The Unbearable Whiteness Of Secular Studies
I recently submitted a course proposal entitled “Going Godless: Challenging Faith and Religion in Communities of Color” to a School of Religion at a prominent university in California. After many gyrations, it was shot down due to “lack of funding”. The course focuses on the intersectional politics of secularism, atheism and humanism, as well as the work of secularists of color like Anthony Pinn, Mandisa Thomas, Heina Dadabhoy, Juhem Navarro Rivera, Sincere Kirabo, Candace Gorham and the D.C. group Secular Sistahs. The uptick in Americans identifying as secular Nones has led to the creation of more secular courses, many of which are housed in Religious Studies departments. Despite the much ballyhooed “Rise of the Nones” there is currently only one bonafide Secular Studies department (based at Pitzer College and helmed by secular scholar Phil Zuckerman) in the U.S.
For the most part, Secularism in the American academy is a cobbled together affair, featuring one-off courses dominated by white academics with the book contracts, privilege and ivory tower “cred” to do secular work without worrying about censure or professional ostracism. Although social media bustle with black folks tweeting, blogging and sounding off about embracing atheism; the same handful of white faces preside in the academic industrial complex as “authentic” scholars of the secular, atheist, humanist experience. As a result, scholarship, classes and curricula that capture the lived experiences, politics and world views of secularists of color, especially those of women of color, are still scant to nonexistent. To date, the Humanist Institute is the only organization in the country to feature an online course I developed entitled “Women of Color Beyond Faith”.
Why is it important that secular people of color teach, write and publish book length scholarship, analyses, narratives and fiction on our social history? The hijacking of rock music from the African American composers and musicians who originated the genre is a case in point. African American scholar/historians like Maureen Mahon and Jeffrey Othello are among the few in the white male dominated field of rock and roll musicology and music history. This dearth, combined with the whitewashing of rock by white male critics, musicians and the music industry, has ironically marked the genre as “in-authentically” black. Recent critical works by white writers like Jack Hamilton and Gayle Wald document the travails of African American rock artists in a field black folk pioneered but are now viewed as oxymoronic in (one need look no further than the lily white bands in this year’s crop of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees to see how white supremacy informs the corporate rock establishment). The lockstep association of “black music” with rap, hip hop and R&B continues to marginalize black rock musicians. That said, if it’s black and obscure, white folk will find it, document it, and anthropologically “redeem” it for the masses as valid art and noble artifact. It’s no revelation that white validation is often the primary criterion for legitimizing black cultural production, critical theory or art in the mainstream and in academia. As August Wilson once noted, “Blacks have traditionally had to operate in a situation where whites have set themselves up as custodians of the black experience.”