Tag Archives: bad behaviour

Words Aren’t Magic

So let’s talk about This Shit Right Here (that’s an archive.today link), in which technology consultant Jeff Reifman accuses Geek feminism blogger Leigh Honeywell and advice columnist Captain Awkward of harassment.

Last November, Reifman wrote a lengthy post about his relationship with an ex who eventually asked him to stop contacting her, then threatened to get a court order when he did not. He used her as an example to decry what he called ‘cutoff culture,’ and to suggest that women who want to cut exes out of their lives have an obligation to find some kind of ‘compromise’ to make sure their ex’s emotional needs are met.

Leigh and the Captain, both feminist activists, called him out. The Captain did so in this excellent post breaking down the entitlement and abuser-logic in his arguments. Leigh called him out on twitter. He wrote something in public; they challenged it in public.

Reifman then sent Leigh an email that prompted her to publicly and privately tell him never to contact her again.

So he wrote a blog post in which Leigh is very easy to identify to trash talk her for ‘harassing’ him, implying that it’s a a violation of Double Union’s Anti-Harassment Policy for her to call out his enormously-creepy behavior towards an ex who’d asked him to leave her alone (including publicly hashing out his relationship with said ex with roughly as much care for hiding her identity as he showed for hiding Leigh’s).
The Geek Feminism Code Of Conduct contains a section on things we specifically don’t consider harassment:

The Geek Feminism community prioritizes marginalized people’s safety over privileged people’s comfort. The Geek Feminism Anti-Abuse Team will not act on complaints regarding:

  • ‘Reverse’ -isms, including ‘reverse racism,’ ‘reverse sexism,’ and ‘cisphobia’ (because these things don’t exist)
  • Reasonable communication of boundaries, such as “leave me alone,” “go away,” or “I’m not discussing this with you.”
  • Refusal to explain or debate social justice concepts
  • Communicating in a ‘tone’ you don’t find congenial
  • Criticizing racist, sexist, cissexist, or otherwise oppressive behavior or assumptions

I wrote that section because people on an axis of privilege have a nasty tendency to appropriate social justice terminology (like privilege and harassment) and twist it around to serve their own point of view. They treat these words like magic incantations, as if it’s the words, rather than the argument, that convinces people.

Words are not magic incantations. They have meanings. Using a word without understanding its meaning just because you’ve seen other people successfully use it to convey a point is magical thinking.

Sometimes, the people who employ these words as magic incantations mistake other people’s refusal to engage for a victory–they must have successfully turned social justice sorcerers’ magic words against us, because we won’t argue with them anymore. Reifman himself engages in a version of this fallacy when he armchair-diagnoses his critics as ‘triggered’ rather than recognizing that their anger is a natural reaction to his demands for free emotional labor. The truth is more mundane: most of us are not interested in teaching reading comprehension to people whose comprehension is willfully limited to concepts that support their privilege.

This is the email that led Leigh to publicly tell Reifman to leave her alone:

From: Jeff Reifman
Date: Mon, May 12, 2014 at 11:03 PM
Subject: Responding to your tweets
To: Leigh Honeywell
Cc: [redacted mutual friend]

Hi Leigh, I don’t know if you remember meeting me – but I think we met
at Elysian, I’m actually close friends with [redacted mutual friend]. I saw your
tweets and your medium note and thought I would reach out.

I noticed that the comment policy on your blog asks that commenters be “
non-discriminatory, friendly, funny, or perspicacious” … I’m super
open to a discussion about this as long as comments are civil and
constructive. I would hope you would tweet as you wish others to
publicly comment on your blog.

Using the word shitbag … and repeated mentions of “fuck” both on
twitter and on medium doesn’t represent civil discussion very well.

the feedback I’ve received from the cutoff essay has been overall very
positive – but sometimes it triggers people … and I’ve now, only
twice, received attacks like this – you’re the second.

I’m open to talking about it – especially if you want to highlight
specifics … but I ask that you be civil and constructive …[sic]

Jeff Reifman

Translation: Tone argument, demand for free emotional labor and education, tone argument, tone argument, lurkers support me in email, tone argument.

You’ll notice that he CC’d a mutual friend of theirs. Then he went and wrote this follow-up post, using barely-pixelated avatars and so many direct quotes that Leigh and the Captain are laughably easy to identify. So for all his thinky thoughts about ‘shaming,’ he clearly has no problem with trying to shame people who call out his extremely inappropriate behavior.

Too bad he’s trying to do so with magic incantations.

Quick hit: #NotJustHello

Today, Mikki Kendall — who you’ll remember from a previous Wednesday Geek Woman feature — started the #NotJustHello hashtag to talk about how women experience street harassment, in ways that go far beyond an unknown man saying “hello”. In just a few hours, there have already been a lot of great conversations not just about specific experiences of harassment, but about boundaries and the difference between flirtation and harassment.

Inspired by some of the responses to the hashtag, which echo responses that I’ve seen every time women share their experiences being harassed, I created a new Geek Feminism Wiki page, I can’t believe that happens, about the repeating pattern of men responding to these accounts in ways that reflect a need to prove that they are surprised it ever happens.

Cold the Wind doth Blow (or The Unquiet Linkspam) (6 June 2014)

Announcements etc:

  • Peep Game Comix: “Attention All African American comic book creators and publishers, we are looking for original titles to add to Peep Game Comix. We are looking for current projects and even back catalogs of books.”

Several submissions on the “hurricanes with female names” thing:

  • The study is Jung, Shavitt, Viswanathana & Hilbed. 2014. Female hurricanes are deadlier than male hurricanes. PNAS http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1402786111.
  • Hurricanes with women’s names more deadly: study | Joan Cary at Chicago Tribune (June 2): “According to a recent study by University of Illinois researchers, hurricanes with women’s names are likely to cause significantly more deaths than those with masculine names — not because the feminine-named storms are stronger, but because they are perceived as less threatening and so people are less prepared.”
  • Why Have Female Hurricanes Killed More People Than Male Ones? | Ed Yong at National Geographic (June 2): “Jung team thinks that the effect he found is due to unfortunate stereotypes that link men with strength and aggression, and women with warmth and passivity… But Jeff Lazo from the National Centre for Atmospheric Research disagrees. He’s a social scientist and economist who has looked into the public communication of hurricane risk, and he thinks the pattern is most likely a statistical fluke, which arose because of the ways in which the team analysed their data.” (Study authors respond at comment #7.)
  • Do Female-Named Hurricanes Need To Lean In? | Beth Novey at NPR (June 3): “We’re also worried about what this trend means for the career advancement of female storms. We’ve seen this before. We know where this is going. So to get ahead of the curve, we’d like to offer some advice to all the girls out there hoping to become fearsome natural disasters when they grow up.”

Everything else!

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Linkspam considered harmful (7 May 2014)

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t link a spam (11 April 2014)

  • Women do not apply to ‘male-sounding’ job postings | Klaus Becker at Technische Universität München (April 3): “If the advertisement described a large number of traits associated with men, the women found it less appealing and were less inclined to apply. Such traits include ‘assertive’, ‘independent’, ‘aggressive’ and ‘analytical’. Women found words like ‘dedicated’, ‘responsible’, ‘conscientious’ and ‘sociable’ more appealing. For male test subjects, on the other hand, the wording of the job advertisement made no difference.” (Citations follow the press release.)
  • Is the Oculus Rift sexist? (plus response to criticism) | danah boyd at apophenia (April 3): “[M]ilitary researchers had noticed that women seemed to get sick at higher rates in simulators than men. While they seemed to be able to eventually adjust to the simulator, they would then get sick again when switching back into reality. Being an activist and a troublemaker, I walked straight into the office of the head CAVE researcher and declared the CAVE sexist.” Warning: as discussed at the end of the piece, boyd uses some language that trans people have criticised, explaining it as the language of her trans informants.
  • Introducing ‘Sexism Ed’ | Kelly J. Baker at Chronicle Vitae (April 2): “But look: We could lean in until our backs were permanently bent forward and still face discrimination, bias, harassment, and more recently, rescinded job offers… I’ll be writing an occasional column—I’ll call it Sexism Ed—as a way to continue the conversation on sexism and gender discrimination in higher ed.”
  • Creepshots: Microsoft discovers an on-campus peeping tom | Nate Anderson at Ars Technica (April 5): “The Muvi camera [found by a Microsoft vendor employee] contained ‘upskirt’ video footage of women climbing stairs or escalators—or sometimes just standing in checkout lines—and some of it had been shot on Microsoft’s campus.”

Lots of goodness in Model View Culture‘s Funding issue, including:

Check out the whole issue!

The linkspam is a harsh mistress (19 March 2014)

Super spam today folks!

Kicking off with our traditional can of miscellaneous linkspam:

The Mythology edition of Model View Culture is out, and its entire table of contents is of interest! This spammer couldn’t trim it down!

Look out for an interview with Model View Culture founders Amelia Greenhall and Shanley Kane on Geek Feminism tomorrow!

And finally, Julie Ann Horvath left Github, describing harassment and other inappropriate workplace behaviour. Some coverage and responses include:

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Ally Smells: Boundaries

This is a guest post from Julie Pagano. Julie is a software engineer who likes to focus on the front-end and user experience. When she’s not working at her day job, she focuses on championing diversity in tech and building the Pittsburgh tech community. Julie is also known for her smashing Feminist Hulk impressions and her army of feminist firebees. This post is crossposted to her blog.

This post frankly discusses issues related to boundary violations. It may be difficult to read. I recommend reviewing the content warnings below before deciding to proceed.

Content warnings: boundary violations, predatory behavior, ableism, *ist language, sexual assault, and possibly others

I recently covered a bunch of “bad ally” behaviors. Some of the items on that list are downright awful, and some of them are more akin to the ally equivalent of a “code smell”. They’re not that awful in isolation, but they are often a sign of deeper problems. The more they occur, the worse those problems probably are. I am working on exploring some of these “ally smells” in more detail.

Today I am digging into a pretty sensitive topic: boundaries. This can range from a tiny mistake to an ally smell all the way up to a horrifying predatory situation. In this post, I am going to focus on boundary violations from people who want to be or claim to be allies. Additional discussions of boundary issues are important, but that’s another post for another day.

Do you push or disrespect their boundaries (e.g. continuing a conversation when asked to stop, touching someone without permission)?

Some of the content of this post may make you upset or angry. I strongly recommend giving yourself some time to sit and think on it. If you want to be a good ally, learning to respect boundaries is critical.

Boundaries

Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for themselves what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around them and how they will respond when someone steps outside those limits.

Boundaries can be small or huge. Seemingly inconsequential or horrifyingly important. They all matter to the people who set them. They all should be respected, when possible**.

It does not matter if a boundary makes sense to you. It does not matter if it seems inconsequential to you. Boundaries are the prerogative of the person who sets them. You do not know that person’s story, and they are not obligated to justify their boundaries to you. That touch that seems insignificant to you may be uncomfortably intimate for someone else. That interaction that is fine with others may trigger someone’s PTSD. You do not know more about someone than they know about themselves. Trust that they know what they are doing when they set a boundary with you, even if you do not understand why.

When someone sets a boundary with you they are saying “no.” No means no. Do not push people on their boundaries or ask for explanations that are not readily given. Doing these things indicates that you do not respect their boundaries. For many people, saying “no” once, setting a boundary, is difficult enough. Do not put them in a position where they must repeatedly do so. No means no the first time. Pushing them on it suggests a hope that you can wear them down, which is problematic at best and predatory at worst. No means no.

** I say “when possible” here because there will be situations where you cannot avoid violating a boundary (e.g. you trip and accidentally touch someone without permission). However this should be the exception, not the rule. Do not use this language to try to rules lawyer your way around respecting boundaries.

Below are some examples of boundaries. All of the items below have happened to myself or people I know (often repeatedly) from people who claimed to be or wanted to be allies. They are not theoreticals. This is not an exhaustive list and should not be treated as such.

Examples: Physical

  • Hugging someone without permission (many people give close friends implicit permission).
  • Touching someone in potentially intimate locations (e.g. small of the back, leg, neck) without permission.
  • Touching someone intimately without permission (many people give their partners implicit permission).
  • Touching someone in a way they have explicitly asked you not to, even if that form of touch is normal for others (e.g. handshakes, hugs).
  • Touching someone in a way that causes them to be visibly or audibly uncomfortable, even if they do not explicitly ask you to stop. (Note: subtle cues may be difficult for some non-neurotypical people to pick up on.)
  • Continuing to touch someone when they have asked you to stop.
  • Invading someone’s personal space. A common case is standing very close to someone (appropriate distance may vary by situation and cultural background).
  • Trying to make someone feel bad for setting a physical boundary with you.

Examples: Language (verbal or in text format)

  • Saying sexually suggestive things to or about someone unless you have a relationship where that is considered appropriate.
  • Speaking to someone in a way they have explicitly asked you not to, even if that type of speech is normal for others (e.g. rape jokes, sexist/racist/ableist/*ist language).
  • Speaking to someone in a way that causes them to be visibly or audibly uncomfortable, even if they do not explicitly ask you to stop. (Note: subtle cues may be difficult for some non-neurotypical people to pick up on.)
  • Continuing to engage with someone on a specific topic when they have asked you to stop.
  • Continuing to engage with someone when they have asked you to cease contact.
  • Asking someone you do not know very well about sensitive or private information (e.g. genitalia, sexual assault). This includes digging for details when they provide some high level information on a sensitive topic.
  • Using slurs directed at a group that person is a member of.
  • Being verbally abusive and/or threating to someone.
  • Bringing up private information about someone, such as where they live. This can easily be perceived as a threat.
  • Disclosing private information about someone without their permission.
  • Trying to make someone feel bad for setting a language boundary with you.

Examples: Third Parties

  • Sending a third party to speak to someone after they have asked you to stop speaking with them.
  • Contacting someone’s friends and acquaintances to try to get them to speak with you when they have asked you to cease direct contact with them.
  • Encouraging third parties to push boundaries someone has set with you.
  • Encouraging third parties to discourage someone from setting boundaries with you.
  • Encouraging third parties to discourage someone from calling out boundaries you have violated.
  • Attempting to discredit someone to others for setting boundaries with you.
  • Trying to get third parties to make someone feel bad for setting a boundary with you.

Examples: Potentially Subtle Boundaries

  • Interrupting a semi-private conversation between people you do not know well, particularly when they are discussing a sensitive topic. This works in person and online. Yes, they are in a public space, but that doesn’t mean you are invited if you don’t have a context with the people involved.
  • Regularly contacting someone who never engages with you. This is common on places like social networks and email. If you contact someone with great regularity and they never (or almost never) respond to you, there is a good chance you are pushing a boundary, and they are trying to ignore you.
  • Fixating on someone who you do not have a close relationship with (e.g. writing blog posts about them without asking first, regularly mentioning them on social media).
  • Asking someone if they’re talking about you when they say something vague. Most of the time, if someone wanted to call you out specifically, they would have done so. Vagueness is usually intentional and pushing someone to be explicit is often pushing a boundary.
  • Complaining about spaces you are not allowed at or attempting to enter those spaces anyway.

Power Dynamics

Power dynamics are a huge part of pushing boundaries. Boundaries are often different when power imbalances are involved. When you have a position of power over someone, it is more difficult for them to set clear boundaries with you or reassert those boundaries when they are crossed for fear of repercussions. If you care about respecting the boundaries of others, it is critical for you to pay attention to and be aware of power dynamics. This is especially critical for you to be sensitive to when you are more likely to be in a position of power. As an ally, there is very likely to be a power differential because you are in a privileged position.

Below are some examples of power dynamics. Some power dynamics are obvious and explicit. Others are less clear. They all are important and matter. Predators often prey on more subtle power dynamics because they are easier to get away with. Take the steps to draw a clear distinction between yourself and them by paying closer attention to these dynamics. This is not an exhaustive list and should not be treated as such.

Note: many of the examples below mention the potential for harm. The power dynamic exists because you could do those things, even if you think it is clear that you would not.

Examples: Work & School

Do you have an explicit position of power over them codified in your work/school relationship?

  • You are their boss, their boss’s boss, or even higher up the chain of command at their job. You directly have the power to punish or fire them.
  • You are a professor, teacher, or other educator and they are a student. You directly have the power to negatively impact their academic/educational achievement and performance.

Do you have a position of power over them related to your work/school relationship?

  • You are their team lead, supervisor, mentor, or something similar at their job. You are not their boss, but you have the ability to negatively impact their work environment. You may be close with their boss (or higher ups) and be able to indirectly impact their chances of being punished or fired.
  • You are a teaching assistant, mentor, or something similar in an academic/educational environment. You cannot directly impact their achievement and performance, but you can negatively impact the environment for them. You may be close with their professor, teacher, or others with more direct power over the student and be able to indirectly impact their academic/educational achievement and performance.

Do you have an implicit position of power over them related to your work/school relationship?

  • You are a colleague, peer, or something similar at their job. Your power over them may come from things like seniority at the workplace, more years of experience, or a social relationship with others in a position of power. You have the ability to indirectly impact their work environment.
  • You are another student or colleague in an academic/educational environment. Your power over them may come from things like higher achievement, seniority in school, or a social relationship with others in a position of power. You have the ability to indirectly impact their academic/educational environment.

Examples: Community

Do you have an explicit position of power?

  • You are a known organizer of a conference, user group, open source project, or other community group. You have the ability to make someone unwelcome at these groups or even explicitly ban them.

Do you have an implicit position of power?

  • You are a speaker at a conference, user group, or other event. You have the ability to use your platform and celebrity to make events uncomfortable or unwelcoming for someone.
  • You are a well known member of a community through work, speaking, open source contributions, or other means. You have the ability to use your celebrity to discredit others or make them uncomfortable.

Examples: Characteristics

Do you have any characteristics that may give you a position of power?

  • Are you much larger and stronger than the other person?
  • Are you a member of a privileged group that has historically oppressed a group the other person is a member of?
  • Are you a member of a group that is in the majority in your work or academic environment while the other person is a member of group that is in the minority?
  • Are you a member of a group that is statistically likely to harm the other person?

Why Is It Important?

You may be asking yourself why are boundaries so critical? Why am I making such a big deal about this? In the opening of this post, I mentioned that boundary violations can range from a tiny mistake to an ally smell all the way up to a horrifying predatory situation. Boundary violations are a big deal, even when they are small, because they are often a sign of things to come. A symptom of something more sinister than an accident. A red flag.

Am I saying that everyone who violates a boundary is a dangerous predator? No, I am not. Definitely not. Plenty of good people I know and trust have made mistakes with boundaries. I have made mistakes with boundaries. Not all people who violate boundaries are predators, but all predators violate boundaries. It is often impossible for the person on the receiving end of the violation to tell the difference and guessing wrong can have dire consequences.

Predators often start with small boundary violations that might seem inconsequential in isolation. Seeing what they can get away with. Slowly escalating. Others have referred to this as The Boiling Frog Principle Of Boundary Violation. This is why even small mistakes can be seen as a red flag, particularly if they happen repeatedly.

There’s a popular post titled Schrödinger’s Rapist that explores some of these interactions.

When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy—you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.

Boundary violations are exhausting, especially for people at an increased risk of being targeted by predators. Dealing with these issues regularly means having to be on guard and evaluate safety most of the time. A constant white noise of evaluating risk and hoping your assessment is correct. Mental energy that could be spent elsewhere if boundaries were not regularly being violated. Allies can take on some of that load by being mindful and avoiding boundary violations.

Boundary violations can reduce comfort and access to certain resources and spaces for people. For example, someone may no longer feel comfortable attending events with someone who has violated their boundaries because they are concerned it will continue or escalate. Someone may lose a mentor who can help them professionally because they push boundaries, and it makes them uncomfortable. There can be very real personal and professional consequences of boundary violations.

Steps to Improve

Remember how I said at the beginning that this post may upset you? Your first step here is to sit with this. Give yourself some time to think on it. Maybe read it a few times. Push past the potential upset you have about this information. If you want to be a good ally, you need to work on respecting boundaries. It is ongoing work that is not necessarily easy, but is very important. This is something I try to work on regularly.

First off, recognize that you are going to fuck up. We all do. Take responsibility for your mistakes. See my post about making mistakes for suggestions on how to respond when called out on pushing or violating boundaries.

Be thoughtful. Be empathetic. If a little part of your brain says “this might be inappropriate” or “this might make someone uncomfortable,” err on the side of not doing that thing. Erring on the side of asking explicit permission is usually going to be better than erring on the side of violating someone’s boundaries. It can be awkward to ask if you’re not used to it, but practice makes perfect and people will appreciate the effort.

Be ok with hearing a “no.” Make it easy for people to tell you “no.” When you are told “no,” respect it. If possible, learn to pay attention to more subtle boundary setting from people who may have difficulty explicitly saying a clear “no.” If not possible to pick up on these cues, be clear with people that you need more explicit feedback. If someone’s boundaries are in conflict with your own boundaries, state your boundaries and, if possible, work with them to find a compromise that is amenable to both of you. If it’s not possible for you to respect someone’s stated boundaries, avoid them.

Lastly, if you have a problem with violating boundaries, decrease your access to situations where you are likely to violate them. It is your responsibility to decrease the problem, not of those on the receiving end to try to avoid it. If you find yourself regularly violating boundaries, get help. Consider getting help from a friend with a better understanding of boundaries. If you think it is a serious problem related to mental health concerns (e.g. addiction, social anxiety, being non-neurotypical), consider getting help from a mental health professional. They are trained to assist with these sorts of things and help you work on it. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness or failure. It is committing yourself to improvement, so you do not harm others.

Statement of support for Adria Richards

This post is issued collectively by Geek Feminism contributors.

The Geek Feminism bloggers would like to state our support for and solidarity with Adria Richards, who spoke up against inappropriate behaviour at the PyCon 2013 conference, and the organizers of PyCon 2013, who responded by promptly enforcing their policy with a warning.

The harassment and abuse campaign directed at Adria Richards disgusts, horrifies and scares us. We are very sorry this is happening to Adria and her supporters and are dismayed by SendGrid’s decision to end Adria’s employment there. We condemn the racism directed at Adria, which has been amply demonstrating that women of color are particularly unwelcome and vulnerable in the technical community. We continue to hope for and to work for a technical and wider geek community where women, especially women of color and other oppressed women, can voice their concerns about being unwelcome without being widely abused and threatened and thereby silenced.

Comments on this post are closed, and comments left on any other post, including linkspam submissions, on this topic will be deleted. Unfortunately the level of vitriol directed at Adria and her supporters in discussion spaces elsewhere on the Internet is beyond our ability to moderate.

We deeply apologise to members of our community who would like to add their support, de-brief, or co-sign this statement for our inability to host their comments.

Dear male allies: your sexism looks a bit like my racism

Octavia Butler

Would you indulge me in a little geeking out about intersectionality? Why, thanks. Hi, I’m Yatima and I’m a racist.

I don’t mean to be, I’m working really hard to stop it and God knows it horrifies me every time I hear something racist come out of my mouth. When I wake at 4am for a bout of self-loathing, those are among the top moments I replay, over and over. I guess you could say I am a person who sometimes says racist things but seriously? Let’s not split hairs.

Trouble is, as a white, able-bodied, educated, employed, cis, married, middle-class person, I am very, very privileged. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m a woman, I would probably never have experienced any kind of oppression based on aspects of myself that I can’t change.

But I have experienced gender discrimination, and it has irked the hell out of me, to put it mildly, and so I work for change. Fine. It took me an embarrassingly long time to take the next logical step, which is to understand that if it hurts to be singled out because you’re a woman, it hurts even more to be singled out because (say) you are a woman of color. Or a woman with a disability. Or a working-class woman. And so forth.

It’s relatively easy for me to advocate for feminist change because I can – in Ursula Le Guin’s words – offer up my experience as my wisdom. My testimony is relevant, because I am a woman. It turns out to be much harder for me to advocate for race or ability or class issues, because oftentimes I just don’t know what these issues are. My racism, and my other *isms, are a function of (among other things) my ignorance. Privilege conceals from me the experiences of not-having-privilege.

I was at about this point when Racefail erupted all over the science-fiction-blogosphere: just barely smart enough to notice that some of the white participants in the discussion were unintentionally making things worse, and to try to figure out why. That curiosity led me in turn to the 50 books by People of Color community. It’s a Livejournal comm that challenges participants to read 50 books – any 50 books – that are written by, well, people of color. And then review them. Or not. (It’s pretty mellow.)

While I didn’t finish the 50 books challenge – I think I got to the high thirties before I stopped counting (ooh, it was 45! go me!) – it was one of the best experiences of my intellectual life (says the woman with a Master’s degree and a great job in research.) For the first time, I read Doreen Baingana, Larissa Behrendt, Octavia Butler, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Iris Chang, Samuel R. Delany, Edwige Danticat, Anita Heiss, Mei Ling Hopgood, Nora K. Jemisin, Angela Johnson, Jamaica Kincade, Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama, Sanjay Patel, Alex Sanchez and Jane Jeong Trenka. It was…

It was great. It changed the way I read, permanently, for the better. I no longer feel satisfied on a diet of pure Western canon.

I began to see what I was missing. I began to see some of the things the Western canon chronically leaves out and overlooks. I began to see some of the ways in which I, as an educated white middle class person, had been socialized and conditioned to speak up and interpret and analyze and assume that my (uninformed) opinion was really really interesting to other people. I began to see the ways in which my opinion was, perhaps, not.

This, to be honest, remains to this day my best strategy for fighting my own racism, and all the other prejudices that I have unthinkingly imbibed along with my privileges. I am learning to listen. I am learning to seek out other voices – not only in books but in film, music, graphic novels, journalism and blogs. I am learning to feel incomplete without them.

There’s still a time and a place for me to express my opinion on issues around race and ability and class, and it’s this: I get to be the one who says to another white person: “That was a really racist thing to say.” Or to another able-bodied person: “We need to think about improving access for disabled people.”

I don’t get to be the one who tells people of color or disabled people How It Is.

Here’s what I want to tell you, dear male allies. It is such a relief. Listening to other peoples’ voices? Is incredibly moving, and humbling, and endlessly interesting. Shutting the hell up while I do it? God, how I love the sound of not-my-own-voice. Going into battle against racists and so forth? So much easier, now that I have a faint clue what’s actually going on.

And that’s all I have to say. If you would like to know more about how women think, listen to them. Listen to Regina Spektor and Meshell Ngedeocello and Diamanda Galas. Read Madeleine Albright and Barbara Tuchman and Leslie Chang and Katherine Boo and for God’s sake, read Octavia Butler, she is seriously so completely amazing.

Come and join the Geek Feminism Book Club. We’re going to have fun.

Group of male-type and female-type body symbols, 8 male, 2 female

Re-post: How To Exclude Women Without Really Trying

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on September 17, 2012.

An earlier version of this post appears on Tim’s blog.

Excluding by inclusion

This year’s “Future of Haskell” discussion, which traditionally ends the annual Haskell Symposium, stumbled into the question of gender equity, via the perennial question of how to increase the number of Haskell programmers. Many programmers (of all genders) find math intimidating and think that the Haskell programming language requires more mathematical skill than other popular languages. In the discussion, Doaitse Swierstra, a professor of computer science at the University of Utrecht, suggested that a good way to increase the number of Haskell programmers would be to recruit one woman for every man in the room. So far, so good: in fact, Prof. Swierstra showed creativity by introducing the problem of gender inequity at this point in the discussion. But then he went on to say that if this goal were achieved, it would make the meetings more “attractive”.

Speaking as someone who attended functional programming conferences for ten years, the field of programming language (PL) research in general is particularly male-dominated even by computer science standards. Also anecdotally, functional programming is an even more male-dominated sub-field within PL research. I would sometimes play a game during conference talks where I would count the number of men with long hair, and the number of women, in the room. There were always more long-haired men than women. I can’t know what someone’s gender is by looking at them (as I well know, since before 2007 most people who looked at me would have thought I counted as one of those women). Still, even with a very generous estimate as to how many people who appeared to be men may actually have been trans women or genderqueer people, the conferences would still have had a gender balance that doesn’t reflect the underlying population, or even the gender balance in computer science or software as a whole. Even the field of mathematics is less male-dominated than functional programming research, so the excuse that PL people are blameless and the numbers result from discouragement of girls learning math at the primary and secondary educational levels does not explain the imbalance.

Prof. Swierstra does get credit for recognizing that there is a problem. And I don’t doubt that by making the comments he made, he intended to encourage the inclusion of women, not exclusion. (You can listen to the relevant part of the discussion yourself—the link goes directly to 32:00 in the video. Apologizes in advance to those who are hard of hearing; I didn’t want to attempt a transcript beyond what I already paraphrased, since I wasn’t totally sure about all of it.)

Even so, Swierstra’s remark provides a great example of how it’s not the intent behind what you say that matters, but rather, the effect that your words have. By following a call for more women in the room with a comment about his opinion of women’s greater attractiveness relative to men, he completely undermined his own attempt to encourage equality, whether or not that was his intent. If you accidentally run a person over with your car, not having intended to hurt them doesn’t make them less dead. And if you make an objectifying comment that tells women their value at an academic conference is as decoration, not having intended to send that message doesn’t make those women feel any more welcome. (While accidental killings are punished less harshly than deliberate ones, the analogy stops holding at that point, since no one wants to punish people for accidentally making sexist comments, only to ask them to reflect and learn so they don’t make such comments in the future.)
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