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Ask Mandisa 67: Symbols and Systems


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/08/18

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.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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