It's the Silence that Suffocates
note: this is not one of my usual posts - it might be uncomfortable to read - it was to write…
It’s been over a week since I wrote / published anything; like many folks, I’ve been processing the images of systemic racism and police brutality against black people on full display in the US. If we’re being honest, we’ve gone through such cycles before - unbelievable event, righteous outrage, guilt-ridden support, and superficial progress. It eventually quiets down through a combination of token reforms and collective exhaustion. Eventually, most of society says, “yeah, that’s good enough for now.”
Will there be meaningful change this time? Were prior changes meaningless?
I don’t have any of those answers. After much thought and reflection, I’ve come to the realization that the only thing 100% in your control is your own actions. To be clear, I do believe in policy, law, organization, education, etc. And I love seeing folks using their money, time, and voice to advance the cause on those axes. But at the end of the day, your behavior when no one else is watching is what you should be most accountable for (vs. your behavior when the world is watching). And with that in mind, I wanted to share a story that has been replaying in my mind for the last 20 years…
At my first real job out of college, I was very involved with university recruiting (just a few months out of grad school) and onboarding new hires (recent experience for me). I really enjoyed it. Selling folks who had 1-2 semesters ago been my peers to join our mission was a good 20% project, a side gig to balance out the day-to-day rigors of writing code. I was on at least 1 panel a week, and every interview had a group debrief as a best practice.
One week, we had a candidate onsite. I did the welcome tour in the AM and handed her off to the first interviewer. Another engineer and I had lunch with her and did “culture evaluation” (which was code for would we as an engineering team regularly want to grab lunch with this person). Throughout my day I would bump into interview panelists and we would flash a quick “thumbs up” to each other, all of us feeling like she was flying through the day smoothly. At the end of the day, we walked her out and told her we’d be in touch. Then we all huddled up to compare notes and make a decision.
The roundtable went great at first. She had done really well on writing psudeocode, explaining technical design, troubleshooting bugs, and peer collaboration. No one had any concerns technically or culturally. The hiring manager had heard all they needed - we were going to move forward with an offer. The meeting was about to wrap, when a very senior leader said “what’s with her hair? doesn’t work for me…”
I did all the math you can possibly do in your head in less than a second:
what does that mean?
what does that have to do with her being qualified or not?
is someone going to say something?
if I say something, do I have to worry about my job?
wait, would this leader ever say that directly to her?
should I warn this candidate to not take the job?
You know what I did. Nothing. I was silent.
And you know that because most of you have been in this situation and also done nothing. That is not judgement - it’s just recognition that we are collectively complicit.
Someone said something that didn’t even acknowledge the comment, and the meeting ended awkwardly.
I have intentionally not said anything about the race / ethnicity of the woman. I am also purposely not identifying the gender / race of the senior leader. Because either could be anyone. This type of micro-aggression is so common in the workplace that to call it out every time it happens would grind the day to a halt. Before I wrote this, I spent a minute thinking through all the times I’d see some sketchy comment / behavior, and I came up with a dozen easily, because they were so beyond borderline. It’s not exaggeration to say I could catalog hundreds of instances if I sat down and thought about my entire work history.
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about why I didn’t speak up. This week I’ve gone over it constantly. Sometimes I tell myself I didn’t recognize the inappropriateness. Sometimes I tell myself I was so young and early in my career. Sometimes I tell myself others with bigger voices should have spoken up. Sometimes I tell myself that I had a million other worries in life at that point, keeping me up at night.
It’s been ~ 20 years. I will occasionally look up both people (the person who made the comment, and the person about whom the comment was made) on LinkedIn to see where their careers went. I wonder if me having said something, to either of them, would have mattered in any tangible way.
And after this week, I realized that, yes, it would have mattered. A lot. It would have mattered to me. Because I still have a million different worries in life, but the thing that keeps me up at night is not any of those things. It’s the silence that suffocates…
childish drawing / interpretation