By now you’ve probably heard at least one version of the story about Adria Richards, the black technology evangelist who was fired from her job at SendGrid last week for tweeting a picture of two white guys who were sitting behind her making sexually charged jokes at a major tech conference.
Richards’s tweets from PyCon, which bills itself as the largest annual gathering of Python programmers and users, immediately drew the ire of trolls and their attacks intensified after the “big dongles” jokesters were canned.
Individual social media-related firings always make news, but the bigger story here is how Richards became the target of a very particular kind of harassment. Social media trolls repeatedly called Richards the n-word and threatened to rape her. Some scoured the Internet for her personal information and put it on blast (“doxxing”). One particularly disturbed individual even tweeted Richards a photo of a dead woman’s decapitated body laying on a bed. (Thankfully, Twitter intervened, the image has been deleted, and the account in question was suspended.)
So far, the onslaught of hate has had the intended effect on Richards. At press time, the technologist—usually a prominent online voice—hasn’t tweeted since March 20 and her popular blog, But You’re a Girl, is silent. She emailed VentureBeat’s John Koetsier a simple message on March 22: “I’m staying safe.”
The Richards incident is a reminder that the tech world is very similar to the outside world when it comes to calling out sexism or racism. It’s a frightening and often thankless task.
The key difference, though, is the anonymity that exists online and the way it emboldens people to say and do things they never would in public. Tech insiders fear these attacks will have an overall chilling effect on already-marginalized women and people of color working and living in these environments. With that in mind, we rounded up some tips for watching your back and front when facing a sexist, racist Internet mess:
Seek out others like you and stay in touch. It can be isolating to feel like you’re the only kind of person in a job, company or field. But you’re not as alone as you may think, says Deanna Zandt, a media technologist, Forbes columnist, and board member for the Applied Research Center, Colorlines.com’s publisher. “Having a community is the best thing you can do for yourself,” Zandt says, noting that the community you build is the best resource for the practical (legal advice, professional validation) and the emotional (hugs). “You don’t need to know everything,” she adds. “You just need to belong to a community that knows everything.”
Go where you’re welcomed. Of course “find community” is easier said than done. Besides professional or trade organizations, tap into overtly friendly networks like Women, Action and the Media (WAM!, a group that advocates for gender justice in the media; TechLadyMafia, a collective of “astrophysicists and developers, digital journalists and social media strategists;” and Blogging While Brown, a network for online diarists and writers of color that will hold its annual conference this June in New York City.
Draw on familiar wisdom before and after a confrontation. For an easily adaptable communication tactic, check out Jay Smooth’s “How to Tell People They Sound Racist”. Get a dose of relevant movement history from Barbara Ransby’s “Remembering MLK: The Things We’ve Forgotten Would Guide Us.” Then enjoy Hatty Lee and Terry Keleher’s very accessible (and dare we say, fun) “Racial Transformer” infographic. All three of these tools have messages that apply to systemic sexism as well.
Tech conference organizers! Aggressively promote your Code of Conduct. New York City-based social media consultant Sarah Milstein hosts and attends lots of conferences (including two at which Richards gave popular talks). She says it’s important for tech confabs to plug their Code of Conduct. “If conference organizers say, ‘We’ve had X amount of incidents and this is how we’ve handled them,’ that can do a lot to take away some of the stigma associated with reporting bad behavior.”
Allies: Get involved, too. To repeat the now popular refrain, you don’t need to be a woman to call out sexist behavior, and you don’t need to be a person of color to fight for racial justice. That applies to tech events as well. Says Milstein: “People of conscience and other people who care enough about the kinds of discourse we’re having at conferences to report [inappropriate behavior], can also say something.”
Acknowledge that death by 1,000 paper cuts is real. One of the most striking details in Richards’s account of the PyCon incident is that her controversial tweet represented the accumulation of a lot of emotional triggers—microaggressions, if you will. Before she tweeted the images of the guys and requested help from PyCon organizers, she’d already had someone in the hallway justify a crude joke about looking up women’s skirts.
“Women in technology need consistent messaging from birth through retirement that they are welcome, competent and valued in the industry,” Richards wrote in her blog post describing the incident.
A software engineer named Julie Pagano expanded on this point in a March 24 Tumblr post by detailing the roadblocks she’s encountered—discouraging teachers, hostile classmates and clueless conference speakers. “I’m terrified of the day it becomes terminal,” she wrote about the accumulating cuts. “The day myself or one of my friends becomes another statistic in the book of ‘they leave and they don’t come back.’ “
Don’t disappear. For the larger community, one of the saddest parts of the Adria Richards backlash is how she’s been silenced—by blatantly abusive social media trolls, people who have blogged about not liking her, and media in general. This dynamic, according to D.C.-based digital strategist and Tech Lady Mafia founder Aminatou Sow, is all the more reason for more women of color to be visible in tech spaces. “Watching Adria’s story unfold was heartbreaking,” says Sow. “I’m always afraid that [incidents] like these will convince some not to engage with the tech community, which is a shame because there aren’t enough women and people of color working in technology as it is. Those of us who are here are building amazing things and amazing communities. So the best advice I would give anyone is to find a safe place to plug into like the Tech LadyMafia and find allies in every corner of the Internet. They’re there!”