Monday, February 22, 2010

Greta Christina was right!

Last weekend, I attended the Western Regional LGBTQIA College Conference.  At the risk of having queer topics temporarily dominate my blog, I'd like to say a bit about what happened.  There were a lot of interesting things going on, but one issue really sticks out in my mind.  There was a bit of tension, because there were not enough workshops focusing on the issues of queer people of color

Greta Christina, who is one of my favorite people, wrote earlier about what the atheist movement can learn from the gay movement.  The point she emphasizes most is that we should be more inclusive of women and people of color.  The LGBT movement got this one wrong early on, and the problem has perpetuated itself to this day.

I saw this message played out in the conference.  The organizers of the conference, of course, have nothing but the best of intentions.  But they can't force people to make more workshops for queer people of color.  They can only host whatever workshops they get.  As the pieces fell, they got only two workshops dealing directly with issues of race.*  As the pieces fell, these workshops were scheduled for the same time slot.

*On the plus side, there were a lot of workshops dealing with transgender issues.  Kudos for that.

It's not a matter of actively doing anything wrong.  It's a matter of not actively working to fix the problem.  They should have actively searched for workshops dealing with race, and actively tried to reduce such schedule conflicts.  But it seems like the issue of race was not even on the radar for the organizers, until the conference had already started.  They scrambled to reschedule the workshops so that people could attend both.  At least they were both very good.

I knew that the LGBT movement had some internal conflict about race (mostly from Greta Christina), but I hadn't realized how big it was until now.  I believe UCLA gave me a skewed perspective.  The queer organizations at UCLA are relatively diverse.  There are several subgroups for different ethnicities.  There was a time when I thought this was strange, since conventional wisdom holds that segregation is always bad.  But I can clearly see that the subgroups are effective at increasing diversity.  Different groups are able to focus on different issues, so that everyone can find a group which is relevant to them.  There is also a lot of cross-participation between the groups too, so it's not nearly as segregated as it might seem.

Let's talk about the organization I run, the Bruin Alliance of Skeptics & Secularists.  I have to admit that we have a diversity problem.  We have women, and we have ethnic minorities, but we don't have nearly as many of them as I would like.  Furthermore, all the officers are men, and most of them are white.  These are officers that I picked.  In my defense, I pick officers on the basis of who wants to get actively involved, and as the pieces fell, they were mostly white men.  At least I can say that they're not all heterosexual.

Let's also look at the larger atheist and skeptical movements.  As the pieces fell, all of the biggest leaders are white heterosexual men.  Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennet, PZ Myers, Michael Shermer, James Randi, Phil Plait, etc.  You really have to know your skeptical celebrities before you can name any exceptions.  And whose fault is this?  It's hard to say, since leaders are "selected" through a complicated and mysterious process.

But regardless of the source of the problem, it is a problem nonetheless, one which requires a solution.  Talking about the cause of the problem is only useful insofar as it helps us find a solution.  And perhaps some of the best solutions are those which are effective regardless of cause.

Anyways, I am seriously inspired to bring up this topic at BASS.


SlightlyMetaphysical said...

Something that may further inspire you/convince others/just be an interesting read;

Good luck.

miller said...

There's something funny about that story. On the one hand, Lisa Miller decries the narrow focus on a bunch of white guys arguing about God. She admits that the media is part of the problem, because it likes to highlight the controversy.

On the other hand, the alternative focus she proposes is Greg Epstein. The reason Greg Epstein gets so much media attention is precisely because he is controversial. Incidentally, he's also another middle-aged white man.

If Lisa Miller were seriously interested in shifting focus, she would actually shift the focus by some of the minor figures in the movement. Instead, she is just focusing on the "schism" between the "two types" of atheists. This is a rather tired topic that does in fact get a lot of attention both inside and outside the movement.

Tommy said...

You should bring this up at BASS. I'm not entirely sure what we can do about it though. Additional advertising? Try to seem less clique-ish/more inclusive on first meeting?