When your code of conduct has unintended consequences

Crossposted to Tim’s blog on Dreamwidth.

The Empowermentors Collective is, in their own words, “a skillshare, activism, and discussion network for intersectionally marginalized people of color in the free culture and free software movement.” Also from their Web site: “We see radical potential in free culture and free software (often marketed as ‘open source software’) to work against ableism, racism, cissexism, heterosexism, sexism, and classism.”

I think this collective is a great idea, and while it’s not something that is open to me, I’ll do my best to spread the word about it. But one place I can’t spread the word is on any mailing list, forum, or syndicated blog post associated with my company. Since I work for an open-source company, Mozilla, that might employ people who are eligible for and interested in Empowermentors, that’s too bad.

Why is that? The Mozilla Community Participation Guidelines say: “Some Mozillians may identify with activities or organizations that do not support the same inclusion and diversity standards as Mozilla. When this is the case: (a) support for exclusionary practices must not be carried into Mozilla activities. (b) support for exclusionary practices in non-Mozilla activities should not be expressed in Mozilla spaces.” Empowermentors is exclusionary: it excludes white people, like myself. I support their right to create a safe space so that people who are oppressed can have one place that won’t be dominated by people in an oppressor class who may (even in a well-intentioned way) engage in derailing and silencing. So I can’t mention the group in a work mailing list email, or a post on Yammer (if I used Yammer), or in a post on my blog that is tagged so as to be syndicated to Planet Mozilla.

This illustrates a problem with codes of conduct that don’t explicitly acknowledge social power dynamics and call out the difference between a group that has a history of being oppressive doing things that reinforce the system of oppression in which it operates, and a historically oppressed group engaging in self-defense. Compare Mozilla’s Community Participation Guidelines with the code of conduct for the Open Source Bridge conference: “Communities mirror the societies in which they exist and positive action is essential to counteract the many forms of inequality and abuses of power that exist in society.” With this one sentence, the organizers of Open Source Bridge communicated that the purpose of the entire code of conduct is to protect people who are abused, not to protect abusers.

Exclusionary groups that are for oppressed people are a positive force, because they give oppressed people time and space to talk about their oppression and/or just live their lives without explaining — or worse, justifying — their experiences all the time. For example, programming study groups that are for self-identified women only are a great thing, because it’s easier for women to learn when they don’t have to worry that if they say something silly or admit they don’t know something, the men in the room will hold it against their entire gender. As another example, when I was in college, I didn’t understand why the Black students’ organization had to exclude white students from participating. Now I understand that white people dominate almost every space, and having an organization where Black students at an overwhelmingly-white college can talk amongst themselves doesn’t hurt white students and helps Black students succeed.

But the Mozilla guidelines lump together these socially beneficial groups with white supremacist organizations or the Boy Scouts of America (which excludes queer men from serving as troop leaders). That’s a problem. As the Open Source Bridge code of conduct shows, it’s an easy problem to solve, as long as the priority of the people writing the code of conduct is to promote justice rather than to suppress tension.

3 thoughts on “When your code of conduct has unintended consequences

  1. Larissa

    This makes me wonder. Is it technically violating said code for me to participate in the TechWomen program (as I am this year, at Mozilla) and mentor another woman in a project which is all-women (and which has no established policy whatsoever about including anyone female-identified or any mention of trans… anything…. )… cause that’s you know… already happening. :-/

    1. Tim Chevalier

      My guess would be that it would only be considered a violation of the guidelines if you mentioned it in a Mozilla space. Since the first program is already taking place in a Mozilla space… well, this is why I suspect the issue is partially that someone hasn’t thought through the language in the guidelines.

  2. Larissa

    yeah and well…. we have events supporting girls and women in tech already in Mozilla spaces. Not thought through, clearly.

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