Right now there are more than 407 comments on a post that I put up on the so-called Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) “fan” page on Monday, January 21st, the day that President Barack Obama was inaugurated into his second term. Perhaps you have heard about the FFRF; they are the folks who don’t mind filing lawsuits against local governments who violate the First Amendment, which guarantees the right of freedom of speech to the American people. My original post on this page, which is a public page, went as follows:
I wholeheartedly support Michelle Obama’s choice to be there daily for her children. Many black women have not had the luxury of this choice. They have had to work, sometimes two jobs, to survive and to provide for their children and partners The unapologetic commitment to her children, to ensure their safe arrival to young adulthood, is one of the best policy statements that a black woman can ever make!
The first person to respond to this post made the following assertion:
May I suggest that “black” has nothing to do with it? In other words, it is a good policy regardless of skin color of the mother in question.
Of course, this comment was written by a man, a white man. How do I know that? Well, often white men have a way of writing or communicating that is dismissive of what women have to say, especially when the woman is black. The ones who do this tend to arrange their thoughts and communicate those thoughts from a place of authority and privilege, and great license is taken to confront or criticize a cultural and gender other who they feel must be corrected, advised or informed that s/he is incorrect. And, often this is done by any means necessary. Here was my response to his question:
I see your point, but black has everything to do with it (esp since the black family is often under attack). It is important that Michelle be recognized as a black woman; [because] we do not live in a colorblind society.
This was a rather cordial response for me. By first saying “I see your point,” I was indicating that I did not intend to argue with him. But, as I continued my explanation, I did attempt to defend my overall statement with some degree of firmness along with an appeal to history. Attacks on the black family and on black women in particular have long been a subject of public inquiry and thus public policy. Classic in this regard, is the infamous 1965 “study” on the Negro family by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in which he “concluded” that the black family was dysfunctional and matriarchal in structure and orientation. I suppose that my response was not satisfactory to my objector because here is what he said:
That sounds pretty offensive to me. If I said the same of a white woman, I would be labeled a racist?
Racist? Well, needless to say, that term – offered by a white man – SET IT OFF! It’s five days later and the comments are still coming. People are still adding their thoughts to the thread. After this first objection, several other men, I am assuming they were all white, chimed in by telling me that I was “not examining the facts” and that I was “off-topic”. Point blank, one said,
The comment is off topic. “Maybe it would be something that would be better shared on your own timeline.
My immediate response to that comment was this:
So this [is] interesting, and here are the facts as I see them: a black woman posts a comment on the FFRF page, and [because] it is about black women, it is seen as off-topic. Interesting.
The response to that was this:
Obviously troll. Guys, ignore this one.
To which I replied,
Not long after that exchange was outta the bag, a white woman chimed in and said:
…I just want to throw it out there that not all women have the luxury of staying home. Regardless of colour, some of us need to work in order to give our children a place to live and food to eat, and that does not make us bad mothers.
Well, duh (I thought to myself), no one said anything about being a bad mother. My comment was strictly about Michelle Obama and her choice to be a stay at home mom, which was not remotely intended to pit women who stay at home with their children against those who don’t. I was like, who are they are talking to, because it surely is not me. Further, there seemed to be something else at work: my objectors seemed to be having imaginary conversations with the voices in their heads. And that was so ironic to me. Why? Have you ever been to an atheist online site? Most are replete with memes and comments against religionists and believers. I’d say at least 95% of the postings submitted by atheists characterize believers as “crazy” and neurotic for allegedly believing in things that are not real, i.e., God. On the one hand, don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that “God” is real. I too am an atheist. On the other hand, I am saying that atheists, agnostics and freethinkers should not be hypocrites by making up things that live people did not say. A good majority of the accusations made against me were completely false. Further, they were defensive and irrational from the get, as the first objector articulated that he was “offended” when I said that “black” had everything to do with my post. The word “black” did have everything to do with it. Nothing was offensive about my original post, in fact in addition to the FFRF group, I posted it on my own timeline and in three other FB groups that I am associated with, and no one else has challenged it. The only ones who rejected it in any way, shape or form were those who were part of the FFRF group; each of whom I assume was white. A coincidence? I don’t think so.
Regardless of their outrageous protests, I insisted that the freedom from religion, and thus the freedom to speak freely, are fundamentally tied together. Meaning what? You can’t have one without the other. The First Amendment, the freedom of speech (expression) is the underlying principle of nearly every lawsuit filed by the FFRF, and, the FFRF purports that the freedom of speech extends to those who don’t believe as well as to those who do. Any attempt to limit the speech of someone is UNCONSTITUTIONAL as written in the First Amendment. As the comments came in, I was quite shocked as the “GUYS” attempted to put me in my place and tell me what I could not say on the FFRF page. I was utterly amazed that they could not seem to understand that they were demonstrating that they wanted to limit my freedom of speech on this group’s page. Un-freaking-believable! Especially for a group of people that fights so hard for public institutions to adhere to the First Amendment. Finally they stopped their shenanigans when another man, I assume a white male with some FFRF authority or visibility weighed in and wrote the following:
I wish to point out that there are no written “rules” of the group regarding topics of discussion [of course, after I asked these men to produce the rules]. There exists an intrinsic commonality of one specific belief here which only concerns “the wall of separation.” Annalise Fonza has every right to speak on any topic. I would have thought more would understand this as most seem quite aware of the common tie of 1st Amendment concerns.
What was the response to this clarification written by Mark Bender? Well, I was the only one who liked that comment, and no one else seemed to accept what this man had to say. There was only resistance. For example, one woman said:
Why segregate though? I see us all as women, and if we have kids, we are all mothers. Some are lucky enough to stay home and some are not.
And, one of the most hateful of commentators added in:
So we are free to post unrelated cat pictures, discussion on fashion, or whatever? It was my understanding that the reasoning behind the groups nomenclature was to group people together for the purpose of discussing things on a topic. There are groups for people who want to racebait all over the place. See also: Youtube, Stormfront.
To that, I could not believe my eyes. What in the world did this person mean by that question? “So we are free….?” This question was the antithesis of the First Amendment philosophy: the freedom of speech. It was also the antithesis of the mission of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is an organization that I was just beginning to get to know. Geez. This objector was so unaware or unconscious of his allegations that he called me a “racebaitor.” To which, the man on the other end said:
I don’t see this as “race baiting.” To me, that would be like citing “jihad baiting” over someone talking about unique hurdles atheists face in society.”
Nevertheless, my objector protested:
You honestly don’t see her exerting an effort to call attention to her ethnicity for the purpose of inciting an argument? Are we reading the same thing, here?
To which the reply was:
I absolutely without question, do NOT.
And that ended it, for a moment.
A little later there were many other comments, threats, and collective name-calling. Within a matter of a few minutes I was ignorant, not worthy of the PhD, and I had a reading comprehension problem according to two white men who later blocked me (when I shoulda been the one blocking them). It progressed into one of the most insulting online environments that I have ever encountered. When it got really bad, one FFRF admin posted; I assume he was trying to reassure me that I was welcome on the page, but, by then, the damage had been done and I replied “…it’s not very welcoming today.” But, that gesture was meaningless. In spite of the fact that they were informed that I had every right to post on the page as I saw fit, I was repeatedly insulted, demonized, accused of incited something, or “race baiting,” and flat out told to take my post elsewhere. Even as I tried to explain the political backdrop of my comment, and that it had everything to do with the freedom of speech, Michelle’s freedom of speech and my freedom of speech, I was told, in terms that I really do not want to repeat here, that such freedom was not allowed on this page. Un-freaking-believable! As many chimed in to support, many chimed in to tear me down and to tear anybody else down who affirmed the original post [and please note that certain comments - the worst ones - were deleted after I sent a private message to the admins].
Where does this come from? This need to control, to tell women what they can say and what they can do. What would make a white man say that I was offending him or calling him racist when I had simply said something positive about black women and Michelle Obama? Who were they to talk to me as if they knew me personally? Who did they think they were to limit my speech, my expression? The people who came against me are online members of this group just like I am, but as soon as I posted something that they did not want to hear, they exalted themselves to some make believe position. Can you believe that an atheist did that? Atheists don’t believe in an invisible higher authority, or so they say. Nevertheless, several men assumed the authority to name me. Here are a couple of the additional names that others called me: troll and ignorant. When I asked one man if he knew what “playing the dozens” meant [which I was implying that he was doing], here was his response:
Yes, I know what that means. Do you know what “bringing a knife to a gunfight” means? Someone who is ignorant of things like metaphor and imagery use [he was referring to me] has no business challenging someone who does to a contest of insults. It would be a slaughter, and I’m not trying to humiliate you.
What entitlement they must have felt to say this stuff freely and define me openly with such awful terms. What positions of authority they must have assumed to tell me that I was off-topic even though there are no rules about “topics.” Why is it that when black women speak their minds about their truths, in particular when they do it without putting down or mentioning any others, some white men and white women must tear it apart?
The irony of this situation on the FFRF fan page is that this is exactly what has happened to Michelle Obama when it comes to the matter of work and her choices about work. I read a Washington Post article which headlined that feminists were split over her choice to be the “Mom-in-Chief.” What gives a feminist the privilege to say what Michelle should be doing? Why isn’t being a mom seen as an honorable position and even a position/statement on women’s rights? How is it these so-called feminists could not understand that a woman’s place is where she says it is, period? Why do they need to determine for her that as First Lady of the United States she does not deserve to be at home with her children and make that her first priority? How paternalistic they are for in doing so they exhibit an arrogance and sense of entitlement to say what is right or wrong for Michelle Obama. They are assuming the power to speak for her when she is quite capable of speaking for herself. Who gave them the authority over her decision-making? In other words, by “whose authority” are they saying these things about Michelle Obama? Why can’t it be that her place is where she says it is? Why must Michelle work as they want her to work?
Perhaps, I will submit to you, they don’t really believe that a black woman deserves to be a stay at home mom, especially if she is educated. Perhaps they believe it is her “duty” to work (a price she pays for being educated), and that not working is not an option for Mrs. Obama. These self-proclaimed overseers act as if being a mother to her children is not work. Michelle Obama has earned her accomplishments, and her husband and her children are a part of what she had earned. Implicit in their claims is the idea that a black woman does not deserve to be a stay at home mom unless she receives governmental assistance, and even then, by and large, she might be characterized as unworthy of that assistance. Deep down this sends a message that the black woman is to be relegated to work for others and not for herself. Is there any wonder why a black woman who dares to be an entrepreneur (to be predominantly in control of her own labor) will face the greatest of obstacles by those who would say that such an expression is not appropriate for her, that it is not the right kind of work for a black woman? Yes, there are bits of paternalism and racism in these assertions. By paternalism, I am talking parental – or placing oneself in a position of authority (parent) over a subordinate (child). By racism I am not talking about simple name-calling or prejudice (that is not racism, as one of my objectors misfigured). I am talking about the privileging of one racial or gender group over another and whereby the institutionalization of that privilege has become a part of our laws and our practices as Americans; racism is a systemic reality (in other words, it is not a relic of the past). A good majority of us – black women – could say that our great-grandmothers and grandmothers cooked and cleaned for someone else. For example, my grandmother was employed as a cook for others. That was her job and she did not have the luxury of staying at home with her children all day every day. Now that that tide has changed, now that some black women and black men are making enough money so that they can be intimately active with their children on a day-to-day basis to share their up and downs and give them their undivided attention, now feminists, of all people, have the audacity to say that a woman’s place is at work? Un-freaking-believable!
Well, the online arguing continued on the FFRF site, and the attacks grew even stronger and more hateful. At first it was the men who launched their attack directly at me, but then, after that seemed to fail, it was the women, the white women who did the work of the men when it seemed that the men were not doing the work. At first, these white women launched their charges directly. One said:
It think you came across a bit bossy, Annalise. I also think that it was unnecessary to add the black bit. This is the last thing [when actually it was the first] that I choose to say.
When these comments by the white women did not work (because I skillfully dismantled their faulty reasoning and logic), they focused their attention toward me indirectly, in a passive-aggressive sort of way, and attacking a very outspoken white feminist who goes by the name of Honey Hill. For four days it continued, and there were moments when it was awful, just awful. But, it was a topic that I was committed to defending; no, it was a topic that we, several of us, were committed to defending. In addition to Honey Hill and I, there were other white women (like Julie Grunewald Williams and Carol Hamm) a couple of men (like Chris Doole and Kevin Cynic) who affirmed the original post and its meaning by openly taking on the other white women and men who did not agree with my statement or the with statements made by Honey Hill. There were also other black atheists and freethinkers who were a part it, like Black Freethinkers of Chicago (Kimberly Veal), Raina Rhoades, who is a black neuro-scientist, and Frederick Sparks who is a blogger and an integral part of Black Skeptics Los Angeles. As things tapered off, there were just a few white women left who were still bent on telling me what I shoulda, woulda, coulda said. Of course they claimed to be feminists, though in reality they were complicity supporting the dominating and controlling actions of the men who had felt offended from the beginning and to the ones who had accused me of racebaiting. Finally, as the debate was shutting down, there was one white woman whom I had not engaged at all, but who seemed to want to get it in, who posted the following comment:
Who else thinks Michelle Obama should put her law degree to good use?
And, immediately, her next post was:
ducks, races for the exit
At that moment I thought to myself (with a chuckle), now exactly who is racebaiting at this moment?? And that is when I saw it: by implying that Michelle was squandering or wasting her law degree, I saw that there were those who believed, like this woman, that Michelle was not being responsible with her law degree; that she was not being a good “worker,” as if she owed her law degree to anybody but herself. What arrogance and entitlement there was in such a question. In that instance, I wished she could stand back and see herself and her statements from another point in history; from the point where black women were not allowed to stay home and take care of their children. From the point that black women had to go and take care of someone else’s children, even if it meant that they had to be a wet nurse for a white woman who determined that she did not want to use her breasts to feed her children. Yes, that is when I realized it; that these white women and white men who challenged me were so unaware of their deep-seated distrust and disdain of black women, bossy black women like me, that they would stoop to any level to knock her down. I believe that they don’t know the first thing about the First Amendment or the freedom from religion or the patriarchal dogma and authority that is attached to it. Based on how they treated me, I believe that if given the opportunity they would look Michelle Obama in the face and tell her to get up and go to work as they determined the work that she needs to be doing. And, at that moment it also dawned on me that maybe deep down they believe that Michelle is supposed to be their mammy; that she is supposed to forsake her loved ones, her husband and her children, to care and place the priorities of a nation that does not really love her before her own. Based on their behavior, this is a possibility.
Thankfully, in spite of these very unconscious, hateful folks, quasi-non religious folk, people have changed and things have changed for the better for women, men and children, and yes, for black women in particular (and it is okay to say that; it is not racist). Indeed, in the words of the famous jazz standard, “things ain’t like they used to be.” Today, in 2013, thanks to the many women and men who have made ending domination and oppression their life’s work, today we as women can say that a woman’s place is wherever she says it is!
© 2013 annalise fonza, Ph.D.