Still, We Rise: The First Women of Color Beyond Belief Conference

Donald Trump’s recent racist, sexist, nativist tirade against congresswomen Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI)—telling them to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came”—underscores how fraught and dangerous conditions continue to be for women of color in the United States. Last year the four women (three of whom were born in the US and all American citizens) made history in a game-changing election that was a virtual rebuke of Trump’s fascist agenda. A year after the landmark political season, in which more women of color assumed national office than ever before, this October’s Women of Color Beyond Belief conference marks an important transition for secular women of color. Rep. Omar countered Trump supporters’ ugly chant of “Send her back!” with Maya Angelou’s line “Still, like air, I’ll rise.” The fearless example of Omar and “The Squad” is an inspiration for progressive women of color who are pushing for greater political visibility in the secular movement.

The Women of Color Beyond Belief conference, which will be held in Chicago from October 4-6, is being sponsored by Black Nonbelievers, Black Skeptics Los Angeles, and the Women’s Leadership Project. It was partly inspired by the July/August 2018 cover story of the Humanist magazine, “Five Fierce Humanists: Unapologetically Black Women Beyond Belief” that highlighted Black women atheist humanist activists (the “secular squad” if you will) who have championed social and gender justice in the secular movement: Bridgett Crutchfield, Candace Gorham, Liz Ross, Mandisa Thomas, and myself.

In addition to the women profiled in the original article, the conference will feature such generationally and culturally diverse speakers as Deanna Adams, Lilandra Ra, Rajani Gudlavalleti, Mashariki Lawson, Hypatia Alexander, and Cecilia Pagan. Among the topics the conference will address are: racial justice politics and intersectional organizing, secular parenting, criminal justice reform, and secular art and film.

As the Trump administration, the GOP, and the religious right ramp up their attacks on secularization, reproductive justice, women’s self-determination, and the human rights of queer LGBTQI communities, the Women of Color Beyond Belief conference couldn’t be more timely. As I argued in a recent piece for the Humanist, Black, Latinx, and indigenous women are the most imperiled by the recent wave of anti-abortion policies spearheaded by conservative legislators in Southern and Midwestern states. Queer, transgender, and non-binary communities of color are also in the crosshairs of the Department of Justice’s rollback of Obama-era protections for LGBTQI individuals in schools and the workplace. Not only are African-American folks more likely to identify as queer, but they are also more likely to have children and be at or above the poverty line, amplifying the grave implications that these policies have for communities of color as a whole.

The conference’s explicitly feminist emphasis is also a first for an event focused on secular women of color. Indeed, most feminist, humanist, and atheist discourse comes from a white, European-American perspective (case in point is the Wikipedia entry on “atheism and feminism,” which begins with a profile highlighting Jewish-American feminist, suffragist, and abolitionist Ernestine Rose, a forerunning atheist thinker). Although atheist, humanist, and feminist social thought and praxis would seem like a natural fit, the intersection of the three is still controversial, even in progressive feminist circles. Moreover, the association of mainstream atheism with vociferous white, male antitheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens is problematic for some feminists who decry their Eurocentric and frequently sexist and Islamophobic views. Further, sexual harassment and abuse allegations against prominent male atheists and skeptics are another deterrent for progressive feminists. The movement’s longstanding dearth of women of color in leadership roles has led to the erasure of gender and racial justice issues that are most pressing for segregated communities of color.

Ex-Muslim feminists Sadia Hameed and Heina Dadabhoy will be speaking at the WoC conference about women’s rights and visibility for persecuted ex-Muslim women who face misogynist violence, harassment, and community ostracism because of their apostasy. Other presentations include a solo performance by singer-musician Sandra Booker entitled “Confessions of an Atheist Black Woman,” along with panels on culturally relevant humanist practices, #MeToo and resisting the normalization of sexual violence, ally-building, and self-care for organizers. I will also be screening my film shortWhite Nights, Black Paradise, on Black women, Peoples Temple, and the Jonestown massacre.

Child care will be provided by Camp Quest and all genders are welcome to participate and volunteer. Early bird registration ends this month.