The centre cannot hold: on diversity and inclusion in tech

Does the language of diversity and inclusion in tech serve us?

In her autobiography, Assata Shakur warns of the slippery nature of “liberal,” both the word and the political concept:

I have never really understood exactly what a ‘liberal’ is, since I have heard ‘liberals’ express every conceivable opinion on every conceivable subject…As far as I’m concerned, ‘liberal’ is the most meaningless word in the dictionary.

Similarly, “diversity” and “inclusion” feel like liberal words; like the concept of liberalism itself, they can be rendered devoid of meaning and therefore dangerously susceptible to appropriation, perversion and reversal.

In genuine efforts towards diversity and inclusion in tech, the words are meant to denote  efforts to combat the racist, sexist and otherwise oppressive and discriminatory systems and practices that keep tech such a white, cis male space (i.e. diversity); and, when those marginalized folks actually do make it into tech spaces, ensure that they are not driven away by hostile environments that demand them to conform to that largely white, cis male culture (i.e. inclusion).

However, opportunists are glad to take the words diversity and inclusion and skew them to their own designs. Diversity becomes about “diversity of thought,” a phrase used to rail against communities that make it clear that discriminatory and oppressive words, beliefs and actions are not welcome. Inclusion becomes about ensuring that white supremacists, sexual harassers, active misogynists, transphobes and other similar vectors of oppression are never excluded from the community, no matter how many marginalized people they drive away in the process.

Rather than tech diversity and inclusion, we should instead seek tech equity and justice: explicitly political, less politically empty and mutable language. This is, of course, a far broader and more challenging goal. The explicit political, anti-oppressive nature of tech equity and justice will undoubtedly draw more fire from those committed to maintaining the existing hierarchies and inequities in tech. Additionally, tech equity and justice would need to address a far wider range of inequities and injustices connected to tech, from the racist gentrification of San Francisco and the East Bay, to exploitative labor practices required for the abundance of cheap electronics and devices we consume as techies, to the environmental and human destruction wreaked in order to obtain the basic materials for creating those devices.

Yes, tech equity and justice is a much more challenging road for us to walk, but that is because it gets to the roots of the systems that have made tech diversity and inclusion efforts necessary in the first place. And when you get at the roots of a problem, you’re far more likely to get rid of the problem for good.

(Originally drafted on May 15, 2017; edited and published in the wake of the release of the Google anti-diversity screed.)

Swan Lake

This past week I saw a pair of trumpeter swans a’swimming on Swan Lake in Wyoming.

Since identifying the lake as a destination on our hike, Tchaikovsky’s Swan’s Theme has been firmly lodged in my brain. When we reached Swan Lake itself I dramatically sang what I knew of it from the shore, one of my companions helpfully picking up the tune, my arms spread wide, for once not really caring whether I disturbed the people or creatures around me. (And hey, it’s important to scare off the bears!) I even made a fair attempt at a lesser-known section that leads up to the repetition of the leitmotif.

A few moments later an older white couple walked over to us, one of them smiling and then enthusiastically thanking us for our performance and appreciating that we managed to stay on tune. She laughingly claimed that the pair of swans across the lake, which I actually hadn’t seen before I began singing, beat their wings against the water to applaud us as we sang. (I later joked that they were probably beating their wings in frustration, thinking “goddamn it can people stop singing that fucking song at us already?!?”)

I’m fairly certain that out of our group of four in which I was the only non-white person, this woman did not expect me to be the one who’d first encountered Swan Lake when learning an adaptation of the theme during piano lessons at age 6 or so; the one who is probably most personally sad about Tchaikovsky’s life trajectory and deeply moved by his music in that light; or the one who would, upon returning to reliable and secure wifi, download a good recording of “Swan Lake,” listen to it incessantly, marvel at the Swan dancing en pointe in YouTube videos, and tell their partner happily of their newfound appreciation of ballet after having stuck primarily to non-ballet classical music and opera for the past three decades and that they’ll go to the ballet with her more enthusiastically than expected after all.

An uncomfortable inclusion, rejected

This morning I found myself sitting in my favorite neighborhood spot, Akat Cafe Kalli, where the politics are as palpable and potent as the coffee. I sat here, eating my breakfast sandwich, drinking my café de olla, reading my book , nodding my head along to the music, which I was growing increasingly aware of and was increasingly digging, but also increasingly scared to trust it. As I listened to the explicitly political lyrics on police violence, racism, sexism and homophobia that seemed to speak directly to me as a queer, leftist, womanish person of color, my suspicion grew that I might feel significantly less in tune with other, yet unnamed politics of the artists whose album was playing. The feeling increased as the words, now in Spanish as well as English, continued to resonate as much as the music to which they were set.

A few more tracks in, and I was digging the music too much to not know whose it was. I searched online for a snippet of the lyrics–“i’m a bird who sings in the springtime”–and found that it was indeed Climbing PoeTree, and that I was indeed right to feel betrayed. (In short, Climbing PoeTree performed at Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival despite a longstanding call for a boycott because of their exclusion of trans women; the duo’s public response, the only one I know of, was weak, as was their response to me in real life after I yelled for them to stop selling out trans women while they were on stage at an organizational event I attended.

Despite feeling so seen, heard, included and even centered by this music and these words, I couldn’t stop thinking of those who are not included in the circle of these artists’ politics, those whose exclusion these artists have endorsed and even embraced–trans women. I couldn’t let myself go with this music, as much as my ears and body wanted to, because I cannot leave my sisters and siblings behind in order to enjoy my own inclusion.

 

Reflections on a morning well spent

I need to remind myself that, in getting out of the house, I often expose myself to great beauty and blessings.

Yesterday was a day of reckoning with myself and all of my loose ends, among them an overdue shopping trip. I set some lofty intentions for today:

  1. Get up by the second alarm ring (nearly achieved.)
  2. Get dressed and out quickly (achieved well enough.)
  3. Do my shopping (achieved.)
  4. Treat myself to a coffee from the local actually down though it might seem fancy schmancy coffee shop as a reward (very well achieved.)

All of this before sitting down at my desk to work at 10am. Lofty goals for someone like me, but somewhat to my surprise I got up and got it done this morning, aided by the simultaneously energizing and calming effects of a lovely California sativa.

In the course of these fairly mundane errands, I managed to experience the following:

  • Three heartfelt compliments on my Afro, two from Black women, the other from another person of color. One of the women called me “honey” in the course of her compliment; the other asked if it was all mine, and I replied, with guilty pride, “all mine!”
  • Two Black women using terms of endearment for me, the first cited above, the latter “sweetheart” coming from the older woman checking me out at the grocery store with the kick-ass pair of brow-arched eyes tattooed on the back of her neck.
  • The opportunity to be exceedingly polite and gracious to many people, including all of the people mentioned above, especially the woman at the grocery store who was dealing heroically with fallout from the store’s EBT system being down. My mom taught me nothing if not impeccable manners, and it brings me joy to treat as many people as I can with a politeness that I hope communicates my recognition of their beauty, dignity and worth.
  • An influx of new knowledge on just how great my favorite coffee shop (Akat Cafe Kalli) really is, accompanied by the pleasure of spending money and indulging in a delicious cold brew coffee with minimal guilt over the harmful impact of my actions.
  • Parallel knowledge that the Oakland Indie Coffee Passport as run by Marc at Shift Local might actually be pretty neat, in part because it’s run by folks of color from the East Bay who seem to get how hip coffee can be part of damaging gentrification and demonstrate that “getting” via the selection of coffee shops included on their list (one of which is Akat!)

All of that before 10am! I may need to keep this up.

TFW your tech work needs a trigger warning

It happens sometimes. I do web work and other kinds of tech support for community organizations, some of whom I work with outside of paid work. Working at this intersection of technology, my activism and my communities means I get shaken up at unexpected times.

Today I was working on a plan for a new website for the Audre Lorde Project, an organization I’ve worked with both professionally and politically for more than a decade now. I was checking out their site analytics to get a sense of what their site traffic might indicate about who’s coming to the site, and for what.

I pulled up a report of their site traffic over the past year and saw two huge spikes. I started looking into the first one. I got real nerdy excited over the rapid increase in traffic, jotting down some notes:

March 30 – 127 visits
March 31 – 340
April 1 – 1167
April 2 – 1586
April 3 – 634
April 4 – 244
tapers off from there

Next, of course, I had to see what was generating all that traffic, what was getting hit and why.

At the top of list of pages sorted by unique page views, I saw this URL:

http://alp.org/breaking-isolation-self-care-and-community-care-tools-our-people

I felt physically jolted, a little winded. I suddenly realized what I was seeing: the massive flood of people to Breaking Isolation: Self Care and Community Care Tools for our People, a resource that ALP posted after Taueret Davis, a community member I’d known of for years, a dear friend to many dear friends, committed suicide. So many of my friends, fellow queers, community members were amongst the unique visitors generating all of those page views. I was responsible for at least one of those page views.

I alt-tabbed to the work timer I had running and stopped the clock. I couldn’t just work past this. It brought up a barrage of memories and feelings, not only about Taueret’s death but about the other suicides we survivors have lived through this past year.

As I’m wont to do, I turned outward. Talked to my coworkers about it, a few of whom were similarly impacted by Taueret’s death. Tweeted about it. Wrote this.

After I’d expressed the contents of my head and my heart enough to keep going, I returned to work, now with even stronger inspiration for the work, plus a suddenly deepened understanding of why it’s so important to make sure that URLs don’t break when sites are upgraded.

http://alp.org/breaking-isolation-self-care-and-community-care-tools-our-people can never, ever break.

You see what I don’t

Lunch time, and nothing at all sounded appealing. It had been a rough morning, and I was looking for comfort. I headed out, bee-lining for an overpriced garlic miso fried chicken rice bowl and a bottle of Mexican Coke. In my adulthood I’ve realized that comfort food sometimes doesn’t so much mean food that is comforting as it means food that is so delicious that even when your emotions have decimated your appetite, you can still eat it.

As I walked down the block I felt the pull of the bookstore just a few blocks further ahead. Books are another reliable source comfort. But then I remembered my Black friend behind the counter there on MLK Day, her complaint earlier that she was the only Black employee there and they scheduled her to work that day of all days, her white boss patronizingly insisting “No, you HAVE to buy local” when she overheard us talking about how it can be hard to get yourself into a local independent bookstore and buy (the more expensive) books there as my friend rang up my $26 plus tax copy of “Between the World and Me.”

Besides, just yesterday I’d lamented to my partner about the ever rising stack of unread books on my night table  and the other stack on my bookshelf and the rest scattered alphabetically throughout my bookshelf and committed (once again) to not acquire any more books until I’d read all of those.

That stayed in mind as I turned the corner and walked past tables of books, records, old TIME magazine covers with photos of Black celebrities & notables, and even Black Barbies, all carefully curated by an older gentleman who always wears excellent flat caps. I saw this all out of the corner of my eye, determined not to look too carefully at the books on his table lest I buckle to temptation.

That only worked the first time walking past. On my way back, fancy fried chicken in hand, my curiosity got the best of me and my eyes slid over the book table.

He knew he had me. “I’ll make you a good deal,” he called out. I smiled, said thank you and made other noncommittal noises, trying to pull my eyes away before I saw anything I liked.

He clocked me quickly, saying “I’ve got a lot of Baldwin,” (yeah, I’m an obvious queer), “and Soledad Brother by George Jackson” (was it the fro?)

I slowed my step, then turned back, saying “You caught me with the Baldwin.”

He had three titles by him, none of which I own or have read (I’m so very behind on my reading.) “2 for $8,” he said. I grabbed Another Country and The Fire Next Time. “Not all three?” he asked. I said nah, I’ll stick with these two.

He pointed towards the top of the table, said “Well check out that one,  History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880.” I shook my head, reaching for my wallet to pay for the books I’d already chosen, but he continued, “It’s one of the most comprehensive books about our history out there.”

Our history.

I fumbled for my money, playing off how unexpectedly moved I was that this older Black man saw and so matter-of-factly named the Blackness in me that I am so hesitant to claim, thinking it’s not mine to take.

Handing over my eight dollars, I thanked him for the tip, said I’d keep the history book in mind (and I did, in fact, looking it and its author up when I got back to my office, while writing this.) And I thanked him for stopping me, and for the two Baldwin books. He returned my thanks graciously.

As I turned to walk away, another older Black man standing next to me called out to get my attention. I turned to him and he said “tuck your wallet in, you don’t want someone bumping up into you and taking it,” reminding me of nothing so much as my father looking out for me as I walked out the door as a kid.

I thanked him, thanked the universe, and walked away, my day looking decidedly up.

Dream, 8/11/15

Originally posted on Facebook.

While lying in bed preparing to get up and face the day, I remembered a dream I had last night and felt compelled not only to write it down but to share it with my friends. (I’m sharing with my Facebook Friends but thinking of the friends in my dream, my friends and comrades in Oakland.)

I was in the vague, inaccurate dream landscape of my hometown, near my old house. I was distraught about the same myriad things that kept me up last night in waking life. I was alone, felt lost, at my wits’ end, so I started running. I used to do that all the time in real life–just start running when I couldn’t take a situation anymore. I’m not much of a runner, but it was always a physical relief combined with a often irresponsible, sometimes even destructive escape.

I ran and ran. I was barefoot and knew that wasn’t smart, but it didn’t hurt. I reached the cemetery near my old house, where my Dad, my great-godfather Clarence, my paternal grandma and grandfather are all buried. The cemetery is a fixture in my dreams, the only piece of permanent landscape in dreamtime Hillside, NJ, which I never really thought much of until just now.

The dreamtime Evergreen Cemetery always changes, though. This time it was more like a park, with a river running through it. I looked down to the river, thought of running down there, but saw so many folks down there on the banks. Mostly Black folks, mostly men, all people I didn’t know. I couldn’t be around people I didn’t know. I wanted to be alone. So I kept running on the street.

I ran and ran. And suddenly I was running through a demonstration, a direct action, right smack in the middle of a main street in my own hometown. Many people participating in the action, not many watching or stopping. The people in the action were my Black friends, my community from Oakland, many of the people I’ve thrown down with or supported in actual actions in recent months. They were righteously angry, their shouts were urgent in calling for justice for Black people.

I kept running. I thought to stop, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was too distraught. It felt like I literally couldn’t slow down, like my feet were self-propelled. I started crying because I knew I should turn around and go back but I couldn’t.

But then I did. I just did. Dreams are nice like that–you just do, all of a sudden, without as much of the fretting and time and processing that happens in waking life. I just stopped, turned around and was suddenly back with them, with my friends, my people. I found one of them, fumbled sheepishly through excuses of why I kept running. My friend waved it off because the excuses weren’t important. What was important was what was going on around us, and I was there, now.

And then the dream ended.

And now I start my day.

A conversation with THEESatisfaction about their MWMF and AMC performances

Scroll down for screenshots of the full Twitter conversation.

On May 28 I started a conversation on Twitter with THEESatisfaction, musicians of whom I’ve been a fan for a bit, about their upcoming performance at the Allied Media Conference, which I’ve been deeply involved in since I first attended in 2011.

I wrote in response to their tweet about their upcoming performance at the AMC, a space which to me has long worked to be a safer space to trans women, other trans and gender non-conforming folks. This community ethos was especially visible in 2014, when the AMC was the site of the first International Trans Women of Color Network Gathering , a beautiful, groundbreaking and vital part of last year’s conference. Because of that, I felt it was important to ask THEESatisfaction about their participation in a transphobic and specifically transmisogynist institution despite a boycott called by trans women and their allies.

I recently learned that THEESatisfaction played at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 2013. The festival has had a longstanding practice of excluding trans women from participation as performers or attendees. In response, boycotts and other protests of the festival and its policies have been happening since 1992. In 2013, a widely publicized petition was circulated asking the Indigo Girls and other MWMF performers that year, including THEESatisfaction, to boycott the festival until trans women were fully included.

Below are screenshots of the rest of the conversation. The tweets that came from me and Jessie, another AMC participant, are still available on Twitter; THEESatisfaction have deleted all of their tweets and quickly blocked Jessie and I, cutting off further dialogue.

To date, THEESatisfaction has made no further statements with regards to their performance at MWMF, transmisogyny, or how it relates to their performance at the AMC.

AMC organizers have been aware of the situation since May 30 at the latest. Though they have engaged in conversation with myself and others about the topic, they have also made no public statements about this situation. THEESatisfaction is still set to perform on Saturday night.

thee_screenshot_1thee_screenshot_2Fourth set of screenshots of conversation with THEESatisfaction

 

The next screenshot should be read in reverse order, from bottom (earliest) to top (latest.)

Finally, a tweet from the personal account of one of the members of THEESatisfaction, which has since been made private.

thee_screenshot_5

EDITED TO ADD: I shared this on Facebook on June 20, 2015:

Trans women & allies met tonight to discuss the situation & possible responses. For a variety of reasons, including exhaustion, illness and a meeting earlier with Cat from THEESatisfaction, we have decided not to do an action at tonight’s show. We hope that Cat makes a statement from the stage as she said she would during our conversation. As a community we will be following up with AMP and AMC organizers about the problems with how they handled this situation and next steps to address these problems going forward, including how performers are selected and held accountable in the future.

The Allied Media Projects’ staff and board later posted this statement on their site, addressing this situation and others that occurred during the 2015 Allied Media Conference.

Cat of THEESatisfaction made a statement from the stage in support of trans women, accompanied by tweets that promised further response. Those tweets were eventually deleted, and no written response was posted on the THEESatisfaction website.

 

For Aubrey

After a webinar on blogging for social change earlier today, I found myself on the home page of my old blog, AngryBrownButch. Scrolling down the page, I was jarred to read these words from November 18, 2008:

Since writing about Duanna on Friday, I’ve learned about the killings of two more trans women of color in recent months. Ebony Whitaker was murdered in July, also in Memphis. In August, Nakhia Williams was killed in Louisville, Kentucky. GLAAD and the Kentucky Fairness Alliance report that not only was there minimal news coverage of Williams’ murder, but the coverage that did happen was transphobic and disrespectful. And just this past Friday, Teish Cannon, a young Black trans woman living in Syracuse, NY, had her life cut short at the age of 22 because she was trans. Again, the media coverage has been both sparse and disrespectful, identifying Cannon as a man who was killed for being gay, not a woman who was killed for being trans.

(It took me maybe ten minutes to type that last paragraph. It made me feel nauseous. I’m not sure how I’m managing not to cry at this point.)

Those words, written just over six years ago, are a terrible echo of words I’ve heard, read and helped write in recent weeks. Not even two months into 2015, at least nine queer or trans people of color have been killed, the majority of them trans women of color. We mourned those nine people on February 14 at a Valentine’s Day Action for Murdered Trans and Queer People of Color in downtown Oakland. Since then, the heartbreaking list of murdered trans women of color has continued to grow at a horrifying rate.

This epidemic of violence against trans women of color does a tremendous amount of collateral damage, beyond the devastating losses of the victims themselves. The toll this violence takes on communities of trans women of color and their allies is immense, immeasurable, and too often as severe as the murders themselves.

Hours after the dismay I felt at reading such similar words on my blog from all those years back, I received a text message from one of my housemates. He asked whether I knew Aubrey. I responded that I did; I’d met her and had gotten to know her through weekly hack nights at the POC-led, gender-diverse makerspace I’m involved in. I asked my roommate why he asked.

As I waited for his reply, I felt my stomach sinking. Aubrey was a young trans woman of color. I knew that with those overlapping oppressions and the other challenges she faced, she didn’t have an easy life. I’d seen my roommate post a question about suicide on Facebook earlier in the day. I knew what he would tell me before I received his next message: Aubrey had taken her own life.

The internet has created some strange new rituals of mourning and coping. After more texts consoling each other and planning how to share the awful news with others who knew Aubrey, I looked for her on Facebook, feeling odd about it but not knowing what else to do. We weren’t “friends,” so I could only see her public posts.

Towards the top of Aubrey’s wall, posted the day before she died, is an article about Sumaya Dalmar, a young trans woman of color found dead in Toronto on February 22. Below that, an article about how some trans women had created a now-defunct Facebook event declaring the last week of February “Worldwide Don’t Kill a Trans Woman Week.”

Aubrey’s comment on the article about Sumaya Dalmar: a crying emoticon, and the terrible question I’ve heard far too often from trans women of color in recent weeks: “me next?”

My heart is broken tonight, again, this time for Aubrey. I fear the next heartbreak. I feel like my community keeps bracing itself for the next heartbreak. It takes a terrible toll.

Three things keep going through my head:

The words of Mother Jones: “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.” I will.

The words of Assata Shakur: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” With all of the loss that we experience, it’s important to remember that it’s not the fight that creates that loss; the fight keeps us alive, gives us strength, brings us hope in the face of these heartbreaks. And, oh yes, we must love each other and protect each other. We must protect each other. We must love each other.

Finally, the memory of Aubrey the last time I saw her. I can’t say I remember exactly what we talked about that last time she came to hack night; I won’t pretend that I have more than a vague memory, most likely an amalgamation of that and all the other times I’d seen her in the space. We were only acquaintances, not close. But we were still kin. We were still community. I remember her smile, her laugh, her awkwardness, her earnest enthusiasm. I remember looking forward to seeing her again.

I’ll fight like hell for the living, and for you, Aubrey.

On the passing of Maya Angelou

As I took my usual morning scroll through my Facebook feed, I saw one, then two, then more and more quotations from Maya Angelou. After the third I realized this was no fluke and most likely meant one of two things: today is her birthday and she’s getting way more wonderful tributes than I’ve seen for her in the past; or today Maya Angelou died. I think I knew it was the latter but held out hope until I saw the first post confirming that she has died. Rest in power, Dr. Angelou.

The news hit me hard, not just for the loss of Maya Angelou herself, but for the ever-increasing understanding of how many brilliant artists and activists will die during my lifetime. It’s one thing to treasure the work and life of someone who is already gone; it’s another entirely to share time on this earth with them and then have them go. Thinking of those losses that have happened already and the ones yet to come made me feel overwhelmed and a bit despondent–how can we possibly recover from so many losses?

Then I remembered that brilliant artists and activists are being born every day, that I’ve had the good luck of being surrounded by them and by knowledge of them in my life, and that we won’t run out of beauty and brilliance so long as we continue to tend to it. I’m left with a renewed commitment to seek out and support those cultivators of beauty, truth and justice in my own life and world.

Originally posted on Facebook

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