I'm one of the organizers of a local Women in Tech group in San Luis Obispo. We firmly believe that the only kind of feminism is inclusive feminism, and this is especially important because San Luis Obispo is a very white town. SLO is 84% White (and 70% non-Hispanic White) and only 2% Black, and the demographics specifically in tech seem to be a lot worse. We talk a lot in our group about allyship - how we want men to be better allies for us, and what that looks like. In turn, we need to be better allies for Black women in tech. One of the ways we can do that is by speaking up and working to change each of our companies' cultures from their white - and let's be honest, kinda racist - default.
I originally wrote this piece for the women in tech group's newsletter, and after several people asked if they could share the newsletter, I decided to make it public and easily accessible. This article is written by a white woman (me) and is intended to be a resource for other white women who want to learn how to be better allies, and who would like some help with speaking up (including links to sites that go over specific examples and verbage). I draw a lot of parallels to sexism - this is not to remove focus from the immediate problem at hand, which is enormous systemic racism. I talk about sexism because it's a common ground we all share in the Women in Tech group, and I believe our experiences with sexism should make us more empathic to those who are experiencing racism.
Why We Need to Speak Up
In our group video meeting last week, one of our members brought up an experience she had at work. Someone made a racist joke in the workplace, and even though company leadership was present, nothing was said. This emboldened the person to keep making racist remarks and jokes because he took the silence as approval. It wasn't until someone spoke out later that the leadership made a public statement and put a stop to that behavior. Our group then had a good discussion about speaking up, which I've been chewing on, and reading more on, for the past few days.
Not only "speaking out", but speaking up immediately when a racist comment is made keeps coming to the forefront in much of my reading.
This article continues by focusing on racism in the workplace. But we should be speaking up whenever this happens; whether it's at work or in our daily lives. And my friend made the point that it's extra important to speak up when kids are present, because kids soak up everything, and will tend to assume that anything an adult says is OK. He then shared this story:
"When I was a kid my cousin spoke up against someone who made a gay joke and it was literally the first time in my life I heard someone say there was nothing wrong with being gay. I never forgot it and it was a lifeline. It was such a fleeting moment and when I told her about it a few years ago I couldn't even remember when it was and who was there. All I remember is her saying it and it mattered tremendously."
Why We Should Speak Up Right Away
I know from my own experience with sexism, that when an ally speaks up right when it happens, it makes a much bigger impact than if it's handled "discreetly" and "offline" later.
OK, But What Do I Say?
When something racist or sexist happens, we're often caught off-guard, and don't know what to say in the exact moment. And that can result in us not saying anything, which means that we're complicit in the racism that's happening. So that means we need to work on being anti-racist, and speaking out!
What Not to Say
If you're in a situation where a racist remark has been said and a person of color is in the group, don't make it specifically their problem. Don't say something like, "That was super racist, Jim, how do you think you just made Tiffany feel?" That singles Tiffany out, puts negative attention on her, and forces her to respond. You can say instead "That was super racist, Jim, and I don't tolerate that in my space." Never speak for the other person, just use your privilege to speak for yourself.
Speaking up is going to be uncomfortable. As women who are already battling sexism, it may even be risky for our jobs. But it's also one of the best ways we can combat racism and effect change. It's upon us white people to speak up to our fellow white people, and to dismantle white supremacy. And if we can speak up on racism, maybe that will embolden others to speak up on sexism. Let's be the kind of ally for others that we want others to be for us.