[Trigger warning: though not in detail, this post mentions triggering situations]
The answer is out there, Neo. It’s looking for you… and it will find you… if you want it to…
When you go to work, people act professionally toward you. If someone disagrees with you, you hash out your differences and figure out how to move forward. Sure, there are politics, but you are treated with common courtesy and respect. When meeting you for the first time, people do not form a negative opinion of your ability based on a physical attribute. People reply to your emails. More experienced workers are willing to mentor you. People may be impressed, but no one expresses surprise when you succeed.
You aren’t denied opportunities because you’re expecting a child. People don’t ask what you’ll do after your child is born, or express surprise that you don’t plan to retire. Your coworkers don’t constantly interrupt and ignore you, then appropriate your ideas as their own. You aren’t expected to organize social events for your team, unless a) you’re the manager, b) event planning is part of your job description, or c) you volunteer. Your performance is evaluated based on the merits. You aren’t denied interviews or job offers due to factors unrelated to your resume, ability, or appropriateness for the position. Likewise, your salary is at or above the average level for someone in your role.
You don’t have to fend off unwanted advances from coworkers. You have never been touched inappropriately. You don’t have to carefully calibrate your clothing to avoid unwanted attention, while still appearing “professional.” You aren’t denied opportunities for failure to accede to sexual demands. If you report someone to your boss or HR, you will be believed, and can expect that your complaint will be acted on. You don’t have to worry about physical safety at work. You can work late, or pull an allnighter, or walk from the office to your car at night, or go to the company Christmas party and have a couple of drinks, without worrying about being raped. You can write about controversial topics online without receiving anonymous death threats and rape threats.
If you go to an industry conference or fan convention, you needn’t worry about being groped, insulted, or otherwise assaulted. Industry leaders don’t make broad, demeaning generalizations about people like you (unless you’re a middle manager). If you’re an entrepreneur, you won’t be expected to provide sexual favors as part of your VC application process.
The desert of the real
You’ve been living in a dream world, Neo. This is the world as it exists today. Welcome… to the desert of the real.
This should all sound pretty… normal… right? All part of living in the modern civilized world, nothing out of the ordinary – the only unusual thing is that it’s being described at all. None of the above are luxuries, rarefied privileges available only to a chosen few. This isn’t the executive washroom we’re talking about – this is just the way things are supposed to be. And if you’re a white straight man, then this is pretty much the way you’ve always experienced life.
But your experience is not representative.
Women, people of color, and gay people live in a very different world, in which things that you think of as “normal” can be impossible, unattainable luxuries. Think about that – for many people, the world described above, the everyday baseline expectations of your life, everything you take for granted as part of an average working environment are either out of reach, or considered incredible perks when discovered.
This is a bit hard to believe. You might feel like it doesn’t pass the sniff test. You’ve worked at a number of different companies, maybe managed some teams, and you’ve never seen any of this. If it is true – and you doubt it – it would have to be an aberration, a problem at other, sick companies. Your company isn’t like that – if it were, you’d know.
How? Because of your direct experience? But this isn’t how you experience the world. Through observation? But these aren’t things that people do in the light of day. Or else they’re the kinds of things that people do so often, so blatantly, so unthinkingly, so universally, that it’s just a normal part of our daily reality. You do it too, without even thinking about it. So do I. How would you even begin to notice that?
The red pill
You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland. And I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes.
What if all of your life you’ve been working hard, winning races, enjoying the congratulations of your peers – until one day you suddenly discover that most of your competition has been running with weights on their shoulders and hobbles on their legs? Maybe you would have won anyway, maybe not – but all of a sudden, the entire basis of your accomplishments, and with them your confidence and self-esteem, is called into question.
This makes a lot of people angry. HOW DARE YOU STEAL FROM ME WHAT IS RIGHTFULLY MINE. I worked hard for it! I studied for years and years, sacrificed, stayed in when other people partied, pulled allnighters, missed out on a lot of life, delayed gratification, and you have the nerve to tell me that I don’t deserve the fruits of my labor? That I don’t have the right to feel proud of what I’ve accomplished?
And on and on. It’s a tiresome argument, because it completely avoids the actual point. It’s victim thinking (I’m the victim, not you!), the direction that a fragile ego takes when confronted with new data, before deciding to take the blue pill, shut its eyes, crawl into a hole, and choose simple ignorance over complicated, messy knowledge. We all know people like that. Sometimes, we’re that person, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s try again.
There are three key points to understand. The first is that the kinds of “privileges” we’re discussing are just the mundane set of expectations that you take for granted – personal safety, freedom from unwanted sexual advances, a basic level of professionalism, etc. “Not losing opportunities after turning down a boss’s sexual advances” should not be controversial.
The second is to recognize that you have these advantages, and that other people don’t. Don’t get me wrong – you’ve worked hard to get where you are, and you have a right to be proud of what you’ve accomplished. But whether you realized it or not, you had advantages that other people didn’t, and that’s eased your path. People without these advantages also work hard, but suffer tremendous frictional losses along the way. These are the runners with weights on their shoulders and hobbles on their legs – maybe you didn’t see them before, but now that you do, you can no longer pretend they aren’t there.
Lastly, and most importantly, you need to understand that the rights enumerated above are not taken away by some natural force – the wind, say, or the rain. People take them away. People harass, belittle, and assault. People make a hundred decisions a day, and take a hundred actions, that teach men different lessons from women, white people different lessons from people of color, straight people different lessons from gay people. These are sometimes intentional, as in the most egregious cases, but mostly they’re the unconscious results of decades of conditioning. This is simply how we’ve learned to interact.
Taking the red pill isn’t easy. It’s so much easier to bury your head in the sand and pretend that the issue doesn’t exist, or that it’s someone else’s problem. But I’ve noticed an interesting thing that happens when you switch from blame avoidance to problem solving. You go from thinking of yourself as a put-upon victim, to thinking of yourself as one of the good guys. You start to allow yourself to brainstorm possible solutions, and quickly find that you’re part of a community with a worthwhile goal.
Learning kung fu
Neo, sooner or later you’re going to realize just as I did that there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.
Reading this or any other blog post isn’t going to suddenly make you an expert. This is just a starting point, a place for you to start thinking about the issue, and to open your eyes to what’s going on around you. How people talk. Who interrupts whom. Who gets asked to take care of menial tasks. How conversations about different job candidates play out. Don’t think for a moment that you have even the slightest clue about what’s going on in another person’s life – you don’t know a goddamn thing. This goes for me too. But you do have the ability to start watching, and reading, and learning.
As you start paying attention, reading more about the problem, watching who makes eye contact with whom, remembering who initially proposed an idea and seeing who takes credit, you’ll make an uncomfortable discovery. You’ll start seeing the same behaviors in yourself, will remember having said the same cringeworthy things, and done some of the same things you start to see around you. You’ll realize you’re still doing it.
When you’re trying to change a behavior, the first step is to recognize when you’ve done it. The second step is to realize that you’re doing it – while you’re doing it – even if you can’t stop it. The third step is to know when you’re about to do it, and the fourth step is to stop before you do. Personal change is hard, and takes a while – but the key is to keep at it, and not to let past failures dictate future choices.
This is an important point. Everyone has done things, big or small, that they wish they could take back. The amazing thing, though, is that most people let those actions define them, and prevent them from moving forward. It isn’t always easy, but admitting to yourself that you did something wrong, and making a commitment not to do it again (and trying again when you discover you’ve failed), is the only way you can move forward in your moral life.
You’re never going to be perfect. You aren’t going to be able to set right all the wrongs you read about, or see around you. But you can observe and learn, understand, change, and act.
I’ve found the following blog posts, videos, and essays to be thought-provoking commentaries on the subject.
- Katie Cunningham, Lighten Up
- John Scalzi, White Straight Male: The Easiest Difficulty Setting There Is
- Shanley Kane, What Can Men Do
- Neil DeGrasse Tyson, video link
- Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
- PVP Online, Skull and Leela
+1. I would also recommend “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg.