Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

27 Jul 2009, 21:42 p.m.

Those Annoying Isms Keep Isming

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2009 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I was at a software conference a few weeks ago where Richard M. Stallman said something unfortunate. I wasn't there for it so I heard about it afterwards and shook my head and sighed.[0]

At the conference I got to meet lots of cool developers, such as Matthew Garrett. Matthew hacks, tells fun stories, and enjoys inflicting Hackers and other like movies on his friends. Matthew also does ally work. Right now he's painstakingly explaining to the less clueful members of the free software community why Stallman's remarks were inappropriate, and why it's right and proper to criticize him publicly.

I also met a male developer who asked me what the deal was with my buzzcut hair -- was I a lesbian? If not, why the short hair? I asked him back why he had short hair, and why he didn't wear heels and lipstick, etc. Probably could have made a better comeback there.

So don't worry, I got my quota of feeling othered, despite missing that keynote. And I'm guessing no matter where I go or when I join a tech community I won't be lacking for my recommended daily allowance of genderfail.

Some of y'all don't know why Richard M. Stallman is simultaneously important and unimportant to software people like me. He did some really important stuff a few decades ago, he has a tremendous legacy, and he's ended up as one of the high-profile faces our community presents to the outside world. But these days he's talking more than doing, and he acts really touchy, and just over and over ends up saying things that make everyone wince.

At this point, if you are a science fiction fan, you might light up and say, Oh, I get it, he's like the Harlan Ellison of open source!

And WHAT DO YOU KNOW! While I was visiting my gentle geeky friends in Boston, Ellison posted some really jerky paragraphs about an acquaintance of mine. He later apologized in his own not-very-apologetic way. The whole incident made me look back at the one personal interaction I've had with Ellison (summary) in a less-than-flattering light.

I knew, years ago, that I'd have to deal with crap from the communities that I loved, because of my heritage and my chromosomes. But I didn't know, viscerally, how tiring it would be. The more I accept my membership in these communities as a part of my identity, the more headspace these incidents take up. If I work hard enough, contribute enough, maybe someday no one will dare say I'm not good enough. Maybe someday I'll reach tremendous stature in my chosen community, and turn into the token nonwhite/female who gets used as proof that We Aren't Bigots, Really. A depressing thought.

I'd like a future where my race and sex are never the most remarkable things about me, in my work or in my hobbies. It's International Blog Against Racism Week. Because I'm not the only one who thinks that way, thank goodness.

[0] I've tried emacs a bunch of times, including periods of sustained use, and I know I need to actually put the time and energy in to grok it, learn all the keyboard shortcuts, at some point. Neal Stephenson on emacs increases my desire to do this; RMS/Yegge do not.