Privilege is real, and it is a problem. This is a plea for us all to have better conversations about it.
I think I’m in a decent position to talk about this. After all, I am one of the most privileged people I know. I graduated from
Hogwarts Harvard one year ago today. I’ve gotten sunburnt while skiing, which is probably the whitest sentence in the English language. I once got a concert grand harp for my birthday – my twelfth birthday. I’ve basically been deep-throating a silver spoon for 23 years.
In that time, I’ve had a lot of uncomfortable conversations about race, class, power, and privilege. I used to dismiss the people who used these words because none of them made sense to me and my experience. But I’ve had my eyes and ears opened a lot in recent years. I came to college, I met different kinds of people, I studied different things from different angles – the usual liberal agenda. I have a lot left to learn, but I’ve come to take the issue of privilege very seriously.
It’s an issue that comes up a lot in the secular “movement” nowadays – Richard Dawkins is swimming in it yet oblivious to it, Jen McCreight tried to start a whole new movement to deal with it – but a lot of people are still sort of staring blankly and wondering what is going on and when they can go back to debating the atheology of Firefly.
So as somebody who can relate both to the people who see privilege everywhere and to those who don’t get what everybody’s whining about, I want to help translate so we can communicate more clearly. First, everybody’s going to need to sit down and stop yelling and actually listen for a while, so go ahead and emotionally prepare yourself for that and come back when you’re ready to be an adult about this.
Let’s start with something we all agree on: Facebook comment threads can be frustrating. Some extra-frustrating recent incidents pushed me over some kind of edge, which is why I’m here blogging after basically giving up on the Internet as a concept.
The other day, I posted a status update about how I’m planning on getting a second tattoo soon. An acquaintance of mine, a middle-aged man, shared some very well-meaning advice about how I should think about my future and remember that ink is permanent, and mentioned how glad he is that his 20s self had the foresight to remain unadorned. I retorted that I’d been wishing more men would tell me how my body should look, and pointed out that I know plenty of people of all ages who are satisfied with their choices of whether and how to modify their bodies. He then sent me a hurt and defensive message calling my “unfair” response a “cheap shot” and insisting that “gender has absolutely nothing to do with it.”
A couple weeks earlier, I shared an article about the enshrinement of slut-shaming in school dress codes. It got some comments, including a lot of agreement as well as some respectful and thoughtful alternative opinions; all good so far. But it also evoked a lot of outright dismissal. Here follow some excerpts from real comments by real men – men whom Facebook labels my “friends,” no less.
“I’m not seeing it.” “I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be offended by.” “That anyone thinks that schools are out of line for outlawing clothes that are, in most cases, made with the explicit purpose of looking sexy is laughable.” “And don’t tell me that an extra 3 inches off of a skirt helps you keep cool.” “What a bunch of nonsense.” “Not to be condescending, but [condescending rant].” “This whole thing is so silly.” “I don’t think it’s symptomatic of the ‘rape culture.’” “It’s just a damn dress code.”
Here’s the deal. If somebody of a different gender than yours says gender matters in a situation, it probably matters. Just because you don’t see something (yet) doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and all your condescending, laughing, and scare-quoting will neither help you see it nor make what I see disappear. If lots of people with some common experience that you lack – a gender, an ethnicity, whatever – are all upset by something you don’t even see, chances are better that you’re facing the wrong way than that it simply doesn’t exist.
You need to be open to the possibility that your experience of the world as a male/straight/white/cisgendered/abled/documented/educated/etc./etc. person might miss out on some of the struggles experienced by your less privileged planetmates. You need to admit that this might mean they know some things you don’t and put up with some shit you don’t. You need to respect them and listen to them and take them seriously, not mansplain to them that their subjective experiences are incorrect.
One of the main problems with privilege is that usually the people who have it are nearly blind to it. I believe that this blindness exists not because privileged people are stupid or careless, but because its effects are nearly invisible to them by the very nature of the systems that make those people privileged in the first place. I think the majority of privileged people are smart, well-meaning, and compassionate, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not trying to ruin everything. They just don’t know any better (yet).
As I said at the beginning, I know from experience that these kinds of ideas can be startling and disorienting to those of us lucky enough to be shielded from a lot of what goes on in the world. It’s okay to feel that way, but it’s not okay to use that as an excuse to abandon the conversation. When it comes to privilege, out of sight cannot mean out of mind.
So how are we going to get people to care about a phenomenon that doesn’t even seem real to them? I think the biggest thing here is that calling someone out for privilege can’t be a criminal accusation or a public shaming. Allow me to cast the first stone at myself: I should have found a less snarky way to point out the problematic aspects of the tattoo comment. I don’t think my response was “unfair” or unduly harsh, but it was less helpful than it could have been. Yes, privilege is upsetting, but if we start by hurling epithets, people won’t want to stick around to hear what else we have to say. When communication begins with an attack, the automatic response is to be defensive, not to listen. (See: all of atheism ever.)
Finally, one other comment on the dress code thread wasn’t overtly offensive but did illustrate a mistake that perfectly nice smart privileged people tend to make: “I maintain that one could craft a similar or identical policy divorced from history, and thus the policy itself is not sexist.”
That might be true, but last I checked, history was still waiting for its Henry VIII to come; for the foreseeable future, divorce isn’t an option. This issue of inescapable histories of oppression is discussed in an excellent blog post on Brute Reason called “Why You Shouldn’t Tell That Random Girl On The Street That She’s Hot.” This is a really fantastically good article and you should definitely read the entire thing, plus as many of the outlinks as you have time for. For now we’ll focus on this part:
In a perfect world, you could tell a woman she’s hot and she would smile and say thank you because there would be no millennia-long history of women’s bodies being used and abused by men, no notion of women’s beauty as being “for” men, no ridiculous beauty standards. Complimenting a woman on her appearance would be just like complimenting a person on their bike or their shoes or the color of their hair; it would not carry all the baggage that it carries in this world.
But that’s not our world, and it may never be. Yeah, it sucks that women often take it “the wrong way” when you give them unsolicited compliments. You know what sucks more? Yup, patriarchy.
The fact is that there is no way to magically remove yourself from history; you are embedded in oppressive systems no matter what. Just because you don’t see how a comment or action or policy relates to power dynamics and histories of oppression, that does not somehow make it officially neutral and vindicate you from any responsibility for perpetuating those systems. This means that there is no such thing as a neutral comment about a woman’s body, about race, about same-sex attractions, about non-conforming genders, etc.
There is no neutral way for a school board to police the sexualities of its female students. There is no neutral way for a man to comment on an unknown woman’s appearance. There is no neutral way for an older man to give me advice about my body modifications.
You are a part of the system whether or not you like it and whether or not you believe in it, so either you can join the resistance or you can sell your soul to The Man. Your choice.
Chelsea Link is the Campus Organizing Fellow at the Humanist Community at Harvard. She has left a trail of abandoned blog detritus in her wake, ranging from Sewage & Syphilis to Blogging Biblically. Before graduating from Harvard, she studied History & Science with a focus in the history of medicine, and served as both the Vice President of Outreach of the Harvard Secular Society and the President of the Harvard College Interfaith Council. She tends to kill the mood at parties by unnecessarily reciting Shakespeare.
When details first emerged about Pope Francis’s liberal policies and attitude towards the nonreligious, I took a few posts to express some tentative optimism. I think recent events validate my first impression—by most accounts, Pope Francis is turning out to be pretty cool.
I don’t think anything quite so cleanly captures the new direction of the Church as the photo above. The shift from ornate robes and traditional throne seat to Francis’s white papal robes and an unelevated, plain chair—the same chairs on the same level as given to his guests—is extraordinarily stark and compelling.
His shift to a more reserved and austere church—from denying Vatican employee their bonuses to insisting that Christians be for the poor, rather than politely discussing theology over tea 1—honestly surpasses anything I could have hoped or expected.
It seems clear that Francis is shifting his focus to the secular world, specifically to alleviating poverty and doing good works here on Earth. This is almost the picturesque example of “common ground” 2 that believers can find with atheists. I often hear atheists questioning whether they’re even welcome to work with believers, and I think it’s an issue seriously worth addressing.
Pope Francis, though, has fortunately made his acceptance and, if I might be slightly bold, esteem towards nonbelievers clear. At a recent Mass, Pope Francis said the following:
“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
I’ll happily agree. We may not actually be redeemed by the blood of Christ, but we’re all united around our shared commitment to making the world a better place.
I often find it distressingly narrow when atheists deny any wisdom just because it comes from a religious source. I’m happy to accept that I should focus more on moral action instead of abstract discussion, even if Francis framed this in discussing churches and theology. And I’m happy to recognize that everyone—believer or atheist—is united in doing good on this Earth, even if Francis believes this comes from our shared redemption in Jesus.
We will miss the forest for the trees if we let ourselves be distracted by such petty theological differences. If there’s one thing believers and nonbelievers can share, it’s an understanding that there’s action we need to take to help other people. Props to Pope Francis for pointing that out.
EDIT: Right after I published this, I saw that Kimberly Winston wrote for Religion News Service about atheists liking Pope Francis. Check it out.
Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.
May 23rd, 2013 | Posted by: Chelsea Link
This guest post comes to us from Sarah Chandonnet and was originally published on the Humanist Community Project blog.
For nearly five years, I’ve worked at the Humanist Community at Harvard doing what many would call “atheist activism.” I’ve been behind the scenes supporting a lot of great leaders and thinkers and helping to spread their messages of reason, progress, and pluralism to people around the world. But I’ve learned that, at the end of the day, what I’ve helped create is a network of people who turn to each other not only for shared philosophy, but for comfort and connection.
In April of this year, the city of Boston was rattled by a terrible tragedy. Many were injured or killed at the marathon, including two women who are like family to me. A week or so later, I was in a major car crash that sent me to the hospital and my car to the junkyard.
I was overcome with gratitude for the outpouring of support from Humanists here in Cambridge and all over the country. I received calls, emails, donations, and more from so many people after the marathon, helping raise more than a million dollars for my loved ones’ medical bills. My friend Molly Fazio, who has been coming to HCH since 2010 and is an active volunteer, was one of the first people to reach out to me in the aftermath of the marathon, telling me she had already sent in a donation. Two leaders from Tufts University’s Freethought group came by my office with a handwritten card the next day.
And after my accident, I couldn’t believe how many people rallied around me a second time with more calls, more visits, and more support. Emails poured in from friends and volunteers — Tony DeBono, Judah Axe, Llaen Coston-Clark, writer Mary Johnson, and so many more — and from other secular group leaders like Ellery Schempp and Todd Stiefel, not to mention my fantastic staff here at HCH.
It was amazing just how far a vase of flowers or a note in an email could go when I working so hard to mend. Mostly, I was reminded: I’m not alone.
HCH is an organization with a mission: to build a strong community of atheists, agnostics, Humanists, and the nonreligious at Harvard University and beyond, and to do so by addressing the philosophical and pastoral needs of those who come to our events and those who share our resources worldwide.
After many years, we’ve finally found a community center that will help us bring people together better than we ever have before. Our dream is to have a big event space to hold weekly Sunday meetings, classrooms for children and adults, conference rooms for podcasts that reach around the world, a meditation space, and offices for our staff and chaplains.
But that’s not all. This new space will be a home for more than HCH — we’re partnering with local Humanist/atheist groups so we can all come together under one roof and offer an even broader range of programs and resources. But we need your help to make it happen!
Our new space is 2,700 square feet and located right in Harvard Square. But it needs some major construction, paint, repairs, and furniture to best serve the needs of our diverse community and make our dream a reality.
If you feel how I do, if this community is your home, or if you support secular communities and want to share in the resources we create here, I urge you to make a financial contribution toward helping to realize our highest shared aspirations.
We are a 501(c)3 organization and all of our funding comes from donations from people like you who support our vision.
Sarah Chandonnet is the Outreach and Development Manager at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard and has been a member of the HCH team since 2009. A graduate of Harvard Divinity School (’09), she holds an MTS in Religion, Literature, and Culture. While at Harvard, she served as the editor-in-chief of Culture: The Harvard Divinity Graduate Journal of Religion, and as the vice president of the Harvard Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists (HASH). She also holds a BA (English, ’07) from Boston University, where she studied under Elie Wiesel. Sarah’s academic interests include 19th and 20th century American literature, and Judeo-Christian textual influences. She has written for Boston University’s Daily Free Press and The Journal of the Core Curriculum, as well as Harvard Divinity School’s The Wick, and the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Network News.
May 22nd, 2013 | Posted by: Walker Bristol
Abuse of privilege and power plagues the nontheistic community just as much, in some ways moreso, as it does American society. Sikivu Hutchinson has emerged as a strong, incredibly thorough academic pushing back against these oppressive structures, tracing the history of Black humanism and liberation, and investigating the religious dimension of oppression towards women of color.
In terms of movement strategy and critical humanism, Hutchinson has exposed and explored several ways in which the contemporary face of secularism is shortsighted–particularly with regard to intersectionality and privilege. In a piece I wrote for HuffPo a few months back on class and the new atheist/humanist movement, I quoted Hutchinson from her essay “Prayer Warriors and Freethinkers”, expressing a truth still (perhaps especially) relevant today: “If mainstream freethought and humanism continue to reflect the narrow cultural interests of white elites who have disposable income to go to conferences then the secular movement is destined to remain marginal and insular.”
In the striking passage below from the introduction to her newest essay collection Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, published by Infidel Books, Hutchinson embarks on a critical exploration into how humanism can be applied to a world marred by structural racial inequality and colorism. You can purchase Godless Americana at Amazon.com.
Over the past several years, the Right has spun the fantasy of colorblind, post-racial, post-feminist American exceptionalism. This Orwellian narrative anchors the most blistering conservative assault on secularism, civil rights, and public education in the post-Vietnam War era. It is no accident that this assault has occurred in an era in which whites have over twenty times the wealth of African Americans.[i] For many communities of color, victimized by a rabidly Religious Right, neo-liberal agenda, the American dream has never been more of a nightmare than it is now. Godless Americana is a radical humanist analysis of this climate. It provides a vision of secular social justice that challenges Eurocentric traditions of race, gender, and class-neutral secularism. For a small but growing number of non-believers of color, humanism and secularism are inextricably linked to the broader struggle against white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, capitalism, economic injustice, and global imperialism. Godless Americana critiques these titanic rifts and the role white Christian nationalism plays in the demonization of urban communities of color…
In the post-Civil and Voting Rights Acts era of so-called equal opportunity under the law, residential segregation has only intensified. Martin Luther King Jr.’s widely caricatured vision of little black and white kids holding hands is the stuff of Hallmark cards, PC liberal arts college brochures, and smarmy GOP propaganda. American K-12 schools are distant galaxies separated by inner city (i.e., black, Latino and “deprived”) or suburban (i.e., white and privileged), and “diversity” has become quick and dirty shorthand for smacking down uppity Negroes who want to talk institutional racism. It’s for this reason that the social capital of black believers and non-believers is closely intertwined—why black people, the most staunchly Christian group in America, can live in a Christian Nation and still be reviled as the heathen other. And it is for this reason that religious and secular whites are bonded by economic privilege, by homes and neighborhoods that have higher property values than that of the average person of color, and by the security of a police state that is designed to protect them. For example, discriminatory lending practices such as those employed by former mortgage giant Countrywide make residential mobility elusive for people of color. Despite the fantasy of unlimited post-racial access and mobility, a U.S. 2010 report entitled “Separate and Unequal: The Neighborhood Gap for Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians” concluded that residential segregation is even more intractable now than two decades ago. Indeed “as black-white segregation has slowly declined since 1990, blacks have become less isolated from Hispanics and Asians, but their exposure to whites has hardly changed. Affluent blacks have only marginally higher contact with whites than do poor blacks.”[ii] Hence, blacks and Latinos of all income levels generally live in black and Latino neighborhoods. Most tellingly, “The average affluent black or Hispanic household lives in a poorer neighborhood than the average low-income white resident.”[iii]
If higher-income people of color are not able to buy homes in white enclaves and escape the “ghetto,” what does this say about the nature of black and Latino social capital? About the white conservative lie that Newt Gingrich’s mythical poor neighborhoods are cesspits for the lazy and shiftless? Because of the mobility gap, communities of color are more likely to be economically depressed and heavily transit-dependent. Transit-dependency means isolation. It means less access to living-wage jobs, quality schools, affordable housing, and park space—resources that have been deemed privileges, not rights, in the world’s greatest democracy. Small wonder then that some of our youth, like Women’s Leadership Project twelfth-grader Victory Yates, view their churches as a lifeline. Even though her faith in God has wavered due to the hardship she’s experienced as a former foster care youth, her church is one of the few safe spaces in a neighborhood where young girls are routinely accosted by would-be pimps on the street. In our conversations about faith, she expresses curiosity about agnosticism and frustration with the so-called therapeutic power of prayer. Naturally inquisitive, she’s begun to make the first tentative steps toward investigating the truth claims of religion.
In the absence of community-based institutions that offer cultural reinforcement, social welfare, and fellowship, what does humanism have to offer poor and working-class communities of color?
[i] Thomas Shapiro, et al. “The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the Black-White Divide,” Institute on Assets and Social Policy, Brandeis University, Institute on Assets and Social Policy, February 2013.
[ii] John R. Logan, “Separate and Unequal: The Neighborhood Gap for Blacks, Hispanics and Asians in Metropolitan America,” US 2010 Project, Brown University, 2011, p 1.
[iii] Ibid., Introduction.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Imagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars. She is the founder of Black Skeptics in Los Angeles and a senior fellow at the Institute for Humanist Studies. Learn more on her website at sikivuhutchinson.com.
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Walker Bristol is a nontheist Quaker living in Somerville, Massachusetts. A rising senior at Tufts University reading religion and philosophy, he covers social activism and class inequality in the Tufts Daily and has worked in on-campus movements promoting religious diversity, sexual assault awareness and prevention, and worker’s rights. Formerly, he was the Communications Coordinator at Foundation Beyond Belief and the president of the Tufts Freethought Society. He tweets at @WalkerBristol.
My home state of Minnesota legalized same-sex marriage today. (And yes, my grandmother has already called to say that I “can move home now.”) While I celebrate this sign of social progress, there is still much work to be done. In this spirit, my new piece for HuffPost Religion and Interfaith Youth Core calls for interfaith advocates to include LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) voices in their efforts to promote pluralism. Check out an excerpt below, and click here to read it in full.
As an atheist and interfaith activist, much of my work focuses on advocating for the inclusion of nonreligious voices in interfaith dialogue. But a related—and, for me, equally urgent—push for inclusion can be found in efforts to welcome LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) people into interfaith spaces. I am passionate about LGBTQ acceptance, and I am passionate about interfaith cooperation. In my eyes, these passions are not in tension; they are intimately connected.
In Faitheist, I write about times that I experienced exclusion and demonization for being an atheist, and also times I was attacked for being queer. I included both to highlight the reality that fear of the “other” has frequently pushed me, and many others, to the margins of our society—this includes atheists and agnostics, but also LGBTQ people, Muslims, Sikhs, women, and many others. Interfaith work, which brings together people from diverse communities to better understand one another and build inter-community networks that advocate for the dignity of all people, must necessarily welcome all people.