Ask Mandisa 67: Symbols and Systems

by | August 18, 2021

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Mandisa Thomas, a native of New York City, is the founder and President of Black Nonbelievers, Inc. Although never formally indoctrinated into belief, Mandisa was heavily exposed to Christianity, Black Nationalism, and Islam. As a child she loved reading, and enjoyed various tales of Gods from different cultures, including Greek and Ghanaian. “Through reading these stories and being taught about other cultures at an early age, I quickly noticed that there were similarities and differences between those deities and the God of the Christian Bible. I couldn’t help but wonder what made this God so special that he warrants such prevalence today,” she recalls.

Here we talk about symbols, systems, and controversy in 2020.

*This was conducted July 6, 2020.*

Scott Jacobsen: So, you came across a quote. So, I will give a colloquial backing of that. I will let you do the proper quoting of it. So, I mean, the issue in America is landmarks are being defaced, taken down. But there are different issues, more substantive, fundamental issues rather than symbolic to be addressed. So, what was the quote? What’s the context? And why is that distinction between the symbolism as opposed to the socioeconomics infrastructure important?

Mandisa Thomas: Yes, I’m looking at it on Twitter now. It says, “We are moving racist symbols, but we aren’t asking to remove a racist system. We are not having the conversation right now.” This is significant because there are now a number of companies that are signing on to the Black Lives Matter campaign. They’re looking to make changes that shows that they care about the black community, and show that they are listening to the demands that are being made – all across the country, and around the world. We are witnessing symbols and monuments to racism being removed; for example, the University of Pennsylvania has taken steps to remove the statue of George Whitfield, an evangelical, pro slavery minister. So, there is now a lot of reconsideration about these symbols, especially in the United States, that are reflective of oppression the black community.

Now, while this is a start, it also doesn’t address the fact that the racist institutions that those people are responsible for are still in place. There is still a severe imbalance of power in place against the black community, and it is going to take time to rectify that. It seems like removing symbols is a quick fix; putting a band-aid on a problem that has been long-standing and the solution has not provided in full.

Jacobsen: Now, if we dig a bit deeper, especially within the American context, where Black Lives Matter was started by three black women and where the majority of the protests are ongoing. There are issues of people simply taking a symbolic approach. On the one hand, you have people who are socio-politically left. They’re tearing down or questioning tearing down or defacing statues of Teddy Roosevelt or something like this, then that gives an excuse to not always, but typically, more regressive forces on the sociopolitical right who then will say, “Okay, if you can do that to someone we revere, we will do that to someone you revere.” Then there’s a tearing down of, recently, a statue of the abolitionist and women’s rights activist, former slave, the late Frederick Douglass. So, if we’re digging deeper into this issue, taking a bigger bite out of it, what’s the importance of making sure everyone is clear that we’re focusing on these less visible, non-landmark structural issues?

Thomas: Of course, whenever there’s an action, there’s a reaction. Many people, mostly Americans who are not as well informed about the history, will take offense and look to retaliate. So they start thinking, “Well, maybe WE can take down black statues!” So, the fear kicks in, and unfortunately we’re still dealing with people who are reactive when it comes to history and heritage. And the example of Frederick Douglass, who was an abolitionist as you said, is hardly the in the same category, because worked with a number of anti-slavery organizations.So, monuments to Douglass don’t deserve to be torn down, because he was not responsible for any oppressive regimes. But what I think those people are really scared of is the fact that they need to be honest with themselves about the issues at hand, which are correcting racist policies, and socio-economic conditions. There were a lot of black folks, who lost their lives and livelihoods at the hands of the American system. So, on the surface, while people are looking at things like the current administration, we see those particular statements made on Twitter, and we take those into account. Whether we laugh or get outraged, it is important that we are not completely distracted by said administration. These things can be worked on simultaneously. Digging deeper at the roots and attacking them will be a lot for work, but it is necessary.

Jacobsen: Mandisa for our millionth conversation, thank you so, so much.

Thomas: Thank you.

*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*

Canadian Atheist 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 AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican AtheistsAmerican Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

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Image Credit: Mandisa Thomas.

Category: Education Tags: , , ,

About Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere. You can contact Scott via email, his website, or Twitter.

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