A friend recently wrote to me about encountering her first instance of racism directed against her, because she isn’t Jewish.

I started to reply with: “I’m surprised you’d find such prejudice alive and well in a Blue State, in the 21st century,” but stopped myself. How could I write those words? They’re a trite response that only someone who has never experienced discrimination, never been made to feel different and excluded, could write.

The truth is that prejudice is alive and well in the U.S. Until I worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center, I never realized how pervasive stereotypes really are, and how double-edged they can be. If a black person is passed over for a promotion, was it because they weren’t the best, or because they’re black? If that same person had been promoted, the question would still have come up: were they promoted just because they’re black? That’s a weight I would go crazy trying to bear; it’s hard enough trying to succeed in any field without having to wonder if your success is real, or being suppressed, or not.

I always thought discrimination would be something I’d experience from the outside, until I started telling people I was an atheist. I’ve had several people try to convince me I was not an atheist, because I’m too nice to not believe in God! One woman I told didn’t even know what an atheist was.

Now, I’ve not been spit on, or cursed, or denied a job because of my non-religion. But I have felt completely out of place, especially when people assume I’m a devout Christian just because I’m a white male. I feel a little like an unwilling spy, moving among people that would probably not even look at me if they knew my religious beliefs. I can still catch a taxi, but every time I do I wonder about those that can’t, just because their difference is easier to see.

Despite my “liberal” education, my own prejudices run parallel and opposite to the bias I encounter. Fundamentalists make me distinctly uncomfortable, and it’s normally hard for me to have a serious conversation with them without getting angry. If I ran a business, I wouldn’t really want them as customers. If I were choosing babysitters, I’d cross the devout off my list. The fact that the President of the United States thinks God talks to him scares the ever-lovin’ sh*t out of me. It’s something I struggle with: to acknowledge their right to believe as they wish while I fight against every consequence of their beliefs.

What are your prejudices? When you call technical support, do you feel better if a man answers your call? If you’re white and enter a mall where most of the customers are black, do you stay as long to shop? If you’re an atheist, would you vote for a fundamentalist Christian?

6 thoughts on “Discrimination

  1. This could be a monstrously large response. That said, a few off the top of my head, directly addressing your queries:

    *Technical support: I feel better if a woman answers the call, oddly, to the point of being disappointed if it’s a male voice. I think it’s a subconscious “which gender has a higher perceived level of friendliness” bias, as opposed to a “which gender has greater perceived technical proficiency” thing.

    *Mall patrons: If I went into a mall where all the patrons are of, say, African or Hispanic descent, I notice immediately, but it doesn’t bother me. I do get uneasy if there are groups of teen youths, no matter what ethnicity, hanging about, regardless of what they are (or are not) doing. Maybe a residual high school geek thing. 🙂

    *Voting and religion: While my current beliefs are somewhat hard to categorize right now, I am not an atheist. That said, even at the most fervent Roman Catholic period of my life, I’ve had a bias towards voting for atheists and away from anyone with a strongly professed religious belief, fundamentalist Christian or no. No matter who they are or what they’re voting record is, I haven’t been able to convince my subconscious that such candidates will respect the “church-state” separation, and keep a religious agenda out of their politics.


  2. Ronnie!
    Thought I would catch up with your blog, and I found this most interesting posting.
    Your rumination on being an athiest in predominantly Christian America is interesting, especially knowing that you grew up going to Baptist Churches. I still consider myself a Christian, and try my best to be tolerant of other’s viewpoints, especially in the more diverse area of Austin, TX. I regularly come across people who believe differently, both politically and religiously. Indeed, some of the more invigorating debates I have had have come through dialogue with people that do not believe in a Supreme Being.
    Have you read “God is not Great” By Christopher Hitchens? A phenomenal book – Hitchens remains one of my favorite writers, and an entertainingly in-your-face militant athiest. Great read, if you have not come across it.


  3. I honestly feel bad that I came across this. I do free-association chains of clicking, and somehow ended up here. So please, I hope you don’t feel invaded.

    I did think this post was interesting, and I have to say that you didn’t seem angry when we talked about religion at Abeulo’s. I am far from an atheist, and since I am married to Dustin, who defies religious categorization, I often feel apologetic for my religious bent. I don’t want to evangelize him or make him feel uncomfortable, etc. It’s an odd line to have to walk. Religion is a deep part of my identity, and not one I was comfortable looking at for a long time.

    I do think you are living in a place that does seem to have a lot of Jesus talk flying around, and also the Giant Jesus (or the BFJ, as he is sometimes popularly known). I can imagine that could be a little oppressive.

    Thank you for the books, by the way. I just finished Tales of a Dying Earth, and really enjoyed it. I haven’t read any really good fiction in a long time, and I think I liked everything you sent home with me.

    We need to have you and Laura over sometime; maybe you could bring the Farm game. 🙂

    Have a lovely Monday!


  4. Cmar: You can vote for atheists? Where do you find them running for office?

    Jarred: Welcome! I haven’t read Hitchens’ book; he’s always struck me as someone with too many opinions and too few facts to back them up. Do you mind if I ask what struck you as good about the book? It’s supposed to be a militant attack on religion, after all.

    Myrrh: No need to feel invasive; web traffic from friends is always welcome 🙂 I’m curious: how do you deal with being married to an anti-religious guy? Have y’all discussed whether your children will be raised as Christians? Glad to hear you’ve enjoyed the books; let me know when you’re ready for your next “shipment.”


  5. Hah! Point taken. Hmmm…

    There is one! Pete Stark, a Democrat from California, who’s in the House.

    So, the answer to your question is, apparently, “a piece of the country that may be devastated by earthquakes shortly and fall into the sea.” Not very optimistic, I suppose. 🙂


  6. Hmm. That is a really interesting question, and one we used to discuss a lot. For whatever reason (you would have to ask him), he is okay with our kids going to church and Sunday school (although we don’t go regularly). I believe he feels that some positive things do come from the belief system. We have to balance any religious education with a healthy dose of respect for (not mere toleration of) all belief systems and people. Like when I had to explain Goddess religions to Rhane, because his teacher at school was talking to them about Mother Earth. It’s a challenge to overcome my childhood teaching and explain things like that in a neutral way, but I definitely try.

    Dustin’s concern is that the kids not be forced to be religious, but he has talked about the importance of them being exposed to both of our beliefs. I believe that he looks at Christianity and Jesus as sort of like Santa – it’s a nice thing for the kids to believe in. He also thinks that the way I think is different from most established Christian church’s doctrine, I think.

    The only thing we have trouble with is occasional joking around about religion. His humor is occasionally cutting, and occasionally I have to say, “Hey! I know you’re not into it, but this whole Christianity thing is really important to me – could you respect it at least sometimes?” I did really love the “9 Most Bad-ass Bible Verses.”

    It also helps that while Dustin and I don’t share religious beliefs, we have a lot of the same ideas about how we want the kids raised morally. It’s important to us that they be truthful, that they don’t solve problems with violence, that they know that education is important, that they behave well in public, etc. We don’t let them watch scary stuff, not because it’s against my religion, but because it gives them nightmares and introduces them to things that little people aren’t ready for.

    It’s hard also to balance education about Christianity with the need to guard against brainwashing…some religious programs are just thinly disguised opportunities to bash pretty much everyone else in the world who might be a tiny bit different. I hate that. I have this vision of Christianity as a religion, rather than a club of oppression. Most Christians twist and skew the original teachings (what I consider the original teachings) of Christianity into a tool for spreading hatred and prejudice, and that really bothers me.

    You should definitely ask him about this. I know what it’s like from my perspective to be married to him…I don’t know how easy it is from the other side.


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