For those who’ve yet to hear of the events at and following PyCon last week, I’ll leave you to research Adria Richards, PyCon, and dongles and forking to gain as you may from what you find. After spending time reading articles, blogs, etc. I have something to say. Funny enough, the comment that incited the greatest reaction from me was vaguely within context of the incident but in my opinion had more to do with the incident than anything.
In response to a blog, a commenter wrote “…disgusted by….overwhelming privilege exhibited…” and the blogger responded, “I’m not sure how any of my words are a result of privilege. What privilege?…”
This all reminded of a personal situation about 15 years ago where I had a public disagreement (Opinion response in newspaper) with a college professor which led to an email exchange, brief phone discussion and then a face-to-face discussion about our viewpoints and eventually a friendship, regular discussions, and spending time with his beautiful family. The core of the initial disagreement and many of the ongoing discussions and perspective were borne in perspective on and appreciation of privilege.
I believe privilege has everything to do with the situation. Before writing any further, I’d like to provide a few examples of how I’m privileged as a man working in the technology industry. I will also note that in the computing and technology industry is a huge amount of logical thinking that I believe misses or overlooks the realities of privilege which is frequently not spoken nor overtly done, but simply accepted or enjoyed.
1. Amongst most of my peers, I can make an edgy joke about men or women without my gender being called into question. (Sorry fellas, women don’t get this privilege and I did nothing to earn it.)
2. When presenting publicly to a group of powerful men, I’m not concerned about whether any member of the group feels I belong based on my gender. (It’s up to the woman whether to be concerned or not, but not paying attention could very well hurt her- not me.)
3. In working across most technical companies or companies in general, there’s a high likelihood that when I’m escalated to the “boss” that person will be another man. (Just a reality and it’s typically more comfortable to speak with someone you relate a little more to in these situations, but most women would get another man to deal with.)
4. If I were to weigh in as an “outsider” on a situation in determining whether gender was at play or not, it is likely that my position will be seen as more valuable than a woman’s opinion. (If a man is in situation with woman “A” that she feels is sexist and I along with woman “B” witness it. Assuming all things equal other than gender, 9 times out of 10 my opinion on whether it was sexist or not would carry more credibility than woman “B.”)
5. I can mostly speak about gender diversity without being seen as someone who hates men or seeking to promote oneself. (A woman likely needs to weigh the consequences of speaking on this topic and to whom it’s shared and the setting. I can speak fairly freely about the need for greater gender diversity in technology and not worry.)
Funny enough as I’m preparing to type these next examples, I can feel anxiety rising from the possible pushback for sharing these real examples. And in my head I’m laughing with the thought that when I challenged the professor 15+ years ago, I hadn’t earned much. But now there’s stuff (career, perception, opportunity, etc.) at stake that if taken “wrongly” could hurt me personally and professionally. With that, it’s a worth-while risk to write about something we all should be more comfortable talking about. Now I’d like to provide a few examples of things I’ve earned and accompanying examples of how I do not leverage certain privilege.
1. If I need to relocate for work or most any other reason, I’m not likely to have an issue affording the necessary rent or getting a mortgage in most places. (However, in choosing those places I do have to consider the “welcoming” of neighbors, community, schools, etc. based on race, potential consequences if we’re the first or only Black family in the neighborhood, the perception and representation delivered in local media, ability to access a barber that’s experienced cutting hair like mine, representation of music and arts of my liking, etc.)
2. If I should need specific clothing, I can be pretty sure of affording the needed items immediately without financial strain. (However, before going to shop at an upscale store I have to consciously consider potential consequences for how I will be treated in the store based on race and then whether my appearance (clothes, grooming, etc.) will be considered a negative reflection on the race or just a choice I made.)
3. I can be sure that my children will attend a K-12 school that is highly regarded for its academic, athletic, and extra-curricular offerings. (However, that’s accompanied with added work of exposing them to professionals that look like them, encouraging self-love to overcome that lack of seeing self in community and school, coaching to address negative or demeaning terms from peers which are race based such as Oreo, N-word, “good one,” etc., ensuring cultural and religious preferences of others are acknowledged and respected)
4. I am likely to be called on by executives to complete challenging tasks that typically are not trusted with others. (However, I am still prepared to continue responding to whether I believe I first got my job because of affirmative action. I am very conscious of how in past situations my grooming, appearance, and presentation were assigned to the race and not just me. I am limited in finding executives who have common professional experiences impacted by race to discuss professional progression. Still face doing well in a challenging situation as being considered a credit to my race.)
In the first case, the “privileges” denoted are unspoken burdens that women face that I don’t have to deal with. However, it is not I that created that burden or am doing anything to intentionally limit women. The privilege is a consequence of our social structure which essentially provides me the luxury of not being directly challenged by those burdens as a man. Much the same, my Caucasian peers are far less likely to be burdened with the race-specific challenges that I noted for me and it would be a disservice to any of my Caucasian peers to suggest that they are responsible for or to blame for such challenges. And though racism and sexism are likely at the genesis of the societal norms that lead to the privileges I described, I believe (with the privileges I’m carrying) that most people are NOT intentionally perpetuating sexism or racism by enjoying the freedoms and advantages of those privileges. However, I believe the biggest problem with privilege is the ignorance or denial of having such privilege. Followed closely behind that is the willingness of individuals to discuss it with the goal of understanding the person not in their shoes. Though the examples only touch on race and gender, privilege extends to nationality, first language, age, class, sexual orientation, and beyond.
Thus, I’m inclined to believe that the gentlemen making the joke regarding dongles and forking were well immersed in their privilege (being men at tech conference) and their comfort led to inappropriate behavior (freely making sexual joke or innuendo). If you eliminate all women from the conference and these behaviors likely would be minimized or ignored by all others within earshot, right? Because most men are very unlikely to react, be angered, address the bad behavior, etc. especially since it was associated with an object and not directly a woman. That’s our privilege. But the reality is that women were at the conference, the very fact that we have so few women at the conference or in the tech industry in general is directly related to the privilege that we receive as men.
However, for Ms. Richards to then become scorn by so many men and women is disappointing and understood. There’s the myriad of things she could have done upon being offended and she clearly had options. However, minus breaking the law, it was those who went overboard exhibiting their male privilege that opened themselves up for whichever she chose. And the one she chose (tweet picture with comment) exposed their choices in a way that resulted in them having to explain those choices to others. There are clearly a range of responses and consequences. And to each of those are an even greater range of opinions on what should’ve been done and why. But only the person living with the burden of having to make a choice in such an unfortunate situation gets to choose what that response will be.
For me, this is not much different from me dealing with a normal dose of-
1. whether I was hired because of Affirmative Action or
2. being congratulated on being a credit to my race, or
3. being asked “why do Black people…” or
4. responding to comments based on assumption of my political position
I’ve never gone to HR to report such questions or conversations. If I did, does that make me wrong for choosing not to personally deal with this burden coming to me through the voice of others’ ignorance or lack of consideration for me? Would it be wrong to take their picture along with what they said and tweet it? What if I just loudly repeated their question/statement and my response to it so that at least everyone within the range of my voice would know “that’s not cool?” I don’t have the answer. I repeat… I don’t have the answer and don’t know what’s right. To date, I’ve addressed the situation one and one and then make others aware of what happened by keeping the person anonymous. In taking that route, no scene is made, jobs are relatively secure, and others aren’t feeling the need to to take a side. That also means that I absorb all of the work of others’ ignorance and educating others in the workforce with full knowledge that someone else will come along to be educated. But whatever legal route I choose, it is not me that’s doing something to anyone. And I’m really laughing now because I can see people wondering if they should talk to me about anything related to race. The answer is “absolutely yes” and to first apply those questions to yourself and the group you belong to determine if you think you’re in a position to answer that or if asking that would be demeaning to what you’ve earned via hard work.
I beg that those of us in a place of privilege whether it be based on gender, religion, race, class, parent, sexual orientation, authority figure, and anything I missed to invest in doing some of the hard work along with those who aren’t in the position of privilege. This typically starts with having open and honest discussions about how others might not enjoy the benefits that we do with the understanding that we are not limiting them from enjoying those benefits. However, our willingness to come to a point of understanding about the situation will very likely trigger meaningful conversations with more people and hopefully transform our work environments, our neighborhoods, our schools, our nations, and our appreciation for each other.
Many if not most of our words as Americans and those working in America are a result of privilege. Let’s avoid victimization, blame, anger, labeling, denial, and paranoia and before the next bad joke about dongles and forking comes up, let’s do more talking and gain more understanding so that either the joke isn’t said or is worded in a way that’s inclusive and funny.