New required reading: How to Get a Black Woman Fired

I haven’t commented on the Adria Richards thing at all, which some people might find surprising since it lives right at the intersection of sexism and racism where I do some of my best work. There are a few reasons for this: circumstances have robbed me of quite a bit of my writing mojo, the story was covered from every conceivable angle and I didn’t have anything new to contribute, and I don’t really know enough about the world of tech to really comment much on the climate. All that being said, I have been following and reading and listening.

This piece in particular, I think, has broad resonance:

Last week Jamilah King assembled a list of survival tips for techies who are not men and not white. Now, let’s look at the other side and examine how trolls, mansplainers, amateur Internet career counselors — plus some self-identified feminists and well-meaning types — willfully or unwittingly contribute to a pattern that just so happens to rescue large groups of professional white men from the unchecked tyranny of individuals who aren’t professional white men.

In this handy guide guide brought to you by me, Colorlines.com’s self-appointed white male correspondent, I’ll walk y’all through the steps that lead up to almost every incidence of HR-by-mob. While the details of every case aren’t identical, let’s recall that we’ve seen this happen to black women all walks of life, ranging fromformer Department of Agriculture state director Shirley Sherrod to meteorologist Rhonda Lee to women of color targeted by DADT in the military. It’s also how cultural commentators such as Zerlina MaxwellAnita SarkeesianRebecca Watson and Courtney Stanton became the targets of months-long smear campaigns, obscene Wikipedia edits, and threats of sexual assault and other violence, solely because they called out racism and sexism where they saw it. The pattern is real and not new at all, and we can’t interrupt it until we understand it.

As is the case with all posts in the “New Required Reading” series, the whole thing should be read in its entirety, and I’m not going to quote the whole post, but there are a few things I want to do. First, and easiest, is to list the steps:

  1. Wear Down Your Subject: “Do everything you can to rationalize, ignore, stay silent and generally fail to acknowledge the abysmal race and gender employment ratios in your field”
  2. Let the Trolls Do the Dirty Work: “As Colorlines.com’s longtime community manager, I can tell you that trolls know how to use Google Alerts. They hate feminism and anti-racism as concepts, and they hate quite a few human feminists and anti-racists”
  3. Play the ‘Middle’ Between Rational and Frothing Racist
  4. Find and Spread a Politically Convenient Co-Sign: “Let’s stick to the issue at hand: there is a woman who dislikes another woman.”
  5. Keep The Pressure On Your Subject and Off the System: “if you’ve done your job right, they’ll all be about what your target should have done differently to avoid becoming a target”
  6. Wonder Why There Aren’t More Women and People of Color In [Insert Industry]

People who have followed conversations about online racism and sexism, or racism and sexism in white- and male-dominated fields, will find each of these steps eerily familiar. This is how majority spaces react to minority dissent – they follow a predictable pattern of behaviour to ostracize and shut down the dissenters, all whilst preserving a veneer of neutral respectability.

Which brings me to the next thing I want to do, which is highlight the third point in its entirety:

You know how mainstream news shows discuss global warming by pairing an actual scientist who points to decades of consistent research with an oil-company shill who says global warming can’t be real because Al Gore said something dumb once? And you know how the news anchor moderating the discussion gets to occupy the “rational” “middle” ground by saying “more research is probably needed”? You’re that guy now. Crackpots don’t get people fired, people who validate crackpots do, so get to work.

Let me get you started on your “common-sense” blog post, article or mainstream interview: “We can all agree that the behavior of these Internet trolls is unconscionable. However, let’s not discount their concerns because of a few bad apples…”

You’ve got some primo poli-sci Overton Window triangulation going on now! By assigning the Internet trolls one end of the alignment spectrum, you’ve successfully shifted the terms of the debate from, “What can be done about rampant unjust outcomes for women and people of color?” to “How many racial epithets is it OK to fit in a tweet?” Also, don’t moderate the comments on your blog post, even if they overtly threaten women and people of color. That would be, like, censorship.

This focus on the “few bad apples” is a particular pet peeve of mine. It suggests that the problems are not structural, but that the community, in fact, is largely good save for a few extreme examples. The problem is that there is almost nobody who thinks that the extreme behaviour is justified – that’s why it’s called extreme behaviour. Stating that you condemn rape threats is barely worth the effort required to bash your fingers against the keyboard or to fill your lungs with breath. The problem is not the extremes (although they are a problem); the problem is the people in the “middle” who think that there are reasonable points to be made by those who stop just short of threats of violence.

The third thing I want to do in this post is set you up with another piece of required reading, this one from Scientopia’s Mark Chu-Caroll (who frequently knocks these things out of the park):

It’s very easy for a member of an empowered majority to just take things for granted. We see the way that we are treated as a default, and assume thateveryone is treated the same way. We don’t perceive that we are being treated preferentially. We don’t notice that the things that offend us are absolutely off limits to everyone, but that things that we do to offend others are accepted as part of normal behavior. Most importantly, we don’t notice when our behavior is harmful to people who aren’t part of our empowered group. And when we do offend someone who isn’t part of the empowered majority, we take offense at the fact that they’re offended. Because they’re saying that we did something bad, and we know that we aren’t bad people!

The way that this comes back to the whole Adria Richards fiasco is very simple. Many people have looked at what happened at PyCon, and said something like “She shouldn’t have tweeted their picture”, or “She shouldn’t have been offended, they didn’t do anything wrong”, or “She should have just politely spoken to them”.

I don’t know whether what she did was right or not. I wasn’t there. I didn’t hear the joke that the guys in question allegedly told. What I do know is that for a member of the minority out-group, there is frequently no action that will be accepted as “right” if it includes the assertion that the majority did something offensive.

Mark talks about the processes, many (but not all) of them passive, that result in a ‘no-win’ situation for people who experience systemic discrimination. The ‘spin’ on this piece is that it is the story of how Mark learned, over time, to recognize this from the position of someone with the relevant privilege. It’s a great piece that deserves a lot of eyes trained on it.

Until we learn to recognize these processes and call them out for what they are, we will continue to fall into this pattern.

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