Paying Privilege Forward

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I should start by saying I was hesitant to publish this because, at this moment, it is very important that black voices be heard. But after thinking it over, realized that not speaking up on issues just because I am not as directly impacted is actually a form of white privilege. Being an ally requires being willing to take risks. So this article is a risk. I am sure it will upset some people, but there are things that need to be said and if not me, who? If not now, when?

Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning

Frederick Douglass

So let me just come out and say it – if you are just now waking up to the racial and class inequities of America, you have been part of the problem and have a debt to pay. Whether you remain part of the problem is up to you. Right now we have all been gifted with an opportunity to learn and improve. Many companies are releasing public statements, far fewer are doing the hard work of seriously re-evaluating their corporate cultures.

There’s a myth of meritocracy in start up culture where most people seem convinced that everything they have, they earned on their own. To be fair, the startup grind is a lot of long hours – very few people succeed without working very hard. But all of us have debts that should be acknowledged, whether that’s un-earned class, race, or gender privilege; or even just someone who lent a hand when we needed help.

Paying those debts forward requires real work and a willingness to step outside of our comfort zones. People of color, neurodivergent people, disabled people, LGBTQ+ people, and working class people in general face significant structural barriers in the business world. Everyone knows this, even if up until recently most people did not seem terribly willing to do anything about it. That must change.

So let’s talk about my debts.

My entire professional career would have been impossible if it wasn’t for a recruiter at a company called Involver that gave me a chance at my first startup job. Once I had that first job I was able to cite references and experience to get the next one and so on, but that first opportunity changed my life and I will be forever grateful for it. Without that one opportunity, the fact that I came from a working class background and could not network my way in, did not attend an elite college (I had the grades and scores but couldn’t afford it), and find social networking very challenging because I am borderline autism spectrum could have very easily ended my career before it ever began. That’s a debt that I have an obligation to pay forward.

I am a straight cis white guy. How much harder would my path have been if I had been a woman, a person of color, LGBTQ, or had a noticeable disability?

We cannot be neutral on a moving train. If we are not actively working to address inequities, we are contributing to them.

You might be part of the problem if…

Now nuerotypicals may find what follows abrasive. Like many people on the spectrum, I find it much easier to communicate in unambiguous terms and dislike the way social niceties tend to water things down. If you really want change, you will need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Consider this practice.

  • If you only recruit from “the best schools”, you are part of the problem and are missing out on great candidates. Statistically speaking, having a degree from an elite school is more indicative of class privilege than ability.
  • If you recruit based on “culture fit” when your company culture is really upper-middle class white culture, you are part of the problem.
  • If you are hiring for a job and your final round of candidates doesn’t include at least a few people who differ from you in terms of race, ethnicity, class background, and gender; you need to seriously examine why that is because you are part of the problem.
  • If you don’t hire older workers, you are part of the problem.
  • If you are not willing to work with autistic and other nuerodivergent people and provide accommodations where appropriate, you are missing out on some of the best programmers in the industry and you are definitely part of the problem.
  • If you don’t take the time to insure that your products are fully accessible to people with disabilities, you are part of the problem and may even be in violation of federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • If you assume competence from people who look like you or talk like you but subject others to additional scrutiny (a very common behavior among humans from all walks of life), you are part of the problem.
  • If you are not actively working to widen the spectrum of people you recruit and work with by finding highly qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds, you are part of the problem.
  • If you don’t pay or under-pay your interns, you are systematically excluding working class people and working class people of color in particular who cannot afford to work without pay. That makes you very much part of the problem.
  • If you are not listening to those new recruits, welcoming their ideas, validating their experiences and perspectives, and actively supporting them to be the best that they can be, you are part of the problem.
  • And if you’re a VC and expect every person with a new idea to have done a “friends and family” round before they ever talk to you, you are systematically excluding people whose friends and family do not have money to invest. That makes you – you guessed it – part of the problem.

If none of this applies to you then congratulations – you are doing better than most of us. But most people and companies have room to improve. But any of those points that hit home is an opportunity to make a positive change. And of course this is not an exhaustive list!

Action requires involvement

Sharing memes and making sympathetic posts on social media will not address these issues. It is not enough to recognize that something is wrong – action requires involvement. We each have an obligation to all the people who helped us along the way to do the same for others. We must pay our debts forward. That means honestly evaluating whether the points above apply to you and your company’s practices and making changes. Not just setting up a committee to explore the possibility, real action.

This moment in history is an opportunity. The change that is required will be challenging, but none of us joined startups because we wanted to do easy things. We can all do better, let’s hold each other accountable and make it happen.

Author: Jed Wheeler