In my day job, I am a QA Analyst for a software company. I spend every weekday from nine to five thirty(-ish) telling developers to fix things.
Not because they’re bad developers, but because software is complex. It has lots of moving parts that can break in new and exciting ways. Once you get too close to it, you can lose sight of how it works for someone who has to use the product.
At least once a day, I have a conversation that goes like this:
“Can you fix the thing?”
“I didn’t break the thing.”
“I know you didn’t break the thing. But I still need the thing to work, so I’m asking you to fix it.”
Sometimes I need to have this conversation a few times before getting whatever the problem is fixed. But at the end of the day, everyone knows that if something is broken, it just needs to get fixed. No matter who broke it.
No, you didn’t mean to break anything in the process of deploying new code, but I still need you to go back and look at the five tangential processes that are now not working and fix them anyway.
Yes, I’m pretty sure most of the developers I work with hate me *at least* once a week. I’m sure I’m the cause of a lot of cranky chat messages and I occasionally get snapped at by a developer for telling them something is broken. But I don’t make developers fix things because I hate them. Or because I think they’re bad people. Or even because I think they’re bad developers. If I thought they were bad developers, I wouldn’t bother coming to them with problems in the first place.
I don’t make them fix things as a way of pointing fingers and saying they screwed up. I make them fix things because that thing is broken, no matter who broke it. It’s broken and it needs to be fixed. They know this and once the moment of “ARGH.I DIDN’T BREAK ANYTHING” passes, they get it fixed quickly and efficiently. It might be hard to deal with in the moment, but it’s an unavoidable part of life. When you’re trying to create new things, things break. My entire job as a QA Analyst means saying “Hey, this thing could be working better. Let’s make it better.”
This is what social justice is to me. No, I didn’t create racism. Or sexism. Or homophobia. Or transphobia. Or ablism. But it’s still a thing that’s broken. It’s still a thing that needs to be fixed. Just because I didn’t create it, that doesn’t mean that I get to pretend like it’s not broken. And that goes for every issue out there.
Misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, classism, ablism. These are all things that are deeply and intensely broken in society. There isn’t a single person among us who shoulders the blame for breaking these things. At the same time, there isn’t a single person among us who gets to walk away from the responsibility of fixing them.
That’s the thing that people miss about social justice: Saying that you have taken part in something that needs to be fixed does not make you a bad person. Saying that you need to help fix something does not mean you broke it in the beginning. You can be a really good person and still screw up phenomenally. We all do at some point.
I mean to do good. I have my heart in the right place. Still, sometimes in the process of working on one thing, I accidentally contribute to the brokenness of five other things. I may be trying to work on fixing sexism, but if in doing so, I say something transphobic or ablist, or ignore the intersections of race and gender, or if I reproduce classist rhetoric in critiquing behavior, I have caused harm in exactly the same way I would have created harm if I had intentionally set out to hurt someone. At the end of the day, my motivations didn’t matter. I still need to work to fix the harm I caused.
When this happens, I need someone who isn’t as close to my motivations to take me aside and say “Hey, that thing is broken. Can you fix it?” Most importantly, I need to listen to them. I can have my moment of anger and frustration, but I need to swallow that and think about what they are pointing out. I am too close to myself to see my actions in a non-biased way. My friends are not. It hurts to be told I caused harm, but that hurt is nothing compared to the hurt I could be inflicting on others if I continue.
I need to show up every day at work, ready to help troubleshoot problems. In the same way, I need to show up every day for equality. I can take a day off here or there in either venue, and I need to for my own mental health (we all need to, more often than we let ourselves), but the work still needs to be done. The bugs will still be in our software, and the problems will still be in culture. Ignoring them doesn’t help. It just makes life harder for the people who have to work around those problems, whether talking about computers or society.
I didn’t break our society. I don’t mean to harm anyone. Nor do most other people. That doesn’t absolve me from the responsibility to help fix it. These things are broken. They need to be fixed. Let’s fix them.