This past weekend at the Secular Social Justice Conference held in Houston, I was honored to serve on a diverse panel of secular women to discuss feminism in the secular movement, specifically as it pertains to women of color. Moderated by writer and educator Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson, we discussed the unique challenges faced by secular feminists of color within the atheist community. Note, I’m using the “of color” verbiage because our panel included two African American women, myself and AJ Word of Secular Sistahs, one Filipina, Maggie Ardiente of the American Humanist Association, and one former Muslim, Heina Dadabhoy of Heinous Dealings on Freethought Blogs.
During the discussion, it was noted that most of us see erasure as a huge problem in the secular movement. Many white atheists believe they are so rational in their approach, they couldn’t possibly be racist or sexist. That belief leads to lost opportunities for having serious conversations about the treatment many women of color receive within atheist circles, and society at large. Spokesperson/tokenism and tone policing are also issues we face in these white-dominated spaces, as well as outright targeting and harassment. Of course, a lack of empathy for urgent social justice issues is a major concern, as many white atheists only see science education and separation of church and state as worthwhile issues to address.
With these challenges in the secular movement, coalition building outside of the movement was considered as an alternative for social justice work. With the history of violence against women (mentally and physically,) is it worth it to attempt to form bonds with progressive religious organizations? While I know individual progressive Christians willing to step up and work with secular organizations, I must admit I’m hesitant to work with Christian organizations because of their inherent misogyny. Black women in Christian churches are many times oppressed BY the church while doing most of the actual work IN the church. As a person living with Post Traumatic Church Syndrome as a result of church abuse, part of my self care includes avoiding churches altogether. Beyond that, I wonder (like plenty of other secularists) if religious organizations want to work with us? We are godless heathens, after all.
My solution to this conundrum is to focus on organizing secular women of color to fight for ourselves. As an extension of the self determination I have as a black woman, my determination to fight for secular, feminist, black women is just as strong. We can do this for ourselves, and seeing the beautiful faces at #SSJCon simply reinforced this reality. I had never been in a space filled with so many atheists of color, much less atheist women of color. Some were life-long nonbelievers, and some, like me, deconverted after being unable to ignore the contradictions of religion. We were all there, together, seeking solutions to the problems that plague our communities and it was amazing.
So what do we do next? How do we harness this power of godless black and brown women to change the trajectory of our lives and communities?
First, we need to start in our own homes, families and communities by becoming visible as much as we can. Those of us who have children need to teach them about not only reason and logic, but gender and racial equality. All of us must live our lives authentically, existing unapologetically in our truth as secular feminists and humanists. When we are not afraid to live our lives this way, when we speak up against injustice and give voice to a segment of society that is invisible, we not only make it visible, but we make it plausible, as well. Seeing our fearless declaration of “good without god, equality for all” helps others who feel isolated because they hold the same ideas, but have never seen anyone like them represented in the movement. This is why organizations such as Secular Sistahs and the Women’s Leadership Project are so important. These groups not only provide us with a safe space away from misogynists both in and outside of secularism and our ethnic groups, but they also make visible a segment of secularism that is terribly underrepresented.
Secondly, we need to reach out to black and Latina women especially, regardless of social status, and provide the support they traditionally seek (and don’t always find) in the church. Of course, some churches provide services, but many are just as emotionally damaging as an abusive relationship. Just as in those situations, we need to be there to provide support and a way out. Not just emotional support, but real, tangible help in the form of financial aid, educational aid, housing assistance, and the like. As some have said before me, if we want to reach them, we must provide a better alternative to what they perceive they are already getting through traditional religious organizations.
Finally, there is a need to go into schools, create community programs and increase support of secular student groups. More and more young people are rejecting religion and embracing equality, but they need our support. There are ministers in some schools on a weekly basis, under the guise of motivational talks. The same needs to be done for secular students, girls especially, so we can counteract the narratives they are receiving and reassure them that feminism isn’t scary or mean. It is simply equality and we deserve it.