I got an email from a reader a few months ago. My reply got a little long and off-topic to what the reader had asked about. So I'm posting here and will email a copy to the reader too. The actual question is, I think, easy enough to guess and not terribly necessary to understand my response.
Thank you for responding to my blog post. In many ways I write for myself and it's always a bit surprising when what I say resonates with someone else. Why I left Stack Overflow might be an exception. I specifically wrote it to let the community know what was happening with me and to serve as a companion to my post on Meta Stack Exchange. I felt more free to say certain things on my own platform. I also wanted to influence the direction of the company with my departure. In my view the executives running Stack Overflow failed the company, the community and their own investors. My hope was that I would be able to say things in a way that would challenge assumptions without being so harsh as to turn people off from listening.
I suspect your email is specifically referring to this paragraph:
To be clear, I’ve led a charmed life. Jobs, including the one I start next week, have just been handed to me. I’ve had every advantage, including being a white man raised as a US citizen in a solidly middle-class family. Leaving a company on principle is a rare luxury. There’s very little chance I’d have left if I didn’t have something else lined up. This isn’t exactly a protest resignation. I don’t need a GoFundMe page.
The two links are important. The first is to my autobiographical essay on how jobs have found me more often than the other way around. The second is a link to a page raising money for a fellow CM who had been fired earlier in the week. If I hadn't stumbled into another job offer at just the right time, I'd very likely have been fired too. It seems Stack Overflow had decided to clean house and I got lucky. Again.
Anecdotally, I have had an easy time finding work because of connections and opportunities that often aren't available to people born into poor families or who grew up in other countries. There's only been one time I did the "circle want ads in the newspaper" thing that movies use as shorthand for job searches. That was when I was looking for my first summer job and ended up washing dishes for a tennis tournament. After the concessions closed, I could go up into the stands and watch the final match of the night. It was a shock to move from the world of the working-class to the world of tennis fandom.
I spent most of that summer picking up shifts at restaurants around DC including at the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum and the National Gallery of Art. In the kitchen I was the only white person. Meanwhile our customers were mostly white. My favorite assignment was washing dishes at the company test kitchen. It was entirely executives and their guests who ate there. Almost all of them were white men. Again, I was the only white person in the kitchen.
I've volunteered in the LA County Jail. Overwhelming the inmates are black and hispanic. Many of the men I talked to there grew up in single-parent homes because their fathers had been put in prison. These men have dreams of going to college, writing a book, becoming a recording artist, starting a business and so on. Realistically, they will be lucky to find a safe home to live in. It's a cycle of incarceration that I wasn't born into.
I could go on about my experience that led me to believe I've have nearly every advantage in life. Being a white man is certainly a factor. It isn't the sole factor, of course. Everyone has their own unique path from birth to where they are now. Some of that path is determined by decisions like whether to go out for track or stay home reading a book. Other parts of that path are determined by outside forces such as whether you were born in Compton or Beverly Hills. And some of it is just dumb luck.
From what I've observed, white men in the US tend to have a better set of choices to pick from than other people. There are exceptions, of course, and I won't deny that your experience is different than mine. I somehow doubt my blog post makes a difference one way or another when it comes to who will get what opportunities in the future.
What I did hope my blog post would do was confront the injustice of excluding people in the name of inclusion. The current calculus of privilege mostly considers attributes awarded at birth. Since I'm a straight while man, my privilege is therefore at the peak. Taking an honest look at my life, I happen to agree with the result even if the method is overly crude.
As I look at the list of people directly hurt by the decisions of the previous year and consider the people who made those decisions, I see no evidence of accountability. To me, that's the real sign of privilege. I only paid a minimal cost because I had connections that got me a new job even before I quit. But imagine have the connections needed to ignore the advice of experts, alienate thousands of people and yet keep your position of authority over a community. That, my friend, is the epitome of privilege in a tangible sense.
Unfortunately, Stack Overflow has engaged in social justice theater. When management felt threatened by the strongest female voice on the network, they found it expedient to fire her rather than talk with her. On the very day the Lavender community demonstrated reconciliation, management (via their legal advisor) barred community managers from discussing the ongoing confusion and growing mistrust. Management seemed genuinely thrilled to announce a legally binding agreement that prevents Monica Cellio from telling her story. A reasonable inference is that Stack Overflow welcomes minority voices as long as it can control them.
The real shame of it all is that Stack Exchange benefits immensely from members of the community who happen to be under-represented on Stack Overflow. But since many are not developers (or "people who code" or "technologists") the company has no use for them. I was repeatedly told that Stack Exchange sites cost too much and that interacting with the moderators of those sites was a waste of time. Again, instead of uplifting minority voices, Stack Overflow chose to suppress them.
I should hasten to say they had very good reasons for this:
- desire to create a profitable business and
- fear of being ostracized by peers.
If not for appalling lack of judgment among the class of people who make decisions at the company, a great deal of good could have come from the situation. Instead, they squandered considerable trust while simultaneously failing to achieve their stated goals.
Sorry about drifting so far from the topic. I seem to have fallen into the trap of writing for my own benefit once again. In my defense, I believe the only way to honestly write about privilege is to look at a person's whole life experience. We stray into dangerous ethical waters when we make broad generalizations about people because of attributes outside of their control.
Thanks for reading,
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