by Channing Kennedy
Monday, April 1 2013
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Adria Richards onscreen during an event Photo: Courtesy of Adria Richards
The Internet has had lots of opinions about Adria Richards, the black technologist who was fired for tweeting a photo of two white male colleagues she overheard making lewd jokes during a conference co-sponsored by her employer. In the tweet, Richards asked PyCon conference organizers to come speak to the men, who were sitting behind her. And although organizers resolved the issue amicably by all accounts, once news of Richards’ tweet broke, the usual mob of faceless Twitter trolls made racist, misogynist threats against her. Then they crashed her employer SendGrid’s website with a DDoS attack.
The same mob, plus a lot of new joiners using their real names, also blamed Richards when one of the two men was fired by his employer, PlayHaven. (Interestingly, PlayHaven has yet to be the target of a coordinated web attack.) And the mob cheered when Richards herself was publicly terminated, seemingly in response. In the words of her former boss, SendGrid CEO Jim Franklin, “[H]er actions have strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite. … [T]he consequences that resulted from how she reported the conduct put our business in danger.” Sound weird to you? As Rachel Sklar wrote at Business Insider, “It seems clear that SendGrid and Franklin were aware of Richards’ conduct as the situation unfolded, yet the decision to fire her only came after the [website] attacks.” Labor attorneys say this would be difficult to defend in a courtroom.
Last week Jamilah King assembled a list of survival tips for techies who are not men and not white. Now, let’s look at the other side and examine how trolls, mansplainers, amateur Internet career counselors — plus some self-identified feminists and well-meaning types — willfully or unwittingly contribute to a pattern that just so happens to rescue large groups of professional white men from the unchecked tyranny of individuals who aren’t professional white men.
In this handy guide guide brought to you by me, Colorlines.com’s self-appointed white male correspondent, I’ll walk y’all through the steps that lead up to almost every incidence of HR-by-mob. While the details of every case aren’t identical, let’s recall that we’ve seen this happen to black women all walks of life, ranging from former Department of Agriculture state director Shirley Sherrod to meteorologist Rhonda Lee to women of color targeted by DADT in the military. It’s also how cultural commentators such as Zerlina Maxwell, Anita Sarkeesian, Rebecca Watson and Courtney Stanton became the targets of months-long smear campaigns, obscene Wikipedia edits, and threats of sexual assault and other violence, solely because they called out racism and sexism where they saw it. The pattern is real and not new at all, and we can’t interrupt it until we understand it.
Step 1: Wear Down Your Subject
Akiba Solomon wrote last year about Michelle Obama and the microaggressions that punctuate the daily lives of black women — actions, direct or unintended, by members of a dominant group that can subtly tell said women that they aren’t worth respect. And as Adria Richards pointed out in her report on the conference, overhearing two white men making sexually charged fork and dongle* jokes wasn’t the first thing that made her feel uncomfortable at the overwhelmingly white, male event. (Just look at the photo she tweeted.)
The lesson here? If you want to get someone fired, first keep them wondering why they ever applied in the first place.
Do everything you can to rationalize, ignore, stay silent and generally fail to acknowledge the abysmal race and gender employment ratios in your field. Implicitly require that women suck it up when someone in power jokes about their ‘biological limitations,’ gropes them or obscenely propositions them. It’s also hip to claim a “bad cultural fit” as a reason for failing to hire or promote her. It’s not racist if it’s corporate culture!
Step 2: Let The Trolls Do the Dirty Work
Okay, so the stage has been set — really, it’s never not been set — and your weary subject has chosen to speak up. Maybe she did it perfectly; maybe “perfect” isn’t possible. Doesn’t matter because it’s troll time. See, as soon as word breaks about a black woman calling out bigotry, it’ll show up on some Internet forum that provides user anonymity and very little moderation or consequences. As Colorlines.com’s longtime community manager, I can tell you that trolls know how to use Google Alerts. They hate feminism and anti-racism as concepts, and they hate quite a few human feminists and anti-racists.
Now, the trolls will do three things. They’ll dig up every scrap of personal information available about your subject and publish all of it — this is called ‘doxxing’ — as well as finding that long-buried tweet of hers where she mentioned the critical race theory concept that racism requires power to operate. (Boy oh boy, sounds like reverse racism!) Then they’ll use the information to flood Twitter and every relevant blog comment section with public, specific threats of rape and murder. The trolls will also attack anyone defending her, especially if they’re women or people of color. And, of course, the microaggressions can continue; a boss or coworker will likely tell your subject not to “feed the trolls,” to just ignore the threats of sexual violence from the people who found her home address. Of course! Why is she so paranoid?
One more note: Don’t actually engage in troll activities yourself, since you need your hands clean for Step 3. Unless you do it anonymously, which is widely known to be very easy on Twitter.
Step 3: Play the ‘Middle’ Between Rational and Frothing Racist
You know how mainstream news shows discuss global warming by pairing an actual scientist who points to decades of consistent research with an oil-company shill who says global warming can’t be real because Al Gore said something dumb once? And you know how the news anchor moderating the discussion gets to occupy the “rational” “middle” ground by saying “more research is probably needed”? You’re that guy now. Crackpots don’t get people fired, people who validate crackpots do, so get to work.
Let me get you started on your “common-sense” blog post, article or mainstream interview: “We can all agree that the behavior of these Internet trolls is unconscionable. However, let’s not discount their concerns because of a few bad apples…”
You’ve got some primo poli-sci Overton Window triangulation going on now! By assigning the Internet trolls one end of the alignment spectrum, you’ve successfully shifted the terms of the debate from, “What can be done about rampant unjust outcomes for women and people of color?” to “How many racial epithets is it OK to fit in a tweet?” Also, don’t moderate the comments on your blog post, even if they overtly threaten women and people of color. That would be, like, censorship.
Step 4: Find and Spread a Politically Convenient Co-Sign
You’ve worked your talking points. Now, wait for a post written by an actual human woman who agrees with you (enough), and treat it as objective truth. This really works! Take this piece by Richards’ sometime-colleague Amanda Blum in which she details her reasons for just plain not liking Adria Richards. Regardless of Blum’s original intentions for the piece, it’s spread like wildfire (and spawned a couple of counter-responses); two POC friends of mine mentioned this post as the reason why they were having doubts about Richards’ firing as a case of “cut-and-dried sexism.” Another friend said she’d need to know “all the facts.” Congratulations! The framing war is won; the onus is on Richards, not the tech industry or anyone who’s actually in charge of firing people, to prove what happened. For that matter, try to find something written about the guy who was fired. Did he, too, have a coworker who didn’t like him? Ha ha! Why would that be relevant? Let’s stick to the issue at hand: there is a woman who dislikes another woman.
Step 5: Keep The Pressure On Your Subject and Off the System
By now the blogosphere will be flooded with opinions and disinformation — and if you’ve done your job right, they’ll all be about what your target should have done differently to avoid becoming a target. (Sound like any other conversations we have about women?) Now, here’s some tips on how to keep things churning:
Keep the burden on your target to be twice as good as anyone else in the story. Require her to be an unemotional robot who is also totally warm and humanoid and who can take a joke and who has never made a joke and who can also see all possible worldlines springing from every action that she or anyone else takes. Eventually, she’ll fall short of these standards. Act surprised.
Lean on white men’s identity politics. Yes, we do have them, but they generally only show up when we’re at risk of being treated like we aren’t the neutral default human. Make every white man terrified that he could lose his job over acting irresponsibly while representing his workplace (hmm), blame the black woman, and then watch him freak out. Bonus points if it’s a guy who’s previously argued that sharing secretly-snapped upskirt photos of underage girls isn’t a violation of anyone’s privacy, but Richards’ photo of two clothed men in public is unconscionable by proxy.
In all seriousness, beyond the identity politics, the fear of sudden unemployment is totally valid and understandable. Manipulate it. The pickup artist who wrote Bang Iceland is already raising money through an anti-feminist men’s legal defense fund in response to Adria Richards, y’all; you’re falling behind!
If any white men disagree with you, publicly shame them for being “white knights” who are only defending women because they want to get laid, and who are thus hurting feminism. Unlike you, who is protecting feminism from being diluted by the input of actual women.
Like Jay Smooth says, the easiest way to talk about something racist is to call an action racist, rather than the person; this keeps the conversation from getting derailed by whether someone is a Racist In Their Heart. This is the opposite of what you want! Rather than look at actions and outcomes, misread every critique of your side as a direct comparison of you to the Klan. Take everything as an accusation. Cry bravely and mention your black friend.
And of course, defend your freedom of speech against censorship, by which you mean ‘other people disagreeing with you.’ Complain really loudly, at length and in a lot of places, about how you’re totally being censored right now.
Keep it up, and before you know it, the targeted black woman’s employer support will crumble as coverage from increasingly high-profile news outlets exposes the situation to new angry white men; throw in a DDoS attack, a few editorials from mostly-white-male newsrooms, and maybe a private lunch with the board, and she’s out of there and “unemployable” now. (For the record, Richards isn’t going away just yet.)
Your actions will have lasting repercussions for her, but also for the industry in general, especially for the women and people of color who might otherwise bring up issues. (See Step 1.)
Step 6: Wonder Why There Aren’t More Women and People of Color In [Insert Industry]
Also known as The Victory Lap Of The Oblivious. Here, I’ll get you started again: “Man, I really can’t figure it out! Maybe they just need to lean in.” Then forward Complex Mag’s 40 Hottest Women In Tech piece, which isn’t sexist because it features ‘mostly normal-looking women’ (according to its white male writer), to all of your coworkers. You know, the article that went up less than a week after Adria Richards was publicly fired from her tech job after calling out sexism.
Have you done all that? Congratulations on changing the world.
*Post has been updated since publication for clarity.