Thursday, July 10, 2014

"Subtleism" is a Useful Word

Allison Kaptur has written about the last of Hacker School's lightweight social rules: "No Subtle -isms":
Our last social rule, "No subtle -isms," bans subtle racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other kinds of bias. Like the first three rules, it's targeting subtle, accidental, mildly hurtful behavior. This rule isn't targeting slurs, harassment, or threats. These kinds of severe violations would have consequences, up to and including expelling someone from Hacker School. 
Breaking the fourth social rule, like breaking any other social rule, is an accident and a small thing. In theory, someone should be able to say "Hey, that was subtly sexist," get the response "Oops, sorry!" and move on just as easily as if they'd well-actually'ed. In practice, people are less likely to point out when this rule is broken, and more likely to be defensive if they were the rule-breaker. We'd like to change this.
When this was explained to me by Hacker School Co-Founder Sonali Sridhar, I thought it was brilliant, but I heard "subtle -ism" as a single word, "subtleism". "Subtleism" conveyed to me the concept that something could be harmless by itself, but multiplied by a thousand could be oppressive. So for example, using "you guys" for the second person plural when both men and women are included, is never meant to be sexist, and is rarely taken the wrong way. But an ocean of hundreds or even thousands of tiny, insignificant locutions like "you guys" can drown even a strong swimmer.

The reason subtleism is a useful word is that it can convey forgiveness in a context of working together to create a culture that is supportive of a diverse team. Reminding someone of a subtleism doesn't need to be a "shaming ritual"; after all, everyone uses subtleisms all the time. Compare the word "micro-aggression", which is used as an accusation or a lamentation.

Also, the word we should be using for the second person plural is "youse".

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