Mandisa Thomas, the president of Black Nonbelievers and one of the most visible Black atheist leaders in the country, has taken a “leave of absence” from the American Humanist Association (where she’s a board member) and faces an ethics review by American Atheists (where she’s also on the board).
It comes weeks after an open letter was posted announcing the resignations of several affiliate leaders in Black Nonbelievers in response to her behavior—though no individual names were attached to it:
… After careful consideration, due diligence, and a thorough internal investigation of events that culminated horribly on the recent BN SeaCon cruise (including but not limited to interviews, direct testimony, and firsthand experiences), we are unable to participate in a future together as we originally hoped to.
As leaders, we should take pride in modeling and rewarding the right way to treat people who follow our example. While certain behaviors may be acceptable even as key goals are met, we conclude that to permit unethical behavior(s) behind the scenes will lead -and is leading- to a loss of good people and reputation for the organization that we love and spent ten years to build. Codes of conduct need to be agreed upon by the entire leadership team, consistently communicated and then evenly applied.
If all of this seems very vague… well, you’d be right.
None of the statements explain what “unethical behavior” may (or may not) have taken place. They don’t say what “due diligence” looked like or what a “thorough internal investigation” entailed.
After multiple conversations over the past two weeks with people who wrote the open letter, those who offered a different version of events, and Mandisa Thomas herself, what they all agreed on was that there are no criminal actions to investigate, no financial shenanigans, or anything of the sort. The complaints involve a mixing of the personal and professional that several leaders in Black Nonbelievers felt crossed a line, most recently on the group’s cruise.
In a phone call with OnlySky earlier today, Thomas acknowledged making mistakes and attempting to make amends with anyone who felt wronged, but she felt this was a massive “betrayal of trust” from people she’s known for a while.
During a livestream for the BN show In the Cut! on Saturday, Thomas offered her own thoughts on the matter, reading a prepared statement:
… I reacted to a personal matter during the cruise this year, and while it was independent of the official BN SeaCon events, it did impact some attendees and members of the organizing team. While I acknowledged and accepted my responsibility for said reaction, made apologies to individuals that were affected, and made corrective actions before the cruise ended, the decision of the former organizers [to leave Black Nonbelievers] has been accepted…
I want to assure you all that Black Nonbelievers is a safe space. We are a safe space for people who are deconstructing religious beliefs and need a welcoming community. We are a safe space for those who are learning about and deconstructing societal stigmas, including those that judge unconventional practices—some of which we have openly discussed on this show and at previous events.
We are also a safe space for those who practice them. We uphold autonomy, consent, clear communication, and respect for one another, even if we disagree at times. We understand that, as human beings, we make mistakes, and that compassion, support, tact, and understanding is crucial for our members, our colleagues, and our leadership alike. But most important, we will always be a safe space where reason and evidence will prevail over dogma of any kind.
In my 11 years of being active in this community, it is a privilege and an honor to not be just what many see as a leader or a visionary, but more importantly, a friend. And I want to thank each and every one of you who has supported the work of BN this year and throughout the years.
Her reaction to that “personal matter,” however, was taken a very different way by the people who wrote the open letter. They published it because they saw no other way to make their voices heard and they passed it along to the AHA and AA in the hopes that those larger groups would take their concerns seriously. It’ll be up to those groups to decide if lines were crossed and if they need to remove one of the most prominent Black atheists in the country from their boards.
Rogiérs Fibby was one of the affiliate leaders who signed the letter. He told Religion News Service that he was already looking ahead to rebuilding the organization:
Fibby, who was one of the leaders who left, said the rift signals a “heartfelt loss” for many, noting especially Black nonbelievers who live in the Bible Belt and who “don’t have another church to go to.”
“It’s not like, ‘Oh, well, I’ll just go to the other Methodist church across town,’” Fibby said. “We really do have to build it, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Fibby said those who left Black Nonbelievers hope to rebuild a space with “structures of accountability,” where people can report “any kind of inappropriate relationships” or “any kind of conflicts.”
“We’re trying to keep humanism at the forefront on the way we deal with this. … We’re not just atheists, we’re humanists,” he said.
He and others who recently departed said a “detailed report” with their concerns is forthcoming.
Sikivu Hutchinson, founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles, also wrote in a recent post that, despite her past collaborations with Black Nonbelievers, she’s taking the concerns of people like Fibby seriously:
… I have relished the opportunity to create innovative spaces and forums for Black women and women of color secularists in partnership with Mandisa and our co-organizer Bria Crutchfield. However, I cannot continue my association with BN in light of recent allegations of unethical conduct involving Mandisa that were made by five former BN affiliate organizers. I have come to this decision after critical discussions with multiple parties directly involved in the dispute. Based upon their accounts, I stand in solidarity with the organizers’ claims, condemn any alleged inappropriate behavior, and support restorative justice for those who may have been harmed as a result of the actions they have delineated.
All of this is happening at a time when Black atheists have been fighting to gain attention and respect in a movement that has long been known for its relative lack of color. About 21% of Black Americans are non-religious, according to the Pew Research Center, but only 3% specifically identify as atheist or agnostic. Anecdotally, that also means very few Americans can identify a well-known Black atheist.
The national atheist organizations have tried various approaches to fixing that problem, ranging from (sometimes clumsy) billboard campaigns to forming social justice alliances to commissioning in-depth surveys to explain the unique struggles faced by Black atheists. But none of that is nearly as important as having people who can speak proudly and openly about what it means to be a Black atheist by sharing their own lived experienced. For years, Thomas has been one of the most prominent voices in that regard.
It would be frustrating, then, if further investigation led to Mandisa Thomas’ removal from those larger groups. Not because she should stay in those positions of leadership regardless of her actions, but because there are critics who would undoubtedly use that information to advance their own agendas. (One former American Atheists president who was removed from his position has already begun doing that.)
That doesn’t mean those national groups shouldn’t follow the facts where they lead. Listening to Black atheists doesn’t mean only listening to one person with a long history in the movement; it means taking allegations made by other Black atheist leaders seriously enough to investigate them properly.
Hutchinson, in her post, made sure to highlight the fact that the purported actions of one Black atheist leader shouldn’t detract from the larger picture or the broader community:
It is important to acknowledge that there are many Black and BIPOC secular individuals who have benefited from the good works of BN. BN community members have found vital sanctuary from toxic religious traditions through its support networks. Nonetheless, harmdoing and abuse of power by leaders entrusted with providing care and protection—in ostensibly safe community spaces where mental health is paramount—are unacceptable. Practices such as these are antithetical to the social and gender justice values our organizations claim to uplift and actualize.
Alt-right opportunists will no doubt use this rift to try and discredit progressive Black secular humanism and the principles upon which it is based. This is a clear and present danger in a national climate where racist white nationalist public policy, propaganda, and terrorism are in the ascendant. Unapologetically Black secular organizations like Black Nonbelievers and others have provided an antidote to these reactionary regimes. It is up to all who cherish Black self-determination to ensure that these spaces affirm the dignity, humanity, and voices of the most vulnerable.
As she notes, creating a space for Black atheists to feel safe and thrive is vital, not just for them but for the vibrancy of the entire non-religious movement. Even if one longtime leader is no longer at the helm in the future, that work will continue.