Here’s what’s wrong with your all-white, all-male startup.
Because for some reason, you need someone to tell you why it’s not okay.
Two of a kind. That is how big your club or startup can be if you’re a member of a privileged group.
Two white guys? Go ahead and start your real estate brokerage, your clever little podcast, your social media agency.
Three white guys? Time for you to meet a woman or a non-binary person or a man of color, and include them in your venture.
Two white women? Also fine. Three white women? Let me please draw your attention to the fact that “women” and “white women” are not, in fact, synonymous. If you are three white women starting a business or a sketch comedy show or a community organization, please stop referring to yourself as “women-owned” or “woman-run”, and instead refer to yourselves as “white woman-run”. Doesn’t sound so great, does it?
Here’s where you’re going to say, how about three black guys or three Latino guys or three gay guys or two cis white guys and one white trans guy? Well, it sure isn’t the same problem as three straight cis white guys. But maybe stop and think about who’s being left out of the picture, and why it matters. I have zero issue with the five stars of Queer Eye all being guys — that’s the point of the show! — but I sure as hell wouldn’t be watching if all five of those guys were white.
The point is not to aim for perfect representation. The point is, if you’ve got three people in a room, why do they all need to look like you? If you and your white guy buddy are launching a startup, is adding a third white guy to the mix really the best way to signal to the world that you’re smart, tuned in and looking for a broad range of clients? Are you really so accustomed to white — or white male — as the neutral norm that three white faces doesn’t strike you as a very specific kind of statement?
Maybe you’re wondering what the enforcement mechanism is here. I’m not proposing that white guy trios be made illegal or that professional codes of practice should make them formally off-limits. There’s already a very tangible consequence for every club of three white boys (or four white women, or seven white people of various genders)…though I’m guessing that if you’re the kind of person who starts an all-white or all-male project, you may not be aware of this consequence.
The consequence is that I think you are an asshole. Hang out your all-male or all-white shingle, and I’m guessing that there are many people who think you’re an asshole. We may or may not tell you that to your face (though I can think of at least two situations in which I have.) But we are thinking it, and it is costing you business, or costing you audience, or costing you respect.
Yes, there are enough oblivious white men running oblivious companies or using oblivious social networks that you will still be able to earn a living or find an audience. Just ask yourself, in your little all-white or all-male clubhouse, whether that is really the audience or clientele you want to serve.
Do you really want to coast on your privilege, and reinforce a system that is built on the idea that people like you are the default, and everyone else is some kind of special interest? Or do you want to be part of the chorus of voices pointing out that the world’s challenges can only be met once we bring a wider range of people to the table?
Has it really come to this, you ask? Do we really need quotas in order to keep people from launching all-white or all-male or all-straight or all-cis businesses, projects, publications or organizations?
Apparently we do. Last night I turned on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert — the top-rated late night talk show — and what should I see but four(!) white guys talking about the abortion law introduced in Alabama this week. Colbert’s guests were the three white guys who host Pod Save America, and they were there to talk about the week’s political news.
And this week, the big story is a newly regressive abortion policy in one of America’s poorest states. It’s a state in which people of color are almost three times as likely as whites to live in poverty, thus ensuring that women of color will be disproportionately affected by this new law.(If it ever goes into effect, which pundits currently see as unlikely.)
Are four white guys really the right people to address that story? Of course not — but when you start an all-white-boy trio, this is the kind of crazy-ass situation you get into.
The fact that three former Obama staffers (yes, that’s where the Pod Save America guys come from) and a notoriously liberal talk show host don’t seem to notice that their all-white-dude yak fest is, um, a little incomplete…well, that’s what makes me think we just need a blanket guideline on how big an all-white-boy club can be before it’s just stupid, offensive and self-defeating. If four liberal men can’t figure this out on their own, we clearly need to spread this shorthand.
Sadly, however, it’s not like the Pod Save America guys are the only ones making this mistake. I’ve watched two other white bro clubhouses start up in recent years, made up of smart, well-meaning, notionally progressive men who somehow can’t see that starting an all-white-guy business is by definition making the problem worse. I don’t care how clever you are or how long you’ve been a card-carrying leftie: If your privileged clubhouse is larger than two people, it needs to be inclusive, or it’s doing more harm than good.
I hate being a formulaic absolutist, and I’m sure that someone or other will come up with examples of all-white or all-male clubhouses that have nothing to apologize for. But is that really where you (or anyone) needs to put their energy — into finding edge cases in which it actually makes sense to launch yet another homogeneous, privileged project or organization?
I’d rather put my own energy into creating projects and organizations that bring different kinds of people together, and tap into the insights you can only get when you convene people with a range of life experiences. And when I see someone who doesn’t value that — who somehow thinks that their little band of white boys is so damn special, inclusivity principles don’t apply — I know that’s one person who won’t be getting my time, dollars or attention.