Recurse Center

Subtle -isms at Hacker School

We’ve enjoyed seeing our social rules spread into other parts of the tech community. Many people laugh in recognition when they hear about “No feigning surprise” or “No well-actuallys,” since they recognize that they’ve done these things and been annoyed when other people do them.

Our fourth rule, “No subtle -isms,” is less well-understood. Unlike the first three rules, it sounds vague and confusing, or maybe obvious – lots of organizations have a rule banning sexism. However, “no subtle -isms” doesn’t go without saying. Unlike many rules around sexism and racism, Hacker School’s social rule is intended to target subtle behaviors – things that nearly everyone does.

The social rules are lightweight

We often say that the Hacker School social rules are intended to be lightweight. Another way to put this is that we expect that Hacker Schoolers will occasionally break one of the social rules. When this happens, another Hacker Schooler will say, “Hey, that was a well-actually,” and the first Hacker Schooler will say “Oops, sorry!” That’s it – accidentally breaking social rules is common, expected, and readily forgiven. Even Hacker School founders sometimes slip up.

Hacker School social rules are much lighter than a code of conduct. Someone who violates a conference’s code of conduct could get written up, warned, or ejected from the conference. Violating a code of conduct is a big deal, and it usually isn’t hard to avoid doing so. By contrast, it’s much harder to avoid breaking the Hacker School social rules, and people often make mistakes.

Even the last rule is lightweight

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.

Following “No subtle -isms” looks different for different people. Someone who’s never thought much about bias in tech might decide to read Unlocking the Clubhouse or Stuck in the Shallow End. Someone else might check if they ask Hacker Schoolers of different races for help in proportion to the population at Hacker School. For faculty, since resident Lindsey Kuper mentioned it to us a year ago, we’ve been trying to stop using “you guys” to refer to mixed-gender groups. (As part of this effort, the very British facilitator Mary Rose Cook has started saying “y'all” with an English accent, which is a real treat for the rest of us.)

Like the other three rules, “No subtle -isms” is about recognizing the ways we’re unconsciously making our friends’ lives a little worse. Like the other three rules, breaking it does not make you a bad person and is not a huge deal.

No debates, please

For the last year, the “No subtle -isms” rule has carried some implementation guidelines. One of these is asking people not to debate whether or not something is an -ism. From the manual:

If you see a subtle -ism at Hacker School, you can point it out to the relevant person, either publicly or privately, or you can ask one of the faculty to say something. After this, we ask that all further discussion move off of public channels. If you are a third party, and you don’t see what could be biased about the comment that was made, feel free to talk to faculty. Please don’t say, “Comment X wasn’t homophobic!” Similarly, please don’t pile on to someone who made a mistake. The “subtle” in “subtle -isms” means that it’s probably not obvious to everyone right away what was wrong with the comment.

When we introduced this policy, many women in our community responded positively. At the same time, some men described their process of discovering what their female friends were going through, and worried that other men would miss out on this opportunity to become allies. That’s a genuine cost of having this policy. Nevertheless, we believe that this cost is outweighed by two benefits. First, we want marginalized people to feel welcome, not like they have to defend their presence. Second, we don’t want marginalized people to have to spend time educating non-marginalized people who might be coming to these ideas for the first time. Faculty - not other Hacker Schoolers - are happy to help people discover resources for learning about anti-oppression.

To give everyone an equal chance to focus on programming, we ask that conversations about bias happen somewhere that’s opt-in (like a designated lunch discussion or a private email thread) and not somewhere that’s opt-out (like the mailing list, public chat, or within earshot of someone trying to program).

We’re far from perfect

We’re working to eliminate subtle -isms at Hacker School, but we still have a long way to go. For example, we’ve spent more time, energy, and money fighting sexism than fighting racism, homophobia, or transphobia, which is wrong of us. (Although our employees are diverse on some axes, we’re 90% white.) There are also class barriers to attending Hacker School - while Hacker School is free, living in New York for three months is not.

These are hard problems, but we’re committed to fixing them.

Join us

You’re welcome to use Hacker School social rules in your community. For an example of using the social rules in addition to a code of conduct, you can look at !!Con. If you use the rules, please credit and link to Hacker School.