Interview: Sikivu Hutchinson on Race, Gender, and Humanism

On August 24 Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta will host Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (2011) and  Godless Americana: Race & Religious Rebels. She is also the founder of Los Angeles’s Black Skeptics. “"Black Nonbelievers is honored to host Sikivu in the Atlanta area,” said Black Nonbelievers president Mandisa Thomas. “She is a true inspiration and fantastic representative––not only to freethinkers of color, but also the secular community as a whole. We hope as many people as possible come out to hear her message." Secular Woman president Kim Rippere will attend the event; Rippere says, “It is important and vital to reach out and support to all secular women in their endeavors in the secular community and in the broader community.” Secular Woman had the chance to ask Dr. Hutchinson a few questions about supporting people of color in atheism and feminism, prior to her presentation.


SW: Did you follow the #solidarityisforwhitewomen conversation on twitter last week? What do you think is the most important thing mainstream feminism needs to change to ensure an intersectional approach?


SH: I did not follow it closely but I saw a few tweets that spoke to the polarizing effect white privilege and white supremacy have on mainstream feminism. When there is no acknowledgment of white female privilege vis-a-vis cultural representation, political visibility, residential segregation, employment opportunities, and basic class mobility, then many feminists of color grow weary of claims of ally-building. For example, many feminists of color are deeply invested in seeking to redress the regime of mass incarceration, prison pipelining, and misogynist/homophobic violence that directly impacts the lives of straight and queer youth of color. Black women who have been convicted of nonviolent drug offenses compose the largest segment of the female prison population. The criminalization of Black women begins long before they are incarcerated in adult prisons. For example, Black girls have the highest rates of suspension/expulsion in the country and are more likely to have experienced sexual assault and domestic violence. The majority of female prisoners have experienced violence, abuse and assault. These are "intersectional" issues that are not typically focused on in the mainstream women's movement and are certainly not on the agenda of white secularist feminists.


SW: How can the atheist movement be better at community, serving those who come from particularly religious backgrounds?


SH: There are many "closeted" atheists in religious communities of color who identify with the social justice values and activist work of progressive community-based faith organizations. Unfortunately there are very few atheist/humanist organizations that explicitly align with and pursue social justice work. Radical and progressive humanist organizations that espouse alternatives to religion must be steeped in critical consciousness about how interlocking issues of racist, sexist, heterosexist, capitalist disenfranchisement specifically limit and impact people of color in traditionally religious communities. As I have argued in both Moral Combat and Godless Americana, it's problematic when white nonbelievers give lip service to being "down" with (what they deem to be) "oppressed" "hyper-religious" people of color while remaining willfully ignorant of how all whites benefit from overarching structures of white supremacy, racial apartheid, and patriarchy, which both inform and supersede religious hierarchies.


This year, Black Skeptics Los Angeles spearheaded its First in the Family Humanist scholarship program for undocumented, homeless, foster care and LGBTQ youth. These youth populations are at the epicenter of the school-to-prison pipeline and are the least likely to gain admittance to college, much less successfully graduate from college. Foster care youth are especially vulnerable to becoming homeless and incarcerated; while LGBTQ youth of color are overrepresented in both the foster care and homeless populations and are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement and school officials for detention and imprisonment. These youth are also the most likely to be victimized by homophobic religious persecution from their families, schools and churches. Why aren't any atheist or humanist organizations on the frontlines addressing this crisis?  Because these are "invisible" issues that do not directly affect the predominantly white middle class constituencies of mainstream New Atheism or humanism. It is a privilege to wake up every day and "breathe while white", i.e., not have to worry about being criminalized, racially profiled or new Jim-Crowed in heavily policed racially segregated transit-dependent communities with no living wage jobs.


SW: What can Secular Woman do to better address and support the needs of women of color?


SH: Secular Woman can help foreground the importance of these issues for humanist movement building, especially if it is truly invested in building a social and gender justice-based "inclusive" secular/humanist/atheist movement.  It can continue to support programming (like the Women's Leadership Project feminist mentoring program, BSLA's First in the Family scholarship program, and similar initiatives that don't expressly come from the secular community) that is specifically geared toward creating humanist educational avenues and opportunities for youth of color. It can also advocate for these initiatives within the broader atheist/humanist/secular community by taking an active stand on anti-racist feminist discourse.  Finally, it can help promote our forthcoming Women of Color Beyond Faith anthology––which will be the first collection of critical essays on the subject by a multiracial group of American women.


An Interview with Women’s Leadership Project

SW: Why do the girls participate in the program?

WLP: The girls participate because they feel empowered by learning about the social history of feminists of color and connecting them to their lived experiences.  Many feel as though they’ve been shafted by mainstream public education’s drill and kill high stakes testing regime that shuts out meaningful critical engagement with the contributions, social capital, cultural knowledge, and liberation struggle of communities of color in the U.S. and beyond.  For  example, during our annual Denim Day outreach we don’t just address the objectification  and abuse young women experience in their daily lives and relationships but also examine the impact of media and social imaging of women of color.  Because white European women have always been constructed as the universal beauty and human ideal, Black, Latina, Asian, and Native American women are sexualized in ways that European American white women have never been.  Pretending like "all women" are oppressed by sexist exploitation ignores the role racism, segregation and white supremacy play in the way black and Latina women are  brutally marginalized in the workplace, denied access to reproductive health and demeaned/ marginalized in media portrayals of "proper" or even so-called empowered femininity.  When we address sexual harassment and sexual assault we contextualize them vis-à-vis the history of  exploitation and commodification of the bodies of women of color through slavery, imperialist  occupation and dispossession.

SW: What is the program focused on accomplishing?

WLP: We educate young women of color in feminist humanist practice.  We empower them to take ownership of their lives and communities by connecting the struggles of previous generations with their present and future.  We specifically develop curricula on women’s rights, social histories and activist traditions.  The program also focuses on peer education and training on HIV/AIDS prevention, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, reproductive justice, media literacy and safe space creation for LGBTQ youth.  
We also provide college resources for financial aid, tutoring, scholarships, job and internship opportunities and undocumented youth resources.

Two girls of color smiling into the camera. Both are wearing badges. One is wearing a medal.SW: What changes do you see in the girls as they progress through the program?

WLP: They become  more confident, they question and challenge social norms, and they begin to view themselves  as scholars, intellectuals and activists.  They learn how to collaborate with other groups, train  their peers, respectfully debate viewpoints they disagree with, and engage with adults as  stakeholders in the school-community.  They don’t accept the criminally low expectations that  mainstream society imposes on them, and, most crucially, they begin to think outside of the box about the kinds of professions and roles they’ve been told they’re best suited to.  We’ve  had a number of young women decide to be doctors, attorneys and academics as a result of their involvement with WLP.  We recently hosted a young African American planetary geologist (now a program manager at the California Science Center) who was literally the only black woman to receive a B.S. in astrophysics in her graduating class at UCLA.  Most of our students had never heard of a black female scientist, much less met one in the flesh.  I think being exposed to a cross-section of female of color professionals and hearing their stories struggling  with racism, sexism and homophobia in male-dominated fields has been invaluable to them.   But far more than just viewing themselves as high achievers they become critically conscious  of the way institutional oppression limits and dehumanizes their communities.  The schools  where WLP is based are at the epicenter of what has come to be known as the school-to-prison  pipeline.  Many of our youth see the devastating effects of mass incarceration up close and  personal.  They see their peers get sucked into the dead end cycle of low wage employment,  unplanned pregnancy, juvenile detention, probation and homelessness.  So our intense focus  on writing, public speaking, publication, peer education, feminist consciousness-raising and  college has a direct impact on their outcomes as well as that of the overall school-community.

SW: What cultural forces do you see the girls struggling with? One of the biggest is that sexism and misogyny don’t matter.

WLP: In the U.S., most girls are not socialized to "see" these forces  in their lives and reflexively dis-identify when they do.  One of the greatest challenges our  students face when they do peer training is framing sexual abuse and degradation as a human  rights violation.  Intimate partner violence, sexual assault and STD contraction is extremely  high amongst girls of color.  But because they are always told that racism is the "real" issue  in their lives, and that men of color "have it harder", they often overlook sexism and gender  discrimination.  Over the past decade prostitution and sex trafficking have become a major  factor for younger girls in our communities.  In addition, we’ve been having more discussions  about the impact porn culture and reality programming has on their lives and psyches.  Some  girls at the schools where WLP is based have even filmed themselves committing pornographic  acts because they are so starved for attention and validation.  Others are coerced into exposing  themselves online in order to please a "boyfriend" or adult predator who is exploiting them  for sex. Certainly much of the normalizing bitch/ho/pimp/hustler pop culture language in  mainstream media has facilitated these trends.  Girls see hyper-sexuality as a means of getting  validation and affirmation from males and this leads to destructive internalized sexism/ self-hatred.  This is especially lethal for African American girls because of the prevailing  historical association of black female sexuality with pathology, criminality and "welfare queen"  shiftlessness.

SW: What have you learned from the participants?

WLP: Feminist organizing and education in WLP is  driven by students’ lived experiences, community context and cultural knowledge.  Culturally  relevant teaching means that so-called adult experts/authority figures like me become students  in the teaching and learning process.  Unlike many of my students, I grew up in a middle class  family and never had to worry about whether or not I was going to go to college.  I was never  expected to sacrifice my education to be a breadwinner and/or primary caregiver, nor did I  have to struggle to find a place to sleep at night.  As an American citizen I’ve never had to  hustle to find financial aid resources for college while worrying about deportation.  And as a  straight girl my sexual orientation was never questioned, marginalized or demeaned by  teachers, textbooks and the general school-community.  Moreover, even though black youth  were criminalized when I was in school (hostile encounters with the LAPD were certainly a vivid  part of my upbringing), the experience was not as insidious as it is today.  Virtually every young  person we work with knows someone their age that has been involved in the system.  Whole  families have been destroyed by racist sentencing policies, leading to greater numbers of  African American youth being placed in foster care and/or becoming homeless.  This  perspective drives my work with youth in WLP and other programs.  Drawing from their own  experiences, the students help shape our curriculum and have an active role in developing  instruction.  The students lead these workshops and their frontline experiences with misogynist  dehumanization drive much of our in-class media literacy initiatives.  Students analyze how  specific images, songs, and shows socialize young women and men to view violence against  women as normal and acceptable.  They gain greater insight into and empathy about the  everyday inequities girls of color face.  Ultimately this approach allows us to explore feminist  alternatives vis-à-vis busting stereotypes, building healthy relationships, boosting academic  expectations and improving campus climate.

SW: How can the general public support the girls and your efforts?  

WLP: We’re trying to expand WLP into other schools to develop more feminist humanist programming.  It’s immensely helpful  when organizations and groups like yours promote our students’ work.  We’ve also been  working with Black Skeptics Los Angele to secure grant funding.  This year, BSLA launched  the First in the Family Humanist scholarship fund to support students that are historically  under-represented in the college-going population.  The fund provides scholarships for  undocumented, LGBTQ, foster care and homeless youth (for more information contact  [email protected]).