An Open Letter to Oculus Founder, Palmer Luckey

Testing a build of my game on the Gear VR

Palmer,

I am a media artist and game developer. I am also a black woman and social justice rogue. In light of recent events, I have a few things to say.

Full disclosure: I am an Oculus Launch Pad scholarship participant. My project is currently under review.

In the few days that have passed since the Daily Beast revealed your alt-right political affiliations, I have heard numerous people say they feel uncomfortable developing for your platform, supporting your products, attending your events and even accepting your funding. I think those sentiments are understandable, but misguided.

As an outspoken proponent of equity and inclusion, as someone who is persistently vocal and critical, even of folks who call themselves allies, I have no intention of boycotting Oculus. In fact, I insist upon taking up space. People like me need to be in the same room as you.

Actually, we’ve already been in the same room. About four months ago, at the end of the Launch Pad event, you graciously hung around. I watched you try countless demos and talk to anyone who approached. Toward the end — admittedly a bit tipsy and nervous — I was one of those people. I asked you point-blank about diversity at Oculus.

I was immediately disappointed by your defensive response. First, you told me you didn’t know those numbers offhand. When I pressed, you told me you do not lower your standards — that you hire the best. That struck me as disturbing, that you equate diversity with lowered standards. That hiring the best and being diverse were mutually exclusive. I felt a little defeated, to be honest.

But there was another thing you said that evening that struck me. When I asked what I could do to get hired by Oculus, given my sparse resume and non-traditional path, you said, “Make something. College degrees don’t matter. Experience doesn’t matter. We look for smart people who show they can do great things.”

I stayed up all night thinking about our conversation. And though frustrated by your perception of diversity, I took you at your word. The following day, I left for Los Angeles. Armed with hardware, support, knowledge and community, all courtesy of Oculus, I got to work.

And I did, indeed, make something.

Oculus gave me significant resources that enabled me to express myself, create work under my own direction, and enter a field that was previously inaccessible to me. Despite having said things I found ignorant and offensive, you also gave me an opportunity to be considered one of “the best”. Consequently, my feelings about your involvement with the alt-right community, and what should be done about it, are complex.

Some devs have decided to contribute money to the Clinton campaign in order to offset your donation to Nimble America; but how does donating a marginal sum to a wealthy white politician actually benefit marginalized people?

As someone whose identity is underserved in the VR and tech industry, and society at large, a political donation to counter bigotry feels like an empty gesture. Especially when that same money could go toward funding hardware, scholarships, travel stipends, conference passes, and other resources that are hard to come by for low-income and minority developers.

You have already issued an apology which has garnered a great deal of commentary. Unfortunately, the responses to your statement fall mostly into two camps: “You have nothing to apologize for! This is being blown way out of proportion by liberal PC fascists!” and “You’re a literal waste of human! I can’t support a right-wing bigot!”

What’s missing here is something in between. What’s missing is a nuanced dialogue. Given your extremely privileged position as a white man in the 0.001%, that is a problem. There are marginalized people trying to break into this industry who are going to have their lives and careers impacted and influenced by the things you believe and the choices you make. You have an opportunity now to do good by us.

And it doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in privilege. It doesn’t matter if you think I’m spouting liberal PC bullshit. What matters is that you are included in the discourse. What matters is that you hear me, that you hear “us,” at all.

I would like to make it clear that it is not my practice to capitulate to powerful white men with whom I disagree. If anything, I am at heart a troll who almost exclusively trolls white men, to the point where I have made it a literal art form. But this goes beyond shits and giggles; the dialogue we start now will shape the future of this industry for everyone.

Justified or not, I don’t want you to step down, chased off by an angry mob. Given your privilege, I am terrified of a world where your social interaction is limited to your most vocal supporters (some of whom are openly calling women “cunts” in the comments section of your public apology). I fear that if you lose authority, it will only serve to insulate you from people like me who will challenge your perspective. That seems like a bad idea.

I don’t know if you are a shitty person. I do know that you are a guy who made a VR headset in his parent’s garage, and that takes a certain amount of grit. I tend to assume a person like that is capable of having their views challenged, and growing from their mistakes. The issue is to ensure that there are people around who will actually challenge you — which is the inherent value of diversity.

Diversity forces you to constantly reflect upon, consider, even defend your words — and, most importantly, your actions. It allows us to overcome, and often avoid, problems. That is why everyone, including you, needs to stay at the table.

Now scoot over, and save me a seat.

See you at OC3,

Aliah Darke