White male nerd culture's last stand

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

Published March 14, 2012 1:00PM (EDT)

Baratunde Thurston      (James Duncan Davidson/<a href='http://www.baratunde.com'>baratunde.com</a>)
Baratunde Thurston (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.”

By Irin Carmon

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

MORE FROM Irin Carmon

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Gender Race