The Dark Side of Conferences

It’s not easy for you to walk up to a group of people and introduce yourself.  The fear behind that is that the people will reject you for who you are.  I like to think that it’s an irrational fear, but it’s really not.

On the first day of Grace Hopper, I had sent out a blast to a Slack group that I was in asking if anyone wanted to get lunch together.  Someone responded but decided that she wanted to go to a talk during the same time at the last minute.  I was a little deterred but I figured I could just walk up to a group and have a slightly awkward lunch.  I walked up to a group at a small table — I’ve found that if you join smaller groups, it’s easier to talk to people than it is to go sit at a large table.  We all introduced ourselves, and it was nice, and my brain felt like it was okay to let down my guard and sit and eat.

And then the questions came.  “Are you from India?” the first woman asked.  I said no, and replied that my family was from Bangladesh.  The women took turns making fun of me for being Bengali.  The picked on my rounded face, my lack of high cheekbones, and my Bengali homeliness.  It was humiliating.  As I felt the tears well up, they all decided to pick up their food and go sit down two tables away from me.

I lost my appetite.  I didn’t want to be at the conference anymore at all.  Everyone tells you when you first come into the conference that because we’re all women, we magically have 12,000 new friends (aka # of attendees of the conference).  I felt like I was the only idiot to be able to screw that up so fast.

I texted a couple of friends, and pulled it back together, and decided to go sit by someone new.  Admittedly, I picked someone who *wasn’t* Indian this time.  We chatted for a little bit, and then she said, “Where did you learn how to speak English so good?  I’ve always hated working with Indian women because I can’t understand what they say, but you don’t have an accent at all!  I bet that makes it easy for you to get sponsorship.”  That swell of stress instantly bubbled back up in my chest, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe.  Here another woman was packing me applauding me for not being like the rest of the Indian women. I was going to say it was ironic, but I guess it really wasn’t because people were being consistent in telling me that I didn’t belong to that group.  It was at that moment when I realized that recruiters don’t normally ask white women if they need employment sponsorship, but they ask brown women that all the time.  All I could say to her was “speak English so well.”

I didn’t want to meet more people.  Both of these scenarios happen to me.  A lot.  I was at a hockey game with Mark, and there was a lady chatting him up for over an hour and I could tell she was looking for an opening to ask me where I was from.  When she finally did, I tried to hold off for as long as possible to say that I was Bengali, but eventually, when that fact came out, she literally turned away and stopped talking to us.  I think that was the first time that Mark had seen that kind of response, and he was perplexed.

It still confuses me why it’s such a big deal.  You’d think that first and second generation people from southeast Asia would all band together because of the shared challenges we face.  I’m always shocked that we divide ourselves like this.  A lot of people tell me to just pretend like I’m from India but I feel like that’s even worse.  I’m not ashamed that I’m Bengali.  I literally could not change that fact about myself.  Why should I pretend that generations of my family are from a different country?  It’s not only disrespectful to them, but I also feel like it’s disrespectful to all of the people who fought for Bengali independence.

The rest of my day and conference turned around after I met a friend of a friend which helped me reset my mood.  I met a lot of awesome women at the conference.  I specifically met a lot of Indian and Pakistani women who didn’t bat an eye at my being Bengali.  My next couple of blogposts are going to be about how inspiring the conference was as a whole.

However, I felt like it was important to talk about how even though a group is united by one thing (in this case, being women in computing), there are still things that divide us.  The exclusion and the assumptions are the dark side of conferences.  They’re the thing that makes you not want to come back to the conference or to the community as a whole.  There was a lot of talk about implicit bias training at companies, but I felt like we needed to start the conference off by doing the training in-house.  It was almost as if we forgot that people are mean to each other (intentionally or unintentionally) based on factors other like race, religion, (dis)ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and ethnicity.  When you are united under one theme, you should not look for differences to divide the group up again.

4 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Conferences”

  1. WTF. I’m f***ing livid hearing this and so sorry I didn’t go to GHC this year, though I might have punched someone…. What does Bengali homeliness even mean? You’re gorgeous! I don’t understand how anyone under any circumstance could think that making fun of someone new to a group is okay, but especially at this sort of conference. GAH!

  2. Well,it is not bad that much! I think people like to investigate because there is something in someone special or different.
    So this is the light side of attending to a conference,however,the reaction to the issue could make that worsen.
    If this makes you irritating or ashamed simply reply with silence or smile,and play with your cellphone.

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