So you organized an outreach event or program for a marginalized group that you care about and you’re really excited about doing your part to improve diversity in your field. You’re all pumped about your work, but then you start receiving negative comments that accuse you of being sexist/racist/etc. for putting so much focus on your chosen minority group rather than providing resources for the whole group. In my case, this usually takes the form of complaints about sexism and inequality in the outreach programs that I organize for women in tech — why aren’t there similar scholarships and conferences for men? Why aren’t there men’s-only tech events?
It’s mentally exhausting to continually have to respond to these kinds of criticisms. I spend so much time fretting over what to say to these sorts of criticisms that I’ve started my own personal checklist of points I try to address in each response in order to foster constructive conversation. It’s helpful to take the time to think over these things and have a general response so that you don’t have to waste your valuable time and energy on this kind of negativity — I even keep email templates handy so that I can quickly respond to common criticisms that I receive.
In this post, I want to go over the key points I make sure to touch upon in my responses in order to help other people who are stuck on what to say in these situations. My main goal in responding to criticism is to avoid putting people on the defensive, to help them realize that we are not enemies, and to explain why I am doing the work that I do. I recognize that there are other messages that people might want to convey instead, but that is the message that I want to convey. Of course, this advice isn’t quite as helpful if you are aiming for a different kind of message. That said, here are some ways to tailor your responses to criticism so that you can foster a more constructive discussion!
Rephrase the conflict in your own words.
Make a good faith effort to understand and explain what you think they are criticizing. This shows that you do empathize with the other person and are not immediately dismissing their criticism. This makes it feel like less of an attack on your part and more like a discussion. It can also lead to more clarification in case you don’t actually understand their criticism after all. It’s very possible that you missed what they were trying to say — this helps ensure that everyone is on the same page.
Acknowledge that not all people in majority groups have it easy and that there are plenty of non-minorities who experience difficulty in their individual lives.
People often feel slighted by minority outreach programs because those resources are not reaching them. It’s very possible that they experienced significant difficulty in their own careers and feel that they should have received this kind of support. The point of minority outreach programs is not to make a statement about the situation of any individual, but to address inequalities in the overall population. You are not blaming that individual person for inequalities or suggesting that they have “had it easier” than people in minority groups purely because of their status.
Acknowledge that these programs are flawed, but that they are the best that we can currently do.
Most outreach programs have their shortcomings. Still, we have to do the best we can with our current resources in order to improve the situation. Every activist has a vision of what they would do with unlimited time and resources, but such aspirations are often unrealistic. These short-term programs are a way of dealing with problems immediately so that we can make small gains.
People often have this mental image of feminists as being very aggressive, hard-headed, and unresponsive to negative feedback. I realize that it is not your duty to combat those stereotypes or educate non-allies. Still, dispelling these myths can help people become more sympathetic to your cause.
Point out that everyone has the power to get involved with these types of things in any way they want.
It is not the case that there is one elite group of people who are allowed to make a change in their community without anyone else’s input. Furthermore, diversity activists are not beholden to the requests and expectations of anyone. If people disagree with the direction of these programs, they can and should get involved in providing outreach in the way they think is best.
For example, I am a first-generation college student in addition to being a woman in computer science. I often wish that there were more support systems in place for students of low socioeconomic status. I also feel that mainstream women in tech organizations are too focused on helping privileged women and do not provide enough support of socioeconomic and ethnic minority women. However, the existence of women’s outreach does not mean that first-generation college students cannot be helped. Furthermore, my participation in women’s outreach does not mean that I cannot do my part in providing resources for first-generation college students.
It would be rather ridiculous of me to demand that women’s diversity advocates use their time and energy to support a cause that I am passionate about that they might not have set out to tackle. I want more work to be done for first-generation college students and I have the power to take part in those changes. Rather than painting diversity outreach as a zero-sum game, you can emphasize that everyone can get involved with the things they are passionate about.
Steer the conversation towards actionable feedback rather than general or vague criticisms.
Request feedback on what you could be doing differently to address this person’s concerns. By asking critics what they would specifically do to change the situation, you push them to think about what exactly they feel that they need. If they don’t have concrete suggestions for how you could improve your program, they may come to realize that there are significant nuances and difficulties in doing diversity outreach that they hadn’t considered. This will help create a better understanding and appreciation for the work that you are doing. They also may have concrete and constructive advice for you, which means you’ve gained something from this conversation!
My overall advice here is to be open-minded and understanding while also firm about your stance. No one is above receiving constructive criticism (the keyword here is that the criticism must be constructive), but it is also not your job to cater to everyone’s wishes. By expressing these thoughts in a calm and deliberate manner, you will hopefully be able to help more people come to understand your position.
Huge thanks to Keith Schwarz for inspiring me to write about this!