Be Your Full Amazing Self with Sydette Harry
Have a love-hate relationship with social media? So do we. In Episode 7, we explore the joys and perils of visibility, and talk with Sydette Harry, an expert in online communities.
Trolls, randos, and straight-up neo-Nazis: being a woman online can be tough. This week, we’re exploring how we make choices about what and whether to share online.
Our guest this week is the inimitable writer, editor, and tech/media critic, Sydette Harry, also known as @blackamazon. She’s an editor at Mozilla and part of the Coral Project, which is working to create healthier communities and comments sections. She’s also smart as hell, exquisitely blunt, and committed to talking about what’s wrong online in the voice she grew up with.
Yes, in a lot of ways I am more diverse than the average person who shows up to a lot of these things. We’re not going to lie about that. I am, by virtue of being black and female, even though I am a cis, able-bodied person, I am more diverse than the people you usually have in there. That being said, I’m still an Ivy League graduate. I’m still a person of a certain education… So when you say that I am “diversity,” let’s all be clear here: you ain’t doin’ that well, fam. You’re not doing that good.
Here’s what we cover—and of course, we’ve got a full transcript, too.
Plus: Jenn moves her sports talk to Facebook, Katel closes the tab and never looks back, and we all wonder whether Klout still exists. (Sara used to be influential in burritos. Just saying.)
Interview: Sydette Harry
Get comfortable, because you won’t want to miss a second of Sydette’s searing commentary on tech culture, Twitter, journalism, race, gender, and weight. We talk about:
- The Prep for Prep program, the Bronx is Burning era, and the limitations of teaching kids from under-resourced areas how to fit into elite circles.
- Presentation voice, “home” voice, and the politics of code-switching (or not).
- Rebuilding life and family in the wake of her father’s deportation under IIRIRA.
- Managing polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), getting medical care in a fat-phobic society, and how dramatic weight loss changed the way Sydette was treated.
Fuck Yeah of the Week: Ladies Get Paid
We’ve talked a lot on the show about wages, being underpaid, and how hard it can be to negotiate at work. So this week, we give a fuck yeah to a group educating and empowering cis and trans women and non-binary or gender non-conforming folks to get paid fairly.
Check out Ladies Get Paid for workshops, town hall conversations, and more.
This episode of NYG is brought to you by:
WordPress—the place to build your personal blog, business site, or anything else you want on the web. WordPress helps others find you, remember you, and connect with you.
Katel LeDû [Ad spot] This episode of No, You Go is brought to you by our friends at Shopify, the leading global commerce platform for entrepreneurs like me! And A Book Apart. Are you looking to join forces with a diverse, intelligent, and motivated team? Well Shopify has great news: they’re hiring more awesome people to join them and they don’t just want you to apply to them, they want to apply you. Visit shopify.com/careers to see what they’re all about [music fades in].
Jenn Lukas [Music fades out] Welcome to No, You Go, the show about being ambitious—and sticking together. I’m Jenn Lukas.
KL I’m Katel LeDû
Sara Wachter-Boettcher And I’m Sara Wachter-Boettcher.
JL Today we’re talking about online personas, communities, and our love/hate relationship with social media. What do we want out of it? And how do we decide how visible to be in a world that’s full of trolls and randos constantly popping into your mentions to tell you that you’re wrong? We’re also joined by Sydette Harry, who works with Mozilla and the Coral Project on building healthier online communities and comments sections. We’ll talk about how race and gender play a role in what happens online.
SWB Hey, do you all remember last year when Lindy West quit Twitter?
JL No, what happened?
SWB Ok, so Lindy is a writer and a comedian, and she had this book come out called Shrill, which is a memoir. And she’s awesome. And she was one of my favorite voices on Twitter, and then one day last January she just deactivated, and she ended up writing about it in The Guardian. She did it on the day that, at the time, our president-elect was taunting North Korea about nuclear weapons on Twitter. And she was just like, I’ve had enough. So she wrote in The Guardian that, you know, “For the past five years, has been a machine where I put in unpaid work and tension headaches come out.” She talks about how she’s used it to write jokes for free, post political commentary for free, answer questions for free, do feminism 101 for free, and she wrote that, you know, “Off Twitter these are all things by which I make my living, but on Twitter I do them pro bono. And in return I’m micromanaged in real time by strangers, neo-Nazis mine my personal life for vulnerabilities to exploit, and men enjoy unfettered direct access to my brain, so they can inform me, for the thousandth time, that they would gladly rape me if I weren’t so fat.”
So she’s been off Twitter for a year, and I’ve been wondering, is Lindy going to come back? Because she was also somebody who I really looked to for interesting insight and conversation. And as much as I really understand everything she’s saying and I agree with it, quitting Twitter also feels impossible to me because it’s something I’ve relied on for such a long time, sort of personally and professionally. Well, Lindy is not coming back. So earlier this month she wrote a new piece called “I Quit Twitter and it Feels Great.” And she wrote about what her life is like now. She’s like, “I don’t wake up with a pit in my stomach every day… I don’t get dragged into protracted, bad-faith arguments with teenage boys about whether poor people deserve medical care… I don’t spend hours every week blocking and reporting trolls.” And I think about this a lot because like I also am spending more time than I would like to on that kind of shit. But at the same time, I love so much about Twitter, and about social media in general, there’s a lot of stuff that it’s really connected me to. And so it made me really curious, like, how are you all negotiating this? How do you think about your visibility online? Do you feel like you’re making choices as a result of all of that crap?
JL Well that sounds lovely, I have to say, to some extent. But I have not followed that same path.
KL Yeah, I mean, well Sara and I, actually, we were really lucky: we just saw Lindy speak at an event and I actually really liked something that she said about Twitter and Facebook, those platforms, they want you to and they’re really banking on you to think that they’re the only way, the only way that you can connect with other people. And like while that’s bullshit, we know at the core, it’s really hard, like you were just saying, Sara. I mean this is a lot of how we have gotten to know each other, and a lot of people that we’re friends with, and have made really good connections to work. So I don’t know, I mean, I think it’s trying to find some kind of balance, but I don’t know. I look at both of you and I don’t participate that much on Twitter or Facebook, I guess, but I was thinking back on this. When I was really starting to feel like I had something, maybe, to say, or like I would feel comfortable saying something on Twitter, I was watching all these people that I really loved and cared about getting completely trashed just for like existing there. And I got really scared. So I think that’s why I haven’t really put myself out there at all.
JL I think one of the things that I find hard to grasp about Twitter is Twitter now versus Twitter 10 years ago.
JL And I feel like I still have this … like love relationship with Twitter, for the Twitter that I loved 10 years ago, which I just felt was way more focused on specific technology news, which is what I was looking for at the time, and sort of what I was really more putting out was technology news.
And now it’s so much more. And, you know, it’s sort of — when people are like, “Oh, I long for the good ol’ days!” And part of me is like, “Oh! But Twitter used to be this!” And I’m like, “But just because it used to be something doesn’t mean it is that or ever will be again. And I think for me that’s sort of trying to find how much I still interact with it is definitely not how much I used to.
SWB And I mean like of course it’s changed, right? It’s a big platform and it has so much power to get the news to everybody in the world really quickly and some of that stuff is amazing, but it is also overwhelming and can be a little difficult, I think, to handle the kind of like context-shifting of somebody wanting to tell me about some article they wrote that’s relevant to user experience that I might want to read about for work. But then also, here’s the latest absolutely batshit thing the president said,” and then also, “here’s somebody with a really funny joke and a dog picture,” which I like. Don’t get rid of those [KL chuckles]. And then all of a sudden we go to the latest tragedy. And I think that that mishmash of everything is hard. It’s almost like a context collapse, right? Like there is no context anymore. It’s all just in this one weird stream. And I recognize that I have control. I can unfollow. I can create channels that I want to use. I can put people into this or that list, I can follow those certain lists for certain things, but that’s not really how I like to use Twitter. That’s not — then I feel like it’s a job to manage it [uh huh! Yeah! Yes! Right][laughing], and I don’t really want that job. But the thing is, it’s also a really powerful place where I’ve met so many great people, and has been super important to my career, and I hear this a lot from women, especially, who feel like that’s where they were able to find networks and establish some professional footing, and yet … if I have to have one more conversation with some rando who wants to explain the topic of my book back to me, I’m going to lose it.
JL I think, for me, I’ve had transition what I post on Twitter over the years. So first starting on Twitter I would post about any random thought that popped into my head, a lot of sports, and then also, because my focus is in engineering and technology, a lot of development news, and one of the things I found is I’d get a lot of feedback from people that would be like, “Oh. It’s baseball season. I should unfollow Jenn Lukas because she’s tweeting about sports again.” And I was like, “Hey!” But then part of me is like, well, you know what? What I go to Twitter for is to read technology news, and so I just sort of took that at that time and was like, you know what I’m going to do? My Twitter account is going to focus more on development, engineering, UX, UI, links, things I write, that sort of subject, and then I moved all my more personal thoughts, including sports, cuz that’s personal [laughter]. My love of the Eagles is very personal!
KL Gets personal.
SWB I’ve seen Jenn do a football dance, it’s extremely personal! [Laughter.]
JL But I moved that all to Facebook where I found the audience sort of matched better what I was doing there. So more local friends, more of the people that wanted to hear more about that, and where with the comments on Facebook, I could have more conversations about those personal things. Whereas Twitter where it’s a megaphone versus a two-way conversation there mostly. So there I kept things that were more announcements and then moved things conversational to Facebook. And, like you said though, Sara, you get into this weird context switching. So that’s worked for me and I think it’s worked really well, but there are times where I’ll go to Twitter and I’ll be like, “Oh. I want to post about this thing I wrote.” But then there’s a school shooting and, for me, I can’t look at this stuff and be like, yeah, lemme tell you about a new variable font on the web when there was just a shooting in Florida, and that feels super weird for me. And those are the times where I don’t really even know how to handle social media.
SWB How could anybody, right? Like we’re dealing with a world that communicates in such an always-on kind of way, and I don’t know that anybody has figured out what to do with that, and what is a healthy way to deal with that. I sometimes feel like I end up spending all of this time kind of hemming and hawing and debating about whether I should post anything at all. And in a way that I never used to do. And so like, for example, I will sit there and think through the various potential outcomes like, “If I’m going to say something that’s kind of funny, is this something where somebody is going to not get the joke and then they’re going to get mad, and then they’re going to snowball from there? Is this a thing that I’m going to have to be explaining the joke to people all day? Is this a thing where I’m going to have to be, like, defending my own credibility to talk about this subject? Like what kind of labor am I going to have to put in to manage this?” And then also I start thinking like, “Well how does this fit into the overall context of other things that I post?”
And where I used to be just like, “Here’s a funny, random thought that I had on my way to the bank!” And it was OK. I’ve stopped feeling like that, and I’ve actually found that it’s almost like I have, in some ways, less faith in myself over knowing what I want to be communicating, which is a little bit unsettling.
KL Yeah. You’re second-guessing yourself. I mean that’s where my anxiety paralysis comes in really handy because I just don’t do it [laughing] and then I walk away, and then I’m like, “All right, wait till the next decision.”
JL And I totally get those feelings. I have them too. I’ve actually been trying to force myself to tweet more, but, again, because I write and I make a podcast with two wonderful friends, and I have to get that out there somehow because I want to share that with people. So I still have that. Like, I would love to quit Twitter, but I also want to keep sharing, and I want to keep seeing what other people are doing, too [KL yeah], and, for me, I haven’t found the exact medium to replace that yet.
SWB Well, and also, like, when you do things like have a podcast and write a book or whatever, a lot of the success of those things ends up coming down to your ability to promote yourself. And, even if you have, for example, for my book, I mean, I have publishers, they have PR people, they’ve done a lot of stuff, but if I weren’t doing the work too, it just doesn’t go anywhere. And part of that work is making it visible and so then, then you get into this space where you feel like, “Is all I’m doing posting about my own projects? My own like —”
KL Building your own personal brand.
SWB Yeah, like, “Hey! Subscribe to my podcast!”
JL My Klout score!
KL [Laughing] Oh my god!
JL Does that still exist?
KL I don’t know.
SWB I remember opting out of that but, at one point, I was influential in burritos [laughter]. Thank you very much.
JL What?! I would eat a burrito with you.
KL That’s amazing! [Music fades in.]
SWB [Music fades out.][Ad spot] If you’ve visited noyougoshow.com, then you know it’s the center of our online presence. Well, we built it on WordPress. We love WordPress because it’s super easy to customize, has great customer support, and comes with lots of features that make publishing our podcast, or pretty much anything else, really easy. It’s no surprise that nearly 30 percent of all websites run on WordPress. Plans start at just four dollars a month. Start building your website today! Go to wordpress.com/noyougo for 15 percent off any new plan purchase. That’s wordpress.com/noyougo for 15 percent off your brand new website! [Music fades in and out.][End of ad spot.]
SWB A few years ago, I realized that way too much of the media I was consuming was coming from white people. And something I started doing was really paying more attention to where I was getting news and where I was getting information, and I started seeking out a lot of different writers, people of color who were involved in the public in some way, journalists. And along the way I obviously started paying attention to lots of big names: Roxane Gay or Ta-Nehisi Coates. But after awhile I feel like a whole new world opened up for me, and one of the voices that stuck out to me almost immediately was Sydette Harry, who is probably better known as @blackamazon on Twitter. Sydette, I hope, does not mind me saying that she is a force, and I have learned a lot by listening to her and watching her have conversations about everything from immigration to online harassment to black culture that I didn’t know anything about. And I am just so elated that she took the time to be on the show today. Sydette, welcome to No, You Go!
Sydette Harry Thank you! Thank you for having me!
SWB So I’m really happy to have you here and to hear more about how you ended up doing what you do. So the way I understand it, you are currently running editorial at Mozilla, and I’d love to hear more about how you ended up there and what that day-to-day looks like.
SH Ok. So. What it is — I am the editor of the Foundation website and editor of the Network. So my real goal is to develop processes and systems and discussions. I was like, “How do people talk? How do you get online? How do we get stuff out?” Really shifting from the kind of traditional like, oh this is a Foundation and we kind of do these things, into a, so how do we start a global push towards something Mozilla has called internet health. They’re writing reports on it, there are fellowships around it, but this discussion of how do you know that the internet you use is healthy and sustainable and useful for you? And that it works for what you want to get done and what you want to do in life. And I think that that is super, super important to think about in a way that is informed by my experience online. My experience online is that I am from Far Rock. It is a two-hour train ride, if you are very, very lucky. And it became very, very apparent to me that if I wanted to — once, and I was also, right after I graduated from college, so that was one of the first colleges to get Facebook.
So it was like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Penn. And it’s like, “Oh! We have Facebook. Yay us.” And there was also very much — at the same time, my father got deported the year I graduated college. And then the economy tanked in around 2007. So … there becomes this very big thing of, “How do I navigate this idea where I’m leaving this place of great privilege, where I’m leaving this great place of, oh, you have everything available to you in ways that you never had before,’” and it’s now you are part of a broken family. Literally broken: they took your father and they deported him. And you are not — and you were told at your very, very expensive graduation: “This is how you will amass the world and blah blah blah blee da blee blee.” And you now have no job, you’re going back to your house, and you’re going to have to try and rebuild your life from what is, essentially, a very traumatic place. And I have a background in theater, so my thought was, “I now have a forum to talk!” And ever since then I have been commenting on anybody who’ll give me a password and some access. And I tried everything. But my actual training was history and theater and dramaturgy and pipes and processes. So while I was doing that commentary, I became very interested in, “How does this work? How does this apply to communication theory? How does this work for what we’re doing?” And, through that and writing and commentary — I had a blog called Having Read The Fine Print — trying to get into this space of so how do we know what we’re doing is correct? And how do we know that what we’re doing is useful? Because that is a huge question. And Coral had seen some of my work, and they hired me, and I’ve been working from that ever since.
SWB OK, so Coral Project. I’m a big fan of the Coral Project, which has been working on making comment systems more healthy and humane for quite some time. Can you tell us a little bit more about the Coral Project?
SH Coral Project was started in 2014. People got together and said, “Comments are terrible.” So it’s The New York Times, The Washington Post, Knight Foundation. We were under Open News, and we are now under Mozilla. And we worked out of The New York Times building. It was like, “So how do we build better comments?” The first person hired was the project lead, the general, Andrew Losowsky, and I call him The General because [laughing] he always gets so — he’s like, “Why do you call me The General?!?” And I was like, “Partially because it makes you blush,” and also it was right around the time of Hamilton [laughter]. We’re like, “OK, you’re The General.” But he does not make me call him that. But — and then I was the second hire.
And then we were working with our tech leads, and one of the things we came to really quickly was that it wasn’t enough to focus just on comments, we had to look at how communities were sorted. So people were like, “We’re going to write guides on how to use better comments.” And it was going to be research on comments and then it was like — as we were talking, we were like, “All of this stems from larger systemic problems, larger editorial problems.” If you really want to talk about why your comments are bad, you have to talk about how you set up your community online because the experiences of community, even communities that deal with some heavy, heavy stuff, have a wide range. There are communities that deal with some of the most traumatic things that are genial, well-run, not to say that they are always perfect, but there’s a real sense of community there. And then there are communities that deal with what I think would be like pretty superficial things in the sense of — on top they’re superficial, but the same issues show up and they become important, and they implode often. And communities can implode really quickly. And it’s like, why does that happen? What leads to that happening? And how do we talk about that?
SWB In that work, it sounds like, you know, your experience firsthand commenting anywhere and everywhere during this really difficult moment of your life was directly applied there. Can you talk more about how you brought that experience into Coral?
SH The way I think about it is I try to create communities where, depending on how I’m acting, it would not be at all difficult to kick me out. And I think that that’s important. And people always, like, stutter. It’s like, I try to create communities that are supportive of the least—the people who have the least advantage, the least resources, the least training, to become a member. And I want to continue to make people aware of what it’s like to try to be a member of these communities. And there are some communities where I’m like, “If I was a moderator of the community, I would put myself out.” And that’s good. And that is how you really have to think about these things, and not because it’s some level of altruism, but it’s very much the first question we ask all the time: who is your community for? Who do you want this community to serve? And how do you make your community represent that? Because what happens with a lot of people is, “Oh, we just had — we just had a community and then we didn’t do anything.” And I am like, “Well, you did do something.” Whether or not you believe you made it.
No choice is a choice. Because people see that you didn’t make that choice, you didn’t do whatever you said you were going to do, and they very much responded accordingly. If they are the type of people who take advantage of these things, they did that. If they are the type of people who are very likely to be targeted by violence and see that you don’t do anything, they stop responding. They stop being involved. And that is a choice. And with Coral it became varied things from, do not look for the quick fix of “tech will build a tool” or “this will be the tool” or whatever. It’s very much about, so, “this is what you want to do. How have you built it in that this is what you can do? And this is something that you had given space for your community to be able to do? Have you done that?”
SWB Yeah, totally, that makes a lot of sense, and I think about a lot of this in the context of something really big that many of our listeners would have familiarity with, like Twitter. They spent a really long time with such a hands-off approach, and with this idea that somehow they were going to be the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” as they said so many times, and therefore their approach to their community was that they weren’t a community, right? They’re just a platform. And the result is, well, they’ve been entirely unable to deal with harassment and abuse on their platform for years and years and years after many people, including you, have told them about it.
SH Oh. So one of the things that constantly happens now that I’ve moved from commenting about tech to working in tech is, I don’t ever want to hear the word “scale” again. It has started to become like — I start to get twitchy a little. Because people use scale as an excuse to not talk about very basic stuff. And it bothers my soul. Because ultimately what people want to know is, how are you going to take care of them? And people go, “Well, it doesn’t scale! We’re not in scale!” And I’m like, “Well, that’s nice. What are you going to do for the people inundated right now? If you’re working on it, let’s be honest.” There’s also this myth of the early adopter and what early adopter tends to mean is early adopter with social capital, not actual early adopter. Because I found out very quickly that I was actually — I’m actually one of the first people to adopt Twitter. I’ve been on Twitter for nine years. And I didn’t know that. Because I had never considered myself among the [in mocking voice] “early adopters” because I was never talked about in that fashion. And part of the reason that I wasn’t talked about in that fashion is because I didn’t have social capital when I was an early adopter. Now I have it. And I’m like, oh! OK, so that’s what that means. That’s what you are talking about when you say “early adopter,” you basically are trying to say “someone who matters to us.”
SWB Well, yeah, and at Twitter it was very much conceived of people who are like us … “us” being the founders. And who were the founders of Twitter? It’s a bunch of young, white guys. And so I think that they certainly were not thinking about people particularly different from them as being part of those early adopters. But the way I understand it there are tons of stats going back maybe not a full 10 years ago, but at least eight or so years ago, around adoption of Twitter by black people, and how high the black user base was of Twitter, and I just think they didn’t even think enough about it to even consider caring about it.
SH And it’s not easy in the way folks want to talk about it. It’s — there is a — “do you have beef with @jack @Twitter @support?” Of course. But that’s not the thing I want to focus on. It’s not the thing that I care most about. The thing I care most about is, how is this affecting who we look at, and who we take care of, and how we take care of them? Because very simply, very, very simply: the way we talk about and look at abuse, the way this is designed isn’t good. And the reason it’s not good is because it hasn’t been designed well, it hasn’t been considered well, and it’s because, and this is my new thing, is that nobody who has a social science degree or had a social science focus sat there and thought about what happens when you get a large black population. What happens when you get a large population of abusers and harassers and things like that? How do you successfully set up your experience? Not a free speech wing in the free speech party, but what does each specific user get when they step on? And that’s very much what I often rave about is the racism and the sexism and the Nazis. I’ve talked about that in public. You can look that up. But what is very hard for me, and a lot of times, and this is what most scares me about it, is the difficulty it is to get people to focus on: so how are you going to help a user in this case? How is this one person going to get what they need from you? Right now? Not at scale.
Not at scale. Because that’s the word everybody likes to bring out. “We’re going to talk about scale. We’re going to talk about scale.” And I’m like, “When are we talking about the specific person? And it’s very hard to get people to think about that and talk about that because they almost have an innate sense of shame of like, “Well, we really didn’t think about that.” And I could probably use a lot more curse words when I say it. It’s like, I’m completely uninterested in how bad you feel about the fact you didn’t do it before. I want to know how you’re going to do it now.
SWB Yeah, you know, I think so much of that reluctance, like you were saying, kind of comes back to shame that they didn’t think about it, and then also that — that fear of looking it dead in the eyes, right? Like when you look at it at scale only, you don’t have to think about the individual people, and as soon as you’re asked to think about the individual people, that becomes a human-level problem that is, you know, is a little bit painful to look at. And avoidance is powerful.
So something I would love to talk more about because I think it’s really relevant to this conversation is something I’ve heard you speak about a lot more recently, which is making this argument that the voices we hear in news and the voices that we hear online are not representative of people, like, where you’re from.
SH There is very much a non-acknowledgement, especially coming into media, and I have it from a really specific perspective. I am a member of a program called Prep for Prep … which is, it’s specifically designed to try and address systemic equality. So it’s about 40 years old. It was started in 1978, right around “the Bronx is burning.” President Ford basically tells the city, go burn in a fire. We don’t have any resources. And how do you take kids who are under-resourced by the city and whatever and what-have-you, and make them into the leaders, the people who are going to be the dreamers coming out of the progressive sixties and seventies? And the way they thought about it was, you are going to equip the kids who show the most ability to endure — straight up just endure — and high IQs and certain psychological profiles. You’re going to put them through academic, like, basically bootcamp, and you’re going to put them into the NYSAIS system. NYSAIS system being the New York State Alliance of Independent Schools. These are private schools so old that some are older than Harvard and Yale, and some are of age of Harvard and Yale. This is old, old money that can link itself back to the Oxbridge. And what happens with Prep is that you develop a machine to address the fact that we may not have resources and all of that, and we become trained in being leaders, and you do that for 14 months. I did that. I started that when I was nine. This is all going on in the middle of the crack eighties, in the middle of Reagan America, in the middle of the nineties, this is happening while IIRIRA, which is ultimately what my father was deported on, was being signed into law. And at this time, I’m doing a two-hour commute back and forth from Far Rock to Trinity Day School. And I ultimately ended up graduating from Poly Prep… about how this is how you’ll make your mark on the world, this is how you’ll make your world better is that you learn how to be among power.
And we mentioned beforehand a lot about code-switching and talking. I also have the experience that I’m a first-generation American. So my general speaking voice is not my speaking, speaking voice, because there’s a voice that very much a lot of people recognize as “home” voice. And it’ll come out in certain words I say but there was very much this, “You are on presentation. You are on presentation.” And then I graduated from college and it all broke down. It wasn’t — like I had done my best, I graduated from college two years early, and there wasn’t a there there for me. And, most importantly, there, to this day, I don’t think in a full encapsulation of who I am, there is a there for me. I go in often, I’m not alone, but I may be the only of my specific background in a room. I might be the only person with my specific sense of experiences in a room, often. And especially post having like a job in tech and a job in news. And these are decision-making rooms. What became important for me is that I didn’t want to have the conversations that I had been taught to have, which were, “Prove that you deserve to be there, and then make it so everyone knows that you are of a certain class.” Because what I actually want to have is, like, these are actually really simple things, and these are tools, and these are mediums designed for everybody. So if you are saying you are going to design for anybody, and you cannot understand me when I try to speak as clearly as possible but in the voice that I speak when I am comfortable and with myself and fully aligned with all of my experiences and my full self, you are not doing your job. This isn’t my fault.
SH Code-switching is a very real thing, but there is also a lack of looking at how for a lot of folks and for a lot of things, you speak multiple languages and there are multiple layers to how you speak. You are forming your use through who you are. And what does it say about these platforms and these places that they can’t support you being your full self? And I find too often at certain engagements when I talk to people, specifically within tech and sometimes journalism, there is a deep, deep jump into jargon, into non-understandability, and I’m just like, “No! We are going to talk about it using language everyone can understand, because that’s what we’re supposed to do.” So we can talk about scale, we can talk about pipeline, we can talk about design, I’m conversant in all of that. I’m conversant in all of that in almost three languages. At the end of the day, am I still dealing with a Nazi or am I not? Am I still dealing with an inaccessible piece of a tool, or am I not? If I am still dealing about that, and me and you have sat here for three hours having a conversation that makes us both feel very smart, but then we didn’t do no shit, we weren’t successful! For me it’s like, you can or you can’t. And how are you communicating to people about whether or not you have the ability? How are you communicating to people about whether or not they can expect this of you? And a lot of this is not even — it’s funny to talk of language, it’s not necessarily about what your answer is, it’s about how you talk to people. So you get a lot of this, it’s like, this person is speaking on high and is telling me that they can or cannot do this thing. Or they will or will not do this thing. Because they don’t think that I deserve to actually know, straight up, that you don’t actually have the capacity to deal with the fact that Nazis are coming for me? Or it’s not on your number-one to-do list? But you wonder why people are mad?”
SWB Right, right, yeah, like, “Oh let’s definitely spend 30 minutes explaining to you why we haven’t done it yet,” instead of just saying, “You know what? This isn’t one of our priorities.” Like at least if they were honest about where it sits on the priority list, it would be refreshing in some ways.
SH And in some ways I think sometimes they’re not even sure. Like, “it is a high priority, but we have no idea of how to attack it.” OK then. So if you don’t know how to attack it, and you’ve been working on it for how long? Maybe you need some new people in the room to answer that question for you. You might want to talk to some new people. I don’t know. That might be an option.
SWB Right, like perhaps there are people with expertise that you don’t have and that you have not previously recognized as even being experts in the first place. So, you know, something you talked about a little bit in there that I was really interested in and I’d love to go back to a little bit more is you talked about sort of your upbringing and going through this really intensive Prep program and it being very much about, you know, I guess I would put as like bringing you from where you’re from, bringing you to a more privileged and richer, white culture. And it sounds like one of your frustrations is this idea that that is only happening in that direction. Right? It’s like, OK, we can give somebody like you some new opportunities or give you access to these communities that you maybe otherwise wouldn’t know how to get access to, but there’s not a lot of effort to go to those communities or to understand people there or to meet people where they’re at. Is that part of the way that you would see that problem?
SH Definitely! And it’s something where I’m always very particular to talk about is that, yes, in a lot of ways I am more diverse than the average person who shows up to a lot of these things. We’re not going to lie about that. I am, by virtue of being black and female, even though I am a cis, able-bodied person, I am more diverse than the people you usually have in there. [Sings] That being said [finishes singing], I’m still an Ivy League graduate. I’m still a person of a certain education. I’m still the kind of person who would survive and go through all of these things. So when you say that I am diversity, let’s all be clear here: you ain’t doin’ that well, fam. You’re not doing that good.
So what bothers me is not so much that people are creating exclusionary products, that is problematic to me in and of itself, but often what truly, truly disturbs me is that they’re exclusionary and nobody seems to know that they are. So everybody’s like, “Yeah, we make this for everybody!” And I’m like, “According to what?!” You can make a really great business just off of catering to you and your friend set if you know their income, if you know their strides. And that is so, to me, completely acceptable and wonderful, and if you can make a business model off of that, awesome! The issue I have is that there are people who are like, you don’t admit that you’re making it just for your friends. You really think everybody lives like this, and you do not have a feedback loop for anybody to tell you you’re wrong.
SWB I know that you’ve talked recently about losing weight and the shifting way that people treat you since then.
Can you tell us a little bit more about what that’s been like?
SH Sure! I mean, I had what is called a vertical sleeve gastrectomy, and they cut out half of my stomach, because I have a condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome. It’s very prevalent, usually among lower-income African American women. And it can lead to anything from sensitivity to insulin to death, and it’s not well-studied. And when you live in a fat-phobic society, I was experiencing problems all my life with my reproductive system. And finally there was a just a moment of, OK, I have to get this done. I have to be able to live my life in a really specific way, and if I want to have children, I need to be able to do this. So I went from being about a size 26 to a size 12, 14. I’m on the teetering edge.
And it is not accidental to me in any way, shape, or form, that people are kinder to me. People are nicer to me. People also occupy my space more, so that there is a lot of this where I’m like, “Oh I understand what women say now, when they say that there is a lot of physical imposition,” because — I’m very tall, I’m about 5’11,” but I was also about 350 pounds. So I never dealt with people trying to physically impose me, because that was not necessarily a fight they thought they could win. Now at about 230 pounds, I am — I look more like an average woman. And I realize that people will be up in my space more. Men will try to physically intimidate me more. And it was never something I thought about.
And it also makes me very aware of the idea of … there are times when I see my ideas get accepted better. They are just accepted more readily because I am in — I look different. You don’t understand how badly you’ve been treated until you stop getting treated that badly.
SWB You’ve done so much work to bring this thinking to tech and to media and to start conversations that I think are painful and difficult for people in those industries. What are you hoping to do next? Like what’s on your radar that you really want to focus on this next year?
SH We might be denying amazing people the ability to fully live their lives. We might be denying amazing folks the ability to fully express themselves, to fully deal with the work and the joy that they have in themselves, and that is… that is what — if somebody was like, “What really like pisses you off?” I’m like, “That’s what pisses me off.” The idea that we’re not — we’re creating a world where folks cannot be their full, amazing selves. And that is something that we have to look at. And what I hope this year is to do more work that allows folks to be their full, amazing selves, to be fully present, fully active … in their work and their joy — and that allows that for me too. I’m not above anybody. I’m part of that set.
SWB Yeah, that’s amazing. Well, I, for one, definitely want you to be able to live your full life and be your full self, and also continue to do the amazing work that you’ve been doing for the community that you come from and for all kinds of marginalized communities. So I’m so thankful that we got to talk to you about all of this today.
SH Yeah! I’m always glad to talk [music fades in] with you about it.
JL [Music fades out] let’s keep the awesome going: we got any Fuck Yeahs this week?
KL Heck we do! Our Fuck Yeah of the Week is Ladies Get Paid. It is a newsletter I just signed up for, and it’s not just a newsletter, it’s like a community. And it’s really awesome because in the newsletter, which comes weekly, you get news and info and all sorts of great heads up about webinars and workshops all over the United States. Like meetups to get drinks and advice from peers and potential mentors, it’s really cool. And it sort of covers everything from like practical advice for how to take advantage of a vacation when you’re not, let’s say, really good at letting go, like me. So it’s just — it’s really nice, and I think it’s also cool because it shows you where things are in not necessarily real time but it’s like, “Hey, there’s a thing tonight,” or “There’s a thing tomorrow.” And you could go there and learn how to negotiate better.
JL I see there’s a “Ladies get drinks in Hawaii”!
KL Oh, we should do that one.
JL We should definitely do that one.
SWB So the entire thing for Ladies Get Paid, it’s about, like, teaching women negotiating skills and that kind of thing, or what?
KL Yeah, it’s like negotiating how to get more money or a raise, or step into leadership positions when you’re not sure, you know, how to quite do that.
SWB I totally love this idea and I’m going to check it out, because I know on the show we’ve talked about things like wage equity a bunch of times, and sort of like some of the issues that we’ve had ourselves. A couple of episodes ago, you were talking about kind of being backed into a corner by a boss and like asked to agree to salary in a phone booth room, as opposed to having any time to think about it. And I think, you know, so many of us could really use some of that feedback from other people and practice having these conversations when they’re in sort of low-stakes environments. So I think that’s like a perfect complement to stuff that keeps on coming up on the show.
KL Yeah, absolutely, it’s just really nice to know that there’s a whole bunch of resources out there for this and ways that you can actually talk to other people who are going through the same thing and people that you could learn sort of techniques from.
SWB So do they have like a chapters in different cities kind of thing?
KL Yeah, I know there’s one in New York and they actually just — they did their first conference, which was kind of cool. And that was, I think, just in the last month or so in New York. And they’re taking that on the road. So they’ll be in Seattle next. But I know that there are meetups and stuff all over the place.
SWB So that’s a pretty cool concept for anybody who was sitting at home, listening to one of our previous episodes where we were talking about wages and talking about, like, how do you have these conversations with your friends? Try to find a community like that, and if there isn’t one near you, maybe it’s time to start creating these kinds of things.
KL Fuck yeah.
SWB & JL Fuck yeah!
SWB That’s it for this week’s episode of No, You Go, the show about being ambitious—and sticking together. NYG is recorded in our home city of Philadelphia, and produced by Steph Colbourn. Our theme music is by The Diaphone. Thanks to Sydette Harry for being our guest today. If you like what you’ve been hearing, please go ahead and give us a rating on Apple Podcasts, and tell your friends about No, You Go. We’d love to have them here! We’ll be back next week [music fades in] with another great guest [music ramps up to end].