Confronting racism: don'ts & dos for humanists.

Author:Pinn, Anthony B.

THERE ARE debated issues within the humanist movement revolving around the agenda that should guide humanist thinking and activism. Is it enough to address separation of church and state? Of course, science education should be high on the list of key issues meriting humanist time and resources, right? These are just two of the activism possibilities that receive energetic conversation and attention within the humanist circles familiar to me. Such issues and debate have shaped the public presence and "look" of humanism in a significant way for some time.

But what exactly does humanism do?

One can think about the issues I mentioned as marking out how humanists understand their world and interact with that world. That is to say, such issues or platforms have something to do with the interactions of humanists individually and within the context of collectives called communities, social groupings, and so on. But this work, forces at least some of us to ask: What does humanism have to say to and about those bodies at work within both private and public realms?

Not to get too philosophical, but these bodies are not only material (i.e., they're born, they live, and they die), they are also familiar to us as social constructs, as language given substance. I suggest that humanists understand, without significant trouble or confusion, the material, biological reality of bodies. However, humanists have a more difficult time understanding and addressing the social construction of these bodies.

The former--the biological reality--bends to logic and science, while the social construction of bodies has no necessary logic and isn't defined by the assumed objective findings of science. Is it this differentiation that prompts some to argue that social issues such as racism aren't fundamental to humanism and its activists? In short, the position for some goes this way: if an issue can't be addressed through logic and reason, and if science doesn't hold the key to understanding it, then it isn't a pressing concern for humanists.

Still, so many of the invitations I receive from humanist organizations and communities revolve around questions not guided by "it's got to be reasonable" approaches to engagement. These questions, albeit in a sloppy way, seek to recognize socially constructed bodies as bodies worthy of attention. For example: How do we get more African Americans into the so-called movement? Or, why are so many African Americans still involved in a religious tradition (i.e., Christianity) that was used to enslave them and that continues to justify racial discrimination, among other modes of injustice? Both questions point to the social significance of race--and its enactment in the mode of racism--while also suggesting a desire, at least on the part of some, to address race as a humanist issue.

I am one who has argued for a few decades now that humanism should address issues of social justice, like racism, as part of its commitment to the well-being of life in general and human flourishing in particular. To omit attention to modes of social injustice--like racism--is to reduce the connotations of the human in humanism. Furthermore, it is to truncate the challenges confronting human flourishing in the contemporary world. And so, I typically accept invitations to talk...

To continue reading