Yes, Our Lives Are Intersectional: Reflections on the Secular Social Justice Conference

I had the honor of attending and participating as a speaker at the Secular Social Justice Conference held at Rice University in Houston, Texas, this past weekend. Co-organized by author Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson and Houston Black Nonbelievers leader Donald Wright, the event brought together over 100 humanists and atheists—the majority from black, Latino, feminist, and LGBTQ communities—from across the country. In my ten years as a humanist activist working for the American Humanist Association, I found it to be one of the most enlightening, inspirational, and engaging conferences I’ve ever attended.

I sat on one of the first panels of the conference, “Feminisms of Color and the Secular Movement,” alongside Deanna Adams, who blogs at Musings on a Limb; Heina Dadabhoy, an ex-Muslim activist and Freethought Blogs contributer; AJ Word, founder of the DC-based Secular Sistahs; and Dr. Hutchinson, who moderated the panel.

For many years, the humanist movement has been referred to as “male, pale, and stale,” and leaders have wanted to see changes that reflect the growing diversity of people who identify as humanist, atheist, secular, or as freethinkers. Though it continues to be part of the American Humanist Association’s mission to defend the separation of church and state, criticize dangerous religious ideas, and promote scientific inquiry and reason, it is also our humanistic duty to “aspire to the greater good of humanity” by standing up for marginalized communities and addressing the issues that affect them.

In this context, and as a Filipina raised in a conservative religious tradition, I addressed three primary challenges facing feminists of color in the secular movement: the lack of women of color in leadership positions, the lack of economic justice advocacy as it relates to reproductive access, and the attempt by some to hijack the word “humanist” to replace “feminist.” I also criticized the argument that humanists, by definition, are absolved from ever being racist, sexist, or classist. My fellow panelists echoed similar challenges, mainly the lack of understanding of the concerns of women of color, and provided concrete ways leaders can help overcome these challenges.

Throughout the conference, many shared personal stories of experiencing racism and sexism in the secular movement, addressed concerns about erasure of black and Latino voices in history, emphasized the need to recognize slavery as an injustice that carries repercussions even today, discussed the economic justice needs of immigrants, and many more issues that I don’t often hear at national secular conferences.

It didn’t surprise me that as I live-tweeted so many important words being said and conversations taking place during the conference, we received negative feedback from a small number of our followers on Twitter. But I couldn’t help but feel shocked by the hate behind the words: “I oppose black racism, a topic you cowardly PC f***s refuse to acknowledge.” “People who need safe spaces are cowards.” “There has never been violence or suppression of minorities at [secular] conferences.” I can confidently say that though these people may call themselves humanists, they are not humanists by our definition of the word.

If you were unable to attend the Secular Social Justice Conference, I encourage you to read many of the live-tweets and commentary that took place during the event by following the hashtag #ssjcon on Twitter. Participants and activists such as Sincere Kirabo, Greta Christina, and Deanna Adams will also be writing about their experiences and thoughts on the conference, and I encourage you to read them to learn more about what it means to be involved in social justice work as humanists.

  • whatever

    Apologies if my question is ignorant, but I have not heard of this:

    > and the attempt by some to hijack the word “humanist” to replace “feminist.”

    Can you expand on that a bit? What are you referring to, and what comments did you make about it?

    Thank you!

    • Happy to respond! I’ll start with the Facebook group, Humanists United Against Feminism. They are using the term humanist even though, by our definition, humanist includes the use of the word feminist. A year or so ago, the actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt tweeted that he was proud to call himself a feminist and got a flood of tweets back encouraging him to use the word “humanist” instead (he would later tweet back the fact that “humanist” has a distinct definition of nontheist). The actress Meryl Streep also claims to be a “humanist” and says she doesn’t like to use the word “feminist,” and is using the term to simply mean “for all humans” rather than its proper definition of nontheism. If you Google search “humanism” and “anti-feminism” or “feminism” together, you’ll find a few other writings on this topic through Patheos, Everyday Feminism, etc. I said in my speech that the AHA is very clear about proudly using the term “feminist” and supporting the feminist movement. Feminism is a part of humanism, and humanism shouldn’t be a word used to mean “anti-feminism” or replace the word feminism. Hope this helps!

      • whatever

        Thanks, I appreciate the clarification. Mostly I was unsure from the context of who was doing the hijacking; feminists, humanists, or some completely different party. After googling humanism, anti-feminism, feminism, and doing some reading, I would think that Streep is describing, what was tweeted at Levitt might be egalitarianism and not humanism.

      • Say the word “feminist” in an atheist space, and watch World World III break out.

      • John D

        Thanks for the tip Maggie. I am now enjoying a new group on Facebook. Count me in as a member of “Humanists United Against Feminism”. I already stopped my donations to AHA.

        • Very sorry to hear you oppose equal rights for women. Thank you for your past support, but indeed, I am sure there are other organizations you should support.

          • John D

            And thank you for making the leap that: feminism = equal rights for women. I have never seen this claim before.

          • rg57

            The phrase “equal rights for” qualifies as weasel words. (I used it above, because it’s the language you seem to speak).

            There can be no “for”. Either there is equality across the board, or there isn’t.

            Feminists insist on equal rights “for women” because “for women” is all they’re interested in.

            When a man is beaten by his wife, and calls 911, and he (the victim) is then arrested and jailed because state law says he must be, as is the case in several states, where is the feminist outrage?

            When baby boys’ genitals are mutilated, sometimes with bonus herpes infection, or bleeding to death or simply cutting the penis right off, where is the feminist outrage? There is none. In fact, feminists chose to define boys right out of the problem by naming it FGM.

            When men make up over 90% of the prison population, where is the feminist outrage?

            When men make up over 90% of workplace deaths, where is the feminist outrage?

            Feminism is not about equality. It’s about supremacy.

    • Tony Thompson

      I’ve seen many comments from people in the online Atheist/Skeptic/Humanist movement who oppose discussions of feminist activism. These people don’t like the fact that being feminist is exclusionary and that everyone ought to be humanist, bc it advocates for equality for everyone. This is the same mindset on display with people who think that Black Lives Matter means only black lives matter, and no others. These people typically do not acknowledge the unique struggles that all women experience as a result of their gender (and they certainly don’t acknowledge the struggles of women of color or queer women, which are similar, but differ from the issues facing white, cishet women), and think that everyone should work under the umbrella of Humanism. This is like saying there shouldn’t be any Breast Cancer Awareness, but there should just be Cancer Awareness. There are unique problems faced by people with breast cancer. They need people to focus specifically on breast cancer and doing so does not detract from people discussing other forms of cancer.

      Another curious issue is that I have *never* seen any of the I’m a humanist, not a feminist/I’m an egalitarian not a feminist crowd use either of those lines in discussions of anti-racism activism or anti-LGBT activism. It’s only ever mentioned when the discussion is feminism. They aren’t consistent and that betrays a bias in their thinking.

  • Chas Stewart

    Are you often confronted by people who state that humanists can’t be racist?

    • Quite often. And then they say something racist or sexist.

  • rg57

    “the lack of women of color in leadership positions” This can only be an issue if you yourself are sexist and racist, judging people by genitals or chromosomes, and skin, rather than their contributions. This is echoed by the bigoted slur “male, pale, and stale”. Stunning, really. Or it would be, if it wasn’t so common.

    “the lack of economic justice advocacy as it relates to reproductive access”. A good place to start is the ACA, which requires providers to cover 18 different forms of female contraception, but zero forms of male contraception, despite their safety, efficacy, and other benefits like disease-prevention. Another place is to look is at laws which force unwanted parenthood on a man (or boy) merely because of a genetic match, or a marriage. Talk about economic justice.

    I even mostly agree with the Tweets you posted (although Twitter is hardly a forum to truly understand a point, which probably needs a paragraph or essay to communicate completely). Of course I oppose black racism, as I oppose all racism. It exists. I oppose it. People who need safe spaces aren’t necessarily cowards, but you likely know as well as I do that the concept of “safe space” has been expanded well beyond therapeutic use and is being used to broadly censor people across large swaths of (what used to be) higher education.

    I don’t know the history of every conference, but I haven’t heard of even a claim of violence at one of them, much less a documented case. Even so, violence does happen in the world, and there’s no reason conferences would be immune. It’s not a valid issue, unless the rate is unusual or the violence is incited by the subject matter. But it’s very clear that secular conferences do censor minority viewpoints, if those viewpoints defend equality for men, or defend free speech, or oppose cherished dogma. It just happened to Dawkins with NECSS.

    “they are not humanists by our definition of the word”. Ah, the no true Scotsman. Classic!