A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in a restaurant with a bunch of people who I largely didn't know. One of these in particular was very loud and outspoken about all the topics. I didn't really have the energy, or the will, to engage in most of them, but one in particular made me "explode": his proposal that ending with anonymity was the answer to all the online abuse issues that minorities were experiencing.
This person was suggesting that if we required people to be "authenticated" with some sort of mechanism that would show their real faces and/or names, there would be no more online abuse. No more issues, end of the story.
I started thinking of all the times I've chosen a gender-neutral nickname when registering in support forums so that I would not be mansplained or targeted, instead of actually getting help. Or the times where I didn't want to post my picture online so as to not to attract idiots...
And that's even if I am very fortunate that I come from a moderately privileged place: I am white, well educated, from a sort of "economically somewhat OK" country, I can hold a conversation in English pretty fluidly and I don't have any specially strong accent in Spanish. I do not have to fight the sort of discrimination other people have, and yet I have felt strongly against revealing my identity online in the past. What about people who would face dire consequences if they revealed their identity?
Well, rather than putting themselves at risk, they would probably just avoid being there at all. Thus we would be excluding all of them from having a voice, from contributing to the Internet.
The fact that he was unable to consider any of the above sounded so unbelievably ignorant of his own privilege that words failed me.
I tried to explain. I tried to argue all that I've said in this calm and edited way, but it is so hard when the rest of faces in the table are looking at you---some of them with an uncomfortable look on their face, the "oh boy, there we go with the feminist problems again, she's being That Woman" look, because guess what?---I was the only woman on the table.
At some point I got tired and angry with all his interruptions, and ended up slightly raising my voice and saying:
You cannot understand this. You can't understand what it is to be a woman on the Internet. You just can't.
Actually, this was a bit of a conversation-ender, which was good in a certain way, but I wasn't satisfied with this argument. So I've been thinking about it since then.
It's not that you cannot understand this...
I could detail the facts very clearly, enumerate a series of consequences, and nicely wrap it all into a sort of clinical case. All very sterile and neutral: here's the diagnosis, here's the prognosis. Then someone reads it and goes: "oh, so this is what happens when you do a gross comment. Okay."
The issue is that some things cannot be felt.
I can go to great lengths to describe to you what it is to ride a roller coaster, but it's not until you are on the peak of it and feeling that sudden surge of intense fear and panic that you finally realise what I meant with "freaking off and yelling until your lungs part ways with yourself".
Sadly there are things that you cannot experience because you cannot be someone else:
I can tell you that I went to some demoscene events and was told that I did not need to pay a ticket because I'm "a girl" and thus I probably I'm there only as an accessory to my boyfriend, or perhaps looking to hook up with some geek.
You might just look at the fact and find it very convenient---Free entry!---whereas I feel it is profoundly offensive.
I can tell you that people often write to me and tell me how cool it is that I am a woman in tech, and immediately ask me on a date or compliment me on my looks. Or worse.
You might find it flattering. It makes me feel like my technical merits are dismissed, and it also makes me feel unsafe when I go to events.
The list can go on, but I think the point should be clear by now: you cannot feel other people's feelings.
But... you can accept them!
So next time somebody refuses to do something that looks perfectly acceptable and normal to you, you should accept that--don't demand them to produce a series of reasons. Don't ridicule, point at them or ask why are they being "that person".
If they give you background information about their situation, treat it as a very valuable act of trust. If they do not tell you out of their own volition, I insist, do not ask. Some things are immensely hurtful to speak about, and if someone is avoiding a subject, they surely have good reasons.
And finally, educate yourself. Learn about what people from a different background from yours go through. Listen to what they have to say about it.
It's going to be immensely hard because you're used to be right, and you're going to find out that most of your assumptions are wrong and will feel like an idiot most of the time, but it's OK. I've been a monumental imbecile in these matters for most of my life, and I'm just starting to figure some of them now, but here I am, typing oh so happily and telling you about all this. If I survived this shock, you can do it too!
Ready? Here's a great selection of reads by Ashe.
It will be worth it.