(Photo by Pexels user Christina Morillo used under a Creative Commons license)
Four months ago, software developer Jocelyn Harper resigned from her position as Wilmington chapter leader for Girl Develop It, citing the way the organization — a nonprofit with a mission to “provide affordable, judgment-free opportunities for adult women to learn software development” — handled complaints about the treatment of Black members in Minneapolis.
This week, Girl Develop It’s Philadelphia chapter leader, Suzie Nieman, resigned as well, citing its handling of issues of institutional racism, effectively shutting down the local chapter in the city where the organization is headquartered.
A lot happened in between those resignations, including:
- A bombshell episode of the #causeascene podcast in December featuring former GDI HQ employee Shanise Barona. In the hour-long episode, Barona shared with the host — activist Kim Crayton — her frustrations with the mishandled complaints, and with feeling tokenized and otherized, including comments about her West Philadelphia neighborhood being “bad.” Two other former GDI members, Tamara Temple and ex-employee Marisa Catalina Casey, would follow as #causeascene guests in early January
- A fiery open letter to GDI leadership signed by 200 alumna, organizers and chapter leaders
- The #gdistrike initiative, in which chapter leaders in dozens of cities paused their events pending HQ’s response
- A pair of online town halls during which GDI HQ announced the organization’s plans for the future; during one of these sessions, Los Angeles chapter leader Valerie Sharp announced her resignation
Through it all, there has been some confusion over what all of this is about. That’s understandable, because at its core, it’s about a fundamental difference over how racism is defined, perceived and experienced — and those differences are rarely discussed.
Over the past few months, there have been demands for GDI HQ leadership, most specifically, Executive Director Corinne Warnshuis, to step down. Understand, those demands were not due to overtly racist behavior; they didn’t put on blackface or use racial slurs or engage in the kind of explicit racism virtually everyone is comfortable calling out as racist.
The issue was that members wanted to talk about implicit racism, and how it continually impacts the inclusive GDI community.
HQ leadership wanted to talk about how they were going to implement a new anti-racist policy going forward — but not about what, exactly, it would entail. I sat in on both of the GDI HQ online town halls designed to address the issues. I heard a lot about vague policy and how racism — again, vaguely defined — is unacceptable. I heard that GDI considers itself an intersectional organization.
Intersectional feminism, coined by law professor and social theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, by definition “takes into account people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices they face.”
Here’s why GDI’s response is a problem: If the org won’t have an open and frank discussion about race, how do we know what it even considers to be racism?
From the beginning — certainly from the time of Harper’s resignation — there has been a communication failure. That failure was based on the fact that some of the people were working off of one definition of racism, and some were working off of another.
They weren’t speaking the same language. On its face, that is not intersectional. GDI appears to be operating under a definition of racism — and again, we don’t know for sure because they haven’t discussed it openly — that is either:
- Overt, or
- Has been explicitly pointed out as racist by a woman of color.
Racism, especially for women of color (and especially for Black women) is often implicit. It includes constant assertions that predominantly Black neighborhoods and schools are “bad.” It’s prioritizing white voices. It’s tokenism, otherism and white saviorism. It’s the racial empathy gap. It’s not listening when women of color and allies want to talk about those things.
On the one side, racism is about being a bad person, or the appearance of being a bad person. That makes open discussion difficult, if it’s allowed at all. Implicit racism, by contrast, can be held up by decent, well-meaning people. And if those people really are decent and well-meaning, it can be reduced by talking about it.
(A textbook case of this: Amy Gebhardt, one of the white Minneapolis chapter leaders called out for discriminatory behavior in the initial Lanice Sims twitter thread, subsequently took public ownership of her actions and is now one of GDI’s most vocal critics on its handling of race issues.)
Hey white people getting called out on racist behavior (especially white women in leadership positions, *ahem* @girldevelopit ):
You might have an emotional reaction. You might even feel pain. It might feel like a very personal attack. #gdistrike
— Amy Gebhardt (@amlyhamm) January 31, 2019
But it’s more than a language barrier. The “bad person” definition of racism helps keep institutional racism going. If “good” people can’t be racist, then there must always be a good reason for them not to hire that person of color, or to oppose school integration or call the police on that Black guy. It’s a definition that literally and often physically harms people of color.
GDI is far from the only organization with this problem. It’s a testament to the true inclusiveness of the GDI community that so many of its now-former members refused to accept that status quo.
Harper, who is in the process of starting a new program to replace GDI Wilmington, has followed the #GDIStrike since her departure. She’s been encouraged by the reaction.
“[The movement] proves that our voices are heard,” she said, “and that our community is watching, listening, and is willing to support us in the next steps.”
Full disclosure: Girl Develop It Executive Director Corinne Warnshuis worked as an events coordinator for Technical.ly from 2013 to 2014. That relationship is unrelated to this report.
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