While black Churches are burning, and black children are being gunned down by police, I felt it important to speak with someone who is involved in raising awareness on the role of racism and cultural imperialism in American society. I am honored to present to you all, Sikivu Hutchinson.
As a woman of color, and an atheist, how do you respond to the invocation of God in the Charleston tragedy?
It frustrates me but the invocation of God in crisis is a significant part of African American cultural and social history. As I wrote recently in an article entitled “Pushing Back on ‘God’ in Charleston”: “Radical black humanists, most notably Frederick Douglass and A. Philip Randolph, have challenged black religiosity under slavery while acknowledging the crucial role activist churches played in black self-determination.
Randolph’s critique of organized religion and the god concept was always coupled with a critique of capital and the imperialist occupation of black bodies and African countries. Churches dominated black communities because of the nexus of racial apartheid and capitalism.”
Organized religion and God belief continue to dominate African American communities because of these legacies. That said, clearly no loving god would allow a twenty six year-old in the prime of his life to be cut down in cold blood, nor abide by a five year-old having to play dead to avoid being murdered. And no moral god would demand forgiveness for a crime for which there has never—since the first African was stolen, chained, exploited and “imported”—been any reparations.
How do you view the role of faith and Church participation in the lives of women of color? What positives and negatives do you see?
Dehumanized and demeaned as hyper-sexual Jezebels or asexual Aunt Jemimas, black women have always been considered less human, less female, and less moral than “good” Christian white women—the gold standard for femininity, morality and Eurocentric beauty ideals. Thus, being tacitly religious is almost a litmus test for being a “good” morally upright black woman. In African American communities many of the rituals of female caregiving—i.e., cooking, socializing children, being the “rock” of the family, attending to holidays, etc.—invariably revolve around or evoke faith and religiosity. Buck these conventions and you’re subversive; challenge them publicly and you’re a race traitor and gender apostate.
On the other hand, because of the absence of secular or civic alternatives in communities of color, churches afford black women with social, cultural and professional networks that enable them to gain leverage in their communities. A few years ago I went to a NAACP awards ceremony where virtually every black woman honoree spoke of doing advocacy work through their churches. Many of these women supported youth groups, spotlighted juvenile justice issues, provided scholarship assistance, spearheaded tutoring programs, developed college financial aid resources, mentored foster care youth and gave legal aid counseling. This performance of religious fervor reconfirmed what I’d already known about black women’s organizing—namely, that social justice through faith-based communities was still the foundation for not just activism, but identity, self-affirmation and self-determination.
What ways do you think atheist and secular groups can better address racism and sexism in the modern world?
Progressive atheist, humanist and secular organization need to proactively and visibly mobilize around issues that go far beyond the usual church/state separation and “science and reason” agenda. When it comes to communities of color, far too often we see the big secular organizations pay lip service to “diversity” (i.e., spotlighting a few individual atheists of color and supporting the creation of safe spaces for atheists of color as their “diversity” agenda) while failing to grasp how religion thrives through structural inequities vis-à-vis race, class, gender and economic apartheid.
For example, you can’t fight for economic justice in communities of color without advocating for reproductive justice, unrestricted abortion rights and access to universal health care. You can’t preach “equality” of genders without redressing the heterosexist lack of representation of queer and trans people of color in K-12 curricula. You can’t advocate for LGBTQQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning) enfranchisement without confronting all of the mechanisms that criminalize queer and trans youth of color and make them at greater risk for being incarcerated, placed in foster care and/or becoming homeless. Coalitions that form around these intersectional issues should be actively promoted—especially those that cultivate ties with progressive believers and non-atheist secular community-based organizations. Further, non-believers who write about and organize around these issues should be tapped for leadership positions in national humanist and atheist organizations.
Your book “Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels” addresses race and the Rockwell-esque culture of white America. Do you see a rupture in non-believers that causes them to reconsider some implicit and inherited racism they may have previously been unaware of?
There are some glimmers here and there. Recently the American Humanist Association has made an effort to be more conscious of institutional racism in the secular movement and in mainstream society. There are a few white allies (Greta Christina, Richard Carrier, Rebecca Watson, Chris Stedman, James Croft and others) who try and raise consciousness about white privilege and racial politics in their writings and advocacy. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement Foundation Beyond Belief is hosting a July conference on humanism and racial politics. However, these efforts are few and far between and won’t have any lasting impact unless white atheist/humanist organizations put some programmatic and organizing muscle behind these forays.
What might you say to liberal women of faith who want to better understand humanists like yourself?
Most women of color believers have simply never met an open humanist/atheist woman of color. Yet secular and freethought traditions do exist among African American women, most notably in the literature and critical theory of major thinkers and novelists like Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry and Alice Walker. These are all women who either overtly identified as feminist/womanist and/or have contributed significantly to articulating black women’s subjectivity via intersectional critiques of race, gender, class and sexual oppression. While African American women humanists actively critique organized religion and its gender/sexuality binaries, these views are often shared by many liberal and progressive women of color believers.
I think there are fewer liberal/progressive women of color who are willing to cross that line and reject God belief, spiritualism and organized religion simply because mainstream humanism and atheism are heavily white-identified. Despite the growth of atheist of color groups, clubs and social networks there are no national organizations that provide the type of resourcing, professional support and political and educational platforms that churches and faith-based organizations (be they progressive, conservative or somewhere in between) provide for many people of color. Developing feminist/humanist programs and institutions that redress the structural inequities organized religion thrives on should be a major priority for humanist women of color.
Sikivu Hutchinson is an author and educator. She is the author of Imagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels. She is a contributing editor for The Feminist Wire and a visiting scholar at USC’s Center for Feminist Research. She is also founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles and the Women’s Leadership Project (WLP), a high school feminist mentoring program in South L.A. Her forthcoming novel, White Nights, Black Paradise, on Peoples Temple and the Jonestown massacre, is due in the Fall of 2015.
Kile Jones is an atheist involved in inter-faith dialogue who works towards building bridges between non-believers and religious persons. He is also the founder of “Interview an Atheist at Church Day” and Claremont Journal of Religion. His twitter is @KileBJones