Confronting Racism: Don’ts & Dos for Humanists
THERE ARE DEBATED ISSUES within the humanist movement revolving around the agenda that should guide humanist thinking and activism. Is it enough to address separation of church and state? Of course, science education should be high on the list of key issues meriting humanist time and resources, right? These are just two of the activism possibilities that receive energetic conversation and attention within the humanist circles familiar to me. Such issues and debate have shaped the public presence and “look” of humanism in a significant way for some time.
But what exactly does humanism do?
One can think about the issues I mentioned as marking out how humanists understand their world and interact with that world. That is to say, such issues or platforms have something to do with the interactions of humanists individually and within the context of collectives called communities, social groupings, and so on. But this work, forces at least some of us to ask: What does humanism have to say to and about those bodies at work within both private and public realms?
Not to get too philosophical, but these bodies are not only material (i.e., they’re born, they live, and they die), they are also familiar to us as social constructs, as language given substance. I suggest that humanists understand, without significant trouble or confusion, the material, biological reality of bodies. However, humanists have a more difficult time understanding and addressing the social construction of these bodies.
The former—the biological reality—bends to logic and science, while the social construction of bodies has no necessary logic and isn’t defined by the assumed objective findings of science. Is it this differentiation that prompts some to argue that social issues such as racism aren’t fundamental to humanism and its activists? In short, the position for some goes this way: if an issue can’t be addressed through logic and reason, and if science doesn’t hold the key to understanding it, then it isn’t a pressing concern for humanists.
Still, so many of the invitations I receive from humanist organizations and communities revolve around questions not guided by “it’s got to be reasonable” approaches to engagement. These questions, albeit in a sloppy way, seek to recognize socially constructed bodies as bodies worthy of attention. For example: How do we get more African Americans into the so-called movement? Or, why are so many African Americans still involved in a religious tradition (i.e., Christianity) that was used to enslave them and that continues to justify racial discrimination, among other modes of injustice? Both questions point to the social significance of race—and its enactment in the mode of racism—while also suggesting a desire, at least on the part of some, to address race as a humanist issue.
I AM ONE who has argued for a few decades now that humanism should address issues of social justice, like racism, as part of its commitment to the well-being of life in general and human flourishing in particular. To omit attention to modes of social injustice—like racism—is to reduce the connotations of the human in humanism. Furthermore, it is to truncate the challenges confronting human flourishing in the contemporary world. And so, I typically accept invitations to talk about humanism and race, and to offer historical perspective and prospects. Those talks and lectures last a good amount of time as they cover a number of centuries, and the exchanges afterward add a good number of minutes as I make my way from the stage to the hallway.
I have no complaints and I’m glad to give those presentations. Yet, recent conversations concerning a concise definition of humanism and its mission motivate me to offer something more concise, and certainly more condensed than the talks and lectures. At the recent annual gathering of the American Humanist Association this took the form of a list of “don’ts and dos” for humanists interested in issues of race and racism. I think it’s worthwhile to share them again.
I’ll first outline what is most difficult and uncomfortable. That is, what humanists concerned with race and racial justice shouldn’t do, or what they should stop doing.
DON’T MAKE BLANKET STATEMENTS CONCERNING AFRICAN-AMERICAN INVOLVEMENT IN THEISM.
It’s true that a significant percentage of the African-American population in the United States is involved with Christianity and other modes of theism. For the full presence of African Americans in North America, theism has served as a major cultural device for individual and collective life. But, it’s important to recognize that Christianity—let’s highlight the numerically most significant form of theism—in African-American communities has had more than one purpose. Sure, it served (and continues to function) as justification for the status quo. We all know its role as a major buttress for slavery and continued racial discrimination. However, we are quick to forget the ways in which Christianity also pushed against injustice and worked—granted, in flawed ways—to produce a sense of identity and agency that contradicted dehumanization produced through racial injustice. Keep in mind figures such as Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, Sojourner Truth, and a host of others who found in the Christian faith a source of support for activism.
It is also the case, jumping through the centuries, that many African Americans embraced (and continue to embrace) Christianity because of its cultural, social, and economic potential. That is to say, they aren’t convinced by its theology but instead are pragmatic and see it as a resource for enhancing the secular dimensions of life—jobs, cultural connections, social networks, political power, and activism.
All that said, the relationship between African Americans and Christianity is complex and layered. And, more stinging in this regard, humanism and other human-centered philosophies and strategies didn’t always support African-American efforts toward social transformation through the end of racism and its systemic markers. Theists weren’t the only ones to hold slaves. And, theists aren’t the only ones who, historically, have downplayed the significance of racial justice by “blaming the victims” and positing African-American collective misery as a consequence of African-American failure to do better.
DON’T ASSUME HUMANISM IS A VACCINE AGAINST POOR THINKING AND POOR BEHAVIOR.
To be confounded by the fact that so many African Americans are Christians betrays a lack of historical nuance, and it makes a problematic assumption concerning humanism. I mention it above, but let me say it again for effect: humanists have participated in the perpetuation of racism. This statement won’t make me friends, but that’s fine; it’s accurate.
Some humanists assume their dependency on science, reason, and logic prevents them from buying into or perpetuating social constructions of injustice. I venture to guess they believe this, again, because social injustice is illogical, and not grounded in reason or science. Still, we live in cultural worlds and even the most strident humanist is influenced and informed by these cultural worlds, which include structures of bias and prejudice.
Does this mean humanists are racist? That’s a question of privilege and the power to enforce privilege in ways that hamper life options for the targeted group, and answering it is a bigger conversation than this short essay. But, sure, yes, some might very well be racist and others are just deeply misinformed. The larger question of whether humanists are racist is certainly worth conversation, but for now it’s simply important to recognize that humanists can knowingly and unknowingly support racial injustice through the assumption that humanism puts them beyond the realm of such illogical behavior. What I suggest is a bit of humility and perspective—recognition of the ways in which one can both fight and contribute to injustice.
DON’T ASSUME YOU GET TO SET
THE RACIAL JUSTICE AGENDA.
For those committed to issues of racial justice, I understand the passion and energy you bring to such work. However, keep in mind you don’t get to lead. You don’t get to determine what are appropriate markers of progress. Your job is to promote solidarity, and to play the role assigned to you by those who are most directly and deeply impacted by issues of race and racism. This approach recognizes that those who are most familiar with a particular structure of injustice are in the best position to determine who should address it and what are acceptable benchmarks of progress.
Leave behind the missionary impulse, connect with progressive organizations and meaningful projects, and simply follow instructions.
SO, THOSE are some of the don’ts, some of the problematic assumptions, and faulty approaches that hamper humanist involvement in racial justice work. That said, I want to end on a positive note by offering a few “dos” and in this way, I hope to point out the potential to make a difference.
DO RECOGNIZE THE NATURE OF PRIVILEGE.
The more graphic markers of racial injustice—such as racialized slavery—no longer define the U.S. collective life. However, centuries of racism and its practice entail privilege that some ignore.
Surely you’ve heard people say, “My family didn’t have slaves…why is racism my problem?” Or, more recently, “We have a black president, what more do you want?!” Such statements and others like them fail to recognize the nature of privilege in the United States. That is to say, whiteness comes with perks. Some of them are obvious—standards of beauty geared toward that population and more economic success on average are but two. However, there are also soft forms of privilege that are often ignored: the assumption that the police are there to serve and protect; the assumption that one wasn’t placed near the restroom in the restaurant because of skin color; the assumption you should be successful and it’s a problem if you aren’t; and the assumption that you are included in the “we” that defines citizenship in the United States. Privilege allows for these positive assumptions.
Sure, not all white Americans are wealthy and protected, but their whiteness is not used as proof-positive of inherent inferiority, as the reason why they aren’t successful. They aren’t defined by the worst of their circumstances.
Progress on issues of racial justice requires recognizing both the obvious—or hard—forms of privilege generated by whiteness and also the more covert—or soft—forms of privilege that mark life in the United States as a white American. And here’s the challenging part of the “do”: progress toward racial justice also means not only recognition of privilege, but also a critique of privilege by those who benefit from it.
DO EDUCATE YOURSELF.
It’s a natural response to ask those most familiar with an issue to educate, to guide, and to absolve the ignorant from guilt. African Americans are familiar with and, to some extent, used to this request. But it’s a bad move, a mistake that speaks to laziness. Why is it lazy? Well, humanists—as far as I can tell—pride themselves on being informed, well read on important issues, and always seeking information. So, when it comes to race, “I don’t know much about African Americans” isn’t an acceptable qualifier.
Ask for materials to read, documentaries to watch—anything that suggests you’re taking responsibility for knowing something about the history and context of African-American life in the United States. Learn something. Read, study, and only then ask informed questions. Show the same commitment to knowing something about race that you put toward separation of church and state, evolution, and the other issues that mark the bulk of humanist publications and conference programs.
DO RECOGNIZE DIFFERENCE AS AN OPPORTUNITY.
On some level, discussions of race and racism speak to a larger concern with “difference.” Humanists have acknowledged difference, but too often difference is understood as a problem to solve—an opportunity to reassert some type of normative behavior, look, attitude, and so on.
This approach produces more shades of the same—African Americans, Latinos/as, Asian Americans, and others are often appreciated only to the extent that they model the social norms and regulations preferred by the dominant population. Success in this regard is often acknowledged with remarks like, “You aren’t like the others…”
I’m not suggesting there is always something malicious about this posture towards difference; some who hold to it are genuinely concerned with justice and social transformation. However, difference as a problem limits the ways in which social transformation can be mapped out.
SO, I PREFER to think of difference as an opportunity, as a chance to add complexity to a community and to learn from approaches and perspectives outside what is considered normative. It’s an opportunity to appreciate what has been considered marginal to U.S. life and to understand its actual centrality. In a certain way, difference as opportunity points to the need to appreciate cultural diversity, learn from it, and embrace possibilities that push us beyond the familiar and comfortable. This take on difference involves some risk to the extent that it pushes us into the unfamiliar. But, to use a tired metaphor, there is something of real value in pushing ourselves to step outside the box.
This approach, or even my concern with race and racism as fundamental to humanist thought and activism, won’t make sense to all. And that’s okay.
Still, what’s required within the humanist movement is a hard conversation concerning an acceptable level of discontent. When does disagreement on racism as an agenda item (or particular approaches to racial justice work) allow for creative and productive conversation, or a diversification of objectives and goals? And, when does it point to a destructive situation?
Various organizations can produce position papers, mission statements, and objectives. All this is important work, however don’t these “white paper” pronouncements bend to need? They don’t need to reify core principles of humanism, but rather they need to be responsive to changing circumstances and predicaments. If these missions, objectives, and so on are organic, they are in response to the changing contexts in which humanists find themselves. Continued racial violence and injustice marks one of these moments of need. How will we respond?
These “don’ts and dos” are suggestions, my effort to offer a map of sorts, a way to negotiate and navigate issues of race and racism. Perhaps they will provide useful food for thought for those interested in my brand of humanist activism; and, for those who move in a different direction, they might offer a sense of the agenda diversity that marks our movement. Either way, we are given opportunities to gain perspective on what matters to us, to wrestle with the degree to which black lives mattering matters to humanists. I think we owe our collective community at least this much.