On Welcoming Minorities

“If you ever forget you’re a Jew, a Gentile will remind you.”

—Bernard Malamud

[Update: a lot of my views have evolved on this, and this is not necessarily reflective of my current thoughts. But I’m leaving it here to keep a record that I once believed this, and why. See also: tone argument]

I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately. With all the controversy surrounding sexism in tech, it’s hard not to reflect on these issues. As a male, it’s also hard to voice thoughts on the issue or construct an informed opinion—I’ve held off on commenting publicly on the subject in the past, out of fear that I make assumptions born out of privilege or will be construed as a misogynist, incorrectly (or worse, correctly).

Fuck that.

If I’m going to hold an informed, well-reasoned opinion, I need to expose my thoughts for criticism and discussion. And I want those from you. Please, if you have any thoughts at all on this (rather long) piece, feel free to email me at foran.paddy@gmail.com. Especially if you think I’m wrong. I do not write this post to tell you what to think; I write it to get feedback on how I think, so that I may be the best person I can be. Feel free to judge me for my thoughts, but if you find me to be undesirable, please help me fix me. Help educate me. I want to be better.

That being said, this is not a post about sexism in tech. I was going to write that post, but on further thought, I decided not to. I want to address the deeper issue: minorities. Women are not the only people excluded from our community, they are just the most noticeable absentees. I also hope that dealing with a level of abstraction above the immediate issue will offer some insulation against preconceived notions and common traps that this train of thought can fall into.

On My Experience In The Majority

To look at me, you would not consider me a minority. I’m a young, white male. Even my background screams that I’m part of the majority for a lot of dichotomies: I had the opportunity to go to college. I was raised by two parents that loved me. I had a house to come home to every day of my life. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. She greeted me every day after elementary school with a snack.

I’ve had a lot of privileges in my life, and I was very fortunate to have won the celestial lottery in most cases.

That being said, I’ll never forget sitting in an education class, explaining the way a class in my high school was run as an example of alternative teaching methods that increased student engagement, and having the professor look down her nose at me and say “Yes, Paddy, but not everyone goes to private school.”

I was completely taken aback by that dismissal. Mostly because I went to public school my entire life, and the experience I was describing took place in a public school. But, after that (slightly comic) shock wore off, I was left feeling decidedly unwelcome. Because apparently my privilege, even when it was simply assumed and not real, completely disqualified any of my life experiences. Apparently, I did not count.

Yes, people in the majority have life easier in a multitude of ways than people in the minority. But they don’t necessarily have life easy, and they still have perspectives to share. They still count.

On My Experience In The Minority

As I said, I’m largely given majority-status in any false dichotomy you care to construct. I’m white. I’m male.

But you’ll notice that one part of the “straight white male” trifecta is noticeably missing.

I could spend this section talking about how I spent my high school years watching my siblings bring home their more traditionally-gendered significant others to meet my family, have dinner, and watch movies together, while my boyfriends were not allowed in the house and were not spoken of inside our house. That would be entirely unfair to my parents, who were raised in two separate environments that made discovering their son was gay a bit of a shock that needed to be processed and dealt with. And it would certainly be unfair to the amazing, wonderful progress they’ve made in being supportive. They did not come around as immediately as I would have liked, but they came around. Of their own volition. And for that, I am proud of them.

I could spend this section talking about how I got in a few fistfights in high school over it. Or about the casual way people would throw “faggot” at me. Or about the way I used what I can only describe as sociological warfare to turn my high school from what I felt to be a slightly unwelcoming environment into a safe place for kids to be themselves. But that would be news to nobody. Every minority has a small, dedicated group of people that hate them openly. It never seems right to the casual observer, nobody argues that small dedicated group has the moral high ground, and it’s not really the type of situation I want to cover in this post.

Instead, I want to talk to you about two experiences in college:

I’m an overly touchy person. It’s just part of my nature. I love hugs, and I sometimes hold my friends’ hands. For no reason other than because my friends don’t mind, and I feel like it. It’s an entirely platonic gesture to me. I was at a festival celebrating Buffalo’s art community with a friend, walking down the street amongst all the pavilions with him and a group of other friends, and I randomly held his hand. Partly because the crowd was thick, and it helped us stay together as I weaved through the people, but partly because I just felt like it. I didn’t really even think about it until a friend in our group remarked later that he thought we were “so brave”. I didn’t understand at first, and it took a little back and forth until I realised what he meant. He thought my friend and I were dating, and thought it was brave of us to hold hands in public.

Except we weren’t dating (though I don’t blame him for that confusion), and I had entirely forgotten that what I was doing wasn’t the standard. That there was anything out of the ordinary about it. And having it pointed out to me left me with a funny feeling.

On the other occasion, a boyfriend and I were hanging out together at a party. Someone I didn’t know came up to us, said “I hope you guys know I respect you and your relationship”, and walked away. To this day, I still have no clue who he was. I had never met him before. But it was apparently very important to him that we know he respected our relationship. Again, it took me a few moments of processing to figure out why that was noteworthy. And, again, I was uncomfortably reminded that I was Different.

I don’t think the two individuals that pointed out that I’m Different are bad people, I don’t think they had an malicious intent, and I don’t think poorly of them for their actions. But they were still deeply uncomfortable moments for me, because my identity isn’t extra details around a core of being gay; being gay is just one of those extra details layered on top of my actual identity. I’m always taken aback and confused when people try to address me or treat me as a gay person, instead of just treating me like any other person.

Why I’m Telling You This

If you’ve read this far, you no doubt are wondering what my point is. Why am I relating these stories to you?

I’m telling you because I’m deeply conflicted about the sexism in tech discussions we’re having. Without going into too much detail:

  • Why is sexually suggestive content in talks, blog posts, and our culture in general considered a sexism topic? Is it because we believe the stereotype that women should be less interested in sex than men? I understand that porn objectifies women (and certain types of men), but do we think only men enjoy porn? My fear is that by casting this discussion in the light of sexism, we’re reinforcing the stereotype that sex is for men, which is not fair to women. Or men. Or anyone.
  • How does one construct a fair speaker lineup for a conference? If you turn down men to accept women simply on the basis that they’re women, that’s not fair to the men. If you don’t proactively attempt to include women speakers, you wind up with a lineup of mostly men, which I think we can all agree is a Bad Thing™. Note that I’m not saying women don’t do better work than men; I’m simply pointing out that there are more male speakers than female speakers, so there’s at least a chance you’ll wind up with a speaker lineup that is not half women. This one is actually really nuanced, so I’ll go into it a bit later.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Gender and gender politics are deeply nuanced, and how the majority can be welcoming and inclusive to the minority, with everyone showing the proper respect, is a deeply-nuanced conversation. And maybe I’m looking in all the wrong places, but I’m not seeing much nuanced conversation.

I don’t want to go back to that college classroom, except this time it’s my penis, not my imagined educational background, that’s excluding me. I don’t want to be in a situation in which I need to carefully voice my opinion, lest something I say be misconstrued as misogynist.

But I also don’t want to remind anyone they’re Different. I don’t think they are. They are just a person doing what they love, much as I am a person doing what I love. I don’t think of any of the females I look up to as females first—they’re all brilliant people first, and oh yeah they’re female.

I think, personally, what we should be aiming for is a culture in which any specific attribute of a person—their sexuality, their sex, their hair colour—is only relevant when it pertains to the activity at hand—dating or sex, their biological functions (e.g. child birth, I’m having trouble thinking of other situations in which sex matters as an objective fact and not a cultural norm), picking a matching wig, etc. (Yes, each sample activity matches to the corresponding attribute in the previous list.)

Sadly, because we don’t live in that kind of culture, ignoring these Differences is not enough.

A Detour: What Is Fair?

Let’s talk for a moment about what fairness means. I think we can all agree that we want to be fair. But what does that actually mean? I can think of at least two definitions.

One could consider it fair to treat each person the same, ignoring any Differences. This means blind application processes, this means not allowing any attribute to influence decisions outside its objectively applicable realm. This means that if a speaker lineup is selected without the selectors knowing anything but the content of the talks, the process was fair. Any lack of diversity is not the product of the selection committee, it simply is. Let’s call this micro-fairness, as it’s fair when considering only the case at hand, not the overall result.

One could, alternatively, consider it fair to take each person’s background into consideration and tailor the process to compensate for any systemic biases against their Difference. This means selecting speakers that are all qualified to speak, but favouring under-represented groups (women, homosexuals, PHP enthusiasts) when there’s a tie. At the extreme, quota systems are meant to ensure this kind of fairness. While the process itself is biased, it’s biased to counteract the bias inherent in the environment. Let’s call this macro-fairness, as it’s fair when considering only the big picture, the result of the process.

The problem with micro-fairness is that it assumes that all else is equal. If all else is equal, then it will achieve a fair outcome and this will be a meritocracy. If, however, it is not operated in a vacuum (protip: you are not operating in a vacuum), this will do nothing to correct the systemic discrimination already inherent in the system. Micro-fairness can only stop the descent into an unfair system, it cannot reverse it, because it does not take the system into account.

There are a lot of problems with macro-fairness. First, it is not entirely fair on an individual level. When individuals are competing for limited resources, giving a leg up to some individuals necessitates creating an unfair advantage over the other individuals. And while this works out in the big picture, in the immediate context it feels very unfair that Suitable And Valuable Talk A was chosen over Suitable And Valuable Talk B just because Suitable And Valuable Talk A is given by a minority. Also, it doesn’t feel very good, as a minority, to have to question whether your talk is good enough on its own or if it was only chosen because you’re a minority. Even if nobody suggests it to you, knowing that you had a leg up to compensate for the systemic discrimination against you will make you question yourself. Or at least it makes me question myself. Long story short: in the immediate moment, macro-fairness doesn’t make anyone feel good.

What’s right? I don’t know. Obviously, we can’t just ignore the problems inherent in our culture and hope they’ll go away if we’re just micro-fair. But macro-fairness makes everyone feel lousy at the end of the day, and it ruptures our perception that we’re a meritocracy. Because suddenly, the pixels do care.

I think the best way we’ll find forward is trying to be macro-fair while sacrificing as little micro-fairness as we possibly can. Things like organisers explicitly approaching female speakers and asking them to submit a talk, which is then vetted by a blind process that all speaker submissions are funneled through. That would help combat the systemic discrimination by artificially inflating the pool of women speakers in contention for the event, but would still remove gender as a factor when weighing a talk’s merit. I don’t know. I’m not a conference organiser. I think we’re going to need to find a balance between these two concepts of fair, however.

My Promise

I have a promise to make, to everyone. Not just men, not just women. Every majority, every minority.

I promise I want to engage with you as you perceive yourself. I want the parts about you that are important to you to be what I place import on. I want to see you as you want to be seen.

If I ever fail to do that, please correct me. It will be a more pleasant experience all around if you correct me privately and afford me the opportunity to apologise and correct my behaviour, but how you correct me is entirely in your hands. I promise to always respect your self-identification and to do my best to treat you with the appropriate respect and compassion. I am not perfect, and I will fail sometimes. I hope this will always be out of ignorance, and never out of carelessness. When I fail, please do point it out to me.

I want you here. I want your opinion, your insight, your ideas, your perspective. I will not always agree with you, but I cannot evolve my own thoughts without exposing myself to thoughts I do not agree with. I value you as a person, and hope I properly convey that to you.

Closing Thoughts

I have written this mini-essay on the premise that the majority of people are good. That is, the premise is that the current uncomfortable climate arises not out of malice, but out of ignorance and a dearth of reasoned, respectful discussion and self-examination.

Obviously, there are people that are not good that get included in these discussions. People who send death threats and rape threats. People who DDoS websites. These people are actively malicious, instead of just being unequipped to deal with a complex situation.

It is my earnest belief that we, as a community, want every type of minority to feel welcome. I could be mistaken about that. But I must act as if I am not, or leave the community. Because if I am mistaken about that, I do not want to be part of this community anymore.

I think it’s also imperative that our community has this discussion in a very nuanced, rational way, or we’re at risk of losing many of the things that make our community special in the first place. Banning any talk of sex or references to sex in any context sets the precedent for creating taboos. Taboos are not something I think we, as a community, believe in. They stifle our naturally rebellious spirit, the spirit that helps us disrupt industries. The spirit that helps us defy norms to achieve something more.

Rather than creating taboos, I hope the outcome of this is that we are all better educated about how to respectfully dialogue with each other. So we can have sexual references without making people feel uncomfortable. I think we can have both. I think we can nurture our irreverent attitude and be a safe and welcoming place for every type of person. We just need to work at it.

If I’m wrong, though, I’d rather be safe and welcoming than irreverent.