Friday, August 23, 2013

What's Being Lost in this Bria Crutchfield/JT Eberhard Controversy

Last weekend's Great Lakes Atheist Convention in Toledo was absolutely wonderful. It has been awhile since I have attended an event that well organized. I can only highlight some of the great talks I was fortunate enough to get to see because there were so many. One of the best was Rachel Johnson from the Godless Vagina Podcast and Blog with her talk on sex and relationships. Sam Singleton was another high point for me, as well seeing Zack Kopplin give his talk on science education in the south. I had so much fun attending this event and I hope we can see it happen again next year if possible.

The organizer, Barb, did a great job of including a very diverse group of speakers for this event. Part of this included having a series of black atheists give a variety of talks. Mandisa Thomas and Darrell Smith, two great speakers I met at the Blackout Rally, were there to give talks. Our very own Bria Crutchfield from Minority Atheists of MI was there as well.

Mandisa Thomas gave a great talk on what the freethought community can learn from the hospitality industry, one I hope she continues to give elsewhere as this is desperately needed in our community. Right after her talk the first person to ask a question asked her what her organization planned to do about black-on-black crime. Mandisa's response was what I would call hand-waving in an attempt to just get the lady to go away. I had my hand over my face so I didn't see her, but that was how I would characterize her response as I heard it.

After lunch Darrell Smith gave his talk about coming to admit that he was not a believer openly and how he got to that point. His first questioner asked what could be done to get more black atheists out and going to events, to make them feel welcome. This guy also looked back at Mandisa, Darrell's daughter Dawn and Bria and as he did Bria stood up and answered his question. I won't lie, the entire five minute answer was full of emotion and pent up frustration that came out in this answer. She got a lot off her chest in this timeframe. The lady's irrelevant question about black-on-black crime was included as exhibit A in a long list of exhibits Bria gave as reasons that black atheists feel unwelcome at events and such in our community. This caused the lady to be quite embarrassed, and I think many in the crowd felt empathy with her. Many others applauded and I think appreciated the information.

Shortly after this another speaker, JT Eberhard, attempted to talk to Bria in private and convince her that it was wrong to have shamed the woman publicly. He was not received well and pretty much rebuked. This caused a blog post later on on a big network. Jen McCreight responded with her own post. JT responded to that which prompted Greta Christina. And Dan Fincke. And Sikivu Hutchinson. And Richard Carrier. It only took a day or two at most for half of the atheist internet to pick a side and go to war. At this point the discussion has devolved as far as discussing someone's private sex life on twitter. As rough as this discussion has become, I'm morbidly happy that it has started. Yet, there is a lot being lost in this controversy or just left out and things I'm upset about.

What is being lost here is a real discussion about why these blowups even happen. It is important for our community to identify the problems it has that cause people to reach their boiling point in the first place. This incident is being discussed as if it were nothing more than an ignorant question and an outburst in a total vacuum. It didn't happen in a vacuum. This is part of a pattern of mistreatment, and that's just dealing with the atheist community. It's also a part of a pattern within our wider community, especially those of us from Detroit. We shouldn't forget that.

What is also being lost is the responsibility of the white atheists like myself to do our part (being the majority) to make the community welcoming to others. Ensuring this should be everyone's responsibility, it surely can't be the sole responsibility of the minorities. It seems disingenous to complain about the manifestation of a problem unless you are working hard to fix it at its root. In other words, actually doing things to help shows you really care. The key word is "doing".

The fact that this event was a response to the white man's question has also been lost. The outburst didn't happen unprompted. His question about how the community can make itself welcoming to black atheists is pretty important. I see a lot of sympathy for the lady who asked the ignorant question, but what about the man who really wanted his answer? Judging by the applause he and others gave, I think he got the information he wanted. I know many white atheists like him, that are wondering honestly why black atheists might not feel comfortable at events. Getting that information, however unpleasant it might be at first, is a step in the direction of actually fixing things.

I'm upset about the fact the half the atheist planet now envisions Bria as the stereotypical "angry black lady" who's first impression to them will be a less than five minute rant that many in that particular audience actually needed. When I very first came to the atheist groups and meetings I go to in Greater Detroit I was not made to feel particularly welcome. Except for Bria, who welcomed me with open arms and actually talked to me which made me feel someone truly cared that I was there at all. She is easily one of the most nicest, sweetest and most caring activists in the greater Detroit area. Since then I've made many friends in our community, but Bria is surely my best friend. (Love you Makidada).

I'm also upset that the event will be considered as some kind of dumbass "war on white men". If there was one person I know that diametrically opposed to what that stupid meme means it is Bria. I know this because in every debate I have on feminism in our local community my opponent is Bria. Staunch defender of the ignorant white man, who is being "crucified" as she puts it for his ignorance. It takes a persistent problem to get Bria to get to a boiling point with someone, and I really wish the community knew that I like do. It would clue them in on why these blowups are a pattern of mistreatment, rather than a single event in a vacuum.

All in all I hope this event will become the start of a series of discussions instead of a two-sided war. I've seen the community have plenty of discussion on how to make sure we welcome our women, but little on racial topics. I don't know if it that is because it is too uncomfortable to talk about or that people just don't know how. I suspect it's a bit of both. But it needs to happen to make our community the best it can be.


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience from the convention, Sean!

    That the "outburst" occurred in answer to the question of how to make the atheist community more welcoming has not been mentioned by anyone else that I have seen. It really puts Bria's statement into its proper context and shows that she really didn't "hijack someone else's question period" to make an unrelated rant. Sounds like she was actually answering the question put to the panel(?) in a clear and impassioned way.

    I'd love to see video of the conference, and am keeping an eye out for it to show up. There is one commenter on JT's post who insists that he was the videographer and that the video shows that she was out of line, but he's pretty heavily defending JT's scolding. I notice he's not so quick to upload it so everyone else can see what happened.

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    2. I was there. I'm sorry to say, she was out of control and came off, to me, as abusive. She used a public forum to shame another human being. I'm sure it was not her 'best self'. I felt very sorry for the woman she tried to humiliate. Actually, she went further and accused the people there who had not said, "Hi" to her as not being welcoming. I found her behavior offensive, but I sat politely and listened to her presentation. I heard the whole thing.This event was the only sour note in a delightful convention.

  2. Welcome.

    While she did answer for Darrell technically, I was trying to point out that I don't see much wrong with that. It was certainly 'impassioned' - were you to see the video you would feel sorry for the lady. She was probably embarrassed quite a bit. My contention was that Bria didn't intend to hurt her, she was expressing her own hurt and frustration with our community.

    Pretty much the point of my post is we should talking about it (there will be bumps in the road) and doing things to actually implement fixes. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

    As for Mark he indeed did run the camera. What I know of him is he is a bridge-burner with many people angry with him in Detroit area, prior to this. I am not even sure the video will come out at all. Which is a shame as the talks were great.

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  5. This issue is aging somewhat, but I might as well throw in my opinion from personal experience. I haven't met Bria Crutchfield, but I have met JT Eberhard. My personal assessment of him is that he can certainly be hard-headed when faced with disagreeable situations, but if I am to understand your assessment of Ms. Crutchfield correctly, both of these people are essentially decent and friendly people. I'm sort of disappointed that what seems to have been an unfortunate misunderstanding -- from Eberhard for not understanding Crutchfield's motivations at all, and from Crutchfield for letting her temper get the better of her. We've all been in both of their positions, and I doubt any of us would enjoy being thrown into the spotlight in either situation.

    The issues of race in the community are certainly the main topic here, and this being well-trodden ground in the debate, I'd like to bring something else up: There exists another flashpoint I think is at least partially at issue here which is that our beloved secular community has quite a few character flaws of its own -- specifically the tendency of the community to overreact to just about anything which smacks of intolerance, and the similar tendency to overreact and deny when one is the perpetrator of said intolerance. I'm reminded of the brouhaha that developed around Richard Dawkins when he made an off-color remark to a female blogger in an elevator. He certainly deserved nearly all the criticism he received in the immediate aftermath, but in true atheist fashion, Dawkins proceeded to stubbornly defend his behavior instead of accepting the scorn, apologizing and moving on. I think that if cooler heads prevailed, and greater care was taken to let everyone involved simmer down a little before broaching the topic of who was "out of line" and who wasn't, then it's possible that none of this would have happened. As it is, this is just a frustrating episode for everyone involved, and beyond the worthy issue of helping minorities, racial and otherwise feel more welcome at public secularist events like these, that issue can't even start unless we put down our spades and start being a little more cautious about either letting racist questions, intentional or not, slide without mention, OR accusing a white blogger of being a drooling racist for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person.

  6. Unknown - your opinion was essentially what the post was about. I was upset that the real talk about what actions we could take to better our community was overshadowed by infighting blown stupidly out of proportion to what actually happened.