Discrimination, Inconvenience, and Opportunity

When I give Code of Conduct Incident Response workshops, one of the subjects I cover is discrimination. Sometimes there’s an attendee who has questions about “reverse discrimination”. This is a tough subject to pick apart, so this post is a little long.

First, let’s start with a story.

Community Center Blues

I work out at a community center in my town. I choose the community center because it’s one of the few community centers that has a pool. The community center has everything you need to work out: a weight room, treadmills, exercise classes, and, of course, men’s and women’s locker rooms to change and shower.

The community center also has several private changing rooms that are marked as being reserved for families with children, seniors, and people with disabilities. The showers in the private changing rooms are equipped with grab rails and a foldable seat (so people with mobility issues can sit while showering) and two shower nozzles (one at adult height and one at a child’s height).

Like a lot of community centers, the shower is operated with a push button that only allows the water to flow for a specific amount of time. The private changing rooms with a dual shower head have two buttons.

The other day, I noticed a funny thing when I accidentally pushed the lower shower button. The lower shower head ran for a longer time than the upper shower head.

This puzzled me for a moment. Having two shower heads makes sense. Outside of elementary or primary schools, buildings aren’t made for children. Having a shower head at their height with a button within reach gives them independence. It also helps people with mobility issues who are sitting on the bench.

Discrimination vs Inconvenience

But why would the community center make the shower water button for children and people with mobility issues run longer? It’s certainly an inconvenience for taller, able-bodied adults to have to mash a button every 15 seconds when you’re cold, wet, and have soap in your eyes. It might feel unfair to you that the community center wouldn’t make the shower water timer equal for everyone. Maybe it even feels like discrimination against able-bodied adults. “Reverse able-ism” if you will.

I often see this type of conversation come up. People see that a particular group benefits from a policy, or someone makes a space that’s explicitly designed for a particular group of people, and some folks feel left out. Hurt. Angry.

On Equality

“Why can’t we treat everyone equally?” some people might ask. “Why do those people get special treatment?”

You could imagine the great lengths the community center could go to ensure everyone gets an equally pleasant showering experience. Instead of push buttons that provide a timed amount of water, they could install sensors that would turn on the water only when a person was standing or sitting under the shower.

That would create an equal experience… assuming the sensor manufacturer tested their product with people who had a variety of different skin colors.

Even if an equally effective sensor was installed, it would probably cost the community center tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars to rip up the walls and install sensors and new shower heads and maybe even new water pipes.

All so that able-bodied adults could stop pushing a button every 15 seconds.

Going to all this renovation work in order for all people to have equally pleasant showers seems a bit extreme. After all, lots of buildings provide unequal access to folks. Some buildings only have stairs, and lack elevators or ramps for people who use mobility devices. Theaters often lack closed captioning for people who are hard of hearing, or provide sub-par experiences with closed caption devices that skip lines or obscure the movie.

Public places could provide an equal experience for all, but that costs time and money to accommodate everyone.

Every day, people make decisions about who gets a better experience, whether it’s at a theater or at a community center. The lack of action to accommodate people with disabilities and people of color builds up over time, with hundreds of thousands of people making small decisions every day that exclude people.

The end result is that every day people with disabilities and people of color are faced with the fact that their lived experience is less important to white, able-bodied people.

Does that sound equal?

Diversity Programs

In order for everyone to have an equally pleasant showering experience, my community center would need to invest in new tech and undertake a giant construction project that would probably inconvenience everyone. The project would likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A better use of those community center funds might be to give children free swimming lessons. My town has several different deep rivers that run through it, and it’s legitimate to worry about children drowning.

Maybe the community center could even offer swimming classes to children of color who live in the neighborhood. You might wonder why they would choose to teach that particular group of children to swim. However, once you look at America’s history of race and gender at public pools, it makes sense.

Initially, public pools were designed for young boys of all races. Once girls gained access, white adults objected to boys of color being around white girls. Cities made the public pools “Whites only”, and some white people would even beat people of color who tried to use the pool.

When the courts forced American public spaces to become desegregated after WWII, many cities simply shut down or filled in public pools rather than allow people of all races to swim. Pools moved into private clubs, which only allowed white members.

The end result of the cities’ policies around who can use public pools is that the overall drowning rate for American Indians and Alaska Natives is twice the rate for White Americans, and the rate for Black Americans is 1.4 times the rate for White Americans.

The community center offering classes for people of color to learn how to swim would help correct the results of the cities making decisions to exclude people of color from public pools.


“But what about the poor white kids?” some folks might ask. “Weren’t they hurt when pools moved into private clubs?”

Yes, and no. Children from lower income countries are more likely to face drowning deaths than children from higher income countries. Around the world, WHO estimates that low- and middle-income countries account for over 90% of unintentional drowning deaths.

However, even when you take income into account, drowning rates in pools are the highest among Black American males. A study of Americans who died from drowning in pools from 1995 to 1998 showed that, “Seventy-five percent were male, 47% were Black, 33% were White, and 12% were Hispanic. Drowning rates were highest among Black males, and this increased risk persisted after we controlled for income.”

By offering free swimming lessons to children of color, the community center is choosing to focus on a particular group of people who are at higher risk of drowning. It’s no different than making sure older adults get tested for diabetes. There’s always a risk of children and teenagers developing diabetes, but diabetes is more prevalent in seniors vs children (25.2% vs 0.24%).

The question becomes, “How do we focus resources on the people who are more likely to need it?”

Lost Opportunity

That’s not to say white children in lower-income families don’t face a lot of issues. They often face food insecurity and the threat of becoming homeless. In fact, the neighborhood around the community center has a couple low-income housing units. The idea behind low-income housing is to offer apartments at a lower-than-normal rent, to ensure families can afford a safe place to sleep. Low-incoming housing in America is far from a perfect solution, but it is a step to address the problem of financial inequality.

When I was a college student facing another rent increase for on-campus housing, low-income housing frustrated me. I didn’t have a job, and my only source of income was scholarships or summer internships. Even if I took that income into account, I was still technically eligible under the income restrictions for low-income housing. However, every low-income apartment building explicitly banned students from applying.

I was annoyed by this, but it wasn’t the end of the world. I could take out student loans, and face the debt when I got a job. There was cheaper housing way out in the suburbs if I was willing to commute an hour by public transit into campus. I might be able to find a roommate who was willing to share my tiny studio apartment. If worst came to worst, I could move back in with my parents, consolidate my classes to two or three days a week, and commute by car for a couple hours each day.

The point is, I had other options. Some of them weren’t necessarily pleasant options, but I had more resources than most people whose income was below the poverty level. Just because I was denied access to low-income housing didn’t mean I was denied all housing opportunities. I just couldn’t access that particular opportunity, which was explicitly designed for people whose only other choice was moving into the street or camping out in their car.

The important question to ask is, “What is the impact of this lost opportunity?”

If someone can find another apartment, job, internship, conference, or event that fits them, it’s not discrimination to offer those opportunities only to people who would normally have a hard time getting access to those things. Instead, it’s correcting all the decisions other people have made that exclude people of color, people from low-income backgrounds, and people with disabilities.


It’s important to frame discussions of “reverse-isms” around statistics about who is more likely to face discrimination, how we can focus resources to help those people who are more likely to need them, and the real-world impact to people who benefit from diversity initiatives.

It’s important to acknowledge the lost opportunities people have when a diversity initiative isn’t designed for them, while emphasizing that those initiatives are there to correct historical and ongoing inequities that deny others opportunity. When talking to people about how the lost opportunity might impact them, it’s important to drill down into why they fear losing that opportunity.

Often the root cause is a fear of being excluded from a group, a feeling of being pressured to change in ways they don’t understand, a refusal to acknowledge discrimination exists, or a deep mistrust based on past experiences. Moving the conversation into a place where people can openly talk about those feelings takes a lot of patience over a long period of time. It involves managing the other person’s anxiety while gently nudging the person towards tolerance and acceptance.

If you’re curious, this post was written for people in the “defense” stage of the “Development Model of Intercultural Sensitivity” (DMIS). Judging where a person is on accepting other cultures is something that takes a lot of time and experience.

It often takes several interactions with folks at various stages of acceptance to recognize common misconceptions and pitfalls. It’s  useful to consult with an expert who can help you create a plan to move your community or company into a stage where they’re more accepting of diversity.

Otter Tech is here to help with one-time or monthly advice sessions to help you make your community more inclusive.

Code of Conduct Enforcement Warning Signs

Recently, people have been speaking out about the mishandling of a Code of Conduct violation by the Chaos Computer Club conference. A person was violently assaulted. The conference refused to ban the attendee with the history of violence, even after the organizers were presented with hospital records and a police report. The victim was notified that the person who assaulted them would be attending this year’s event. They were notified during the event setup, after they had already spent time and money traveling to the event.

This event does have a Code of Conduct, so the question is, “Why didn’t they enforce it?” I think some of the answers lie in an older version of their Code of Conduct. Cultural change takes time, and events often put on a veneer of polish to silence critics while still not having a plan to enforce a Code of Conduct.

CC BY Michael Coghlan

As someone who runs a business that provides diversity and inclusion consulting and trains people on Code of Conduct enforcement, I read a lot of Code of Conducts. There’s often warning signs that a Code of Conduct is not likely to be enforced. I’ve compiled my list of common warning signs.

Many of the warning signs that a Code of Conduct won’t be enforced apply to the CCC Code of Conduct. In particular, the old CCC Code of Conduct exhibited warning signs #3, #4, #5, #6, #8, #9, #10. The new CCC Code of Conduct attempts to address the issue of hate speech in #9, but still includes the original sentence about freedom of expression, which leads me to assume there are still organizers who disagree about whether hate speech should be allowed. The new Code of Conduct now lists some (but not all!) of the common protected classes (#5). The five other warning signs (#3, #4, #6, #8, #10) still apply to the new CCC Code of Conduct.

Here’s the full list of common warning signs that an event won’t enforce their Code of Conduct:

  1. The email address to send Code of Conduct incident reports to is an info@ or reports@ email address with no indication of who is on the recieving end. Is there an actual person who will answer an emailed report? I’m never sure.
  2. The email address to send Code of Conduct incident reports to is a single person, who is the lead event organizer. This indicates that the event doesn’t have a group of people trained to be incident responders. What happens when a Code of Conduct violation involves the one person who is designated to receive incident reports?
  3. The Code of Conduct text lists no contact information at all. Maybe the organizers are giving attendees the contact information at the event. However, conference attendees ditch paper. They don’t read the program. When an incident happens, they’re likely to be frustrated, angry, distraught, or maybe even in shock. They might be stuck in a bathroom trying to avoid a drunken attendee and physically unable to flag down a staff member. Most people will try to find contact information on the event website. If a simple Google search for “EVENT NAME Code of Conduct” doesn’t come up with the contact information for the event’s incident response team in the first five hits, incidents are less likely to be reported.
  4. The Code of Conduct doesn’t list a range of consequences for violating the rules. This typically indicates that event organizers aren’t prepared to enforce their Code of Conduct. Vague phrases like “violators will not be welcome at the event” may mean an event doesn’t have an incident response plan that includes a tiered level of responses to deal with everything from inappropriate jokes up to interpersonal violence.
  5. The Code of Conduct doesn’t include a list of protected identities. Will the conference organizers understand why a homophobic comment is wrong? I don’t know, because the Code of Conduct doesn’t say organizers are looking out for LGBTQ attendees. Will the conference organizers respond to a sexist comment, or will they try to argue “it was just a joke”? I don’t know, because the conference doesn’t list gender as a protected identity. Will the conference organizers deal with an attendee who refuses to stop using abelist terms? I have no idea. Without a list of protected classes, I can’t assume what the event organizers’ views on systematic discrimination are.
  6. The Code of Conduct assumes a baseline of unbiased “good will”. When a Code of Conduct uses a phrase like “Be excellent to each other” it means the authors assume the worst case scenario they’ll have to deal with is someone being “mean” to another. It means organizers are less likely to believe a victim’s report, especially against a well-known event attendee. It means the organizers are likely to be dismissive of CoC incident reports of verbal abuse, harassment, or comments that perpetuate a system of inequality, such as sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. It means organizers are unlikely to have a plan for handling serious Code of Conduct violations like on-going harassment or stalking.
  7. The organizers introduce the Code of Conduct in a dismissive way. If they use a phrase like, “We’re all adults here, and I’m sure people understand the Code of Conduct,” then that tells me that the event has never had to deal with a Code of Conduct violation that involves adult crimes like assault, sexual harassment, domestic abuse, or rape.
  8. The Code of Conduct makes philosophical arguments about morality that undermine it. Some people (especially those in the infosec community) try to argue that there is no “one true moral compass” and that people should be free to do whatever they want. In a moral-less society, there are only consequences to actions, and if you’re willing to accept the consequences of your actions, “do as you will,” these folks argue. However, one of the consequences of refusing to “take sides” or asserting that conference attendees are the only ones responsible for their behavior is that people may decide not to attend the event, your community may lose trust in you, and your event might lose sponsors.
  9. The Code of Conduct talks about “freedom of speech” or “freedom of expression”. When I see this phrase, I always replace it with “freedom of expression for the privileged”. For example, say a speaker starts spouting off xenophobia in the middle of a talk, and the only three Muslim attendees choose to leave a conference because they know the organizers will protect the speaker’s “freedom of speech”. In that case, the organizers are silencing the voices from a group who are underrepresented in tech in order to protect the “freedom of expression” of the majority group in tech. This phrase means the organizers will protect the speech and expression of the privileged over the safety of people who face discrimination.
  10. The Code of Conduct doesn’t list the team members who are in charge of enforcement, or the event allows enforcement team members to join on the day of the event. This is a bad privacy practice, because it doesn’t tell victims who their incident report is going to be shared with. Will it be shared with a friend of the person who assaulted the victim? Unknown. When I don’t see an enforcement team list, I have to assume the enforcement team isn’t trained on how to handle Code of Conduct incident reports.

Training a team of Code of Conduct incident responders is a commitment to the safety of your event attendees. It’s a commitment that your Code of Conduct will be enforced, and is more than just words on a page. Otter Tech can help you train your event staff with a Code of Conduct incident response workshop. Please send us an email if you’re interested in Code of Conduct enforcement training.

Sage Sharp is the founder of Otter Tech, and is an expert on Code of Conduct creation and enforcement. They have over 10 years experience with open source communities, ranging from being the Linux kernel USB 3.0 driver maintainer to being an organizer for Outreachy, which connects people from groups under-represented in tech to paid internships working with open source.