ism 101: You Are Not The Victim Here

I’ve spent this past week at the Drupal conference in Denver, CO. It’s my first time attending and I’ve learned a lot and met a lot of great people.

Based on my experience with other conventions, both work related and fun related, I had a good idea of what I needed to do to take care of myself during this week. I knew, for instance, that the dry air and higher elevation of Denver would require some special self care to make sure I stayed hydrated and moisturized (yay for hotel humidifiers!) I also knew that trying to attend every session would just result in exhaustion and burnout and so I picked the things I thought would be most useful or educational and also set aside time to just network and meet new people.

What I didn’t remember, is that a concentration of 3000+ people, also means a greater chance of running into people who don’t follow Wheaton’s Law. In all my preparations, I forgot to put up my mental shields and that has resulted in more than a few frustrating, maddening moments that left me feeling drained and frustrated, when I should be feeling excited about all the amazing conference content.

A condecending pat on the shoulder here (not one but two waiters did this), a few sexist comments there, a racist comment thrown in for good measure. It gets old. Really old. So I unleashed some of my frustration on Twitter:

Tweet: Men, stop touching me!

And, as happens far too often, a guy thought a great response would be to make fun of the situation:

Exhibit A: Do not respond to sexist comments by turning them into jokes.

It’s a pattern I see too often and it goes like this:

Person A: I’m so mad about ___ist thing that happened.

I won’t bore you with the details (go read my twitter feed if you’re interested) but my response was not polite. Even though I A) know and like the man who said this and B) know that he didn’t intend any harm, I let him have it. I was well past the end of my patience by this point and the better I know someone, the less likely I am to pull my punches. This is actually a matter of respect. It means I don’t think you’re a lost cause and because your intent wasn’t malicious, the interaction will hopefully end as a learning experience.

As you might imagine, not everyone takes this form of ‘tough love’ very well1. In fact, unless I’m dealing with someone I know to be an ally–that is someone actively working to examine their privilege and working to use it for the good of those who don’t share it– it usually goes pretty badly. As it did in this case. That’s because the natural reaction to being attacked is defensiveness, anger, denial etc.

Although that is a perfectly human response, my sister quoted an article recently that sums up perfectly why it is less than productive:

People of color, women, and gays2 — who now have greater access to the centers of influence [than] ever before — are under pressure to be well-behaved when talking about their struggles. There is an expectation that we can talk about sins but no one must be identified as a sinner: newspapers love to describe words or deeds as “racially charged” even in those cases when it would be more honest to say “racist”; we agree that there is rampant misogyny, but misogynists are nowhere to be found; homophobia is a problem but no one is homophobic. One cumulative effect of this policed language is that when someone dares to point out something as obvious as white privilege, it is seen as unduly provocative.

Logic would seem to dictate, that the KKK and Mit Romney cannot be solely responsible for all the evil directed towards people of color, women, queer people etc. That means there must be some basically good people out there who (gasp) occasionally say and do racist and sexist things. In fact, you (yeah, you reading this) might even be one of them!

The above twitter exchange devolved into denial that any wrong doing occurred based on the fact that he didn’t mean any harm quicker than my cat steals popcorn. Not only that, but he pointed out how hurt he was, that I would be so mean.

Since I am a developer, and since many of my recent unpleasant encounters have been with developers, and since developers understand logic, I will attempt a logical comparison.

If you are walking along, and you trip over a fallen branch, and that trip causes you to stumble, and that stumble carries you forcefully into another person, and that person is knocked down–it does not then follow that you are a bad person for knocking someone down. You certainly didn’t mean for it to happen: you tripped. And yet, I doubt that you would deny that you knocked the other person down simply because it happened in an unplanned manner. More likely, you would grab their hand, help them up, apologize, and inquire if they were OK.

And yet, when women, or people of color, or queer folks3, point out the fact that someone has stumbled into us, we are too often met with anger, denial, scorn, disbelief and threats, turning what could have been a simple, “Sorry, my bad,” into a threatening and dehumanizing encounter.

If you doubt this, there are more examples than grains of sand on a beach. Here are a few from just the past few weeks:

So, now that we agree that your basic goodness as a person isn’t in question, how then, shall you respond to the occasional misstep? Well, I have a few suggestions.

Take a deep breath. Someone is angry with you but (unless you are a black teenage boy wearing a hoodie), you will mostly likely not die from it.

Resist with all your might, the urge to deny that you have done anything wrong. Though whatever it is might not seem like a big deal to you, remember that you are mostly likely the one with power and privilege in this situation. Girls do not yet rule the world, despite what you may have heard from Beyonce. Chances are you do not spend a portion of every day feeling wary, threatened and worrying that you could die for wearing the wrong item of clothing. Trust me, it changes your concept of what constitutes a ‘big deal’

APOLOGIZE. Bonus points if you actually mean it.

If you truly do not understand why the person is upset with you, ask her to explain. HOWEVER (and this is advanced stuff we’re getting into), understand that you may or may not get an answer. Just because you have sincerely apologized, does not mean the anger will magically dissipate. She might not feel like talking to you for a while.

Educate yourself. Take the opportunity to try to understand the other person’s point of view and become a more empathetic person.

When I ask a senior developer at work for help with a problem, it is not uncommon (or unreasonable) for them to ask if I have done some research and tried to figure out the answer myself first. Why? Because they have their own work to do and their time is valuable.

Likewise, people in marginalized groups have better things to do with our time than educate you on the 101 of race and gender relations, disability rights, etc. We have spent our lives learning all about you and your dominant culture so that we can function in the world and try to get ahead (whatever that means). There are many more pleasant ways I could have spent my evening than writing this post, such as going to the last DrupalCon trivia event, reading a novel or getting some sleep.

There are entire sections of bookstores and libraries, terabytes, nay, GIGAWATTS of Internet articles on how not to be a dick. Read a few of them, and then share what you’ve learned–maybe with the person who provided the catalyst, or, better yet, with another privileged person who has never given their privilege a second thought. You can become an ally by not expecting oppressed people to do all the work of ending oppression because in fact, WE CANNOT DO IT WITHOUT YOUR HELP.

Last but not least…if you were called out because you told a joke that was offensive and your solution is to never tell another joke…know that that is a cop out. Humor and treating people with respect are not mutually exclusive. If you are not sure where the line is, then maybe it’s a good idea to stay well inside of it, until you’ve taken some of the steps above.

Here’s a few links to get you started:

Damali Ayo
Geek Feminism Wiki
Everything Shakesville ever published
3 Reasons Why It Pays to Not Let Sexist Comments Slide

 Jay Smooth shows us how it’s done:

Have some more good reading? Post it in comments. New commenters will be moderated. Please observe Wheaton’s Law when posting. Thanks.

  1. I am not always mean about calling people out, but as I get older, I’m less and less interested in sublimating my anger to protect people who screw up.
  2. Oh snap. I qualify for all three of those categories. No wonder I’m so damn angry.
  3. Yup, still a triple threat. Seriously it’s a wonder I don’t spend every day just yelling at random straight white males. I should get a medal.4
  4. Relax, that was sarcasm.


  1. hi, kronda. it’s been a long time but just wanted to take a moment to thank you for this thoughtful post. i’ll be passing it on.
    p.s. i introduced my gf to xena and we’ve been rewatching those old tapes. xena (and your pass-it-on generosity) lives!


    1. Hi Grace! It has been a long time. Thanks for stopping by. What part of the world are you in these days?


      1. Sorry took so long to respond–I didn’t know you wrote Back and just happened by your post again.

        I’m just about to be back in PDX after 2 months in Anchorage!

        And you? If you’re in town too, want to visit/hike/eat/have tea or whatever?

        Email me, ok? I had to fill out my email here….


  2. Just wanted to put a little more reading material out there: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome by Joy Leary educates about the internalized racism, the roots of privilge and ways in which we can mitigate ignorance of the micro-aggressions perpetrated daily by those who “don’t mean it”. Loved your commentary and the introduction to Wheaton’s Law. Interesting. My goal is to elevate marginalized communities to their own ability to take back rights related to health disparities. Feel free to comment at Right To Health’s facebook page on ways that racism and particularly those micro-aggressions harm both perpetrators and victims alike and stay tuned for more strategies to combat them. Peace


  3. Hi Kronda,

    Thank you for doing the work that you do. I look forward to discovering more posts.




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