In August, Daniel Trilling introduced himself as the incoming editor for New Humanist, stating that he would take over in September in a blog post at the Rationalist Association. New Humanist is actually one of the oldest continually published magazines, having been spreading the gospel of critical inquiry, science, and human rights since 1885; the magazine is published by the Rationalist Association, a UK-based secular advocacy group. Trilling’s blog post prefigures a heightened humanistic commitment to fighting oppression, and it’s important that humanists take note.

Though it operates generally as a rejection of broad tendencies exhibited by Richard Dawkins and as a promise that New Humanist will not be doing any of that, the introductory piece also identifies a few radical ideas Trilling will be attempting to advance as editor. Perhaps the most controversial idea Trilling lists is the fact that criticisms of Islam can be racist. Inevitably when this subject is raised, irrational atheists clog their ears, shout “Islam isn’t a race,” and conveniently ignore systematic subjugation and violence perpetuated against Muslim-looking individuals. Trilling anticipates this knee-jerk response and urges his new readership to explore political context rather than ignore it, and be wary of rhetoric which “paints the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims as a monolithic bloc, or tries to make out they are uniquely savage, or violent, as a result of their religion.”

Trilling urges his readers to apply skepticism liberally at studies purporting to show the intellectual superiority of atheists, noting that the metrics such studies take are highly suspect and rooted in factors like income, employment, and education—clear traits of high socio-economic standing. He also advocates a unity between the religious and nonbelievers, going as far to say that the “key to political progress is an ability to find common ground between people of different religious beliefs and none.” These comments are extraordinarily welcome to us interfaithers (but perhaps not too surprising given that New Humanist previously found Chris’s vision of religious pluralism favorable enough to give Faitheist a 5-star review).

For me, the most promising part of Trilling’s introductory piece came at the end, when he noted that while he hopes the Rationalist Association can work with Dawkins in the future, it’s more important that he can work with individual lay-folk. This pledge to value average atheists rather than placate big names comes at a time when the atheist movement is doing just the opposite.

Naturally, Trilling received a lot of flak in the comments for calling attention to Big Atheism’s problems as personified by Dawkins—all the more reason why what he has to say is so important.

Previously, Trilling has written for The Guardian and served as the assistant editor at New Statesman; he has also written a book on the rise of fascism and racism in Britain. While his work largely focuses on far-right politics in Europe, there are astonishing parallels to be drawn which make his writing relevant across the pond. Of particular interest are his analysis of the developing popularity of xenophobic language in politics, the need to defend the rights of protesters from a police state, and how expecting immigrants to acclimate to the English language perpetuates classist inequalities. Though Trilling has written extensively on these issues in the past, it is significant that he will now be controlling and directing such content explicitly towards nonbelievers considering how hostile we largely are to social justice issues (especially violence against Muslims, a group oft targeted by fascist British rhetoric).

Trilling’s paper trail is one that shows a commitment not just to free thought, but to an intersectional and inclusive ethic concerned with fighting global oppression. As the editor for New Humanist, he promises to advance atheism beyond its holier-than-thou narrative which has reigned for far too long. At a time when leaders in the atheist movement are increasingly failing to represent the values of compassion and nuance, Trilling’s direction is much needed. You should follow him on twitter. You can subscribe to New Humanist here.

Stephen Goeman is an atheist and interfaith activist. He studied cognitive and brain sciences and philosophy at Tufts University, where he also served as President of the Tufts Freethought Society. After becoming radicalized late in his undergraduate career, he joined a variety of social justice causes operating both at the student level and within Tufts’ administration. He is also an Interfaith Youth Core alumnus and VIA volunteer coordinator at the Humanist Community at Harvard. He tweets here.

Like many American boys, I was raised on superheroes. I knew about Batman, Spiderman, and the X-Men before I knew how to walk. Their god-like status captivated me for years—here were people sculpted and clothed like Greek marble whose every action connected to broad ideas about justice and equality. It’s one of the reasons I was brought back to comics a few years ago and filled a bookshelf with graphic novels.

There’s something deeply embarrassing about liking comic books, however, and it’s probably not the reason you’re thinking of. Our heroes have got to be white, they’ve got to be men, and they’ve got to be oozing heterosexuality from every pore not obscured by spandex—relics which correlate with power in our own society.

We saw this when we were outraged that Nightrunner, the Batman of Paris and just one member of an international team of Batmen-and-women, was revealed to be Muslim. We saw this when we were outraged that Miles Morales, Peter Parker’s successor as New York’s webslinger, was announced to be black and Latino. We saw this when we were outraged at rumors that Danny Glover might play a black Spiderman or that the next silver-screened Human Torch might be played by Michael B. Jordan. And we saw this when we were outraged when an alternate reality version of the Green Lantern was revealed to be gay. We saw this by how fans respond to any inclusion of a hero who differs from the straight white male standard.

These responses are not helped in the least by the words and actions of comic creators. DC comics has been consistently mistreating women characters in its mythos for years while employing shockingly few women, perhaps reinforcing its status as a ‘boys club.’ Women are used as props: this is most evident through the fact that male superheroes frequently have to ward off the advances of any number of mostly-naked women with proportions that defy physics (Batman has his pick of Catwoman and Talia al Ghul, while Luke’s descendent Cade Skywalker is irresistible to Deliah Blue and Darth Talon despite having a greasy mop, scraggly facial hair, and a Reddit account). Bizarrely, these women are seen as “empowered” and “confident” and “not at all products of sexually awkward man-children.”

These women are empowered (Image by Kate Beaton)

These women are empowered (Image by Kate Beaton)

The industry response to these disparities has largely been characterized by a lack of concern and critical thought substituted with an abundance of hand-waving. Co-creator of the Kick Ass source material Mark Millar has referred to outrage over sexism in his media as “… meaningless. A tiny storm in a tea cup,” while remarking that such concerns “… don’t really [matter].” A recent panel discussion between industry giants Todd McFarlane, Len Wein and Gerry Conway expanded on these exclusionist ideas in full. McFarlane argued that objectifying women is OK because giving male superheroes perfect pecs is totally the same thing, Wein maintained that colorblindness is the best way to erode bias, and all three agreed that diversity within the medium would have to come at the expense of good storytelling. Conway noted that it wasn’t the responsibility for superhero comics to pave the way for a better society, but rather, “… the comics follow society.” This is exactly it: the genre replicates the values and social barriers we actually live with, serving as a mirror held up to our shortcomings. 1

In understanding the extremely toxic context the superhero medium finds itself in, it’s clear why criticisms that focus exclusively on Islam as especially misogynistic and socially harmful make me scoff. Who will save me from such ridiculous broad-brushing generalizations? Why, none other than the Burka Avenger!

Burka Avenger is a multimedia project consisting of a children’s cartoon, music album, and IOS game; the collective universe follows the exploits of Jiya, a Pakistani schoolteacher who augments martial arts with pens and books to thwart backwards-thinking politicians and hateful religious leaders. The cartoon features Urdu voice acting, and the first episode has been officially released with English subtitles on YouTube.

This character comes not just in the environment of the near-uniform second-class status women superheroes receive, but with the added context of the West’s suspicion and distaste for the burka.

The idea that the burka is an oppressive garment which subjugates women is not a new idea to atheism. Christopher “Women Aren’t Funny” Hitchens memorably praised the French burka ban as a step towards ending oppression against women, and this reasoning is the central line of thought behind FEMEN. Contrary to the opinion of many such firebrands, Muslim women, and those who have taken the time to respectfully engage with them, maintain that most who wear the burka do so autonomously.

As a Muslim superhero, Jiya has the opportunity to defy both the Western subjugation of women and the suspicion of the burka. She provides a beautiful visual metaphor for how Muslim women pursue justice through their faith. In donning the burka, Jiya is able to combat corrupt political and religious authority figures while advancing the values of equality and education; the fact that the burka is itself a religious garment clearly implies that these heroic actions are performed because of, not in spite of, her faith. In this way, Burka Avenger replicates a truth those of us interfaithers know all too well: Muslim women, hardly oppressed damsels in distress, are empowered women and crucial allies in combating religious extremism.

On their official website, the stated purpose of Burka Avenger is as follows:

The main goals of the Burka Avenger TV series are to make people laugh, to entertain and to send out positive social messages to the youth.

If the first episode can be any indication, mission accomplished.

Stephen Goeman is an atheist and Humanist. He just graduated from Tufts University, so all of his involvements are past-tense. He is the former President and Community Outreach Representative of the Tufts Freethought Society and also an Interfaith Youth Core alumnus.

Notes:

  1. Of course, the industry is not ubiquitously hostile. Writers like Gail Simone have challenged the status quo by writing empowered minority characters, websites like ComicsAlliance have created socially conscious comic consumers, and public figures like Laura Hudson and Kate Leth have played public watchdog roles much like the atheist movement’s Skepchicks have.

I am delighted to welcome Kumar Ramanathan to NPS! His first guest post is a continuation of the ongoing discussion of privilege and marginalization taking place within atheist circles. As a student at Tufts, Kumar has been a vital leader on a variety of activist movements and brings a much needed perspective to this conversation.  -Stephen

At the Women In Secularism 2 conference last week, Center for Inquiry CEO Ron Lindsay opened the weekend’s proceedings with a controversial talk that featured a prolonged discussion on the concept of privilege, which he characterized as sometimes being used to silence men in conversations about feminism. A great deal of controversy erupted, most notably a back-and-forth with Rebecca Watson.

Much has been said about the incivility of Lindsay’s talk, the disrespect it demonstrated to its audience, and the unprofessionalism of his response to Watson. On those subjects, I defer to the more qualified critics linked here, but I’d like to address Lindsay’s misconception of the word privilege, as well as the broader discourse around this term. Often used in social justice activism, the concept of privilege is a primary tool of analysis in the vocabulary of intersectionality, which refers to the overlapping nature of different systems of oppression (race, gender, etc.)

The main issue Lindsay identifies is what he calls the “‘shut up and listen’ meme.” I quote from his original talk for proper context:

… I’m talking about the situation where the concept of privilege is used to try to silence others, as a justification for saying, “shut up and listen.” Shut up, because you’re a man and you cannot possibly know what it’s like to experience x, y, and z, and anything you say is bound to be mistaken in some way, but, of course, you’re too blinded by your privilege even to realize that.

This approach doesn’t work. It certainly doesn’t work for me. It’s the approach that the dogmatist who wants to silence critics has always taken because it beats having to engage someone in a reasoned argument. It’s the approach that’s been taken by many religions. It’s the approach taken by ideologies such as Marxism. You pull your dogma off the shelf, take out the relevant category or classification, fit it snugly over the person you want to categorize, dismiss, and silence and … poof, you’re done. End of discussion. … You’re a man; you have nothing to contribute to a discussion of how to achieve equality for women. …

By the way, with respect to the “Shut up and listen” meme, I hope it’s clear that it’s the “shut up” part that troubles me, not the “listen” part. Listening is good. People do have different life experiences, and many women have had experiences and perspectives from which men can and should learn. But having had certain experiences does not automatically turn one into an authority to whom others must defer. Listen, listen carefully, but where appropriate, question and engage.

Lindsay sees references to privilege as a means of curtailing certain voices and elevating others, serving as a threat to “reasoned argument.” But reasoned argument without good data is next to useless. In discussing identity and oppression, lived experiences are indispensable data that can only come from someone who possesses, or is seen as possessing, a marginalized identity.

Is Lindsay silenced by the assertion that he might not always have the relevant perspective? It’s certainly not his fault that he was born male, but his gender is inextricably part of his identity, as it is with mine. Neither Lindsay, nor I, nor any cisgendered man can claim expertise on the female experience. This is not to say that men have nothing to offer in a discussion about feminism (says the man discussing feminism), but rather that only women can share lived experience about what it means to be a woman.

This doesn’t mean that marginalized folk (of any kind) can’t make stupid or invalid arguments. It’s important that bad arguments are addressed when appropriate, but that does not justify denying or ignoring that you may be privileged—perhaps even directly in the kind of oppression being discussed. Amy Davis Roth of Skepchick addresses this eloquently in “Checking My Privilege and Still Speaking Out.”

“Listening is good,” Lindsay says, but he fails to understand that there is a connection between the (albeit crudely phrased) “shut up” component and listening. Certain voices tend to be privileged in certain conversations, and listening sometimes requires countering this structure through one’s action. How can one truly listen in these discussions if one doesn’t first step back and elevate the voices of the systematically marginalized?

Lindsay suggests that this elevation and negotiation of voices can be a “dogma” used to silence dissent, but recognition that lived experiences are important and ought to be shared by those who have lived them is not dogmatic. The concept of privilege being used here is part of a rational approach; it is an important tool with which to collect and share experiential information, not some kind of “you’ve got privilege!” card used to end any argument about oppression.

In his talk, rather than attempting to address the concept of privilege as it is commonly used in social justice activism or acknowledging his own privileged position and how it might skew his perception, Lindsay chooses to broadly equate the concept privilege with religious doctrine. Worse than this, however, is Lindsay’s response to Rebecca Watson’s tweet concerning his talk:

This is male privilege: Lindsay can afford to speak as if this dialogue occurs in a vacuum where structures of oppression and privilege don’t exist, and his own gender is irrelevant.

Women and people of color are routinely forced to think about their gender and race, as do other marginalized groups about their particular oppression. Stephanie Zvan has a fantastic piece on her Almost Diamonds blog about how this applies in this exact instance. Thinking more broadly, our culture’s basic humor is peppered with insults against women and femininity, women are held to higher standards of appearance at every corner, women face much more harassment on the basis of their gender when they speak out about their experiences. These are troubles Lindsay is lucky enough to not face, and that colors his perception of reality.

So far from being irrelevant, Lindsay’s gender, especially as a speaker on the topic of gender, is crucial, since it reflects the hidden assumptions that he lives with each day. Lindsay, or any other male secularist—myself included—might collect all the data we can about women’s experiences at secular conferences, but we can never live the experience of a woman in such a situation. And that’s fine! We don’t need to be able to perfectly represent those experiences; our role can be to elevate the voices of women who can represent them.

In a sense, I can sympathize with Lindsay’s frustration—I too want to live in a world where our opinions are judged purely on their merits. But simply wishing for such a world does not make it so. Nor does explicitly examining our gender mean we must be judged on it. Rather, actively identifying and exposing the unfair advantages we experience can help us construct that better world, by heightening our collective understanding of how structural oppression works.

As a male-bodied person active within feminist circles in my community, I am continually confronted with questions of how to address my own privileged position. In a group of activists discussing rape culture, my privilege as a male and a non-survivor kicks in when topics become increasingly detailed or uncomfortable: I don’t have to worry about traumatic experiences being triggered, nor do I have to re-live constant thoughts about the dangers of walking outside alone at night or accepting a drink at a party. Because I have the privilege of not facing these emotional triggers, it’s much easier for me to voice my thoughts about them. It’s obvious, then, how this can be a problem, since I am not the primary subject of this discussion. And it is exactly for that reason that I ought to step back and, yes, shut up in such situations.

It is naïve, to say the least, to suppose that “reasoned arguments” might stand completely independent from experience. And yes, that includes experiences of gender, race, and the like. In any discussion about identity and oppression, our experience colors even our ability to speak, let alone the content of our opinion. Rather than ignoring the experience of privilege, we should actively work to expose it and counter it. That is what it means to “check your privilege.”

This is the challenge of an intersectional approach, and atheists, skeptics, and freethinkers are not exempt from that challenge. Simply because we tend to embrace rational argument as a core tenet, in fact perhaps because of it, we do not get to live in an alternate world where lived experiences are ultimately irrelevant and our identity does not affect the weight of our opinions. Rather than wishing away the existence of identity-based oppression, we ought to counter it by recognizing and using the approach of identifying and examining privilege.

kumar

Born and raised in various pockets of Asia, Kumar is now a sophomore at Tufts University. He cares about storytelling, politics, and humanism. Growing up with his ears glued to the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe and Douglas Adams audiobooks, he is now the Public Relations officer for the Tufts Freethought Society, and is involved in feminist, interfaith, and other social justice activism. Within academia, he acts the part of a Philosophy major and Urban Studies minor. Someday, he hopes the world will suffer his presence as a political journalist. Find him on twitter here.
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Earlier this week, Celeste Owen-Jones, associate producer of the Huffington Post Live, went viral with a blog post defending Mother Theresa in light of new study which emphasized Theresa’s  “…rather dubious way of caring for the sick, her questionable political contacts, her suspicious management of the enormous sums of money she received, and her overly dogmatic views regarding … abortion, contraception, and divorce.” Rather than respond in substance to these immensely critical findings, Owen-Jones instead attacks the researchers as well as those who would advance a challenging narrative about Theresa:

Surely there are a lot worse people than her in this world who deserve your energy! And if Mother Teresa did such a bad job helping others, why not save that time spent criticizing her to instead try to make a difference in this world?

I write this response not just because I think this is an incredibly bad argument to make, but because it further acts as a socially damaging mechanism of silencing legitimate inquiry. When we stigmatize critical evaluation of moral figures or philanthropic ventures, who are we really defending? To behave this way only preserves corrupt institutions which, simply put, aren’t doing their jobs. Yelling at those who challenge problematic people or institutions is a highly objectionable response.

Owen-Jones identifies a “simplistic yet fundamental” concern she has with public condemnation of Theresa:

… who are we, sitting in our office or in the comfort of our home in our cocoon-like world, hiding behind books and computers, to criticize a woman who abandoned everything to spend her life and bring attention to the forgotten of this world? The day someone will lead a similar life to Mother Teresa’s and still criticize the way she acted, then I will truly respect that opinion. But unsurprisingly that day still hasn’t come.

Who are we, indeed? We are people with standards and conceptions of what it means to live a morally exemplary life. We are people with the capacity to fact check. We are people who can apply standards to figures and institutions who claim to be doing the work of saints. When we find out that Theresa actively failed to prevent suffering that was well within her means because she saw beauty in poverty, illness, and suffering, we are people with the capacity and obligation to object.

A second argument Owen-Jones presents somewhat accepts the fact that Theresa did not do all she could have, but hey, it’s better than nothing! It seems like criticizing Theresa just isn’t a battle we should involve ourselves in. After all, the researchers didn’t visit any of the missions and however lax their conditions were, it was probably better than dying in the street. I find this argument deeply morally confusing. Admitting that Theresa did not do all she could have (a weak concession considering the damage and suffering she can objectively be seen to have sustained), we’re still left with an image of Theresa that seems less than saintly. “Hey, she was kind of bad, but it sure was better than the alternative” hardly seems like the epitaph of a moral saint. That the researchers did not visit Calcutta is a distracting point. Similarly, I don’t need to visit Nike headquarters to know that they profit from more or less slave labor and, therefore, my university should stop investing in them.

Owen-Jones’ refusal to criticize Mother Theresa for her stance on abortion and safe-sex practices (including contraception) is further confusing. Again, Owen-Jones presents an argument which silences:

I am not saying that in order to do good in the world one necessarily has to be against abortion, that would be stupid; I’m just saying that her belief in the sanctity of life was her main driving force to do the good that she did, and that looking back at her work I do not believe that, in the grand scheme of things, she can be criticized for [her opposition to contraception and abortion].

Regardless of Theresa’s spiritual convictions, the fact of the matter is that by not providing relatively cheap contraceptives and actively opposing their use, Theresa and the Catholic Church greatly contributed to an epidemic of sexually transmitted disease, widespread suffering, and death. The fact that scientific consensus rejects the notion that “life begins at conception” should carry significant weight. So, too, should the philosophical dilemmas that any 8th grader who has heard Monty Python’s “Every Sperm is Sacred” song can easily raise and explicate. People’s lives are at stake. People have died and will continue dying, have suffered and will continue suffering. Why wouldn’t we want to be critical of this?

Owen-Jones asks, quite frustratedly, “What do we need to be a saint?” If we confront our intuitions about what it means to be a saint, we might derive a basic criteria such as “alleviates suffering on some grand scale at great cost to the saint in question.” Indeed, this what the “media conception” of Mother Theresa holds. So, when it comes to light that Theresa did not comport her philanthropic service in this basic way but rather cultivated suffering (alongside significant capital gains and questionable political alliances), we can feel confident in excluding Theresa from the classification of moral exemplar.

In a way, I share Owen-Jones’ annoyance. It seems that individuals who lack compassion often pretend to care about justice when it might afford them an opportunity to be self-righteous or bring another down. We have a similar problem in the atheist movement, wherein individuals will express outrage over the sex abuse scandals of the Catholic Church while at the same time contributing to the culture of victim blaming, misogyny, and apathy which make sexual assault such a widespread problem. There’s a grand irony in hating the Catholic Church for hating women while hating women yourself. However, the place where we should file our criticism in this case is not with the fact that these atheists criticize institutionalized hatred and abuse. Rather, we should direct our concerns when they fail to apply this same critique to themselves or their theological kin. Is it frustrating that there are people genuinely uninterested in justice yet spout off about the moral failings of others? Yes. Still, these criticisms, even when they come from such people, pressure us to be more transparent and effective in our service to humanity. Rather than refuse to engage with criticisms of our moral saints, we should welcome them. That Mother Theresa failed to help countless suffering individuals (when she could have, and almost certainly should have, done otherwise) has been quite well established. Rather than get frustrated with people who point this out, we should welcome their challenges and pose higher standards for our heroes. Before we praise another, especially when substantial claims contradicting their moral virtue have arisen, we should ask: are they being transparent? Are they actually alleviating suffering, or are they, like Mother Theresa, maintaining poverty and refusing to treat preventable disease out of the misguided notion that suffering brings one closer to God? These are minimal standards, and we should never feel guilty for employing them.

Stephen Goeman is an atheist and Humanist. A senior at Tufts University, he is the former president of the Tufts Freethought Society and now serves as their Community Outreach Representative. He is also an Interfaith Youth Core alumnus and a member of Students Promoting Equality, Awareness, and Compassion, a peer education program that coordinates student responses to acts of intolerance at Tufts.

Islamophobia is a Racism

January 7th, 2013 | Posted by:

Here’s a disturbing trend: with alarming frequency we are hearing stories of American people of color being murdered or assaulted for looking like Muslims. In a recent case, a Florida resident was shot repeatedly with a pellet gun outside of a Walmart. The victim, Cameron Mohammed, was actually armed with a real gun but chose not to fire. While his actions—or rather, inaction— could motivate an important conversation on forgiveness and ethical gun ownership, this event also characterizes a fundamental characteristic of Islamophobia: it is, largely, a form of racism.

Associate editor at Religion Dispatches Haroon Moghul has written a quite lengthy and thorough account of Islamophobia in the wake of the murder of Sunando Sen, an American Hindu who died a grisly, horrifying death for appearing Muslim. Moghul’s piece is largely a response to critics who see the term ‘Islamophobia’ itself as a tool to silence thoughtful criticism of Islam and it greatly succeeds in this respect. It is absolutely worth your time to work your way through it. However, I don’t believe that Moghul quite goes far enough when discussing the intersection of race and Islamophobia, and his account doesn’t seem consistent with the data provided from these recent violent incidents.

The case of Cameron Mohammed is notable for being perhaps the most explicit example of how race is what moves Islamophobes to hate. Mohammed’s assailant explicitly asked him if he was in fact Muslim or from the Middle East and when he answered negatively (Mohammed was born in the Caribbean and raised in Florida), this did not stop the attack. Nor did it stop the racial slurs which accompanied the violence. The assailant’s remarks to the police after the incident also betray the real motive:

When deputies told him his victim wasn’t Muslim, he told them he didn’t care, that “they’re all the same,” Schoneman told reporters.

“They,” brown people, are all the same.

What is interesting about the prevalence of Islamophobic crime as of late is that, to some extent, it hasn’t even been directed at Muslims. And when the perpetrators of this sort of crime are confronted with the fact that the brown person they murdered or assaulted didn’t represent the ideology they thought they were combating, they rush to justify their attack. Mohammed’s attacker did this by implying that all brown people have some stake in extremist Islam; Sen’s attacker had a similar justification when authorities told her that Sen was actually a Hindu from India:

“I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I’ve been beating them up.”

You don’t actually have to “be” a Muslim in any theological or cultural sense in order to be singled out for assault by this logic. Rather, what matters is how you look. This seems like a slam-dunk case for classifying Islamophobia as a type of racism, but Moghul raises an interesting objection:

I’m not arguing that Islamophobia is racist, or that Islamophobes are racists, because that’s not quite what’s happening. For one thing, Islamophobes embrace ex-Muslims … and racists wouldn’t (indeed couldn’t) do the same.

This is actually entirely what racists do. This is called tokenism: the practice of only welcoming select members of a marginalized identity, particularly those who have acclimated to the dominant group. Racists occasionally celebrate people of color who have gravitated away from their identity and towards the white majority, just as Islamophobes occasionally celebrate ex-Muslims who have cast aside their supposedly harmful beliefs.

Few people would willingly label themselves as racist (I think they all have OK Cupid profiles though). We all know the bigot who will start dehumanizing stories with the disclaimer, “I’m not racist, but…” Very often, as a tool to prevent themselves from viewing themselves as bigoted, racists will construct a myth that there is a difference between the subset of people of color they hate and people of color as a whole. This manifests itself most visibly as the trope that “there is a difference between a black person and a n*****.”

More depressing is the widely-held view that, to quote a phrase I’ve retweeted dozens of times since starting @YesYoureRacist, “there’s a difference between black people and ni**ers.” The sentiment was popularized by Chris Rock’s 1996 HBO special Bring the Pain, but is now used primarily by white people who want to justify their use of the N-word.

Tokenism also characterizes other forms of hate similar to racism, like homophobia. Returning to Twitter, we can see how tokenism excuses homophobia thanks to Azealia Banks:

A f****t is not a homosexual male. A f****t is any male who acts like a female. There’s a BIG difference. [censorship mine]

Banks doesn’t hate the gays who have transcended these womanly qualities, so she doesn’t see herself as homophobic. However, employing this offensive language with a diatribe against queer stereotypes is absolutely what it means to be homophobic. Similarly, having a black friend doesn’t excuse one from being racist. Liking some black folks but hating “n*****s” is the definition of tokenism. It is thus strange to point to tokenism within Islamophobia as a characteristic which should exclude it from being classified as a form of racism. So, if anything, the fact that Islamophobes exalt certain ex-Muslims shows their similarities to racists, not their incompatibility with the concept.

There is a caveat that needs explicating in any discussion about Islamophobia (though I’m not confident critics will pay it any mind). There’s nothing wrong with hating evil done in the name of a religion. In fact, this is the binding force of many interfaith organizations such as the Interfaith Youth Core. These coalitions are forged by people whose personal narratives push them to weed out injustice and promote the common good regardless of creed. When we cross the line from hating injustice to generalizing large populations of people as perpetrators or supporters of the violence because of how they look, we betray this noble mission.

Islamophobia manifests itself through the surface characteristics of race. We wrongly think we can judge another’s character by the color of their skin, the style of their clothing, or the Middle Eastern sound of their name. This is not a vigilance worth protecting; this is a racism, a societal evil that needs to be opposed.

Stephen Goeman is an atheist and Humanist. A senior at Tufts University, he is the former president of the Tufts Freethought Society and now serves as their Community Outreach Representative. He is also an Interfaith Youth Core alumnus and a member of Students Promoting Equality, Awareness, and Compassion, a peer education program that coordinates student responses to acts of intolerance at Tufts.