The One Where I Become Roger Ebert (Week 5)

Captain’s Log

Week 5

Happy Martin Luther King Day! I hope you’re day is introspective, intellectually stimulating, and growth focused (heck yeah, buzzwords!). I wrote this newsletter to avoid more important life obligations so enjoy the second-hand taste of irresponsibility while you read it!

The PR Plateau

Early in the fall, I posted a short tweetstorm where I mentioned the “PR plateau,” a glass ceiling that exists in open source for URMs. I wrote that tweetstorm in a highly emotional state. I had been invited to an open source summit to speak about making open source communities more inclusive. About 3 minutes into my presentation, I was interrupted by a “leader” in the open source sub-community I belonged to and mansplained to for a solid four minutes about the contents of my presentation. The accoster was completely unaware of the irony in the situation, of course. I’ve seen erased the memory of the incident from my mind (Surviving as a Woman In Tech Tip #1), but one thing was evident to me. Despite the hard work and dedication that got me to a point where I would be asked to speak on this particular topic, I was still disrespected and disregarded by someone respected in the community. After that incident, I become increasingly disengaged with open source, dissatisfied with my work, uncertain about my impact, and hypersensitive to the microaggressions I experienced while working in open source. This eventually culminated in me leaving open source for 30 days, something I talked about in my last newsletter. This is all to say that in the moment that I wrote that tweetstorm, I hadn’t fully formed my thoughts on what the “PR plateau” is. That’s changed since and I’d like to share some of my thoughts regarding it here.

PR Plateau (noun): A stagnation in an long time open source maintainer’s engagement with open source due to microaggressions and stress

The PR plateau can affect anyone, but for personal reasons I want to talk about how it is particularly harmful to underrepresented minorities who disproportionally experience more “stress in open source.” When an URM reaches a PR plateau, there is a more likely chance that they will completely disengage from the community than for a non-URM. As such, one of the most impactful ways to tackle the PR plateau is to focus on the retention of URM leaders in open source.

Although a lot of the focus in the inclusion in open source world tends to be on engaging more URMs in open source, discussion about the retention of URMs is limited if not nonexistent. In order to truly change the demographics of the open source world, we need to focus on retaining and empowering URMs who are already in open source. There are a couple of reasons for this:

  • People cannot be what they cannot see so the presence of successful and thriving URMs in open source will encourage others to follow.
  • Projects are more likely to successfully engage URMS if URMS are in their leadership.
  • It’s rude to open the door for someone and then not walk with them down the hallway.

The technical industry overall has a problem with focusing on the retention of URMs but the problem is even sharper in the open source world. At some point, every URM in open source will hit a plateau when the stress of being an URM in open source becomes too much for them. There is no way that an individual can avoid that plateau, it’s up to the community to take care of them.

After my encounter with public humiliation, I had a lot of people who I thought were friends try to rationalize the experience for me. It was a litany of the usual excuses that you here afford to mediocre white men. He’s just a rude person. He didn’t realize what he was doing. He does that to everyone. I felt betrayed by this. To be fair, the individual responsible did end up apologizing. But the thing is, you can never apologize for those things. You cannot put a Band Aid over a thousand cuts. You just have to make sure it never happens in the first place. I think I’ve recovered from the PR plateau I experienced after that incident, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be at the same point that I was before. I feel like less a member of the open source community and I’m never going to get those pieces of myself back. I’m never going to be as good a contributor as I was before. I’m never going to be as good as a community organizer before. I’m never going be as good at anything as I was before because everywhere I go I carry a sense of bitterness and betrayal with me. I’ve tried to accept it and move on. Tried.

Be kind to people in open source, especially if it’s already taking a lot out of them to be there.

Hidden Figures: A Modern Colored Computers Perspective

This past Friday, I took myself out to see the Hidden Figures movie. I usually don’t got out to see films on Fridays, but I couldn’t delay seeing Hidden Figures any longer. I started to tear up within the first few seconds of the film and the waterworks continued from there. This post includes a few minor (not critical to the thematic development of the film) spoilers so consider yourself warned.

The most shocking aspect of the film was the blatant obviousness of the racism encountered by the Black computers at the space agency. I’ve experienced plenty of racism in my life but nothing as humiliating as having a separate coffee pot in the office because of my “germs.” But in a way, I felt envious for the obvious racism that they experienced. It’s easy, or relatively so, to explain to your boss that having a separate coffee pot in the office for Black individuals is racist. It’s much harder to explain “modern” workplace racism. You cannot exactly explain to your boss that despite how not-racist they think they are they will always prioritize the camaraderie and alliances they have with their look-alike peers than an “alien” individual and that that makes you feel unsafe and unwelcome in the space. Yeah. Not so easy to explain.

I watched the film on a Friday night, something I don’t usually do, so the theatre was totally backed. This gave me the chance to evaluate the reactions of the mostly-white audience in the town that I lived in. There was plenty of clappin’ and hootin’ and hollerin’ during the scenes of the film where the three Black protagonists overcome minor/major instances of racism. I understand the reaction, but in a way it felt disrespectful. I guess the thing about movies based on real life is they muddle the emotions associated with particular events. I didn’t clap because I knew what it took for those women to do what they did. In my mind, it wasn’t worthy of a clap, it was worthy of sitting in a movie theatre with a righteous sense of anger.

And this touches on a larger problem with the film. In a way, it felt like a pat on the back for America for getting past the racism of the civil rights. Yes, we’ve come along way from separating drinking fountains and bathrooms but we’re still not where we need to be. The ending of the film attempted to present the successes and legacies of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson as evidence that racism was solved. Hey look, these three Black women were successful that one time, so obviously this whole racism thing is a little overblown right? I guess what bugged me about the film was seeing racism, and specifically the kind of racism that I was used to experiencing, reduced to a cinematic spectacle.

That’s the thing you gain and lose when you share something in film form. A good film will amplify the message of anything in our culture, but it’ll also dull and lighten a lot of the realities. Yes, the film was inspiring and motivating, but it was also painful.

It’s painful to see three women battle insurmountable odds and make significant contributions only to be nearly forgotten by history.

It’s painful to know that there were more than three women who had to experience racism despite their skills.

It’s painful to know that there are still women who experience most of those things today.

Although the audience I was with spent a fair amount of the time clapping, I spent a lot of time silent in my seat occasionally setting a tear. I’d love to read the minds of my fellow film goers and figure out what they thought as they left the film. My own thoughts were a mix of self-flagellation and optimism. After all these women did for people like me, why wasn’t I doing more to be a successful engineer? What could I do to make sure that as much progress is made in the fight against racism in the next 50 years as happened between 1960 and 2010? Why wasn’t I doing enough to challenge instances of racism that I experienced? Part of this might be due to the fact that I’m generally self-deprecating, but a fair amount is likely due to the fact that I feel I have a legacy to uphold. And for now, I think I’m ready to uphold it.

What Am I Reading Now?

It looks like my dream of having a beachside wedding are going to be shattered because Kindle apparently doesn’t like water. I wish I knew that about him before we get engaged. While I figure out another venue for our wedding, check out these great reads!

  • Why Do Buses Come in Threes?: If you like math and aren’t afraid to venture out into the real world, you’ll love this quirky book about the math that nature hides. It’s light and approachable so you’ll like it even if you don’t consider yourself a mathematician!
  • Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe: You already know I’m a dork for computer history, so this book had to be on my list! George Dyson has written a lovely piece about the people and the excitement of the days of the early computers. For a sneak peak of just how good the book is, you can check out his TED talk.

Woah! You made it to the end of this newsletter! As always, I want to hear your thoughts on everything written here so if you have something to share feel free to reply to this email and I’ll be sure to respond back (at some point, hopefully soon)! I you liked what you saw here, you can always support me!

Over and out,
Safia

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