So, the world has a fair few shitty people. And somehow, there still exist some idealists out there who believe that the best way to change shitty people is to confront them directly and explain to them their shittiness.
We know how this goes. Call someone a racist, and they will double-down on their behavior and turn it around on you for calling them a slur. Point out patterns of behavior among a privileged group and you’ll be accused of stereotyping them and be called a racist or sexist yourself.
So, if you learn nothing else from this essay: don’t expect anything good to happen if you call people out for being complicit.
In an earlier essay, I used the metaphor of cats drowning in a river to describe the experiences of minorities in tech. I’ve been called complicit before (usually and most painfully by some drowning cats I was trying to save). I was complicit. I still am. We all are. Because complicity is ultimately about the stories we tell ourselves, and those stories are never as true as they could be.
We like to imagine that those who are complicit in the experiences of minorities (bullying, bias, discrimination and harassment) are separated from us by a great distance and a clean moral line. The narrative goes: We’re trying our hardest to save the cats, but they’re standing out there drowning cats. We tell stories about them: They’re dog-people. They’re letting the guardrails that keep cats safe fall into disrepair because they claim “railings are for pussies.” (Ha! Cat puns!)
But the system is complex, and these narratives are too simplistic. So, let’s go into the many-faceted forms of complicity, but with a lens to understand why the person is complicit. Confronting the why tends to go better than confronting the person.
Some forms of Complicity
What they say: “<Minority> these days are so entitled. You don’t understand how bad things could be / used to be.”
Why they say it: They’ve come up against far greater barriers than this to clear the path for you. They’re probably a minority themselves but in a leadership position, e.g. VP or CFO or head of HR. They can’t understand why you’re whining about being interrupted in meetings.
How you break it: Give them the gratitude they so clearly want. Recognize that they’re breaking the ceiling and acknowledge that you’re just trying to raise the floor. Don’t let yourself get caught up in the generational battle.
What they say: “I’ve been called a lot of things, but how dare you say that I’m racist / sexist / complicit? After everything I’ve done for the <minority> community. I have so many <minority> friends who can vouch for me.”
Why they say it: They’re terrified of being on the wrong side of the moral line, especially since this is a fight they want to be in. They want to be on your side, and what’s really being threatened is their relationship with you.
How you break it: Think about the outcome you want. If it’s public shaming, that makes you complicit in the defensive reaction. If it’s actually a change of behavior, use your relationship with them to bring them around, but slowly, privately and with patience and compassion. Make sure they know you’re still their friend.
What they say: “That stuff doesn’t happen here.”
Why they say it: They love the institution they are a part of, whether it’s a team, a company, a university or a country. When you bring up an issue, their relationship with that institution becomes complex, which threatens their sense of self and security.
How you break it: Those who know me IRL know that I found a creative (but rather exhausting) way of making institutional problems visible and undeniable. But the real key here is to make it clear that you’re not raising these issues to harm the institution’s brand. Presumably you’re doing this to get these issues fixed, not because you have an axe to grind. If so, give this person a chance to come out on top of the narrative by being the person who learned about and fixed the issue quickly.
What they say: “But we’ve always done it this way.”
Why they say it:
How you break it: This one is hard. Very often, when you encounter this reaction, the person feels helpless to effect systemic change. Either they don’t control the decision, or there are too many stakeholders who’d need convincing, and the prospect of swimming against the current feels too exhausting. But can you show them a better way that feels doable? Does it get easier if you can rally a group together? Minimizing the effort needed helps bring these folks along and end their complicity.
What they say: “Why isn’t [HR/the government] doing anything about this?”
Why they say it: The problem feels terrible and overwhelming, and they want to offload the burden of guilt. After all, HR is an entire function dedicated to solving people issues, no? No. HR in any institution is usually outnumbered at least 10:1, and legally speaking they advise the leaders of an institution, but those leaders may reject that advice, e.g. to pay off their sexually-harassing buddies. The idea that fixing a systemic problem requires everyone, in every function to bear some responsibility can feel overwhelming.
How you break it: The struggle for justice has gone on thousands of years. All we can do is make things… better, not perfect. BTW if you really believe that fixing these issues is the sole remit of these particular jobs, you’d better be in that job yourself before you start throwing stones.
What they say: “Well, at least we’re better than [Uber / Facebook / Stanford…]”
Why they say it: The alternative would be to question whether they should really continue to be at a place where whatever issue you’re facing has just happened. What’s at threat is their values.
How you break it: You can’t break this one for them unless you break it for yourself. You have to decide whether you can continue to do good and swim against the current and eventually end up with enough power to drive change, or if you need to leave for your own mental health, and knowing that whoever takes your place will likely not share your values. Once you’ve made that decision, have a frank conversation about how you arrived at it with the person… they might make the same choice.
What they say: “Fixing this is above my paygrade.”
Why they say it: They’re overwhelmed, possibly from life things that have nothing to do with you or your situation.
How you break it: Empathy is key here to understand what’s going on for them, and what their motivations are. Another tactic could be inspiring them with stories of people far more junior who have succeeded in making similar changes.
What they say: “Looking at race is too hard. Let’s focus on women!”
Why they say it: For the first time, it looks as if there might be change! They’ve got a tiny soapbox from which to lead it! But all eyes are on them, and so they know they need a win, and soon, or they’ll be shut down. So they’re leaning into a space that’s easier to access, where sufficient ground has already been broken, so they can do some good without missteps.
How you break it: Sorry, but much as you might want to teach them about intersectionality and the racist history of the Suffragette movement, this isn’t the time. Also, if you call them out they’ll get defensive. Consider your organization’s maturity. Is it groundbreaking for them to even be thinking of women’s equality? If so, metaphorically speaking, your organization is currently an F student trying to achieve a passing grade and criticizing it for not getting a B is not going to get you anywhere. Go work at a different place that isn’t getting an F.
What they say: “I don’t have time to read all the books on this list. Just give me the summary and tell me where to donate.”
Why they say it: Fundamentally, they are doing this only because they feel compelled, either out of moral guilt or peer pressure. They share your values superficially, but haven’t given much thought to what those values mean for their actions.
How you break it: Do you really need to? Take their money and run. Some people take years to get on the journey, and others never get there. I’m still working through my own version of this, where I simply don’t have the time to get involved in every issue, so I just budget my money to speak for me. That said, you can create an easy, short summary to bring newbies on board.
What they say: “We can’t make progress until we have more data on the problem.”
Why they say it: They’re afraid of making the wrong change. With systemic problems, you may accidentally set off chain reactions.
How you break it: Sit with them to understand what they’re afraid of. What’s the worst that could happen? Is that worse than doing nothing at all? What decisions would you make depending on the data? In the absence of the data, can you hypothesize how each of the potential alternatives affect all stakeholders in the system? If you’re not willing to do that work, you yourself are complicit with your impatience.
In each of the cases above, breaking a complicity narrative involves swimming upstream, much like salmon do. Science journals describe salmon as having a bleak life. They swim upstream all their lives, and if they make it home, they procreate and die. Minorities in tech are like salmon; we swim upstream our entire careers, and if we finally make it to the top ranks we retire or die. Right?
So far we’ve talked about their narratives of complicity. What about ours? I wanted time for self-reflection, to identify my own complicity narratives and counter them. I still have a few to go.
What we say: “It’s not that bad.”
Whether we’re talking about something we’re doing that we really should stop, or something that’s happening to us that we don’t want to deal with, this is our most common form of complicity. I told myself this for years about various things: about the state of women in computing, about the tech industry and the publishing industry and what they were each asking of me, about my owning crypto despite the environmental impact. And in at least two friends’ cases it took becoming physically ill before they realized the way they were living and working was not sustainable. We tell ourselves this because the alternative is struggle, the great swim upstream, and we’d rather not do it.
What we say: “I’m so tired of <privileged people>. They just don’t get it, and the worst is when they try to restore the peace and think they’ve fixed the issue with some townhall and a non-apology.”
We need to realize that salmon don’t swim upstream alone. We have greater protection in numbers, and some of us are better protected than others. For all that certain groups of people never seem to face consequences for bad behavior, those are exactly the groups of people you want protecting you as you swim. I’m not talking about using them as a hostage-shield, but finding enough common ground with them that your friendship runs just that deep that they’d take the bullet for you.
What we tell ourselves: “I need to tell this person that what they just did was racist.”
Why we’re doing it: We’re hurt, and we want to put the hurt on the person that caused it. I mean, I get it. I have my own share of righteous anger that occasionally makes me wish we still lived in the times when wronged women washed their hair in the blood of their enemies, but. You’re just going to get yourself fired, harassed, or at least pigeon-holed as overly emotional.
What we tell everyone who’ll listen: “Things are never going to change.”
Why we’re doing it: One of my favorite essays is Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. We’re conditioned (through Western storytelling) to believe in endings that make sense. Moreover, publishers tend to require that certain genres of stories, particularly middle-grade and YA, should have if not happy, at least hopeful endings. But all this optimism does fuck all to condition us for the endless unreasonableness of the universe.
So what do we do, when narratives fail to make sense? When those who should be punished walk free, and more and more cats drown in the river despite all our screams? We can give in to despair, but that makes us complicit in leaving the shitty world for the next generation to inherit. Or we can acknowledge that this fight will not be won, at least not in our lifetime, and choose to keep fighting anyway, because the struggle itself brings us meaning and even joy.
“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” — Albert Camus.