White Male Allies

I work at Automattic, you know, the people who power this website amongst what seems like a million other things. After working at the epitome of bro-tech start up in San Francisco, it was refreshing to join the wonderful crew here. However, I was skeptical and anxious when I joined my all male team filled with mostly developers. I took what I read about white male developers in the tech world and started superimposing those ideas because I didn’t have anything else to go on. I learned quickly though that the white male category is just as stereotyped as any other. The white male stereotypes are also just as limiting as all others. I’m realizing that by not recognizing the diversity within the “white male category”, diversity loses and is set back.

Matt Mullenweg addressed the company in what we call Town Halls and, on a random aside, stated the following after referencing Burning Man:

The idea is radical acceptance. And on first blush, this means when you see the person walking with a face mask, devil horns, body tattoos – something that might seem out of the norm – you need to accept them for who they are and not be weirded out, not presuppose things about them, not assume things etc. But where radical acceptance suddenly does a double take on you is when you also apply it to the stereotypes which you don’t feel are obvious for perceiving people a certain way. Radically accepting people with their crazy body paint and tattoo and face mask also means radically accepting the tech bro in khaki shorts, a polo shirt with a collar popped up, and a beer keg.

Reading/Listening to this struck me and has stayed with me. It’s been well over a week since this town hall but those words have lingered mainly because I’m concerned that when we talk about diversity we don’t include everyone.

I first ran into this problem on my rugby team at UNC so I’ll use that as an analogy. My sophomore year I was recruitment chair and I had someone come to me to reveal they were going to quit. “I just don’t feel like I can be straight and be on this team. I don’t feel welcome.” She wanted to quit because she wasn’t LGBTQ. I almost cried talking to her because, for me, I found a home within the UNC rugby team because I finally found other people I could identify with. For her, she found herself on the outside. I was so taken aback because I felt like we were the team that preached acceptance of body size, sexuality, gender, etc. We were the team that wanted anyone to join no matter their skill level. We were also the team who made someone uncomfortable enough that they wanted to leave.  That’s not okay just as much as it’s not okay that those of us on the team that were LGBTQ didn’t feel safe revealing our sexual orientation to our parents, friends, teachers, etc.

Working at Automattic, I’ve had conversations with my white male colleagues about how they feel masculinity forced upon them, about how they want to use their white male privilege to support me and causes I care about, about how happy they are they can work from home to help do their part to create an egalitarian home, about how we have a shared mental health diagnosis, about how hard it is to come out to your parents, and about how their loved ones are impacted by issues surrounding LGBTQ rights amongst other things. I’ve talked to white male colleagues who didn’t go to college, who grew up not knowing their parents, who speak English as their second language or even third, who fought to make ends meet for years, who struggled with mental illness, who stumbled into tech – they don’t fit into the neat bubble of the white male who attends MIT, majors in computer science, etc. etc. We all know the stereotypes – I don’t want to repeat them to give them strength. What I do want is to make sure all are included in the conversation.

Diversity means all people should feel welcome to come as they are – it also means we should be mindful of how our actions/words/thoughts affect others so that this is possible. Isolating one group (white males) to raise up another (let’s say, women) doesn’t further the goal as much as raising both groups to speak does. It’s a balance beam for sure – we will fall, we won’t get it right, but the point is to keep trying. We should always strive to be bridge builders rather than wall makers.

I am classically diverse in a number of ways: I struggle with mental illness. I am a woman. I identify as LGBTQ. I am not one of these things though. I am all of them. I happen to also be white and to have come from a fairly affluent background filled with private school education and club soccer teams. I also grew up playing in a dirt backyard digging holes because all of our grass had died during one particular dry FL summer and my parents couldn’t afford to resod the lawn. Diversity is complicated. Some of the aspects that make me “diverse” are visible – my gender expression is feminine enough to identify me as a woman. Some aspects are invisible – you would never know I struggle with mental illness unless you saw my scars or I said something. On first appearance, my only point of diversity is my gender. On a deeper look, there’s more. How do we find the more when we get stuck at the surface for white males?

Even as someone who feels like they care deeply about diversity and who wholeheartedly wants to create change – there are experiences I am afraid to speak on. For example, I have no idea what it’s like to be black. The second I write “black”, I worry that I should be saying African American. What should I say (great read on this topic)? Are these the kinds of questions those think when they try to engage in dialogue with me about LGBTQ issues? Do these questions keep them from speaking in the same way questions like “will they be okay with me saying I have a girlfriend?” kept me from speaking up for years?  These questions where we take on another’s perspective need to be asked and they need to be allowed. I can speak for myself when I say I will get it wrong.  In the same way I first learned what the appropriate terms were within the LGBTQ community even as I identified as LGBTQ, we need to give people time to learn the language and to practice perspective. After all, it took time for me to learn to say him instead of her or they instead of a pronoun.  It took time for me to get enough courage to ask what pronoun, if any, a trans classmate wanted to go by. When I hear people dismiss “white males”, I now hear people dismiss diversity. After all, intersectionality in my mind is the future if not the present of diversity and we can’t just work on diversity topics within our own communities. We need the collective.

I’ll leave you with a vignette. The first Accelerate.LGBT conference came to a close and a group of us darted off to get drinks. This group consisted of 6 LGBTQ identifying people including myself and one of the male speakers from Automattic (to be clear, non LGBTQ). He is a young, white, male developer. You would think he would be the epitome of a “tech bro”. I went into the dinner both stoked he was joining us and worried about how it might go. The night ended with all of us talking about gender norms and how we each felt our socialized gender forced upon us. I swapped tom boy stories while my male co-worker threw back stories of trying to play sports to fit in. We opened up about our own stereotypes about each other – about how I didn’t realize our co-organizer was LGBTQ until she told me simply because she was more feminine than I was expecting. We each had our own set of expectations pushed on us. We each defied them. We each held our own thoughts in our head about each other and by voicing them, we built a bridge to connect rather than a wall to divide. Diversity won.


2 responses to “White Male Allies”

  1. […] The same colleagues who always seem to have an idea, a fix, a hack to some of the most annoying or confusing issues slowly back away when it comes to diversity and inclusion. I’ve watched eloquent speakers nearly whisper the words or stumble over them. It reminds me of how I felt when I was first learning how to say LGBTQ. There is real fear in the tech world of messing it all up, saying the wrong thing, or misrepresenting others. It’s tough to watch and reminds me to always give folks the benefit of the doubt. I know personally I still have a ton to learn and am personally so thankful for those who were patient enough to walk with me when I was early in understanding diversity and inclusion more. Plus, just because I can speak with authority on some topics in D&I doesn’t mean I can on all – I have no what it’s like to be a person of color in tech or a parent in tech for example. Related: I truly do believe we have to see intersectionality in white men too to make progress (more here). […]

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