How to Not be a Sith

Jedi mind tricks to fight exclusion for rebels & allies of all kinds

The following is based on a recent Tech People Talking presentation I gave in Victoria, BC on August 2nd, 2017.

Before I made a career transition into technology, I spent 8 years doing radical inclusion work in the non-profit sector. I’d like to share with you some of the lessons, as well as tips and tricks, I learned along the way about how to be a more strategic ally to people who have experienced being marginalized.

I will focus both on the ways in which I had to shift my own perspective and understanding of the world, as well as some of the practical strategies that I learned over my years doing this kind of inclusion work.

Sith vs Jedi — These are not the only binaries that divide us

So who exactly are we talking about here? Society teaches us to divide everyone up into “normal” and “not normal.” If we’re in the “normal” category we have a tendency to believe that perhaps those stereotypes about people who are not like us might actually be true. Being an ally to me means learning to look beyond this binary and starting to question some of the ways we interact with “others.”

Tips for Joining the Rebel Alliance

Here are some things I learned the hard way. Although I had a good solid starting point after graduating with a double-major in Sociology & Women’s Studies, there was still a solid learning curve for me and it took a long time to wrap my head around the truth of some of these things.

Things you may have already learned as a rebel ally… (but I had to learn the hard way).

Allies mess up all the time!

I made many, many mistakes, and I still do. What I had to learn was that it was truly not about my intention, but more about how I handled it when it was brought to my attention that I had unintentionally impacted someone else.

Don’t let fear of failure be paralyzing

At the same time, not trying was not an option. I just had to get better at making space for people to give me feedback. Being open about receiving feedback and taking it seriously was super scary to do at first, but 100% worth it! It really did help build trust, because really… just wanting to be an ally does not make you an ally. It’s about the relationships you have with the individuals you are an ally to.

My personal experience is likely not helpful

Because I had been pretty well included most of my life, I had to learn that I couldn’t always see when exclusion was happening. Despite being pretty well versed in what marginalization meant, I discovered that unless I had personally experienced or witnessed someone feeling excluded in a specific context first hand, I was not usually able to realize what was going on.

In fact, my personal experience may be harmful

This was also a really hard lesson for me, and I think it took me a long time to really go from hearing this, to hearing that I was doing something wrong, to understanding why I was wrong.

I had to stop giving advice based on what had worked well for me, and realize that that same thing that had gotten me where I am today might not be useful. In fact it actually was more likely to be detrimental to the experience of someone who has experienced marginalization. It didn’t mean that I couldn’t offer ideas based on my own experience, but I needed to be a lot less confident that they were the best course of action, or to question if I should even recommend them at all.

Even the greatest ally is humble

I still struggle with this because I get excited and passionate about diversity and social justice, and I speak up when sometimes I should just SHUT UP. Because sometimes, it’s not my battle to fight on someone else’s behalf. Sometimes, my job is to offer invisible support, or to back up someone else when they speak up. This really isn’t about me, even if it does have an impact on my life.

These Jedi tricks to fight exclusion will blow 
your mind!

I spoke a little bit above about not being able to see when exclusion was happening. Here are some of the things that I learned to watch for in the people I was working for, as well as how I could react or respond that was helpful and not hindering.

The real trick here though is that I learned to stop perceiving this group of people who were similarly marginalized as “just like that” because of their shared otherness, and to started to recognize that this is an individual who is shaped by their experience, and what was happening was a negatively marginalizing experience that was taking over their experience in the world.

Constant Awareness of Being an Outsider

What I really began to realize was that every single person I worked for was that they were all hyper-aware of when they were not being treated the same as other people. This lead to a constant tension that often lead to a quiet undertone of stress in their day-to-day lives. This showed itself in many many different subtle ways, but it was always present.

Your reaction matters.

If you’re trying to be an ally to someone on the margins, be aware of your language, as even small ways of speaking can have a huge impact, especially online where tone is so much harder to read.

If you see someone else doing something that you worry is creating marginalization, try to model for others ways to be more respectful. Positive actions can often be more powerful than directly calling someone out on something*, especially if you’re someone who has some kind of power in the space. 
(* although this sometimes is still obviously necessary!)

Social Isolation breeds Awkwardness

I also began to see a pattern that when someone had experienced even a small amount of social and/or physical isolation, they were often are completely unaware of the “unwritten rules” of a social space simply because they never had the opportunity to learn them. This can lead to a lot of anxiety for the person who was “being included” (see: constant awareness of being an outsider!) and that can lead to some pretty awkward situations.

Make an effort to include, even if it’s hard.

In my work with marginalized groups, I often spent the majority of my time working with the communities to understand how better to include people on the margins that had an interest in participating. It was surprising how much of people’s hesitancy was simply discomfort or fear of the unknown.

Repeated Rejection is Exhausting

Sometimes though, even just inviting someone to come along or join in isn’t enough. Some of the people I worked for had been rejected so many times that they really gave up even trying again. It was kind of like… why should they give a fuck about you, when you clearly don’t give a fuck about them?

Change the dynamic to create a welcoming space.

Most often, there was something that needed to change before that person felt like they could be safe in that space. It also required a lot of trust in their ally to have their back if it suddenly became unsafe feeling. Some relationship building in less intense or unnerving social contexts was sometimes required.

Certain Situations can be Triggering

Just because someone is physically included doesn’t guarantee they will feel like they belong 100% of the time. I learned to watch for sudden changes in how someone was interacting, either getting really quiet or getting quite emotional, to realize that something had happened that was triggering.

Usually this wasn’t so much about an individual moment, but part of a repeated pattern of feeling unsafe, and the trauma of those past experiences bringing up some current emotion. I liken this moment to being tickled… sometimes it’s accidental, but by the time it’s happened you are beyond being able to react on anything other than instinct, and it takes a little bit before even the slightest thing doesn’t cause more tickling.

Don’t power trip.

When I saw this happening, I had to work really hard not to take over. People on the margins often lose the opportunity to have control over their life, and that feeling can be very disempowering. I learned that this probably wasn’t about me, even if it was about something that I did or something that I didn’t immediately understand.

My best move as an ally in these moments was to be supportive, and keep my own emotions to myself (although often I would dissect the moment with trusted colleagues or friends later, as part of my own mental health strategy). I listened, asked questions about what could make it better, and was very explicit about their control of the moment.

Feeling Pigeonholed

One subtle side effect of exclusion was that we often saw folks who would leverage their label to become “experts” on teaching about their differences to others. While this often lead to some positive moments of inclusion, it was also very tokenizing, and usually very one-dimensional. It meant this was the only way they were adding value to their community.

Support leadership unrelated to being labelled.

Our strategy in this moment was to watch for other kinds of opportunities for leadership that had nothing to do with their label, and to support them to become a part of those non-tokenizing opportunities as well, especially because these would not come as easily to them.

In Conclusion…

Obviously these are not cookie-cutter solutions. You can’t just tick a box and say you’re an ally, it’s an ongoing process of self-reflection and self-awareness. It’s super collaborative, and it’s often super uncomfortable. But for me, it’s just part of how I see the world now.

And if this is all making you feel a bit emotional right now (or even if it’s not), enjoy these awesome Star Wars memes I found. I just couldn’t leave some of them out…! :)

I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that part of my motivation for giving this talk, and for writing about it after, wasn’t a bit self-serving. Obviously, diversity of women in tech is a hot topic right now, and there are lots of really contentious things being said and done in the name of diversity at the moment.
As a female in tech, I recognize that I am pretty lucky…
I’ve been pretty well included most of my life
I am a developer*
I been able to leverage my past training around how to build community to hold some pseudo-leadership positions in my local tech scene
And, most importantly, aside from my gender I am pretty much the textbook definition of ‘normal’
All of these things have made it easier for me to gain power and respect in my community.
I chose to leverage this power to talk about this topic both because I empathize with my colleagues who I know are likely well intentioned, but may not always know exactly how to smoothly include “others” in their community, but also because yeah, sometimes I wish that things were better.

* and don’t tell me that doesn’t give me some power, because I’ve also been a female not-developer in tech and WOW is it ever different…!