Tag Archives: privilege

I take it wearing cat ears wouldn’t help?

Moskowitz

A Twitter friend of mine linked to a cute post that Asana — a startup that makes collaboration software — has on their web site. It’s a joke proposal for furnishing the office with kittens. This is a nice type of humor because it doesn’t rely on making fun of anyone. I would have appreciated it, if not for one thing.

Back in June 2013, I got a recruiter email from Asana. I was already considering leaving my job at the time, and it seemed like the company was doing something pretty cool. I asked whether they offered trans-inclusive benefits. The recruiter looked into it for me, and came back with the following answer:

“We researched this and went back and forth with the insurance company and our insurance broker. It appears we probably do not have the coverage you are looking for. Sorry about that. I would have liked to be able to talk.”

So that was it. I would have considered the job otherwise, but not if I was clearly going to be a second-class employee. There was nothing particularly unusual about this interaction. As trans people, we’re not a protected class under US law, so it’s okay for insurance companies to deny us medically necessary care as long as it’s care that only a trans person would need. This isn’t because insurance executives actively hate us or something like that — no, it’s because of something worse. They know that because the American public considers us subhuman, they can get away with cutting costs by denying us health care — just because we happen to be in a politically unpopular group. To me, that’s worse than being actively hated.

Is this the fault of a small tech startup? No, of course not. But at the same time, many companies — big and small — have found ways to be fair and just in how they provide benefits to employees. Generally, this just means negotiating a deal with an insurance broker to add a rider for trans-related care. It should be the default, but in the meantime, negotiating that deal is the right thing to do. Engineering is supposed to be about solving problems, not reassigning blame so as to accumulate more of them.

Negotiating a better insurance plan is also the smart thing to do, because at a time when it seems widely accepted that there’s a shortage of tech talent, turning somebody away because a doctor assigned them an incorrect sex category at birth makes no sense; being trans has no bearing on anybody’s ability to write software. And even when you are not actively discriminating against trans people, saying (explicitly or tacitly) “it’s not worth our time to treat trans employees the same way as everybody else” is effectively equivalent to active discrimination.

So when I saw that “kittens” link, this is what I thought about. Somebody at Asana had enough time to write a cute, silly blog post — that nevertheless must have taken some effort — on the clock. And there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. But at a company with more than 50 employees, nonetheless, nobody has time to spend a few hours executing a simple, well-documented procedure to make sure that they are treating all employees as equally welcome. So that says something about their priorities.

When I made this observation on Twitter a few hours ago, it didn’t take much time before Asana’s co-founder Dustin Moskowitz was in my Twitter mentions explaining to me that Asana doesn’t have any trans employees (how does he know that, exactly?) but if they ever did, they would be sure to make their health insurance coverage fair after that person got hired.

Even more mind-bogglingly, he defended this choice by saying that many HR processes work this way, using pregnancy leave as another example. This is like saying “we are only going to install men’s restrooms in our office, and wait until a woman gets hired before installing a women’s room. Too bad if she needs to take a bathroom break while we’re interviewing her.” Lazy evaluation can be a great feature in a programming language, but it’s a terrible way for a company to ensure it’s meeting minimal standards about equity and inclusion right from the beginning.

Right now, I’m thinking about the free labor that I’m expected to perform by virtue of my membership in a marginalized group. If I actually did apply to Asana and was hired, I’d be expected to out myself to, potentially, people outside HR, just so I could get something every other employee takes for granted: health benefits. As it is, Moskowitz attempted to deflect criticism by asking me if I knew which insurance brokers were willing to negotiate trans-inclusive riders. Is that my job? And anyway, I reported the problem directly to Asana over a year ago — if they had acted on my feedback (as a job candidate who would have considered working there if not for this), the whole conversation would never had had to happen! How much more work do I have to do for free? In the time Moskowitz spent writing defensive tweets, he could have instead called up Blue Shield and gotten a price quote for a trans-inclusive rider. It took me less than five minutes on Google to find that Blue Shield has been offering such riders since 2012. Moskowitz never claimed that cost was an issue in deciding not to provide equal care for trans employees, so what’s the problem, exactly? Is this a good way to do public relations?

I don’t mean to single out Asana here. There are many companies that fail to provide this basic health coverage to their employees. But today, there was only one whose co-founder chose to spend his time arguing with me instead of fixing the problem. Is that a good way to do business? While Moskowitz eventually replied to me saying that he recognized he’d been wrong and would look into it more, still, I’m tired. I’m tired of the knee-jerk reaction to constructive feedback about how to stop marginalizing people that amounts to, “when you do more work for us for free, we’ll stop marginalizing you.” Again, no startup founder made the decision that insurance companies shouldn’t treat trans people equally by default. But by expecting trans people to take the lead in working around that decision, they reveal their own complicity with it.

What it amounts to when a startup co-founder says, “fix the problem for me, being fair isn’t important enough to me for me to do it myself” is attempting to convince users that a problem those users are having isn’t really hindering them, in lieu of just solving the problem. I think engineers can do better than that. If you want to build reliable software, you do the research on tools for static analysis, debugging, and testing; you don’t ask your customers to tell you what the best test framework is. Likewise, if you want to show that you treat people equally — that you try to be like a meritocracy, even if that abstraction is unrealizable — then you take the lead. I think business people call this “being proactive”. And when proactiveness is selectively applied so that no work ever gets done to move a company closer towards fairness unless the people being treated unfairly do all the heavy lifting — well, we notice. There is nothing complicated about what trans people are asking for. We want to be treated like everybody else. Apology or not, Moskowitz’s reaction to criticism today confirmed what we already knew: for many of the companies that employ us, treating us fairly is just too hard and takes up too much time that could be spent writing proposals about kittens.

Edited to add, October 19, 2014: I wanted to note that Dustin Moskowitz actually took the time to email me on September 11 (I just didn’t read it until now) to say that he had researched the issue and found out that Asana already had a level of trans-inclusive coverage comparable to Yelp (see their entry on the MicroActivism wiki). I’m glad they do, and hope that the lesson to other startup folks who see this post is to know the level of benefits you offer up front, before a potential hire asks; as well as familiarizing yourself with your state or locality’s laws about what types of coverage must be provided.

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.

The Filter Bubble Is a Misguided, Privileged Notion

nina de jesus is a digital projects librarian on Mississauga land. Interests include digital preservation, information ethics, and long walks on the beach. nina conducts experiments on her life as performance art in an attempt to resist, challenge, and inspire discourse on #libtechwomen. This post originally appeared on nina’s blog.

The basic notion of the filter bubble is that personalization on the internet (with google search, facebook, etc) creates this individualized spaces where we only see things we already agree with, stuff that confirms our points of view, rather than stuff that challenges us or makes us uncomfortable.

The first and most glaring problem with this idea is that it wholly makes this into a technological problem when it is a social problem.

On the whole, we actually know this. Idioms like “birds of a feather flock together” suggest that we have a very basic, folk understanding that people tend to stick with other people who are like them. This is something that holds true in pretty much every social arena that you care to pick. From the moment we are born, we already exist in a filter bubble. A bubble that is determined by many factors outside of our control: race, gender, class, geography, etc.

Eli Pariser mentions that he is from Maine. Which is one of the least racially diverse states in the US, with 95% of the people in the 2010 US Census reporting that they are white. The fact that he is able to posit filter bubbles as a predominantly technological problem while growing up in one of the most racially segregated and homogenous states in America is… well. Exactly how my point is proven.

The thing is. Say he successfully solves the technological problem. How will this, in anyway, deal with the fact that his home state’s demographics precludes most of the white inhabitants from ever actually encountering a person of colour in real life? Where, arguably, it is far more critical that we don’t have filter bubbles so that we can experience the humanity of other people, rather than just being exposed to facts/articles/whatever.

This also explains why his solution won’t work. As the recent piece about polarization on Twitter demonstrates… Most people don’t bother seeking out stuff that disagrees with them. This is stark on a site like Twitter, where your timeline is still chronological feed, rather than one decided by relevance. You can follow people you don’t agree with, see what they post, etc. But most of us don’t bother. And this isn’t going to change anytime soon and no amount of tech whatever will change it either.

Second. Only the most privileged of people are truly able to exist within a filter bubble.

The other main part of his notion of the bubble is that it is good for ‘democracy’ and ‘responsible citizenship’ for people to be exposed to contrary view points that make them uncomfortable or challenge them.

The fact that, in his narrative, he has to describe how he used the internet, as a youth, to seek out these contrary viewpoints demonstrates, more than anything, the amount of privilege he has as a (presumably) straight, white, cis d00d.

This is a problem I often find with people who are similarly privileged.

Existing in the world as a marginalized person means that there is never a filter bubble. You don’t get protection like this.

And it doesn’t deal with the biggest culprit of filtering: the public education system. This is something particularly relevant given that it is February, Black History month. The solitary month every year where Black people get to show up in history. And we also know that every single time this month comes around, white people complain and ask why they can’t have all twelve months for white history (re: white mythology).

Then we can talk about the media in Canada. About how most of the books I read in or out of school had white men/boys as protagonists. Or how most TV shows, movies, etc. and so on likewise not only have white men/boys as protagonists, but also very much serve to emphasize this point of view as default, normal, unmarked.

I have literally spent my entire life listening to, learning about, being exposed to ideas, thoughts, worldviews that make me uncomfortable and that I do not agree with.

Instead of having to expend effort to find stuff that disagrees with me, I’m always on an eternal search for information that agrees with me. As soon as I was able to access the internet, visit the library on my own, have any amount of agency and control over the information I consumed, I have been seeking things that let me know that I am a human being. That I (and people like me) actually exist. That we live, breath, have adventures, have a history, that we have fun, that we are sad — just that we are human. That we exist.

Last, what are, precisely, the viewpoints that disagree with me or make me uncomfortable?

On the first pass, I’d say it is probably the points of view of the people who shout things like “ft” “chk” or “t**y” at me when I’m moving around and existing in public space (so happy that these people are excersing their good democratic citizenship by treating me to their challenging viewpoints in public!).

What does this mean for the internet?

Maybe it means reading sensationalized and dehumanizing stories about the death of a trans Latina, Lorena Escalera from notorious liberal/left media news rag, the New York Times.

Maybe it means reading an imperialist post when I’m just trying to learn about Ruby.

Or perhaps seeing something about how because some men are sexual predators, trans women deserve no public protection or acccommodatons.

Does it mean that I should spend my time reading the content at stormwatch or Fox News?

Or maybe it could mean that the internet is one of the very few places I have any real amount of control to filter out these points of view so that I can find people who agree with me. People I can build community with. People I can rant to/with. Find support for things that most of the world refuses to support me for.

Because, at the end of the day, I do, in fact have to live in the real world. The world where (this was me yesterday at Ryerson) I have to spend 15 minutes looking for a gender neutral washroom (and another 10 waiting for it to be unoccupied) because using either gendered washroom makes me uncomfortable and feel very unsafe. The world where if I want to regularly watch TV shows with PoC, I have to watch them in languages I don’t understand. Where I get stared at all the time in public — which does nothing to help my agoraphobia. Basically the world where — almnost my entire life — I’ve felt unsafe in most public spaces.

But, hey, filter bubbles, amirite?

All your linkspam are belong to us (19 November 2013)

  •  Ms. Male Character – Tropes vs Women in Video Games | Feminist Frequency on YouTube: “In this episode we examine the Ms. Male Character trope and briefly discuss a related pattern called the Smurfette Principle. We’ve defined the Ms. Male Character Trope as: The female version of an already established or default male character. Ms. Male Characters are defined primarily by their relationship to their male counterparts via visual properties, narrative connection or occasionally through promotional materials.”
  • So Many Reasons | Can’t Stop the Serenity: “Can’t Stop the Serenity (CSTS) is a unique opportunity to indulge your geeky side while doing some good! Since 2006, fans have organized screenings of Joss Whedon’s Serenity to raise funds and awareness to support Equality Now in their work for the protection and promotion of the human rights of women around the world. Join us as we aim to misbehave for a good cause!” (also have a look at the items available to buy/bid for on Ebay)
  • Sexual Harassment in Comics: The Tipping Point | Comics Alliance: “Since [Tess] Fowler’s comments [about sexual harassment in the comics industry], and the wider-ranging debate that followed, I have seen conversation after conversation of men debating with other men whether or not the reality of women is real, men asking other men to confirm that what women were saying was true, men testifying that they’d never seen harassment – or else piping up that they knew there was harassment, yes, but it wasn’t as bad as people were saying. As though they, somehow, were some sort of authority on the experiences of women.”
  • There’s an All-Female Team of Spelunking Scientists Making Amazing Discoveries Right This Very Moment | The Mary Sue: “A veritable treasure trove of prehistoric bones is discovered. A small team is needed to retrieve what could be evidence of a new human ancestor. The chosen few have to be scientists and experienced cavers. Of the 57 applicants, six were selected for this highly dangerous mission. And they all just so happen to be women.”
  • Who Wants to Work for a Woman? | Harvard Business Review: “Gallup’s question asked, “If you were taking a new job and had your choice of boss, would you prefer a man or a woman?” Only 25% of Americans expressed no preference in 1953 but today it’s 41%.”
  • On Accepting Privilege | Lindsey Bieda: “Understanding your own privileges means also understanding how your own axes of identity intersect and how they interact. Things people can see about you and things you can’t hide in your sleeves and pretend they aren’t there usually are bigger effectors of privilege. By this I mean; I’m an atheist you can’t tell by looking at me that I am an atheist (my shoes definitely don’t say atheist), so anyone who might discriminate against non-christians would not be aware unless I said something. However, a woman who was non-gender conforming was denied a tip because of her appearance.”

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.in 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.

Charlie and the Chocolate Linkspam (27 August 2013)

  • A Few Things To Stop Doing When You Find a Feminist Blog | Fugitivus: “Here is the thing, okay? Coming into a feminist conversation with, “Have you considered that sometimes women acquire free drinks at bars?” is like walking into graduate school during Philosophy finals and saying, “Have you considered that the color blue that I see may not be the color blue that you see?” [...] Imagine now [the student's] feelings when you go to the head of the classroom with a smirk on your face and demand the professor give you an A for effort. Imagine now that they think you are a douchebag asshole, because they do, and because you are.”
  • Banish the trolls but web debate needs anonymity | The Guardian: “So the proprietor of the Huffington Post has decided to ban anonymous commenting from the site, starting in mid-September. [...] That seems like common sense. Whether it is supported by evidence is, however, uncertain because at the moment there isn’t much research. [...] there is a halfway house: pseudonymity‚ ie a system in which commenters are allowed to choose their own user names, but have to associate them with a valid email address. [...] And the moral of the story? Think twice, Arianna Huffington, before insisting on real names.”
  • [Warning: quoted examples of ableist speech] How to be an Ally to Sick People | Autistic Hoya: “An Ally recognizes that Sick people are human and sometimes get overwhelmed by their situation. An Ally recognizes that at times a Sick person may want to vent among other people who understand first-hand what it’s like. An Ally also recognizes that we all make mistakes or poor choices and that is a part of being human. Even if an illness is connected to a poor choice, it still doesn’t mean the Sick person deserves the illness.”
  • The Unbearable Whiteness of Breaking Things | Medium: “By teaching primarily young white men to unreflectively “break things” and reward them when they do, Stanford and other Silicon Valley institutions like YCombinator are incubators not for any kind of social change or “disruption” but for the assignment of privilege to the people who are most likely to already have it.”
  • She’s got it: responses to Tony Abbott’s ‘sex appeal’ comments | The Conversation: “But intention is not the key issue. These kinds of comments have serious consequences for both the individual woman involved and for women in public life more generally. Pervasive gender stereotypes mean that women are already fighting a battle to be seen as potential leaders, and comments about traditionally feminine attributes, such as sex appeal, reduce the perceived competence and suitability of women for public office.”
  • Architecturally Isolating “Feminine” Emotional Displays | Inequality by (Interior) Design: “The story that I’ve always heard about [a roofwalk / widow's walk / widow's perch / widow's watch] is that it was designed for the wives of sailors to watch and wait for their husbands to return.  Women whose husbands died at sea–so I was told–would sit in these rooms, pining for their long-lost lovers.  As it happens, there’s not a great deal of evidence that this was, in fact, the original purpose of the room, nor that this is how these rooms were actually used. [...] Rooms dedicated to socially “inappropriate” emotional displays from men are absent in Victorian architecture, perhaps because “real men” were presumed not to ever have need of them.  It’s an interesting case in which architecture plays a critical role in our interactions, either segregating or suppressing certain displays.”
  • [Warning: discussions of sexual harassment and assault]  Conference anti-harassment campaigns do work: Three existence proofs from SF&F, atheism/skepticism, and open source | The Ada Initiative: “We decided to chronicle the history of conference anti-harassment policies in three communities: science fiction and fantasy, skepticism and atheism, and free and open source software. The goal is to create a standard reference model of how conference anti-harassment campaigns usually work so that we can refer to it when the going gets tough. [...] This history only covers the high-profile, publicly-documented events of conference anti-harassment campaigns, but like any social justice movement, much of the credit should go to the many people quietly working behind the scenes to organize and implement the change.”

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on pinboard.in 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.

Scary raccoon in my toilet in the middle of the night

I live in a house with wild animals (And I really have to pee.)

This is a guest post by Ashe Dryden, a programmer and conference organizer living in Madison, WI. She is passionate about increasing diversity within the tech community.

This post originally appeared on Ashe’s blog.

The thing that shocks them the most is the fact that I live with wild animals.

I don’t mean that I have a pet rabbit that I found along the road and nursed it back to health. I mean wild animals. Ones I didn’t invite in. For instance, there’s a a family of rats that has burrowed a hole through the insulation in the side of the house and I can hear them hissing and scritching when I try to fall asleep at night. The kitchen is home to a shiny black crow that is happily nesting on top of my refrigerator; I guess it’s kinda warm up there and offers the best vantage point. I think the most disconcerting to people, though, is the old raccoon that lives in the one tiny bathroom in my house; I keep the door closed to avoid run-ins with him because he’s a bit on the terrifying side.

Most people are pretty surprised by this. I mean, I seem like a pretty average person. Nothing super remarkable about me from the outside. I work most days, run errands, sing Beyonce songs louder than most people around me would like. It’s only once people start to hang around me that they realize that there is something a little off about me.

Quite a few of you were surprised to find that I even lived in your neighborhood. Some of you have even remarked that you haven’t seen me around before and didn’t realize that a person like me would either choose or (even be able) to live there.

I moved into the neighborhood late in the game, so my house cost a good deal more than yours even though ours are similar. Truth be told, you may think I live in the very same house: it’s single story and painted white some years ago, as evidenced by the chips that reveal the pale yellow beneath it. It’s got a handful of small, drafty windows and one of them overlooks the tiny strip of grass that people in cities wishfully call “front yards”. Sometimes in the summer the roof leaks, but all-in-all it’s not a terrible place to live.The inside has everything you’d expect from an old house like this: a living room that is awkwardly shaped by modern standards, yellowing linoleum on the floor of a kitchen that is a few decades past renovating, a boring square bedroom painted the expected off-white, and a bathroom that solves all of the problems you require out of a bathroom. Sounds pretty familiar, I’d assume.

It’s funny, because people will overhear me casually mention the small forest of animals sharing my house and they’ll think one of three things:

1. There is no way you live with wild animals. Oh, I do. I’ve lived with them for a while actually. Do you wanna come by and see? You should ask my buddy Jason: he took pictures of them the last time he came over to watch Doctor Who.

2. That must be amazing! You’re like a real-life Snow White! Do blue birds braid your hair in the morning? Nooot quite. I mean, it sometimes has its inadvertant perks, like the fact that the crow takes care of any bugs that might make it into the kitchen. Considering the fact that anything with more than six legs really creeps me out, that’s nice I guess?

3. That is fucking awful, why don’t you move or call animal control? How do you live? I tried the whole animal control thing. Two guys just out of college came and removed the rats. They couldn’t get anywhere near the raccoon to remove him (I call him Samuel L Jackson because he is a pretty bad ass dude) and the crow hid itself so well that they couldn’t find it. After a week the rats were back and angry. Plus I was out $350 and had to replace some of the siding on the house. Unfortunately all of the other houses in the areas I want to live are inhabited (seriously, I am waiting on people to just die at this point so I can hope to move) so there is nowhere to move. I either live here, or I have to move pretty far away and uproot my life. That just isn’t an option right now.

And “how do I live”? That’s a good question. I think the most amazing thing about my situation is that not too long after moving in, I kind of… got used to it. I learned quickly to not leave food out on the counter or the crow would get it (I lost many a loaf of bread in that war, let me tell you). The rats you can mostly ignore, but it’s pretty disconcerting to anyone who I’d invite to spend the night. Imagine trying to explain that one to a potential date. “So, before we, uh, go back to my place I need to tell you a thing. And I promise I’m not a serial killer. Wait, where are you going?”

And the raccoon? I basically dealt with that by quarantining it to the bathroom. Before you ask, I have no idea what it eats in there. I mean, raccoons supposedly eat everything, so I don’t even want to speculate (because ew). The bathroom is the smallest room in my house and I use it the least frequently, so for the most part it’s easy to ignore. I can avoid the bathroom to a certain degree: using the bathroom at work or in a restaurant before I come home, not drinking as much water once I am home. The only time I have to worry about it is when I shower. Thanks to wikipedia, I learned that raccoons are mostly nocturnal, so I only shower in the morning. The toilet, which he sleeps behind, is on the opposite wall of the shower so I can avoid close contact in general. After a few scary incidents in the shower that we don’t need to go into, I decided to always have a very thick bathrobe handy for quick escapes. By this point in time he only bothers me every couple days. The awkward part is maybe what you’d expect; thanks to poor planning or the occassional visit from the period fairy, I may sometimes have to actually use the bathroom.

Like, to pee.

Scary raccoon in my toilet in the middle of the night

Now, if you’ve never tried to use a toilet in a small bathroom in the middle of the night when an angry old racoon is hiding somewhere just out of sight, it’s probably hard to imagine. And if said raccoon has attacked you in the past and made you run screaming soggy and naked out of the bathroom as if you were in a horror movie, you can imagine the amount of anxiety I have about using this room in my house at all. As I’m also of the variety that has to actually sit on the toilet to use it, this creates some challenges. Let’s just say that the entire process entails wearing specialized sports equipment repurposed as raccoon armor (thanks, Goodwill!). It’s not pretty and it’s certainly not convenient to deal with at 3am when you’re woken up by a full bladder and your new bedmate wants to know why you’re putting on shin guards.

You probably wouldn’t want to be my roomate, but a number of acquaintances have definitely used my house as a fantasy tourist destination just so they have a shocking story to tell their friends. I’ve been unlucky enough to be around when they are doing a dramatic retelling of some random story I’ve told them and made it into something particularly dangeresque. I won’t lie, I kind of cringe. My life has become some sort of weird oddity that people want all of the gory details on, but at the same time they’d never venture a foot in my house.

Not only that, but the people who are my direct neighbors have actually called the city to try to have my house condemned because they think I enjoy living with potentially rabies-infected animals and are giving the neighborhood a bad name. I’ve tried to reason with them a number of times. I’ve told them that there’s not anything I can do about it. Trust me, I’ve tried. I’ve explained that having me thrown out of the neighborhood would mean that no one would shovel all of the sidewalks they conveniently “forget” to shovel before they go into work in the winter. I remind them that not only would I have nowhere to live, but their property values would decrease if a condemned house sat, slowly rotting on a lot in the center of their neighborhood.


The past few months I’ve been struggling with how to relate the situation that marginalized people in tech live with every day to people in the dominant majority. My goal has always been to educate and to create empathy; the more people who recognize what is going on, the more people we will have to fight against this problem.

I think it’s hard for people to understand that the way women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized people go through life every day in tech is just the way things always are and feel like they’ll always be. They aren’t always heinous roadblocks, but they definitely make our lives more difficult in a lot of ways.

For those of you who didn’t have to do any literary criticism in high school, here are some Clif’s Notes:

  • The house symbolizes the belief that we all experience the same victories and struggles. That we’re basically all in this together and are connected in some way. People expect that their experiences are the same as yours and can’t imagine anything outside of what they themselves can observe.
  • The neighborhood represents the vocal members of the community who would rather not hear about systemic injustice, but worry about how it effects them. This can also include members of the marginalized group they are being vocal against (for instance, a woman can do this to another woman) for generally one of two reasons: 1. they have never personally experienced what a person coming forward has. They may want to believe that this could never happen to them. 2. they are one of the lucky few who have perservered through those experiences and don’t want anyone to rock the boat for them. This can be described as a “fuck you, got mine”, or being “one of the guys”. It’s difficult to not empathize with the latter reasoning because it is definitely a coping and survival mechanism.
  • The crow represents the people who are a nuisance, but provide some other value in a way that makes them hard to criticize. This can include people who are famous in the community or well-regarded in a company, but are also known for their destructive or dangerous behavior. Speaking out against them usually means others will chime in to remind you of all the “good” they provide you, and that you should be grateful.
  • The rats are less vocal members of a community or employees in a company that quietly detract from any progress made by someone or who harbor their issues with a group in relative quietude. These people make up the majority of the negative people in our communities. They only have real power as a large group that are able to infect others with their behavior. You can educate against this and hopefully create some empathetic allies, but this is tenuous. Many people relapse (though hopefully not permanently), and if they don’t there is someone else to take their place. This creates a lot of frustration.
  • The raccoon represents the blatant harassers, especially those that have a high standing in the community. They are tip-toed around and any altercation between yourself and them will result in people reminding you that you knew what you were in for, that this is their nature, the way they’ve always been, and they won’t be changing.
  • The entertained, yet horrified onlookers are just that. People who are fascinated by the car crash, but can never themselves imagine being in one. The stories of people being harassed, discriminated against, or worse are just that to them – stories; they don’t feel like tangible things that require action. A large portion of these people are journalists or prolific bloggers who are seeking attention through drama.

As a privileged person, can you have wild animals in your house? Certainly, but the chances of such are far less likely. This is the difference between building a house and an animal happening to wander in and a house being built where the walls enclose Bambi’s neighborhood. Most marginalized people know that they will have to deal with wild animals and find creative ways to work around them, but many eventually realize they can’t deal with living with that kind of stress and move to a place with hopefully fewer creatures.

David Notkin

Remembering a geek feminist ally: David Notkin, 1955-2013

This is a guest post by Debbie Notkin, who is the chair of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award motherboard, a co-organizer of WisCon, and a science fiction and fantasy editor and reviewer. She is also the writer (with Laurie Toby Edison) of Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes and (with Laurie Toby Edison and Richard F. Dutcher) of Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes. She blogs at Body Impolitic and on Dreamwidth.

No marginalized group can move forward without allies, and all of us have the opportunity to be allies as well as need allies. So it behooves us to look at what high-integrity, committed ally work looks like. And that’s why I want to tell you about my brother.

When David Notkin’s son Akiva was about two years old, he was fascinated by all games played with balls. (At 15, he still is.) We were on a family vacation together when David and I walked with the toddler past a ping-pong table, and Akiva instantly wanted to see what was up. I asked David why he thought Akiva was so much more interested in balls and ball games than his older sister Emma. David said, “I don’t know. We treated them exactly the same; it must just be something about him.” Having heard this from dozens of parents over the years, and rarely finding a productive response, I just let it go.

Years later, unprompted (if I recall correctly), David told me that he was no longer sure that was true. He had started to spend time with and pay attention to the serious feminists who advocate for more women in technology and the STEM fields, and he had done some listening and some reading. He said, “I think it’s perfectly possible that we responded to Akiva’s interest in balls differently than we would have if it had been Emma.” I had, and still have, very little experience with anyone changing their mind on these topics.

Melissa McEwen at Shakesville differentiates between what she calls the “Fixed State Ally Model” and the “Process Model,”

In the Process Model, the privileged person views hirself as someone engaged in ally work, but does not identify as an ally, rather viewing ally work as an ongoing process. Zie views being an ally as a fluid state, externally defined by individual members of the one or more marginalized populations on behalf zie leverages hir privilege.

The kind of shift that David made about his son’s interest in ball games is as good a step into the Process Model as any.

In this flash talk, given at the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) Summit in Chicago in May of 2012, we see more commitment to process in ally work.

In this talk, David says nothing about what women want, how to bring women into the field, or really anything about anyone except David. Instead, he describes the reasons to take another step on an ally’s journey, and advocates a way for teachers and professors to take that step, by voluntarily stepping into a learning situation where they are in the minority. As he says in the opening frame, he’s in a room full of brilliant women. As he doesn’t say, he knows he has nothing to tell them about being female, or being female in the computer science world, or anything else about their lives. What he can share is his own efforts to understand what it’s like to be marginalized, without taking on the mantle of the marginalized.

The NCWIT talk came in a deceptively optimistic period for David; he had spent the end of 2010 and virtually all of 2011 in cancer treatment, and his scans were clean … until June. In February of 2013, a few months after David’s cancer had spread and he had been given a terminal diagnosis, his department held a celebration event for him. Notkinfest was a splendor of tie-dye, laughter, and professional and personal commemoration. I hadn’t really followed his trajectory as an ally and mentor to women and people of color, and I was amazed at how many of the speakers talked about his role in making space for marginalized groups.

Anne Condon, professor and head of the Department of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia told a longer story about Mary Lou Soffa, (Department of Computer Science, University of Michigan), who couldn’t be there. Dr. Condon said,

Mary Lou is a very prestigious researcher in compilers and software engineering, and probably the most outspoken person I know. Once a senior officer from a very prominent computing organization proudly unveiled a video about opportunities in computer science. Now in this video, all of the people profiled were white males, except for one little girl.

Mary Lou in true fashion stood up and she did not mince words as she told this senior official what she thought of that video. When she was done, there was total silence in the room. And then one voice spoke up, questioned the choice of profiles in that video and spoke to the importance of diversity as part of the vision of this organization.

And that person was David Notkin.

The speaker list at Notkinfest, aside from Dr. Condon, included somewhat of a Who’s Who in increasing diversity in computer science, including:

  • Martha Pollack, soon to be Provost for Academic and Budgetary Affairs, as well as Professor of Information and Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan, who has received the Sarah Goddard Power Award in recognition of her efforts to increase the representation of and climate for women and underrepresented minorities in science and engineering.
  • Tapan Parikh, Associate Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and the TR35 Humanitarian of the Year in 2007. (check out his TedX talk on representing your ethnic background).
  • Carla Ellis, member and past co-chair of CRA-W, CRA’s Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research , past co-chair of the Academic Alliance of NCWIT. On her web page, Ellis says: “In my retirement, I will be pursuing two passions: (1) advocating for green computing and the role of computing in creating a sustainable society and (2) encouraging the participation of women in computing.”

Notkinfest was David’s next-to-last professional appearance. Here’s what he said at the open reception:

It’s important to remember that I’m a privileged guy. Debbie and – our parents, Isabell and Herbert, were children of poor Russian Jewish immigrants, and they were raised in the Depression and taught us the value of education and how to benefit from it.

Mom, especially, taught us the value of each and every person on earth. I still wake up and – You know, we have bad days, we have bad days, but we have plenty to eat and we have a substantive education, and we have to figure out how to give more back. Because anybody who thinks that we’re just here because we’re smart forgets that we’re also privileged, and we have to extend that farther. So we’ve got to educate and help every generation and we all have to keep it up in lots of ways.

When I spoke at his funeral, not three months after Notkinfest, the main thing I did was repeat that plea.

Book Club: A Geek Feminist bounces off Batgirl Volume 1: The Darkest Reflection

I’ll be the first to admit that my taste in superheroism runs to the ultra-problematized, not to say outright subversive: I prefer Faith to Buffy, Grant Morrison’s Crazy Jane to Alan Moore’s Silk Spectre, Tony Stark to Bruce Wayne. As I see it, superpowers, like sex, are invariably more or less heavy-handed metaphors for something else. In Buffy and X-Men it’s puberty and burgeoning sexuality. In Doom Patrol, which meant the world to me in my twenties, it’s the marked body, simultaneously mortal and strong.

Superpowers repel me when they are used to single some folks out for special merit at the expense of everyone else. In The Incredibles Dash complains that if everyone is special, no one is. That’s exactly right, kiddo. My deepest political conviction is that everyone is extraordinary and superpowered and jewelled in their most secret inner recesses; everyone; no one is uniquely deserving of special treatment. Business Class is swankier, yes, but you must pay.

Hence my issues. In the Batman canon, superpowers are equated with effectively unlimited money and status. Bruce Wayne’s super secrets are his butler, his vast inheritance and his dungeon full of high-tech toys. As a person who has had to sit through a working lunch listening to a CEO brag about his collection of light aircraft, I find it hard to convey the extent to which this fills me with bored loathing. There’s nothing admirable about being a person like that. At least Tony Stark has shrapnel in his heart, and drinks.

At least it costs him. I’m very fond of that line of Tony’s from The Avengers: “This little circle of light. It’s part of me now, not just armor. It’s a… terrible privilege.” I like that he owns his privilege and its horrors. I like that it’s his way of reaching out to Bruce Banner, whose privileges are equally appalling. I have a lot of privilege that I want to use as a ploughshare, not a sword; the rocket that launched Curiosity to Mars, not an ICBM. Tony’s evolution from arms dealer to clean tech mogul is a useful myth in this way. Bruce Wayne’s Gothic manpain… isn’t.

All of which might explain, at least in part, why the Gail Simone Batgirl left me cold. Canonical Barbara Gordon is problematic in what for me are all the wrong ways. She’s the Police Commissioner’s daughter and the rich dude’s protege. She’s literally the tool of the patriarchy. She uses a wheelchair, yes, and then she’s miraculously healed. I appreciate that Simone lampshades this, most explicitly with her villain Mirror, who embodies the rage of the unlucky towards the lucky.

But Mirror is a villain, and Bruce Wayne, property developer, is a hero, whose acknowledgement of Barbara as Batgirl is the affirmation she needs. All her power is channeled into support for the police, and for capitalism. The arc of the narrative reverts towards the status quo. I am with Doctor Horrible in thinking that the status is not quo.

I’m sorry, but if Donald Trump praised me in any way, I would have to take a long hard look at my life and make some radical changes.

To be clear, I blame Simone for none of this. I think these are structural flaws in the Bat-canon, which tends Ayn Rand-wards and is therefore Not For Me.

I liked Barbara’s roommate, Alysia Yeoh. Alysia tapes Barbara’s cracked ribs and tells her:

If someone’s hurting you, I’m not going to sit by and watch it go on. I am not that person, are we clear?

…and then she makes laksa. I’d rather have read a whole book about her.

What am I missing? Help a Geek Feminist out.

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.

Baby, we were born to linkspam (12 February 2013)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in 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.