Technology and Privilege
Intersectionality is a weird thing to think about. This is the reason people have trouble identifying or enumerating their privilege, and why I myself had this problem. On one hand, both my sexual orientation and my religion put me squarely in the minority/marginalized peoples category. On the other, more dominant hand (my left hand), I have many distinct privileges. I am a student at a rather prestigious university, I have disposable income, will most likely never have to worry about finding work, I am able bodied, I am male, and I am white. This post is about realizing both my privilege and my place, and what some of my responsibilities are as a result.
Free Stuff and Networking
As a gay man living in Boston, it is very easy for me to forget that being gay is not universally acceptable. Rarely do I face any adversity for being gay. In my micro-environment of Brandeis University, being gay is easier than being a Republican. It could be the way I present myself (unlikely), or the people I associate with (more likely), but even heteronormativity doesn’t seem to be too prevalent an issue anymore. I know this is not the case elsewhere, which is why I have always been an active and vocal supporter of LGBTQ rights. I go to rallies and parades, I have lobbied my elected officials, and I have written about these issues. Even so, in my personal situation, being gay actively helps me further my educational and career goals. Being gay has helped me get college scholarships, given me talking points during interviews, and has even help me get some interviews. Here’s an example:
This September, I attended the Out for Undergrad Tech Conference (OUTC) for the second year in a row. This event is a conference for LGBTQ undergrads to explore the issues related to their gender and sexual identities in the context of technology. The conference has many generous sponsors to whom I am thankful. We are courted with free travel to San Francisco, hotel, and countless small gifts (flannel pants, t-shirts, etc). What’s more, at the end of the conference, there is a career fair with the largest technology companies in the world. Sound like a nice weekend? It was.
Yet, do I deserve all this? I may be a minority, but my life has been full of ample opportunity, and this special treatment feels like cheating. People cannot immediately tell I am a minority. Furthermore, my entire life has been full of my family, friends and teachers extolling the limitless possibilities I will have. This is something that most minorities don’t get. Talking to potential employers doesn’t intimidate me like it can people who didn’t have the privilege of my circumstances. I have no additional reasons to fear meeting new people, talking to professors, or speaking in public. The reason events for marginalized peoples are held is so they can “level the playing field.” If the field is already on even ground for me, is it right for me to take advantage of this? I’ll return to this question later.
After the welcome party Friday night at Bloomberg’s San Francisco office, the conference commenced with talks from well-regarded LGBTQ people in tech at Twitter HQ (this is where the remainder of the conference was to be held). This year’s keynote speaker was decent, but nothing compared to last year’s key-note speaker, the amazing Vivienne Ming, PhD. If you don’t know who Vivienne is, I highly encourage you read up on one of the most inspirational people I have ever met. Her life, story, and goals are movie-like. Read about Vivienne, decide to be more like Vivienne, then come back here and keep reading. The remainder of Saturday and the beginning of Sunday were split between tech talks from the employees of sponsoring companies and talks on various aspects of tech culture, LGBTQ culture, and their intersections. There is one talk in particular which stood out to me and which was the impetus for this post.
Towards the end of the day on Saturday, I attended a talk about intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw. This talk focused on how we can understand the varying backgrounds and experiences of people I hadn’t thought much about this concept before and was caught off guard by how much the topic impacted me. People don’t identify with a single adjective or noun. Identity is complex and evolving, making pinning it down to just one box both difficult and unproductive. For example, I identify as a gay man, an engineer, a (budding) scientist, a Jew, etc. While some portions of my identity are more prominent aspects of my life than others, they are all a part of me, and all impact certain decisions I make.
Intersectionality, is “a way of thinking about privilege and marginalization that focuses on the integration of many identities in one person … It turns privilege from a ladder into a spiderweb, complicating and humanizing the lives of marginalized people” (Quote by my amazingly brilliant friend, Kim Carlson). This type of thinking doesn’t come naturally to most people. It goes against our default way of thinking, which is to group and compartmentalize everything and everyone we come across. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s the way we’re built, but we need to be cognizant of intersectionality when interacting with people whose experiences may differ from our own. We need to be aware of intersectionality and its repercussions or reactions people may have to things we do or say.
So how does this relate to tech? It relates to tech because tech tries to be a meritocracy which brings together people of varying backgrounds. If this claim is to be made, we need those people to be comfortable. In all our workplaces, we should make inclusion a goal to strive towards, instead of being a condition of someone’s situation in life. We should not only strive towards tolerance in the workplace, but towards understanding and compassion. My employer once talked about how important it is to “bring your whole self to work.” I truly believe in this mentality and the only way this can be accomplished is if people feel like their whole self is safe and welcome at work.
Back to my earlier question. Is it right for me to benefit from OUTC when I have faced so little outright prejudice in my life? I’m still conflicted, but leaning towards yes, and for two reasons. First, I may not face overt prejudice because I am Jewish or gay, yet institutionalized prejudice still affects me in very real ways. I am more likely to face hiring discrimination, in some states it is still legal for me to be fired due to my sexual orientation, and covert taunts and harassment are possibilities in the workplace.
Second, though I have not faced much discrimination of which I am aware, intersectionality was an important concept for me to begin thinking about. As someone with distinct privilege and the potential for a leadership position, I need to be able to pro-actively dismiss micro-aggressions and help curb ignorance. Now that I am no longer as ignorant of this problem, I can better help curb it. I can instantiate policies in my workplace which help familiarize employees with intersectionality. I can write about issues facing minorities. I can speak out when needed. These are things which I can more readily do than can someone who does not have my gender, sex, or skin color, and are therefore my responsibility.