Don’t be a Jerk: Responding to Ally Criticism

You are racist.  You are sexist. You are homophobic.

Now stop.  Analyze your response to my words.  Is your heart racing?  Do you feel tense, ready to fight?  Are you already in my comment section, blasting off a response about how you have plenty of black/gay/disabled/women friends and of course you don’t stereotype?  Are you ready to find holes in my argument and punch right through them?

If you want to be a true ally, you need to realize that this type of response is happening.  When someone questions you, or calls you biased, you immediately have physical and mental urges to defend yourself, to fight and stick up for yourself. This immediate defensive response is not conducive to having a well-reasoned discussion about whether you actually have a bias.  You are likely to shout at your ally, find excuses, and otherwise alienate them.  If you truly care about your allies, you need to learn how to suppress that response.

Yep, I’m Racist

I’m not proud of this response. In my heart, yes, I know I was being racist.  Even as I knew I was being racist, my immediate response was to push down those feelings and reach for an excuse, a hole in an ally’s accusations.  I know I wouldn’t ever say, “There’s some white dude yelling at the MAX operator.”  I would have said, “There’s someone yelling at the MAX operator” because my cultural experiences have taught me that white male is the default.

I grew up in a small town without any people of color in my school.  I have a bias towards white people.  I can say and do racist things without realizing it.  I need allies to be able to call me on it, so I can improve my language and actions.  Biting their heads off when they tell me I have a bias isn’t helpful.

How to Respond to Ally Criticism

At Open Source Bridge, Kronda gave a talk called “Expanding Your Empathy”.  She mentioned that in school, you’re taught that when you’re on fire, you “Stop, drop, and roll.”  The teachers drill this into you, over and over again, because when you’re in fire, *you’re on fire* and you panic.  Drilling in a simple mantra over and over helps you get past the panic response and put out the fire.

Kronda proposed drilling a mantra into your head for when you’re accused of being biased:

  1. Stop.
  2. Listen.
  3. Apologize.

Stop.  Take your hands off the keyboard.  Take a walk and come back to this thread.  Close your mouth, focus on the person’s face, and

Listen.  Focus on the person in front of you, their face, their emotions, their opinions. Read through the thread again with an open mind. Are there terms, vocab you’re not understanding, like “mansplaining” or “ablist”?  Perhaps you should read about those and come back later.  The key here is to focus on understanding your ally, not talking.

Apologize. This needs to be a sincere apology.  None of this, “I’m sorry I sounded like a jerk”, or “I’m sorry you misinterpreted my words.”  Don’t add a “but” after I’m sorry.  Just say, “I’m sorry”, shut up, and let your ally talk.

Responding to Allies in Practice

I recently got called out by an ally at work.  I wrote a fast email to a woman with suggestions on how to improve her resume, and I pointed her to this article on how gendered language can creep into job postings and applications.  I told her that it would be adventitious to use more decisive, male gendered language in her resume, because it was likely that the hiring manager would be male and would discard her resume if she used the more community-oriented language.

My male co-worker very quietly approached me and said, “I know you wrote that email fast, and you probably didn’t mean it that way, but I just want to let you know that all males wouldn’t immediately discard her resume.  I read through it, and I didn’t respond that way.”

My immediate response was to wave at him and say, “Yeah, yeah, I’m sorry, I sent that email off really fast.  I didn’t mean it that way.”  Then I realized how dismissive that actually was, and I shut up and just listened to him.  I needed to listen to an ally that was saying, “You came off as saying all men would discriminate.”  I let him talk, I listened to his opinions, and I apologized. As I was walking away, I remembered to say, “Thanks for calling me on that.”

It’s really important to listen when your allies tell you about your biases, and treat them in such a way that they will call you out in the future.  We all need to improve, and we all need to keep an open mind.

A Simple Mantra

Remember, when an ally calls you out for being biased:

  1. Stop.
  2. Listen.
  3. Apologize.

28 thoughts on “Don’t be a Jerk: Responding to Ally Criticism

  1. Good article… definitely one that makes me think a bit. It leads to a followup question in my head: is it possible to use terms that identify a minority group or protected class as a descriptor in a negative situation without inviting claims of prejudice?

    In your example above, you described the problematic person as black and got accused of being racist. I can imagine other examples where one might use an adjective describing someone that also identifies a minority group… a person who uses a wheelchair, or a specific religion that can be identified (such as the wearing of a yarmulke)…

    Has sensitivity to potential prejudice removed a set of adjectives that can be used to describe someone?

    • The question there is *why* you needed to bring someone’s [adjective] into the conversation. In my case, I got called out for being especially afraid of a black man yelling at someone, which was true. I wouldn’t have felt quite as uncomfortable if it had been a white man yelling. When you chose to use [adjective for a minority] in a description, you have to think about why you’re using it.

    • A set of adjectives that are irrelevant with the case in point should never have a place in an event’s “description”, regardless of how the other person will “potentially” (mis)interpret them.

  2. Its often true that they are right and you don’t immediately realise it. You’re completely right. Stop. Listen.

    But I’m not really sure about an *unconditional* “Apologize” being the third step.

    I think you should at least account for the *possibility* that someone has wantonly misinterpreted or misread what you actually said — not that I’m suggesting that your example above is one of these cases, but it *does* happen. A false apology doesn’t help; it just encourages the malicious complainant.

    FWIW I had a similarly pasty upbringing, and I’m *so* reticent about it that if I’m trying to refer to a single individual who happens to be the only black person in the room, despite that being the obvious and clear characteristic that distinguishes them, I’ll fish around for *any* adjective other than ‘black’ to describe them. That can’t be normal either :)

      • I’m not sure why you say that, Sarah, but I don’t want to argue. All I was saying was that there exists a *possibility* that a complaint might not be valid, and that to base our mantra on the apparent assumption that *100%* of complaints are valid and warrant an apology might not be entirely correct.

        Note that we’re not talking about a specific example here, or even attributing numbers like “N% of complaints are invalid”. All I was saying was that there was a non-zero chance — that there is a *possibility* that apologising isn’t the right thing to do.

        Do you disagree with that?

        • It takes a lot of courage for a person not in a cultural position of power (e.g. women, LGBTQ, racial minorities, disabled people) to call out someone in a position of power.

          The default response to that should be self-introspection, empathy with the person, and an apology.

          Your default response to minorities speaking up and questioning people in power seems to be “you misunderstood what the person said, please study these English reading comprehension exercises” or “your opinion is simply wrong.” You continue to dismiss, belittle, and marginalize people’s opinions other than your own on cultural issues.

          I have watched this pattern continue through several interactions with me, and with other minorities in the open source community, especially women. I have never seen you apologize or empathize with anyone questioning the cultural status quo. When someone says, “I find this offensive as an X minority” and you disagree, I have watched you attempt to invalidate their experiences, and I have never seen you change your stance or back down.

          If you’re not open to change on a _personal level_, if you cannot empathize with other people, if you continue to demean people’s opinions when they differ from your own, why in the world would I want to work with you on a _technical level_?

          To be clear, I’m telling you, based on your behavior, that I do not want to collaborate with you on any open source project. Go do your thing, I’ll do mine, but I don’t want to work with you.

          • Sarah, I have the utmost respect for you and I am very sad to hear that you would not want to work with me. If I have ever done anything to cause you personal offence, or give you any reason to believe that I would not be a good person to work with on a technical level, then I most sincerely apologise. That has never been my intention.

            It is precisely *because* I have such respect for you that I have previously felt safe to talk to you about such matters. I know that you are a rational and logical and intelligent person, and that’s why I find your views interesting — especially when you reach different conclusions to the ones I have reached for myself.

            There are plenty of people out there on the Internet with whom I sometimes disagree, but I don’t care about most of them. It’s only when I find myself disagreeing (even only slightly as in this case) with those whom I respect and trust, like yourself, that I find it interesting. Exploring those differences is where we learn and grow.

            The interesting part, for me, is not so much in the detail of the different conclusions that we come to, but more about the *reasons* we got there. If we are both being logical, then what must be different is the *axioms* we started from, or perhaps some of the more subjective decisions made along the way. And that’s the interesting part which I thought we could discuss in a friendly manner..

            I often find it useful, when trying to understand how views diverge, to start by eliminating the facts that we *can* agree on (such as my observation “a non-zero percentage…”) and then by a process of elimination we can come to understand the reasons for the *differences*. I’m sorry if you find that disturbing or combative; it certainly wasn’t meant to be.

            You are quite correct to observe that where I have joined a discussion on certain topics, I have often raised a similar point. But it would be dangerous to infer that I *always* disagree with the complainant. In the majority of cases, where someone does something stupidly offensive and is called out on it, I don’t feel the need to say *anything*. If you are inferring my views in the general case from my comments on a few specific cases that I’ve actually commented on, then you are suffering what’s known as “selection bias”, and may have drawn an incorrect conclusion.

            As I said in my original post, you are completely right about the “Stop. Listen.” part. But, in my opinion, only *mostly* right about the “Apologise” part. (I think “often true” was the phrase I used to describe it, in my very first sentence of my very first post here).

            I agree wholeheartedly with most of what you said. I’ll take away a version which is slightly different: “Stop. Listen. Think.”. And if the right thing to do *then* is apologise, then hopefully stopping and listening and thinking will have led me to come to that conclusion. Apologising is a fine “default response”, as you put it.

            But to me, a “mantra” implies more than that — it’s something to be followed at all times, automatically, *without* really thinking. Or perhaps there lies the entirety of our disagreement. Do we *only* disagree about what a ‘mantra’ means? (I’m speaking about this particular context, right now, of course. I’m sure there’s plenty of other things we disagree about which are not strictly relevant to this post.)

            Let me make it clear here, in case I have failed to do so before: the cultural status quo sucks. People do all kinds of bizarre and creepy and obnoxious and weird and intimidating and scary stuff, and it sucks to be a member of a minority group who gets picked on. There is a problem, and it needs to be solved. If I have ever personally been part of the problem, then please tell me. I will stop, listen and think. And I’ll probably apologise.

            If I’ve ever given the impression that I support you less than 99.999% in all that you say and do and think in this area, then I apologise. That was a miscommunication on my part. I tend to shut up when I agree, and only say something when I have something to say. Please don’t take that the wrong way.

            Perhaps this is an awkward medium for this conversation, and it would better over a beer.

            • Thank you for the apology and the explanation, Dave. You are right that threads on a blog aren’t a good medium of communication for this. I suspect a “beer opportunity” won’t happen until LinuxCon Europe, so I’ll take this conversation to email for now.

            • I think part of what you are missing here, david, is the understanding that you are not always able to tell if you are biased or not, if what you have said sits in a blind spot of privelege. How is one to tell? By subverting the internal knee-jerk response to protect oneself, to assert the correctness of one’s own point of view or behavior.

              Additionally, are you familiar with the concept of ‘triggering’? Someone who has been subject to discrimination their whole life because of is more likely to respond strongly to small slights, insults, or subtle language around . Having spent their whole lives immersed in the practice of being on the receiving end of bias, typically people in those identity groups are more skilled and knowledgeable about noting the biases when they occur.

              As a person allied with group, I know things that are valid etc, but by protecting my own points of view I explicitly value my own perception of the interaction over theirs. The entire point of allying is to acknowledge that ones own point of view is incomplete, and grows out of a privleged position in a flawed society.

              For this to work, those who have offended must be open to critique, and must acknowledge that their privelege is the precise location of their blind spots.

  3. Nicely done Sarah. Agitate, relate, explain. It worked well. Self reflection is hard for any of us. I often question my own responses and grudgingly have to admit that I have biases. I don’t like that I have them, but I do, so the best I can do is acknowledge them and try to not allow them to unduly influence my actions.

    That said, I believe Aaron has a valid point about “bad adjectives”. As a society we have allowed these terms to become inflammatory, and I think we should resist that as well.

  4. Good read. It is a natural reaction to defend and it takes all sorts of willpower to fight that reaction. Back around 1982 I was in an online conversation at a local BBS (an old fashioned message board for you young’uns :) ). One of the participants to the conversation said something like, “F* you, Kwan.” My immediate reaction was shock and anger, until someone who was sitting next to him told me later that he was very thankful for my comment (it was well-known algebraic solution to an ancient paradox). In fact, he considered me a good friend even though we’d only ever conversed through that BBS. Because I was considered to be a friend, he ignored the niceties and politeness that he reserved for strangers and people he didn’t feel comfortable around.

    Anyhoo, I don’t know where this reaction to defend arises. Maybe it’s cultural. We’re told to argue our point, defend our position, be more clever than others because we’re competing. When someone points out a weakness, we are quick to say it ain’t so rather than offer thanks for pointing it out.

  5. IMHO someone who reacts the way your accuser did is not an ally. “I’m curious why you thought the man’s race was relevant?” would have been the kind of thing I would (I hope) have said, and I likely would have said it privately rather than in a public forum like Twitter. “#snowflake”? Really?

    Anyone who knows you knows full well that you are not any kind of actual bigot, and anyone who cares about you wants to work with you in a healing, rather than hurtful, way.

    I totally agree with the prescription for handling situations like this, but I really genuinely worry that a consequence of our sensitivity to our own failings is to offer aid and comfort to jackasses.

    In fact, I think I might add an optional fourth step: “Correct”. Once you have genuinely apologized, and an inappropriate attacker has finished venting, point out politely and lovingly that an emotional attack was not helpful and might have produced an undesired response in someone less balanced than yourself. Suggest more appropriate ways they might discuss such things with you and others in the future.

    • Allies also get caught up in the moment, and sometimes call you names back. It doesn’t make their opinion of your bias any less relevant. The important point is to be the bigger person, and acknowledge their criticism in a respectful manner.

      You don’t have to comfort “jerks” who tell you you’re wrong in an impolite manner. However, you do owe it to them to seek the grain of truth in their words.

      • Totally agree. However, I think it’s also important to understand that there are people out there who deliberately want to hurt you, and that some of them pretend to be allies. One way to tell the difference is to give an attacker helpful guidance on being less hurtful, and then noting whether it gets followed. One can learn a lot from hurtful people (hey, is that villain monologuing *again*?), but it’s easier to process their behavior if you understand their motives.

  6. I think the important things I’m realizing here are: 1) everyone has biases – many of these are societally trained (ex: white adult males of middle class are nominal, everyone else is treated with adjectives), and it is a natural result of our main sensory filters present in our limbic system, which gets first crack at them but is a very memory, emotion, and simple story part of our brain. 2) everyone has needs… the speaker, the listener. It’s very hard to think of anyone’s needs but our own, or ways to meet those needs other than the simplest most direct way, if we let ourselves get carried away in reaction. To stay in the place of connection to both our own and other people’s needs, requires a practice of keeping one foot in the reactionary story, and one foot in awareness, openness, curious search for the common ground we share with others. 3) Less is usually more, and keeps us from spraying our reactivity and stories on other people, which is rarely appreciated.

  7. Well played. Owning up to that is difficult, but that’s the kind of step that makes the world a better place. As you state so eloquently, the important thing to think about is whether you would feel the need to delineate a person’s race/gender if it were yours or the dominant majority. Replace “Black/Asian/Whatever” with “White” and see if you’d still feel the need to define it. Possibly so, but probably not.

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  9. I sometimes struggle with this kind of thing. I think we all do whether you’re black or white. In your particular case, it’s true that bringing up the race does imply some kind of racism. I’ve always tried to make sure that I don’t use race as an identifier if it is not necessary. But I will use race or skin color if I want to immediately have people identify a person. If you have one black guy and several white guy, and the black guy is doing something interesting, I’m going to use ‘black guy’. The reason is that it’s just easier to say that. I would say the same for indian, latino and asian and white if it’s a white guy amongst non-whites. I think using race in this context is perfectly normal and acceptable.

    But it does take work to train yourself to not use race when it’s not a necessary detail. Mostly because, you don’t really want to bring in unintended biases causing the reaction to go off kilter.

    I find that I’m somewhat racist in some things, but I have a strong sense of social justice that counteracts my racism. Black men don’t make it easy either, they wear a shell around them and on some level communicates their own unease to you. I did a social experience in college where I found a guy I liked and made it a point to say hello to him every time I saw him. He was a black male who also had a shell around him. Once I broke through that shell, warmest guy ever. I see that less and less now, so perhaps we’re getting somewhere. I’ve hung out at black fraternities, asked a bunch of questions about how things work there. It was fun. It helps that I’m dark skinned myself, I suppose. But I don’t know for a moment know what they go through in their lives. But conversation helps and it reduces your own racism.

    What I really need to work on is learning how not to be a snob. ;)

    • It’s very interesting to live with Jamey, because he is face-blind. He can remember gender, but he can’t remember how tall someone was, whether they had a giant beard, or were wearing a hat. He often can’t remember race either, to the point that he says, “I think he was black?” without any confidence in his voice.

      I’ve learned to describe things about the person, their hobbies, who they work for. It’s kind of refreshing. Try it some time.

  10. Some really interesting points. On the other hand, I think we can be too quick to apologize, and leave it at that. To take the example of your resume advice, and your co-worker: He is right. Most men would probably not consciously discriminate. And, quite a few men would not even have a negative reaction to the language you pointed up. But the simple fact is that MOST men DO have that bias. It’s not that they see the language and this”Oh, woman, no good”. It’s that they see the language and they think “This one doesn’t quite cut it” possibly without ever realizing that it’s a woman’s resume. (there have been a number of studies that bear this out, by the way. There are also studies that show that the SAME actions and language is perceived differently when it’s “attached” to a man or woman.)

    In short, your co-worker was NOT right, or at least not entirely.

    Ask yourself this – Should you NOT have advised this young woman to change her language? You know that it’s a barrier. Not every male will react this way, but a very significant percentage will. Are you supposed to ignore that and encourage her to do so?

    Of course, telling him that he’s a jerk isn’t the answer. For one thing, it’s utterly ineffective, at best, and highly destructive, at worst. It’s also stupid. You can be wrong without being a jerk – or for that matter being racist, misogynistic, homophobic, sexist or whatever-ist. And, it’s high time that we started recognizing this. Even if you have to call someone out, it helps to recognize and acknowledge that being wrong doesn’t necessarily indicate a broad spectrum flaw.

    • I don’t regret telling the woman she should change her language on her resume. It’s a bias she needs to be aware of. I do regret using sweeping generalizations in the email to her that imply all men would discriminate.

      I agree that there needs to be a step after apologize. You need to take the response and do some self-introspection, and make a change. In my case, I’m going to make sure I check my language and email for “all men are X” statements. However, the three easy steps are just to get you through the initial “I’m on fire” defensive phase.

      • I hear what you are saying. My point, though, is that perhaps an unconditional apology may not be the most or only valid response. Of course, if often is, and it’s definitely important to be open to that. But sometimes, not so much.

        To pick up on this example again (not to belabor the point, but to avoid having to go into lengthy descriptions):

        Absolutely apologize for the broad brush language you used. On the other hand, make sure that that is the only issue you are apologizing for.

        This kind of thing is important. It’s too easy for issues to get swept aside this way.

      • After I posted my first reply, I went to give a look at the link to “Tone argument.” And, in a way that entry encapsulates much of my thinking on the matter. On the one hand, I do believe the tone actually does matter in many cases – “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” is a valid point. On the other hand it’s all too true that tone arguments – focus on the tone of the statement – is frequently used to deflect discussion of the more fundamental issue.

        By the same token, it is absolutely inappropriate and unwise to address issues with broad brush statements that tar all members of a group in accurately, and therefore unfairly. On the other hand, it’s important not to allow the discussion be side tracked by a focus on over-broad statements. This kind of sometimes happens with people who claim to be allies, with people who are only allies in some aspects and not in others, and sometimes even with genuine allies. In all cases, it’s worthwhile to acknowledge the error and try to correct it, at least going forward.But in no case should one allow the conversation to be side-tracked – or the scope or severity of the fundamental problem be minimized because of the mis-statement.

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