The White Stuff (Atheism & Its Discontents)

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Her name was Sarah Baartman, aka the Venus Hottentot, and she had ass to spare.

Like many Africans staged for public exhibition in 19th Century Europe before her, Baartman became an object of scientific investigation. She was poked, prodded, measured, assessed and ultimately dissected in death by British and French empiricist wizards like the esteemed scientist Georges Cuvier. She was marshaled as resident Other to determine the exact nature of her “difference” from “normal” (i.e., white) men and women. This standard only had weight and relevance in the context of Baartman’s grotesqueness. Her deformations provided white femininity with its mooring as the standard of feminine beauty. Her sub-humanity gave her white male examiners a biological compass (and canvas) that was then translated into immutable racial difference. The sexual deviance signified by her enormous backside literally functioned as an epistemological frame and cover for her interpreters’ own cultural biases and assumptions. Identified as the “missing link,” Baartman’s anatomy was critical to affirming white racial superiority and capturing inexplicable gaps in the ascent from “savage” to “civilized.” Through the lens of the scientist, looking, seeing and interpreting were deemed to be “transparent” enterprises–not naturalized through the cultural position of the observer.

Tim Wise, the foremost white critic/interpreter of the phenomenon of white supremacy, once noted that whites “swim in white privilege.” Like fish in water, whites don’t grasp or see the complexity of white privilege because they breathe it and live it 24/7. It immunizes them in the predominantly white schools, neighborhoods, social networks, media, places of worship and scholarly traditions that they inhabit. It makes the systemic institutionalized nature of racial hierarchy invisible. And it marginalizes race and racism as part of the narrow, sectarian and, ostensibly, divisive concerns of a “minority” lens.

Navigating a fantasy “post-racial” universe, these “invisible” cornerstones of white supremacy are not supposed to matter. It is not supposed to matter that a five year-old African American male has less chance statistically of going to college or even of living to the age of 25 than his white male sandbox comrade. It is not supposed to matter that home equity for blacks and Latinos of all classes has historically been far lower than that of whites due to institutional segregation in so-called inner cities and working class suburbs. These “blemishes” in the fabric of American liberal democracy are not supposed to matter because individualism is the currency of Americana, and there is no evil intelligent designer separating one’s exercise of free will from free enterprise.

Yet, for W.E.B. DuBois, these disparities constitute the “wages of whiteness,” a public and psychological wage of white social capital, translated into everyday white privilege. For those who bemoan the “provincial” and “race-obsessed” orientation of American writers of color, DuBois implicitly forces us to consider how the very arc of European American intellectual, social and economic “progress” has been shaped by the racialization of the Other. As an artifact of a supremely barbaric and unenlightened aspect of the Enlightenment, Baartman’s dissected backside was a key player in the birth of the objectivist researcher. Representing reason and rationality, Baartman’s interpreters were conferred with a personhood and subjectivity that afforded them “unraced” status.

Toni Morrison has defined unraced status as the ability to appear to be beyond racial classification or identification. Whiteness becomes the norm not only through racial segregation but through the discursive tools of defining value and worth. This status rests on having the right to write, analyze, classify, quantify and have one’s conclusions recognized as universal truths, rather than as the culturally contextual products of a racist colonialist legacy.

When it comes to the “new atheism,” the romance and “Bambified” innocence of not seeing is just a living. Recent debates in the blogosphere about the whiteness of atheist discourse get sidelined by accusations about the perceived “hysteria” of those making the claim. Surveys that suggest that atheist affiliation actually reflects race/gender demographics similar to, say, a John Birch Society confab are dismissed as being just the way it is because white boys naturally dominate science and are better writers anyway.

So it stands to reason that white folk don’t like it when it is inconveniently pointed out by ghetto interlopers that knowledge production and universal truth claims in the West have historically been marked as white. It’s cartoonishly pro forma when white folk, ignorant of these historical traditions, swaggeringly insist that atheist discourse is implicitly anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-heterosexist because one, we say so, and, two, hierarchy is something only those knuckle-dragging supernaturalists do. It’s paint-by-the-numbers entitlement time when the so-called new atheist “movement” is resistant to the charge that racial and gender politics just might inform who achieves visibility and which issues are privileged in the broader context of skeptical discourse. It’s not PC to suggest in the science-besotted circle jerk of atheist-supernaturalist smackdowns that Hottentot-obsessed traditions of scientific racism and fire and brimstone Judeo Christian religiosity went gleefully hand in hand for much of the West’s enlightened history. It belies humanist delusions of pure objectivism to say that “science as magic bullet” boilerplate will not enlarge the conversation to include those for whom organized religion has had some cultural and historical resonance (as an albeit complicated bulwark against white supremacy and racial terrorism). It is treasonous to argue that having the luxury and privilege to proclaim one’s atheism, publish, become recognized as an unraced authority, disseminate tomes to and command a global audience and garner recognition for capsizing the sordid ship of theological tyranny is a peculiarly white enterprise precisely because of the history of Western knowledge production. And it flies in the face of the myth of meritocracy to suggest that eminent white philosophers and scientists don’t “focus” on race and gender because their identities are based on not seeing it.

As atheist blogger Greta Christina has noted in her insightful critique of racism, sexism and visibility within the new atheist movement; hand-wringing about the absence of diversity without confronting the historical power dynamics of access and visibility becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When not seeing becomes a virtue its equivalent to telling all those uppity “missing links” to sit down and shut up. Let us write the record for you, because we know how it ends.


9 Responses to “The White Stuff (Atheism & Its Discontents)”

  1. 1 David Kimball
    December 1, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    I’m not sure I know the purpose of this author’s essay. Is the author saying that because science was applied poorly in the past that people who respect science now are just as racist? What does he see in the behavior of atheists today that he objects to? With statements like “It makes the systemic institutionalized nature of racial hierarchy invisible” which, if meant to be persuasive, should state “It makes the systemic institutionalized nature of racial hierarchy more difficult to see.”

    I find the message hidden and I find the approach offensive. And not because I’m a privileged white. I don’t see this applying the basis of critical analysis nor empathy. I don’t see the author even trying to communicate to the author’s “Other”. I’m not impressed.

    • 2 Ian
      December 1, 2009 at 1:56 pm

      The message of the story is that most atheist/skeptics groups are predominantly white due to existing racist tendencies of the past. While attitudes may have changed, the demographics haven’t. Without proactive measures to ensure diversity in our groups, we shall remain predominantly white, middle-class, male dominated. Many rationalists notice this discrepancy (it’s often hard to miss), but refuse to do anything – which in itself is being argued as a continued form of racism.

  2. December 6, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Sikivu, would you like to expand this piece for publication in The New Humanism magazine? There ave been a number of critical discussions among my immediate circle of Humanist friends regarding the issues of race, class and gender in the atheist and Humanist movements, and I think a piece like this would spark valuable discussion. Do you want to shoot me an email about this?

    This is not to say that I agree with all the implications of your post – just that I am aware that the discussion needs to be had, and that the argument must not be silenced.

  3. 5 Todd
    December 9, 2009 at 5:02 am

    Nice article there
    While this article is well written, I was unable to get any information out of it that was useful. If this is the “New Humanism” blog, then why does the subtitle reference atheism outright, and not “New Humanism and its discontents”(Humanism being more than pure atheism)? I like to fight the man just as much as the next man, man, but why no statistics? No facts or figures gleaned from all of this information? No citations or links so that we might peruse this knowledge you have proclaimed?
    Is the “New” Humanism so different from the plain old “atheism” that you guys don’t require substantial proof for substantial claims?

    • December 9, 2009 at 12:38 pm

      I think our intent on the blog is to bring in a wider range of voices and styles than might be possible in the magazine itself, and it is my impression that norms of citation and evidence are somewhat different depending on the venue (magazine, blog, newspaper etc.) and the style of writing. Seen as a polemic (I mean simply to indicate a genre, here, not to decry the piece which, as you say, is well-written) I feel it satisfies the requirements of the form. A couple of supporting links are also provided in a comment by the OP above.

  4. 7 sikivu
    December 9, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    The piece was meant as a critical reflection on what some have deemed to be the marginalizing effect of predominant new atheist discourse and the politics of visibility therein. See also,


    • 8 Gabriel Lockett
      December 14, 2009 at 11:58 pm


      I have also noticed that many African American atheists choose NOT to join because of the demographics. It is a persistent meme that African Americans avoid situations where the crowd is predominately white. I think if you want to get more diversity into secular groups, you have to portray an image of acceptance. I have to admit that I feel uncomfortable at times in secular groups because I am the only African American. However, I got over it; and except for being the ‘token’ and having to answer questions about my culture, I don’t mind. I notice a very real and genuine curiosity.

  5. 9 Gabriel Lockett
    December 15, 2009 at 12:01 am

    To add:

    It is the closeted view African Americans exhibit that perpetuates the myth of us being sub-par to other ethnic groups. I have used it to my advantage in many debates 🙂

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