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Nine Ways I (Try to) Act as a Tech Ally

I don't consider myself a tech ally, but have several ways I try to act as one.

I want to start this post by saying I don’t consider myself a tech ally, and I’m not claiming to be in this post. I’d also prefer if no one said I was, even if they really believe it. I agree with this post that allyship is something you do instead of become, and claiming to be one would make me complacent.

That being said, I wanted to share the actions I do to try and act as a tech ally. This is both to help others looking to act as a better ally, and to get feedback on ways I can improve.

Know that if you’re a white male like me, some points you haven’t read before may make you uncomfortable or defensive. That’s good and I won’t apologize for it. They made me feel the same a while back, and it’s tough, but positive change is often tough. So we grit our teeth, adjust our beliefs, try harder, and not waste our time leaving angry replies.

1) Recognize My Privilege

Perhaps the most important and hardest step is recognizing the privilege I have. A straight white male doesn’t have to contend with the huge number of societal, structural, and personal obstacles people not in that category have to. I’m not going to list them all here if you demand I give examples, so I refer you to this comic explaining basic privilege and then ask you to do some Googling.

This isn’t to say having privilege makes me less worthy or valuable than those with less of it. Someone with privilege can be just as talented, hard-working, or deserving as someone without it. This just means recognizing I’ve had advantages in life others have not, which will affect the paths we’ve taken and our perception of the world. So I shouldn’t act like everyone else has had them, and I shouldn’t presume the struggles they faced were their own fault instead of it being a difference in privilege.

A big sign of someone not recognizing their privilege is when they confuse “recognizing it” with “being told they don’t deserve what they have” and turning fragile.

Fully recognizing my privilege was vital, since every other positive step or change could only come after this step.

2) Know When to Just Listen and Offer Support

My first reaction to seeing someone discuss a problem is often to offer a solution. This is suitable for topics I know about, like web accessibility or hitting things with oversized leather gloves. I’ve seen it’s not fine with things I know little to nothing about.

I don’t know anything about handling a wave of microaggressions that keep implying I’m worth less, and then when I point them out, people say I’m overreacting. So am I really qualified to offer advice on handling it? Absolutely not.

Some people have spent most of their lives experiencing and researching them only to make limited progress. If an offhand suggestion by someone who’s never dealt with these struggles was enough to solve them, they would have vanished long ago. If I just assume to know more than them on this topic, I’d just be acting condescending and dismissive. Even if I’m genuinely trying to help, the result is the same.

So instead of telling others what to think and feel, I try to be empathetic to their feelings. Both in the tech and journalism worlds, I’ve found just understanding and acceptance can go a long way. This can take the form of:

Some specific things I try to avoid doing are:

3) Good Intent is No Excuse

I can have the best intentions and still do as much damage as an overt racist or sexist. This isn’t to say intentions don’t matter. But if I take an action that harms others, what I intended won’t undo the damage I caused.

Imagine if I was walking while on my phone, and I accidentally bumped into someone and they dropped their phone into a sewer grate. I wouldn’t say “I’m sorry that happened, but I didn’t intend to make you lose your phone, so you have no right to be pissed at me.” No, I’d apologize for not watching where I was going and do what I could to help them get their phone back. They’d have every right to be mad at me for walking while distracted.

I’m not the one who got hurt in that exchange. I’m not the one who should start acting like “the real victim.” Most of the time it’s not about me at all.

4) Don’t Question Others’ Lived Experiences

When people tell me what they struggle with, whether it was one major event or a series of minor events piling up, I try not to automatically assume they misinterpreted it or tell them they should have felt differently.

They’re the ones who experienced it. They’re the ones feeling their own feelings. Someone always understands their own experiences and feelings better than another hearing it secondhand. Especially if it’s someone who never dealt with anything similar.

The basic practice of making someone doubt their lived experiences is “gaslighting.” There are dozens of good articles about gaslighting already out there, so I refer you to this gaslighting article for a basic intro. Gaslighting doesn’t have to be intentional or malicious to still be damaging.

Thankfully once I learned what gaslighting was, it was much easier to avoid doing it see when it’s happening. Here are some basic rules of thumb I follow:

Don’t dismiss concerns out of hand

This can include saying they’re “too sensitive,” they “can’t take a joke,” or are simply saying things to “get attention.” In order of why those are stupid:

  1. Being sensitive isn’t a bad trait.
  2. If your joke didn’t make others laugh then the joke-teller is at fault.
  3. If someone really wanted attention there are better ways than engaging with an angry passerby on Twitter.

Even if I don’t fully agree with or understand someone’s concern, that doesn’t mean I can’t listen and take it seriously.

Experience trumps opinion.

My assumptions and ideas don’t override what others repeatedly dealt with over and over again. Having an opinion is easy. Dealing with difficult experiences repeatedly and managing to talk about them is much tougher.

Don’t constantly demand exhaustive, nonexistent proof.

Imagine if you had to document every difficult moment in your life before others would care. It’s exhausting, pretty much impossible given the demands, and more often than not just an excuse to ignore info that makes one uncomfortable.

5) Don’t Pretend I’m Perfect

A professor of mine once told our class that trying to remove our prejudiced thoughts (related to racism, sexism, or anything else) is pointless. What we can do is not let them influence our actions.

As much as I try to improve how I think about these issues, I won’t pretend I’m perfect or ever will be. I still have the occasional racist or sexist thought that makes me cringe inside. I recognize it as bad and let it fade without acting on it in any way.

If I pretended I never had these kinds of thoughts, it’d make things worse. I’d do something sexist and when called out on it, I’d get defensive and say I’m not sexist. I wouldn’t be able to recognize the sexism affecting my actions.

These kinds of thoughts aren’t damaging when they’re simply thoughts. Catching and shooing them away before they affect how I treat others is what matters.

6) Do My Own Research

There have been many times someone mentioned a term I didn’t know. A while back my first instinct was to ask what it was. But that’d lead me down someone else explaining a rabbit hole of new words, systems, concepts, and injustices I’d never seen. It takes a lot of time and energy to learn them, and even more to teach them.

More often than not, they told me to search the terms on my own. At first, it offended me, as if I were being dismissed as unworthy of help. Now I’ve seen educating myself is a matter of common courtesy.

Imagine being asked to drop everything and educate someone on a topic that takes a daily toll on your emotions and anxiety. Then being asked to do that multiple times a day. By the people often the cause of these struggles, directly or indirectly. And having these people often disagree with or dismiss your explanations as “not rational.” This can take the form of “sealioning,” which is being dense and loud simply to aggravate and exhaust someone else (intentionally or not).

That’s a huge burden to place on someone. As a favor to them, I place it on me and educate myself. I can spare others a lot of wasted time by just using Google, and so can you.

If you don’t know where to start, this repo is a massive resource for educating yourself on toxic tech. Look it over when you get the chance!

7) Call Out Bad Behavior

As a privileged person, one of the most powerful things I can often do is call out others for insensitive or damaging remarks.

I’ve frequently seen situations where a woman trying to explain something sexist to a man is talked over or condescended to repeatedly. Then the second man basically makes the same point as the woman, and the first man suddenly sees what they did wrong and accepts it. Several times I’ve been that second man. There’s plenty of stories like this, such as a man and woman switching email signatures and seeing the abrupt change in how they were treated.

As someone in a privileged group, speaking up for those who aren’t is an effective way to pay my privilege forward. Sometimes I’m scared of any pushback, but it’s often far less pushback (or outright hostility) others get, and so far it’s been nothing I couldn’t manage.

The point isn’t to be an ass to who I’m calling out (well, unless they were being seriously horrible). The point is to tell them what they said was harmful, why it was, and tell them to do some research. It’s not my job to educate them either, after all.

This is the one I struggle the most with since I’m afraid of pushback and getting pulled into an outrage rabbit hole. But I plan to work more on this and hopefully improve.

8) Don’t Feel Entitled to Better Treatment

Being a decent human being and helping those with less privilege should be a baseline for how one should act. So I constantly remind myself that no good act, big or small, entitles me to better treatment. Acting like an ally doesn’t earn me a cookie. That’d be like getting a cookie for everyday things like walking down a sidewalk, eating lunch, or feeding my team of attack vultures - they’re everyday actions and nothing special.

I can’t pretend I don’t have the impulse to do this. There are times when I speak up about something and will frequently wonder if it got good reception. But I’m slowly getting better at recognizing and avoiding that impulse. That’s why I lead this post by asking that no one comment on whether I was a good ally or not. That way the impulse wouldn’t come into play when writing this.

That’s not to say I should push away any positive responses. If others want to thank or befriend me for something, that’s great! But it’s because they choose to, not because I felt I was owed it. I shouldn’t tell them to feel grateful or ask for something in return.

9) If I’m Unsure of my Actions, I Ask

Even with the research I’ve done, damaging behavior can still slip through. For example, realizing something I explained to a woman could have come across as condescending. So I ask if that was the case.

If that was the case, I accept any pushback, see the mistake, adjust my behavior, thank them, and life goes on. Otherwise, I laugh at myself and move on.

This has thankfully happened less and less as time goes on. But it will keep happening and that’s fine. I ask how to improve, and things get better all around.

Wrapping Up

In my opinion, being a tech ally is not a label or a badge one can point out. It’s a habit, a process, and something one continually does to encourage positive change.

It’s also not up to the ally to determine if they’re an ally or not. It’s up to the people they want to be an ally to. They always have the final say in who is an ally, and who is a good ally.

So I don’t consider myself an ally and don’t think I have much of a right to. But I try to act as one and make fewer mistakes as I go.

That’s all I can really do, and if I can improve things even a little, I won’t have many regrets.

Cover image courtesy of SafeBooru.org