Drupal Voices 100: Jack Aponte on Diversity, Power and Privilege in Open Source Communities

Neville Park is a queer mixie nerd in Toronto. This post originally appeared at Wild Unicorn Herd.

An interview with Palante Tech‘s Jack Aponte (a. k. a. Angry Brown Butch) on, well, diversity in Drupal.

Background: Drupal is a kind of CMS (content management system); it’s a particularly powerful and versatile platform for building and managing websites. It is free and open source, which means that you don’t have to pay to use it, and anyone can help work on it. There’s a very large and international community of people who use and work on Drupal, and like the wider tech community, it’s dominated by white straight cis men. Open Source people, and Drupal people in particular, pride themselves on having a “doacracy”—a community that values getting stuff done above traditional authority. This could create a beginner-friendly, non-hierarchical environment of subversion and experimentation. In practice we just have white straight cis men getting SUPER DEFENSIVE at the suggestion that maybe they got where they are not only by the sweat of their brow, and shouting down any mention of patriarchy, racism, or any other systemic oppression when people run the numbers and get to wondering why there’s so little minority representation in Open Source.

There is a nice summary of the podcast at the link, and my transcript is below the fold. I’ve added links to give context to some of the references Jack and the interviewer make.

Drupal Voices is short daily podcast interviews with people doing work in the Drupal community. Brought to you by the Do It With Drupal seminar! The video archive is now available with over 40 hours of high-quality video from Drupal’s top developers and thinkers. For more information and free full-length sample videos, go to doitwithdrupal.com.


JA: My name is Jack Aponte. I am a Drupal site builder, I guess, live in Brooklyn, work primarily with non-profit community-based organizations, to build them Drupal sites that help them fulfil their missions.

So I think that it kind of goes hand-in-hand that working with these organizations that largely organize communities of colour, that organize around issues of gender and sexuality, general issues not just specifically connected to identity but issues of social justice, um, that diversity is important to me, and it’s directly related to my work when I work with them, so coming to places like DrupalCon and participating in the Drupal community in general, that stuff is on my mind there too.

“That stuff”—diversity. Diversity is one of those really funny words. It means lots of different things to different people and people take it to different places. So for some people it just means having more faces that look different in the room, kinda having different identities come together, having more inclusivity in whatever organization or community or what have you. For some people it gets a bit more active than that and it goes beyond just having bodies in a room, to thinking about systems of privileges, systems of power, systems of who gets paid attention to, who gets credibility and how issues of identity mix into that.

So a lot of times I hear Drupal is a “doacracy”, which is awesome. It’s an awesome concept, but we’d be fooling ourselves to think it’s a pure doacracy, because first of all everyone’s coming into it carrying the baggage they have in their lives. People come into things on an uneven playing field to begin with. Especially when you’re talking about a field that has to do with technology. Open Source is nice, because it cuts down with the—“free as in beer”—cuts down a little bit on the economic barriers to certain aspects of Open Source, like I didn’t have to pay a lot of money to download Drupal, whereas if I really wanted to get quick on Dreamweaver I would’ve had to pay hundreds of dollars, you know, so that’s nice in terms of breaking down economic barriers, but still, in terms of how you’re perceived, in terms of what kind of education you received, how much exposure you got to technology in your youth, all these factors go in to how easy it is to get into the Drupal community.

I think that diversity also plays an effect in terms of the social aspect of Drupal. There’s a huge social aspect of Drupal, unlike lots of technologies that are out there. DrupalCon could probably be a fairly intimidating experience for people who don’t look like the other people at the events. I think that DrupalCon is one of the times when it stands out most, what issues might be there in terms of diversity, you know, I hear the joke over and over again, I think all people who identify as women, or who would use the women’s restroom at least, enjoy the very short lines at DrupalCon, which is very rare! It’s a funny joke but it’s one way that sexism works in our favour [laughs] in the Drupal community, I guess.

You know, coming here as a queer, genderqueer person of colour, it’s definitely a little bit of a culture shock in lots of ways. You try to find the people who are most familiar to you, who feel like home most, and it’s difficult to do in a community that is largely white, that is largely male, that is largely cisgendered (cisgendered means “not transgendered”, to put it very briefly), and, you know, it’s a challenge. It’s like, you walk around and you don’t necessarily just get to focus on the technology, just on learning cool new stuff that you can do with Drupal. You’re always seeing it through this lens of who you are. And when who you are is not what the majority is, it can be an impediment to paying attention to that cool code snippet or that neat new module that came up. You’re always looking through this lens of the other, in a way, not to sound, uh, too academic.

Interviewer: And so diversity is sort of a taboo topic in a sense, both in mainstream culture out there but also within the Drupal community, and so why do you think it is one of those taboo topics that isn’t spoken about and what is the value of looking at why that is and how to kind of deal with that?

JA: I think that diversity can be a really challenging topic for people, again, depending on how far you take it, right. Like, for some people these questions don’t even come to mind. They’re very comfortable in situations where they’re in the majority, they’re used to that, they don’t really see from the other perspective what it can be like to not be in the majority, to be at certain disadvantages or just be—even if it’s not economic, or socio-economic disadvantages, it’s a disadvantage to walk into a room where you are different. And, like, 85% of the people who are also there are the same as each other. So sometimes it’s just a matter of not getting it, not seeing from other people’s perspective, not having to think about this as you walk through your life. That’s something that I often come up with with people who are white or who are straight or who are not trans. You don’t have to think about these things all the time. You’re not faced with them all the time. You’re not reminded that you’re different all the time. So it just doesn’t occur to you, it’s easier to go through your life not thinking about it. So thinking about something that doesn’t directly affect you is a hurdle.

Also thinking about how you might have privilege (that you didn’t earn through a doacracy!) is also challenging, I think, to people. I think that all props are definitely deserved for people who put in a lot of time and effort into Drupal. But there’s also ways that people get power or get respect or get credibility in the Drupal community that’s not connected to what they actually do. And starting to recognize how your privilege works in your favour can be challenging. ‘Cause people don’t want to think that they got somewhere not on the good old American values of, like, workin’ hard and you get anywhere! It can be difficult for people to think about how maybe other factors that they didn’t necessarily choose, that they didn’t want to take advantage of but they were just given the advantages because of who they are.

At present, even in the Drupal community, even in a doacracy, I think that lots of people also think that, you know, Drupal is better than most other tech situations, Drupal is kind of more liberal and open-minded, I think there’s this sense that Open Source means more diversity, more equality just in and of itself, which to a degree might be true. I think there are less barriers for different kinds of people to get involved in Drupal. But it’s not like those things go away once you sign up on drupal.org or once you get your registration badge. You’re coming into it with all the baggage of whatever kinds of power you might be given or power you might not be given based on who you are. So I think this shakes people up a little bit, to be forced to think about how they might be benefiting from systems of oppression—which is what I like to think about more than diversity, actually. I like to think about how power and privilege work in society, how power and privilege reflect any situation, be it Drupal, be it community organizing, be it the workplace…it’s present in all these places. So I think that sometimes things fly okay when you just make it about diversity, and you’re just like, “oh, let’s get more women in, oh, let’s get more people of colour in, that would be nice,” but when people realize that in order to do that successfully they might need to step back a little, they might need to recognize their power and privilege, and check that and give a little bit of it up—it’s a lot harder sell.

Interviewer: And so tomorrow there’s going to be a Birds of a Feather session that you’re going to have on diversity. What do you think the discussion is kind of going to revolve around and then what are you going to take out in terms of what is the message and how does Drupal as a community deal better with diversity?

JA: Well, I think that the conversation was actually prompted in part by a thread on drupal.org about the gender field, which was a very interesting conversation because there’s been a gender field that’s been optional in the drupal.org profiles. Before, it just had “male” and “female”. And lots of people would leave it blank for reasons unknown. But some folks—I think that webchick actually started the thread—have been talking to other people, and wanted to make it more inclusive in terms of other gender identities, including transgender folks, people who might not identify as male, female, or transgender, things like that. As soon as we start making things more inclusive, though, you have to do it right. Inclusivity has to be done thoughtfully. And so there were conversations about whether “male” and “female” should go in the same category as “transgender”—those conversations morphed into, like, you know, what does this matter at all, why are we tracking this at all, why are we asking people this at drupal.org, this has nothing to do with Drupal, this has nothing to do with technology.

It’s funny because I don’t even know if I think there should be a field for that. Just because I don’t think it’s the most useful tool for tracking how many people there are who are not male, who are not non-trans men in the community. But also I wonder what we will do with that data. We can have the stats, we can say, “oh, look at that, that sucks that it’s mostly male, that there’s not enough women, or that there’s so few trans people identifying as trans on drupal.org for whatever reason”—but what are we going to do with that information? That’s the crucial question for me. So I’m a lot less concerned about doing tracking and figuring out what is the state of Drupal [laughs] like Dries’s keynote. I’m a lot less interested in statistics and more interested in seeing how Drupal can become a more welcoming, more inclusive community for people of all sorts and a community where people are conscious of how power and privilege work. So that’s what I’m hoping the conversation tilts towards.

It’s a challenge, though, because what exactly is Drupal? Drupal is a bunch of people who work with a particular kind of software. Maybe they work with that software, maybe they’re just thinking about it. So there’s not really any structure in place. When you don’t have a structure for when you’re organizing as a community, it’s a lot more difficult to effect change. So it makes me a little nervous because it really has to be about individuals. About how individuals change their own behaviours, change their own perceptions, change how they treat other people and how they exercise their power and privilege for good or for evil [laughs] to put it extremely simplistically.

There’s things that come up all the time. People might have heard about the Drupal card game—I don’t know if you heard about that flap, but basically the Drupal card game was, people were very excited that there was this neat little Drupal game, it was very fun, I’m a gamer, I like Magic: the Gathering, so I was like, “Oh, a card game, that’s pretty cool,” and I looked on the back, and there was an image of Dries, and there was an image of a woman, I think, in her underwear, and it said, you know, “Connecting the geeks to the non-geeks.”

So sometimes people say, “Oh, why is it important to know how many women are in the Drupal community?” or “Why are we even talking about this?”, well, we’re talking about this because things like this happen. And while I don’t think that statistics are the way to stop things like this from happening, I think we need to be aware that when people are told that Drupal is a really open, welcoming community, and, like, women should not be afraid to come and take part, or people of different races should not be afraid to come, it’s a doacracy, anyone can get up in Drupal, just write some code and you’ll succeed—and then you come, and you see a woman in her underwear on the back of something that’s been distributed at the Drupal con and people are really excited about—leaves conflicting messages. It’s giving lip service to diversity without actually changing how power and privilege and discrimination work on a very day-to-day level in the community.

Interviewer: And finally, since it is a community of individuals, what do you suggest people who may be listening could do or be more aware of in terms of diversity—I know it’s a huge topic, but maybe just some things they could just think about, as to, like, how to work on this issue.

JA: I think it’s important to first of all check your assumptions about different people who you meet in the community, where they come from and what they face in their day-to-day lives. I think it’s important for people to check their own privilege. That’s a huge one—I bet you’ll get lots of angry comments about that!—but, you know, think about how your race, your gender, your sexuality, your level of physical ability impact how you’re able to move through the world, how people listen to you, how people respect you or give you credibility. Start to think a little bit outside of your own experience and think about if people are saying that they’re offended or that they are feeling excluded or feeling marginalized—try to drop your defenses a little bit and just hear them, you know, like, hear them out, listen to them as a human being, try to understand their experience even if it doesn’t match up with yours. And if you can drop the defensiveness I think there can be a lot less fighting and a lot more learning.

So, you know, it’s not about saying “Oh, you’re bad, you’re terrible, you’re privileged, like, you’re doing all this stuff,” it’s like, I don’t think it needs to be—people don’t need to feel attacked or personally maligned. But I do think that people need to own what privilege and power they do have in a situation and work to defuse that and work to share the wealth, in terms of power and privilege in the community. So. It’s a huge topic [laughs] and it’s hard to give general advice for how to tackle diversity and privilege and those issues, but, you know, I think we’re making strides. I think there’s lots of great people with great ideas and good hearts in the Drupal community and I have faith that people will be able to figure it out.

Interviewer: OK! Well, great, thanks.

JA: No problem! Thank you!


3 thoughts on “Drupal Voices 100: Jack Aponte on Diversity, Power and Privilege in Open Source Communities

  1. webchick

    “This could create a beginner-friendly, non-hierarchical environment of subversion and experimentation. In practice we just have white straight cis men getting SUPER DEFENSIVE at the suggestion that maybe they got where they are not only by the sweat of their brow, and shouting down any mention of patriarchy, racism, or any other systemic oppression when people run the numbers and get to wondering why there’s so little minority representation in Open Source.”

    Um. [citation needed]? In the comments there I see exactly one anonymous person getting super defensive, and a bunch of other guys saying “Wow, what an insightful post” or “I agree.” Another poses the question of whether there even IS such a thing as a majority, but it’s a fair question and it wasn’t done disrespectfully.

    Drupal’s community is largely a beginner-friendly, non-hierarchical environment of subversion and experimentation. There are some token jerks, sure, as there are in any open source community, but they’re far outnumbered by amazing feminists, both female and male.

  2. Brenda

    JA suggests that Open Source might be more diverse naturally – but in my experience, contributors to Open Source are mostly those that have idle time which they choose to fill with contributing. This I see as making it less diverse. Even when contributing within paid employment, there’s more likelihood of being hired as an Open Source developer if you were already contributing outside your day job. This I think makes it inherently less diverse.

    People who work long hours to make ends meet, who have disabilities that either use up their time or give them less “spoons”, or people who become the primary child carers in a family (usually women due to social convention) do not have the idle time to get in the door in the first place.

  3. Neville Park

    You’re absolutely right. AFAIK the proportion of women, for example, in open source is a fraction of what it is in the tech industry in general. Open source ideology unfortunately can’t mitigate barriers to participation—I think it may even exacerbate it, as in “this is already a meritocracy, we don’t need to do anything”.

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