Fellow White Dudes: Let’s Roll a d20

Last week, I attended an unconference called ORD Camp. At the event, attendees create sessions together around their passions and expertise. Everyone is a “speaker”; there’s no hierarchy of VIPs and attendees. Participants this year included astronauts, public school teachers, national reporters, government officials, and radio and TV show hosts, to name just a few.

The organizers, Zach and Fitz, have been deliberate about inviting diverse participants. This year, they called me up and asked me to give a short introductory talk. A number of people have asked me to make it available, so I’m sharing it here, under the Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Hi! I’m a white dude. So are Fitz and Zach. They asked me to give a five minute talk to my fellow white dudes.

I’ll be honest – I’m terrified. Talking about race and gender is deeply uncomfortable for me.  It’s probably uncomfortable for you too. But that’s OK – we’re here to grow, and to learn, and we’ll stumble through it together.

As white dudes, I think we share some things in common.

  • We’re usually surrounded by lots of other white dudes. That’s significant, because humans feel more comfortable when we see people who look like us. And when we feel more comfortable, we’re more likely to participate, and be ourselves.
  • We’re raised in a society where it’s unusual that speaking up puts us in danger. Most of us don’t regularly stop to think – if I say this, am I putting myself in jeopardy?
  • We’re rewarded and encouraged for making our voices heard. Society expects us to take up a lot of room in the room, and many of us are raised to do that.

That can affect the way we interact with the world. And it can affect the way everyone else here interacts with each other, too.

Being a white dude means we have power and privilege.  And – there’s a set of default behaviors associated with power and privilege that can be pretty toxic to what we all want to accomplish here together at this event.

Five minutes isn’t enough time to unpack that. But it is long enough for me to give you a crash course in being an awesome participant here.  I’m going to give you a tool kit to make your ORD Camp experience better for yourself AND better for all of our non-white-dude friends. Which is literally everyone else!

Here’s the secret.  When you’re in sessions, you’ll find yourself experiencing them two ways: speaking/teaching, and listening/learning.  A common white dude default, certainly my default, is speaking/teaching – even when, perhaps, we’re not the world’s greatest authority on the topic. But this event is amazing, because we have a chance to listen and learn from truly amazing experts.

So this weekend, join me in trying something different. Make your ORD Camp about listening instead of talking.  And because I’m terrible at this and know how hard it can be, I’ve got three pieces of advice.

  1. Plan ahead for the panels you’re going to teach and the ones where you’re going to learn. Pick a couple where you’re an expert and participate actively. Pick a dozen where you’re not and be a great listener.
  2. Take notes for yourself.  Jot down what’s being said – you’ll get more from the session, and, crucially, it makes it easier to keep your mouth shut. I say this as someone who has a lot of trouble keeping his mouth shut.
  3. Look around the room and do the math. 20 people? Every time something interesting happens, roll a d20 in your head, and speak up on a natural 20. To make this easier to remember, I brought a bag of one hundred 20-sided dice, which you can find on the table outside. Please take one. If someone in your panel needs a reminder to make space for others, just playing with your d20 might do the trick.

Finally, a cautionary tale: at ORD camp two years ago I was in a session on underrepresentation in tech. Most of the attendees were underrepresented people in tech. Most of the words were spoken by white dudes.  It was embarrassing. Fellow white dudes, let’s not be those dudes.

ORD camp is amazing. We have very little time and so many amazing people to share that time with. Let’s make the most of it: reduce our footprint and make room for other voices. Spend more time listening and less time speaking. Speaking of which… thank you.

Special thanks to my dear friend Anita, whose compassionate critique of an early draft saved it from being much, much worse. Anything good is hers, anything lousy is mine.  

The aftermath of this talk was incredible, and I’m still processing it. I had a lot of conversations about topics I’ve never really explored before, with people of all backgrounds, who wanted to discuss this.

On top of that, I was asked to serve on the first ORD Camp Code of Conduct Committee (yes, as the representative white dude).  The whole experience was incredible, and I’m still thinking about its impact on me. More on that to come.

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