Category Archives: Anti-racism

Day of Solidarity with Black Non-Believers

Redlining map of Charlotte, NC: Courtesy of UNC's Digital Innovation LabToday, February 24th, is the fourth Sunday in February, and as such it is the third annual Day of Solidarity with Black Non-Believers.

In 2011, Donald Wright first proposed holding a Day of Solidarity for Black Non-believers without asking anyone’s permission; he didn’t wait to see if hundreds of people would line up behind the idea before taking that first step and creating a Day of Solidarity in Houston, Texas. Although there doesn’t seem to be much promotion for the Day of Solidarity this year, no one has to wait for permission to celebrate the Day of Solidarity either. If anyone, anywhere, wants to celebrate the DoS, please, go right ahead and create your own event; contact other nonbelievers in your own community and decide how you’d like to spend that time with each other: share a meal; visit an art gallery or museum; go see a movie or a play; go ice-skating; etc. Make some phone calls, post your event on your own Facebook page as well as on the DoS Facebook page; celebrate, and remain an activist—not just a joiner—for the rest of the year; make a commitment to social change. Right now, what society needs are people who are committed to social change; we have enough talkers, and in order to create meaningful change, we must each assume leadership by doing the right thing—with or without company!

The future as well as the integrity of the secular community depends not on people who do as they are told, but on those of us who are both independent thinkers and activists.

–Naima Washington

So, when I was 12 or 13, I was walking down Main Street, passing the department store, heading for the library, and I saw a group of black boys, high schoolers or college students. I remember noticing how my heart sped up with fear. Somehow I’d absorbed the idea that young black men are extra dangerous – more so than the “average” (read: white) man. This didn’t really jive with my young nerdy embrace of the Vulcan ethos, “IDIC,” Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination. Difference is not to be feared, so I thought, and so I believed consciously, but subconsciously I feared those young men. It’s a vivid memory, perhaps because the cognitive dissonance was so strong.

My parents were proud of being supportive of the civil rights movement, and emphasized ideas about equality. They were not big on enforcing or obeying gender stereotypes. They spoke approvingly about MLK Junior and beamed with pride when I “went steady” in 7th grade with a cute dark-skinned boy in the 8th grade who won the dance contest at the Junior High Dance, and gave me the blue teddy bear he won thereby as a Valentine’s Day present. And yet there I was, acting out the stereotype that young black men and boys are violent thugs.

That experience is one among many that predisposed me to quickly grasp the concept that racism is a system in which we all participate, sometimes without intending to or even knowing that we are. I think that’s something that white can do to help the struggle against racism – have an accurate understanding of racism and how it works. Embrace the Smooth Model of racism – it’s about the effects, not the intent.

Think about your neighborhood for a minute. Then consider that, concurrent to the public apartheid of Jim Crow, there was also a fully legal and government-sanctioned program of segregation by neighborhood and sometimes by town. This practice was called “redlining” and if you’re not familiar with the practice, basically it meant banks and the Federal Housing Authority collaborating to identify and map neighborhoods that were “good investments” and which were “too risky.” The Wiki page has a pretty succinct description, so I’ll just put it here:

Such maps defined many minority neighborhoods in cities as ineligible to receive financing. The maps were based on assumptions about the community, not accurate assessments of an individual’s or household’s ability to satisfy standard lending criteria. Since African-Americans were unwelcome in white neighborhoods, which frequently instituted racial restrictive covenants to keep them out, the policy effectively meant that blacks could not secure mortgage loans at all.

Emphasis mine. See how skepticism comes into play here? Racism clouded the ability of the white men making those maps to accurately assess reality. And because of that, they did a lot of damage: they made it nearly impossible for several generations of black families to get mortgages for their houses, loans for their businesses, and even supermarkets in their neighborhoods.

That’s just one area in which the basic material substrate of our lives is so heavily influenced by our history of racialized injustice here in the USA. The house you live in, the neighborhood, how far you have to drive to get groceries (whether you have to drive, too), and of course whether your family has generations of wealth-generating home ownership to draw on. Pick a realm of life–education, medicine, environmental hazards, work, whatever–and there’s a similar story of deliberate exclusion, papered over by the pretense that the Civil Rights movement was, like, a million years ago, and slavery was a million years before that, and everything’s copacetic now. This is an attitude that a.) does not withstand critical inquiry; as I just demonstrated, the footprints of racism are everywhere, if you don’t deliberately blind yourself to them and b.) does active harm to the project of achieving equality. When you have one group of people asking, “How can we solve this problem?” and another group is saying, “There is no problem here,” there can’t be any productive dialogue. The question of whether racism, and other bigotries, are a problem in the atheist/skeptic community (as they are in ALL communities, without exception) is a binary question: either it is a problem, or it is not. The correct answer is that there is a problem. As skeptics, we need to stop being patient with those who insist that there is no problem. They should have no more credibility than creationists or climate change deniers.

Eventually this will happen, but we can help it along by not taking discussions of how you may have come across as racist so personally, and by paying attention, getting accurate information, and applying critical thinking. And of course speaking out against racism as often and as loudly as possible, joining actions, donating to organizations such as Sikivu Hutchinson’s Women’s Leadership Project.

This is my very small contribution to the Day of Solidarity with Black Non-Believers this year. Next year I hope to join in again, with a bit more lead time – I think I heard about it just a couple of weeks ago for the first time – and I hope you’ll join in too.


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Filed under Anti-bigotry, Anti-racism, Atheism, geography

What’s your name, little girl? (I wouldn’t tell anyone who called me “little girl.”)

There’s power in names. There’s power in labels, in groupings, in language.

That’s why we fight so fiercely about the terms we use to refer to ourselves and each other.

Right now I’m struggling with my own name. I dig the Sally Strange moniker. Its scansion is the same as my real name, which is pretty unusual. I used to go by Valkyrie607. Put those two facts together, do a google search on both my online handles, and you could figure out who I am fairly easily, I reckon. And I don’t particularly mind people knowing, but I prefer to keep a digital divide, mostly for purposes of googling. My work involves outreach and communication. Political and religious opinions–upstate New York is plenty religious. Home of Mormonism’s most impossible happenings, and we got our own Catholic saint last year, a Native woman named Kateri Tekakwitha. Religion is an important thing here, like many places–more so than it was in Vermont. Vermont is very atheist-friendly–Vermont is actually the least religious state in the union. More than a third of Vermonters have no faith. It’s nice.

Anyway, I’m rambling. I was talking about my name. Like I said, I prefer to have that separation between my real name and my online persona of Sally Strange. I hear people talking about how it’s anonymity that’s ruining the caliber of discourse on the internet, but I don’t think that’s it. It is really names that make the difference? Part of the reason I’m not using my real name right now is that I wish to avoid harassment, of myself, and of my friends and family. This is such a common occurrence, and it’s obvious that writing about feminist stuff, as I am wont to do, triggers a larger risk of harassment materializing than writing about less controversial subject. Then also, there’s the fact that my current work contract is temporary, and in 11 months’ time I’ll be looking for work again. Coming off like a political agitator/opinionated blogger with a (however tiny) media platform–ehh, maybe not such a great idea when applying for professional office type jobs.

I’d like to use my real name someday. I can envision a life path in which I could do that without risk to potential employment in five years or so. If that’s something that’s sewn up, then I feel like I can handle the rest of it. I can deal with comments and spam email and whatnot. I know when to invoke law enforcement and when not to.

All of this, because I’m starting up my blog again and contemplating going to a convention. Amazing.

This is why Jerry Coyne is wrong: whether it’s cowardice or not, taking negative social repercussions of holding an unpopular view into account is rational. Pseudonymity allows us to hear voices that would get shut out of the conversation by a “real name rule.” Mine, for example, for a few years anyway. You would only get to hear from older Sally, not present day Sally. And you wouldn’t get to hear from Natalie Reed. And there are thousands more like us out there, disproportionately black and brown, and disproportionately female, disproportionately genderqueer and mentally ill and disabled. Because those are all the same factors that confound our ability to access education, to get good jobs, and so on.

And then there’s the fact that it’s just not accurate to say that using real names increases civility. Think about a bar or a club. You own the facility. People come there to drink and party and get frisky with each other. You don’t want fights and you don’t want harassment. What do you do?

a.) Make everybody get a name tag when they pay the cover charge and show their ID. Use the ID to verify their real name. Better yet, make them write their phone number on the name tags too. This will ensure that everyone is accountable and so nobody will be rude or start a fight.

b.) Employ bouncers to keep an eye on the crowd and occasionally eject those who can’t or won’t follow the rules of civility.

I don’t think that real names would be any more effective in a club than it is online. Certainly being on Facebook or Twitter under their real names has not deterred thousands of people from tweeting blatantly offensive bigoted nonsense of all stripes. The “Not Racist But” blog documents this phenomenon with regards to race.

I hope that pseudonymity continues as long as there is a need for it. Right now I need it, more’s the pity. Building a more economically secure, environmentally just world will increase the number of people able to take the risks and responsibility of revealing their real names online. Oops! Hey, wait a minute–it’s almost like everything we do has political influences and consequences. Everyone’s a partisan somehow. Claiming the alleged (not documented) benefit of increased civility is a worthwhile trade-off for decreased participation by people who are likely to already be marginalized in some way is a political statement, and it’s one that seems at odds with the rest of Jerry Coyne’s beliefs to me. I hope he and those who agree with him have really given serious thoughts to what perspectives they might be missing out on. Son of Baldwin, for example. And countless others. Rather than requiring everyone to use real names, and accusing those who don’t of cowardice, let’s work together to create a world where sharing one’s real name online inspires less fear.


Filed under Anti-bigotry, Anti-racism, Atheism, Feminism, Personal, Religion


Okay, so, I can’t get enough of music. It’s the most amazing thing ever.

Saul Williams during his "Niggy Tardust" tour

Saul Williams

I play music: I’m a clarinetist primarily but I also play sax and flute and I’m decent with most percussion instruments and I can eke out a bass line when I’m lucky enough to have a bass around to play with. Both my parents are musicians and one of the things I love most about my life is that when I go to visit my folks, we often relax by playing tunes together. How many people can say that about their parents?!? Not many, I reckon. I count myself lucky. So I’m really passionate about music.

There are some interesting neurobiological reasons that humans pretty much 100% go crazy for music of one kind or another, but that’s not the subject for today’s post. Today’s post is going to be easy, and I deserve to do an easy post because I worked hard on yesterday’s post. Today I’m just going to talk about a musician who I love, who I also think is under-appreciated.

Today I’m talking about Saul Williams.

Saul Williams is a poet at heart. I mean, that’s how he started. He’s been called the grandfather of spoken word, and his poetry is truly excellent. But I’m honestly not that into poetry. Whatever. It’s cool, some people like it, and I’m probably something of a philistine for being indifferent to it. (Garrison Keillor and his boring “Writer’s Almanac” certainly hasn’t helped.) Anyway, Saul is a brilliant poet, so brilliant that he can get someone like me to listen to his poetry over and over again. He has four albums now: Amethyst Rocks, Saul Williams, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust (possibly one of the best album titles ever), and now Volcanic Sunlight. In fact, I just discovered that last one, as it came out in November 2011 and I somehow missed it at the time. I’ve listened to a few of the tracks from it and they seem to be following his artistic arc: he’s gone from the very raw, un-melodic, dressed-up spoken word of his first album to more refined and harmonically advanced singing and better arrangements. Amethyst Rocks is almost just spoken word with some music and sound effects added on top. To get the best effect, I’d advise you to check out the 1998 movie SLAM! which starred Saul Williams and his poetry, along with Sonja Sohn (Wire fans will recognize her as Detective Kima Greggs). Saul Williams had more interesting and coherent musical production, but Saul mostly still stuck to rapping/speaking over a beat. His singing was impassioned but rough and ragged, as in “List of Demands”:

The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust showed a dramatic change in his delivery. I think he got voice lessons, because his singing improved, and he also sang a lot more. Also, the album was produced by the inimitable Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and the influence is obvious when you listen to one of my favorite tracks off it, “WTF!”:

Now, listening to some of the tracks from his newest album, Volcanic Sunlight, that writing this post prompted me to discover, it seems his sound has gotten even more melodic and maybe even a bit poppy. Some people think poppy is a bad thing. Not me. I love it. I like some pop music, but what I like even more is non-pop artists taking elements of pop (catchy hooks, beautiful melodic lines) and making them their own. Take this track, “Explain My Heart”, for instance:

Though Saul’s musical style may be evolving, one thing that has remained constant is his utter devotion and fascination with words, wordplay, language, politics, race, love, mysticism, and life. I love his repeated use of the rhyme “worthless” and “earthless” which he uses as a synonym for both homelessness, rootlessness, and lacking political awareness. His song “Black Stacey” was an education for me on colorism, the prejudice against dark-skinned people that is enacted within the black community as opposed to racism, which is enacted in the context of our multi-racial society.

Saul Williams is definitely hardcore. Controversial, direct, provocative, yet beautifully poetic and heartfelt. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a “industrial/punk hip hop” fan, he’s worth giving a listen to.

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Filed under Anti-racism, MUSIC!