“I’m going to talk about privilege,” I replied when my wife asked what I’d be publishing for my next column.
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.
9 Reader Comments
Thanks for your column. I feel you. I’ve spent the past hour trying to write a comment.
I bet most of us who write for ALA or in this community are onboard with justice, but may be gun-shy about expressing it for fear of inadvertently launching a comment flame war like the one you’ve described, where people shout and nobody listens.
It’s the internet. And sadly, as we know, there are people who troll it daily looking for pieces on race and feminism to attack. Plus there are others on the right side of history who will find fault with pieces on race and feminism for not going far enough, or for using a phrase that upsets a subgroup. The right hates threats to the existing power structure, and the left hates itself—a trope best encapsulated by the “splitters” in Life of Brian. It’s hard enough having the guts to write *anything* for publication. Harder still when you have to fear awful consequences for doing so. (And as we know, for some people the consequences for speaking up can be dire indeed.) This certainly accounts for some of the silence.
Then, too, as a guy, and a white guy, I often feel it’s better for me to *amplify* the smart things nonwhite non-guys say, rather than cast myself as a spokesperson for, say, racial justice. Even though I believe in and long for racial justice, it’s hard imagining a plea for racial justice written by *me* as coming across well. Maybe that’s a cop-out. But I feel this isn’t my story to tell; my job is to cheer those whose story it is, when *they* tell it.
Then, too, people who come to ALA, even if they are feminists and ardent believers in racial justice, probably aren’t coming to A List Apart looking for articles on those subjects. And ALA’s publishing a few articles on those topics because we are passionate about inclusion doesn’t change what people come here looking for. This just isn’t the likeliest venue for wise and moving pieces on social justice, although we do our part when we can.
The good news is, I see (and try to amplify) plenty of brave, beautiful writing on these subjects on people’s personal sites, and in more general-interest media, from The Verge to Medium.com. It doesn’t matter *where* these things are said, so long as they are said. Say them well enough and often enough, and perhaps at long last we will have change.
Thank you Nishant for a very thoughtful and well-written reminder that while confronting injustice is essential, it is conversation, not shouting, that moves us.
@Jeffrey Zeldman Big Thumbs Up! Well said. I encourage you to be bold in expressing your feelings about justice and injustice in whatever form you observe it. I think that we are often moved when we see and hear thoughtful commentary and advocacy from an unexpected source — whose points of view and opinions are just as important and valid as the opinions and pov of those needing advocacy.
@heretiq Thank you. 🙂
@Jeffrey Thanks for such a thoughtful comment. I’m with you all the way.
I concur. But there’s another perspective that I failed to really articulate in my piece above. And I’ll fully admit that not only is this is a stretch goal particularly with the current state of affairs on some of these issues, but also that I remain conflicted about this other perspective thanks to the dominant “realist” homunculus sitting on my left shoulder. But since the whole point here is to have a difficult discussion without losing our shit, I’ll share my not-so-well-thought-out-somewhat-idealistic-perspective.
I agree that your (as a white guy) making a plea on behalf of Indian immigrants or women in tech or whatever else would probably not come across well (and I question how useful that would be, honestly). But your role as a witness to what you find to be injustices can go a long way. It’s the difference between your perception of someone else’s struggle (and how the world ought to be), and your experience of it (and what you don’t like about that world). The latter, your experience, is yours; it’s neither right nor wrong. People will shout about it, sure, but I think the shouting will be stripped of even the minimal power shouting usually carries. And here’s the thing: I care about how you’re witnessing all of this from your vantage point.
There are also smaller but equally powerful benefits.
For instance, I’ve been on comment threads on my own Facebook timeline, or even the recently deceased Secret, and speaking personally, I always feel a surge of positive energy when say, a white guy or girl, chimes in on being the beneficiary of privilege or recounts an experience about someone of color being ill-treated. It doesn’t stop the shouting, but it makes me feel less alone. The battery drains fast on these issues, and little recharges go a long way. More recharges, and I may just find the courage to tell my story.
I hope you do realize that you did a little more than just tweet my piece, though, Jeffrey. 😉 A lot more. You took an hour or two to write something. You hopped into the minefield. Were you worried about whether your response was going to be perfect or not? Evidently. Do I care if it was perfect or not? Nope.
Does it make my day that you took the time? Yep. Yep. Yep. Yep. Yep.
That last thing is really what I want (and need).
@heretiq Thank you. 🙂
Wow, thank you for writing this. I love it. And I totally agree with the examples you’ve used: from Ferguson, to MLK’s quote, to Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s editorial note, to the Stanfort Prison Experiment. I relate 100%.
@Nishant: “For now, it feels like the first step to overcoming this paralysis is to acknowledge our fear.”
Absolutely. I’ve spoken with a ton of people about this — both on my podcast and in real life — and getting over that fear is important to begin these conversations. Maybe you’ll say the wrong thing. Maybe you’ll get offended. But overcoming the fear is crucial in order to begin to flesh these feelings out.
@Jeffrey: “Even though I believe in and long for racial justice, it’s hard imagining a plea for racial justice written by *me* as coming across well. Maybe that’s a cop-out. But I feel this isn’t my story to tell; my job is to cheer those whose story it is, when *they* tell it.”
It can be both! I’m not saying you have to center the conversation on yourself, but having more white people talk about these issues can help (even if you talk about how hard it is to talk about it). Silence is complicity.
Civil discourse be damned. I want to see ARantApart launched immediately!
Seriously, as a long time reader/fan and contributor, this was an interesting side trip that matches the mood I’ve been in for the past few weeks.
Gotta take it outside the changes every once in a while.
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