Helping someone become an ally

This is a Guest Post from Emanuil Tolev

There are, of course, many paths to becoming an ally to underrepresented people in tech. My own one started with several very steep steps before settling into a smoother trail of learning. The basics are believing you should treat people who are not entirely like you as equals, and learning to not center oneself when requesting information, help or time from underrepresented people.

Recently, someone got in trouble on Twitter for asking for help with making their open source community more diverse and inclusive.

That’s generally a laudable thing to want to do.

However, their attempt was perceived as overly naive: “OK, can you help us make this community more diverse?” after being called out for having a not particularly diverse board is a little tone-deaf. It was a request for time, effort and information to be invested into a new project … from people who already do a lot of voluntary Diversity and Inclusion work in other communities. It didn’t go well despite the asker’s good intentions.

The project seemed genuinely interesting to me from both a technical and social perspective, so I thought it was worth my time to step in and email the person who got called out in private, guessing (correctly) that no-one else was going to try to explain the call-out in detail.

I found out they were feeling quite hurt – after all, people had implied they were off-base, wasting time, and hurting the very cause they were trying to help, just for asking for advice! Now we had to go from “everything is terrible” to “I feel bad but there’s a legitimate reason and I’ll learn from this”. This is ongoing, but here’s how I’ve approached it so far.

I started with acknowledging they were feeling attacked, defensive and hurt. Reaching out in good faith and getting rebuffed does hurt!

Then I encouraged them to continue learning about diversity and inclusion with an open mind, as they had been doing thus far, but to be ready for uncomfortable conversations because the topics are necessarily quite gnarly and include some historical pain. I can start here in the future if the conversation is not the result of a call-out.

Next, I simply shared what I’ve done thus far to understand underrepresented people’s problems. I’ve learned I should refrain from contributing to the conversation until I actually had a constructive idea, so naturally that leaves me mostly with reading. You will often get a negative reaction if people read your calls to action and think “oh dear, another person I’ll have to teach for free in my spare time”. Intentionally expanding my network of Twitter and “offline” techies to include people who are not like me has helped the most since they have talks and books to recommend on inclusion and share their own experiences in tech. Stephanie Hurlburt @sehurlburt, Marco Rogers @polotek, Tracy Chou @triketora and Ellen Pao @ekp are particularly thoughtful and suitable for introducing to someone new to the problems while Erynn Brook @ErynnBrook is particularly elaborate when it comes to describing patriarchal culture and how it hurts all genders. However, this is not a question of clicking “Follow” a couple of times – I try to get a glimpse of 100s of underrepresented perspectives in-person and online. It becomes a part of your work, no matter what that is.

Having acknowledged this is not a problem we’ll solve by Friday and that this is frustrating, it was now time to move on to addressing the sharp feedback they had received. This was tricky: it was up to me to essentially explain why other people had reacted harshly which meant attempting to summarise their position. Ultimately, I think the reason boils down to continuously being asked for your “perspective” as an underrepresented person and then having that ignored. At some point you’re simply tired of teaching, explaining and being nice to people – after you’ve done it a few hundred times or more and not seen significant progress in the field.

The next thing we will need to work on is the perception that people who had called out the project wanted to hurt those asking for help with making their community more inclusive. The feeling of discomfort is separate from the actions of the inclusion advocates. There are two really excellent Twitter threads on this topic: https://twitter.com/ErynnBrook/status/1048697135250649089 and https://twitter.com/thearmchaircom/status/1048060815780323330 . Some books would do good here though. While Twitter is great for immersing yourself in cultural river rapids, it’s not very conducive to genuine reflection and growth. The concept of White Fragility, described in “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism” by Dr. Robin DiAngelo is an interesting one to read about here, as is the book “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo. While these are books on race, stretching the imagination to racism (often self-diagnosed as “not a big problem” in European societies) should also help understand broader diversity issues much more deeply – at least it has helped me.

Even if the people we welcome into our tech communities are sometimes harsh or tired of their never-ending activism, we need to hear, reflect, think and finally – act carefully, becoming activists ourselves. In other words, become allies.

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