Saturday, January 13, 2018

Living life in the median

Inspired by the Damore/Google lawsuit I want to talk a bit about my experience living life in the medians. Empathy is hard, and conformity is easy. When you never seem to stand out it makes it hard to empathize with those that do. Not taking steps to stand out becomes easy and comfortable. Your experiences are so incredibly “normal” by all of your measures that it becomes typical to just assume that everyone around you experiences the same. That assumption ends up being very wrong, and the resulting cognitive dissonance is jarring.

When life just seems like a mirror

Without a brief bio I cannot back my claim of being average. My family history traces back to European lines, but the genealogists have traced back to the American Revolution and beyond. Any specific Old World culture artifacts have been sufficiently diluted away. A white family that grew up around where my patriarch grandfather farmed his land after fighting in World War II. Through my time in high school there was one student that presented as black, though I later learned that one of my classmates’ father was black too. We are not a racist family, that was always driven in. Sure, the grandfather was an Archie Bunker type that never managed to see he was laughing at himself during All in the Family. His example was taught as what not to be. Generally, treat non-white people with utmost respect, just don’t question why they were not in the school, church, local business owners, or social clubs. We were just Normal people. My immediate family was a working father, stay at home mother (first and only marriage for both), three boys, and a dog: the textbook nuclear family at a time when “nuclear family” was being preached as The Family Unit.

Sunday was Mass, occasionally Saturday night, while Wednesday was for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (only ever called CCD). Sure, this did make us stand out a little… Sunday Mass was just something us Catholics attended. Many of our neighbors and classmates were different… other Christian denominations. They also typically attended service on Sunday and religious education on Wednesday. Even the families that didn’t regularly attend still knew that those times were blocked off. It was so expected that adults, my parents included, would be vocally upset if coaches, teachers, or others dared to schedule Wednesday nights. Wednesday was Off Limits because it was expected, it was Normal, that the children would be attending Christian religious ed.
Well, there was one Wednesday without CCD classes - Source
I was hetro in a school and area where “gay” was a throwaway slur. It was tossed around, but didn’t mean anything against anyone because hetro wasn’t just Normal it was All There Was. Something experienced on TV shows like Will and Grace, but TV was also where Steve turns into Stefan and Sabrina had a talking cat. I missed out on asking my future wife to sophomore Homecoming because I wrongly thought my best friends were interested in her too. Turns out that one was ace and the other gay, but I didn’t know that at the time and when you are living in the median everyone is a reflection of you.

I participated in high school sports, but was never a high performer. It was expected and Normal. From Tiger Cub to Eagle Scout, I was also in Boy Scouts which did make me different from most of my peers, but this time it was media that reassured me I was again Normal… pretty much every show had boy characters experience scouts and camping in some way or another. It was just what boys did… even though my own experience showed otherwise. Thus even when my observations pointed out that my life was different, media reminded me that my life was typical. Just living in the median.
Boys will be Boy Scouts - TV taught me that. Source

Notice the cognitive dissonance already? Media that reinforced the median helped establish Normal and media that introduced the outside remained entertainment.

Leaving home for college was a chance to be exposed to a wider variety of life, which put me into new sets of people. I was an honors student at my university, living in the dorm building restricted to students associated with the honors college. Our building was co-ed, but segregated by floor. Thus, I was a male honors student living on a floor of all male honors students. Again, I fit right in, all too well. Diablo II, Starcraft, and Unreal Tournament 2K4 LAN games helped build up the social network of the floor when my entertainment medium of choice was video games. During the day I attended classes in my majors: Computer Science and Mathematics. Especially the CS classes were overwhelmingly white and male. I never questioned either case, since that fit my experience: when in doubt, expected life to reflect me. That is life in the median is. When in doubt, life reflects you. 

After college I was hired on as a programmer for a cell phone refurbisher. Besides myself, my team consisted of three white male programmers, a white male tech generalist, and a white male manager. Including me, four were married to women and the others were straight and single. There was diversity through in the company, but among those around me… I could see me. My media at the time was primarily World of Warcraft and Big Bang Theory: nerds doing nerdy things and primarily white and male. My extended family would talk about watching BBT and argue about whether I was more of a Leonard or a Sheldon… 
The newer seasons are less overwhelmingly male - Source

All around me I would see that I fit the description of my group at the time, never seeming to deviate much from the appropriate stereotype as I saw it. Straight cisgender white Christian male from a middle class nuclear American family. Television shows and movies presented me as the baseline against which everything else deviated. I was living in the median and all of the traffic flowed around that. 

The dark consequences of meeting expectation

When it seems that you are reflected as the baseline of your groups then you can discount differences as outliers. For tech issues, I had to begin to consciously note developers that deviated from the classes I identify with. Only after I made an effort to see such traits did it start to shape my default idea of what a developer was. Only then could I really see that my path to get here is unique, it was not the path traveled by every developer and software analyst that I have not yet met. Since I related so well to the stereotype of my associations, I could easily project myself onto others.

By feeling so close to the stereotypes I can always feel comfortable as the audience being spoken to. When beer commercials play they are talking to an audience that imbibes alcohol. I am not being excluded based on my age, medical history, or religion. My tech magazines include career ads for federal jobs. I am not being excluded based on my citizenship status, country of ancestry, or family criminal history. The only time I have ever noticed a character I relate to being included as a plot point is for tech interest. Since the median is always the audience it is also never explicitly the audience.

Living in the median means not being reached out to directly, by name. You see others being addressed explicitly. You see others gaining advantages that you have never had to even notice were already available, often even already utilizing. You notice when you are not represented even though you hadn’t noticed when only you were.

The margins feel far from the median, so far that they can be not seen if one chooses not to look. If you are just walking down the median then it can be jarring when confronted with the real existence of others just as if a car has suddenly swerved out of a traffic lane. Because the median is an illusion and you were really in just another lane. Merge alert! Wake up because the other drivers have just as much right of way too.

Evolving expectations is not oppression

When I became an adult I could see myself reflected in the citizenship(natural born American), education(attended college), race(white), and sex(man) of every US President in over one hundred years. As of January 20, 2009 that no longer holds true; down by one.

In office buildings I would historically be welcome in every class of rooms in the building. With the advent of breastfeeding spaces there are rooms that are created with the expectation that I won’t be in them. These spaces dedicated to breastfeeding are unwelcome to cisgender men because they address a need that we just don’t have. Designing for inclusion doesn’t mean that each space meets the needs of everyone, but that the needs of everyone have a space that meets them.

Environments, schedules and processes tend to follow historical precedents which addressed the needs and norms of past times. Viewed from the median, such things were reasonable because they were developed to accommodate needs or comfort of the majority. In the lawsuit against Google it is alleged that oppressive discrimination was carried out against men and Caucasians by “putting applicants into a more welcoming environment based on their race or gender”. There are lots of innocent ways that an environment could be off putting to previously marginalized classes. Displaying the senior executive’s portraits seems perfectly reasonable until you consider that an all white over 60 executive board suggests to non-white and ambitious young applicants that their contributions may be discounted. In 2015 Schick Xtreme 3 ran a commercial on this exact thing. One applicant shaved his head to match the executive portraits, because every portrait was bald, to have a competitive advantage over all of the other haired applicants. An entire commercial based on the underlying assumption that looking like the hiring manager’s expectation is an advantage.
Google noticed that their process was failing to reach out to everyone? The horror! - Source

Challenges of conformity

To this day I feel significant anxiety on any decision that endangers my ability to just blend into the crowd. Being raised Roman Catholic in a village where the religious diversity was Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, or Methodist meant that I was just one of everybody. After reflecting on all the cognitive dissonance that I suffered from by trying to square Christian dogma with observed data, I have stopped attending Mass or trying to explain away reality with faith. In conversation though I tend to remain silent when related discussions come up and just quietly understand the references that draw on the culture of my Christian upbringing. This is my first time spelling out that I see no value in considering the divine to anyone other than my wife or one brother. The assumption where I grew up is that one is aware of and believes in the resurrection of Jesus and the general assumption in American society is that one at least believes in the Creator, the god of Abraham. Even when engaged in a discussion where it is relevant like discussing medical treatments I will tend to silently conform when a participant brings up the divine rather than address the statement.

I have the option remaining silent when someone disparages based on race, religion, disability, economic status, family situation, sexuality, gender, citizenship status, or country of origin. That option is available to me because I have always ridden along in the illusionary safety of the median. I am ashamed to admit I have taken that option. It is available because I am safe. That is my privilege and my curse. My curse because I cannot be trusted fully by those who are targets. Will I stand up when showing up means I am putting myself or my family at risk? To distrust those of us watching from the median is understandable and to be expected. We have earned it through our comfort with being represented, with our blindness to our comfort. Living life in the median means we must become aware of it and then actively work to relinquish and share our comforts.