An interview with author and activist Sikivu Hutchinson
A generation ago a typical humanist group might have been little more than a few older, white men meeting in the basement of a Unitarian church, arguing points of philosophy that have little relevance in the real world. That has changed, as atheist and humanist groups have sprung up in a much wider range of settings, from schools to pubs to workplaces, and as young people, women, people of color, gays and lesbians, and others have helped the notion of personal secularity gain traction in the wider population.
But still, despite this expansion, many would like to see the secular movement experience faster and broader growth in African-American and Latino communities. Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson, a Los Angeles author and secular activist, is one of those working to expand the movement in communities of color. With the authority of churches in those communities very strong, she argues that the secular movement is unlikely to challenge that authority unless it firmly addresses issues of social and economic justice. This message resonates with many—especially among those humanists who see such traditionally liberal issues as being central to humanist ethics—but not with everyone. Some would prefer that the movement focus exclusively on church-state separation and other so-called "culture war" issues, for example, while some atheists even describe themselves as conservative. Below, I chat with Hutchinson about her views on this ongoing discussion.
DN: I attended a recent talk that you gave, and I believe one of the key points you made was that women of color in America have historically gravitated toward religion because it was one of the few institutions that validated their humanity. Could you explain what you mean by that?
SH: In my book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, I argue that the literature on secularism and gender does not capture the experiences of women of color negotiating racism, sexism, and poverty in historically religious communities. The relative dearth of secular humanist and freethought traditions amongst women of color cannot be separated from the broader context of white supremacy, gender politics, and racial segregation. The writers Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston are generally acknowledged as pioneering twentieth century black women freethinkers. Yet, what few women’s histories of freethought there are celebrate the political influence of prominent nineteenth century white women non-believers, many of whom were suffragists and abolitionists. None contextualize these women’s influence vis-à-vis the race and gender politics that shaped both the feminist and freethought movements. For example, I have yet to see an appraisal that seriously addresses the racism, nativism and xenophobia of forerunning 19th century freethinker Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who used white supremacist imperialist rhetoric touting the intellectual superiority of white women to oppose the 15th amendment granting black men the vote) or the “curious” absence of women of color from freethought movements.