I am starting this blog post as one of those exercises in writing what you’re thinking/feeling so that it doesn’t eat you alive, and then maybe publishing the post if it doesn’t suck. So if you’re reading this, it’s because I thought it didn’t suck. Don’t attack, and don’t think that I think you should feel the same way I do. Unfortunately, since this is on the internet, people are going to be reading this who don’t know me at all. I recognize that, and so should you. You don’t have any context for what I’m about to write and I am probably not going to give you much. Such is the way.
This isn’t about being female. This isn’t about being brown. This isn’t about you. This is about challenging perception and not accepting anything without thought. [1. This is an exercise in cubism in writing.]
I hate getting comments about being female/Asian/whatever. I try to joke about the obvious bits of who I am so I don’t settle into some self-made feedback loop of sensitivity, but I really hate hearing about it, especially from strangers. It’s obvious that I am physically a(n Asian) female. It’s obvious that I like to be pretty.[1. I refused to wear a unisex t-shirt in public, even at the behest of my boss. I am a dresses/nice pants and heels kind of person.] It’s maybe-obvious that I like being a girl. What’s not obvious is that I am not particularly feminine. What’s not obvious is that I have a slightly Southern accent and a serious case of pottymouth. What’s not obvious is that I grew up with a single dad. What’s not obvious is that I am a developer, and you know what, a damn good one. And you know what else? It’s okay that it’s not obvious. But it’s not okay for you to be surprised when you find out.
This is something that comes up almost every time I end up in a discussion about race or gender with somebody who is different from me (also known as everybody). People are not always going to be like you. If you let that be surprising or sad or some other feeling besides maybe “interesting” every single time, you are wasting your energy. Let people be who they are: always learn from it, maybe accept it (quietly), and move on.
I don’t mind stereotypes, and in fact, I actually find them rather useful as background, in-your-head information. I might not offer a Jewish friend a bacon chocolate bar, and instead try to find out some other way whether or not they keep Kosher (or just straight up ask, because I am more often like that). I’d think twice before inviting a Hindu friend to a steak fest. What I am definitely not going to do is make some ridiculous microaggressive comment like “it’s so sad that you don’t do Christmas!” or “ugh, you just don’t know what you’re missing out on!” [1. Check out this American Psychologist article on microaggression.] And if you think that never happens, you need to meet some more people.
I also hate affirmative action. I’ll start with a disclaimer that yes, I know that as an Asian, I am also sometimes the recipient of reverse affirmative action (contradictory action?) and thus am more prone to being skeptical, but I can also say that I speak on behalf of my Costa Rican husband.[1. I’ll also say that I am wandering dangerously close to political ground and we should be clear: I do not do politics. It is an informed decision I have made to observe but not participate for now. This includes voting. Absolutely do not comment on this. I will hate you.] Here’s the thing about being brown and/or a woman and being in a system that involves affirmative action: it ends up belittling your true accomplishments. Are you ever really going to be able to shake the curiosity about whether or not you are in your current position because of something that you aren’t in control of nor worked to achieve? Are other people going to be wondering the same thing? And how many people really are curious about these things versus how many are content to just have more, no matter the circumstance? Complacency is suicide, but it’s unfortunately common.
This past weekend, I gave my first ever solo talk on WordPress development, with just a hint of UI love. I’ve taught classes on web/digital media and talk to/perform in front of lots of people all the time, but this was my first ever “stand up in front of a room of geeks and go”. It was awesome. I think I kicked ass. My code got the once-over and blessings of some developers that I and many others respect very, very much. And you know one of the comments I got over and over? “It’s amazing/surprising/something-allegedly-positive-but-expressing-a-contradiction-to-perception to see a female developer.” [1. Want to see my slides?]
That’s not a helpful comment. I am going to be an adult and realize that you meant it as a compliment, but it really isn’t, and I want you to be aware of that. I heard this line from plenty of ladies, not just men, and in terms of percentages, maybe even more women than men. This is not the way, people. This shouldn’t be surprising to you. It can be inspiring, it can be nice to see someone like you, but it absolutely should not be a surprise. Female developers are definitely a minority. I think this is fine – men and women are often wired differently; whether that’s nature or nurture or both is your own opinion. I’m okay with being a minority, because facts are facts. But you know what I’m not okay with being? An anomaly. To me, anomaly is a word with negative connotations, whereas the word minority often implies fact. Here’s how I see it:
Fact: There are fewer women in development roles.
Not fact: Women developers are a strange sight to behold.
See the difference? I hope so. This is where things toe a fine line. Where it becomes difficult or impossible to maintain a delicate balance.
I know that I am often reluctant to do certain things because of the reactions it will generate and I will have to endure due to my race, gender, age, or some other non-controllable factor. I fully believe that if I feel this way, then so do others.[1. “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.”] This reaction and anticipation of it is where I think the problem lies.
In the case of women in technology, we are often made to feel as though we are strange; an alien up for display and gawking. People want us to put on some sideshow talk about how we feel as women in technology rather than just technology itself. So how do we dispel this feeling of not really being totally accepted and welcome? Why, we make attempts to include women in public events, of course! How else to show everybody that women do exist but to have solid, tangible evidence? [1. If you can guess what else I feel this same way about, +1.] But that’s just the problem. In pursuing equal representation (and by equal, I mean proportionate), we end up making an issue out of something that shouldn’t be an issue. It’s just impossible to ignore it, even if in an ideal world, we wouldn’t think twice.
Encourage women to step up and go for it, but recognize that it’s not about forcing the issue. Let’s stop being afraid or wary. Let’s find a polite way to let people know that pointing out our gender or color or whatever as a defining/surprising factor is a discouragement, not encouragement. I’d tell fellow females to “man up”, but this is exactly the wrong context for that phrase. It’s also exactly what my non-PC ass wants to say to get your attention.
If you can recognize the fact that women exist in whatever industry it may be, as we always do, then you should recognize the importance of having some kind of representation at public events. It can be just one, seriously kick ass, member of that population. It doesn’t have to be half men, half women; half brown, half white. It probably shouldn’t be. But whining that things should “only” be based on qualifications actually makes you sound like you don’t believe that a member of “the other” could possibly rise above the qualifications of your own, even if you didn’t mean it that way. Of course, this is now all a contradiction, right? Here I am, making assumptions about what you subconsciously meant while telling you not to make assumptions about me. (Nothing is easy.)
This is all okay. That’s what I want you to know. Everything is okay, because everything is as it is. The lack of black and white, the misery of humans, the accomplishments of the mind. Your only task is to achieve what you want to achieve. Just don’t ever be surprised by what you might discover on your way.