The Straight, White Dudes’ Guide to Discussing Diversity

Handy tips and tricks every guy can use to be more helpful and avoid the eye roll

I feel the need to preface this particular post by telling you that, although I am new to my new home at LadyBits, I have been writing about feminism and diversity in the blogosphere for a long time. Damned near a millennium, in Internet years. Sometimes I feel like the Maggie Smith of the Internet. Like, at this point, I really could just do nothing but wear awesome period clothes and crack wise…

Figure 1: Loves her!

I have had some fantastic experiences. I’ve met some cool chicks. I’ve also befriended some tremendous allies in the fight to increase diversity in science. But, at the end of the day, I am frequently reminded that sometimes dudes will be dudes. And, sometimes, dudes are gonna need to get the eye roll.

Figure 2: Of course Maggie Smith’s paper doll comes with an eye roll face. Of course, it does.

But, “why are you rolling your eyes at the guys”, you might ask?

As a bit of background, I’ve been doing a series of Google Hangouts with my new friend Michael Tomasson. We’ve produced three episodes thus far and a video of our hangout on increasing diversity in science can be found here. Michael is pretty funny and he’s got a good sense for how to play the “white [straight] guy in a tie” foil in discussions of feminism and diversity. But, for every feminist and diversity ally you find, the dudes who just don’t get it are a dime a dozen.

While discussing options for the fourth episode, we considered delving into parenting as scientists and the work/life balance it may require. This can admittedly be a charged topic, but it didn’t take long before the clueless started coming out of the woodwork, cautioning us to be sure to keep our discussion “solution-focused”…

Figure 3: White guys with opinions are as cute as fluffy pink bunnies. Really.

My response? A big fat eye roll and some righteous indignation. But, I realize in retrospect that my righteous indignation is not very solution-focused and that white guys need to hear about solutions like fish need to swim. So, with that in mind, I thought I would offer some helpful tips for engaging diversity issues as a straight, white man without earning yourself a big, old eye roll

1. Get over your need for a cookie. It seems to be the operant conditioning of the white man to respond to the perception of any type of problem with a solution. He offers a solution, someone offers him a cookie. Even shitty solutions can earn a really good cookie. Taking someone else’s solution and offering it as your own earns you a cookie. Solution, cookie. The vicious cycle continues. The problem occurs when a man walks into a group as an outsider and is too damned quick to want that cookie. Let go of your need for a cookie.

2. Know your history. Indeed, the problems begin when a man starts offering solutions without understanding the group’s history or the history of the problem. Or, worse, when he intimates that a group has not already been working on solutions to their problem and that he’s the first damned genius to ever realize that perhaps problems need fixing. As if the group hadn’t been smart enough to recognize that their problems might need fixing and hadn’t already been doing some stuff.…

We get it. We already got the right to vote and you’re a really nice guy who just wants to help. You personally didn’t cause all of our problems. That means you can go right to solution offering.

Wrong.

Even if you think you know the history, take the time and really learn the history. Chances are, you don’t really know your history and your solutions will suffer for it.

3. Understand the value in the stories. Then, shut the fuck up and listen to them. I’ve never understood how someone can come into a discussion about a problem that disproportionately impacts the non-majority and tell that group that he doesn’t want to hear about, you know, the problem. How can you fix a problem you don’t want to take the time to understand? Or, be so brazen as to suggest that you already understand it? Too often, storytelling is equated with whining, but many of us come from cultures where a strong tradition of oral history and storytelling is primary mode of communication. Problems are communicated in the context of a story.

And I would argue that telling a story can sometimes be harder than suggesting solutions because the stories are rooted in the deeply personal (see here, here, and here). Solutions are rooted in the analytical.

4. Ask more questions. Rule 4 is the logical evolution of Rules 1-3. Anytime you find yourself about to say the phrase “You know what you should do…”, stop, drop your trousers, and punch yourself in the nuts. Because, seriously, if I had a dollar for every time a guy offered me a solution without understanding what I had already been doing, I’d have a closet full of Louboutins by now. It’s damned offensive to start dictating suggestions without a strong knowledge of the history of the people you are engaging. When you start the interaction that way, you’re going to earn an eye roll.

So rather than “You know what you should do…”, start with “Can you tell me more about this? What have you been doing?” Unless you’re one of those guys who has a thing for punching himself in the nuts.

5. Not every one of your opinions is a magical snowflake. Sometimes you really will make a valuable contribution. When you do, I know that, personally, I will be really, really thankful for it. You’ll earn yourself a place on the Mantle of Allies for engaging respectfully and offering thoughtfully. But, you also have to appreciate that we are frequently going to come at issues from different perspectives, with a different set of cultural values. Not everything you’ll suggest will work in my cultural context. Not every one of your brilliant ideas is going to be a magical snowflake, saving the world and liberating us all.

6. At the end of the day, don’t be a whiny little baby when your opinions aren’t praised en face or you receive the eye roll. I spend most of my life stumbling in the straight, white male culture I am surrounded by. When you come to my party, attended by my friends, you might stumble too. You can’t expect that we’ll code switch back to your cultural values and hand you your plate of cookies simply because you walk through the door.

And, when you do stumble and catch the eye roll, you can’t react like this…

Figure 4: For serious, fluffy pink bunnies…

Because, no. Being a straight, white dude does not automatically make you an asshole any more than having Latin, immigrant grandparents makes me well-suited for picking grapes. But, acting like this when you’ve been called out on your privilege does make you an asshole. A big straight, white male asshole.

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