The Conversation We’re Not Having

By February 4, 2019 Ethereum
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Diversity. It's a vague term that can evoke myriad responses ranging from mild praise to acrimony to confusion. As panelists at the AraCon 2019 session titled "Recruiting for a Diverse Web3" noted, the meaning of "diversity" depends on who uses it and how. In other words: What kind of conversation are we having?

The robust panel discussion ended on a sobering note. Asked what actions we can take today to attract a more diverse community that can contribute to the Web3 ecosystem, Raine Revere replied, "I'm not convinced that most people want to attract a more diverse community yet. I don't think the conversations have gone deep enough or really made their way into people's view of the world."

The panel was chock-full of salient points and pragmatic reasons for building a diverse, inclusive culture. Race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual identity – these factors contribute to a person's experience and affect the way they see the world and want to be a part of it. The biases of developers are present in what they create, so if blockchains are the future, we need to be sure the people building these systems are representative of the world's global, diverse population. Projects benefit from the collective wisdom of many different voices.

These are all important things to talk about. But what stood out to me is the simple but foundational thought that how we frame the conversation will determine how the discussion unfolds and what we mean when we use certain words. I want to know: What conversation are we having and what conversation do we want to have? How do we get to the kinds of conversations we want to have? How do we cultivate empathy that serves as the impetus for real change?

I don't know the answer to these questions, but it may be helpful to start by asking: What do we mean by "diversity"? I think there is a substantial conceptual barrier that many encounter when thinking through the idea of diversity – particularly for white, straight, cisgender people like me who haven't had to think much about how our social location influences where and how power is concentrated in the current global power structures.

I used to think of diversity in terms of a common metaphor: "A seat at the table."

The table is shorthand for representation, a voice. It's also a symbol of equality: a chance for people to express their opinions and have their ideas weighed fairly. The table is a picture of radical participation, where community members come together in horizontal relationship.

The table isn't far removed from the values expressed by a slogan of the American Revolution, "No taxation without representation!" The idea that the government shouldn't take money from people unless it represents their interests drives at this basic equality principle: The social and political structures of a group or country should reflect the needs and interests of all its members. The structures ought to represent the values and voices of the full spectrum of what constitutes "us."

In a US context, when people envision diversity, this is the image that often comes to mind: a level table where everyone is invited and has equal opportunity.

But the table metaphor can be inverted and turned into a picture of radical inequality. The harmonious image of the common table is disrupted when you start to ask questions about the table's origin and structure. Who built the table? Whose house are we dining at? Who is hosting the meal? What's on the menu? What kind of social debt is being incurred by those who eat?

"A seat at the table" alone doesn't get us very far because it doesn't challenge the architecture of the table or the house where it sits. To have real, transformative impact, diversity must go beyond mere inclusion and be more than just inviting people to the table. Diversity requires the divestment and dispersion of power to make way for a new social economy.

Panelist Taylor Monahan pointed out that because the blockchain space is dominated by white, privileged young males, a danger of not prioritizing diversity is that you will end up with products that primarily or exclusively benefit white, privileged young males.

This observation names the elephant in the room. Decentralization of power cannot be actualized without awareness of the historic, white-oriented defaults created by European colonization on a global scale. I mentioned the myth of structurelessness in a recent discussion of evolving Web3 infrastructure and governance; in a context where "white" is the historic default, the natural, ad hoc social structures that emerge will tend to be white- (and male-) oriented.

Revere is right: The conversations haven't gone deep enough yet. This problem is not exclusive to the blockchain space, but blockchain technology cannot achieve its revolutionary potential to upend prevailing power structures if its designers and shapers are not aware of how they unwittingly reinforce these structures. Gaining this awareness requires paying careful attention to the voices of those who have been historically marginalized, namely people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and women.

Because racism, sexism, and homophobia are global phenomena, conversations on radical inclusion need to happen in every sphere, but the need is particularly pronounced in a US context, where white supremacy is the code that created the platform of US governance and social norms.

Navajo speaker and author Mark Charles points out that although the beginning of the US Constitution sounds all-inclusive ("We the People…"), it's an inherently racist document because it has a very specific, exclusive definition of what constitutes a "person": white, land-owning males. Women and Native Americans are not accorded personhood at all, and African-Americans are considered three-fifths human. Bryan Stevenson, award-winning civil rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, suggests that the US has yet to fully confront the narratives of racial difference that were used to justify slavery, and that the US needs a national dialogue on the unjust effects of these stories.

If the development and user base of blockchain technology is restricted to those historically in power, then we have not succeeded in decentralizing power. We have merely reified the old power structures in a new form that is now protected under the guise of anonymity.

Rebekah is a copy editor for ETHNews. She holds an M.Litt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts from the University of St Andrews and an M.A. in Biblical Exegesis from Wheaton College. Her interests include Mesopotamian history, James Baldwin, and the study of how food intersects with memory, identity, and meaning-making.

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