Applying Privilege For Good

In this short series, I’ll be discussing the base concept of privilege – whether it is racial privilege, gender privilege, or even able-bodied privilege. It is not going to be an easy discussion, but try to keep an open mind.

In my first post on privilege, I defined the basics. But all that theory is useless prattle without anything to put in practice. Recognizing your privileges is a great first step to making the web better for everyone, but if you are among the privileged, you need to do more. It’s time to apply your privilege.

With Great Power…

A dinosaur man saying: "But I don't want to cure cancer. I want to turn people into dinosaurs."
Sauron wants to turn people into dinosaurs, instead of curing cancer.

The difference between a superhero and a supervillain is often a razor-thin line. Sometimes it’s motive, but oftentimes it is perspective that differentiates the two. It’s a cheesy line, but “with great power comes great responsibility” rings very true here.

Take the example of Sauron. In an issue of Spider-Man and the X-Men, the dinosaur-themed villain has the ability to cure cancer with advanced gene therapy, but he uses it to turn people into dinosaurs. Why? Because that’s what he wants to do. He has the power to help others in need with his privilege – in this case the knowledge and skill to cure a disease but doesn’t.

What this admittedly ridiculous example illustrates is that while privilege isn’t necessarily in your control, what you do with that privilege matters.

Ask the Right Questions

So the question becomes how do you, the privileged developer, take your newly recognized superpowers and use them for good instead of evil selfishness? As usual, it depends. What is the privilege in question? We could spend countless hours discussing this, but for the sake of brevity, we’ll focus on a few types of privilege.

Data Discriminates

If you’re white, you’re probably thinking about how it could be possible that the code you write could be biased or discriminatory. After all, it’s just code. It doesn’t see color. You’re wrong.

The data your code is based on is biased. How? Simple – nothing exists in a vacuum. Data can certainly point to specific issues – increased crime rates is a commonly cited one – but the context and external factors play a massive role. The algorithms you write need to factor in other experiences outside of just what the data provides. You need to look beyond the numbers and actually talk to people. Get perspective.

A Certain Point of View

Developers need to bring in people different from them, particularly people from the communities they are trying to help, to consult or even take the lead. You need to ask two very important questions:

  1. Will this solution actually help the people I am trying to help?
  2. Can this solution be abused by those with an agenda to make the situation worse?

It’s a matter of perspective. Of seeing the forest for the trees. You need to realize your experience is not the only experience and that others’ experiences will likely reveal major flaws in your work that could completely undo what you’re trying to accomplish.

How to Apply Your Privilege

Now that we’ve recognized our privileges and gotten the perspective of others, it is time to do the work. While the specifics of applying privilege vary depending on the situation, there are a few broad examples we can examine.

Be An Advocate, Not An Ally

A common term in the LGBTQ space and the discussion on LGBTQ rights is “ally.” Unassuming straight people with gay friends love to describe themselves as allies because it makes them look more socially aware. But allyship far too often is a facade. Going to the Pride parade and cheering from the crowd is welcome, but ignoring the systemic issues that affect LGBTQ people a week later is not. You, as a person with privilege, need to go beyond being an ally and become an advocate.

What does that mean? It means using your voice to speak out and draw attention to the people and issues being ignored by the rest of your privileged group. Once you have that group’s attention, you need to take it a step further and raise up the more informed voices. Do the hard work. Clear the way, but let the people you’re trying to help lead.

Call Out Problematic Situations

I’ve seen several Twitter threads and resulting articles detailing a really effective way of combatting sexist or racist jokes. Rather than laugh uncomfortably or just walk away in disgust, the advice is to ask the joke-teller to explain themselves. “What do you mean,” you should ask. It’s great advice and can be very effective. The problem is this advice is usually directed at the butt of the joke. It places the burden on the target. As a person of privilege, you can do better.

Instead of expecting the woman to confront a sexist man, you (another man in this case) should be the one saying, “can you explain that to me?” Why does this matter? If the woman asks the question, she can easily be seen as “difficult” or “confrontational” or of having “no sense of humor.” The sexist man has his own views confirmed. But when another man questions the situation, the perspective changes. The joke-teller feels the judgment of a peer more strongly, and will (hopefully) reevaluate their choices. Furthermore, it prevents outside viewers of the situation from seeing the woman as “difficult” or “confrontational” and feeding their own ridiculous, outdated biases.

Be Inclusive, Not Exclusive

These examples are great but don’t always apply to the situation or circumstances you’re in. Sometimes that’s because you’re a struggling entrepreneur and being too vocal in your community will kill your hopes at new business. Other times it can be simply that you don’t have coworkers, so calling out inappropriate jokes and comments at work literally isn’t possible. Every situation is different. But you can still do more.

In every way possible, be inclusive. Even if you have to be subtle and let others acclimate around you, make sure you are being inclusive. If you can’t actively be part of the solution yet, at least avoid being part of the problem. But work towards putting yourself in a better position to help.

I’ll save the specifics for the final piece of this series, but I’ll close with this. Make your websites accessible (I know this one is not, yet). An accessible site is inclusive of everyone, regardless of their race, religion, gender, or even their finances. It’s a way that you, as a privileged developer – being able-bodied is absolutely a privilege – can be inclusive and apply your privilege for good.

Photo by nappy from Pexels

Adam Soucie
Adam is a WordPress developer based in Orlando, FL, and the founder/CEO of Impossibly Creative. He is a member of the WordPress Orlando organizing team and a frequent speaker at the WordPress Orlando meetup.

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