(The Root) — I want Adria Richards to know that I support her. I want to use whatever platform I have — big or small — to shout down the disgusting sexist vitriol that exploded all over the Internet after Richards, a veteran of Silicon Valley, dared to use her own platform to do the same.
Last week, in a classic case of catch-22, Richards, while attending the PyCon professional tech conference, overheard a group of men behind her making sexist jokes about "forking" and "dongles."
Don't worry if you don't get the jokes — why they're inappropriate and sexist. Most people outside of the tech community wouldn't. The point is that Richards is, in fact, inside that community, and the jokes, whether innocent or meant to be overheard, made her not just uncomfortable but also angry and determined.
Explaining her side of the story, Richards wrote a blog post on her personal website, saying, "instead of shrinking down in my seat, I did something about it."
After hearing the jokes, Richards turned around, snapped a picture of the offending conference jesters and publicly tweeted the picture to the conference's sponsors (as well as her more than 10,000 Twitter followers).
"Not cool," she wrote in that first tweet. "Jokes about forking repo's in a sexual way and 'big' dongles. Right behind me." She then tweeted the conference staff her location inside the ballroom and asked someone to come speak to the men about their inappropriate conduct.
PyCon responded quickly, speaking to both Richards and each of the men she pointed out. On its website, the conference organizers wrote, "Both parties were met with, in private. The comments that were made were in poor taste, and individuals involved agreed, apologized and no further actions were taken by the staff of PyCon 2013. No individuals were removed from the conference, no sanctions were levied."
As well she should have, Richards felt proud of herself, expressing as much in that blog post about the incident. "Yesterday the future of programming was on the line and I made myself heard."
But unfortunately things didn't end there. One of the men involved, who worked for one of the sponsoring companies of the conference, was fired from his job presumably as a result of his behavior. That's when the persistent boil of sexism in the tech industry — the very disease Richards was attempting to diagnose and treat — burst.
Commenters railed against Richards as self-aggrandizing at best, and at worst — well, let's just say that when it comes to attacking a successful woman of color in a white male-dominated field, it's easiest to grab the lowest hanging fruit. She suffered rape and death threats. Her experience was more than appalling to watch unfold online and frustratingly ironic.
The most popular argument against supporting Richards is that she's the one who acted inappropriately, publicly humiliating the men in question by tweeting their pictures. The burden of policing, the online jurists claim, was squarely set on Richards' shoulders. If you see something, say something, goes the axiom.
Richards addressed that complaint herself on her blog: "Three things came to me: act, speak and confront in the moment. I decided to do things differently this time and didn't say anything to them directly. I was a guest in the Python community, and as such, I wanted to give PyCon the opportunity to address this."
Being on the other side of someone's "ism" is never easy. As a woman of color, especially, combating the "angry black woman" stereotype is a constant internal battle of gut checks that would leave even the strongest constitution queasy. By allowing the conference staffers to deal with the problem that she pointed out, Richards utilized the layer of protection available to her. Instead of dragging herself into a possible shouting match (or worse), the situation was handled by the professionals in charge.
Could she have sent a private message? Gotten up and spoken directly with conference staffers? Absolutely. But she didn't. And it isn't Richards' job to protect the privacy of men at a large public event who say rude things out loud where other people with working ears can hear.
Besides the over-the-top and, frankly, potentially dangerous backlash Richards received from the anonymous commenting "heroes" sent to save grown men from their own inappropriate actions, Richards was summarily fired from her post as a "developer evangelist" at SendGrid, an email-delivery company.
According to Richards' former boss, "In light of the events over the last 48+ hours, it has become obvious that her [Richards'] actions have strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite. As a result, she can no longer be effective in her role at SendGrid."
So by pointing out some of the pervasive behavior that divides the tech community, namely an overall "boys' club" environment antithetical to inclusion, Richards allegedly fractured said community even further. Don't you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet? Wouldn't it have been a powerful message of unification for SendGrid to stand behind Richards? Has a potentially powerful watershed moment just been swept under the rug?
So far Richards hasn't been available for comment. According to reports from those who know her personally, she's "staying safe" and off the radar. That sounds like a good plan for someone who has been thrown off track hopefully only temporarily by the highway robbers of the Internet. But that leaves it to the rest of us to do what SendGrid and too many others have not, and what Richards herself decided to do — confront the moment.