For many years when I walked into a room I instantly counted the women. It told me a lot about what to expect from that room. One day, having lost my best friend over racial politics out of my control, I began to count people of color. That too was for safety, for understanding how my views would be taken. That too told me a lot I needed to know about the room. But it also hinted to me about a whole realm of experience I wasn’t having.
The neighborhood where I grew up in LA gentrified unbelievably hard through my childhood. The odd Mormon Filipino family whose son was my BFF for a while eventually sold the shack they lived in, which was badly enough constructed that despite Legrande’s father’s efforts to patch his walls, you could still hear the ocean wind from inside his room. When they moved it was torn down, and the garden (like most of them would be) was filled in with expensive house, in the Socal Hollywood style of all stucco and reaching up past your neighbors for views. The houses got torn down one by one. The neighbor to the right, across the street, eventually my best friend’s, and all replaced with opulent houses. But opulent not so much to be seen as to keep the residents from prying eye — the way you signaled you were important in Los Angeles. As this happened across my neighborhood I stopped knowing my neighbors. The class divide had moved next door. Still, children don’t get this, and when they escaped from grown-up eyes they flocked together. I made a few friends at moments. Going back to their houses, I first heard the phrase “We don’t discuss money.” My mom discussed money, my dad, far away in northern California hardly discussed anything else.
How could you not discuss money? It was like a family that announce they didn’t allow the mention of food. Or hope. It was exactly like a family that didn’t mention food or hope.
I visited Oklahoma one as a teenager to see my paternal grandparents. They lived outside Tulsa in a place you could mistake for rural with a bad littering problem if you’ve never seen desperate poverty, American style. Out there the poor whites told me “We’re colorblind. We don’t even see color.” But there were no people of color to be seen in the area. The closest lived on the Res, and I learned many years later that when my father was a child, he was one of the only whites that stuck across to visit the kids at the BIA schools. He never told me what he saw there, but when I was young he would get very drunk sometimes at night and tell me we should all get back on the fucking boats and go back to Europe. I didn’t know what Europe was.
For a time I decided I couldn’t see color. But then I couldn’t see what happened to people of color. To not see their color, I realized, was to not see its absence, and its absence was everywhere I wanted to be, in every room I aspired to get into. I had made their pain and struggle invisible to me. I argued that this position was not racist, but anti-race altogether. And besides, many of my best friends hadn’t been white. How could I be racist?
In 2010 I went to a prestigious invite only conference in the tech world. I was, at this point, widely welcome in those rooms I’d dreamed of going in. I counted. My heart soared — it really felt like we’d turned a corner. It wasn’t just that there were more women. There were, but also they were talking. It was like pushing on a giant stone for all my life, then one day feeling it finally shift underneath my fingers.
On Saturday night I was sexually assaulted. Specifically, I was groped. I hit my aggressor in the chin and knocked him back. Despite having probably 100lbs on me, he stumbled drunkenly and barely kept his footing. “Touch me again and I’ll break your nose,” I told him. He laughed lightly, still finding his feet, and said “I like this one!” I looked at him, to catch his eye, and replied calmly, matter-of-factly “No. If you touch me again, I will break your nose.” He laughed again, but wandered away from me, looking to grope easier prey.
This is how I’d felt all my life, like my job was to not be easy prey. But this was a professional field, not the fucking Serengeti. I walked a little later with the conference organizer, a woman older then me, and of much stature in tech. I told her I was so happy to finally see women in my field. “But,” I said, “I think these incidents will be more common for a while. These guys don’t know how to behave around women.” To myself, I added bitterly, or other human beings at all.
In part, the tech community had allowed in women, but in part it had also only failed to keep them out.
It was always the ones that said they didn’t see gender or color who did the most damage. “They’re just words,” they would say, “Why do you let them hurt you?” And with that, my pain was made as invisible as me. “They’re just words.” Indeed, just the verbal incantations of power, like law and code and everything else that made the world. I decided to leave tech for words.
But now I’m all shouty. Now people are angry at me because I have a stage, and they can’t make me invisible and ignore me, because the truth is you can’t ignore words, and I have the words. So now they really hate me. The others, the majority, sit uncomfortably with the conflict. No one is quite sure what to do, they want things to be abstractly better, but they don’t want anyone to be loudly upset, either. One side is considerably louder than all the others.
This is what I ask: when you walk into a room, count. Count the women. Count the people of color. Count by race. Look for who isn’t there. Look for class signs: the crooked teeth of childhoods without braces, worn-out shoes, someone else who is counting. Look for the queers, the older people, the overweight. Note them, see them, see yourself looking, see yourself reacting.
This is how we begin.