The first piece of Shanley Kane’s writing I ever read was her essay, “The Marketing Chick.” I was a marketing dude at the time, and it turned my head around. Up to reading that essay, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself: People in the tech industry consistently make sport of their colleagues in the marketing department, and it’s gross.
Because I’d started out at the company as a tech writer, and because I had a background as a practitioner with expertise in the sorts of technologies we support, I got a little bit of a break elsewhere in the office. The jokes about being “on the dark side” were delivered with a little more of a smile. I was supposed to read the ribbing about “bad life choices” as gentle, I think. When things weren’t going well on the team, I had an easy time finding sympathetic ears outside the team because it’s marketing, and there’s only so much you can do with those people. And because it’s like Shanley wrote:
Ironically, but not surprisingly, men who do these jobs are almost never denigrated and insulted the way women who do these jobs are. In fact, most high-level marketing positions in tech are still occupied by white men. Funny how that works.
She’s right. The worst thing I’d probably ever be called was “a marketing dude.” Never one of “those bitches in marketing.”
So reading Shanley helped me start thinking about how much privilege I was enjoying, regardless of how put upon I felt. It helped me understand what it meant when a female coworker confided to me that some of the women on the team hated to disagree with me, because they felt like they were at an automatic disadvantage dealing with a male who was “more technical.”
When I got a laudatory evaluation that mentioned the ways I’d “bridged the divide” between marketing and other teams in the company, Shanley’s writing helped me understand the ways in which a thing I thought was a virtuous outcome — I like being the guy who can walk into a room and help people make sense of each other, and it seems like a valuable gift to have — was perhaps the product of a bad gender dynamic.
Ultimately, I didn’t last on that marketing team. I went back over to technical writing — and a management role — and lots of people heartily welcomed me back. It was hard to be all “oh, thank god!” about it, because people always seem ready to believe the worst about marketing. If you believe in social justice, and once you see that gender dynamic exposed the way Shanley does in her essay, being welcomed back to “where you belong” feels slightly poisoned.
So, that was the first thing from her I ever read, and it changed the way I saw the world and thought about my work. As much as there were times in that marketing pod where I felt as profoundly alienated as I’ve felt anywhere, I was given a way to understand how much privilege I had.
I’ve read more of her stuff since. She has some wonderful insights into the responsibilities of management, how microaggression works and looks, how to identify the smells in your team communication, and more, including the wonderful “Values Towards Ethical and Radical Management.” In the best of all possible worlds, she wouldn’t be considered a radical at all. In fact, there are substantial parts of that essay that wouldn’t be out of place in an Army leadership course. The fact that she sometimes is considered a radical, that she’d feel the need to label those ideas radical, just underscores how badly twisted our collective work culture has become.
So, I love Shanley’s writing. It’s direct, it resonates, and it should be all anyone needs to read to start asking the right questions. That’s why I gave myself her book. The reason I’m giving it to my team is perhaps more because of Shanley herself.
People have written about Shanley’s writing on Twitter as if they’re writing about a separate person. She’s relentless in the promotion of her ideals in the face of constant demands to just shut up and sit back down, and she isn’t at all cool about it. She reminds me constantly — sometimes painfully — that it’s not enough to read a few essays, sit back and ruminate for a bit. She demands allies actually act like allies, and that’s hard.
I’ve had to make a few difficult decisions over the past year. The combination of her lucid writing and relentless advocacy have helped me make the right decisions when I’ve gotten it right, and helped strengthen my resolve to do better when I’ve gotten it wrong. No, I don’t know her. She doesn’t know me. She certainly doesn’t write for me, but she’s one of those people with whom I feel engaged, and who has a voice to which I feel answerable.
That engagement, for me, takes the form of constant reminders of the privilege I’ve enjoyed all my life. I’ve been profoundly privileged to be places where I could come across the ideas I have, and to know people who have been willing to deal with my myopic good intentions and misguided attempts at just behavior — people who have been so patient with me. I’ve caught break after break, and I’ve had the nerve to sit around feeling sorry for myself in the midst of a career I’ll never say I “deserved,” having had the good luck to walk away from ridiculous choices and to survive one really solid attempt at just giving up.
And the thread throughout all that was privilege I didn’t even know I had. Did someone roll over me in a meeting, or treat me poorly, or do something I didn’t like? I’ve never had a doubt that the door of whatever authority figure was around was open to me. That even if it turned out I was wrong, at the very least I’d be soothed and reassured. Privilege is a place of “honest mistakes” and your good intentions mattering, and people affirming your essential reasonableness even when you’re mostly pissed off that you didn’t get your way. You get lots of do-overs. When you fuck up, people not only forgive you but they think up excuses on your behalf and then provide them to you. If you’re like me, you can even make it all the way to 44 before you have to apply for a job where you don’t have some kind of in — went to college with your new boss, had your name passed along by a friend, and on and on.
Consequently, privilege is a place of profound delusion, where you make excuses for other peoples’ suffering — when you’re even aware of it — and sometimes have the unmitigated gall to scold others for their “lack of civility” or “tone” because they happen to be mad as hell over things you wouldn’t stand happening to you, and that you’d be able to correct with a quiet word in the ear of the right person. Given all that, privilege cannot help but be morally distorting.
So I’m buying Shanley’s book for my team because in our relationship I enjoy more privilege than them, and I want them to have something more tangible than promises that “my door is always open,” or that “I’ll work very hard to be fair.” I want us all to have a shared toolkit so we can build the team we all deserve, and so there’s a shared sense of the standard to which I’ll hold myself accountable — to which they can hold me accountable — if I let them down. From her essay “Values Towards Ethical and Radical Management:”
“Manager” is not an honorific, it is my job description.
My first and only priority is to make my team successful.
The honesty, safety, productivity and dignity of my team is more important than my personal comfort.
It should be common sense, but it doesn’t seem to actually be common sense, and I want it to be.