Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Paths and Imperfection

I don't think I will write a big post about the latest spasm of sexism in the tech industry. I don't think I have anything new to say on that topic, really, although I may come back someday and write about how I ended up in tech and why I stay.

Tonight, I want to write about what I got wrong in my reaction to the Pax Dickinson nonsense, and what that means to me.

Last week, I, like many people reacting to those vile tweets, focused almost exclusively on how sexist they were, largely ignoring the fact that there were some profoundly racist tweets in there, too. Now, there are a lot of reasons for this, some good, some bad. The good reasons have to do with the fact that we all noticed Mr. Dickinson due to his defense of the juvenile TechCrunch presentations that were insulting to women, and with the fact that the tweet that was most shocking in the "OMG, that's a lawsuit waiting to happen" sort of way was the one in which Dickinson, a person directly or indirectly responsible for hiring the entire technical team at a company, compared good female developers to unicorns.  The bad reasons have to do with the fact that I am just not as attuned to racism or comfortable speaking up about it as I am to sexism.

I thought a lot about this over the weekend. Friday night, I went to a play with my sister. She has season tickets to the Shakespeare festival at the Old Globe, and none of her usual theater buddies claimed the second ticket for The Merchant of Venice, so I got to go. For those who aren't familiar with the play, it is the cause of much discussion about whether or not Shakespeare intended it to be anti-Semitic. I do not know the answer, and in fact do not even have an opinion on the question. But I was struck by how odd it seemed to be watching that play last Friday, which was Yom Kippur. I could not decide if staging the Merchant of Venice on Yom Kippur was deeply offensive or if instead it was the perfect play for the night, with its emphasis on mercy and powerful reminder of some of the things for which Christians need to atone. In this production, Shylock was a strongly sympathetic character, and the intent was clearly not to stage an anti-Semitic production.

But still, I did not know what to think.

I often find myself in a similar position when it comes to issues of race. I'll see or hear something and recognize it as potentially problematic, but not know if it really is problematic, whereas with most things related to sexism, it is usually- but not always- 100% clear to me whether or not I think something is problematic. So I feel much more confident speaking up about sexism than racism, even when the racism is fairly obvious.

In short, I still have a lot to learn, and that tends to leave me reticent to speak up. The usual metaphor for this is to say that I am still walking on my path. The metaphor is trite, but apt. I am far from perfect, but I recognize the issues, and am working to move further along towards understanding. My personal goals are (1) to work towards always responding to people as individuals, and not as members of any group (and note, that does NOT mean that I think we should all be "blind" to the groups to which people belong or ignore the impact of belong to those groups, just that my response should be to them as an individual not as a "Black man" or "gay woman" or "person in a wheelchair" or whatnot); (2) to work to disassemble the structural discrimination that exists in our culture, and at the very least not to perpetuate it myself; and (3) to raise my kids to start as far along the path to points 1 and 2 as possible.

And that is really all I personally expect of people: that they recognize there are issues related to how things like race, gender, sexual orientation, and physical abilities are handled in our culture, and are willing to learn and improve in their understanding and handling of those issues.  I am much more forgiving of a man who doesn't always get the gender issues right but at least acknowledges that sexism is a problem than I am of a man who insists that it is all OK now, even if the first man is also spouting off a thoroughly discredited theory about why there aren't many women in computer science (for instance) as if he were the first person to think of that possible explanation. We all have to start from somewhere, and to me, being willing to at least start is the most important thing. That has been the most frustrating thing for me with the entire Pax Dickinson incident: the way that he and his supporters refuse to acknowledge that there might be any problem at all. They way they are so sure that Dickinson is being punished for his beliefs but cannot even entertain the idea that I am frequently punished for my chromosomes and others are punished for the amount of melanin in their skin. The way they refuse to even consider the possibility that maybe there is something they could learn from this. (Really-  I just took a peak at Dickinson's twitter stream and yeah, nothing learned.) 

But that is just me, and I do not think at all that everyone should be patient with people who are just starting out on their path towards understanding issues relating to historically marginalized groups. I get why for some people, the only response to any of this is anger. I get why some people won't spend any more of their time going over the basics with the people just starting along the path. I am far from saintly in this regard, too. I loose patience. I get angry. There is no way I would have been able to meet Pax Dickinson for coffee and not throw said coffee in his face.

And I really struggle to find patience for the people who are offended that people are angry about these issues.  After all, if white people want to stop being on the receiving end of anger about racism, we can work to end structural racism. If men want to stop being on the receiving end of anger about sexism, they can work to end structural sexism. It is a lot easier to be magnanimous on these issues when they are not directly interfering with your ability to pursue your career goals, or to feed your family, or indeed, to even stay alive.

I also used to react to the garden-variety sexism with a lot more anger than I do now. I think most of us are also on a path in determining how we react to the clueless bigots among us, but that in this case, the optimal destination is different for different people. Basically, I think people who belong to one or more of the marginalized groups have to figure out what response is healthiest for them- as in, least likely to interfere with them having a happy life- and aim for that. It may surprise some people who don't generally experience discrimination to learn that (1) it is not always obvious what that healthiest reaction would be and (2) even if we know what the healthiest reaction would be, it isn't always easy (or even possible) to have that reaction and not some other, completely destructive reaction.

For me personally, the healthiest reaction would probably be something closer to Anil Dash's resolution to live a life of ridiculous kindness than whatever I'm doing now, so that is the path I'm trying to get on. If you are the sort of person who can sustain righteous anger without getting drained, more power to you! But that is not me. I think the least draining thing for me is to acknowledge the event, try to forget about it, and just get on with doing whatever awesome thing I was doing before the outbreak of stupidity came to my attention. As my reactions last week showed me, I am still struggling to get to that point and struggling to meet my goals with respect to confronting racism. But in both cases, at least I am on the path.

What about you? What are you goals for being better at recognizing and responding to the -isms that don't directly affect you? What is your goal for dealing with the -isms that do directly affect you?

Also, as usual with a post like this, I am nervous that I have gotten something wrong and have written something that will offend someone. If that is the case, I am truly sorry, and if you have the time and patience and want to tell me about it in the comments, please do so. Regardless, note that I cannot generally respond to or moderate comments during the work day, but will do so in the evening.


  1. In college, I shared a room with a black woman, which profoundly changed the way I view race in America. It was one of the most valuable things I learned in college.

    It also means that I say inappropriate things to black people I only just met--things that you only say to family or a close friend. One time, I said something to my (black, male) pharmacist, and then realized I was out of line. But, then he gave me a really honest and thoughtful answer about his experiences as a black male in those situations.

    A year later, I was in there and he was talking to an Asian man. He introduced the guy as his best friend in college. And then I realized why he was as open with me as I was with him.

    I'm constantly pointing out injustices to my white male hetero husband. He's incredibly unobservant.

    Today, I was shopping at Trader Joe's and the checker was bantering with the kids in line. He apologized to a ~5 yo blonde girl for running out of stickers. I thought about how this little girl will grow up believing that stores welcome and value her.

    There are 2 Trader Joe's in 90266, home of ~40,000 of the whitest and wealthiest people in America . There is none in Inglewood or anywhere in the vicinity of Inglewood.

    I met a black woman at one 90266 TJs and she told me how many of her neighbors think she is crazy to risk her neck to shop there. They believe they would be targeted by the police for trumped up traffic violations. (I've seen that.) She said that there is no place near her home to get fresh organic food at affordable prices. This is not an idle worry as ADHD prevalence in children goes up with concentrations of organophosphate pesticides in maternal blood.

    Anyway, I watched the interaction with the little blonde girl and thought about how my black roommate (and I, when I went with her) was followed by store security as soon as she entered any store. And I thought about the teenaged girl who was killed at a grocery store in south central LA b/c the owner thought she was shoplifting. I could barely hold it together when I compared and contrasted the two lives.

    This week, I can barely hold it together anyways as I watch the suffering in my former home of Boulder.

    1. A lot of what I "know" about racism came from my group of high school friends, which was so diverse we looked like a Benetton commercial. I was struck recently to realize how much less diverse my group of friends is now. It has to do with me moving increasingly into white-dominated areas, both geographically and professionally, I think. I wish it were different, but there is no easy way to change that.

      I've started consciously working to diversify my Twitter feed. I learn a lot, and find interesting things to read that I would never have found otherwise, so that is good.

      I have a colleague at work whose daughter is at school in Boulder. She's fine, but the pictures he's shown us from her are heart-breaking.

  2. This makes me think of this wonderful video I saw on racism and privilege: (which I cannot find now after searching for far too long) and this post on living in ingrained racism: http://choochoobear.tumblr.com/post/60820440902/as-an-intern-for-marvel-in-the-late-70s-racist

    Certainly it's less clear where the lines are when you're not part of the marginalized group, and the process of learning those boundaries is sometimes a bit fraught. I ask my friends who are part of the marginalized groups, whether it be race or sexual orientation, to talk to me about the issues that they face if I don't feel like I have a good understanding of them. I'm no expert, but it's a start.

    1. Thanks for the link. I'll check it out!

  3. The truth is that we don't really even know 100% when a comment is sexist either. Yes, some things are obvious, but there's a grey area with sexism too.

    The same is true for racism. I'm fortunate enough that there are multiple people of color in my department, and multiple people who study racism. They don't always agree! They can tell you why they don't agree too, putting it into the context of their generation and their background, though honestly, I think it's a little more complicated than when they talk about one generation being betrayed by third wave feminists-- I'm also willing to believe that 100% of the older generation doesn't feel one way and 100% of the younger the other way.

    Yes, there's going to be intersectionality and group differences, but the individual differences will always be larger than the group. We can address problems (discrimination, segregation, lack of opportunity) at the group level, but we have to remember that people are individuals first. Not all women are alike. Not all women agree on everything dealing with gender issues. Not all feminists agree on everything dealing with gender issues! The same is true for (almost) every group you can think of. Demographic groups aren't cults, they're just groups of people that share something in common.

    1. I worded that poorly. I mean that I am usually certain about whether *I* think something is sexist. I don't have these almost comic inner dialogs like I did during intermission at The Merchant of Venice.

      But yes, not all women think alike. Not all Black people think alike. Etc. I HATE it when I am asked to speak for all women (which happens occasionally at work). I make sarcastic comments about tuning in to the sisterhood before I answer. The guys who asked me generally look confused by those.

    2. I went ahead and changed the text to make my meaning more clear. Thanks for highlighting that!

  4. Once again, thank you for a thought-provoking post. I believe there always will be -isms. It is part of human nature - to want to be a part of a group and to exclude people that are different (by race, religion, ethnicity, citizenship, etc). I would like to think of myself as an open and accepting person, but the sad truth is - when meeting people, I do tend to form first impressions based on (usually false) pre-conceptions about their ethnicity, color, accent... You get the idea. I do my best to remind myself to get to know the PERSON and not to jump to conclusions about who they are based on the looks alone (I got burned on that quite a few times). I guess that's my way of addressing the unfairness of the world and all of its -isms: start with myself and be as free of -isms as possible.

    As far as -isms that affect me directly... I learned two very valuable lessons at a tender age of 15. One - there is nothing wrong with me, there is something wrong with the world. And there is nothing I can do about it. There will always be people who look down on me, dislike me, or what not - because of my ethnicity/religion. (And yes, for a couple of years I thought it was all my fault and I deserved the kind of treatment I was getting).

    Lesson number 2 - people are full of surprises. I had a classmate who, on a number of occasions, had told me that her mother hates (people of my religion). This girl and I ended up being best friends and her mom, over the course of about two years, went from ignoring me to being nice to me. I don't know if she decided I was an exception, or if her -isms weren't as strong as my friend thought. Really, it doesn't matter. What matters - give people a chance, even if you think they are horrible -ists. Let them get to know you. Take a risk - and maybe, you'll teach them something new about themselves as well as your group.

    1. For me, the trick is to learn to recognize your gut-reaction as suspect, and then consciously set aside the -ist part and try to respond to the individual and the actual situation in front of you. It feels awkward, but I think it is helping.

  5. This is one of your best posts ever, Cloud. Lots of gems in here. Thanks for helping me clarify some of my own thoughts on these issues.


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