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?

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