White male nerd culture’s last stand

The influential South by Southwest festival does an occasionally awkward dance with diversity

Topics: Race, Gender, ,

White male nerd culture's last standBaratunde Thurston (Credit: James Duncan Davidson/baratunde.com)

On Monday, an enthusiastic white man congratulated film blogger and software development manager Malaika Paquiot-Mose for how well she’d done on the South by Southwest panel that had just ended.

Inconveniently, Paquiot-Mose hadn’t been on it.

Still, the gentlemen insisted that she had, despite the fact that Paquiot-Mose and Latoya Peterson, the panel’s moderator, honestly couldn’t figure out which of the black female panelists she had even been mistaken for. It didn’t help that the panel was called “Race: Know When to Hold It and When to Fold It” – on diversity and representation in technology – and by my count, the confused white man must have been one of the only half-dozen of his demographic who bothered to show up.

On the other hand, he seemed to be really trying, whoever he was, and the panel was far from the only example of SXSW broadening from its typical-tech-dude roots. Such is the uneven distribution of progress.

As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see. But this year at South by Southwest, when it came to the usually invisible, there was more to see than ever — and in prominent, big-ballroom setups. “How to Be Black” author Baratunde Thurston keynoted, as did cyborg anthropologist Amber Case and Code for America’s Jennifer Pahlka (oh, and two white dudes).

Some of that prominence was a reflection of objective achievements out in the world and the expansion of the conference’s oeuvre: Thurston was a social media superstar before he published his book; Jill Abramson is the first female executive editor of the New York Times; Lena Dunham has a hot new HBO show; Mona Eltahawy has been central to discussions of recent upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa. But some of it was just a concerted effort by some cheerful agitators who have juggled calling out problems and proposing solutions.

Why should anyone care about the demographic breakdown of a bunch of semi-professional badge-wearers? South by Southwest isn’t just an excuse to Instagram breakfast tacos or jockey for party spots on the corporate dime; it’s also one of the few places for technology, film, music and activism to converge in one place. “This is where people come to see the emerging talents. The A-listers at SouthBy will be the real A-Listers in a couple of years,” said festival regular Rachel Sklar. And though there’s always going to be some sorting, it’s still a place where it’s slightly more possible to break in and access those resources.



That’s why Peterson has continued to come back and encourages other women and people of color to come too. “We have to make sure that we’re not ceding the technological future,” she said. Of women and people of color in those spaces, she added, “If people don’t see us, they assume we don’t exist.”

The reverse is also true: The future is increasingly made up of people who aren’t white, and in the United States, at least, the educated class is increasingly female, so technology itself cedes something by leaving them out.

South by Southwest offers a particularly good opportunity for changing the usual formula. There’s the semi-democratic panel voting system, in which organizers, of which I was one, had to explicitly lay out how panelists were diverse in their opinions, ethnicities, gender and geographical location. But it’s an imperfect system, as seen in panels like this one, with a homogeneity and scale to beat any Darrell Issa House panel. (Still. Maybe some of those guys live in different states!)

Videoblogger and radio host Jay Smooth, who took that panel photo (and who, full disclosure, was on the panel I organized), points out that even such proactive systems can only go so far in a still-segregated world. “I do think it’s worth raising the conversation of why are there so many all-white dude panels within these big events,” he said, “but I think the conversation that has to be had, and the work that needs to be done goes deeper than the panel selection process and into the culture of these industries and scenes.”

At my first experience of the conference last year, it became clear to me how even nerd culture’s recent mainstream dominance — and these guys’ privileged place within it, in attending or presenting at the conference — hadn’t rid them of their feeling of social marginalization. How could they be oppressors, the thinking seemed to be, if they felt like such outsiders?

For people who feel like they’ve had to restart this conversation annually, explaining why that isn’t the whole story can get exhausting. But they still do it.

Aminatou Sow, a social media strategist, made it a habit throughout the conference to show up at homogeneous panels and blithely confront them about their lack of diversity during the Q&A session. When I’d posed a similar question on Twitter about a panel that was disappointingly all-male, the organizer, Todd Pruzan, replied, “I tried very hard not to make this panel a bunch of guys. Forgive me!” One panelist, OKCupid’s Eli Gwynn, was a black man, but I have no idea why it would be difficult to find a single woman to talk about “surprise in the social media age,” but this isn’t about my forgiveness, or anyone else’s – it’s about thinking about this stuff before anyone has to be called out after the fact.

“I think some of them are getting it,” said Sow, saying there’d been some “good, frank conversations.”

Sometimes the only solution is starting your own parallel operation. Last year, Sklar realized that her panel about women in comedy (in which I participated) was contrasting with the fact that only a single female comedian was to be featured by the official conference, a source of some online controversy. So Sklar, who also founded Change the Ratio to advocate for women in tech, corralled the sponsors and the talent for an all-female comedyshow, which played to a full house and returned this year.

Sklar says who is participating is less of an issue than who is plucked out to be visible. “I’m so tired of what is next in the community being white dudes,” she said. “Sorry. Love white dudes – made out with a whole bunch of them – but it’s not the only thing that’s going on.”

At Abramson’s “Future of the New York Times” talk, interviewer Evan Smith asked her whether she was a woman editor or an editor who was a woman. She told him that she detected a note of sheepishness in the question that she found unnecessary: “I’m proud to be the first female executive editor of the New York Times.”

Most likely the reason Smith sounded sheepish was because the first or only often feels reduced to a token and gets defensive about that being the overarching message about her. But Abramson was clearly there on the merits of her career and had no problem both substantively discussing technology and journalism while acknowledging that it means something to be the first woman.

That, too, was the message Peterson wanted to get across in her panel, getting beyond being solely an “ambassador for your race,” as one panelist put it, while still recognizing that it shapes who you are. In that vein, Sklar opted to leave gender out of the title of this year’s comedy show, unlike last year. She called it “This Is a Comedy Show” and only in the subhead mentioned the fact that it would double the number of female comedians featured at SXSW. “I’m not going to point it out anymore, I’m just going to show you the awesome,” she said.

As Peterson puts it, “It’s when we get flattened that the problem arises. You just become that black guy or that girl who talks about gender. But if it’s one of many things about you that you talk about, it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at icarmon@salon.com.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>