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Sikivu Hutchinson: Check your white privilege, freeethinkers

Sikivu Hutchinson (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Sikivu Hutchinson speaks after being given FFRF’s Freethought Heroine Award at FFRF’s national convention on Nov. 20, 2021, in Boston. (Photo by Chris Line)
Sikivu Hutchinson speaks about ways in which Blacks are continually fighting an uphill battle because of systemic racism. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

This is an edited (for length) version of the speech given by Sikivu Hutchinson at FFRF’s national convention on Nov. 20, 2021, in Boston.

To watch the full speech online, go to ffrf.us/speeches-2021. She was introduced by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Annie Laurie Gaylor: Sikivu Hutchinson is a feminist, novelist, playwright, director and atheist. She is the author of many books, including White Night, Black Paradise, which is about the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, Moral Combat and two new books: The Rock and Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe and Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist and Heretical.

Sikivu was named Secular Woman of the Year in 2013 and was a recipient of the Harvard Humanist of the Year award. She founded Black Skeptics Los Angeles in 2010. She’s also the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project in L.A. to mentor youth. 

We’re very pleased to bestow FFRF’s Freethought Heroine Award on someone who definitely is what renowned Black feminist and atheist Florynce Kennedy would call “a real kick ass.” Please greet our 2021 Freethought Heroine.

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Thank you for the award and the recognition.

I passionately believe that it’s the task of a freethinker, whether or not one is considered to be a hero or heroine, to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. And toward that end, when I first started writing about racism and atheism and the white supremacist legacies of humanism — and what I call the Black secular social justice imperative — there were some elite white males in the movement who got royally pissed off. Surprise, surprise.

I was informed back in 2012 that evidently there was a “secret memo” that had been circulated demanding that I be checked for my heresy. And in response to that, I wrote a piece called “The Uppity Negroes and the OGs” or the “Original Gangstas,” because that’s what that cabal was acting like.

I’m going to underscore what I have emphasized, again unapologetically, throughout my checkered tenure as an atheist: If you are a white person and you are not willing to interrogate your white privilege, your white entitlement and your investment in legacies of white apartheid and white supremacy, you cannot rightfully claim to be a freethinker. 

Let’s be clear: You have forged your freethought liberties in stolen indigenous lands, in a nation that was built on chattel slavery and racial capitalism on the backs of the extinguished and the dispossessed. This is the baseline ideology of Black, secular, social justice that is based in the principle that social, racial and educational justice are forms of reparations. 

Scholarship initiative

In 2014, I approached FFRF to support our then-nascent First-in-the-Family Black Humanist Scholarship Initiative. We award between four to six youth scholarships annually. And the impetus for the initiative — in addition to much of the programing that Black Skeptics supports year-round by the Women’s Leadership Project program and the Standing 4 Black Girls Coalition and other programs in South L.A. — were the misogynistic inequities and the anti-Black misogyny that Black girls were experiencing in K-12, as well as the massive prison pipelining of youth of color, primarily African-American, Indigenous and Latinx.

African-American girls, for example, are six times more likely to be suspended, expelled and pushed out of school than are non-Black girls. Black girls are 10 times more likely than white girls to receive discipline referrals. And this entrenches not just the school-to-prison pipeline, but the sexual abuse to prison pipeline.

With this scholarship initiative, we focused on undocumented, LGBTQ, foster care and unhoused youth, and later on, secular youth, because that prior group of youth are more likely to be pushed out of school or more likely to be pipelined into prisons and are less likely to have the full bore social, emotional and academic support that they need to succeed in college, to go to college and graduate from college. 

For example, a majority of people of color who are in prison in California institutions are coming from the foster care system. If we look at the juvenile incarcerated population in the United States, the majority of those young people are African-American, whereas African-American youth only comprise about 13 percent of the youth population in the United States. 

This atrocity in an exceptionalist nation informs the lives of African-American youth across the spectrum. It doesn’t matter whether they are straight up Pentecostalists or unapologetic atheists; they have lack of access to college prep resources, and mental health support, as well as culturally responsive education. Instead, many African American youth are subjected to endless policing, surveillance and disruption at their schools. All of these factors inform the apartheid regime of K-12 in this nation, a regime that certainly has been exacerbated by the hierarchies of the pandemic. 

Outstanding winners

In 2016, I wrote a piece for The Humanist magazine where I profiled some of our outstanding winners from that year. Most of these youth were coming from South L.A. high schools. Dr. Miani Giron, a former foster youth who just received her medical degree, is one of the students I focus on in the piece.  She was my mentee from ninth grade and identifies as an agnostic. She graduated from UCLA Medical School and is now a resident at the VA Hospital in West L.A. in psychiatry. 

In the piece, I underscore the fact that Black youth who reject organized religion don’t have the social and economic benefits of white privilege to blunt their apostasy. When they graduate high school, they must navigate institutional racism and historically white-dominated colleges and universities where they may never have a professor or dean who looks like them. 

One of our 2021 winners, Belen Padilla, is a young woman who is now attending Scripps College. She had these insights about the award:

[Shows video] “Hello. I am Belen Padilla. As a queer Latina atheist, the scholarship has provided me empowerment by building my voice. And with that financial support granted by the scholarship, I will continue to expand my nonprofit work, which is awareness of health disparities through science and statistics rather than faith, especially coming from the Latinx community in Las Vegas, where 90 percent of my school is Hispanic and Black, and Hispanic communities tend to be highly religious. 

“I have always been open about my lack of faith, and I have always been shamed and belittled by my own community, family and, occasionally, my own friends. But Black Skeptics has made me feel that my choice is valid and has empowered me with this scholarship. It will ease some of the financial stress to further my education at Scripps College, where I will pursue medical school to become a neurologist, to join the 6 percent of active Latinx-identifying physicians and the 2 percent of Latinos with STEM degrees and even lower percentage of low-income first-generation queer Latinas in STEM.” [End of video]

I want to make a note that Belen is a recipient of the First-in-the-Family Humanist scholarship, in partnership with FFRF, and it’s designated as the Forward Freethought Scholarship. Kaylin Nelson is one of this year’s recipients. She attends the University of Central Florida, and she has some really telling insights about mental health.

[Shows video] “Hi, my name is Kaylin Nelson, and I’m one of the winners of the First-in-the-Family Humanist scholarships. Firstly, I’d like to thank Black Skeptics for awarding me this scholarship. I will be attending the University of Central Florida, where I will be majoring in social work. Although I’m not completely sure where this path will take me, my dream career is that of a counselor or a therapist. 

“As someone who was raised in a religious family but does not necessarily subscribe to the same beliefs as my family, I understand how important mental health services can be for people like me. Often, our families do not understand this divergence in thoughts or beliefs. We are seen as rebels or deviants simply for not believing. From my personal experience, I know that this can be extremely alienating. When I have struggled with mental health issues in the past or been caught in difficult situations, the only answer that I’ve ever been given was prayer. I respect all religions, of course, but prayer sometimes felt impossible or useless when I was in those situations. At times like those, I would have benefited greatly from having someone who was unbiased or nonreligious to listen to me and to provide me with guidance.” [End of video]

Kaylin also participated in a panel that we convened [in November 2021] in collaboration with the American Humanist Association, the Black Humanist Alliance and Black Skeptics. The subject of that panel was whether secular humanism is relevant to Black Gen Z youth, particularly given the escalation of anti-Blackness in K–12 and higher education, as well as the racist backlash against critical race theory and social justice education.

Atheists need to step up

The consensus was decidedly ambivalent to negative because, quite frankly, when we break it down, white-dominated secular organizations have not stepped up for the racial, social and educational justice issues that are burning in communities of color. And this is to their peril, given the fact that we are on the precipice of a major transition in demographics in the United States to majority minority in 2045, and that greater numbers of African-American, Latinx, Indigenous and other BIPOC youth are identifying as queer, as gender nonconforming and nonbinary and gender fluid.

And yet, there are those in the secular movement who continue to spit out reactionary white-splaining articles like, “Atheists don’t owe your social justice agenda a damn thing.” This piece was written in direct response to my 2014 Washington Post article titled “Atheism has a big race problem that no one is talking about,” wherein I take on and challenge the exclusive church-state separation focus of organizations like FFRF and American Humanists and American Atheists, SSA and CFI. 

Since then, there have been gains. There have been improvements. There have been allyship initiatives. And we certainly do appreciate the support of FFRF and other organizations for the Women of Color Beyond Belief conference that we’ve convened for the past couple of years. 

In that Washington Post piece and in other critiques that I’ve made, I’ve also criticized the problematic dynamic of white-dominated secular boards, white-dominated secular conferences, white-dominated secular decision-making processes and white-dominated secular leadership.

In the aftermath of the lynching of George Floyd, there was all of this corporate posturing about supporting BLM and rushing to institute diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives to supposedly redress racial disparities in the workplace. But, when the dust settled, Black women are still on the bottom of the wage scale next to Latinx women. Black women essential workers have been displaced in disproportionate numbers from the workplace. And Black women are least likely to have unionized job protections and earn living wages and have the benefit of defined benefit plans. 

This is also situated within the context of what has been dubbed a pandemic within a pandemic of domestic violence and sexual violence. African-American women are disproportionately impacted by sexual violence and domestic violence, such that nearly 60 percent of Black girls will experience sexual abuse by the age of 18 and only one in 15 African-American women feel empowered to report rape or sexual abuse. 

Hijacking of #MeToo

This question of the #MeToo movement intersecting with the #SayHerName movement, which is designed to amplify the erasure of Black women within narratives of state violence and mobilization around state violence, is particularly acute for Black girls. Despite the fact that the #MeToo movement was spearheaded by a powerful, visionary Black feminist named Tarana Burke, it effectively has been hijacked within popular culture by white women who have made it into a platform for their grievances. It therefore erases the institutional and community disparities that African-American women and girls confront, especially when they are considered to be “adultified.” This term was coined by a Georgetown University researcher to highlight how Black girls are criminalized, viewed as more mature,  more adult, and hence less worthy of protection. 

This insidiousness was really driven home to me several years ago when I was in conversation with one of my mentees. She related that she had been handcuffed and led away by school police when she was watching a fight. She wasn’t even involved in the fight; she was just on the outskirts watching, yet got handcuffed. She commented that had she been a white girl, she would have gotten Starbucks and some Uggs. I remember thinking that this analysis was brilliant and bittersweet, because her statement, again, is indicative of the nexus of criminalization, misogyny and the adultification that Black girls experience.

And, in many ways, it captures the rage that we experience when, for example, we see on national TV yet another missing white girl who the media fetishizes as the life that we need to pay attention to and to amplify and validate at all costs. 

Raise your hand if you know who Gabby Petito is and you don’t know who Mitrice Richardson is. She’s a Black woman who went missing after foul play at an L.A. County Sheriff’s substation in 2009. And the not-so-fun fact is that African-American young women comprise a good majority of those who are missing and abducted in the United States, but you wouldn’t know it if you turned on CNN or Fox or MSNBC. 

Black women again are invisible when it comes to mainstream narrtives about who is impacted by state violence. And the uprising and protests following the police murder of Breonna Taylor in Louisville really marked the first time that a Black woman victim received global attention. Her young life was savagely cut short because of the terroristic reign of police in Black neighborhoods. Certainly, white Christians will never have to know this horror. And white secularists will never have to know this horror because your freethought liberties are forged on this erasure of the enormity and the toxicity of white supremacy. 

In the final analysis, radical progressive Black folks know that we’re still bound by these legacies of apartheid in this nation and that our humanist, freethought agenda is the same as an anti-racist, anti-imperialist social justice agenda. To quote the great freethinker Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Thank you.


You can buy Sikivu Hutchinson’s new book, Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist and Heretical at ffrf.org/shop for $15.

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