Wednesday Weigh In: ‘White Male Nerd Culture’ Edition

Over at Salon, Irin Carmon examines the “white nerd male culture” after this week’s #SXSW attempt to diversify led to sometimes awkward results:

On Monday, an enthusiastic white man congratulated film blogger and software development manager Malaika Paquiot-Mose for how well she’d done on the South by Southwest panel that had just ended.

Inconveniently, Paquiot-Mose hadn’t been on it.

Still, the gentlemen insisted that she had, despite the fact that Paquiot-Mose and Latoya Peterson, the panel’s moderator, honestly couldn’t figure out which of the black female panelists she had even been mistaken for. It didn’t help that the panel was called “Race: Know When to Hold It and When to Fold It” – on diversity and representation in technology – and by my count, the confused white man must have been one of the only half-dozen of his demographic who bothered to show up.

On the other hand, he seemed to be really trying, whoever he was, and the panel was far from the only example of SXSW broadening from its typical-tech-dude roots. Such is the uneven distribution of progress.

As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see. But this year at South by Southwest, when it came to the usually invisible, there was more to see than ever — and in prominent, big-ballroom setups. “How to Be Black” author Baratunde Thurston keynoted, as did cyborg anthropologist Amber Case and Code for America’s Jennifer Pahlka (oh, and two white dudes).

Some of that prominence was a reflection of objective achievements out in the world and the expansion of the conference’s oeuvre: Thurston was a social media superstar before he published his book; Jill Abramson is the first female executive editor of the New York Times; Lena Dunham has a hot new HBO show; Mona Eltahawy has been central to discussions of recent upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa. But some of it was just a concerted effort by some cheerful agitators who have juggled calling out problems and proposing solutions.

This attempt to diversify isn’t limited to #SXSW; other conferences such as Netroots Nation (Full Disclaimer: I had the privilege of participating in this year’s Netroots panel selection process) have pushed for an increase in diversity year after year. And it’s no question that diversity sometimes leads to awkward exchanges where black people are mistaken for each other even when they look nothing alike (a puzzling phenomena which happens way too often in my personal life).  So while the goal of diversity is commendable, it’s not always smooth sailing.

For example, at last year’s Netroots, I participated in an all black female panel titled, “Ask a Sista: Black Women Muse on Politics, Policy, Pop Culture, and Scholarship.” The audience was diverse, yes, but definitely missing white faces — who were next door for the all white feminist panel on reproductive rights. So if we are truly going to get to a point where conferences, panel discussions, and intellectual interactions are multicultural, than dare I ask more white people should be willing to attend an all black panel? In other words, if you are already supporting a diverse cast of ideas and backgrounds, then high five for you —  but if not, why not?

With that being said, the increase in people of color at all of these conferences is cause for celebration and certainly a sign of progress. So for this Wednesday Weigh-In, my question is: How do we not only increase diversity, but also real visibility of  people of color in these spaces? How do we make this process more authentic?

Join the Conversation

  • jlstrecker

    The easy thing to fix is scheduling. You talked about the “Ask a Sista” panel happening at the same time as the reproductive rights panel — probably some people would have like to attend both. I’ve been to one conference that likes to schedule all the identity-related events for the same time slot — you can attend the session for Asian women leaders, or Latina engineers, or the LGBTQ and allies. Pick one.

    The hard thing to fix is racism. I’ll bet that not one of those white folks attending the reproductive rights panel would consider herself or himself a racist. Why should they? Our culture teaches them that racism is individual acts of meanness, not invisible systems conferring racial dominance. Well, somebody (of any race) has to tell them. And somebody (of any gender and sexual orientation) has to tell the straight folks to go to the LGBTQ sessions, and the men to go to the women’s sessions. And tell them to close their mouths and open their ears. You know who would be a good person to tell them? The keynote speaker.

    • Westley Cornelius


      You touch on a lot in such a small amount of words. Just a quick question, or maybe observation:

      I agree that racist conduct must be identified as such and rectified. Yes, somebody does have to tell them. Tell them what, though? I find it nearly impossible to communicate effectively to individuals about the societal underpinnings of hierarchical, or unequal, relationships. So, the main question I can’t figure out arises in how to effectively inform a well-meaning ‘racist’ of how and why such a label could arguably apply to them. Thanks.

      • jlstrecker

        Westley, sorry it’s taken me so long to answer. That’s a really hard (but awesome) question.

        It’s only in the past few months that I’ve come to acknowledge, and start unlearning, my own racism, so this is kind of a theoretical answer based on slight experience.

        1. You have to show that racism is not a thing of the past. It’s alive and well and everywhere.

        2. You have to explain that, if you’re a white person, it’s normal to be racist. It doesn’t mean you’re evil. You’re racist by default; you have to go out of your way to unlearn racism. Some people bristle at being called “racist”, though; they’ll be more comfortable with the term “white privilege”.

        3. You have to tell them that it’s OK to talk about race, and give them some vocabulary. (Again, “white privilege”.) Kind of like The Vagina Monologues, how that gets people talking about things they never said out loud before.

        4. For any of these messages to get through, you have to get the listener to be humble for a moment. How you do that, I don’t know.

  • James

    I’m going to wade into this with all the grace of a water buffalo, and I expect that things will not go well. For the sake of encouraging positive discourse, I’ll take some condemnation.
    Reasons I wouldn’t attend a racially oriented panel:
    1. Feeling like a tourist: I feel avoid churchy style environments because there are whole lot of people who sincerely believe something all singing and rocking, and standing there watching or participating without meaning it just feels disrespectful. I’m not a part of the group, and I assume that they’re not here to perform for my entertainment, so why am I there? My inclination would be to feel the same about attending a panel with some racial theme. I’d probably feel like I were intruding.
    2. Is the event in question going to highlight people who would not have gotten any attention were they white? Is this event going to dredge up some people who are middling in their field, but they pulled them up there anyway because they have a panel to fill? That has the potential to just look sad. The last thing that you want is to be intruding on someone else’s event and thinking “Oh man, I saw that guy’s work and it was terrible. Is he or she actually the best they have. Now I’m trapped for an hour with a panel full of people I could care less about, but leaving might be super awkward.”
    3. How is this panel catering to me and my interests? Why am I at the event that I’m at? Theoretically if you hit me with a panel titled something like “Three Latino Science Fiction Authors Who Will Change the Way You Think.” then I’m all “Fresh new media to consume that may broaden my mind! That could be fun.”
    4. See the disclaimer at the top. “Yes, Ask a Sista… the wrong question! Congratulations you’re now posterboy for the institutionalized racism that keeps black women down. You’re about to be condemned in terms and concepts that you don’t even understand.”

    So yeah, those are the forces that would keep me from attending a racially oriented panel. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t attend one, but those are the concerns that would hold me back. The first reason would be the second biggest behind actual interest in the subject matter at hand.
    The whole topic really does drive home how very pasty my list of online heroes is. There’s Farhad Manjoo and…. nope, can’t think of any others. I do have a favorable opinion of Zerlina, but let’s not insincerely round that up to fandom for the sake of appearances. I found myself Googling science fiction authors whom I read and whose ethnicities I didn’t know, and it turned out that they were very white. In short, I feel like I’m missing out and that I probably need to diversify my geeky reading list.

    • jlstrecker

      “How is this panel catering to me and my interests?” “I’m not a part of the group, and I assume that they’re not here to perform for my entertainment, so why am I there?”

      It’s not all about you.

      Or rather, you (a white male, I assume) are so accustomed to books, movies, and conference sessions being all about you — but passed off as being for everyone — that you think a panel discussion by 3 black women is for some special interest group.

      To appropriate a phrase from (ironically; I’m sorry) [Native Appropriations]( by choosing to ignore sessions in which black women speak, “you are asserting your power over us, and continuing to oppress us. That should worry you.”

      (Full disclosure: I’m white.)

      You feel nervous about walking into an event full of black women. How do you think a black woman feels walking into an event full of white men? Do you think she doesn’t notice?

      “Is the event in question going to highlight people who would not have gotten any attention were they white?”

      The point is to highlight people who would be getting even more attention if they were white. Maybe you’re not aware that white people and males have the advantage when it’s time to nominate speakers. (Unless some awesome person like Zerlina tries to level the playing field.) That’s [white privilege]( and [male privilege]( 101.

      “Yes, Ask a Sista… the wrong question! Congratulations you’re now posterboy for the institutionalized racism that keeps black women down. You’re about to be condemned in terms and concepts that you don’t even understand.”

      Asking a question is not mandatory. Keep your ears open and your mouth shut for a while.

      Or — ask how to diversify your geeky reading list. That’s an honorable question.

      • James

        I’m not arguing that those reasons I gave are somehow noble, but they are the reasons that I would hesitate, or that it would simply not occur to me to attend such an event.