In this episode, Sonia Gupta and the panelists have a candid conversation about white supremacy and standing up for your beliefs, advocating for others while staying in your own lane, intersectionality, and who has to ultimately do the work.
02:02 – Sonia’s Superpower: Talking about white supremacy and dealing with the fallout.
05:27 – Feeling Rightness and Motivation to Stand Up for Your Beliefs
10:15 – Seeing Your Advocacy and Efforts Make a Difference
12:17 – When People Disagree
16:26 – Ingroup vs Outgroup Empathy
21:17 – Intersectionality
26:07 – Navigating Situations with Empathy
28:25 – Staying In Your Own Lane While Advocating For and Amplifying Others
35:39 – Educating Yourself About Race
Other Resources from Sonia:
38:39 – Doing The Work
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Jessica: The place for these conversations is not Twitter!
Coraline: Personalizing advocacy.
Jamey: Our advocacy is powerful because it comes from a place of passion.
John: The fixed vs growth mindset in regards to racism.
Sonia: We can all be advocates and we can all be actors.
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JOHN: Hello and welcome to the Greater Than Code, Episode 101. I’m here with Jessica Kerr.
JAMEY: Good morning. One hundred and one, yay! I’m happy to be here with Jamey Hampton.
JESSICA: Thank you Jess for your enthusiasm and I’m also happy to be here with my friend, Coraline whose name doesn’t start with J.
CORALINE: Oh, no — ‘Joraline.’
CORALINE: Joraline. And our guest today is ‘Jonia Gupta.’ No. I am so excited about today. Our guest is Sonia Gupta, a dear friend of mine. Sonia is currently a software developer in Denver. Prior to becoming a developer, Sonia was a lawyer in Louisiana. She served as a public defender in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, then as a prosecutor and finally, as an assistant attorney general doing torts and civil rights litigation. Sonia is an outspoken advocate of diversity and inclusion in tech and in life. She’s passionate about fostering empathetic and effective communication on engineering teams and believes that even if tech can’t always change the world, technologist absolutely can.
Sonia, thank you so much for joining us today.
SONIA: Thank you so much for having me. It’s really an honor to be with all of you.
CORALINE: Sonia, we always start out our episodes by asking our guest a simple question, what is Big O Notation? I already made that joke. I can’t make that joke again.
JESSICA: Just make the same joke every week until we actually start asking about Big O Notation.
SONIA: I have an answer for you.
SONIA: It’s a thing that is not important to know during an interview.
CORALINE: Nice. I think we’re going to leave that in. Sonia for real, our first question with our guest is always, what is your superpower and how did you develop it?
SONIA: My superpower would be, these days, talking about white supremacy and dealing with the fallout from talking about that. I have learned to kind of pick up some tools and ways to deal with the issue and ways to deal with the anger that it inspires to talk about white supremacy in a lot of white people. That’s what I’ve been doing lately.
JOHN: It certainly requires superhuman effort, I would imagine.
SONIA: It’s a challenge because people who have written about this at length, there’s something called white fragility that becomes invoked largely in white people but also in other people because we’ve all been indoctrinated into a system of thinking so it tends to trigger this defensiveness in people when I talk about white supremacy really openly and frankly. I understand that.
There are ways to have the conversation effectively but I also think it’s really important to make sure that people of color are heard and not have our voices tamped down. Sometimes, it means having hard conversations that feel really uncomfortable for everybody, myself included.
CORALINE: Sonia, I follow you on Twitter obviously and I see a lot of the thoughtful posts that you make. I also notice that you are not afraid to take down people who disagree with you in vitriolic ways. Is that part of your coping mechanism for dealing with hatred?
SONIA: It is part of a coping mechanism but what it really is, is that I’ve realized when you believe in a cause and you understand where you’re coming from and have explored it a lot and experienced it but also, have studied it — and I think Coraline, you can probably understand this really well — you start to understand that you are just right about it. There is a right and a wrong in a lot of different scenarios, so to feel that rightness inside of me and to know that I am saying the right things and that I am expressing the right opinions and educating people in that way, it gives me some force behind what I’d do.
When I’m disagreeing with people, it’s often just because they’re wrong and there is a lot of hatred in what they’re saying. There are people that do have really nuance takes and who are respectful and want to have a good conversation and those are people that I’m less likely to be vitriolic with or kind of take them down but you know what, unfortunately that’s not the majority. The vast majority of people are just really angry when I talk about these issues, especially in the tech community.
What’s been interesting to me is to find that there are people who are really open to discussing these issues and I love that. That’s part of when you said in my bio, that technologist actually can change the world, I really do believe that and that’s been my experience, it’s speaking with people in tech who get these issues, who are willing to be uncomfortable, who are willing to do the work to kind of overcome and dismantle white supremacy in tech. But there is a whole other contingency and I would put them in the James Damore category: classical liberals, people who are really resistant and deeply, deeply racist that lived and worked and thrived in our industry. A lot of these people are very anonymous online and you’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of those people too, Coraline, I suspect.
CORALINE: Every now and then, just occasionally.
SONIA: Just once in a while.
CORALINE: Just whatever [inaudible] that could have come back or something like that.
SONIA: It happened.
JAMEY: I really like what you said about knowing that you’re right and letting that be the force behind what you say but I guess what I’m wondering is I don’t want to ask like how do that you’re right because I understand that but how do you get to the point where you feel that rightness inside of you. I feel like there are things that I’ve struggled with where I know this is right but I’m still so self-conscious about these things, about myself that I’ve taken shit from other people about. Even though I know that I’m not bad because of X, Y, Z, people being bigoted to me, I feel like knowing that and then being able to internalize it, in a way that it gives power to you is different and that’s kind of what I’m asking about.
SONIA: That’s a really excellent question. I’m glad you asked it because what I think that you’ve experienced and what I’ve also experienced and anybody who speaks up about issues of social justice experiences on a regular basis is gas-lighting, that constant self-doubt, “Are my experiences real? Am I making this up? Is this all in my head?” and that is something that power structures, I think impose on us.
People who are underrepresented tend to fall prey to gas-lighting because we are told that everything about us is less than the way that we think, the way that we dress, the way that we look, the people we choose to love that all of those choices are less than and over time what that does, I suspect and I’m not a scientist or sociologist but I’m speaking from my own experience, is that it teaches us to question whether we’re right.
One of the things that has happened to me, to help me — and I think it hasn’t just happened to me, it’s happened to all of us — to understand this rightness is just looking around at the world right now. I think so many things have happened in the last couple of years that have thrown really into stark contrast the world that we live in and forced all of us in a really uncomfortable, disgusting and gross way, to confront white supremacy at its root because we see it on our televisions every day. We see it in our governing institutions every day. I see it and I’ve had to do the work on both ends and I’m still doing it. There’s no arriving. I hate it when people say, “That person is woke.” I don’t think wokeness is a state that you achieve. It’s a process that you try to get to. It’s a constant.
What I’ve realized about that sense of rightness, it comes from having to do my work to unpack my own internalized white supremacy while also, hopefully being an advocate for other people of color. Because as a person of South Asian descent, I do have privilege in this like false hierarchy that white supremacy has built, so I’m able to use that privilege hopefully, to give voice to those who have less of it.
Seeing what happens in the world and seeing the effect that my words have had over the last couple of years, has really helped to further cement this idea that I absolutely am right in what I’m saying and even if it’s scary to feel that way and even if I have voices calling for me to go back to India, calling me all sorts of things, sending me horrible pictures of aborted fetuses and telling me that I should be beaten or die, none of that actually matters anymore. Sometimes those horrible voices just further cement the belief that I am saying the right things because it is really scary to consider dismantling this construct that we’ve lived with and kind of infects every aspect of our life.
CORALINE: I can definitely say that the harassment and abuse that I get is motivating in a strange way. I hate reading it. I hate hearing about it. I hate seeing it retweeted. I hate that it infects every area of my public life but in my opinion, if you’re not making people angry, you’re not really doing your job.
SONIA: Yeah. You know what else Jamey, I think what helps me to feel right is that think about what you’re advocating for. Really go down to it. We are advocating for and I am advocating for the tolerance of people and the tolerance of acceptance of everybody. If you think about what other people on the other side of you and us are advocating for probably, it’s intolerance of that. Some people probably heard of the paradox of tolerance that there is a limit to which tolerance can go. You’re not meant to tolerate bigotry or tolerate intolerance.
I always think what I’m advocating for is not violence. It’s acceptance and it’s the feeling that everybody should feel like they can belong, regardless of their identity, regardless of the color of their skin, regardless of who they love. If the people that are yelling at me are advocating for the opposite of that, there’s no way that they’re right because that is just pure hatred. I can feel that in my bones so there’s an emotional drive there but there’s also kind of a logical drive to this as well.
JOHN: You talk a little bit about seeing the effects that you have been able to have by doing what you’re doing over the last few years. Tell me a little more about that.
SONIA: One of the things that’s been really awesome, particularly young women of color who are just starting out in the industry, who will write me letters saying thank you, that they feel more emboldened to speak up in their day-to-day lives — not just online — and that they feel that they have a voice when they read the things that I write. That means a lot to me. I was inspired by Coraline actually, to start collecting these messages and keep them in a list so that I’m reminded. That’s been one effect that I know that I’ve had.
Another is that what I’ve been able to see happen is that the more people that I connect with, who also feel this way and who have these voices as well who are also speaking up about white supremacy, we have a lot of power together and what we end up doing is creating opportunities for each other and connecting each other to other opportunities. Right now, being able to speak on this amazing podcast is an opportunity that has been a byproduct of speaking up against whites supremacy. There have been other opportunities like speaking engagements to have the chance to spread this message to a wider audience and make it more acceptable. Because the more we talk about it, the less discomfort we feel. These are just some of the effects that, I think that I’ve seen happening over the last couple of years.
Also just for myself internally, I feel like I am doing what I meant to do. I love being a developer a lot but my advocacy will always take precedence and that’s meant I’ve eliminated myself probably or that others have alienated me… I don’t know, from certain parts of the industry but that’s okay with me. That’s a price that I’m willing to pay because it means that I’ve kind of whittled down the people that do see this and understand it and understand what I’m trying to do. That’s been kind of like a less fun side effect of the advocacy that I do but it’s always going to be there when you do any kind of advocacy that matters.
JESSICA: I have a question and I’m not entirely comfortable even asking this because I don’t disagree with you at all at white supremacy or those evils in the system. I’m exaggerating and I’m taking this further but one way to hear something you said a minute ago is that because you’re right and you’re advocating for tolerance, anyone who disagrees with you is advocating for intolerance, any opposing view is pure hatred. That mean that if I disagree with you on some small point, I really want to keep quiet about it because that’s mean hatred.
Advocating for self-interest and for group interest, even more so group interest, is very human but that doesn’t mean it optimal. It doesn’t mean it’s like the biggest, most generous and best thing we can do but it is normal and it doesn’t come out of hatred. I’m not arguing that that hatred doesn’t exist in the system but do you really mean that anyone who disagrees with you is full of hatred?
SONIA: I don’t think that that’s what I said or what I mean. I think that a lot of people that disagree with me are full of hatred and some people are just ignorant, unfortunately. A lot of us are ignorant. I used to be more ignorant about these issues than I was, maybe two years ago. There are some people who are just hateful. They don’t deserve my emotional labor or energy but there are people who really are trying to learn.
You know, you said something interesting that I think is worth addressing, this idea of advocating for in-group. We’re all part of in-groups, all of us, right? Whatever we identify as and maybe those are even sometimes, not just identities that they’re just our friends, the people that we like, the people we hang out with, the people that do the things that we do, they may not look like us so they’re different in in-groups. One of the things that I’ve learned in the research that I’ve done, because I want to have a basis for my opinions obviously, is that we aren’t hardwired to discriminate on the basis of race. We are hardwired to have biases but not on the basis of race. We might have biases based on what clan that someone came from or what part of the world they’re from but when it comes to the issue of race, which that’s a social construct that was invented by whiteness and that’s a whole other issue altogether, we don’t have those hardwired biases.
What I try to do is there are some people that are worth addressing, some people that I definitely think are just disagreeing to disagree and often, the premise that they’re starting from is one that is coming out of a white supremacist premise. The question is coming from a white supremacist perspective —
JESSICA: We live in this culture — the white supremacist perspective as the default.
SONIA: It is. Those folks tend to come in those two flavors: people that are just really hateful and will never listen and then there are those who are also really just don’t know. But what I see often happening, even with people that don’t know is they start off one thing to know but the minute that I push them or that someone else pushes back in this sense of, “Listen, you’re going to have to be uncomfortable while we have this conversation because that’s where growth comes from,” I get a lot of defensiveness and often, unfortunately, some of the people that have lashed out at me in the worst ways are white women and there are a lot of theories on why that is the case.
Ruby Hamad wrote a really excellent article on white women’s peers but that’s not someone who’s marching in the streets carrying a tiki torch. That’s the person that I’m working with, next to me on a desk or that’s the person that I’m in line behind at a coffee shop. That’s my day-to-day. Those are day-to-day people. That kind of an interaction is really damaging to me, so I have to defend myself against that as well. I don’t think everybody that disagrees necessarily with me is wrong but it matters how they’re disagreeing and where that disagreement is coming from. It’s tricky sometimes to figure out who is who in this battle.
CORALINE: Sonia, you talked about in-group empathy and this is something that I’ve also done some research on for my book and the studies about in-group versus out-group empathy are really interesting and they seem to indicate that the only antidote to in-group empathy is by exposure to people who you at first consider your out-group but it’s about broadening your definition of what your in-group is, to encompass more people. Do you have a feeling on that?
SONIA: I do I think there’s some limits and this kind of also goes back to what Jessica asked. One of the things that people often neglect to address when we talk about these kinds of injustices is paradynamics. I have said and I will continue to say that people of color cannot be racist towards white people. There isn’t being as that racism is a system of oppression that includes a paradynamic, in addition to the prejudiced inherent in it. I think that that as well, that idea of pushing your boundaries and learning more about the out-group, exposing yourself to different ideas, that power dynamic also needs to be taken in account into account for the people that we’re asking that of.
I think there’s a difference between asking me to be more cognizant of the views of white supremacists who are an out-group for me, than it is to ask white supremacists to be more cognizant of what I’m talking about when I talk about anti-racism. It’s because the power structure is different there. White supremacy has the power in this situation. I have less of it and anybody who’s advocating against white supremacy also, has less of that power. To ask, I think people who have less of that power, to educate themselves about an out-group that has more power, can be really damaging, I think.
CORALINE: Yeah, also they grew with that and it’s not what I was suggesting at all but rather, the people who you are talking about who in principle, at least start out agreeing with you or find something about your words interesting and then suddenly get very defensive, I feel like they’re reverting back to their in-group and they’re not extending empathy to you.
SONIA: That’s true. I think that’s true and I think it’s a very human response actually. One of the things that happens, I think in the process of becoming an advocate and I call myself an advocate more than an activist because advocate fits, I think what I do more. I’m not always going to protests and marching, which I think are very active pursuits. A lot of the work that I’m doing is trying to change ideologies.
What I’ve noticed in the course of my advocacy is that I think I started with a lot more piss and vinegar and over time, as my views have become more nuanced and as I’ve started to understand what it means to be an effective advocate, I still have some of the piss and vinegar and sometimes, it’s fun to just sort of like do some stress relief on white supremacists but also, trying to be a little bit more approachable. It can be hard because these are topics that affect me personally. There’s an emotional investment there but dealing with people that are defensive, it’s kind of something that I have expected and now, I’m more surprised when people aren’t defensive.
What I have started to see is sometimes, people that were initially defensive are willing to come back and try again because you have to keep doing that. You have to keep coming back and beating down those defensive tendencies. I’ve had to do it. I catch myself and I have a little kind of suggestion for people that feel that defensiveness. This is what I do when I feel it. I check in with myself and ask myself where in my body am I actually physically feeling it. It’s usually in my chest. It’s like a tightness that I feel my chest when someone says something that doesn’t comport with my pre-conceived notions of what life should be like my belief systems has just been challenged. I check in with my myself physically then I examine what was just said.
There’s two possible, maybe, what the person said was just flat out wrong. If someone says like, “White people are the best and people of color suck,” I don’t feel that tightening in my chest anymore because that’s just really an ignorant and facile tick. It is simplistic and it doesn’t have any weight. But if someone challenges me in a more subtle way, let me see if I can think of an example of that. Okay, I would say that Jessica challenged me in a subtle way and that was actually really instructive for me because I started to feel that tension in my chest, like what’s coming and what am I going to be able to say in response to it. Is this something that’s going to make me question the way that I approach things, my own belief system? The check in and I breathe through it and be patient and really listen to what’s being asked and what’s being said before I make a judgment about it. Jamey, you had a question?
JAMEY: Yeah. It’s actually very related to this idea of being or not being defensive and trying to look at it as is it nuanced. I guess this is kind of a question about intersectionality and kind of starting to look a little bit more at what you’re saying in the last little piece of the discussion about in-groups with more or less power dynamic.
This is something that happened to me a while ago, actually like almost a couple years ago at this point but it’s been weighing on me ever since then. I really think that if you are a white person and a person of color accuses you of being racist, I think it’s really important to be very thoughtful about why that is, rather than just getting defensive about being called racist. But I had a situation where a few people online wanted to say some things to me about being racist — because I’m transgender — and they were like, “White people aren’t allowed to be transgender because it’s appropriate of other cultures and maybe, when you grow up and stop being so racist, you’ll realize that you’re not really a transgender and how you’re hurting other people’s communities.”
I really, really struggled with that because I can’t respond to these people like, “You called me racist and I’m not,” because I’m so uncomfortable at the concept of that but then I was also like, “Here are a bunch of cis-gender people giving me shit about being trans in a way that was hurtful to me.” It was the first time I really thought about intersectionality in quite that personal way and I wasn’t able to engage with the conversation at all because I was upset. I guess it’s been a long time and I’m still, I guess upset about it.
I’m bringing it out as a conversation point about like how can you navigate these kind of intersectional in-group issues when you have different marginalized groups of people that have different problems that are coming like a head about them in this kind of way that I described. Does that make sense as a question?
SONIA: Yes. It makes a lot of sense and Jamey, I want to say, thank you for asking this question. It’s really awesome and I hear you and I’m super, super sorry that you had to go through that because as a person of color, first of all I’ve never heard this argument that being transgender is culturally appropriated. I find that personally ludicrous that biology can be culturally appropriated. That’s just my take on things. Maybe I’ll get some heat for that after I say this and the podcast comes out but I can’t agree with that. I think the people that told you that were wrong and that upsets me actually, that you went through this experience. You shouldn’t have had to go through that.
When it comes to these ideas of intersectionality, I think we have to be specially respectful. One of the things that I have found is actually extreme kinship with my transgender friends. Coraline and I have talked a little bit about this. I think I have some theories about it that there is a feeling of not being accepted in one’s own body by the world that we live in and the fact that I feel that kinship with my transgender sisters and brothers, that upsets me even more about what you went through. I hope that you will take this alternative viewpoint that it’s possible that people of color get it wrong sometimes too. We all do. All of us, we’re going through this process together. I think all of us are going to make mistakes in this process.
Robin DiAngelo talks about that in her book, ‘White Fragility,’ which I recommend every white person and person of color read and she starts with the premise that white people were racist. If you get stuck and hung up on the word, “I’m racist,” then no growth comes after that, so you just accept, “Okay, I’m racist. Now, let me see what I can do about it to become a better person and become an advocate.”
But that isn’t always the case. I think what you went through and what happened to you in that situation was inappropriate and it might have been just sort of a misuse of the term because not everything and not every word is always racist. I’d say the vast majority of the interactions that we have, absolutely are but that presumption is really odd to me. Thank you for sharing that experience. That’s educational for me as well. It’s also something that I want to now educate others about and learn more about the experience that you had.
JAMEY: I wonder if you have any advice on how to navigate a situation like that with empathy.
SONIA: Sometimes the best thing to do is to step away for a minute. For example, obviously I am not a black woman. I cannot speak to black women’s issues and then there have been times when black women and black men even, have said that I’m speaking out of turn or that my advocacy is not welcome. What happens in that moment is that initial defensiveness in my chest, then I step back and examine what is this person saying, maybe where are they coming from.
Oftentimes, what I found is that it’s a place of hurt, that often we want our advocacy to be our own as well. As humans, not only do we feel oppressed in whatever in-group we might be in that has been ostracized by the out-group but now, we are advocating and then we see other people advocating it feels like someone stepping on our toes. That’s a human reaction, to have that sensation of, “Oh, God. Now, this person is trying to advocate on my behalf? How dare they?”
They don’t get to have their own cause. My cause needs to be the most important, which frankly is pretty silly. We all have causes and we all have causes that are important to us on a very personal level and I think, we have to respect them. I think what I’m in that situation, when that’s happened to me is I just step back. I don’t always have to respond. I think about it. Sometimes, I do have a response that comes more from a place of, “I want to hear where you’re coming from and I want to understand what you’re saying and if you have the time and the willingness to teach me about why you think I am, say in a situation racist or why I shouldn’t be speaking up about these issues, please do. I would appreciate you teaching me that.”
But sometimes, that person is coming at it from not a good place or this is not a good faith assertion, so time invariably and that’s one thing, I think that sometimes gets lost in online discussion. We feel we have to respond right away and sometimes, it’s appropriate to do so but sometimes, you don’t have to. You can take some time to kind of ruminate on what’s been said. That’s kind of the benefit of using text as a format of communication, that you can step away and kind of take some time to think about it. That would be my advice. That’s what I’ve done in the past. It doesn’t always work though because we’re human and we mess up. Does that help?
JAMEY: Yeah, for sure. Thank you.
CORALINE: Sonia, I think you raised an interesting point about the tension between intersectionality and staying in one’s own lane. I’ve definitely wrestled with that a lot when I see you tweet or Kim Crayton tweet or some other prominent people of color, especially women of color, where I want to lend my voice to the discussion but I also think that my voice isn’t the most important one and I don’t want to center myself, so oftentimes, I’ll just reach for the retweet or the like button, well, the retweet button is more powerful. But I feel like there are conversations that I want to have, sometimes that I don’t feel comfortable having because I’m afraid of imposing or centering myself. Do you have any thoughts on that?
SONIA: Sure. In my prior career, I was a lawyer and most of the work that I did was in the criminal justice system. I was always an advocate on behalf of someone else. When I was a public defender, I was an advocate on behalf of my client. When I was a prosecutor, I was an advocate on behalf of the state. What that thought me was to kind of take my own self out of the equation. When I am thinking about or talking about an issue that is specific to the concerns of black women and black men or indigenous people or trans people or my transgender friends, I know that I can’t speak from their perspective.
What I’ve found is that invariably, if I have a thought about a thing, there is a person who is advocating, who actually can come from a place of knowing of personal experience of living the body of a person who has that experience, that is saying what I want to say. What I try to do is find those people as best as I can and amplify them, instead of speaking. For example, on Twitter this means a retweet. It means not quote tweeting, unless it’s to say, “This is someone you should check out.” It just means a straight retweet, I want their ideas to be out there, unvarnished by my own opinions.
I think that one way to o approach it is if I have this compulsion to have an opinion or to share my thoughts on what it means, for example to be black or what it means to be a trans, I’d prefer first of all to find someone else who had that idea because all of our ideas have been thought before — the vast majority of them. Someone said them, so to find a person who has shared those ideas and amplify them before I try to spread my own thoughts on the matter.
Now, I do think there is a small nuance, Coraline where is the idea hasn’t been expressed. It does happen where you have some nuanced idea. I think there are respectful ways to do it and generally, those have a lot to do with phrasing and phrasing is incredibly important. Sometimes it mean like, “This is my observation of this thing. I’m not speaking on behalf of this group but I have observed that this happens and I think there is an injustice here.”
I think kind of stepping away in your observation, the way that you phrase it as I’m saying this is an outsider to make people know that, to make that very sure and there’s no doubt about that, it kind of changes the thing that you’re saying and makes it more palatable, I think.
JAMEY: Is there ever a time when it’s specifically helpful for someone in the out-group to speak up about something. I feel like there are times when I’m like, “I don’t want to say this about myself because it sounds like I’m whining or I’m complaining.” This is just a personal feeling I have but do you think there’s value in someone from a different group being like, “I saw this happen to my friend who I am not in the same demographic as but I saw it happen as an outsider and this is messed up.” Does that make sense?
SONIA: Absolutely, yeah. That’s a really excellent example of how to do it right, I think that you are coming from the perspective of an observer. What I think is interesting is that people in out-groups who are trying to change these oppressive systems have to talk to each other. It can’t just be people in the in-group screaming at the top of our lungs saying, “Please listen to me.” I think there’s a process. You start with people in the in-group screaming at the top of our lungs saying, “Please listen to me,” and some very astute and open-minded members of the out-group hear that screaming and they say, “There’s something to this. Maybe I should pay attention.” Those people then educate other members of the out-group who aren’t really listening right now. That’s kind of like the process of communication that I see happening, that I think is fairly effective.
What you talked about is a perfect example of that that you observe this thing happening and you sense that there is something unjust about it and you wanted to share it with people because there’s so much power in sharing personal experiences. Those can often be the most polarizing too. If I make some kind of like vague statement about white supremacy, I got tons of likes. I get pushback but it’s not like sometimes the level of vitriol if I talk about a very specific example of something I’ve seen but that just means that thing that I talked about, that specific example is way more powerful than some vague assertion. I think that you doing that is incredibly powerful and I would encourage it.
CORALINE: Sonia, I have a tactical question for you because it is in the dimension that we’re talking about in terms of the experiences of a woman of color. I want to say, when you’re engaging with someone who’s in that out-group from that particular intersection, is it helpful for me to join that conversation and try to get through to the person that you’re talking to as a fellow white person or is it better for me to leave that conversation to be between the two of you?
SONIA: I think that answered that question maybe for another person but for me personally, I think it’s incredibly helpful. Something that I’ve watched happen is that one of the things that I do it when I get someone who’s particularly egregious and nasty white supremacists is to quote tweet what they’re saying, to expose other people to what’s happening because I think a lot of people are unaware of how common these ideas are and I even quote to you a more subtle white supremacy as well. What sometimes happens is I’ll see a lot of white people jumping in to educate that person or to also put them in their place if it’s necessary for something particularly ignorant.
That takes a load off of me because it’s really exhausting as, I’m sure all of you understand, to be an advocate all the time. It’s really tiring to educate people. Sometimes, it can be very powerful that you get to just put yourself as an example out there and put your ideas out there and have other people jump in and help you take on some of that emotional labor. Coraline, I would say, yeah it’s helpful and that’s my opinion. Maybe there are other people that might not feel that way but I find it to be really helpful.
JOHN: This is a good time for another tactical question because among the D&I committee at my company and we’ve only just gotten started. We haven’t really been confronted with trying to put new initiatives together or really get people to change. But I know that there is going to be some of that white fragility coming once we start trying to push for things that are actually going to change things and looking for good tactics for dealing with those fragile white people when they start doing their thing.
SONIA: Sure. That’s a really good question and a really hard one to answer. That would solve so many problems but I could give you a straight answer on that. One of the things is education. So things that people have researched and written about and studied and actually come up with are really good tactics. I would not say that I’m an expert in any of this but people like Robin DiAngelo are. She actually runs these kinds of workshops and then wrote her book, White Fragility and started with it as a scholarly paper and then she flashed it out into a whole book and talking exactly about that and about how to confront that kind of defensiveness and that fragility. I’d recommend you read it.
But one of the things she talks about is that it’s going to happen and that letting people know ahead of time that they’re going to feel it can be really empowering for them because hopefully, if they’re there in good faith, hopefully catch it in themselves. Then there are some other books that I really like that I think are informative. One of them is ‘So You Want to Talk About Race’ by Ijeoma Oluo and that is exactly what it says. It acknowledges that these conversations are difficult, tricky, and uncomfortable and that you’re going to mess up. You mess up, you move on. You learn from that mistake.
If it’s a room full of white people talking amongst themselves about issues of race, I think there’s some power in that actually. Those are the conversations that need to be happening and for that then, to therefore be a comfortable space to make those mistakes where people can then learn from those mistakes. Creating that environment and creating that impression early on, I think would probably really be effective in the groups that you’re leading, for people to know that this is not a space to be punished. This is not a space for anybody who’s trying to have a gotcha or scream, “Oh, you’re racist,” or attack anybody because it has to start kind of in that place. If it’s a conversation among white people, I think that’s probably the best way to approach it but I would read those books and ask the people in your D&I initiative to read those books as well.
JOHN: Yeah, I think that’s a great idea. Certainly, those books will be a good resource. I think I like the idea of presenting the idea that what’s about to come is going to make you uncomfortable and you may want to feel different things about it and to sort of set the stage for this is going to happen so that it makes it a little less surprising because I think that surprise can also be part of what adds energy to the defensiveness.
SONIA: Yeah, absolutely.
CORALINE: I think that ties back to something that I try to emphasize culturally in tech and that is that it’s important to create spaces where failure is okay, where failure is a learning experience and I hadn’t thought of that in terms of discussion about race. There is value in bringing, for example white people together to talk about race and talk about their internalized white supremacy, their internalized racism in a space where they’re not going to make a person of color angry or feel like they’re exposing themselves to being called racist but rather, introspecting on racist ideas without having their identity challenge, I guess or without fear of a very negative consequence of making someone else very, very angry at them.
SONIA: Yeah and that anger will always be well-placed like the anger of people of color, the anger of transgender people, the anger of black Americans and indigenous people. This is righteous anger like I am angry and I acknowledge that feeling that anger can be really off-putting to some people. Now, there’s a new one that brings up the whole civility thing, that we should have these discussion and be civil about it.
The time for civility is long past but I also think that on the other side of this is that white supremacy is something that has to be dismantled by white people and that people of color, we should spend our energy just being our best selves, sometimes. We can educate and share our experiences but we should be living great lives and not having to spend our energy trying to dismantle white supremacy because I don’t know that if we can do it on our own. I think white people have to do it.
One of the ways to do that is exactly what you said, Coraline is to have those spaces where white people do the work with each other to dismantle the white supremacy and the byproduct of that means like sometimes those will be isolated spaces just for white people to do that work, where they will be related from this anger but at the same time, I do think it needs to be, “That’s not it.” There has to be some exposure to the concerns and ideas of people of color as well.
It’s hard to find that balance sometimes but I think one way to do it is to have spaces for white people to have these discussions, while also not completely siloing themselves from the experiences of people of color and the opinions of people of color. It’s probably a better idea for most white people to start in an environment where they aren’t going to be afraid to speak frankly because this is like you’re flexing. You’re flexing a skill that is learned over time or you’re flexing muscles that probably haven’t been flex. In tech we like to talk a lot about the fixed versus growth mindset and I think this applies to that exactly, that you can change the way that you think about issues of race but it’s a process and one way to start that process is in an uncomfortable space and then, I think you have to push.
You know, I call it crunchy brain. It’s the opposite of flow and it’s a thing that applies to writing code as well, is that you have this discomfort and then you have to just keep pushing and doing an uncomfortable thing and doing another uncomfortable thing until you achieve some sort of state of growth but that usually small incremental changes. It makes no sense to take a brand new junior developer and be like, “I want you to build an entire infrastructure.” These are baby steps.
JESSICA: There is a lot in that.
JESSICA: No, no sorry. I am now writing.
JAMEY: I have a question about the thing you said earlier which is the thing you said was talking about people getting defensive when other people are stepping on your advocacy toes and Coraline have a really good follow up question about that in staying in your lane but I think there’s another aspect of that that I’m curious about, which is I think a lot of people seem to have this weirdly competitive feeling about caring about things. You’ll often see like why are you carrying about this issue when there’s this other issue and this weird hierarchy that we can only care about one thing at a time which I don’t agree with. I guess I’m wondering if you have thoughts on that or maybe how to handle people that are saying that but also, maybe how to balance legitimately caring about many issues at once.
CORALINE: I have a t-shirt that says ‘My existence is not a distraction’ because when Trump was first elected and I started making noise about the effects on transgender rights, people were like, “No, there are bigger issues we need to focus on right now,” and I was like, “Fuck you. Every issue is important. We can work simultaneously.” I’m so sorry —
JAMEY: I totally agree.
CORALINE: I’m sorry. I just had to interject with that.
SONIA: I’d love to see this t-shirt. I absolutely agree. I think that people get to care about what we care about and often, what we care about is informed by our personal experience and that’s what makes our advocacy powerful. This whole idea of this is more important than that is really kind of silly to me. Actually, I had a discussion, well, one of my white male friends was talking yesterday on Twitter about changing rooms and men’s bathrooms and the lack of them and how problematic that is and he’s talking about when his kid was younger, how it was a struggle to change a diaper without a changing table and he told me he got DM’s from women saying, “Why are you talking about this? There are more important things to talk about,” and that’s just silly in my opinion, like talk about the thing that matters to you. There is space for advocacy and this idea of stepping on people’s toes, like everybody.
What’s brilliant about advocacy is that your take on a thing is going to be totally different from somebody else’s because your lived experiences are different, so the way that you say them is going to be different and that’s what’s amazing. The way that you say them is going to resonate with one person and maybe, not with another but that’s why everybody needs to be an advocate because we all have different voices and we’re all going to resonate with each other and teach each other in different ways.
Even if the ideas that we’re saying are the same and a million people have written them, the way that we present them is different and so, that comes from and the power of that advocacy comes from our individual experiences and the things we care about. Me advocating on behalf of say, climate change, I care about the climate for example but it’s not the thing I’m most passionate about. It’s not a thing I wake up thinking about and go to bed thinking about, so I’m going to probably stick to talking about issues of race but I also can think that issues of climate change are really important and can have respect for the people that advocate for that.
Everything can be important at the same time. It doesn’t all have to be this battle and this fight. I think that’s really silly and I think what ends up happening, this infighting that happens when it comes to advocacy is really toxic and detrimental. In the end, give everybody space. There is plenty of space. We live in an unjust world. We live in a world with plenty of problems. The more voices we have, the better. We all need to be on board. So yeah, I want this t-shirt, Coraline. I love it.
CORALINE: At the end of every program, we take a moment to reflect on the conversation that we’ve just had and share our thoughts and maybe, things that we want to try to do to respond to the conversation that we’ve had, things that we want to change in ourselves or change in the people around us. Who would like to go first?
JESSICA: I have one. I found it really interesting that we talked about the contradiction between when you’re trying to educate yourself and really talk about race and understand it, you need a safe place to do this, where you’re not going to trigger someone’s righteous anger. The place is not Twitter. It’s really not and I think that that’s a problem for us that there’s a white person I’m used to getting to speak my mind because that’s part of the power structure but really, if I want to learn, I need to find a safe space where I can speak my mind and receive correction in a constructive way without vitriol. Then, there’s the contradiction of, “But you know what, people of color have these feelings and their feelings are legitimate and they are allowed to speak those feelings on Twitter too and that’s going to trigger my defensiveness but then what I need to do is take my question somewhere else.”
I would like to suggest to our listeners that if you are looking for such a safe space where you can discuss race and other matters and learn from people, if you donate one dollar to our Patreon even or preferably more, then you get an invitation to the Greater Than Code Slack channel which is just such a space.
CORALINE: There was kind of a side comment you made, Sonia that resonated with me or that give me something to think about and if I’m not misquoting you, I think what you’re saying is you’re talking about the difference in power and the difference of impact of sharing your own experiences, your own personal experiences with oppression or with oppressive systems over making observations or just sharing facts and how impactful it is when you tell something from your daily life over just saying like, “Transphobia is bad and here’s an example of transphobia that I found on the internet.”
I think that requires some vulnerability and vulnerability is something I’ve been struggling with a lot as someone who gets harassed and abused often. But I think it’s also more authentic and it’s a more authentic way of criticizing a culture that oppresses us. I want to think more about how I can personalize my advocacy a little more, rather than just sort of assuming that people will agree with me. I’m going to show them a day in the life. Thank you for that idea.
SONIA: Absolutely. That’s awesome.
JAMEY: Something that you also said, Sonia that really resonated with me was that we care about things that we’ve experienced like in our personal experiences and that’s what makes our advocacy powerful. I think that in some ways, that’s a comforting thing for me to hear because I have in the past worried that I care so much more, maybe about these things that have affected me, which when I say it like that, it sounds pretty natural but it makes me feel like I need to make sure that I’m caring about all of these things which I do think is important but I like the idea that our advocacy is powerful because it comes from this place of passion.
Also, I want to continue thinking about the opposite side of that is that when I’m looking at others and observe it in their advocacy, thinking about how it’s coming from a place of personal experience and passion for them and being able to see their power as well and I think, thinking about it in that very conscious way, is important and also cool and also a good source for empathy.
JOHN: What I’d like to do is actually thank you all for having this conversation with me and in front of me because there’s more chances for me to listen to people who are let’s say, white males talk about their issues and how they’re thinking about the issues. This is a process I started years ago, basically when I joined Twitter as I found people talking about these things and just sit back and listen and try and use that learn as much as I’ve learned over the years, so this has been really great for me.
I think my takeaway is going to be about that what you just said recently, Sonia was about the fixed versus growth mindset in regards to racism. I really like that metaphor and I think it’s a great way to present, to frame a discussion especially in that sort of white-only space where you start grappling with these issues. Talking about it in that manner, I think is going to be really helpful as a way of talking about how everyone can unlearn white supremacy as the way to start the process. That’s definitely going to be something I will work on.
SONIA: This has been a really great conversation. Thank you all for having me. It’s been an honor to be on this with all of you and really, excellent questions that made me think about my own approach and my own advocacy and how I can be better at it.
I think that we can all be advocates and I think that we can all be actors. For example, I will be an advocate probably until the day that I die on issues of race but I can also be an actor in response to other people’s advocacy. I think it’s a matter of expending energy in both of those areas that we should all be advocates but we should also be listeners as well, be advocacy of others and internalize that.
Even if I am not myself transgender, it is important for me to understand and listen to the voices of my trans friends and understand and respect their advocacy. Even if I am not an indigenous person, it is important for me to understand and listen to the advocacy of indigenous people. Even if I am not a black woman, it is important for me to understand and listen to the advocacy of black women. I can be an advocate but I can also be an actor and one of the best ways to start doing that is to amplify the voices of advocates of people who are advocating for things that you may not have personally experienced. You start that process by learning.
I think it’s a really great point to raise that Twitter is not necessarily the place for this feeling of safety but it is a place that you can learn a whole lot. I have learned so much about issues that I had no exposure to just by observing and amplifying those ways says. The takeaway, I think is to be this idea that we can all be advocates but we can also be actors for other people and there is a lot of power in the numbers that we have when we translate that listening and that observation and that learning into action.
JAMEY: That’s a great way to look at that. Thank you so much.
SONIA: Thank you all very much.