16 Jan 2015
The Professional Gap Of Privilege
There is an aspect to my professional life that has bothered me for a long time, yet I’ve not been able to articulate it appropriately until recently. Because of that, it’s a topic that I’ve handled poorly in the past, and that has sometimes alienated (albeit to a small degree) friends and followers alike. This topic is privilege privilege, and no, that is not a typo or error.
Like probably many of you reading this, I often spend some moments of my day scanning my Twitter feed for major topics of discussion taking place. Originally, those discussions were all about design, technology, development, and the sandwiches people were having for lunch. Eventually that started bothering me, because there were important social issues our industry was facing that weren’t adequately being discussed—the nice way of saying they generally were being routinely ignored completely.
As someone who got into tech for the sake of creating things that, hopefully, would help people lead better lives or do their work better, the widespread indifference to people’s concerns about their unfair or awful treatment by other people in our industry both baffled and enraged me. It wasn’t callousness, of course, but a combination of ignorance (whether about the issues’ existence or how to help combat them) and privilege (if it doesn’t directly affect you or someone close to you, it’s understandable you may not want to make it your problem).
In any case, I’m a lot calmer about it now.
A big part of that is because in the past 5 years that I’ve been dedicating more and more of my life to these issues, I’ve seen many a person who I used to argue with as ideological opponents, later stand beside me fighting for justice and equal treatment and opportunity for all people.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Another contributing factor is the realization that a lot of people simply don’t know what to do or say to combat systemic inequalities and discriminations in our industry or society. Speaking out is one of the most powerful and effective methods, all the more so when you are an industry leader or widely respected figure, but while saying words is easy, saying the right words can be a good deal trickier.
People, by and large, are good, well-meaning individuals with no malicious intent or callous indifference towards other people per se. The bigotries and biases instilled in us by our sociocultural environments aside, people generally see themselves as good. The problem, often, is a complex tangled web of privileges and power dynamics—something I’ll spare you the examination of today.
One such privilege, however, is the aforementioned one that had bothered me for so long but which I couldn’t articulate: the privilege of privilege itself. Technically, it’s simply privilege itself, no redundant linguistics, but specifically I’m describing the privilege of being so privileged in a variety of ways that you can go about furthering your work and personal lives without obstacles or distractions.
Over the past few years, there has been a cultural shift happening towards liberal, progressive ideals: same-sex marriage, better representation of underrepresented demographics in our politics and media culture, and so forth. This steady march of progress has come with the predictable backlash of people who see it as change for change’s sake, or as unnatural change; it is backlash of people who are uncomfortable with the speed in which their world is changing, in which the status quo is shifting and taking away some of their privileges (even when it does so for the better of everyone, the feeling of being ‘limited’ may seem arbitrary and, thus, unnecessary or unnatural to some).
But what hasn’t always changed is what people talk about on their blogs, Twitter, or wherever. That’s fine, of course; I’m not writing this to wag a finger at anyone. I just want to point out what that privilege leads to.
One common counter-argument often made against things like diversity quotas or efforts is that we should just hire for the best skills and talents, not attributes. But how do you hone your skills? You practice them. You make things, you try out new things, and you learn new things in the process and you get better, more skilled.
There are only 24 hours to a day for each and every one of us. So if you have to dedicate time each and every day to fight for your right to exist in a space or industry, or spend time fighting off harassment or threats and reporting them, then that is time you cannot spend on honing your skills. That is time you cannot spend asking your mentors for advice or trying out a new programming language.
This is how the system is rigged: by making it harder for the disenfranchised to rise up and join the privileged on an equal level, it actively tries to maintain and widen the gap between the demographics.
You’re not as good a programmer? Well, practice some more, then. You’re getting abuse and threats sent to you? Sorry to hear that, can’t help. Wait, why aren’t you practicing programming? I guess you just aren’t that into programming after all.
One question job interviews never ask is: How much time do you spend each day fighting for your right to be here and receive basic human respect from others? It may seem like a strange question, but if that answer is “zero” for you it may come as a surprise to hear that it can be as high as “most of the day” for others.
It is that gap that can naturally widen if we do not take corrective measure as a whole that bothers me, but it is a symptom, not a cause. The cause is people not being equipped with the right knowledge and tools and awareness, and that’s generally not their fault.
Again, since we’re all complicit in creating the society we live in, I’m not wagging a finger or criticizing those who dedicate their time to their passion of learning new skills. That’s how it should be, for all of us. But now that I know how to articulate this, I know how I plan to tackle it as a problem, and hopefully my work will contribute in some small way to the solution.
By writing it out for you, I hope that I get to do this with your support, perhaps even your collaboration. The intersection of technology and our culture is large and complicated, but it is a place where real solutions to our collective problems can emerge from. I’m planning to do some work there.