The {In}visibility of White Privilege

Managing White Identity

Take home: Your White friends and family do know they are White, and they probably know about privilege; the issue is that it’s a problematic identity and so denial and distancing strategies are often used.

At Secular Woman, we are concerned with intersectionality. For people concerned with issues of social justice, the idea that we all may have various kinds of privilege has become common and influential.

Issues of racial injustice are particularly salient of late.  Conversations typically turn to issues of White privilege, but many of us experience defensiveness and backlash when we try to get others (e.g., our Fox-News-watching relative) to view issues through the lens of privilege.

Why is accepting the concept of privilege so difficult for some?  I admit that my first reaction was defensive: “I don’t have privilege” and “I worked hard for everything I’ve accomplished”.  After reflection and analysis the concept now makes sense. For status quo warriors, the reactions to the idea of privilege are often dismissive, defensive, and in extremes cases, even hostile.

A newly published analysis by Knowles, Lowery, Chow, and Unzueta (2014) sheds some light on these reactions. In an overview of their research programs, they first tackle the issue of our assumptions about the “invisibility” of White privilege.

Privilege is often discussed in a way that suggests that “whiteness” is invisible.  Knowles and colleagues offer a different perspective, and provide research to support the idea that Whites are, in fact, aware of their racial identity:

“Instead, we believe that whiteness is consequential because it is visible to many dominant-group members—forming, in fact, the basis of a problematic social identity with which Whites must often grapple.” (p. 595)

Knowles and colleagues propose the “deny, distance, or dismantle” model (or “3D” for short) to describe the ways that White Americans may choose a strategy for dealing with being a member of the dominant racial group.

White Privilege is Threatening

How much we notice our racial identity depends on how homogenous our surroundings are. For example, I feel more Canadian when I am in the US and I notice my gender more when I am the only woman in the room. It’s a classic contrast effect.

So, if we grant that Whites are aware of the fact that they are White, they will sooner or later become aware of other factors associated with whiteness. Despite the advantages that privilege confers, Knowles et al. identify two “psychological costs” or threats to White identity that are associated with being a member of the dominant group.

First, that typical defensive reaction when you remind someone to “check your privilege” occurs because it implies that they don’t deserve full credit for their accomplishments.  Their success can be explained away by virtue of their status as a member of the majority group, and therefore is not earned or deserved.  This is the “meritocratic threat” to identity: my success may be the result of more than just my talents, ability, and work ethic.

Second, as a majority group member, Whites becomes aware that they are part of a “morally suspect group.” My childhood history lessons were devastating; I was continually reminded that I was a member of a racial group whose members were responsible for genocide, slavery, lynching, and internment camps, just to name a few atrocities. This is the “group-image threat” to identity: my ingroup has a history of race-based oppression and injustice.

Dealing with Identity Threat

There are three main strategies that Whites use to protect against these identity threats according to the 3D model proposed by Knowles and colleagues.

(1) The Denial Strategy

Denial is classic psychological defense mechanism.  Moreover, we are prone to what is called the self-serving bias: we like to attribute our successes to stable, internal, and controllable causes (such as effort and ability), but for our failures, we are more likely to blame external or situational factors.  A consequence of admitting that privilege is real is admitting that all of our successes may not be the result of 100% internal and controllable factors.  Moreover, if privilege is real, our-self serving bias does not allow us to explain away our failures by appealing to situational factors.

White American culture affords the use of the denial strategy for a few key reasons. First, this is an individualistic culture, and the focus on individual merit and individual attributions for behavior take priority over situational attributions. We see this play out in what is called the fundamental attribution error – our tendency to downplay situational causes of behavior. Second, the pervasiveness of the Protestant Work Ethic is in direct conflict with the idea that group membership may contribute to individual success. Finally, current research indicates that a majority of White Americans believe that — starting in the 2000s — bias against Whites (or “reverse” discrimination) has become more prevalent than bias against Blacks (Norton & Sommers, 2011).

These three factors provide an easy context for the use of the denial strategy to protect against threats to White identity.  The implications for perpetuating racial injustice are clear. Denial of a problem (or that structural inequality is part of the problem, if there actually is a problem) rarely leads to solutions.

(2) The Distancing Strategy

One form of the distancing strategy is to “disidentify” with being White and/or downplaying the importance of race in general, and of being White in particular.

A more insidious instantiation, however, is expressed in the “colorblind” ideology. On the surface, the proclamation that “I don’t see color” can be viewed as an attempt to focus on commonalities rather than differences. White American culture has embraced colorblindness, believing that the simple act of noticing race is a manifestation of racism. One way to avoid being called racist is to avoid any discussion of race, even when it matters (e.g., Norton et al., 2006). Ironically, Black observers rate Whites who avoid mentioning race as more biased than Whites who acknowledge and discuss race (Apfelbaum et al., 2008).

There is evidence from correlational and experimental studies to show that the colorblind ideology does not work as a technique for reducing bias or discrimination (e.g., Richeson & Nussbaum, 2004).  My favorite example is a study by Apfelbaum and colleagues (2010). Children aged 8-11 were asked to help review a storybook designed for younger kids, in which a teacher is working to promote racial equality.  The children were randomly assigned to either the colorblind version (which focused on similarity and minimizing racial differences) or to the value-diversity version (which focused on recognizing and celebrating racial differences). After ensuring that the students understood the main message of the text, a new researcher (unaware of which version each child had read) then asked the children to consider scenarios that contained (a) no racial bias, (b) ambiguous evidence for racial bias, and (c) explicit racial discrimination.

The children in the colorblind condition were much less likely to “see” explicit racial discrimination. When asked to recall the scenarios, recordings of the colorblind children’s descriptions of the scenario involving racially motivated bullying were less likely to be judged by teachers as warranting adult intervention.  This is not because the teachers did not see such bullying as a problem, but because the children’s narratives excluded the racial identity of the characters in the scenarios as well as the clearly stated racial motive for the bullying.

Knowles et al. (2014) provide additional evidence for the links between distancing and holding a colorblind ideology, and the association between colorblindness and the tendency to deny White privilege.

The obvious implication here is that the distancing strategy, and its accompanying colorblindness, serves to protect against identity threat, but it does little to increase the likelihood that Whites will “see” injustice and inequality. If you don’t see a problem, you can’t address it.

(3) The Dismantling Strategy

When Whites use the dismantling strategy, they actively work to reduce the advantages privilege bestows.  On the surface, this strategy involves working against one’s own self-interests and those of one’s ingroup. In seeking to reduce privilege and current systemic inequality, this strategy addresses the group-level threat by openly recognizing past injustice and oppression.

This strategy may be familiar to those who take “social justice warrior” as compliment rather than an insult.  Dismantling requires one to accept the existence of White privilege:

“Dismantling suggests that Whites will most strongly embrace progressive policies when they regard inequality and privilege as self-relevant and simultaneously see policy endorsement as a means of relieving the resulting threat . . . [and] repairing the reputation of the racial ingroup . . . by taking action against inequality” (p. 603).

What are the prospects for encouraging Whites to relinquish the advantages of privilege and work to address racial inequality?  There are many potential strikes against the dismantling strategy. The American ideals of individual merit and individual work ethic, and our human tendency to downplay situational causes are potential barriers. Across the political spectrum, contrasting ideas about the meaning of “fairness” (e.g., Haidt, 2013) divide opinion when it comes to policies that involve redistribution of social and economic resources.

Knowles and colleagues discuss some of the ways that the dismantling strategy could be encouraged:

“…we believe that White privilege—construed in the right way—need not threaten Whites’ sense of self-competence and deservingness” (p. 604)

Although the standard version of the fundamental attribution error pits a personal cause vs. a situational cause (and the tendency to prefer personal/internal causes), in reality, people typically consider more than one cause. Some causes may be necessary, others sufficient. If one believes that multiple causes play a role (e.g., both individual hard work and a system that advantages Whites), then efforts to dismantle systemic injustice or support policies that promote racial equality will be far less identity-threatening.  The social justice goal could be reframed as reducing others’ possible barriers to success, rather than focusing on any individual’s “unearned” and “undeserved” advantages (which typically produces the expected defensive and threat-reducing reactions).

“Future research should investigate ways of encouraging Whites to construe privilege in a manner that does not impugn their personal self-worth . . . being White is not enough, by itself, to guarantee good socioeconomic outcomes and that aptitude and hard work are equally critical ingredients of success. At the same time, dominant-group members must understand that, without whiteness, it matters less how much merit individuals possess: socioeconomic success is inevitably less likely. We expect that Whites would no longer feel personally threatened by whiteness but nevertheless still, for group-image reasons, want to dismantle a system that makes one’s race an important key to self-actualization.” (Knowles et al., 2014, p. 604)


Target Article

Knowles, E. D., Lowery, B. S., Chow, R. M., & Unzueta, M. M. (2014). Deny, distance, or dismantle? How White Americans manage a privileged identity. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(6), 594-609.

References and Recommended Reading

Apfelbaum, E. P., Pauker, K., Sommers, S. R., & Ambady, N. (2010). In blind pursuit of racial equality? Psychological Science, 21, 1587-1592.

Apfelbaum, E. P., Sommers, S. R., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Seeing race and seeming racist? Evaluating strategic colorblindness in social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 918–932.

Haidt, J. (2013). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Random House LLC.

Norton, M. I., & Sommers, S. R. (2011). Whites see racism as a zero-sum game that they are now losing. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 215–218.

Norton, M. I., Sommers, S. R., Apfelbaum, E. P., Pura, N., & Ariely, D. (2006). Color blindness and interracial interaction: Playing the “Political Correctness Game.” Psychological Science, 17, 949–953.

Richeson, J. A., & Nussbaum, R. J. (2004). The impact of multiculturalism versus color-blindness on racial bias. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 417-423.

Your Children Are the Enemy

The text from my mother read: “You should control her right from the beginning. Kids respect you that way.”


I froze in shock as I read this, the most naked statement I’d ever heard my mother make about her parenting philosophy. We were discussing the upcoming birth of my daughter and how excited I am to meet her, to learn her personality, much as I would a new friend.


My mother’s statement especially shocked me for another reason – the simple fact that she’d raised my siblings and me in a singularly laissez faire manner for the first half of our childhood. Toward the end, we didn’t even live in the same house as my parents. We lived next door in a completely separate house where we made our own meals, did our own chores, and generally lived unsupervised except for occasional, unexpected, and confusing crack downs. Periodically, my parents threatened to and sometimes did install devices, sensors, etc. to monitor our movements. I particularly remember when my stepfather installed a front door sensor, which was intended to send a signal to their house whenever we entered or exited. We used to have fun deliberately tripping it, over and over again until my mother would call us to yell angrily. There was also a sensor for the driveway. A car driving over it would set off yet another signal in my parents’ house, letting them know what time we were arriving home or alerting them that we were trying to sneak our car out the drive. I think, though, that the signals must have become annoying to them as they were eventually disabled.


Despite what these strange and draconian tactics seemed to imply, my parents were generally not involved in our lives. They neither knew our teachers nor our favorite TV shows. My mother had no idea that I loved to read until I was 16. They played no active role and my friends always said that it was funny they had never met my parents. So, one can see why I was somewhat taken aback by my mother’s text. Her peculiar mix of obsessive control and lack of involvement didn’t seem to match up with her stated belief that kids should be controlled from birth so that they learn to fear their parents.


It took me awhile to look back and see it, but I think I now know why she wrote that text. Before my stepfather arrived, I grew up in a pretty secular household. We went to church exactly three times in my early childhood. In fact, I’m not even sure what inspired these attempts at religiosity; none of us actually believed. But when I was 13, my mother married a nice, soft-spoken Catholic man who attended mass every week. She decided that we should all join him, so that we’d be a nice family. It was all very strange, new, and boring for us, but we went. Soon thereafter, she began to crack down on us in new ways, such as the sensors, redoubling her efforts to mold us into that nice family. But it was too late for us. We hadn’t grown up that way and the change was extremely confusing. Naturally, we rebelled.


About then, with my stepfather, my mother also began listening to talk radio. My mother’s favorite show was Dr. James Dobson’s call-in parenting and family advice show. Dobson is the founder of Focus on the Family, an evangelical non-profit association that is the vehicle for his conservative, fundamentalist views on social policy and family life.  Dobson is also a psychologist and spends much of his time pontificating on parenting. He has authored several books on the subject and is considered an authority amongst his flock. His views on parenting can basically be summed up as training a child to be fearful of and responsive to authority.


I was too busy being a teenager at the time to notice, but it seems that my mother was quietly buying into the teachings of Dobson and other advocates of authoritarian parenting, such as Michael and Debi Pearl, who advocate abusing infants in the name of a godly family life. Luckily for us, my siblings and I were all of, or approaching, an age at which the physical discipline central to these teachings would be ineffective. The only option remaining is what I call psychological warfare.


I don’t use this term lightly. Dobson’s and the Pearls’ teachings are based on the idea that your children are, quite literally, the enemy, that they are born in original sin, and that their spirit must be crushed in the name of god. They reduce family life to a power struggle, a microcosm of that greater struggle between good and evil that evangelicals quite literally believe in. If you are unfamiliar with these teachings, check out Libby Anne’s blog, Love, Joy, Feminism, where she, as survivor of such abuse, recounts her story, the stories of others, and even critiques the Pearls’ seminal works, passage by passage. You can find other survivors’ stories at No Longer Quivering and Homeschoolers Anonymous. You will quickly see that families that adhere to these teachings are not only families in which children are the enemy, but they are also families where the abuse can be so severe that children are murdered by their parents.


Again, I was very lucky. I did not endure the kinds of physical abuse that many suffered because I was too old by the time my mother became interested and she was only ever a peripheral devotee, nor was I homeschooled and therefore isolated. But I did suffer knowing that my mother never accepted me for who I was. She regarded me merely as a naturally disobedient child who couldn’t even be kept in check, or fundamentally changed, by years of emotional turmoil and unconscionable surveillance. It took me quite some time to recover from the feeling of never being okay as I am. Even today, I find myself surprised that children around me are granted a basic level of privacy that I could never imagine as a kid. Their parents don’t periodically upend their bedrooms in military-like searches for I-never-figured-out-what, don’t listen in on their phone calls, and don’t threatened them with surveillance cameras.


It now seems like this happened to a different Autumn. I have no idea where it came from, but I had always been a pretty “rebellious” spirit with some seriously feminist leanings. I am grateful for that because I think it’s the only reason I, a very troubled and emotional child, didn’t crumble. It will be the only reason why I can commit to letting my daughter tell me who she is as a person, while providing healthy boundaries with plenty of space for her to explore.



After sitting for a moment with the phone in my hand, contemplating that text, I wrote back, “I don’t see the connection. I know that I never felt respect for any adult who tried to control me.”

Christian Reconstructionism and the Non-Christian Family

I am about to become a mother in just eight weeks. My husband and I are very excited, but like all new parents we are worried about finances, healthcare, daycare, etc. We’re very lucky to have sufficient income and enough money saved that, though we will worry like all parents do, we are not likely to need public assistance. Of course, anything can happen. We could lose our jobs and not find others for quite some time. One of us could become severely ill. In that case, we would find ourselves grateful for public assistance. It would allow us to pay the bills and feed our baby. It would help us, as a couple, to be less stressed out about money and, therefore, our relationship would not suffer as much. In short, public assistance and programs that serve families do more than just feed people; they allow families to be emotionally healthy, keeping them intact.


Have you ever wondered why so much of the religious right is opposed to life-saving programs that serve families? Why would someone, who claims to promote family values and family togetherness, want to abolish the very programs that for many keep their families together and thriving? The answer for some is quite simple – because Christian Reconstructionism.


Christian Reconstructionism is a Calvinistic philosophy founded by Rousas John Rushdoony, a man who has had a profound influence on the Christian right. The underlying premise is that god demands separate roles for government, church, and family. Government, though theocratic, is meant to be limited and all moral offenses are dealt with by the church. These distinctions can become confused because Christian Reconstructionists call for Old Testament law, which would naturally involve both the criminal (government) and the moral (church). Furthermore, Christian Reconstructionism demands that only staunch adherents participate in government, further mingling church and state. However, one area that believers are convinced is firmly in the realm of the church is family assistance or charity. In the eyes of the Christian Reconstructionist, government has absolutely no business whatsoever creating programs to help needy families because god has intended this role for the church alone. To summarize, it is not only a bad idea to create government programs, it is absolutely going against god’s laws.


This might sound like a fringe philosophy, and twenty years ago you would have been correct. However, nowadays, you can find it in the mouths of such right-wing luminaries as David Barton, who said, “It’s not the government’s responsibility to take care of the poor and needy. It’s the church’s responsibility.” The Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and other notable right-wing groups have also espoused this philosophy. Even more terrifying is that Michael Petrouka, the Republican nominee for an Anne Arundel County, Maryland council seat, openly embraces Christian Reconstructionism and will quite possibly be making and passing laws that negatively impact families in that state. Still more “mainstream” right-wing politicians have made common cause with many Christian Reconstructionists and have worked tirelessly, both in congress and state legislatures, to slash budgets and find other ways to put their theological views to work.


The problem for us as non-Christians is obvious. If the right continues to be successful in cutting programs to families in need, what will be our lot? The Christian Reconstructionist says that we should then look to the church for help. This is problematic in many ways: under a theocratic government, a church may refuse to grant help to non-members or unequal treatment may be given to families who don’t believe. Perhaps a family may not wish to convert and compromise their integrity. Of course, the reality is that many would compromise if it came down to feeding their children and that is exactly what the Christian Reconstructionist would like to see. In short, the religious right is working to destroy the integrity of your and my non-Christian family in its pursuit of what it sees as god’s mandate, that America embraces biblical law. It is time for non-Christian families to make economic justice a priority in the fight against religious oppression.



My Bad Feminism

Once you commit yourself to social awareness in your politics, words, and actions, it can be easy to think everyone around you has had all the answers forever and you’ll never catch up.

The truth is, however, everyone has been through phases that we’d now reject, and we’re all still growing and making mistakes and trying to learn to just admit our own errors without getting defensive. Most of all, we’ve all internalized problematic ways of thinking, and it’s hard to shake those mindsets while living in a world that frequently rewards and perpetuates them.

At SkepchickCON last month, Secular Woman vice president Elsa Roberts introduced me to Roxane Gay’s amazing essay, “Bad Feminist”––an exploration of the tension between feminist ideals and the complexities of real life, which she’s since expanded into a book. And at the excellent Science of Irrationality panel that weekend, Jamie Bernstein made the point that positive storytelling––using one’s own discoveries as a way to convince others, rather than causing them to dig in their heels with a barrage of “Well Actuallys”––can be the most effective way to be persuasive. She suggested approaching the conversation by trying to find common ground, using the “feel/found” script: “I used to feel the same way, but what I found was that…”

I was reminded of that good advice this week when Josh Spokes made an insightful Facebook post addressed to “Jaclyn Glenn and Others Like Her” who have hateful misconceptions about bisexual people. Instead of attacking, he admitted that he used to think the same things. This inspired many who saw his post to offer their own stories of mistaken attitudes and internalized sexism and bigotry, and what they learned. Josh suggested compiling the powerful thread, and here, beginning with his initial post, is the result. I hope it inspires more people to recognize how easy it is to fall into problematic patterns, and be proud of how they’ve grown.

To Jaclyn Glenn and others like her–

When I was much younger I said ignorant, vile, stupid things about bisexuals. Out in public. I said they weren’t real, that they were all posers who couldn’t admit being gay, that they were just ginning up controversy and no one should take them seriously. I gleefully echoed the most uncharitable, mean-spirited sentiments from people who cared more about shooting their mouths off than about the real people whose dignity and treatment by society was already threatened.

Yep. I said that with all the brash confidence of a 21-year-old. Some older people tried to persuade me to think more deeply. I didn’t listen. Because I was Young And With It and fuck them.

And it contributed to my popularity among that set. Everyone loves someone who’s witty and can turn a sharp phrase that echoes their personal prejudices.

In the real world outside the fan club in my head, I hurt a lot of people who didn’t need any more shit. Especially from ME and people who should have been allies. My behavior was *appalling*. It shames me to this day, and it should.

That’s you, Jaclyn Glenn, and others like you. That’s you, babe. Talk to me in 20 years.

– Josh Spokes

Growing up, the only time I really heard the word “feminist,” it was something my mother was griping about. For instance, “Feminists are the reason I have to pump my own gas.” In my twenties, I espoused the whole “Lean In” thing. I was seriously privileged and blind. I had no problem with the fact that a woman in my profession had to be three times as good as a man for half the recognition. Frankly, I was, and could see no reason anyone else couldn’t be too. I did not object when I found out that my base salary was a little over half as much as the males in the same position with the company. Instead I prided myself that I earned more because of commissions and bonuses.

– Becca Thomas

When I was in my late teens to late 20s, I was a triple threat; a Chill Girl, a the Token Non-threatening Black Friend, and a Poor Libertarian.

“Ugh, girls are icky, backstabbing, gossipy little twits who want accept me in their little club anyway.  And if they’re feminists? Please, buncha whiny girls who don’t have anything else to complain about. We got the fucking vote, right? You can own land and not have to get married to get laid.  If they’d just have sex like guys do, they’d be fine, right? Aren’t we supposed to all sex-positive?  That means fucking like the men! Don’t be such a prude!  I once read about some big name feminist named Dwakin, Dwo… whatever, who claimed that call heterosex is rape! Can you believe that shit? I’d never be a feminist.  I’m one of the boys! Bitch! Cocksucker! Cunt! Hah, hah rape jokes are so funny!”

“Man, black people are lazy whiners, I’d never be one of them!  I’m an Oreo, get it?  All of my white friends act blacker than me!  I don’t “do” black––unless it’s for a joke.  If you need someone to turn up the AAVE and act like an Angry Black Girl, I’m your girl!  Mm-hmm, sho’nuf. Slavery was, like, 300 years ago, we got the vote, and they need to get over it.  If I knew I got to college under Affirmative Action, I’d drop out.  I’d be offended; how dare they treat me like some number in a quota?  I got here all on my own, and fuck them other folk.  Oh, oh! I know this really funny joke: Why is aspirin white?”

“Yeah, I could qualify for food stamps, health care, maybe even some section 8 for a place to stay because I make minimum wage and I’ve got a chronic illness, but I’m not going to do that.  Nope.  I’m not some leech sucking the government teat.  I grew up on government cheese and projects and all that, and I’ll never stoop to that level again. I’ve got my pride.  None of my friends are on that mess. That’s just offensive that you would even suggest it! Leeches are the worst. Just you wait until the Libertarians gain more power. Everybody won’t pay a dime in taxes and we’ll shrink the government, and if you can afford to live, too bad!”

– Niki Massey

I used to parrot the lines “all girls are crazy” and “all my friends are guys because I couldn’t deal with all the mean girls and drama.” I blush at that thought because it was based on a model of female behavior that was enforced by the very guys and some of the girls I was hanging out with at the time. Ugh, I was so embarrassing.

Cait Quinn

Oh god, I did ALL the things. “If you wear low cut shirts, don’t complain if guys look”; “I’m not like other girls”; “I’m a girl but I prefer hanging out with guys”; “Girly things suck” etc. unto death.

Soooo much internalized sexism. So. Much.

Jade Hawk

I used to think bigoted things about trans people when I was that age. I only knew one and considering it was at least 15 years ago, she was pretty stressed out. I’ve since learned I was wrong, and I was an asshole.

– Deanna Joy Lyons

I was an engineer. Engineers are logical. Engineers don’t feel. Engineers just get the job done. Engineers (at least in Silicon Valley) make it work, no matter what the personal cost. Counting personal costs was unacceptably feminine. Feelings were unacceptably feminine. What’s really shocking is that I believed all of that garbage for an unconscionably long time, while I worked myself into a severe depression. Even on good depression meds and thinking more-or-less clearly, it took years more to fully shake it out of my system. Ultimately I had to escape the engineering culture altogether; I was getting too much reinforcement of unhealthy attitudes. I admire the women (and men) who can work in the field and not succumb to the BS.

Karen Locke


I transferred from a women’s college to a co-ed one. I immediately got a boyfriend, let my entire social life revolve around him, and after two years when we broke up realized I had few women friends or even just friends of my own.

In fact, I still don’t have close women friends like I used to. I’m trying to learn to nurture that again. I had kind of a bias against closeness with women for a while or something.

I always identified as a feminist, but for periods in my life I liked to make sure guys knew I was one of the cool women who don’t get upset about certain things like other women do.

Even a few years ago I was mad at a woman in a meeting who pointed out that the men were all talking over the women and not letting them talk. Not because I didn’t recognize that dynamic (and I had studied it in psychology), but because I took her efforts as patronizing to women. I can still understand my point of view back then, but now I’d more likely be the one trying to equalize the conversation not just think “well women just need to learn to be more aggressive!”

Ginger Pierce

I was always a feminist and never trusted women that said that they didn’t get along with other women. I think my most problematic issue with women when I was younger is I was terribly jealous of the way other women looked, painfully so. I was very jealous with my partners, wondering if I measured up to women that they were friends with or even women that were on television. That ended when I got out of a long-term abusive relationship and discovered myself. I found my own interests and passions in life and the jealousy ended.

Melody Hensley

I’m going to confess one of the worst things I did, which, funny enough, I was just thinking about yesterday. A group of guys I knew would play what they called “meat market” where they’d sit on a wall on a busy part of VCU campus and basically street harass women for hours. I PARTICIPATED in this a couple of times. I feel horrible about it now. This was one of the ways I proved I was “one of the guys.” I also equated feminine as weak and presented very masculine for a couple years. This is all so strange since I was immersed in the punk scene and very into women being tough and equal. But my picture of that was so fucked up.

Nicole Harris

I used to come up with nicknames for all my female coworkers (cupcake, muffin, cheesecake, cinnamon bun, etc.). It was moderately well received at the time to where every time a new girl was hired they’d always ask me what nickname I was going to give her. Ultimately I came to the realization that I couldn’t really reconcile it with my burgeoning feminism and just generally I didn’t want to be “that guy” anymore.

Tim Branin

My story is more about what I dismissed as “boys will be boys” in the 1980s, didn’t report or complain about to anyone, but which made enough of a negative impact that I remember it like yesterday––they were in fact sexual assaults. The first instance I had my tube top pulled off (and I was bra-less) at the freshman party at my residence. I was thankfully able to quickly get it back on. The second instance occurred also at the residence where some fellow male students were grabbing women’s crotches, including my own. I kept pushing them away, but laughed it off as I thought that’s what I should do. There was a third incident that was much more dramatic, which was being held at knifepoint by an angry ex-boyfriend of my roommate––angry because “she belonged to him,” according to him––until she promised to give him another chance. All of these things went unreported. There were many more instances of being grabbed, threatened, followed, but those are the ones I remember the most. I hate that I let them go, and normalized the first two in my mind and many others too. In essence I objectified myself. I’m glad young women are not doing that as much today.


I used to claim to hate bands fronted by women musicians because they were “less talented” than men––WTF? I still feel embarrassed to acknowledge I said that.

Melanie Elyse Brewster

I was extremely fem-antagonistic––looking down on “girly-girls” and seeing male-dominated activities as more worthy of respect than female-dominated ones.

It was sort of a confused version of rejecting imposed gender roles and admiring women who were pioneers; it got very twisted around until it morphed into full-blown misogyny.

I was involved in the Noise music scene for a while and routinely tolerated pretty horrid treatment as some sort of badge of honor that I could “take it”; and once asked if a band had any “power electronics” CDs primarily to impress them as being the exceptional woman who likes the harshest of the harsh macho-blah-blah stuff.

Eventually I realized that taking their crap wasn’t actually giving me the cred and respect, and place in the boys’ club, that I thought it was.

It did give me some insight into toxic masculinity though––routinely having people treat me nicely privately and treat me horribly publicly, because treating me with respect in front of other guys was considered demeaning.

M. A. Melby

I used to spout libertarian platitudes as fact. Seriously. Ugh. Ick.

– Jon Childress

To my great shame, I have not always supported marriage equality.

It wasn’t because I looked down on same-sex sexual activity, because I have been with numerous men, women, couples, and groups.

I took care of and buried a lot of friends in the ’80s and ’90s long before their time. They were far better people than I was, and the truth is that the world would be better off if it had been me that left it rather than some of them.

I don’t know why I felt that way, but I would give anything if I could go back in time and change that.

Rogelio Tavera

I saw that feminine was considered weak and I knew it was wrong. But instead of declaring feminine to not be weak, I declared that I was not feminine! I eschewed all things pink and “girly.” I held disdain for things girls did, like shopping and makeup. I became “one of the guys” and, to prove my worth, talked locker room banter as much as or more than they did.

At this same time, the only way I saw my own worth was through the eyes of men. Garnering sexual attraction was the number one way to measure self worth. So I did that as much as I could, which was a lot!

I objectified women right along with the men.

I referred to women as “females” while trying not to call them chicks or girls.

We all can have incomplete ideas about feminism, especially in the beginning stages of learning about it.

Monette Richards

In addition to trying to be “one of the boys” I used to think that sexism didn’t exist in the states, and women should just “suck it up.”

A few years ago I worked in a place that focused on social justice. I was hired before I even knew what those words really meant, but it was at a time when I was starting to learn about inequality and didn’t know what to google to explore it in depth. My job required a social justice 101 class and training where we learned about sexism, racism, ableism, etc.

My workplace was also extremely conscious of filtering out all the subtle biases and overt “isms.” Prior to that year I claimed that I had never been cat-called and had never experienced sexism, but now that I had a space to compare it against I became aware of all the cat-calling and subtle prejudices that I was receiving daily.

Earlier I would have told myself to suck it up––that cat-calling is just part of being a woman. But I realize now that it shouldn’t be a part of my experience; it doesn’t have to be something I learn to deal with; I shouldn’t accept that it is a consequence of being a woman.

– Michelle Huey


Poll Shows Atheist Leaders’ Open Letter More Acceptable to Men than to Women

Poll Shows Atheist Leaders’ Open Letter More Acceptable to Men than to Women

Corinne Zimmerman, Ph.D.


On April 2, 2013, the leaders of a number of secular organizations released “An Open Letter to the Secular Community.” The Board of Directors at Secular Woman chose not to endorse the letter and we briefly describe our reasons here.  We found out on April 2 the reasons behind American Secular Census’ choice not to endorse this letter either. The president released a statement to explain her decision.


To gauge the initial response of the secular community, the American Secular Census (ASC) conducted a brief opinion poll:


The American Secular Census opened up an anonymous, public poll about twelve hours after publishing Why the American Secular Census didn’t sign ‘An Open Letter to the Secular Community’. The poll remained active for around 54 hours and was linked on that page, on the Secular Census Facebook page, and in the Secular Census Twitter feed. We left further promotion up to viral networking within the secular community, where it received diverse coverage.


The ASC received responses from a non-random, volunteer sample of 170 people. Survey respondents were asked to indicate their gender, and answer two opinion questions after affirming that they had read both the “Open Letter” and the response from ASC explaining the lack of endorsement. A summary of the initial results can be found here.


Secular Woman was interested in examining the pattern of results to the opinion questions based on the gender of the survey respondents. The first opinion question asked about the “Open Letter” itself, and provided four response choices (see Table 1). The pattern of results is consistent with the idea that women were more critical of the letter: Male respondents were more likely to rate the letter as “excellent” or “pretty good,” but female and genderqueer respondents were more likely to say that it is “fair” or has “major problems.”

Table 1

In general, what is your opinion of “An Open Letter to the Secular Community”?

Response Category




Row Total

It’s an excellent letter. I fully support it.







It’s pretty good. I have some reservations, but they’re minor.







It’s a fair letter. It would take some work for me to support it.








It has some major problems. I don’t support it at all.








Column Totals





Note: The percentage of each gender category within response categories is noted in parentheses.  The relationship between the two traditional gender categories and response choices did not reach statistical significance, Χ2 (3, N = 165) = 6.3, p = .09.  The sample of those who identified as genderqueer was too small and thus would not be representative of the population.

The second opinion question asked respondents to indicate whether they believed that the American Secular Census should have endorsed the letter by signing it (see Table 2). Overall, 51% of men, 60% who identify as genderqueer, and 77% of women agreed that ASC not signing the letter was the right decision.  For this question, there is a statistically significant relationship between gender and opinion. Female respondents were more likely to support the decision by the ASC to not sign the letter. Male respondents were more likely to believe that it was a mistake not to sign or were unable to decide.


Table 2

Should the American Secular Census have signed the letter?

Response Category




Row Total

Yes. It was a mistake not to sign the letter.







No. Not signing the letter was the right decision.








I can’t decide.








Column Totals





Note: The percent of each gender category within response categories is noted in parentheses.  There is a significant relationship between the two traditional gender categories and response choices, Χ2 (2, N = 165) = 11.8, p = .003. The sample of those who identified as genderqueer was too small and thus would not be representative of the population.


Dr. Corinne Zimmerman is a Professor of Psychology at Illinois State University. Her research interests focus on cognitive development, with a particular emphasis on the development of scientific thinking skills and scientific literacy. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Developmental Review, International Journal of Science Education, Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology, Memory & Cognition, Public Understanding of Science, Sex Roles, and Science.

These data and related analyses represent an ongoing strategic partnership between Secular Woman and the American Secular Census.


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