A perfect example of this is like a white woman calling the cops on Black men. It is like a fucking prime example of…and at that point maybe they do know they have privilege. But either way they know that they can manipulate the system to get a desired outcome and it is based on what?…The person’s race. Right? Like so, you’re not putting the words to it. Maybe you don’t want to, but I mean at this day and age like how can you not hear the word privilege? Like we’re in 2021, but still…Even if…even if you are completely, in fact, ignorant to privilege you are still aware that you’re manipulating a system.
Kurt Kemple is a technical writer, speaker, and software developer living in Virginia Beach, VA. He’s very passionate about the intersection of technology and incarceration and co-host of Fullstack Health, a podcast about the intersection of technology and health. Currently, he works for Apollo Graph Inc, as a Developer Relations Manager. When not working he can be found by the ocean or relaxing with his family
For most of my life I considered myself a-political. I always said that no matter who was in office my life wouldn't change. For the most part I was right, but what I didn't understand then was that is because I have the benefit of white privilege.— Kurt Kemple (@theworstdev) January 7, 2021
Kim Crayton: Hello everyone and welcome to today’s episode of the #CauseAScene podcast. My guest today is Kurt Kemple, pronouns he/him. Kurt, would you please introduce yourself to the audience?
Kurt Kemple: Yeah, hi, thank you so much for having me. As Kim mentioned, I am Kurt Kemple. I am a developer relations manager at Apollo GraphQL. I’m also very interested in the intersection of technology and incarceration as someone who is formerly incarcerated myself. I also co-host a podcast as well called “Fullstack Health,” where we discuss the intersection of technology and health.
Kim: Alright let’s start out the show as we always do: why is it important to cause a scene? And how are you, Kirk, [correction: Kurt] causing a scene?
Kurt: Well, I think the importance really can’t be understated, but just to put it out there, we’re living in a system—especially in the United States—that’s built on systemic racism, and it’s important for white folx like myself to figure out where we can be the most help and cause the least amount of harm. Causing a scene is just important to help make America actually the great nation that folx seem to want to already believe that it is. The way I’m causing a scene—honestly, I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m tryin’ to figure out where’s the best place that I can place my effort, and a lot of that seems to be in ways of getting involved more locally, from what I’ve discovered so far. And then tryin’ to find ways that I can use my background, either in technology, my relationship to the prison-industrial complex, tryin’ to find places there to be active.
Kim: So I’m gonna start there, because I find it… I’m just gonna read just the first part of a tweet that I’ll be including in the show notes. On January 7th, which was the day after the insurrection in the United States, Kurt wrote, “For most of my life I considered myself apolitical. I always said that no matter who’s in office my life wouldn’t change. For the most part I was right. But what I didn’t understand then was that it was because I have the benefit of white privilege.” Can you talk about that a little bit?
Kurt: Yeah, yeah. So, I grew up relatively poor and I didn’t really make my way through school—I dropped out in high school. Struggled with drug addiction and a lot of things, and I just never really felt that it was important or valuable for me to get involved in government or politics because I felt that my voice didn’t matter, first of all—which was incorrect, big time—but also secondly that no matter who was going to be the president, things wouldn’t change for me particularly.
It was completely off base, completely thought in a lack of understanding of both how our system works as a government, my part that I play in that system. But yeah, for a very long time I just felt like it wouldn’t matter if I were to vote for a Republican or a Democrat or a Libertarian—you know, third party vote—because things for me on the ground wouldn’t change. But I was ignoring a lot of the privilege that I did have the benefit to and things that I did get that a lot of other people don’t have access to. But I just didn’t understand that. I wasn’t aware that there were such disparities between even what it’s like being poor and being white and being poor and being Black. That was not something I was aware of.
Kim: So let’s tease this out a bit. What were your a-ha moments? What are the differences that you now see that you did not see? And we can start with the poor white / poor Black, because a lot of pushback that we get in this space when we talk about the need for being antiracist, and then you have politicians who make everything about class and refuse to talk about race—what did you miss? What are they missing?
Kurt: Yeah, I missed a ton of things. So first I’ll start with education. So even though I grew up poor, I still lived in a predominantly white neighborhood, middle class as well, so schools were well-funded. I still had access to a decent education, although I didn’t take advantage of it, I did, right? I had the benefit of that. I had the benefit of welfare programs that were funded by my local community. And so a lot of that stuff you lose out—you also just lose out on the benefit of the doubt.
Kim: OK, I’ma stop you right there. Let’s tease down what welfare programs did you have? ‘Cause a lotta white folx have problems with understanding that they are also products of public money. So, tease that out.
Kurt: Yes for sure, sorry. So school lunch programs, programs to get equipment if I wanted to try a sport or something like that, we would be able to get that. Programs like community-run programs for pantries and foodstuff, health. Things we would have like doctors or different programs who would literally just help people in the community—which, you know, I’m not sure how much of that comes from… I feel like a lot of that comes from just being in a neighborhood where we were at the bottom of the socioeconomic status but we got the benefits of just being in a predominantly white neighborhood where a lot of care was put into the programs that were available, how good the public schools were.
Kim: Mm. OK, so again, folx, y’all know I never know where I’m goin’ with these conversations, and he keeps hitting’ on things that are interesting to me. Because people will say, “Well, in these Black and brown communities they have these same things.” And people, they want to do apples to apples. Except when you do apples to apples, the apple that you had hadn’t even fallen off the tree; it was ripe, it was picked. The apple that people in brown and Black communities has already fallen off the tree, has rotten, and you have worms and stuff in the apples. So it’s not the same. You can even say that the quality of life as a poor white person was substantially better because you actually had choices. You got to choose whether you would participate in a well-funded education system.
Kim: And you chose to opt out for whatever reasons those are. A shitty education system was not the default for you.
Kim: So the doctors that came to visit the poor white folx in your community were not steeped in medical racism. They saw you as a individual poor person and not as a collective, “We have to deal with this group of Black or brown poor people.”
Kurt: Absolutely. Absolutely. And subconsciously, I actually internalized my privilege—I didn’t know this for a long time—and I would use it to my advantage. Like as a white person, I’m given an identity, I’m given the benefit of the doubt, if I’m suffering most times it’s not because of something that I did. We look at something like drug addiction, which now we treat as a disease, but when you compare what got us there, which is a bunch of white kids overdosing on opiates, compared to something like the crack epidemic where it’s just considered that no, the fault is with the user. What is the big difference between those two communities?
So long story short, I learned to use this to my advantage. Like I was saying, I’d get in trouble for things, or in school I would do something or I would act out, and I was always given the benefit of the doubt and I got away with a lot of things I shouldn’t have and that other people—especially Black people and people of color, Indigenous folks—would never have gotten away with. This is talking about committing crimes as a juvenile due to my drug addiction and stuff like that, and it continued. I continued to take advantage of that system through most of my young adult life.
Kim: So I wanna pause here ’cause I wanna acknowledge something, ’cause I need people to hear this: you did not understand privilege at that time, you couldn’t’ve articulated privilege at that time, and yet you were well aware that you could manipulate the system to your benefit.
Kurt: Yes, without a doubt.
Kim: And this is why I say all white people are racist by design and cannot be trusted by default without consistent demonstrated antiracist behavior. It is not something that you are able to articulate, it is something that your surroundings, your family, your communities instil in you that you know inherently some kind of way, ’cause there’s not like there’s a class, but white folx all over the world have learned this lesson that they not only benefit, but they can manipulate the systems, institutions, and policies of white supremacy to their favor.
Kurt: Absolutely. Yeah, and it carried through all the way up until I started to really come to grips with white privilege first, so still it was very much like a tiered awareness for me. I became really aware of my privilege during my incarceration. That’s where I really started to—I grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods. I definitely had some Black friends and stuff growing up but I wasn’t really around the Black community or people of color to great depth and to really get deep into each other’s lives. During my incarceration, that’s really all you have there is each other. You get to understand a lot of folx’s lived experiences that just differ greatly.
Kim: And also lemme stop you. When you say that’s all you have, let’s be clear: there’s another level to that because so many Black and brown people are there, you were forced to be surrounded by people who are overly indexing in that space.
Kurt: Oh my goodness, overly indexing. The amount of… yeah, and this is where just through jail, through my process of incarceration, going through the court systems, the huge disparities that I would see in sentences, pre-trial releases, handed out to people of color versus the white community was astounding. It’s terrifying. 16 year old kids with me in jail, charged as adults. Children in jails with adults. Always Black kids or Latinx kids, never white kids. The whole system, I just became very aware of it. Way more aware of racism.
Kim: OK, let’s stop. Stop stop stop! We’ll get back to that, ’cause what just popped into my head was that Karl Rittenhouse person, who was not only responsible for killing two people in a racist attack, but just recently was released by—can’t think of who paid his bail, some billionaire—paid his bail, and he was just seen in a club. He’s 18. He’s in Illinois, he should not be in any club. He is under age, he’s supposed to be 21, so he’s breakin’ the law, he’s in this bar with Neo-Nazis and white supremacists throwin’ up signs, and the judge only—did not revoke his bail—but ordered him to not be around such people. That is what the fuck his admonishment from the court was after having killed two people.
Kurt: Yes. The amount of that… it’s just… the blatant racism and privilege that is just handed out is… it’s mind boggling. It’s actually not, because you’re aware of this, Black folx are aware of this.
Kim: Yeah, ’cause I’m not—yeah, exactly. My mind is not boggled. The only thing that boggles my mind is the creativity in it. It gets really creative. But I want to get back to your story of now you’re forced to be with people you’ve never been with, and how was all of this breaking for you?
Kurt: It was a huge break. So I’ve also—at this point—I’m also coming out of a fog of drug addiction, making real bad choices, trying to come to grips with a lot of stuff that happened.
Kim: OK, I’m gonna stop you right there, because you get to say, “real bad choices.” See this is the line for white folx. You get to say you as an individual made bad choices. Black folx don’t get—it’s not bad choices, it’s who we are, it’s our entire communities.
Kurt: Yeah. There’s no individual.
Kim: Exactly. I’m teasin’ this out so people can see that Kurt got to be an individual. His behavior—illegal behavior, against the law behavior, and I’m sure as a drug addict you caused harm to many different people—was still seen as an individual fault instead of an inherent defect.
Kurt: Absolutely. The privilege of individuality is another type of privilege that white people are granted because we set ourselves as the default. So we don’t define ourselves as white or whiteness; we consider ourselves to be that, so our uniqueness gets the comment at the individual level whereas everyone else is talked about as groups, communities. No one else is afforded that benefit. This is also starkly apparent as well throughout this process of incarceration. Just hearing how lawyers, judges, DAs [District Attorneys] would talk about people from different backgrounds or different races. Literally, the entire tone of the situation would change.
Kim: Examples? Examples? [Laughs]
Kurt: Yeah, so examples would be…
Kim: And the reason that I’m doin’ this, because you’re my first formerly incarcerated guest and I want folx to understand this. So… yes. [Laughs]
Kurt: Yeah absolutely. So we would go for… like if you had a trial hearing for something, or some sort of hearing dealing with your case, the way it worked—at least where I was—everybody would be put into a bus and you’re driven over to the courthouse and then you’re lined up, and you sit in a room, and then you hear how other people’s conversations—they come back and tell you how they spoke with their lawyer, or the things that they’re saying. Or if you’re in the courtroom—sometimes you’d be in the courtroom together—and literally just the judge’s tone of voice and the way that they speak to people would change based on race.
I was—like we said—I was always treated as an individual, I was always given the benefit of the doubt, and then there could be someone sittin’ next to me with way less charges—a Black person—and maybe they’ve come through here once or twice before but just the tone, the disregard for care? It almost was very careless, where I felt like the judge was paying attention to my case. The next person’s case, didn’t care, didn’t want to hear anything; the DA’s aggressiveness towards people of color was readily apparent. And I honestly don’t think I would have picked up on this had I not been around a lot of people and literally just had it in my face repeatedly. I don’t… it’s interesting. Because it’s like you said.
Kim: And this is why I repeat—I know people get sick of it and I try to change it in various ways—but this is why I constantly repeat, retweeting, “This is what white supremacy looks like.” “Tech is not neutral or apolitical,” because it takes so many different examples of this constantly being shown for white people to see the difference. And one of the things that just hit me is in these spaces, so… you’re a Black man. And you’re sitting next to a white man who has been treated with kindness and care. You go up—and I’m sayin’ man because they definitely wouldn’t have you… well, I’m not gonna say that—but in these courtrooms, you aren’t with women because you didn’t get on the bus together, you’re not in the same prisons, or whatever. So you get up and you are treated so aggressively, and yet you are required to shut the fuck up or you will make it worse.
Kim: Any behavior you do that is uncivil will make it worse, and this is why I say, “Fuck civility.” Civility is optional for white people and is the expected behavior of Black and brown people for us to manage our own behaviors. And this is why I could give a fuck about white people’s feelin’s. Black and brown people—I gonna talk specifically Black folx—Black folx have had to learn to manage their feelings—I don’t give a fuck what we’re goin’ through; we coulda been raped, we coulda been beat up, we could be hungry, we could be homeless, it does not matter. We better have a fuckin’ smile on our face as we go through it. Because any time we show any real human emotion that is ascribed to white folx to freely experience or express, it is—and that could be tears, that could be anger, that could be joy, anything—it is held against us.
And this is why I am so… seeing, because I’ve been observing—for me, it’s like peeling back a onion. I get to one thing and I’m thinkin’ “Ahhh.” I know it’s not it, but then I get to that next level and it’s like, “Oh, shit.” So as I’m going to this, I’m at this point now, on this day in 2021, where I’m just convinced that it’s white feelings that cause so much harm, period. How people get fired on their jobs, how people have to—hell, how we protest—everything is about Black folx, brown folx, marginalized folx having to manage their feelings in ways that white folx have never been held account to. And when white folx feel that they’re—you see it on Twitter. Every time I gaslight somebody, it’s always, “I’m angry. I don’t like how this makes me feel.” Bitch, I don’t care about your feelings!
Kurt: Yeah, and white folx…
Kim: So you can go back to wherever you wanted to, but I just had to put that in there.
Kurt: Yeah, and white folx have a way of—us, we, I am one of them.
Kim: And then I’m gonna stop you, because now it’s just clicking for me that not only that, but you’re fuckin’ aware that you’re doin’ it.
Kurt: Yeah, absolutely.
Kim: So, all this, “I didn’t know!” That’s bullshit. You might not know the word fuckin’ privilege, you might not understand that it’s connected to white supremacy, but you keenly aware that you have a benefit and you use it to your advantage even to the detriment of others.
Kurt: Yes. A perfect example of this is white women callin’ the cops on Black men. It’s like a fucking prime example of—and at that point, maybe they do know they have privilege—but either way they know they can manipulate a system to get a desired outcome and it is based on what the person’s race. Right? So, not puttin’ words to it, maybe you don’t want to—in this day and age how can you not hear the word privilege? We’re in 2021. But still, even if you are completely in fact ignorant of privilege you are still aware that you’re manipulating a system.
Kurt: …you are still aware that you’re manipulating a system.
Kim: Exactly. Exactly. And that’s the thing that Black people, when they say ignorance of the law does not—whatever that little saying is—ignorance of the law doesn’t absolve you from… so if you didn’t know the speed limit changed, if the sign was not even down and the speed limit changed, you still would get a fuckin’ speeding ticket. That is how Black folx are treated. We don’t have to know shit, they can make up a rule right before we get there, and we will be held to account. But white folx can say, “I didn’t know. I’m sorry,” all of those things. So you’re in the court and you’re actually seeing Black and brown defendants being treated horribly differently than yourself and it took you a while to even make that connection.
Kim: So you had to be so steeped in that reality for you to see it.
Kurt: Absolutely. And to give concrete examples, there was another white individual who got terribly upset about what they were doing. So you’re all shackled up and still they’re standing up, they’re trying to knock things off the table. And what do they do? They bring them to the back, they let ’em sit it out in a cell, and they’re going to bring them back for the afternoon cases. They’re gonna give ’em a chance to cool down. Another day I saw a very similar situation—actually, not a similar situation, I take that back—another situation where a Black man just expressed emotion. Was upset, was not happy with what was happening, wasn’t freaking out, trying to throw stuff or do anything, just actively upset, was held in contempt of court. So that’s the difference. That’s an extra charge, they’re trying to literally add more charges because he showed emotion.
Kim: OK, and was this pre-trial or post-trial? ‘Cause this is another thing…
Kim: …how many people can’t pay bail. So they’re adding—so he’s in jail—and they’re adding more charges and he’s not even gone to court for the original shit.
Kurt: Yeah, exactly. He’s at court for a pre-trial hearing essentially.
Kim: But that’s what I’m sayin’. His trial with jury and shit hasn’t even happened.
Kurt: Yeah, has not happened. Hasn’t even happened. And they’re adding charges. And they do this all the time. It goes so much deeper than that. It’s how the guards treat you, it’s how you’re able to get—there’s almost no medical care, but the little bit there is—if you’re white, you’re gonna get to it faster than you are if you’re Black. There’s just lots of things. There’s the jobs…
Kim: OK, so let’s talk about since you’ve been in and since you’re my post-incarcerated guest, what about the insurrectionist who refused to eat because he didn’t get organic meals? Request?
Kurt: Oh my god. Nothing makes me more furious—well, that’s not true, a lot of things—but that story pisses me off. No, we don’t get organic food. You don’t even know where the food you’re eating comes from, first of all. Second of all, he got that food by appropriating Indigenous culture, calling himself a shaman and saying he can only eat food. So white America’s justice system is allowing a white person to appropriate Indigenous culture to have the benefit of eating organic foods within our incarceration system while literally millions of Black people can’t go see a doctor when they get bit by a poisonous spider. I saw somebody almost lose their arm because they couldn’t get treated after they got bit by a poisonous spider. The disparities are huge. Huge. And it’s a white supremacist system, and there’s white people in power all the way down.
Kim: And so, I’m happy we’re teasin’ this out, because this is why I use the word “whiteness,” because it’s the closest thing I can get to when you say “Blackness”—that’s a group of people, and whiteness, white people are always individuals. So this is the only thing I can get to closest to making white people a group. And yet you are articulating what we’re talkin’ about. It is systems, institutions, and policies. And it’s… this is another reason why I’m saying I’m no longer putting new wine into old wine skins.
I see this time and time again when Black and brown people believe that when they get access to these systems, institutions, and policies that they will behave differently. No! These systems, institutions, and policies are designed that anybody who filters in through them as an employee—as a person who’s supposed to pull the levers of these systems, institutions, and policies—at some point you will behave in the same way.
So I’m sure there were Black guards that treated these people very differently than they treated you. There are Black judges that treated these people very differently than they treated you. There were Black defense attorneys and Black prosecutors that treated these defendants differently than they treated you, because its the systems. People need to understand these systems, institutions, and policies are what dictate the behaviors of the people within them. It’s all about assimilation. It is all about when you get in—and I know, I grew up with Black cops as my godfathers. My mom used to work at a police station with the police whatever you want to call it… police whatever. When she had me, she said that twenty of ’em came into the room afterwards, because I was their new thing, I was their baby. And yet, they—particularly at the height of the crack epidemic—they behaved so badly towards their own communities because that was the thing.
I remember being… the one brush that I had with the criminal justice system—beyond a ticket—was when I was 17, and I was in the car with my godsister who was a year younger than me, so she was 16, so she was still underage. Considerably. And we were going to a party—and these were her friends. I was in from out of town. And so we were in this car, going back home. The car was running when we got in the car, I was in the middle in the back.
They were driving and then they get to this side street and they start talking to this other car—I guess they see a friend and they stop and talk into the car—and a cop comes behind and they just take off and I’m like, “What the fuck is goin’ on?” So the lights are blaring, the da da da da da. They ditch the car, everybody jumps out. Now I don’t know these people so I’m sittin’ in the back seat like, “What the fuck is goin’ on?” So I’m the only one left. The only one left.
The cops come, and he has doesn’t have a gun out on me and I’m just—oh my god, I’m just remembering all this shit; I blocked all this fuckin’ shit out. But he has his hand on his gun as I’m comin’ out, and I’m sayin’, “I don’t know what’s going on. I’m a 17 year old girl. I don’t know what’s goin’ on.” And he’s trying to arrest me. But because I had those cop godfathers, I’m calling all these names, I’m callin’ ’em, and he’s getting fuckin’ pissed. Because he’s like, “Who the fuck are you to know these people?” ’cause these are people who are in senior—one was actually the police chief. So he’s like, “You don’t know them!” He’s goin’ off. So finally his partner calls one of the deputies who is one of the closest ones and he’s like, “Yeah I know her.” He actually comes to get me.
They were ready to arrest me for some shit I had nothin’ to do about, and then we go to court, my dad had to go the fuck off on my godsister, because she did not want to give up who the fuck it was and because I was the oldest one in there, I was gonna go to fuckin’ jail. And I was just like, “What the fuck is going on?” That was one of those moments that as I sit back now knowing what I know, understand how close I came to bein’ in a situation that I had absolutely no fuckin’ control over.
Kurt: Mhm. Situation you coulda lost your life in. And that’s what history shows us. You coulda been killed for being a 17 year old kid tryin’ to go to a party.
Kim: Exactly. No, comin’ home from a party!
Kurt: Comin’ home from a party. Yeah. Doesn’t happen when you’re white. That doesn’t happen. I can’t tell you how many times at that age I was just let go for things. My friend wrapped his car around a telephone pole, walked home, and because he was already home, they told him to just sleep it off.
Kim: Oh! I forgot to tell you this part. The car was stolen! [Laughs]
Kurt: Oh my goodness.
Kim: So when it was already running, it was because they had broken the thing—that was back in the day when you had the key—they had already broken that, and the key was in the thing, so I did not know that the car was running and they didn’t… yeah. So, that’s a whole—so I was going to be arrested for being in a stolen car. And evading the police.
Kurt: And that’s the thing. Here it is. Stolen car, evading the police. You sat there, you didn’t go. That’s just reminiscent back to the court.
Kim: And if I hadn’t gone… if I had—again with the Black community—if I had any inkling of this and had not gone with my godsister back home, I would have gotten in trouble for bein’ by myself, for not going with her. Because, you know, “You two came together. You better leave together.”
Kurt: Leave together. Yeah.
Kim: Because of safety. And so, wow that just brought back sooooo much. I’m gonna have to process this after this one. Because I… yes! Now I see that whole system.
Kurt: Yeah, it’s a lot.
Kim: Because literally, if I did not have this name—this list of names that was fuckin’ aggravatin’ the hell out of him that I was callin’ off—if I had not had this—and he happened to be on duty at the time—so he came and got me.
Kurt: So many factors that if had gone slightly different, the situation could have ended…
Kurt: That’s right.
Kim: I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.
Kurt: That’s a glaring difference because not a lot of factors would have to change for me to get a similar outcome to what I would face originally. I wouldn’t be treated the same way probably, definitely no hand on a gun, no need to try to arrest me or figure it out; I’d be given the benefit of the doubt, able to call whoever. Probably wouldn’t even get charged in most cases, you know. ‘Cause they’d listen to my story and hear why was I out, what was I doing? “Well, I was out at a party with my friend, I wanted to make sure they got home safe.” And it’s like… see it’s the hero / victim thing.
Kim: Oh most definitely. Never the villain. So let’s talk about this, because now my dad had to incur legal fees to get me an attorney. All of these things that happen that you’re sayin’ you just would have been like, “Oh go home and rest this off, what are you doing?” Like you said, your friend, he was at home, “Oh just rest this off.”
Kurt: Yeah. They just towed his car away. And nothing, no repercussions. You’re right, like financially—I don’t know who said it, but somebody said fines are really only punishment for the poor. Who does that affect?
Kim: And we see that right now with these insurrectionists. Who’s getting off, whose being able to go home, and little Black dude who…
Kurt: One dude.
Kim: One Black dude that I’ve seen, he can’t go anywhere.
Kurt: No bail.
Kim: Everybody else has made bail, everybody else is sittin’ at home with ankle bracelets and shit on.
Kurt: An actual terroristic act was attempted by a white woman. She tried to sell a laptop to Russian intelligence. Literally. Pelosi’s laptop.
Kim: Yeah, and her ex turned her in.
Kurt: She was released into her mother’s care. And I actually tweeted about this the other day. White supremacy is like Black children and children from brown and indigenous cultures, they get treated like adults and charged as adults for shit like stealing a backpack but white people are treated as children when they do adult shit.
Kim: That’s called adultification. Black girls are adultified at five years old and Black boys by 10. And you have the former president calling his oldest child who is in his fucking 40s, “kid,” and “boy,” and all of it. They can be… even Trump being treated as—what’s her name? Susan Collins—after the first impeachment, “Maybe he’ll learn from this.” This is a fuckin’… this man is over 70 years old. But he gets the benefit of the doubt of learning from this behavior.
Kurt: Yeah, ’cause surely in 70 years he hasn’t come across a situation where he would have needed to not be a kid.
Kim: But he’s still being treated as a kid. “This is a learning lesson.” “Boys will be boys.”
Kurt: Yep. Always.
Kim: But people say they don’t—they leave out the part “white boys will be white boys,” ’cause it’s not extended to anybody else.
Kurt: Nope. Nope, it’s only white kids.
Kim: I’m gonna make a hard pivot here. I’m again gonna tell you that I am triggered—I really am—with this conversation. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just a reality of this work. But yeah, this is really… [frustrated laugh]
So I wanted you to talk—because you’re in tech—I want you to talk about—these are some notes I had. As a high school dropout, as a former addict, as a former person incarcerated—’cause this is an exercise that I do: I have white men, particularly, look at their CVs, look at their resumes, and see all the places where they got benefit of the doubt, ’cause I want to know how a high school dropout, drug addict, and—because I’m even saying former, because if you’re Black you’re never a former anything, you’re always a drug addict and you’re always a felon. So, period.
How do you… let’s see how, you as a mediocre, unremarkable—and you are a mediocre, unremarkable white dude; let’s be honest—how did you become a tech manager? That is the shit… it blows my mind. That doesn’t happen. I know it happens, but the hoops that Black people have to do just to get through the fuckin’ door: we have to have degree upon degree upon degree, and you don’t even have a high school diploma. Did you get a GED?
Kurt: I did, I got my GED. I did go to college some for graphic design, nothing related to tech, and didn’t finish. Never finished college.
Kim: So you have no bachelor’s degree? You are an addict and a felon.
Kim: So tell me how the fuck you got through the interview? [Laughs]
Kurt: Yeah that’s a very good question. A lot of privilege, a lot of failing upwards, being able to use my story as a redemption story ’cause I’m an individual; the fault doesn’t lie with me.
Kim: Oh yeah, and you get to be the victim / hero. Mhm.
Kurt: I get to be the victim / hero. I get to leave my past in my past. And I get afforded all the benefit of the doubt of being a white male.
Kim: So you’re talking in vagues. I need concretes. I need you to give us examples. Because I need folx to see this. So give me an example.
Kurt: Yeah. Examples are…
Kim: Starting with the how did you learn your job? Because you have no qualifications for your job. So how did you learn your job?
Kurt: Yeah, that’s a good point. So as far as management? Or tech in general?
Kim: Just tech in general, shit. [Laughs]
Kurt: Yeah, I took a intro to web development course when I was incarcerated. I started learning about two years before I got out. I just bought a lot of books and stuff—but self-taught; needless to say, just self-taught, no official schooling—and then just started interviewing about two years after release—so that’s 2012. I landed my first tech job in 2013. Was completely under-qualified for the role.
Kim: Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. So, you had two years of books?
Kurt: Yeah. And some consulting. Nothing serious.
Kim: No no no, hold on, I’m tryna… so did you have—you did have access to a computer that you could code on in prison?
Kim: So that’s the point I’m tryna get, and this is what I don’t want to gloss over. So you didn’t even have access to practice. You were just reading.
Kim: Then you come out, at some point do you get access to a computer? How long did that take?
Kim: How long did that take to get access to a computer when you come out in between that two years that you were out before you started interviewing.
Kurt: It was actually a couple of weeks.
Kim: How did that happen?
Kurt: I joined up for community college. I signed up for community college for the graphic design program and then I got access to the computer lab.
Kim: But you didn’t finish. How long did you go there?
Kurt: I went there for about a year and a half.
Kim: And so… but you still are not doing web development at all.
Kurt: Yeah, I was reading books and YouTube tutorials and stuff. No official teaching, none of that. Just on the side.
Kim: Were you able to practice on those computers when you were in graphic design?
Kim: Did you have a personal computer or were you using the computers at school?
Kurt: I was using the computers at school.
Kim: [Laughs] OK, I’m teasin’ this out for a reason. OK. So, you go for a year and a half, and then for another six months you’re doin’ stuff—so what did you do for a computer at that point?
Kurt: I would either—not a lot, actually—either use someone in my family’s, when I had a choice. I ended up leaving. I just couldn’t afford—the school was too much. And so I was working, trying to work. And that’s what I was doing up until I tried to get my—start applying for technical roles. But yeah, just mass applying.
Kim: What were you applying for? What were the first technical roles you were applying for?
Kurt: Frontend developer.
Kim: Oh shit. OK. Alright. Let’s go. Alright. So—and I’m teasin’ this out for a reason—so you spent two years basically just reading books in prison, you come out, you go to community college for graphic design, but you’re doing some web development and stuff on the side. Then you no longer can afford that, so you end up using family and friends’ computers. And you have the audacity as a white dude, not to apply for a support role, not to apply for QA, but to apply for web development roles right off the goddamn rip.
Kurt: Yup. I didn’t even know about support roles or QA roles or any of that, to be honest. Complete audacity. No… and again, this goes back to leaning on those systems, understanding how I’ve been able to work through them in the past. So yeah, I just mass-applied to a bunch of roles, figured I would get some interviews, hopefully the stack they would be using would be close to what I’ve worked with, and would be given the benefit of the doubt and be able to learn on the job. And that’s the thing. We’re always given the ability to have x percentage of the requirements. You see people all the time, if you don’t meet all the requirements, apply anyway. It’s great advice for white people, but in reality if you’re not white, you’re expected to not only have all the requirements and more, you have to excel.
Kurt: You have to excel.
Kim: Have that and more. Have everything that’s on that fuckin’ thing and more. Yes.
Kurt: Yeah. You don’t get to learn on the job, you don’t get to do any of that. You’re not given the benefit of the doubt that you’ll do it. You’re not picked because…
Kim: And I’m happy you’re teasin’ this out because some people make it seem like it’s just white male privilege. No! It’s not just white male privilege, the fact that they apply for these. It is the systems, institutions, and policies that let you know…
Kurt: It’s OK.
Kim: …that give you some secret nod that we don’t get, that it is OK for you to be under—not even under-qualified—not fuckin’ qualified, and still apply.
Kurt: Not qualified. Yeah, exactly. And it’s like, ’cause maybe you’ll be a good culture fit, right?
Kim: And the reason I’m sayin’ this is because I know people who have spent thousands of dollars goin’ through bootcamps and can never get a fuckin’ job. And they’ve spent hours workin’ on this shit. And so it’s no… yeah, it is a detriment, it is shitty, Kurt, that you were able to bypass—well, it’s not even bypass, because you’re not even playin’ the same game. This is, again, why I’m no longer putting new wine in old wine skins; people act like there’s only two binary choices always. Either flip the fuckin’ tables—well, when we flip the fuckin’ tables the most vulnerable will be harmed, the tables will land on them—or, as we do, as I was sayin’ earlier, Black and brown folx think, “OK, we get access to these spaces. It’s gonna be different.”
No, what you’re doin’ is putting Black and brown people into harm’s way, into systems, institutions, and policies that are designed to fuckin’ harm them. And so there has to be a third option. There has to be a third option. And those are the options I’m looking for. I’m no longer being complicit in the harming of other people, leading them into these spaces when I know that they’re fuckin’ going to be harmed. I’m not doin’ it.
Kurt: It doesn’t change all the way up. I feel like for every role I’ve had, I was under—I was not qualified. Not qualified.
Kim: Yes, thank you. Thank you. I’m glad you’re correctin’ that, ’cause you were not qualified. Not compared to what we have to come in the door with. That’s why I call white men mediocre and unremarkable, because you’ve never had to compete. It’s so blinding for y’all to think that you’ve actually competed fairly. Your idea of meritocracy is… oh my god! That’s 10 percent of the effort that’s required of me. So you mass applied, how long before you get your first interview? And how long before you get your first job, and what was that job role?
Kurt: First interviews came quick, honestly, but I did not land…
Kim: What’s quick? What’s quick? I need quantitative.
Kurt: Yeah, sorry. So about the first month I started to really get some results. I also had no experience putting together a resume or a CV, so I was learning all this, so it changed a lot over that first month. And then so about a month in I started getting interviews, but it wasn’t until the first year that I actually got my first position, but not because I wasn’t qualified, or any of that, because I failed the background check. I’d already interviewed, got through some places, and then they’d be like, “No,” because of my background check.
Kim: So you could have been hired earlier in that year, but because of the background check and because you’re a felon they passed. See, now that’s some new information. OK, because you kept going—and this is where most felons of color would give up, because if people keep saying you can’t get the job, they don’t believe it’s going to change—but what made you continue, Kurt? What made you say, “Eh, lemme keep tryin’?”
Kurt: That’s a really good question. I said, “There’s gotta be—here we go—there’s gotta be someone out there that will recognize that I’m willing to work really hard, and they’ll like my work that I do, and they won’t care about my background.” And again, that’s ’cause I’m…
Kim: OK, so let’s break. Go ‘head, that’s because of what?
Kurt: ‘Cause I’m white! Somebody won’t care.
Kim: OK, so let’s break that down. Because you said, “There has to be somebody who understands how hard I will work.” [Laughs] Every day we wake up is hard work. Every day. We don’t get to not work hard. So you decided to use hard work as a plus. [Laughs] So you get this job, what is the first role you have? So after a year and somebody finally—did they tell you why? Did they not do a background check, what did they say?
Kurt: They did not do a background check, which I found out two weeks later when they came to me and said, “We forgot to do your background check.” [Kim laughs] Which was a whole other thing… but I really feel like… I got a frontend developer role focused on mobile development.
Kim: So when they came back two weeks later and said they didn’t do the background check, did they go back and do the background check?
Kurt: Yeah, that was a really interesting situation. They did. I filled out the paperwork, I went home that night and finished the project I was working on—I was supposed to have two weeks. I finished it and brought it in to my manager the next morning and told them, “Hey, my background check is going to come back. You’re gonna see I have a record. I finished that project. Here’s the type of work I’ll do. I guess it’s up for y’all to figure out if you want to keep me on or not.”
Kim: Oh my god. A Black person would have been, “Why didn’t you tell us that? You’re fired.”
Kurt: Absolutely fired. Absolutely fired right out of the gate.
Kim: They would have blamed us for their failure in doin’ the background check.
Kurt: Yes. Yes. That did happen a few times, but it happens drastically different for Black people and people of color. Which is, people feel offended when they find out you have a background, like you didn’t come up to them up front with it. They feel like you kept something from them and that gets drastically increased, the amount of anger they have towards that feeling, when its not a white person.
Kim: Again, so it’s their feelings. Exactly. White folx’ feelings. So you were in that role—so obviously they kept you?
Kurt: Yeah. Yeah, they kept me.
Kim: And how long were you in that role before you moved up?
Kurt: I was in that role for the next six months before I moved up?
Kurt: I didn’t move up because I was actually was trying to move up, I just wasn’t comfortable there anymore. There was still a lot of like stigma and stuff that I was dealing with, with them having this meeting with me, sitting outside the door while I was tryin’ to figure out if I was gonna stay there, and people were just definitely different towards me after they knew. A lot of people felt like I kept it from them which is also—I just wanna point out—a very small taste of—infinitesimal—compared to what you experience literally every day just by existing. But yeah, it was more than enough for me to take.
Kim: So you got in your little feelin’s because they went into a room to talk about you behind your back and you had choices to move.
Kurt: I had choices to move at this point because now I also have a company. So then I tried—same routine—mass applying to places, tryin’ to… ’cause I just always assumed 80-90% are going to turn me down because of my background, so I played the numbers game. Until I learned about networking—which is a whole other thing about white privilege and networking in tech—that is another scenario that allowed me to move into spaces that I just wasn’t prepared for. Qualified for.
Kim: So what role did you move… so when you left after six months, you got hired into a higher role?
Kurt: Yeah, it was still frontend developer, but I would definitely say it was a higher role. It was more pay—first of all, it was my first job in New York City—so it was more pay, it was more responsibility; working on the stuff that I was doing was very targeted to mobile devices—before the iPhone, like Blackberries and stuff—small, small webapps for that. And then this was building eCommerce shops, and blogs for bigger companies.
Kim: Which you had no experience in.
Kurt: I had no experience in WordPress or Drupal or Magento, which are all the things that you use for that. I did have the frontend experience at this point but none of the backend.
Kim: At six months.
Kurt: That’s actually true, yes. [Kim chuckles] Six months. And yeah, other than the self-learning stuff.
Kim: I mean.. I’m not even gonna—no. You had six months of experience.
Kurt: Yeah. Six months of experience.
Kim: [Sighs] OK. Alright. So then what happened? How long did it take to get the next jump?
Kurt: A year. So a year from that…
Kim: And what was that job? Was it the same company or a different company?
Kurt: Different company. It was another company, and this was for a senior frontend role. [Kim laughs]
Kim: So in a year and a half you’re a senior?
Kurt: I’m a senior, yeah.
Kim: OK. Alright. And then, so a year and a half you’re a senior. What’s next?
Kurt: So after senior let’s see… OK, I’m sorry. I’m just trying to replay the jobs.
Kim: Yeah, uh-huh, exactly. Uh-huh. Mhm.
Kurt: Integral Life Sciences… after that—ooh—after that it was tech lead for the UI team for Major League Soccer.
Kim: Oh, wow! So how long did it take to go from senior to UI lead?
Kurt: A year and a half.
Kim: So, within three years?
Kurt: Yes, three years, tech lead.
Kim: And all this time you’re making more money.
Kurt: Yeah, absolutely.
Kim: You’re building your network and all of that. In three years you’re technical lead. How long did it… go ahead.
Kurt: I was just gonna say, the money, it was a drastic—it was literally like class mobilization from the beginning to the end. So within three years I was over a $100,000.
Kim: So you went from poor… you went from not having your own fuckin’ computer, havin’ to use somebody else’s to being upper middle class.
Kurt: Yes. Yeah.
Kim: In three years.
Kurt: Which is fuckin’ ridiculous.
Kim: And this is what pisses me off so much about fuckin’ tech. It is a place for people to—when people just want to stay focused on class and not talk about race; if you just want to focus on class and not talk about race—tech is the space to dismantle those systems.
Kurt: It is, yeah.
Kim: Now, when you put the race in—because it’s the bedrock, so now… the race is always there…
Kim: …and you overlap that with class… think about—this is one reason why I like to work with people in Latin American countries—think about what, if they got paid US salaries, how exponentially they could impact not only their families, their communities at large with this kinda money.
Kurt: Yeah. And it should be that you can change your class, as long as you’re white, which is one of the things that I learned. I’ve been investigating for a long time, how do I bring tech to people who are coming out of prison, right? Part of the problem is I can bring them the resources, but there’s still the very real barrier that even with all of those skillsets, they’re gonna stand such a harder time gaining employment.
Kim: They can have CS degrees and they’re still going to have a hard time.
Kurt: Look at Timnit [Gebru].
Kim: She was what broke the Internet for tech, because she checks every. fuckin’. box.
Kurt: Every box.
Kim: Immigrant. Black woman. Educated. Team lead. Lived experience. Compassionate. Sympathetic. All those things, and white people’s feelings fired her.
Kurt: Yep. 110%. It was like a—and it shouldn’t be, but it was for me—a very harsh reality that… I’m terrified to actually teach people development because I don’t want to bring them more harm. I’m terrified. I try to get people jobs…
Kim: That is the new wine in the old wineskin thing that I’m dealin’ wit’ right now. I’m at this point where I am trying to create alternatives, so that I can funnel people into those spaces and that’s why the Discord—I’m so happy with how that’s turnin’ out because that’s my first real open community, partnering with an organization to ensure that what we’re creating… I mean to confirm, first, that it’s possible to create spaces like this. And also confirms that spaces that are not like this are by choice, because people want to act like, “Oh no, that’s the default. When you get a whole bunch of people in there that’s just what it happens.” No, no, no, no, no, no.
I want to scale welcoming and psychological safety. I want to scale that. I’m sick of havin’ to make ethical decisions in a pandemic about using Instacart. What the fuck? I’m being told by the scientists “Don’t go out the house,” if I have the privilege. I pay, I tip these people extra—I mean, out the fuckin’ world—because I understand. Not only do I tip on the app but I tip when they get to the house to make sure that they have… And then then this fucked up company leadership decides it’s going to fire people who decide to unionize in the state of Illinois, where unions are legal. It is not a right to work state.
Kurt: Yeah. Tech is, like you always say, it’s not neutral, it’s not apolitical, it’s actually a shitshow and all it does is produce harm at scale. [Kim sighs] It just makes it so much easier and faster to harm people.
Kim: I’m writin’ this down because this is what I want. I want welcoming and psychological safety at scale. That’s the first time I’ve said that, and so I wanna make sure. Because that is what I—that’s my goal. [Laughs] That is where I’m goin’ from this. So, how long did it take you to get to—what’s your current position?
Kurt: I’m a developer relations manager.
Kim: So you left coding, or programming, and now you’re on the human side of it? [Laughs]
Kurt: Yeah more on the human side; still some programming involved but definitely not nearly as much. But yeah, I’m more on the human side.
Kim: How long did it take you to get from that first job—’cause now we’re at three years—to get to this manager role of developer relations?
Kurt: Four… five years, total.
Kim: So you’ve only been in this space… so you’ve been in this space for what, four years?
Kurt: Five years since first job to where I am in this role.
Kim: So it took you five years to get to a… [sighs] OK, on that note, what would you like to end the show with? What thoughts?
Kurt: I would… us white folx need to better educate ourselves, not just about race, but about harm. The amount of harm that we can cause. Because there’s gonna be a time—you’re going to feel like you want to help, and that’s a good feeling—but a lot of times we’re going to do that in ways we don’t realize are just gonna be way more harmful. It’s like when I tweeted out that I’d love to build a Twitter alternative. If I build that, what is that alternative? It’s another centralized platform, headed up by a mediocre white dude in tech; and yeah, my goal might be to also want to create a safe space and an accessible space for folx to do that, but the problem is I’m going to inadvertently cause harm.
Kim: And we’ve seen that with Clubhouse.
Kurt: With Clubhouse—I was just about to say that—we see it with Clubhouse, here it is.
Kim: A billion valuation. One billion valuation on the backs of Black folx.
Kurt: Of the Black community. And I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to be that. So I always have to weigh—you’re always going to have to weigh how it is you decide to help versus how much harm you can cause. Or are you just going to put yourself further up the ladder. Are you gonna increase—use your privilege to further increase your privilege.
Now I’m looking at things like local government where I can support people or maybe end up in smaller roles that I can do to help. I don’t need to be a big tech flashy person to solve problems. There’s a whole shit ton of stuff that I can do on the ground level that’s very tactical, that’s very helpful. So right now I’m just trying to educate myself better what those things are. And so, my message to everyone out there is get educated, but always do it thinking about how much harm you’re gonna cause people. Because if you really care, and you really prioritize the most vulnerable, you’re going to realize that a lot of the things you thought you were doing that are helping or want to do that are helping are actually pretty harmful.
Kim: [Sighs] And so that’s why I appreciate you comin’ on as a volunteer moderator for the new Discord space, because I’m doin’ that space so differently than other people have done it. It will not be open—I was thinkin’ about it—it will not be open 24 hours 7 days a week 365, because it requires me to be at the helm of it, because I do not trust anybody to implement—I can give you marching orders, I can say, “Hey, moderate.” What I do not, will not have is white people leading conversations that aren’t specifically outlined by me. [Laughs] And I can’t have—this is not my full time job, so I have to make it work for me.
And so, one of the things that we’re doin’, we’ve closed down the—well, by the time this airs it will be back up, we’re launching back up on February 5th, and it will be open on Fridays from 8am-8pm and it’ll be just like we had it set up with the water cooler and the happy hour. So the first six hours are the water cooler where we’re really talkin’ about some really heavy stuff, and then the last six hours is the happy hour where we’re playing games, we’re listenin’ to music, we may do karaoke. I have the idea that it’ll be the vision of when you go—so it’s called Kim Crayton’s Community Cafe, and it’s like when you go to one of those little local cafes where in the daytime, everybody’s in there workin’ on their computers, and then at night they switch the lights, and then they change the seating and then it becomes a open mic night. That’s what I have a vision for this, because I need to scale welcoming and psychological safety in tech.
And I’m happy that you realize that you should not be leading a rebuild of Twitter. There are Black—there’s a Black man right now who has been building something and he is so afraid, because he’s been burned by white people, he’s so afraid to get someone to help him that I’m going to connect you to.
Kim: And I will actually let you… my brain. ‘Cause I know his name starts with a A and I can’t think of it right now, but he’s has a podcast episode—I’ll make sure I share that with you so that we can connect you. And he has so many ideas about how to make a community safe. And he doesn’t trust—as he should not trust—because without consistent demonstrated antiracist behavior, white people will do what white people do. I wanna connect you to at least start havin’ a conversation.
Kurt: That would be amazing. I really appreciate that, and I’d love to help in any way. And this is such a better way, and that’s what I mean: we really have a way of centering ourselves and it’s like, I don’t need to build it, but I sure as shit would love to help somebody else who does want to build it.
Kim: Adrian Jackson.
Kurt: Oh, perfect, yes!
Kim: Adriancjack is his Twitter handle. He’s been building a platform for awhile now, and he’s struggling because he needs a full time job plus—and… oh my god! This is a great example. He has the hardest time findin’ a fuckin’ job.
Kurt: He’s amazing. His work is amazing.
Kim: Exactly! But yet, as a Black man, unlike you, he doesn’t get to slide through. He, even with his fuckin’ amazing skills, he struggles to find and hold a job. I don’t even know how to end this one because I can tell you, this—like I said—this triggered me in so many ways. It’s good, because it helps me understand other lived experience and to really start really deep diving into… ’cause I don’t have the lived experience of incarceration—thankfully—or addiction. And yet, what you’ve been able to highlight here is that the systems, institutions, and policies of white supremacy do not change for you no matter where you come into the system. But thank you so much for this, Kurt. This has been an amazing, enlightening conversation. [Laughs]
Kurt: Same for me, thank you so much for having me. It’s a real honor. Thank you.
Kim: Have a great day.
Kurt: You too.
Kim: Bye bye.
Listen to more great #causeascene podcasts
Originally posted on August 19, 2018 I will begin this post as I begin each talk, with a list of my credentials because there’s always
There are many reasons that businesses succeed or fail but in an Information Age economy, one looms bright. The reason organizations like Amazon and Walmart