[I asked Natalie Reed if I could publish this here because she makes a point I have been failing to make, and she makes it much better than I could have. It originally appeared on February 20, 2012. And yes, she's our first non-white dude contributor, but we're looking for more.]
Those of you who follow FTB as a whole, or were keeping up with the Target Audiences comment thread, are probably already aware of a rather nasty remark John Loftus made insinuating that I’m not really qualified to be writing for this network and was only brought in for the sake of diversity.
This post is not going to be another discussion of Loftus or his remarks. There’s not really any need to carry that any further, I feel comfortable with how this resolved and like there isn’t much left to be said. I also feel for the most part that his comments speak for themselves, and my colleagues at FTB have already done a great job of defending my worth and discussing why his diversity-hire comment was not okay and crossed the line.
But I do want to talk about the issue of diversity, and “tokens”, both as a general thing and within the skeptic, atheist and humanist community. The issue goes well beyond Loftus’ remark, of course, and has been coming a lot lately, most notably perhaps in the Staks Rosch “Hitchie award” controversy. When these kinds of comments are made, claiming that the presence of women or minorities is mere “tokenism” and that it is overlooking merit and qualification, there are a few particular issues we tend to focus on. Usually, our first instinct is to defend the actual merit and qualifications the person does have, such as Dan’s post saying all kinds of entirely too flattering things about me, or people pointing out the degree to which women like Rebecca Watson, Greta Christina, Taslima Nasrin and Amanda Marcotte were at least as influential within atheism during 2011 as were George Takei and Ricky Gervais, who were included on Rosch’s list. Many people didn’t even know Takei was atheist until that list of finalists was issued! This kind of clarification is of course important, but it doesn’t cover the entirety of the issue.
Another common area of focus is describing how the merits and qualifications of women and minorities are often overlooked, as is their absence from spaces where by all rights they should be present. A lot of people didn’t even notice the conspicuous absence of women on Rosch’s list at all, though they almost certainly would have noticed if the list was comprised entirely of women. This is also important, and is an excellent way of pointing out the insidious nature of subconscious biases.
And then there are the usual counter-attacks, such as people suggesting that if a certain number of people in a given list or community or network or whatever is reached, then the absence of women, LGBTQ people, PoC, PwD, etc. becomes conspicuous and problematic, but only once a certain quota of white, straight, cis men is accounted for. This one is pretty easy to counter. And there are the usual insinuations that including someone on the basis of being a “token”, or on the basis of diversity, is “patronizing”. This one is especially infuriating in that presuming to speak for us about what would or wouldn’t be patronizing to us is itself patronizing in the extreme, and one also need consider the degree to which the deck is stacked (Staksed? Okay, that’s horrible…sorry) against us by bias, assumptions, discrimination and the absence of privilege -to such a degree that people, as said, won’t even notice when we’re being overlooked- that conscious acts of inclusion are pretty much the only means by which our voices and accomplishments will be recognized and acknowledged at all. It is not patronization, it is actually doing something about the problem.
Then there’s the sort of Catch-22 this places us in. If we don’t actually push forward for inclusion and acknowledgment on the basis of our identity, we will end up being overlooked, or, as the saying goes, have to work twice as hard and be twice as good to receive half as much recognition. And if we do assert our identities and be forward about our right to be heard on that basis, and the perspective that our background can bring to a discussion, such as saying “hey, um, there’s only two LGBT people on your network of 30-ish bloggers, don’t you think adding another might be helpful in adding a little perspective?”, then we are accused of only getting ahead due to tokenism, and our “playing the gender / race / gay / trans / whatever card”.
I hate when people play the playing the card card.
But in all of these discussions, as important as they are, what gets sort of lost and shuffled aside is the actual value of diversity itself. Responding in this way to the people making the hostile accusations of tokenism allows the discourse to be framed as though diversity for the sake of diversity is indeed a bad thing and our community should be a pure meritocracy. When our defenses focus on the merits and qualities of the alleged token, and talk about how unconscious bias causes those merits and qualities to be overlooked, and how the “tokenism” accusations undermine the credibility of women and minorities and put them in a no-win situation, we implicitly allow the underlying assumption that diversity is not in itself meritorious or valuable to go unchallenged.
One of the problems I see pop up a bit regularly in the skeptic community is how often terms like “objective” or “neutral” in terms of perspective or position will covertly overlap with privileged perspectives. For instance, I’m a transsexual blogger, Ophelia and Stephanie are female bloggers, Greta and Chris R. are queer bloggers, Ian and Sikivu are black bloggers, Maryam is an ex-muslim blogger, and so on, while PZ, Ed or Greg are just… bloggers.
While the particular ways in which the identity of women or minority bloggers (or members of any profession, really) impact their subject position and perspective are widely acknowledged, the ways that identity impacts subject position and perspective amongst those who belong to privileged categories goes largely unnoticed. For each identity that is privileged enough as to be regarded as “neutral” or “default”, so too is their subject position assumed as neutral and therefore objective. While my writing is going to be openly contextualized and interpreted through the lens of my being a transsexual woman, the writings of Richard Carrier (just pulling the name from a hat, really) are comparatively not going to be contextualized and interpreted through the lens of him being a white, cisgender man. Instead his writing is much more likely to be interpreted as uninfluenced by identity, coming from a sort of subjective non-position, and therefore just a teensy little bit more “objective”.
The problem with this is that the subject position of privileged parties is not any more objective or neutral than that of non-privileged identities. There exists in those cases just as much potential for their particular experiences and background to impact and influence their perspective. They will, by default, have certain blind spots, assumptions and biases. When you have a community or discourse dominated by people from particular, specific backgrounds, those blind spots, assumptions and biases are going to be compounded.
This has immediate consequences for the discourse, for thought… for freethought. It’s not just an ethical and political thing. If you leave certain perspectives out of your discourse, then lots of important things are going to get missed, just because there was no one there for whom whatever that thing is falls outside hir blind spot. Particulars are going to be lost. Everything will be interpreted through the same lens, same context, same framework, same background, same basis of comparison. Vital concepts will be neglected because the dialogue lacks anyone who understands their importance. Misinformation and misunderstanding may go unnoticed because the dialogue lacks anyone who understands the errors. And most importantly, when the dialogue inevitably turns to issues that directly concern a given identity, there will be no one there to communicate the particular subtleties and nuances of those issues.
This is sort of difficult to properly articulate, but I hope my point is coming across… basically that a diversity of perspectives is necessary to ensure a healthy, diverse discourse and free exchange of ideas. In a homogenous pool of voices, the discourse stagnates and will inevitably overlook important considerations. As said, diversity isn’t just for the sake of ethics and political correctness and creating a more just world… it actually benefits dialogue, and creates a healthier intellectual exchange, healthier movement and healthier community.
Concrete examples are a bit tricky, just in terms of how many there are… but off the top of my head: Crommunist’s response to accusations that Schroedinger’s rapist was comparable to racism, or how Siri’s testers and developers were predominantly male so the lack of information on abortion resources went unnoticed until it had become a PR disaster, or how it sort of takes an LGBTQ presence in the atheist movement to precisely articulate just how directly damaging and harmful heterosexist religious bigotry can be and put a human face to an otherwise abstracted, academic concern.
Basically, diversity is a qualification, a merit and a value. While I may not be as qualified to discuss theology and apologetics as a man like Loftus, I am far more qualified to discuss gender theory, trans-feminism, LGBTQ rights, addiction and probably a bunch of other little things, like Ferdinand De Saussure, pataphysics, Italo Calvino, Paul Celan’s Bremen speech and, of course, how the Cult Of Skaro tore itself apart and why Fluttershy is the best pony in the mane cast. A network made entirely of people with a specific background of formal education in philosophy, logic and theology may be better qualified to address Christian apologetics, but that would be a poorer network than this one, because they’d only be able to address a singular issue (or set of issues, I guess), in a singular manner, and would be unable to handle much else. Which brings me back to my original point in Target Audiences And Playing Nice about the value of our movement being built upon a diversity of approaches, and the strength of FTB coming from the same diversity.
…Which includes a diversity of backgrounds, and diversity of identities.
Achieving that diversity can’t happen blindly. Given the various socio-cultural forces working against us, some of which I mentioned earlier, we’re just not all on an equal playing field. To imagine that we even could create an identity-blind meritocracy is to demonstrate profound naivete about the ways that power, privilege and bias operate. Creating a community or movement with a diverse range of perspectives requires a deliberate effort in this regard. Affirmative action, basically… which is a pretty aptly named policy.
You can’t just claim you’re open to diversity, open up your doors, and expect the diversity to come to you. The fact is that VERY different challenges are faced by bloggers who come from different backgrounds. The risks, sacrifices and emotional difficulties faced by a woman blogger, a queer blogger, a trans blogger, a blogger from a racial minority, or any number of other disadvantaged starting points, are VERY different from the challenges faced by someone coming from a privileged position. A woman blogger is, for instance, far more likely to face hostility, anger and trolling than is a man, particularly sexually-based hostility. A trans blogger is taking a very extreme risk with very real consequences in rendering her gender status a publicly available fact.
In order to accommodate for those unequal risks and sacrifices, creating a diverse community requires deliberately seeking out and reaching out to bloggers who are in those positions, and considering their backgrounds and qualifications relative to the social and cultural context. Failure to do so will inevitably lead to a homogenous environment and all the consequences that go with that.
This applies to the atheist, skeptic and humanist communities and movements as a whole, as well. We can’t keep presenting this “one size fits all” model and expecting absolutely everyone to fit themselves into it, and then blaming the women, the people of colour, the LGBTQ people, and all the other noticeably absent groups when they don’t show up. We need to create a space that is welcoming and accommodating of differing backgrounds. We need to reach out, and be willing to adapt our community to meet different socio-cultural needs.
And we DEFINITELY need to stop turning up our noses at diversity and “tokenism” as though they’re petty concerns beneath our enlightened perfect minds, and crying “reverse discrimination” or “colour-blindness” or “political correctness gone mad!” whenever people try to take actual, concrete actions in the direction of creating a more diverse community.
To be honest, I have no idea exactly what considerations came into play during discussions of whether or not to invite me to Freethought Blogs. But I imagine that my ability to offer a particular perspective on particular issues was indeed part of it. At the very least, I know that was part of the decision to invite me into Skepchick, which is how I became a blogger in the first place. The fact that my background and identity were part of the consideration does not render me merely a “token” or “diversity hire”. The fact is that that background and identity ARE a qualification, and enable me to better discuss certain issues than other bloggers would be able. Of course, I have other qualities too. It’s not like I’m JUST a trans woman and nothing else, or that I’m interchangeable with all the other intelligent, gifted trans atheist/skeptic writers out there. But I refuse to feel ashamed of the fact that my identity and background, and the perspective they provide, is part of what I offer this community. And I think those who sneer at me or others for these things being factors in our success rather ought to be ashamed instead.
And you know, even if I am just a token, I’m okay with that. If being trans is going to make my life so much harder in so many other ways, at least it can make things a bit nicer for me in this one way, eh?