I’m considered normal, and that’s just not ok.
The statue is said to represent Aedh, son of Colcon, Chief of Oriel. Aedh was the first pilgrim to reach Clonmacnoise on what is now considered the Pilgrim’s Path across ancient Ireland. He collapsed and died on arrival. A.D. 606
The following is from a talk I gave as part of a “manel” in December 2020 — reprinted here with slight edits. After the talk, someone asked what books I would recommend for becoming a better ally. My response: don’t read books by allies to learn more: read Black women. Read Black men. (Cyrus McQueen’s (@CyrusMMcQueen) book “Tweeting Truth to Power” is an excellent recent addition to the list.) In that spirit: The following is not a book, just an old-fashioned blog post.
In 1982, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates said Black people might die in police chokeholds because “their veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people.” In November of 2020, the mayor of El Paso said that Hispanics were having higher rates of COVID-19 infection than “normal Caucasians.”
My skin color is normal
This recurring theme only become obvious to me in the past few years. I’m considered normal, and that’s just not ok. As a young child, the Crayola crayon in my hand was peach colored like my face, and the label said that was the color “Flesh.” Like mine. Facial recognition technology has no problem with my face. The bias in artificial intelligence, which encodes expectations and status quo observations, is real and will become a weapon for continued inequity if not addressed.
Still, even now, after the articles about this: If you do a Google images search for “unprofessional hair,” you would scroll for quite some time before seeing anyone who looks like me. (Or me, back when I had hair.)
I was born the day before Barbie was introduced at the American International Toy Fair in New York in 1959. While there was a Black sidekick named Christie by 1968, there wasn’t a Black version of Barbie until 1979.
I was pulled over on the Jersey Turnpike in the 1970s while driving a green van. Shortly before, someone in a green van shot a state trooper. While they did approach the vehicle with guns drawn with hands in a tactical position, they exhaled and holstered the weapons as soon as they saw my face. I was never in fear, as I never had negative experiences with law enforcement. I still haven’t.
In 1987, I executed a DITY move as I PCSd from Denver CO to Newport News VA. Driving along across the country’s midsection in January, I stopped to eat, buy gas, and stay in cheap motels. Not once did I feel unsafe. I drove cross-country alone in January with a Subaru packed to the gills, and didn’t once worry about my safety.
My money is normal
If you’re a white man, you are running a race with your own challenges. But you didn’t start the race with a 90lb weight around your neck three miles behind the starting line, and others did. I come from a long line of working class Irish immigrants. Although I did not receive generational wealth, I’ve never been denied a loan or charged usurious rates beyond my credit rating. I’ve had no barriers raised when renting or buying a house. I’ve been able to fully engage in the economy.
My health is normal
For most of my life, the heart attack symptoms I would experience were I suffering a heart attack were presumed to be the same for women. They’re not. Starting in the mid-to late 1990s, researchers began to learn there are real disparities between heart attack symptoms in men and women. According to the FDA, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women. Before the Affordable Care Act, pregnancy was considered a pre-existing condition and multiple C-sections could be denied coverage.
The social tool of law enforcement was employed to address the impact of what is called the “crack epidemic” before the turn of the century. More celebrated writers have noted that alternative social tools were considered and employed to address the current “opioid crisis” that more affected people who look like me.
I met my daughters when they were 12 and 14 years old. They’re now in their 40s. And yet: while I saw them through junior high and high school, I never once wondered if they or any of their classmates had access to feminine hygiene products free of charge while in school. It just never crossed my mind that this should be a right for all people who menstruate.
John, you’ve rambled on about privilege, we get it. It’s all in the news. I thought you were going to talk about how to be an ally?
Yes. And the first step is to make it personal. As a mentor or a person of privilege you should reflect on that PERSONAL privilege. If you’re a white man, consider how “normal” your American experience is when contrasted with those around you. Write it down and share it.
Keep learning. When I was putting this talk together, I first wanted to recommend that mentors — and we should all be mentors — work to change inner self-destructive narratives. We can be our own worst enemy in many ways, and the “imposter syndrome” problem is real. But in researching for this talk, I learned I still have much to learn. Yes, some who have been marginalized internalize a self- defeating mindset. But this is, in part, a rational response to structures and voices who have persistently communicated a message of incompetence.
A piece from Cate Huston deserves quoting here:
“What we call imposter syndrome often reflects the reality of an environment that tells marginalized groups that we shouldn’t be confident, that our skills aren’t enough, that we won’t succeed — and when we do, our accomplishments won’t even be attributed to us. Yet imposter syndrome is treated as a personal problem to be overcome, a distortion in processing rather than a realistic reflection of the hostility, discrimination, and stereotyping that pervades tech culture.”
A friend stepped in for junior associate who had traveled cross-country on business. He decided cut his travel short and get back home, as this was mid-March of 2020. He asked if his superior was going to advise the younger troop who had accompanied him to go home as well. The response: “She’s a big girl, she can speak up.” Instead, my friend spoke up, emailing her and copying him to let me know he was canceling the rest of the trip and she should join him. She was immediately grateful, as she didn’t feel she could speak up and couldn’t find a way to represent her best interests. Notice he didn’t ask her how he could help her, it wasn’t her problem to solve. You have to do more than just not reinforce asymmetric power, sometimes you will have to step up and speak out. You don’t ask someone trapped under a car what they need from you. You move the car.
Catherine Swetel (@CatSwetel) wrote a brief Twitter thread on being an ally recently. In preparing this talk, I reached out to listen to her ideas as well. Among them:
- Write a LinkedIn Recommendation for someone who doesn’t look like you. It’s still a resource used by those hiring.
- Ask someone you value what you can do to help them gain reputation or power.
- Once you have reflected on your journey, educate others — don’t make this the job of those who are struggling within the systems we helped create and enable.
And yes, always credit the source of your ideas.
Power is reinforced when language can become a barrier. Perhaps you noticed my use of “DITY” and “PCS” are not common terms out in the wild, but in the national security community they’re normal. Why use them? Because I served, and jargon is unique to most professions. But that jargon also presents a barrier when communicating with people who have not served in our profession, or newcomers to it. (“Do it yourself move” and “permanent change of station.”)
Giving of your time or money should never be transactional or conditional. You may engage in doing something in return for something, but if you’re doing it while wearing the mantle of ally, to help address imbalance, that is never done with conditions. Just do what you can and move on.
In the end, it’s about love. Lifting others rather than climbing over them. Seeing them in the moments they aren’t seen by others. Stepping back to make room. Pulling others up the ladder with you. Your legacy should be what you’ve done for others, especially those beyond your own tribe or family. Learn to love.