A List Apart

Nishant Kothary on the Human Web


“I’m going to talk about privilege,” I replied when my wife asked what I’d be publishing for my next column.

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And then I stared at the screen for an hour. Thankfully, my Facebook timeline saved me with Dogs Who Fail At Being Dogs.

This process repeated for a few days.

What’s odd about this particular flavor of writer’s block I’ve suffered for years now is that I have no shortage of opinions when it comes to social issues. Ellen Pao. Freddie Gray. Dinesh D’Souza. TSA. Geist. Gun Control. Immigration. India’s daughters. Don’t even get me started.

But ask me to write a few hundred words—something, anything—about one of these social issues, all of which directly or indirectly affect our industry, and me specifically or by association, and I feel paralyzed.

I’m a brown, Indian citizen who moved to the United States at the age of 20. Even as of this writing, I’ve lived more years in India than I have anywhere else in the world, including the United States. What’s more, I have relevant experience. For instance, I completely Americanized my spoken accent over a summer during my time in Indiana because I felt it would earn me more privilege. It did, and continues to. (As a side note, the show “Fresh Off the Boat” just aired an episode that pretty much sums up my experience.)

Coming back to the point, you would think that it’d be somewhat easier for me—what with having some ability to piece a sentence or two together, having my own little corner on the internet to publish—within reason—whatever suits me, and having a relevant background—to type a few thoughts on the topic from my own inevitably unique perspective.

But evidently it’s not. Because even if my perspective is inwardly impassioned, outwardly it is positively devoid of ALL CAPITAL LETTERS.

For instance, on the topic of the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson a few months ago: I am interested in talking about a lot of things. What doesn’t interest me as much is SHOUTING about whether it was motivated (at least partially) by systemic racism in the Ferguson Police Department. To me, it feels like debating the existence of gravity when you consider all the incriminating evidence, neatly topped off by the Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department (a report about the government published by the government). If you’re not in the mood to read the entire report, read the section “Racial Bias” (pages 4-5). It starts off with, “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices overwhelmingly impact African Americans,” and only gets more depressing from there.

The problem is that you can’t really write or talk about Ferguson and other social issues without clearly shouting your outrage, either in support of the conclusion that racially motivated crimes by people in positions of power are still a thing, or in support of the idea that that’s just fiction fabricated by liberal white guilt. If you don’t believe me, go to any comment thread on the internet that has to do with Ferguson, and you’ll see an angry Red Sea parted neatly in the center as if by Moses himself. Let’s not even talk about the very articles that deal with the topic.

This is not to say that shouting with outrage doesn’t have its place. On the contrary, it plays a significant role in not only book-ending every revolution, but also punctuating it. It is the pulse of our collective existence, and quite literally so, if you are to believe Martin Luther King Jr. when he said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

But a sentence is more than the words it starts and ends with. Or the punctuation it comprises. Beyond a degree, there are diminishing returns to being a chest-thumping member of SHOUTERS, Inc. If what you’re interested in is the words that give the sentence its very meaning, then you have to not only be heard without typing in all caps, but also be resilient to abuse. Depending on what you’re saying, and who you are, the personal costs are anything from being, well, shouted at, to having your life threatened.

A few days ago I was re-reading Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s editorial note from almost exactly a year ago when #yesallwomen was trending. Toward the end, she wrote, “We’ll be spending more time talking about sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination, even if it makes some readers uncomfortable.” Yet, even with its hundreds of contributors, columnists, and bloggers, ALA has very little to show for this aspiration in a year (interestingly, what it does have to show was contributed almost entirely by women).

I make this point not to criticize ALA—if anything, as a columnist, I’d be really just pointing a finger at myself because ALA is, ultimately, a platform—but to highlight just how difficult it is to talk about difficult things even when you explicitly and publicly set the goal of doing so. What’s worse is that barely anyone in tech journalism has even set this goal, but that’s a rant for another day.

All that said, I believe in my heart of hearts that most of us not only want to talk about these issues, but we want to do so with the other side. We who’ve felt discriminated against because of our skin color want to hear from our white friends about what they think. We who’ve felt the effects of misogyny want to hear from men about what they think. We who have suffered any injustice because of the Stanford Prison Experiment that is life want to hear from our alleged—as SHOUTERS, Inc. has often led us to incorrectly conclude—foe. Maybe that’s a tall order right now, but I do have the recurring dream.

For now, it feels like the first step to overcoming this paralysis is to acknowledge our fear. As Taylor Swift said, “I think that being fearless is having a lot of fears, but you jump anyway.” Or, more appropriately, as she sang, “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake it off.”

And since I’ve got the cursor, I’ll go first: SHOUTERS, INC. SCARES ME SHITLESS!

Maybe now I’ll be able to write about privilege.

Baby steps.

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