Personal thoughts on Race, Racism, And Twitter

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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 are 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.

Do 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.

About Chris Lema

Chris Lema has been working with WordPress since 2005. Over the years he's been a blogger, a speaker at WordCamps, a coach for WordPress product companies, and the founder of the conference for WordPress business owners, called CaboPress. Today he's the VP of Products at Liquid Web, where he manages the world's first managed platform for WooCommerce stores.

Chris Lema

Chris Lema has been working with WordPress since 2005. Over the years he's been a blogger, a speaker at WordCamps, a coach for WordPress product companies, and the founder of the conference for WordPress business owners, called CaboPress. Today he's the VP of Products at Liquid Web, where he manages the world's first managed platform for WooCommerce stores.

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