If I’m going to embarrass myself, I’m taking you with me.
I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to be less of an ass. I think this is a fine occupation for most people. But if you, like me, are a straight white man, my encouragement is that you try harder than most.
We have not distinguished ourselves lately, gentlemen. Even our attempts to be better often mess things up. We lurch into complex social discussions offering “why don’t we just… ” as an answer. We write articles telling women, without irony, to just try to be more like men if they want to get ahead. Yes. That happens.
Not All Men
And I know. I know. You’re not a grotesque and evil bigot. You didn’t vote for Trump. It hurts to try so hard to be a good guy, only to have someone paint you with the same brush as frat house idiots. I have felt that way, too. And it does hurt. But two things to consider before we get started:
- There’s still work for you to do. There always is. Take the complaints you hear in that context. Complaining about your hurt feelings makes the conversation all about you again. A conversation about the problems women face with sexism isn’t about your feelings. A conversation about the problems people of colour face with racism isn’t about your feelings. Don’t make it about your feelings. It’s hard, I know. It’s hard work to listen through a critique that you feel is unfair to get to the thing at the heart of it that matters. Do the hard work.
- Being painted with an unfair, overgeneralized brush is something other folks deal with every damned day. Every day they are treated differently (mostly worse) than you are because they aren’t you. They are told to change who they are to be more like you. That keeps happening. How are you going to go into that conversation and make it about you? Really? Again?
I have no standing to tell a person of colour what they should do to survive our culture. I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in tech. Or disabled, or queer, or an immigrant. But I know what it’s like to be a straight, white guy in tech. I have lived that experience. And I know how embarrassing a lot of my own past beliefs have been.
So I’m going to talk about that. And in case you still believe any of these things, I’m gonna try to help scrub them off of your brain. I promise it’ll make you a better leader. I strongly suspect it will make you a better human, too.
I used to believe in meritocracies
This one feels far away now, but I remember it. I remember how much I wanted it to be true. In one word, calling your group a meritocracy solidifies your own status as earned (you have merit!), and absolves you of discriminatory guilt (other people with merit will succeed equally). A meritocracy sounds like a nice thing. But the world has never seen that beast. And it sure as shit isn’t in your organization.
“I have no standing to tell a person of colour what they should do to survive our culture.”
If you are a woman or a person of color in tech, hearing a powerful gatekeeper deny that your color or gender (or both) has been a major factor in how you’ve been treated flies in the face of evidence and experience.
The way we score merit is full of assumptions that work better for some groups than others. Meritocracies say “your github is your resumé.” Then they act surprised that their candidate pool doesn’t include a lot of single moms without time to hack on hobby projects.
Meritocracies say all that matters is the work. And then Sarah Sharp walks away from a position of considerable “merit”, saying:
I finally realized that I could no longer contribute to a community where I was technically respected, but I could not ask for personal respect … I did not want to work professionally with people who were allowed to get away with subtle sexist or homophobic jokes.
I was a senior member of one of the largest, most successful open source communities around. We even had a female founder, Mitchell Baker, who is one of the most formidable people I’ve met. And still our “meritocracy” was full of people who looked an awful lot like me. And still people solved disagreements by tearing each other apart because what mattered were the ideas. I know Chris cares a lot about this and is working to change it. I’m hopeful for Mozilla, always. But I stopped using the word meritocracy a long time ago and so should you.
I used to ask, “Is that really gendered/racist?”
Someone would tell me a story about getting treated poorly, or passed over, or misunderstood. They’d tell me it was discriminatory. And I would ask that question. That naive question. Because to me it wasn’t obvious. People have treated me poorly. People have misunderstood me. Why does it always have to be about race? Why does it always have to be about sexism?
Because it always is.
Yes, people of color can screw up for reasons having nothing to do with their color. Yes, women can make mistakes without it being a gender issue. Those things are possible. So you ask this question that feels benign and curious to you. But it’s not benign and curious to them. Patient folks from under-represented groups have reinforced this over and over until finally I got it.
To someone who isn’t straight and white and male and able-bodied and born locally, this question is the latest in a very long line of people doubting your experience.
“Your casual intellectual challenge is part of the same aggressive suppression that follows them everywhere.”
It is hard to let this into your brain. You want to be able to have an intellectual conversation about it. But instead you just became part of the pile on of doubt and undercutting. In that broader context, your casual intellectual challenge is part of the same aggressive suppression that follows them everywhere. You are part of the problem.
You’re going to shake your head solemnly at reports that black men get racially profiled by police, and then challenge your black colleague who tells you his last performance review felt biased? Really? Why?
Because it’s technically possible that this instance wasn’t? Because you want to assume the best of his manager? Assuming the best of people is something you get to do because you haven’t been kicked in the gut. This shit has been happening for his whole fucking life. He knows what it is. How about assuming the best of him and his judgement of the situation?
How about believing a woman who says that your colleague harassed her, even though you think he’s a good guy? Where’s her benefit of the doubt?
There’s a lot of benefit to that doubt. It can entrench those with power or it can balance the scales. You get to decide where it goes. When you’re making that call, err on the side of the people whose balance is light.
“The hard work of understanding what happened and how we should do better is on us.”
I used to ask people to explain why I was wrong
In the real world, there is more than just us. In the real world, the person who’s challenged us on something we’ve said has done us a favour. But our ego is bruised. Because we think we’re really quite woke. So we ask her to explain why what we’ve done is a problem. Partly because we want to learn, partly because we want to dispute the charges.
She doesn’t owe us that. We’re the ones who screwed up. The hard work of understanding what happened and how we should do better is on us. She might help us get there or she might not. But understand that there are vast numbers of us out there. Screwing up, getting called on it, demanding a free education. A lot of us get that free education, too, despite the immense amount of unpaid labour it represents.
Engage with the syllabus. If you don’t know where to start, Lauren Parker has done some more free work for you already:
I’ve still got a long way to go, and so do you
One thing I always worry about when I write about this stuff is that it re-centers another white straight dude and his perspective. That’s why this post is addressed to the one group I feel I can legitimately speak to. Even still, I’m no expert on anything except the places where I’ve personally screwed up. If you recognize some of those screw-ups, I hope I have your attention.
When I’m trying to get better at something, I find it helpful to fill my feed with it. If you do, too, I’ll close with a list of the people who have taught me the most through their work. I find it uncomfortable to follow them sometimes. You should follow them, too.
- Shanley Kane (twitter)
- Ashe Dryden (twitter)
When you’re done following them, get some of your straight, white, male friends to do the same. That will also be hard work. So do some hard work.