The Unbearable Whiteness of Breaking Things

Two risky paths diverge on Palo Alto’s University Avenue

In Silicon Valley they start them young, as we learn from 16-year-old Midas in his bright-eyed Medium essay (ed note: since removed) about learning about startups at Stanford summer camp. In his “Investigations in Business and Entrepreneurship” class, he is taught the startup motto “don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness,” and he narrates how he and his friends decide to take the motto to heart and risk the forbidden walk off campus to Palo Alto’s University Avenue. When they run into a camp counselor in a cafe they quickly “say hi as cute as possible” and, though they get called in for a talk later, they aren’t punished. The moral of Midas’ story is that taking risks and breaking the rules pays off.

…when you are a young white man.

What Stanford does not teach young white men like Midas, in the course of teaching them about startups, is that everything they are being taught—about breaking rules, taking risks, and not asking for permission—works especially well for them, and often only for them, because of who they are, what they look like, and all the associations their appearance does and does not carry. On University Avenue, white men who break things look, in Midas’ words, “cute”, not delinquent or scary, and this is why privileged young men are brought to Palo Alto in droves to learn and practice the business of what Facebook calls “breaking things”. At every turn this breaking of things is celebrated and encouraged. If you’re not breaking things in Palo Alto, you’re not doing your job.

…unless you’re not a young white man.

If you happen to live two more miles down University Avenue from where Midas trespassed camp boundaries, you are living in East Palo Alto, which is the economic and racial counterpoint to blond-boy-celebrating, millionaire-laden Palo Alto. And if you live in East Palo Alto and you decided to walk across the 101 freeway to University Avenue, to the same cafe that Midas walked to from the other side, you’d be taking a risk, but not one likely to be rewarded.

People of color who walk up University Avenue from East Palo Alto don’t look to the police in Palo Alto like they are “damn entrepreneurs!” who “take risks!” (as Midas exclaims when he realizes that by breaking the rules he is actually fulfilling his entrepreneurial duty); they are often treated like trouble, and are likely to be stopped and questioned, not unlike Bloomberg’s racially profiled “Stop and Frisk” targets in New York. For two different classed and raced positions, there are two kinds of risks, two kinds of outcomes. One person trespasses the boundary of Palo Alto and has his privilege proven for him—“you’re one of us”, Midas’ elders are likely thinking, wondering what internships they can offer him next summer; the other trespasses the boundary of Palo Alto and is assumed to be “other” and out of place, potentially about to “break” something but not in the way that will be rewarded with a pat on the back or a job.

I write this not just to make the point that “don’t ask for permission” is a starkly if unconsciously raced and classed (and gendered, insofar as women who break the rules are more often seen as unforgivably impudent rather than gloriously outcast) motto for Silicon Valley, though there is that.

It’s also to note that a young man and his friends are being schooled in this unconscious privilege from boyhood by institutions that have all of the intellectual and financial resources available to widen the scope of instruction and teach them more than just how to successfully trespass the few boundaries they encounter. By teaching primarily young white men to unreflectively “break things” and reward them when they do, Silicon Valley institutions like Stanford and YCombinator remain incubators not for social change or “disruption” but for the assignment of privilege to the people who are most likely to already have it.

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