Third place: High school essay contest, freethinkers of color by Joelene Kuaana

Complications of being a minority, twice

FFRF awarded Joelene $1,000.

By Joelene Kuaana’s “The 50 Most Brilliant Atheists of All Time” is an article dedicated to a variety of secular physicists, authors, entrepreneurs and philosophers who have perfected their craft. But the diversity extends only to their professions. Nearly all of these “brilliant atheists of all time” are white men. A few are men of color, but zero women of color made the list.

It’s not that there aren’t a lot to choose from. The world-renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, the author, politician and modern-day Joan of Arc, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and anthropologist/novelist Zora Hurston are all eligible to be on the list. So, why weren’t they? The answer is simple, yet arduous. People of color, especially women, aren’t synonymous with brilliant atheists. The face of atheism is a white man. In order to break this stereotype and give light to brilliant nonwhite atheists, we must understand the hardships a person faces not only as a nonreligious minority, but a racial minority.
One challenge of being a nonbeliever of color is culture, a group’s customs and beliefs. I’m Hawaiian, which means I’m either a Protestant (popularized by missionaries) or a believer in the gods of ancient Hawai’i. I’ve heard tales of Pele Ku Kane and Lono all my life. I was taught that believing in them was part of who I am.

Racial minorities feel ashamed to be atheists because they feel rejecting their religion is rejecting who they are. Almost every person of color has a history of their culture being suppressed or even destroyed. Who are we, as products of ancestral suffering, to deny our roots? I have dragged myself through the mud with this question in mind. I felt that disregarding the tales of Hawaiian gods was insulting to the Hawaiians before me. But I have found peace.

I realized that not believing in your culture’s religion is not denying your culture. You can still be proud and a skeptic. To appreciate the art of storytelling and to recognize cultural importance of religious stories/figures is enough.

The freethought community needs to recognize the importance of religion in culture. It needs to speak to nonwhite nonbelievers and act as a haven for us. Culture should be a blessing, not a burden.

Another deterrent is racism. White nonbelievers may be quick to disregard the opinions and importance of atheists of color because of stereotypes, which can range from “all blacks go to church and sing in the choir” to “all Middle Eastern people are extremist Muslims.” They may assume that racial minorities are uneducated, therefore not worth their time.
I have been underestimated because of my race. It hurts and has only made me want to keep quiet in the past. Things have changed. I found inspiration in strong women of color, which proves the value of representation. It’s especially frustrating that white atheists don’t acknowledge the institutional racism racial minorities face every day. Equating the discrimination faced as an atheist (which is a choice) to the discrimination faced by a person of color (not a choice) is degrading and insulting. Racism needs to end in a society which prides itself in progressing. Atheists need to acknowledge the struggles of race.

I am an atheist because it is liberating. Atheism is not dictated by a larger presence. It does not place expectations or rules on nonbelievers. Every person is responsible for their own betterment. God does not make you, you make you. You’re responsible for your achievements and for your failures. You’re the decider of your own destiny and your own path. It’s freeing. It’s empowering. It’s logical.

Although atheism is an admirably progressive movement, it still need to take steps to take to ensure the inclusion of nonwhites. Racism and stereotyping will never go away, but the freethought community can lead by example. Racial minorities must find the strength to identify themselves as atheists and not reject what they think is logical.

There are obstacles faced by nonbelievers of color, but all can be overcome, and maybe one day there will be many faces of atheism, not just one.

Joelene Kuanna, 18, lives in Makawao on the island of Maui. She graduated from Kamehameha Schools Maui in Pukalani. “Aloha. I am an incoming first year student at the University of La Verne in California and plan to study business administration. I love writing, painting and dreaming new ideas for my own small business in the future.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation