The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Diversity in Skepticism: One White Guy’s Perspective

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 8, 2011

Like many within the skeptical community, I have been reading with interest the recent discussion which has been waged (or, should I say, raged?) on the topic of diversity within the skeptical movement.  Apparently, it all goes back to this article – Why White Men Should Refuse to be on Panels of All White Men – which led to this blog post over at Skepchick.  It also seems that there is a bit of a “storm” of controversy swirling as a result of the discussion generated by these articles.  I think Amy Roth, the author of the aforementioned Skepchick article, articulated it well with the following commentary:

What do you think? Are women and minorities just being ridiculous? Are the majority of public panel seats going to white men because they are the authorities on the topics and have the most interesting and valuable things to say? Should the members of minorities politely and quietly wait in the shadows until someone asks us to be on a panel? Should white men in positions of power speak up and refuse to sit in these circumstances? Is this favoritism, racism or ignorance?

So, since I suffer from the delusion that people care what I think, I shall share my thoughts on the matter here.  To begin with, here are a few reasons why I think some might give a rat’s ass what I think about this issue:

1. I am a skeptic, some would say a slightly prominent one (I remain skeptical of this, but whatever).  As such I sometimes appear on discussion panels at skeptical events.

2. I am white (actually, there’s a surprise here – read on), and I am male.

3. I am on the board of the Women Thinking Free Foundation, a skeptical organization dedicated to skepticism in regards to women’s issues.

4. I am a high school and college teacher, and as such I am in a profession which includes (compared to many other professions) a relatively high percentage of women and ethnic minorities.

I think the question of diversity within the skeptical movement is one we, collectively, should be addressing right now (however messily and/or noisily), especially given the demographics of the wider population and related generational issues.  That is, a generation ago when the modern skeptical movement was in its infancy, it was no surprise that the leaders were white men.  At that time in pretty much any walk of life (on the professional level), most leaders tended to be white men – I’m not saying this was right or wrong, I’m simply stating it as a fact.  As time went on, more and more women and ethnic minorities rightly concluded that they could do the work and contribute to society in a positive manner just as much as the standard white male.  Since that time, society has evolved (in a positive way, in my view) on these issues.

Now there are those who think that perhaps the skeptical movement is a bit behind the times in this sense, while there are those who think there is no issue to discuss.  Personally, I find myself agreeing with certain aspects of both these views (the notion that one must be “on one side of the issue or the other” is a false dichotomy, I believe, as such complex issues are not black-and-white).  Allow me to clarify…

I do think that those of us who are beginning to take more of a visible leadership role should be encouraging diversity within the skeptical movement.  I say this for multiple reasons, some which are idealistic and others which are simply pragmatic.  I agree with the idealistic egalitarian notion that all people – without regard to gender, race, etc – should have a fair chance to rise through the ranks and present their viewpoints, because someone from a different ethnic background or with different gender experiences than me will be able to approach various skeptical topics from an angle that I, as a white male, simply cannot do.  Please note that I am not endorsing a woo-filled post-modernist notion that “all views are equally valid”; that’s not what we’re talking about here, folks.  We are all still bound by the idea that there must be some kind of objective reality out there that we can interact with and understand using the tools of critical thinking, science, and skepticism.

What I mean is that I must, as a reasonable skeptic, to be willing to consider that I have an inherently limited perspective on certain topics that is the result of my cultural upbringing.  Thus, on topics related to issues of sexuality, gender, culture, and so on I would do well to interact with those who have a broader and different cultural perspective.  In fact, of the times I have participated in various skeptical panel discussions over the years, I have found the most diverse ones to be the most fruitful.

There’s also a practical side to the issue as well: if we wish to spread the skeptical message effectively, then we need to be able to reach out beyond that stereotypical audience from one generation ago – the white male.  As society has become more diverse, so must the skeptical movement become more diverse in order to keep up and avoid being viewed as an anachronism.  For this reason, because I believe in the broad message of the movement, we must encourage more diversity in terms of attendees to conferences and – yes – for participants in speeches, panels, and workshops.

However, in our desire to become more diverse, I must add a note of caution: this has to do with the surprise that I mentioned about my ethnicity above.  We must be very, very careful about making assumptions and snap judgments regarding the background of, say, potential panelists because we skeptics all fall victim to the same biases as everyone else.  Specifically, I am referring to the question of the ethnicity (or, shall I say, the apparent ethnicity?) of a person.  Case in point: I have identified myself as a “white” guy all throughout this article, and – truth be told – I typically self-identify as white/Caucasian when I fill out paperwork and whatnot.  After all, don’t I look white?…

Well, here’s the surprise: I’m about 1/16 Native American, specifically Choctaw Indian.  But I’m betting that you never would have guessed that about me if I had never told you, right?  I certainly don’t look like what many of us might assume a Native American might look like, and there’s the rub.  We skeptics are humans first, and as such we have all the failings of our fellow humans – including the tendency to make unfounded judgments about people based upon their appearance.  Food for thought, folks.

In closing, I would like to share one more observation on this matter: the fact that the skeptical community appears to be having a lively discussion of this topic is a very good thing.  That is because it speaks to the fact that we are a growing demographic, and as a growing demographic we are pushing beyond the once comfortable boundaries into uncharted territory.  That makes some people a little apprehensive, but personally I welcome this development because as skeptics we should be willing to push the edge, especially when it makes some (and even us) a tad edgy.

8 Responses to “Diversity in Skepticism: One White Guy’s Perspective”

  1. girl_noir said

    I don’t think your “surprise” at the end of the post makes the point that you wanted it to. You do not look Native American, and so you still benefit from white male privilege. You don’t have the experiences of being perceived as Native American, and the assumptions that society makes about you because of that perception, to draw on. Like it or not, physical appearance – ethnicity and gender included – prompt certain unconscious assumptions in everyone, and so there will be common threads in the life experiences of women and people of color that white males will not be able to duplicate, purely based on the fact that they are women or POC (and perceived as such, therefore treated differently). If your point is that, although you may not look it, you have the cultural background and viewpoints of a Native American to bring to the table, then that’s great and that’s definitely something you should share. But I’m not sure that’s what you meant – it honestly sounds like you are trying to claim that you are a SURPRISE MINORITY! who, though you look privileged, have unexpected experience with the wrong end of bias that you can now bring to the table. It comes off like… well, kind of like this:

    • Travis Roy said

      I can’t speak for Matt, but I can think of where he might be going with this. In my opinion what he’s saying is that looks are not everything, regardless of what you look like, your background could be very different than the stereotype. A kid I went to school with was black, but he was adopted as a baby by a white, well off family. He grew up in a fantastic household and was one of a handful of black people in town, and was the only black kid in my school K-12. In fact, thinking about it now, the only black people I ever knew in my town while growing up were all adopted.

      So if you’re looking at people to talk at a panel, and want to bring diversity of experience, he’s probably not the best person to ask, because we had similar upbringings and background. I’m sure things were not as easy as they were for me, and I’m sure he’s gotten his share of racism, especially since moving out of his home town. Getting somebody with more struggles, and dealing with issues that mostly show up in minority -community-, you’d have to look someplace else.

      • girl_noir said

        That’s a valid point to be made, for sure – but it’s tempered by the fact that, regardless of being raised in a mostly-white community by a white family, your schoolmate was still perceived as black, and treated by society as a black person. So he’s going to have a different set of experiences both from the larger black community, but also from his white schoolmates, whether we like it or not. Diversity absolutely needs to be about more than any one feature – socioeconomic background, skin color, gender, whatever – but it’s not quite correct to imply that skin color is totally irrelevant. On a somewhat different subject, I think also that part of the importance of *visible* diversity on a panel is to break down unconscious stereotypes about what a scientist/skeptic/computer programmer/nurse/etc “looks like,” so that cultural assumptions don’t unnecessarily impede future scientists/skeptics/computer programmers/nurses/etc. Then we end up with a more representative cross-section of the general population in the various fields, which I think is the goal.

  2. Phil Plait said

    Nicely said, Matt! I agree with your logic, especially your pragmatic and idealistic reasons. I might even say that beyond 1) getting outside perspectives that might be important to our understanding of a topic, and 2) spreading the message effectively, I think that the very future of the movement itself may depend on our being diverse. It’s the logical outcome of those two separate reasons above combined.

  3. Murasaki Shikibu said

    I have enjoyed reading your blog whatever the case is. It’s your views that matter. You could be a green hermaphrodite and it wouldn’t make a difference to me.

  4. […] single panel I participated in, I was the only man.  I have no problem with that, because – as I stated in an earlier post about diversity in skepticism –  it allowed me to get a sense of what it is like to be in the minority and to see the various […]

  5. […] Diversity in Skepticism: One White Guy’s Perspective […]

  6. […] single panel I participated in, I was the only man.  I have no problem with that, because – as I stated in an earlier post about diversity in skepticism –  it allowed me to get a sense of what it is like to be in the minority and to see the various […]

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