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.

  • If no one speaks out at the time, I assume that everyone in my surroundings is either OK with the behavior, or has valued their own comfort more than the damage that was just done to my credibility/reputation/authority. For a while, or maybe even forever if it's never publicly addressed, everyone who hears it thinks that it's acceptable behavior and they're encouraged to behave accordingly.
  • When something is handled "offline" you never reaaally know what's being said. Is Dave saying to Jim, "Jim, you know these people are really sensitive to remarks that like, and darn all this political correctness, but we don't want to get sued." Or, is Dave saying to Jim, "Jim, that was totally inappropriate and you really owe Tiffany an apology. It's not cool to make racist/sexist remarks at any time, and definitely not here in this workplace." Not knowing how you're being framed in the conversation can actually perpetuate the problem.
  • The idea of an immediate and outspoken objection being "inappropriate" or "unprofessional" is absolutely a tool that those in the position of power use to maintain their power. If speaking out is viewed negatively as "not professional" or "making waves", then fewer people will do it, and it will also be harder to identify allies and form a coalition. Also, keep in mind - the thing that was actually inappropriate and unprofessional was the racist or sexist comment that was made in the first place!

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!

  • Surprise can be a sign of privilege. Because being the object of racism isn't a part of our daily lives, we white people aren't expecting it and are surprised when it happens. Instead of assuming a world where racism doesn't exist, let's assume a world in which it does exist, and be on the lookout for it. We want men to be more vigilant and actually see sexism when it occurs, we can do the same for racism.
  • Read, read, read, and be prepared with some responses. Asking a person to explain the joke to you, or saying "why is that funny?" can put them in the position of having to publicly confront their own bias. Six Steps to Speak Up gives some other very good specific examples. Speak Up: Responding to Everday Bigotry by the SPLC provides an extensive list of suggestions, ones specifically for the workplace here.
  • Have a default response that's good for any situation - I really liked one of our members' idea of just saying, "Oh, WOW." It allows you to immediately grab the floor (instead of just being stunned into silence), it voices disapproval, and it also gives you a second to think about what to follow it up with.
  • Don't laugh it off. We sometimes laugh nervously or out of discomfort, especially if we're the subject of the remark. Don't do it. You deserve some respect and dignity.

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.