark’s publicist) put out a release saying, among other things:

During the session, Mark said multiple indefensibly racist things that, in my opinion, cannot be reconciled with a continued relationship with him. I regret this because I believe Mark is a good person who is trying his best. He admits that, like many others white Americans, he is not immune to unwelcome racism in his own thinking, and that he is working consciously to improve it. I admire that in principle. I, too, am constantly working to address my own privilege as a white person.

On stage, I attempted to give Mark several chances to clarify his apparently racist remarks as not racist, but in my opinion, I was unsuccessful. I no longer wish to be associated with him in a representative way. I deeply apologize to everyone present, and to the Skepticon organizers, and to anyone else who may see footage of this online later.

I admire and just generally like Danielle very much.  So I watched the video to see what was up since I didn’t want to convict Mark based on an accusation.  Here’s the video of that panel so you can watch for yourself.

I watched the video because I noticed something that has been a pattern in the past with a particular crowd.  What happens when Donald Trump says something stupid?  We quote him, right?  We give context for what was said that was supposedly stupid. If Mark had said something horribly racist, people would be quoting him.

They weren’t doing that.

And to my eye it quickly became obvious why: Mark didn’t say anything that was racist.  I watched the whole video looking for an instance of what was claimed but not provided (so doing the digging myself) and it was a waste of my time that will cause me to further distrust this particular crowd in the future.  I’m glad I didn’t make a conviction based on the accusation here.

Not only did I see zero racism from Mark on that panel, I thought the “Are you a racist?” question came completely out of left field.  I also heard Mark say “Fuck racism” and “I am a white adult who has to level the road for black children.”  You may argue that his approach is suboptimal (which I’m not sold on), but calling this person a racist is the zenith of absurdity.

Now maybe there’s some racism here I’m not seeing. I’m totally cool making that admission. However, even if that were shown, I don’t think it could be more clear that Mark meant none or was unwilling to talk about it to potentially have his mind changed.  And if you want to convince me there was actually racism in what Mark said, point out exactly what Mark said that you think was racist and why.  Help me understand.  Don’t just say it was racist and expect me to accept that when I’ve already told you I didn’t see any racist statements from Mark.

What’s more, even if there’s something there I’ve missed, I think anybody calling it “obvious” isn’t playing fair.

And don’t act like me saying “I see no racism here” is the same as saying “I see no racism in society” or that I don’t think people should be indignant about racism.  Neither is the case and obviously so, and framing it that way would be just plain dishonest.

The mantra, and we’re sure to hear it (perhaps even before an attempt is made to clarify what Mark said that was racist), is “intent is not magic” which is often said to mean “intent is irrelevant” which it isn’t. People who are not malicious can mistakenly say racist things. Those people are on our side.  People on our side can make mistakes.  They need fair conversation – not to be treated like they don’t care about racism when they obviously do.

That being said, I still see no racism from Mark and I also think that the audience is being unnecessarily hostile. Frankly, I’m sickened.  For instance, at 1:11:45 (because time stamping your grievance is important), Mark talks about how public speaking is difficult for him being diagnosed with autism (sensory overload, if you want to read about it) and how he’ll probably go up to his room and cry after this as a result and one audience member can be heard saying “White tears, stop it.”  I was without words hearing that.  To be indifferent, or even contemptuous of a person’s travails because of the color of their skin seems to undermine the entire cause.  That, to me, spoke to the hostility in much of the audience.  It’s not like white people are immune to the neurological hardships of autism or that such pain doesn’t count just because a person is white.  Jesus Christ.

That’s undoubtedly why Mark looks so rattled in the video he released afterward:

Mostly I’m just confused. It seems obvious to me that Mark is not the enemy of black people, he’s just a journalist with a disagreement about what private citizens can do to suppress freedom of the press/speech. Whether you agree or not the solution is to hash it out, not to demonize the dude as a racist when he clearly isn’t. You can say he’s done a *racist thing* (which I don’t think he has), but to extend that into calling him a racist or to imply that he’s working against the well-being of a racial minority due to the contents of this video is ludicrous.

It turns out that good people can unwittingly do stupid things (I think that is what Danielle has done here, and I still like her because everything I know about her tells me this is an exception to her standard fare, not the rule – just like an unwitting racist statement from Mark would have been if it were present in this video clip). If you think they’re not different from malicious people who are proudly racist, I’m not sure what kind of conversation we can have since that type of nuance is necessary for the discourse to even effectively take place.

Demonizing people on our side, even when they’re wrong or do something stupid, needs to stop (cue: “JT is telling us not to criticize racists!” when what I’m really calling for is fair criticism that assumes the best of people on our side). Sadly, it’s becoming ingrained in the culture of parts of the political left.

What’s also important is to make sure everybody knows that I don’t think making a mistake makes you a bad person. I’ve made loads of mistakes and I don’t think I’m a bad person, so have you.  I definitely don’t think Danielle Muscato is a bad person. I think she’s made a mistake and I’ve listed my reasons, but that is NOT the same as saying she’s a bad person.  Danielle has gone to bat for me in the past against many of the same people now calling Mark a racist.  She has a history of standing up for what she thinks is right and, in my estimation, being right most of the time.  I love and respect her for that.  I just think she’s wrong on this particular occasion, and that ain’t a fuckin’ crime.  Hell, I wouldn’t even be blogging about it if it weren’t already a public shitstorm.

But it needs to be said: I don’t think Mark did a damn thing wrong and, even if there’s an unwitting transgression I’ve missed he definitely doesn’t deserve any of this.  I’ve seen this crowd go after people’s jobs for perceived misdoings.  I’ve seen them try to win through shame and all other means of coercion.  What’s happening to Mark has the possibility to affect his career and that’s not right.  That needs to be said.

Possible Arguments/Responses to Arguments

One might point out how wrong it was to have a white man and a white woman on a panel about the MU protests with no representatives for Concerned Student 1950.  There’s definitely merit there, but as I understand it efforts were made to get those representatives on the panel and they declined.  Neither Mark, Danielle, or Skepticon can be blamed for that.  You might then argue that the panel shouldn’t have been put on at all.  That’s fine, but that’s not Mark’s fault.

People might also say that he shouldn’t have covered the tent city.  While that’s up for discussion, that has nothing to do with any supposed racism of the things he said on that panel.  But to the point, we rely on the media to keep us abreast of what’s going on in the world.  It’s hard for me to buy the argument that you simultaneously want people informed of the situation but you want to keep journalists out.

Preempting the Usual

And now for clean up because I know what’s going to come here because it’s as regular as the sunrise.

1.  I’m only defending Mark because I’m a racist too.  My whole past will be ignored and I’ll be just as racist as the swastika-wearing folk and flagrantly racist Republicans I denounce and criticize on my blog on the regular for their racist words and policies.  Even though I’ve repeatedly plugged the works of people like Tony Pinn and David Tamayo, I’ll be a racist.

2.  I’ll be called out for my privilege (as if that makes me wrong and thus, settles the argument). These things are much easier than taking the time to get into the nuance of the situation and have long become the substitute for arguments from a particular subset of the atheist movement.  But if my privilege has made me wrong in this case it should be easy to point out how/where I’m wrong rather than just saying I’m privileged, as if the nature of my birth makes me incapable of having an accurate opinion, and calling it a day.

3.  It will also be pointed out to me that anger at racial injustice is justified as if I’ve ever said differently (but it will sure paint the picture that I have, right?). And yes, anger at racial injustice is very justified and very necessary. But lets not imagine that makes it ok to point it at a journalist who abhors racists and didn’t say a single racist thing.

4.  Oh, and let’s not forget “JT is trying to silence black people” when, in reality, I’m saying that fair and generous criticism of people who share our same goals SHOULD be done in lieu of demonizing them as the opponent of those shared goals.  To any rational person it should be clear that saying “your criticism should be fair” or “cut the guy some slack for making an honest mistake” (which is what I will be saying even if I become convinced that Mark said something racist) is not the same as saying “shut up.”  Wanting fairness all around is compatible with despising racism.

5.  I’ll be asked why I use my time defending a white guy from being publicly demonized rather than to oppose racism elsewhere as if the two are incompatible.  Easy answer: they’re not mutually exclusive.  This is just another way to imply that I have some sneaky motivation or that I’m secretly racist instead of a guy who sees somebody being publicly smeared who didn’t deserve it and wants to speak up on his behalf.  It’s to suggest that I only ever defend white guys who are being treated unfairly when anybody who has read my blog knows that shit ain’t true.

Dishonest framing always seems to plague discussions about social justice, so here’s to getting ahead of it.

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