In this episode, Amr talks about the fact that it’s not just code: people need to own their privilege and use it for good by calling out others, being good allies, and avoiding biases.
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Amr is an African Egyptian native who crossed continents to work with his passion in digital environments. Amr’s interests span technology, tech-communities, politics and politics in tech, all enriched through various software engineering roles in Egypt, Hungary and Germany.
Amr Abdelwahab – An empathy exercise: contextualising the question of privilege (EuRuKo 2018 Video)
01:53 – Amr’s Superpower: Seeing the bigger picture.
04:24 – It’s Not Just Code
11:18 – Privilege
17:37 – Strategies For People with Privilege Who Are Open to Learning
22:57 – Why Diversity Matters and Avoiding Burnout
27:24 – Biases, Allyship, and Calling Out Others
John: The metaphor of sexism and racism and cultural baggage being legacy code.
Christina: Listen and learn. Also, pushing organizations to contribute to bigger things, but making sure they understand why they are doing it, and not doing it blindly.
Coraline: We are currently living in an “unnatural state”. Equality is the natural state and we need to return to that.
Amr: The ability to have a politics-free life is a privilege of its own.
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JOHN: Welcome to Greater Than Code, Episode 113. I’m John Sawers and I’m introducing Christina Morillo.
CHRISTINA: Hi, John. Thank you and I’m so happy to be here. It’s been a while, so happy New Year to everyone and I love to introduce the amazing Coraline.
CORALINE: The Amazing Coraline, I like that. That make me sounds like a circus performer or an escape magician.
CHRISTINA: Okay, how about the fantastic Coraline?
CORALINE: So the same. I love it. We have a really amazing guest with us today. I met him at EuRuKo in Vienna earlier this year. He really impressed me. He had an amazing presentation that I’m hoping to talk about today. I’m happy to welcome Amr. Amr is an African-Egyptian native who cross-continent to work with this passion in digital environment. Amr’s interest span technology, tech communities, politics and politics in tech, all enriched through various software engineering roles in Egypt, Hungary, and Germany. Amr, welcome to the show.
AMR: Well, greetings everyone and Happy New Year for everyone. Thank you for having me here.
CORALINE: Amr, as you know, as a long time listener of the show — I’m sure, you are a long time listener of the show — we always start with a very simple but loaded question, “What is your superpower and how did you develop it?”
AMR: I always love how you refer to this question as a super simple question because for me it’s super not a simple question. If you ask me about the superpower, I would never refer to it as that. I would more call it like an acquired skill but one thing I believe I’m a bit capable of is seeing the bigger picture or trying to add more context, especially when it comes to social aspects. I tend to not get lost into trivial details and always being able to try to take one step backwards and see everything from a bigger picture.
If you ask me how I think I acquired this skill, I think I have bit of a diverse experience in terms of context, in terms of background, in terms of experiences even in [inaudible] and I think the most important or the life-changing point of mine is the major change in my context moving from a culture to a culture. As you already mentioned in my bio, I grew up in Cairo in Egypt, where most of my life I basically checked all these checks for privileges.
I’m a cis-gender, straight male. I come from this middle to high-class family in Egypt. I belong to a Muslim family, which is the majority in my country and this is shameful to say but I have a lighter shade of darkness, which in Africa considers to be a privilege. I remember like when I was younger and I was faced by my friends who are less privileged, let’s say the Christian community in Egypt or the LGBT community members, they always try to complain about things or mention bad experiences they go through and I always had this thought of I totally have the sympathy. I totally understand what they’re talking about but I sometimes feel that they’re oversensitive or maybe they are like making a bigger fuss out of these things.
Then until this moment in 2013 when I moved to Europe and suddenly I started to lose these privileges one by one. Suddenly I’m now in the darker shade of the color and not in the lighter anymore, I belong to the Arabic Muslim community in Europe and I started to see things totally different and I think that’s where I acquired this skill of seeing the bigger picture because I basically both had.
CORALINE: That really resonates with me, Amr as a transgender woman because when I was presenting male or trying to live life as a male, I was aware intellectually of the struggles of other people but like you, it’s like, “It can’t be that bad.” Then when I transitioned, those are like, “Yup, it’s worse. It’s actually worse.”
CHRISTINA: That’s an interesting segue into one of the points that you made in one of your emails about the tendency where the industry decontextualized everything that comes from anything social and makes it feel like it’s an isolated piece of software. I’d love to get into that because I think there’s a point there and we would love to learn more about your perspective on that.
AMR: Yeah, sure. We as software engineers, we have a massive tendency to remove context out of software and that’s natural when you speak about software. We want to follow the single responsibility principle all the time. We want to have one class that does one thing and it’s isolated from everything else. We want to have totally agnostic services — I don’t want my service to be dependent on a platform or a technology or a language or whatsoever. You want to be able to be fluid and flexible because you are always changing and maintainable.
Out of this thing, came this tendency to the software engineering and in the tech world in general, to think that everything applies the same rules, which is not true. Social aspects does not work like this. You cannot remove context when you speak about racism, for example. You cannot say, “Ah, well, this isn’t against white people. It’s exactly as like against black people.” It’s not because there is context there.
CORALINE: And that context is so important. Someone I just found at Twitter today, an article kind of tearing into a piece I had written about meritocracy. Their argument basically came down to, “It’s just code and it doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter your social situation, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the marginalized group. Code is code.” What would you say to people who have that opinion, Amr?
AMR: I totally understand where that came from because I’m still an engineer. I totally understand where this opinion comes from. I totally see where the truth are but I just want to tell them that, “Trust me, I’m your colleague. I’m a person that is smart enough where I hope you see the point that I’m your colleague and when I am telling you that there is a problem in that aspect, there is a problem in that aspect.” It’s impossible that all of us are just creating a fuss out of nothing. I’m telling you that it’s not just code. I’m telling you that many times I finished obstacles just because of my color or because of my identity, so it’s not just code for sure.
CHRISTINA: Whatever you do, I agree. I agree to that and also, in whatever you do, you add your own special sauce and that special sauce is kind of a combination of your background, your experiences, so it can’t be that we all have the same background and experiences. That really bugs me when people are always try to lump things into, “Well, it’s just code. Well, it’s just this. Well, it’s just that.” No, it’s not. We’re nuance, we’re complex individuals and we bring that to whatever we do, which is what makes us fantastic.
AMR: Maybe, I would like to add an example because I remember when I mentioned something in EuRuKo presentation that was mentioned by Coraline about always feeling that I have to do 10 times more effort than a fellow white European to achieve the same result. Someone told me like, “No, I don’t believe this. I believe this is your code and this is the same narrative that you are talking about.”
At this moment, I had this quote in my head. It was said to me by my white male manager at some point. He just put me down in a one-on-one and he said, “Listen, man. You are a brown person. Your face looks a bit scary to people, so you need to put more effort to deliver the same message when I do,” so he said that actually clearly, without even trying to put a facade on the top. He stated that fact clearly.
CHRISTINA: That really resonates. As a person of color as well, that’s been in the industry — I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years — and it’s something that I faced that I think at this point in my life, I continue to face it but it burns you out after a while. You think, “Why am I still here?”
I texted my friend the other day, I was like, “Maybe, I should like go back to doing hair or something.” I don’t know. Learn how to do hair, just so that I can have peace of mind but then I realize like standing on the shoulders of giants, I guess and having to kind of push forward but it’s really tough and it’s really tough when are white, male or and/or female counterparts or non-binary counterparts that do have privilege kind of don’t understand how challenging it is for us to be in this industry. And don’t care to understand, so I totally gets you.
AMR: Perhaps, maybe the thing that [inaudible] to your question earlier, Christina about the similarities or the parallels between software and the whole topic we’re talking about, well another thing that I always like to mention is that the amount of similarity between the concept of technical debt and privilege, actually. If you think about it, I’m pretty sure everyone that listen to us now or probably, everyone in this industry has to deal with the Legacy codebase all the time. When you think about what does it mean, a legacy, what does it mean technical debt, is just some people that like non-intentionally, it’s because of a reason of business or because of uninformed decisions or because they were just following some hype. They introduced some mistake or they introduced something that we need to put some effort in the future to fix it and technical debt never stops you from shipping. You shouldn’t be re-writing software every week. You should try to be mindful while you’re thinking about how to ship further, so you all will have to be mindful about to try. You cannot also ignore technical debt.
For me, this is exactly the same thing of privilege, so I’m not blaming you because your ancestors goes this for imbalance that you have at the moment but I’m telling you that you have to be mindful of that and I’m telling you that you have to still move forward but still think about the past and still think about how would you fix the problems of the past and now you make sure not to introduce further problem imbalance.
JOHN: That’s amazing. I love that. I’m really excited in the interest like metaphors that bring things across disciplines and that’s a really good one. I think that will probably bring the point home more to people than a lot of ways that we end up talking about these sorts of issues.
CORALINE: It’s kind of interesting that in order to get through to engineers, we have to use metaphors that draw on their common experience as engineers to make them understand the cultural and social aspects of what marginalized people go through. That seems a shame but also at the same time, it’s brilliant.
AMR: To be honest with you, I don’t really see it as a shameful thing. I believe that we are humans and it all goes down to our ego at the end. It all goes down to our life’s self-worth and feeling good about ourselves and sometimes, we fail to understand things from the other side, even though we try. As I mentioned, I was really a sympathetic person. I have been always a politically-active person in every sense but I just never could see the point from the other side and I just needed someone to try to bring it closer to me using these analogies.
CORALINE: Amr, when we met last year, you told me a little bit about what it was like for you and you mentioned losing privilege when you moved to Europe. But you also mentioned that there was privilege involved with the mechanics of you getting to Europe. Would you care to share that?
AMR: Definitely. If you think about it, we are software engineers and I consider this one of the privileges in the current context of the world. The privilege we have is the ability to move anywhere we want, find a job in less than two to three days. I’m 100% sure that 99% of the people in our audience are super easily finding jobs whenever they want because it’s a kind of the driven market. If you think about it, I come from a country that has more than 70,000 political arrests or political prisoners at the moment and honestly, when I look around me, it’s only software engineers who managed to escape this, so that just gave us even a free pass to be able to be more outspoken than the rest of our people because we could say whatever we want and then we could escape jail while the rest of the people are not.
The same concept is existing here in Europe or I’m not sure, I picture it’s the same in the US. I almost think about it what within the scope of my country or the scope of any company I work for, I should speak for people in back office jobs, I should speak for people in logistics jobs because I know that they are from the perspective of a corporate. They are more or less like replaceable people, so they wouldn’t mind firing them but I know that they would think twice before firing a software engineer because it’s very expensive for them to lose them at the moment, so we have to use this privilege as a software engineers, I believe.
CORALINE: I think, that’s a privilege that you accumulate over time. I think that someone who’s very early in their career, it would not be safe for them to speak up but as we get more senior, we have the ability to speak up with less consequences and that actually is a responsibility that I think a lot of people don’t recognize that they have and that they’re not using fully. I can think of multiple people in our industry who are very senior, who are very well-respected, who are considered thought leaders, who know who hate that term who simply don’t talk about any issues facing marginalized people at all and they may privately sympathize but they’re not using their platforms. They’re not using their privilege to try and make things better for other people and I find that so frustrating. To me if you’re not doing that, you’re not doing your job.
CHRISTINA: Do you think it’s because they believe that they don’t feel privilege or they don’t believe in that? I find a lot of folks feel that, “If I can do it, anyone can. It doesn’t matter. I have a hidden disability and I still made it. I’m still successful,” so they’d look at the world that way?
CORALINE: I think some people, when they talk about privilege, they take it as a personal attack on their own skills. If you say that, you are where you are in part because of privilege that makes them feel like, “Well no, that’s not true. I’ve worked really hard,” and it’s not a matter of not having worked hard. It’s a matter of not having to face the same struggles as people with less privilege and frankly, playing on easy mode.
AMR: I honestly could not agree more because specifically this thing is very important. I think that we need to identify two kinds of people that are not aware of these things: the people who are intentionally, let’s say fundamentally racist people, fundamentally oppressive people, fundamentally alt-right supporters in a sense, people who are opposing any kind of change but there is also a major sector of people that are not aware enough. They just don’t know. They don’t see. They’re not capable of doing this and honestly, the reason I am here today or the reason I do such a presentation and conferences or the reason I try to go to meetups or whatever, is just to get through to the second group because the first group, my purpose is just to make them uncomfortable.
I honestly don’t want to reach out of those people. With all due respect, I don’t want to change an opinion of a guy that believes by nature. I am a less person [inaudible], so already that person is out of the [inaudible] but about those more influential people, I also think that inside them, they have this deep, unfazed thoughts of not really believing what we say still. Again, it’s exactly the same situation that I started the episode with or what Coraline what’s speaking about. They still sympathize but they’re not deeply convinced.
JOHN: I think people end up in a situation where you sort of realize, maybe there’s some differences in someone else’s experience but still, you don’t really see it as deeply like you were describing, like you don’t really get that full experience of what it’s like to be a person of color or gender that isn’t as privileged. I think part of that is just the preponderance of everyday experience, where if you’re part of the privileged class, you don’t see any of those differences because all of the defaults are set to your defaults, so you just go through and you think everyone’s experience is the same as yours and until you can either experience that flip, like you describe, Amr where you’re suddenly not on the privilege side of things or like what I’m trying to do is just listen to the stories and the experiences of the people around, so that they can tell me what that’s like because I’m not going to experience that, just slowly using that to break down that feeling of, “Oh well, this is just how the world works and it’s all fine. You just get through on your own merits and then everything’s fine,” but it’s definitely a long process to sort of undo that conditioning because it starts from probably from infancy where you’re just, like as a male, you’re treated differently as a baby and that affects how you interact with the world and how adventurous you can be and things like that, I just read some psychology research on that. I think it’s really the process of getting through to people to convince them that those differences are there, I think is the tricky part.
CORALINE: Amr, do you have any strategies for making the case to people as privilege who are open to learning but aren’t learning on their own?
AMR: One of the things I really try to use from time to time is, as I said you should bring the conversation more and more often but you should always try to find things that attracts those people to the conversation in terms of what interests those before. You might find, let’s say a person that’s having a real interest in environmental change and then you try to draw the parallels, you try to say like, “You know, it is the same white privilege that caused this in the past, that all comes from the same origin,” or you might find someone that’s interested in technology and he’s a developer, for me I put a lot of effort into seeing how much diversity actually impacts the output of our software as one. Not just like in an ethical sense because of course, they believe in the ethical sense but you need to find these very pragmatic ways to talk to people who don’t care about the ethical part of it.
One of the examples, I already also mentioned to Coraline before I mentioned that in my presentation before, is a very common mistake that we do as software engineers. When we build very normal web applications, if I ask every one of you, how would you model a user in a web application, what would be the fields of the database. I’m pretty sure 99% of the people always answer with having a first name and the last name. Surprisingly, I don’t have a last name. They’re like a 100 million Egyptians that don’t have last names, so when you do this, you’re making a void product. This is a product that’s not achieving its goals because if you’re building a product that’s supposed to operate in Egypt, then you lost the market. You created a very un-understandable chaos so this issue of my last name, for example, has been a massive problem since I moved to Europe. It might seem very trivial to people but for me, every single thing I have to go through the process of which last name should I use because I don’t have this one and so on.
CORALINE: That practicality is also affected things here in the US, even with the midterm election that we just had last year. There was a software program that the federal government encourage states to use to clean up their voter rolls. The programmers of the system insisted on implementing an algorithm, whereby name matches had to be exact and if the name matches were not exact, then people were actually prevented from voting and people with special characters in their names, people who don’t have last names, people who have multiple names, you have to remember what contacts you use, what names or faces disenfranchisement and they saw kinds of other struggles in society but it actually have a definite effect on voting rolls.
One of the statistics I saw, it was from one particular state and because of the name matching algorithm, 30,000 voters were flagged as suspicious, as potentially fraudulent. The researchers who dug into the algorithms found that there was actually one person out of 30,000 who when you remove the name restrictions may have been a fraudulent registration, out of 30,000 that were flagged.
AMR: Wow. That’s very surprising but at the same time, this is also relating back to your talk about meritocracy because it is not a question of merit here. The person who wrote this software, maybe he was very well-intended or maybe he was the best developer ever. Maybe he or she or they were very good software engineers but they cannot see this issue because they don’t face it themselves and none of the people in the team can see this. This is natural. This is very basic cognitive bias. This is false consensus cognitive bias where people cannot see what other people see. They wouldn’t be able to think about all of these possibilities all the time, that’s why diversity contributes to having a non-void product because if they had one person in that team that had a special character in their name, he or she or they would have probably thought of that. They would probably said, “Why don’t we think of special characters because now my name wouldn’t count.”
JOHN: Yeah, I think you make a really interesting point there. You just described that person as maybe they’re really, really good programmer, they’re the best programmer but I don’t think we can call them the best programmers if they can build a system that’s broken as fundamentally as that one is but as software engineers, we sort of tend to think there’s this absolute scale disconnected from all the social impact about how good a programmer you are that is actually harmful.
AMR: Oh yeah. I totally agree with this. I meant, in the perspective of the common software engineering, where are they, right?
CORALINE: Yeah, the code review was shining. Everyone loves the way it’s implemented. It’s a very elegant rejects and yet, it —
JOHN: Yeah, really well.
CORALINE: And disenfranchise 30,000 people in one state.
CHRISTINA: Amr, you brought up the importance of diversity but what I’m noticing is that these conversations are geared more round like that checkbox and these organizations say, “We believe in diversity and inclusion. We hired with diversity and inclusion –,” I don’t know, “– C-suite executive,” for example but I think that we’re still missing to Coraline’s point. We’re still missing these valid use cases and valid examples of why diversity matters when building software. Do you have any recommendations? As far as a community, how can we get better at this? How can we not say, “You need diversity and inclusion,” and say, “This is what you’re missing if you don’t have that or if you fail to include that,” as part of the conversation?
AMR: We are mostly all part of the engineering teams and I think it’s per use case. I’m pretty sure if everyone who dig into their product, they will find a use case that they can bring out to their team. For example, I work in fashion technology and I always keep bringing out because fashion technology is super binary when it comes to gender. They just treat everything as just men and women and they don’t see any other genders, so I have to bring out this every single time when there is a mention of gender. You have to make sure to go this pull request, make sure to decline it and make sure to log things and also, try to do as much as possible, to push those companies not just in technology-wise but companies in an organizational level to contribute to bigger things but at the same time, make sure that they understand why they’re doing this.
When you mention to have them hire or having a diversity expert in the company, one thing I really dislike as a person of color in Europe when a company has the diversity expert or they have some sort of a diversity culture but don’t really understand why do they have this. That ends up in them treating us more like monkeys in the zoo, more of like people who we would like to bring in to have their photo in our website and show off that they have diversity but they have absolutely no understanding of what they’re really doing.
I cannot think of anything we can do now except just being vocal about it and actually fight because honestly, it’s a struggle. It’s not going to be an easy thing because if those were an easy thing, it would have been solved already. It’s a struggle that we all have to go through and I can totally see how uncomfortable it is to be this annoying person in the office that keeps fighting on every social thing but honestly, it’s also not the choice for me. Not a choice for me because I don’t do that because I am super happy to do this or because as they always say, I like playing the victim card. No, it is more actually because it’s my safety on stake here. I cannot be at any moment attached in the street or, you know? It is not just a simple thing.
CHRISTINA: That’s powerful, so how do you stay sane? Like what do you do for fun? Even though it’s part of your survival or like others in tech, we are at some point feel burnt out, so how do you reinvigorate yourself and re-energized and find that passion again?
AMR: I think me personally, I am a person of multiple interests. Since I was a kid, I always have this ability to be on many fronts and never get lost in it. Honestly sometimes, I get burnt out and that’s natural and then you just take holidays, go watch a movie, you go and have some hobbies or whatever. I personally am super interested in arts, so I spend some time trying to learn about movie making because that’s my next job after leaving the technology world.
At the end also, you have to care about your well-being and that’s what I mention. It’s all about our egos, all about ourselves. At the first place, you have to feel good. If you’re tired at some point of raising your voice, it’s fine. Take a rest. You know, I’m not blaming people, I’m not fighting, actually. I totally understand where’s that coming from but as long as you have this energy, make sure to use it because I’m telling you that there are other people that would love to have such an opportunity to use it but they can’t.
In my county or even here, there are people that are not software engineers and they don’t have the ability to speak up. They don’t have the ability like me now to be on an American podcast speaking to an international audience. They don’t have this ability, so we have to use this thing to channel our opinion. We really need to do that.
CORALINE: Amr, have you have success in finding allies in your workplace?
AMR: Definitely. Honestly, my current workplace is very comfortable in that sense. I selected it specifically on that aspect, actually. Because my previous experience was really tough, even though my previous company, they have the diversity expert and they spend a lot of money in supporting diversity initiatives but it was the perfect model of what I’m saying, that they were treating people as monkeys and do. This now, I did the exact opposite. I mean, all my discussions before at a recruitment was just about this concept: let’s speak, what will you do if I post such a debatable political post on Slack, what would be your reaction to this?
For me also, one thing that was very noticeable is that the head of engineering, which is number two in the technical thing, is a brown person, a non-straight person, so for me that was already a mark that something is correct here. Because honestly especially in Germany, it is very rare to find non-white-male-straight manager. It is very rare. You have no idea. You can have a lot of employees but never in managerial positions.
CORALINE: I want to dig into that a little bit, Amr. You gave one example of a question to ask. I do a lot of mentoring and I try to encourage people, especially in their early jobs, their first few jobs, to really understand that an interview is two-way not only is the company interviewing you to determine what kind of employee you’re going to be but you, as the interviewee, are evaluating the company to see how comfortable, how safe it will be for you, especially as a marginalized person. I get asked all the time, how do I find it out, like what questions do I ask? Do you have other examples of specific questions that you ask on that interview process?
AMR: Actually, I have a list somewhere. Maybe, I will post it as a blog and link it later. I have a list of around 15 questions that I usually ask the companies, usually the question of, “What is your demography? How many women, how many men, how many binary people do you have? How many non-gender people do you have?” and if they don’t know the answer, that’s already a marker that they didn’t try.
I would totally appreciate the honest answer of, “As you know, the industry has a problem. We have a problem but we are trying to work on it. We are not totally diverse. We have this and that,” but it already shows that these people thought about it, not just ignored it and you would be surprised actually because many times, you would be talking to HR people and they wouldn’t know the answer to this question. In very major organizations, they really don’t know the answer to this question, sometimes.
The other questions that I usually asked is about contributions to the community in technical sense: What is your stance on open source? What is your stance on technical event support? And I ask about their opinions about diversity quotas and then, just the swipe of your eye is really enough. You know, you’ll always go into the office, you would just realize how diverse is the company by being there. Especially for me, it’s very clear when I enter. It’s like only white people, white male’s company. There are two women sitting in one office and this brown guy in the corner and then the rest of the companies is just the same look, so that’s already a no-go for me. I don’t know. Those are the ones I can think of for the moment. I can later try to write a blog post and send it to you.
CORALINE: I would really appreciate that. Thank you, Amr.
CHRISTINA: I would too. That would be awesome.
JOHN: It’s not as critical for me as far as my safety goes to have a company that’s like that but it’s also the sort of company I want to work for, so being able to evaluate those things, even as someone who is going to make it less diverse by being there. Those are all good questions that I will be asking.
AMR: I honestly think that oppression is as toxic to the privileged side as the underprivileged side. Privilege is an intersectional concept than, “I am a male. I am still a straight male, I am still a straight cis-gender male but I know that sexism damages me, not as much of course but it damages me as well.” It has its side effect to me, especially when you are trying and I never call myself ally but when you are trying to achieve the stance of being an ally. I would never give myself the privilege of being called an ally but when you try to act as an ally, it’s really toxic. It’s really hard to be a male trying to support these things. It has the downsides.
CORALINE: [inaudible] a little bit, Amr, like how does it affect you when you’re the person in a position of privilege? How does sexism affect you as a straight cis-gender male?
JOHN: I can talk about it a little bit, just in a really simple example. I went through the unconscious bias test. I can dig up the URL for that but it basically shows you images of different people and words describing them like this is a female compared to scientists. The amount of time you spend being able to compare how associated the words are, indicates whether you have think that maybe women aren’t cut out to be scientists. These very unconscious biases that obviously, I consciously trying to counteract but through taking this test, I realized that I have these unconscious biases that by default, my brain is going to automatically be saying, “Oh, that woman probably isn’t a scientist,” even if I’ve had a meeting of scientists and half of the people there are women.
Knowing that, I can now counteract it every time I notice my brain making that default assumption and so I can say, “Wait a minute. Stop that. Stop that assumption. Let’s flatten everything out and reassess the audience that I’m working with or whatever.” It’s just one example, where if I wasn’t aware that I was doing that and I allow that to just influence my thinking in the way I treated the people I was interacting with and by just assuming all the women there weren’t scientists, that would be a problem for me because I would be limiting the people that I could have good conversations with or the people that I could hire into my science team if I was doing such a thing or things like that. I would be just automatically dismissing all these people from the contributions that they could be making. That I think, is one simple but for at least, clear cut example.
CORALINE: Yeah. If you’re devaluing people, even unconsciously, that’s going to affect the work that you do because you’re not going to be learning from them. You’re not going to be tapping their expertise, you’re not going to be tapping to their life experiences because of those default assumptions, right?
JOHN: Or I’ll be designing my scientific studies where all the participants are men, so we don’t get any useful data on how whatever the thing is affecting women and non-binary people and so therefore, it’s really skewed and then we bring to the market and it doesn’t succeed, there’s so many side effects that can come out of that.
CHRISTINA: What I’d like to point out here is that I don’t think that this is necessarily like a white or male privilege problem. I think that part is a human problem. I feel like we’re always pushing the blame to one side versus saying, “I think it’s something that we all should look at, including people of color and non-binary folks,” because it’s a human problem. There are times when I caught myself being biased and I’m a woman of color. I think it’s just something to think about.
CORALINE: Yeah. The bias is definitely universal. The difference is the power differential, thought. I don’t mind being more critical or cis-gender or heterosexual white males because they’re in the intersection that has power over more people but your point is amazing, Christina. Everyone does have that bias and it doesn’t affect everyone. I think it’s a fundamental problem with the way that we’re wired and the way we’re socialized. We’re definitely products of our society. We’re also products of our evolution. These are things that, as you point out, everyone should be working on.
AMR: Because we’re currently in an unnatural state, we are currently in an unbalanced time, so when we speak about differences of people that doesn’t have this power imbalance, then you can prioritize problems that are way less important. There are things like, “I would never ever, ever bring out, just because I know that this is so trivial compared to what women are going through, so I would never just bring out these things because it is so trivial at the moment.” Because of this state of being unnatural, of course it’s way, way harder on the other effects and it’s way, way harder on everything, on everyone that’s underprivileged but it still has some impact on the privileged person.
CORALINE: Amr, you mentioned not wanting to call yourself an ally. That’s a position that I’ve seen very self-aware people take and people who are a little less self-award, have no issue with color themselves in a way, that you go into the why of the importance of not calling yourself an ally and not getting yourself that title.
AMR: Yes. I was saying, when you do this, you’re basically contributing to the same problem. You are actually taking the right of a person by calling yourself that, “Oh, no, I am on your side.” Don’t force this on underprivileged people. Wait for them to call you an ally and actually, wish for that. When I talked to a woman who a friend of mine or some person from the LGBT community, I just sit and learn. I never try to mansplain in any sense. I should just sit there and just learn because as I said before, however hard you try, it is impossible to see the experiences when you live them first hand. You try as much as you can and it’s a thing that they’re practicing. The more practice you have, you get better at it but you can never live it 100%.
Honestly, we grew up with these biases. It’s so hard to get rid of, even how much you try. I still do mistakes on daily basis and I still get lectured on daily basis by my friends and they’re like, “Sit down. I need to call you out or something because that was wrong. You shouldn’t have said that,” and I totally appreciate this and I would never ever, ever in my life call myself an ally to someone. People should call you on ally. You should never call yourself an ally.
CORALINE: I have argued, it’s not even a thing you can be. It’s the thing that you do.
JOHN: Yeah. It’s continuously evolving and continuously evaluated. It’s not like you get your ally trophy and then you’re good for life.
AMR: And I have to be very, very honest with you. Ninety-nine percent of the cases when a person says ally, that person keeps hitting you with micro-aggressions, you cannot imagine. Usually, the person that says, “I am an ally,” is the person with the highest count of micro-aggressions per minute, you know?
CHRISTINA: You brought up a good point about some of your friends and close counterparts calling you out when you make a mistake. I’m very much against this call out culture that we’ve seen over the past couple of years, especially with social media. I think, obviously it’s complicated and there are situations where you do have to probably but there are other situations where if you know the person, I don’t necessarily agree with calling the person out but again, it depends on the situation. How do you feel about calling someone out that maybe makes a mistake on social media and do you think that that actually helps or hurts?
AMR: I actually seen this as the most important, let’s say learning or discussion that we have, for more, let’s call progressive people in the previous couple of years, this exact conflict. I think the conflict roots from this. We as people, at least the majority of progressive people believes in the idea of non-vindictive punishments. You don’t want to punish people just to have vengeance. You want to have punishment to reform or to improve people. Maybe the only side that makes calling people out is scary for many people is the idea that it has a bit of vengeance in it.
But on the other side, as we said we’re not living in the natural state. We’re living in a massive power imbalance. Honestly, if there was another alternative, I would go for it but there is none. There is no possible way now to let’s say, punish Kevin Spacey for [inaudible]. That wouldn’t have been done in any sense. Like you, what would have you done? Will you just go to the police? People will victim-blaming —
CHRISTINA: And they wouldn’t work.
AMR: Yeah. People still victim-blaming even when you call someone out, so I just don’t see an alternative. As I’m saying, maybe in lots of years when this power imbalance, when this situation gets better, yeah that would be an appropriate thing but in the current situation, we have no other alternatives.
CORALINE: I famously give into a lot of Twitter battles with some prominent people in our industry, in particular Robert Martin — Bob Martin — and I don’t feel bad about calling him out first of all because he deserves it, repeatedly.
CHRISTINA: You teach me your —
CORALINE: But the main reason I call him out as opposed to working with him on a one-on-one basis to understand his mistakes is that he has such a tremendous platform. He has tens of thousands of followers and when I call him out, it’s not for him. It’s for them. I want to show them that this person that they’re idolizing is in fact, very problematic. I don’t have the power to get to him to change their mind but maybe, one of them does.
CHRISTINA: I love that, actually. I love that perspective. Yup, I get it. Thank you for sharing that.
AMR: That’s really, especially working with celebrities and people who have lots of followers. You have no other options. You have to make use of this platform and we have no other alternatives. You just need to think about it this way.
JOHN: At the end of the show, we like to talk about what are our reflections and these are little things that we’re going to takeaway and think about further or really, new ideas that really interested us. For me is the metaphor of sexism and racism and cultural baggage being like a C code. I think the metaphor fits so perfectly because it’s something that was created by people before me but that is affecting the way my life executes, the way my behaviors manifest and the impacts that I’m having. Thinking about it that way is something that you work against it, that you make improvements to, that it’s probably impossible to throw out the whole thing and build a new culture up from scratch, so we just have to do things in our daily releases that make changes so these things get better and better over time. I really like that.
CHRISTINA: I’m with you on that one. I love that. I’m going to have to replay that one back so that I can make write it down and put it on a sticky on my wall. Another thing that resonated was Amr was saying, just listen and learn. We have opinions, we want to try to understand and we failed to listen. That was a big takeaway for me but another big takeaway was just pushing organizations to contribute to bigger things but making sure that they understand why they’re doing it and not doing it blindly. That was two of many takeaways.
CORALINE: One of the phrases that used a few times, Amr really intrigues me. You said a few times that we’re in an unnatural state. I’ve never considered the fact that the power imbalances and this systems of oppression that we deal with on a daily basis are not natural. I think that’s a great reminder that this is a construct, this is something that we built up over time and this is a consequence of decisions that have been made over the past thousands of years but it’s not a natural state. It’s not the way things have to be.
We can return to a more natural state with being thoughtful and using our power and using our influence and trying to make a change. I really love that idea that that is a unnatural state, that a [inaudible] is the natural state and we need to return to that.
AMR: When I try to wrap up my thoughts, I always have this thing that comes up to my mind, which is there’s a common narrative with people of privilege when they say, “Why do we need to discuss these things that much? Why don’t we just be nice to each other?” or things like, “I’m so sick of talking about politics,” or, “I am so sick about these topics of diversity and privilege.”
I think it’s very important for me to make this very bold, that the ability to have a politics-free life is a privilege on its own. Your ability as a person of privilege to not care about things is a privilege. I’m a person that as I mentioned before, I come from a failed revolution where a thousands of people are arrested and thousands of people are dead. As many of my friends as a quite young person — I am still in my 20s, even — I haven’t thought through these experiences and my safety is really on stake, so when I fight about these things, I don’t do it because I want to do it. I actually want to party and have fun as the rest of my generation. I do it because that is the only way to survive.
CORALINE: Amr, it was a privilege to meet you last year and I hope we get to spend more time together. I’m looking for next year in Berlin, so if you can help me out with that, that would be wonderful. It is also been a privilege to speak to you today and get your perspective. You are an amazing person and I’ll look forward to seeing what you do next. Thank you so much for joining us today.