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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Comments

  1. mythbri says

    This is my favorite part of the first piece:

    Rather than look at actions and outcomes, misread every critique of your side as a direct comparison of you to the Klan. Take everything as an accusation. Cry bravely and mention your black friend.

    And of course, defend your freedom of speech against censorship, by which you mean ‘other people disagreeing with you.’ Complain really loudly, at length and in a lot of places, about how you’re totally being censored right now.

  2. EdW says

    I’ve been trying to square this circle in my brain for the last two days –

    On the one hand, I don’t think Ms. Richards did an acceptable thing. I think it was a pretty big overreaction to the immature innuendo going on behind her.

    On the other hand, the vicious, hateful cascade of shit-slinging is far-and-away the real story here – that no matter what she did, she could never deserve that kind of attack.

    Everywhere I look, though, it seems like most discussions on the side of the angels starts with insisting that Ms. Richards did nothing wrong — and any disagreement with this is… well, the article puts it pretty well. Those voices are seen as enablers and apologists for the loathesome dimwits.

    I don’t want to be that guy! But I really do think it’s important to accept that these kinds of hateful smear campaigns can originate from a bad act just as easily as from a courageous and selfless one. We don’t have to embrace Richards’ actions in order to defend her human dignity.

    So how can I make this right? Is it right to mostly elide Richards’ faux pas in the analysis of this situation? I’m inclined to, but it seems like the commentary starts with declaring the line you must toe: that Richards was in the right from the very beginning.

  3. says

    I think it was a pretty big overreaction to the immature innuendo going on behind her.

    Taking a picture of someone who’s making inappropriate jokes is an overreaction? I would say that it’s a pretty moderate reaction. I’m really failing to see what is so horrible about what she did.

    That, however, is entirely beside the point. There is no action, or set of actions, that could really justify the response from the community, or from her employer. It doesn’t matter whether she was in the wrong or not – the problem is not what she did, regardless of your opinion of the virtue of her response to the joking. If you’d prefer to choose not to opine on what she did, you’re free to do that. It doesn’t seem to make any difference to the issue.

  4. punchdrunk says

    It’s beyond the individual personalities at this point. It’s not about the men, it’s not about Ms. Richards.
    It’s about the culture at this point.
    You think tweeting their pics and a ‘not cool’ was an overreaction. I think that’s subjective. It’s not about what you or I would have done in her position, it’s about people in the industry reinforcing a culture that is chilly at best, hostile at worst, to women.
    I don’t think playing the ‘shouda, coulda, woulda’ game is doing anything to address the real problem. How you feel about the personalities and histories of the people involved is just running circles around the elephant in the room.
    Obviously, you can express your personal opinion, but I think it’s really beside the point. If the tech industry is going to work towards reasonable parity, these are the kinds of individual, on the ground situations that are going to have to be addressed.
    You’re stuck on questioning an individual’s professionalism, while feminists are trying to get everyone to focus on how microaggressions contribute to a hostile climate. If you understand why those juvenile jokes might read as ‘hostile’ instead of ‘obnoxious’, then her reaction looks more reasonable.

  5. EdW says

    tweeting the picture to 10,000+ people is somewhat more than just taking the picture. And I don’t think it was particularly horrible in itself, I just think it was the wrong call, and given the situation, a much more severe action than should have been taken. If the jokes had been directed at her, or even been particularly bigoted or hateful, then maybe a little public shaming would have been better called-for.

    But I think everyone in the end should agree that the point is moot – but that certainly isn’t the message I’m seeing out there.

    I guess that’s my answer though – the best option for someone in my position is to shut up about it, agree to disagree on that point, and throw our weight into trying to fix the issue instead of pointing out when Someone Is Wrong on the Internet.

  6. says

    tweeting the picture to 10,000+ people is somewhat more than just taking the picture

    Just a note about how Twitter works: when you tweet something, it goes to all of your followers. You have zero control over the number of followers your account has. As a result, when I tweet a picture, I don’t get to choose which of my followers gets it. Neither did she. The number of followers her Twitter account has is immaterial, unless you think that posting the picture at all is wrong, regardless of someone’s level of internet fame.

    And I don’t think it was particularly horrible in itself, I just think it was the wrong call, and given the situation, a much more severe action than should have been taken

    I would be interested to hear what your objective standard of how to judge the “right” call is, and whether or not it is related to your objective standard of determining which provocations merit which levels of severity. Because so far, you’re just saying that different people make different choices, and that you personally (having the benefit of hindsight and NOT being in her position) would have done something differently. You very well may have. I don’t see how that affects the rightness or wrongness of her decision.

    I guess that’s my answer though – the best option for someone in my position is to shut up about it

    Maybe, or perhaps the problem is that many people were having the “should we photograph people and put them on the internet” conversation in spaces that were about the “should people receive rape and death threats” conversation. As you’ve noted, one has nothing to do with the other, and often people who insert the former into conversations about the latter do so as a way of trying to justify the latter.

  7. cfieldb9 says

    This is sort of a minor point. But I’ll be honest: I don’t see anywhere near the level of hate for anti-racism as a I do for feminism. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but I simply haven’t seen it as the catalyst for these months-long hate campaigns that feminists are subjected to. I dunno, maybe I’m not looking in the right places. But most people seem to at least pay lip service to the importance of race issues. Likewise for gay rights.

    So I think it’s inaccurate to say that the trolls hate feminism and anti-racism. For some reason, feminism in particular seems to really push a lot of peoples’ berserk buttons.

    I’m sort of interested as to why this is.

  8. says

    I simply haven’t seen it as the catalyst for these months-long hate campaigns that feminists are subjected to

    I dunno, ask Ashley Miller about that. Or Tim Wise.

    Within the secular/freethinking community, most people have internalized that racism is dramatically bad. Perhaps it is not the same for sexism. Perhaps the feminist critiques are more common and therefore more threatening. Perhaps it’s simply reflective of the attitudes of society more generally, where openly misogynistic are more tolerated than openly racist ones.

    So I think it’s inaccurate to say that the trolls hate feminism and anti-racism

    It would be inaccurate to say that they hate them with equal vigour perhaps, but please believe that there is no shortage of trolls who hate anti-racists and do their best to derail or otherwise silence them (us).

  9. Cyranothe2nd, ladyporn afficianado says

    One of the things about the “Open Letter” that really irked me was that recognizing a pattern of behaviour like the one above was characterized as bad because we would be “treating them as a group” rather than understanding the “nuance” of their argument. We are exhorted to be “charitable”–even when we have seen this *exact same argument used a million times before * (often in the same thread.) We see them as a group because THEY ARE A GROUP. They use the same tactics, same arguments, same derailing techniques. Its like they have a playbook somewhere. It is like a revolving door of people saying the same things.

    But more to the point–The emphasis on the charity, goodwill and duty of those being harassed or denied rights or those that are protesting only protects those doing the harassing, denying and/or people with the privilege to not protest.

  10. carlie says

    Tweeting the picture to 10,000+ people is somewhat more than just taking the picture

    Just a note about how Twitter works: when you tweet something, it goes to all of your followers.

    And not even that, in this instance: if she tweeted it @ the conference organizers, the only people who saw it in their twitter feed are people who were following both her and the conference organizers. Anyone not following both of them already could only have seen it by going directly to her page and reading it there, which most people don’t bother to do on twitter. The initial viewing audience wasn’t the entirety of her followers, it was only the ones who were also following the conference organizers.

  11. The Apostate says

    Thanks for the article. It’s been a while since I’ve read your blog, and I’m so happy to see that not only has the quality and scope of your writing not sloughed, but grown. You make me proud to be a liberal Atheist.

    As for this entire fiasco it’s in no way wrong to post a photo of a couple of privileged arseholes to the internet; and most certainly not when it’s in a public space and the two of them are making blatantly sexist remarks. it was also directed at the conference organisers, and not, say, their employers. Any sort of disciplinary action on the part of their employers is more likely due to repeated offences and unfortunately — since the tech field is white-male-dominated — probably not ones related to harassment but quality of work or any other metron that a company would choose to evaluate their employees.

    I look forward to going back through your archives sometime soon and catching up on your writing.

    (As an addendum thank you so much for having your FAQ page: it provides such wonderful resources that have tipped me off to problems — that due to my cis-white-male-privilege — I didn’t even know about or immediately consider as possibilities.)

  12. HM says

    I’ve been catching up on your posts, busy with work. I’m a minority woman working in tech (not black though). The thing that my mind keeps going to is, tweeting a pic of fully clothed men at an industry event making inappropriate comments is soooo much worse then posting pics of women (a la the jailbait reddit) who never agreed to have those pics posted.

    As for tweeting the comment, I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable turning around to tell several guys (who are generally bigger than me) that they’re making offensive jokes. And if the conference has a twitter account that they’ve said to use for contact, I’d contact them that way. And its kind of hard to find someone while a presentation to deal with those type of issues.

    My 2 cents about a month late.

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