Personal thoughts on Race, Racism & Twitter

Chris Lema

No racism or sexism at BeachPressWe’re going to get personal

I don’t normally write a lot of personal posts here – which is a bit crazy, as this is the site with my name on it. But I use this site to share insights and be helpful to the community of readers that regularly stop by.

And when I do write a personal post, most of the feedback is pretty positive. So I’m going to write a personal note and if you would rather read about WordPress – there’s tons of posts you can browse thru here, or wait until tomorrow for another helpful post that isn’t as personal.

Some of my backstory

In case you didn’t know it, I’m Latino (and yes, I say that word in Spanish, with a full accent). I have been since birth. :)

In my early years I had a series of incidents occur that shaped some of my thoughts and feelings about the people who were all around me.

In first grade several classmates wanted to touch my skin – because it was darker than theirs.

In second grade a classmate asked me if I wore feathers – assuming I was Native American.

In high school on a trip to Hawaii, people asked to have their pictures taken with me – assuming I was Samoan.

I was accepted into many universities because I was a Latino National Merit Scholar. Not just a scholar. A Latino one.

Until I was twenty, I was followed by every 7-11 store manager as I walked around the store.

Until I was thirty, I was told the price of every item I wanted to buy – to make sure I could afford it.

For years I was “randomly selected” for extra airport security scans.

As I found more and more success professionally, people have said things like, “I don’t consider you ethnic at all. I think of you as White,” assuming that it was a compliment.

Or I’ve been told I have excellent command of the English language for a Mexican – when in fact, I was born in the US and come from Chilean descent.

I’ve been asked to explain just about every topic or subject matter related to Latino’s as if I was selected as their spokesperson.

I’ve been excluded from things and included in other things – all based on what someone else thought about the color of my skin, how they interpreted my last name, or because of a checkbox on a form.

And I’m not telling you any of this to say anything except this – I’ve had a full experience of living Latino in the United States.

Wait, is this going to be a big ethnic rant? 

No, it’s not. Instead, it’s going to be an attempt to share with you a series of insights I made a long time ago and has served me well in the last twenty years of my professional life.

If you’re someone who isn’t living in a minority experience or context, I hope it’s helpful. In you’re someone who is, I really hope it helps you think about things.

Insight #1: Education requires trust

If I want to change how people think about Latinos, I do it one person at a time. I connect with friends and in that context, of friendship, I share my experiences and help them think about issues of institutional racism. It happens in the context of trust and relationship.

Not on twitter.

I don’t shout about institutional racism. I don’t scream about it. I don’t walk the streets with signs. Because influence happens among peers, in a mutually respectful dialogue where people can learn. Not with strangers. And not in 140 characters.

Insight #2: Ain’t nobody got time for Angry

I was just at a great week of co-working with a bunch of developers in Portland, Oregon. You can see tweets about it by searching for #BeachPress.

In the midst of our time together, someone else – a stranger to us all, and a person not at the event – decided to make assumptions and pretty hurtful remarks about the event. On twitter. All because most of the attendees were White males.

I was there. So were several women. There was even another Latino programmer there. And tons of other folks that had their own personal stories. Few, if any, could be summed up as the sum total of their race and gender.

But an angry gal decided to not only sum them up that way, but cast aspersions on the entire event.

Angry doesn’t help anyone.

Ask yourself this – have you ever changed your mind about anything simply because someone was yelling at you?

Another way I’ve often explained it is that when I’m angry at the world for not understanding my experience, I’m the only one being affected. No one else is helped or hurt. Just me.

Angry is like drinking poison, hoping the other person (the one you’re angry at) feels some pain. 

Insight #3: The best equalizer is success

I was born premature, with a twin brother who was miscarried, and with a 50/50 chance of survival in 1970. Doctors were almost sure I would be brain damaged. (Friends still wonder about this.)

On top of all the dynamics that come with thinking there’s something wrong with you, fear of brain damage, and a deep desire to succeed when the odds are against you, I was born into a minority culture.

You know what gives me the chance to educate folks around me? 

It’s not whining. It’s not complaining against “the man.” It’s not a constant fight about equal access.

Let’s be clear about my personal world view here.

I believe that your race and gender aren’t the only things that have an impact on your life.

Some people have drunks for parents. Some people get abused as kids. Some people are born in poverty. Some people have parents that die young.

We all have stuff in our lives that are part of our story – and that present challenges. All of us.

So sure, I had my own stuff. But so do you. So do the people around you.

So it’s a cop out too easy, in my view, to suggest that your race, gender or anything else puts you at a deeper disadvantage than everyone else. Because you don’t know their story. You don’t know what disadvantages they’ve dealt with.

You know what gives me the chance to influence folks around me?

Ridiculously hard work. And friends. And luck.

From 1994 until 2006 (12 years), I worked an average of 80-90 hours a week. For many periods in that time – several years in fact – the average was closer to 100.

That’s what I call ridiculously hard work. I just did the work. In 2006 I pulled back to 50-60 hour weeks. In my day job. And then started doing 10-20 hour weeks outside of work, helping others.

I’ve also invested tons of time in relationships. Because the trust of friends opens doors. Doors that have given me opportunities to work ridiculously hard.

And lastly, when you work hard, and network hard, you get a chance, an opportunity, to get lucky and take advantage of it. Being at the right place, at the right time, and being ready to… you guessed it… work hard.

Today I enjoy a really nice life. A seriously, ridiculously nice life. I have everything I could ever want.

I have an amazing wife – who I couldn’t live without and who is amazing.

I have two incredible children – who are smart, energetic and make everything worthwhile.

I have wonderful friends – who challenge me, push me, support me and teach me.

And all that work has put some extra cash in our pocket to be able to eat at nice places or have nice vacations – a real treat.

A final word about racism

The gal who wrote a long post about racism and sexism and all that clearly didn’t know who we were. A group of developers who love WordPress and wanted to co-work together for a week, without any other agendas.

But she was right about one thing – racism still exists today. And it will exist for as long as people are ignorant. But let’s be honest – ignorance impacts people everyday about a lot of issues – not just race.

And here’s the thing – ignorance isn’t the same thing as dumb. Lots of smart people are ignorant about a lot of things. It’s an issue of exposure. And you can’t deal with exposure via a law.

Exposure requires experience.

And that’s personal and requires the context of relationships.

Which is why, if I want to help people think about racism, I do it in the context of relationships where there’s trust.

Not on twitter. And not with strangers.

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  1. Guillermo says:

    Thanks for sharing Chris. I really appreciate your insight.

  2. Racism takes many forms, not the least of which is expectation. I saw that post, and I’m glad you took the time to write this response. I wanted desperately to say something, but I knew I wasn’t the person to do so.

    This says far more than I could have, far better than I could have. It may not change her mind, but I guarantee it will make a good many people think about it, and that’s an amazing place to start.

  3. I could not have said it better, hard work really is the great equalizer but most choose other means because they fear failure caused by their own choices and not just working hard. Thanks for sharing brother.

  4. Thanks for this post, Chris. It seems that in the minds of some people being a white male automatically make you a racist. The girl you mentioned is the very definition of ignorant.

  5. “So it’s a cop out, in my view, to suggest that your race, gender or anything else puts you at a deeper disadvantage than everyone else.”

    THIS. So much, this. I’m not familiar with the situation that prompted this post but I deeply agree with what you said here.

  6. BeachPress looked like a really fun week full of beach, food, sun, good friends and shared interests (that, and you guys hijacked one of our top developers for that week – so it BETTER had been a good time :) – – I’m very sorry to hear that it was even slightly marred by someone’s misguided anger. I suspect, though, that it didn’t make *that* much of a mark – – uninformed and manufactured anger from someone on the outside looking in is pretty easily dismissed when you’re in the midst of something authentic and real.

    This is a really great post, Chris. I would understand the draw to not push publish on something like this, but, really – thanks for sharing it.

  7. This was beautifully stated and it really needs to go viral. Thanks Chris.

  8. As a white person growing up in a brown world (Philippine), a world that is still very much into the apartheid thinking; I feel what you mean.

    Racism is not always as blunt as we think it is. We have to learn to love each other no matter how we look.

  9. Thank you, Chris, good one. As you say, no one knows what disadvantages a person has grown up with. Some show on the outside, some do not. That they may not show does not mean they are not there. And, yes, exposure is what is needed. Not exposure on stage, or, perhaps, in front of a microphone, but exposure on a one to one, “What do we have in common?” basis. And once that starts, in general, we have far more in common than we have that is different.

    • It’s totally okay to talk about meaningless, superficial stuff on microphones, stages and twitter, but not racism. Okay…

  10. I watch my two kids (now 13 and 10) and how they interact with people of different ethnicities and backgrounds and it gives me hope. Each has friends with different skin tones, accents, backgrounds and it’s just another of many things that make up the person that is their friend.

  11. Brenda Malone says:

    “So it’s a cop out, in my view, to suggest that your race, gender or anything else puts you at a deeper disadvantage than everyone else.”

    Chris, I agree with most of what you wrote, however, I disagree with the above statement. As an average black female I have and continue to face discrimination AND disadvantage EVERY SINGLE DAY OF MY LIFE.

    I, too, am followed not only in stores where “I don’t belong,” but also my police officers when I am in an area where “I don’t belong.” I was taught early how to behave WHEN, not IF, confronted by authorities for absolutely no reason other than the color of my skin.

    I am in my mid-50’s and it is not so much as me being disadvantaged as much as being denied the “white privilege” benefits. I have to work and prove myself twice–sometimes three-times as much as a white person because of inherent biases. I am have to battle against members of my own race who practice self hate and choose to support and promote persons other than African Americans.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not crying about it, It’s just a fact of my existence, something that I deal with every single day. I, too was a Merit Scholar. I was selected to attend a different college every summer in high school, learning Fortran, Advanced Mathematics, and Advanced French. I was ALWAYS the only African American there, and I always felt out of place and an anomaly. I always felt that I had to be “the example for the entire African American race” and felt tremendous pressure.

    Who i am today, is the culmination of hundreds of years of ignorance and discrimination, it is in my genetic code. Who a majority white person is, is also the culmination of their heritage, ancestry, complete with their pre-coded biases, and it is in their genetic code, too.

    I don’t have the answers, but maybe as the world becomes more homogenized, acceptance of all races will begin to dominate the genetic code of future people. I know that this will not happen in my or my daughter’s generation.

    So, it’s not a cop-out, it’s a reality that must be acknowledged and overcome.

    Thanks for a provocative post, Chris, Love your blog, your thoughts (usually you are offer the most unbiased and real point of view on WPWatercooler, too) and am lauding your well-earned success!

    • Damani Wilson says:

      I concur. Thank you for writing this. I am a black male (41). Although I applaud Chris’ overall sentiment the “cop out” language turned me off, slightly. I’m glad you addressed it.

    • Yea THAT part I did not in any way agree with, it’s not a cop out, it’s the truth!

      While we all have our disadvantages, no one knows by looking at you whether your parents were drug addicts & the only ppl that can judge you according to that “disadvantage” would be someone very close. The difference in being a black woman & and being a white male coming from a home where your parents did drugs is, the black woman walks into the room with loads of stigma and stereotype written on her face that she has to “overcome”, the white male does not have this feat. He walks into the room at the top of the social totem pole, it will take him to succumb to his disadvantages to discredit himself, and even then he doesn’t represent all white men, just himself. Because I am almost always one of the FEW black ppl in the room & one of the FEW black ppl most ppl around me interact with, my reputation is not Hollys, but the BLACK WOMAN.

      There is so much to this issue I could go on forever, but I’ll say this. That girl has every right to use media to speak about institutionalized racism & there is nothing wrong with it. That’d b like saying we shouldn’t go to school to learn culture & just learn it in everyday life in personal relationships. The truth is that most ppl that are white have more white friends than anything else, and the same for all other ppl (black ppl are surrounded by more black ppl) so the probability that we can educate one another solely through close trusted friendships is horse poop. You talk about wordpress to strangers & somehow think she can’t speak on culture in America to strangers? Why not? It’s important and it’s a topic that lots of ppl need to know. The only reason institutionalized racism continues is bc the dominant culture we have engraved in our brains we don’t even notice or realize. We are so ignorant to it & only through listening will we recognize the patterns and stop it.

  12. shenoalawrence says:

    I don’t know the person who wrote the blog post in question, but there’s something she said that I haven’t seen addressed anywhere.

    She defined BeachPress as a dominant culture group, which is an interesting thing for any event or conference organizer to consider. How open and welcoming is an event for minorities? Most events that don’t specifically address this I assume to be a hostile environment. Why? Because there is so very much of it in tech. Any time I attend an event, I do assess whether or not I am going to feel comfortable and supported there.

    I look for things like a well thought out Code of Conduct – and I’m quite wary if I don’t see them. Because the fact is, if it’s not there, there WILL be someone who thinks it’s acceptable to act in ways that will make me feel uncomfortable. If the event organizers haven’t determined how those acts will be handled and stated the policies in a way that everyone can understand, it’s likely to go bad. And that’s not a situation I want to put myself in. That much of her post I can identify with.

    Is there any Code of Conduct for BeachPress? I couldn’t find it.

    • “The fact is…” isn’t a fact at all. It’s a presumption.

    • There was no code of conduct at BeachPress. I expected everyone to act kindly towards one another and, to my knowledge, everyone did. I haven’t heard a single report of anyone feeling unsafe, singled out, or unwelcome.

      • The benefits of white privilege is that you don’t have to think of these things, while someone like me, or the woman above do, bc we are not apart of the dominant culture.

  13. I completely agree with you that a campaign against racism will only ever be successful in the context of individual relationships. I think that in mixed company, no matter what ground it’s on (race, gender, nationality, socioeconomic background), most people we’ll encounter come with a set of preconceived notions about what we’re like, based on the surface details that are obvious about us.

    As a child, I suffered years of physical abuse because no one in the schools or law enforcement would believe my story – after all, my dad was a well-off, white collar, prominent member of the community. When I was just a few weeks shy of 18, an incident happened and I had to fight *hard* to get the state to step in because I knew that once I was 18, the chance of any intervention after that was impossible…and my younger brother and sister would still have to live there long after I was gone.

    When I lived and worked in Niger, West Africa, 99% of people called me “Whitey” (Anasara) and assumed I was either French or in the Peace Corps. They’d assume I went to bars and slept around because that’s what they saw the French and American expats doing…and in a 99.9% Muslim culture, they assumed a lot of things about me based on my faith. It’s only my friends that were able to see me as an individual and (thank goodness!) it was only their opinions that would really matter to me.

    Saying the word “Alabama” lowers my IQ approximately 40 points, being a Christian makes me a Republican (*that* I’ll never understand), and being a woman automatically jacks up the price of any car repair I’ll ever need. We all have norms to fight against, but usurping a hashtag for a weekend isn’t going to advance your cause, no matter what it is.

    My biggest question about the tweets was, why would anyone think that having more people with different colored skin make an event more “diverse?” When you boil people down to their skin color and make a decision whether or not to attend an event *based on* your perception of the skin color of attendees, you’re *participating* in racism, not doing anything to annihilate it.

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