Checking Humanism’s Privilege and Pulse An Interview with Sincere Kirabo

Sincere Kirabo has a background in social science and his critiques of social issues have been published in various media outlets, including the Humanist, Black Youth Project, the Establishment, and 
Everyday Feminism.

In May 2017 Kirabo joined the programming committee for the National LGBTQ Task Force’s 2018 Creating Change Conference, the nation’s premier LGBTQ-centered grassroots activist-building event. And in September he became the lead organizer for Secular Social Justice 2018, an AHA-hosted event emphasizing the insight and leadership of secular, humanist, and atheist activists of color.

Jennifer Bardi: You’ve now been the social justice coordinator for the American Humanist Association (AHA) for a little over two years. Tell me about the job. How exactly does one “coordinate” social justice?

Sincere Kirabo: I’m still in the process of discovering how to best meet the needs of misrepresented and marginalized groups within the purview of the American Humanist Association and the greater humanist community.

Since I’m the first to occupy this position, in some ways it’s an ongoing trial-and-error experiment. In a nutshell, I’m responsible for designing, implementing, and organizing social justice strategy and initiatives that translate humanist philosophy into practices and outreach that center the needs of disenfranchised communities. This work also focuses on developing critical consciousness within secular humanist communities to incite action and disrupt an inherently oppressive status quo.

A key responsibility is connecting with individuals and groups subsumed within social justice movements—Indigenous activists, feminist and LGBTQ organizations, Black liberation groups, and so on. This includes developing a rapport with grassroots leaders and organizers, examining their needs, and “coordinating” ways we can collaborate, amplify each other’s work, and involve the AHA and humanists in general to fight for a more just world.

The pursuit of social justice is part and parcel to humanism, so it makes sense that we’re involved in the struggle.

Bardi: Do you feel humanism as a philosophy and in practice as an organized movement is addressing social justice in a significant way?

Kirabo: The humanist philosophy definitely includes both an implicit and explicit analysis and support of social justice. That said, when it comes to whether or not I think organized humanism is addressing social justice in a significant way, I would say no.

The essential characteristics of social justice activism are human responsibility, a concern for the dignity and welfare of all people, and a belief that positive change requires human intervention. These are central values that have been emphasized throughout humanism’s history of articulating ways to enjoy life, to treat each other with full respect, and to remedy social ills.

Unfortunately, there’s a disconnect. What’s theorized to produce optimal human cooperation and human flourishing doesn’t always translate into lived values or behaviors. Whether it’s an innate human depravity, depravity we adopt through legacies of social, cultural, political, and economic systems that cater to some and deprive others, or whether it’s some combination of the two, there are those who identify as humanist who disregard crucial aspects of the social struggle for a more just and egalitarian world.

This disconnect is more common than some humanists would like to acknowledge, and it contributes to complacency, inaction, and lukewarm or even hostile attitudes when it comes to attempting to heal vicious cycles of systemic injustice.

Humanist philosophy offers a system of thought that includes challenging and reshaping dominant cultural standards that disenfranchise entire groups of people. This supports a “radical” agenda, one that ought to motivate us to act on a moral imperative to disrupt systems of oppression because they are incompatible with the aspirations of humanism.

This would mean that we question, defy, abolish, and transform unjust ideologies—think colonialism, ableism, white supremacy, cis-heteronormativity, and yes, even capitalism—that are codified into everyday life and profoundly mutilate the way we view ourselves, others, and the world. It’s impossible for us to adequately address things like economic injustice, mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, US imperialism, or our perverse gun culture without addressing the root causes.

Bardi: What’s your strategy for getting the humanist movement to prioritize these issues? Not that it’s your responsibility alone, but what specifically would you like to see the AHA doing?

Kirabo: I think the American Humanist Association is in a great position to lead the charge on producing and publicizing humanistic educational tools that advance social consciousness and encourage action.

This includes creating quality content that deconstructs the socio-historical legacy of various oppressive systems, contextualizes them with relevant examples, and provides critiques from an explicitly humanist framework. It could be something similar to Franchesca Ramsey’s popular MTV web series Decoded.

We’re currently developing an educational series that mixes text- and audio-based content to address specific social issues. We call them “humanist action kits” and two of them have already been published: “Humanism and the Movement for Black Lives” and “Humanism and Countering Everyday Sexism.” We plan to address reproductive rights, healthy masculinity, immigration, racial consciousness, the prison-industrial complex, school segregation (because it’s still a thing), the war on drugs, and direct action.

I’d like to see the AHA provide regular workshops, discussion groups, and webinars, and of course, collaborate with activists who are already in the trenches fighting these diverse struggles.

Bardi: Part of the AHA’s mission in prioritizing social justice was to foster a growing diversity within the humanist community at large. Has the movement become more diverse?

Kirabo: I think it depends on who you ask. I personally don’t think that the movement has become diverse. It’s still a mainly cishet [cisgender and heterosexual] white male community, and I don’t see that changing until the ambitions of the movement changes. You tend to attract who you cater to.

Here’s the thing though: diversity shouldn’t really be a goal. This relates to my analysis of social justice activism. For me, social justice isn’t about looking for equal involvement in the current sociopolitical power relations that frame and govern society. It isn’t about marginalized communities becoming fully “accepted,” or becoming more integrated in perpetuating present sociopolitical systems.

I’m not a fan of this idea of “justice” for the same reason that I’m not a fan of the idea of “diversity.” Despite whatever good intentions, diversity is too often discussed and implemented as if it were tinsel to adorn what those who support the power arrangement imagine to be an already “solid operation.” I interpret diversity as a way to tinker around the edges, a means to create an illusion of change without altering course or ceding power in any substantive way.

Metaphorically, if we are to talk about inclusion, it shouldn’t be in a way that conceptualizes inclusivity as obtaining a “fair share of the pie.” This implies the pie is worth savoring. The purpose of inclusion ought to be to bake a new pie with the inclusion of new ingredients.

Within the humanist community, diversity seeks to incorporate humanists of “diverse” sexual orientations, genders, abilities, races, or ethnicities in a way that doesn’t disturb the status quo. When it comes to leadership roles, I also consider how it’s common for this search for diversity to be wedded to a respectability litmus test where those who are brought on board are “safe selections” that will speak or think in ways that will fall in line with the existing structure and values.

The purpose of including those from diverse backgrounds in leadership and decision making ought to lead to creating and developing new ways of “seeing” and “doing” that diverge from what came before. Unfortunately, that usually isn’t what happens.

Bardi: You’re the lead organizer for the Social Secular Justice 2018 conference, which, as we speak, is just a few weeks away. Tell me your goals for this conference.

Kirabo: My main goal is to continue the legacy that began with Secular Social Justice 2016. Secular Social Justice is a space for activists of color to lead discussions, share ideas, and promote strategies with a learning community interested in creating transformational social change.

I’ve worked closely with Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson—the main architect behind this event—to make sure her vision is realized. She has stated that this conference was designed to bring social justice activism to the fore of radical humanism and atheism. I’ve helped to develop an event that I think fulfills this goal.

Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson, seen here at Secular Social Justice 2016, aims to bring social justice activism to the forefront of radical humanism and atheism.

On a minor level, too, I want to challenge how greatly academia influences the humanist community and the secular movement in general. It’s easy to locate speakers who talk “at” us with lectures that confirm our biases and make us feel smart. Secular Social Justice will be made up of interactive workshops and discussion sessions that will challenge our beliefs in ways meant to advance understanding of complex social issues and encourage actions that support social justice.

Bardi: In addition to launching the AHA’s Black Humanist Alliance, you oversaw a revamp of what’s now called the Feminist Humanist Alliance and the LGBTQ Humanist Alliance. Have you encountered issues of sexism in the movement? Have women shared #MeToo stories with you that are specific to the secular community?

Kirabo: A huge yes to both. Sexism continues to be a huge problem with this movement. And by “problem” I mean that it exists and most men choose to either deny it, minimize it, or blame victims.

I’m directly and indirectly connected to countless women who were once a part of this movement and have since left. It’s sad and disgusting and infuriating that there are whisper networks within secular circles so that women can warn each other about certain men rumored to be sexual harassers or abusers.

And yes, several women have reported instances of sexual misconduct and even rape to me. I’m not at liberty to discuss these incidents in any detail, but I will say that all three cases involve men who were at one point connected to organized humanism or atheism.

Bardi: Do you sense that humanists and those in the larger atheist community are quicker to condemn homophobia and transphobia than issues of racism or sexism? If so, why do you think that is?

Kirabo: I’m not sure that’s the case. However, it’s no secret that it tends to be easier for people to condemn something the further removed it is from their “side.” The humanist and atheist communities are white male-dominated spaces, so it isn’t surprising that there would be less resistance to denouncing homo-antagonism and trans-antagonism than confronting sexism and racism.

Men don’t want to develop an in-depth analysis of sexism because that would require better understanding our proximity to a system of oppression that we as the male collective benefit from.

We live in a patriarchal society that imbues increased social power to men through cultural norms and customs, while restricting access to these social privileges to women. Sexism is a body of ideas that exists to justify these standards, and misogyny is a moral manifestation of this sexist ideology. Men don’t want to hear that. We don’t sense our inflated sense of entitlement because dominant culture’s messaging rings true to us. We want to believe “the real sexists” are only the men who explicitly state that men are smarter or better than women, rather than acknowledge that it’s a system that implicates all of us. We want to believe that our accomplishments have everything to do with our individual merits and nothing to do with the oppression of women.

Likewise, white people don’t want to challenge their shallow understanding of racism because an in-depth analysis would threaten their sense of reality. White supremacy is the operationalized form of racism in the United States and throughout the Western world. White supremacy renders a higher regard for the intellectual, behavioral, and inherent value of those defined as “white” while also systematically restricting access to resources, rights, and opportunities of non-whites.

White people don’t want to hear that. They want to believe that Klansmen and neo-Nazis are “the real racists” rather than acknowledge that it’s a system that also implicates them. White people want to believe that the social and economic deprivations that plague Black and brown communities has everything to do with a pathology native to these communities and nothing to do with the ongoing, ravaging legacy of slavery, capitalism, and colonialism—systems that were developed to satiate white supremacy within the US context.

Bardi: Yes, but I asked specifically about people in the secular community. Are humanists any better on issues of sexism and racism than society at large?

Kirabo: I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Many social activists dedicated to explicitly anti-oppressive endeavors are religious, don’t identify as humanist, and have zero affiliation to the secular community. When I think of anti-sexism and anti-racism, I think of the work of social critics, feminists, and social justice leaders like Opal Tometi, Brittney Cooper, Imani Perry, Simran Jeet Singh, Bree Newsome, Hari Ziyad, and Sandra Kim. They all hold some form of faith in the divine.

The core principles of the humanist philosophy call us to seek dramatic social changes that would require us to expand our imagination about what it means to “get free” beyond what’s comfortable. Right now, it’s more common for us to be preoccupied with single-issue struggles (i.e., separation of church and state) that allow us to navigate an oppressive society more comfortably rather than seeking to challenge the various mechanisms that make society oppressive.

This is why intersectionality is so important. Intersectionality promotes holistic accountability because it’s an analytical tool that scrutinizes identity and its relationship to power. This is something we desperately need more of in the secular community. In an article I wrote for the Establishment, titled “Why Your Criticisms of Intersectionality and Identity Politics Sound Ridiculous,” I interviewed feminist writer and the AHA’s 2018 Feminist Humanist Awardee, Ijeoma Oluo. In it, she affirmed that “You cannot only pick up the parts of revolution that free you and then fight against those working to free themselves and still call yourself a revolutionary.”

There’s a reason why certain segments of the population feel alienated by organized humanism and atheism. There’s a reason why more and more people continue to disaffiliate from these circles. I argue that the reason for this is because this movement isn’t nearly as countercultural as many imagine it to be. Course correction is certainly possible. Whether or not steps will be made to make this course correction remains to be seen.

Sincere Kirabo has left his position as the AHA social justice coordinator to pursue activism and other writing projects outside of secularism. We wish him well.