Ask Mandisa 32 – Tact

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Mandisa Thomas is the Founder of Black Nonbelievers, Inc (Twitter & Facebook). One of the largest, if the not the largest, organization for African-American or black nonbelievers & atheists in the United States.

The organization is intended to give secular fellowship, provide nurturance and support for nonbelievers, encourage a sense of pride in irreligion, and promote charity in the non-religious community.

I reached out to begin an educational series with one of the, and again if not the, most prominent African-American woman nonbeliever grassroots activists in the United States.

Here, we talk about tact.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s talk about some issues about sensitivity to community members, to sectors or demographics of the community and the ways in which secular communities can be mindful of things when having guests on shows, when writing articles and if one wants to speak about particularly sensitive issues, picking your spots and picking your publications and outlets appropriately.

Mandisa Thomas: As we know, the atheist/secular community is still represented predominantly by CIS white folks. That’s men and women alike. There are now a number of people of colour, women, young people, and also more transgender folks that are involved in the community. As our numbers grow, the issues that we face will be brought more to the forefront. There is genuine curiosity about our perspectives. As the focus on human rights become more prevalent, then our voices are being heard.

This does come as not just a shock, but there is some resistance by some folks, primarily white men, who think that the issues are over exaggerated. They are very ignorant towards issues pertaining to marginalized groups, without even bothering to do the research. 

They think they’re speaking on behalf of these communities, and they often speak out of turn and get it wrong. They often speak from a perspective that is very ignorant, and it is very inconsiderate and outright harmful to us. This behaviour needs to be addressed.

Jacobsen: When speaking of harm, when speaking of marginalized groups, what does one mean by marginalized groups? What does one mean in terms of the harms from these particular topics and the way in which they’re spoken of, or about?

Thomas: When we’re talking about marginalized groups, we’re speaking of communities who have, historically, been discriminated against. It could be institutional and systemic, like with the black community. Also, the LGBTQ community, which has often had violence inflicted upon individuals, and negative stigma placed on the entire community.

There are actually actions that impeded people’s right to actually live. This was very prevalent when we have seen, historically, with the civil rights movement, with women, in particular, when we were fighting for our right to vote.

This is what I mean when speaking of “marginalized communities”, those who according to society’s standards are put in a very, very degrading position. The atheist/secular community is a marginalized community as well. People still have to deal with the negative stigma surrounding atheism.

Therefore, it’s important that we recognize those individuals are us who have been further marginalized, and who have been affected by said marginalization. The understanding and the compassion and the support should be there, especially since we already experience it on one end.

Jacobsen: What does this then say about community tact?

Thomas: Tact is the ability to address an issue and do so in a way where people can walk away with better understanding, even if there isn’t agreement. This usually means that people should address important subjects with objectivity and accuracy to help others understand why their previous positions may be incorrect. This also entails what they should be doing in order to learn, and walk away not necessarily being best friends forever, but working more in partnership with each other and that we are truly really trying to understand and work on the problems that we go through.

Tact doesn’t mean that things will be pretty. There may be some things pointed that are hard to handle. It also doesn’t mean that you’re being apologetic, but it also doesn’t mean you have to be mean either. I often try to so this when I speak, especially if I am front of a predominantly white audience. I can talk about collective issues without personally insulting anyone.

Unfortunately, in our community, we pride ourselves on our intellectual capabilities, yet there’s often a lack of empathy. There’s also a lack of understanding, which is disguised as tact when presenting information. Tact doesn’t mean you should lack empathy. In fact, if you are a tactful person, you apply empathy. You can understand people. Certainly, that is something that we still need to work on, especially in engaging other further marginalized groups.

Jacobsen: With this information, what can media do now?

Thomas: If there is an organization or other outlet that features a speaker who has a history of perhaps provoking people who are marginalized, the first thing that should be done is take the information seriously, and get to the bottom of it. Verify that the information that they are dispensing is indeed harmful, and then call the individual on it, and/or remove their opportunities from said platforms.

Getting back to tact for a moment. Just because you like someone, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be wrong. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t address the issue at hand. If we’re going to be a community that is improving on our efforts and our actions, then that means addressing and correcting people on their stuff.

It doesn’t mean that there has to be outright separation but if someone has been harmful, it helps to show that those members of marginalized communities are being heard, that you care about what they think and also, you care about their support. Feature folks who live those experiences and who can provide more direct information.

It’s definitely best to keep the “majority boys”, i.e. white men, when it comes to these subject matters, on the back burner. There’s nothing wrong with them taking a back seat to subjects that do not apply to them. Also, they can’t be one-time conversations or one-time efforts. It’s important to have us represented frequently. 

Hopefully, it can turn into teachable moments. However, if the people in question are obstinate, then you may want to reconsider association with them. Again, this doesn’t mean outright dismissal, but if you have someone in your network that is causing tension or can cause potential damage to your organization and to the people who support you, then it’s worth considering.

Jacobsen:  Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mandisa.

Thomas: Thank you very much.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Image Credit: Mandisa Thomas.

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