The Unbearable Whiteness of Breaking Things (TRIPLE PARTICIPATION)

Published October 18, 2014 by djlwsu

As with all participation posts, I am looking to see you engage the article, make connections to course materials/your own life, and to demonstrate critical thinking. Try for depth and details here (100+ words) . .. engage the analysis and discussion here, compare to Pullman, link to course themes and readings, and offer discussion that doesn’t mirror the things you would have said before our class, lectures on privilege, etc

The Unbearable Whiteness of Breaking Things

Two risky paths diverge on Palo Alto’s University Avenue

By Kate Lose

In Silicon Valley they start them young, as we learn from 16-year-old Midas in his bright-eyed Medium essay (ed note: since removed) about learning about startups at Stanford summer camp. In his “Investigations in Business and Entrepreneurship” class, he is taught the startup motto “don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness,” and he narrates how he and his friends decide to take the motto to heart and risk the forbidden walk off campus to Palo Alto’s University Avenue. When they run into a camp counselor in a cafe they quickly “say hi as cute as possible” and, though they get called in for a talk later, they aren’t punished. The moral of Midas’ story is that taking risks and breaking the rules pays off.

…when you are a young white man.

What Stanford does not teach young white men like Midas, in the course of teaching them about startups, is that everything they are being taught—about breaking rules, taking risks, and not asking for permission—works especially well for them, and often only for them, because of who they are, what they look like, and all the associations their appearance does and does not carry. On University Avenue, white men who break things look, in Midas’ words, “cute”, not delinquent or scary, and this is why privileged young men are brought to Palo Alto in droves to learn and practice the business of what Facebook calls “breaking things”. At every turn this breaking of things is celebrated and encouraged. If you’re not breaking things in Palo Alto, you’re not doing your job.

…unless you’re not a young white man.

If you happen to live two more miles down University Avenue from where Midas trespassed camp boundaries, you are living in East Palo Alto, which is the economic and racial counterpoint to blond-boy-celebrating, millionaire-laden Palo Alto. And if you live in East Palo Alto and you decided to walk across the 101 freeway to University Avenue, to the same cafe that Midas walked to from the other side, you’d be taking a risk, but not one likely to be rewarded.

People of color who walk up University Avenue from East Palo Alto don’t look to the police in Palo Alto like they are “damn entrepreneurs!” who “take risks!” (as Midas exclaims when he realizes that by breaking the rules he is actually fulfilling his entrepreneurial duty); they are often treated like trouble, and are likely to be stopped and questioned, not unlike Bloomberg’s racially profiled “Stop and Frisk” targets in New York. For two different classed and raced positions, there are two kinds of risks, two kinds of outcomes. One person trespasses the boundary of Palo Alto and has his privilege proven for him—“you’re one of us”, Midas’ elders are likely thinking, wondering what internships they can offer him next summer; the other trespasses the boundary of Palo Alto and is assumed to be “other” and out of place, potentially about to “break” something but not in the way that will be rewarded with a pat on the back or a job.

I write this not just to make the point that “don’t ask for permission” is a starkly if unconsciously raced and classed (and gendered, insofar as women who break the rules are more often seen as unforgivably impudent rather than gloriously outcast) motto for Silicon Valley, though there is that.

It’s also to note that a young man and his friends are being schooled in this unconscious privilege from boyhood by institutions that have all of the intellectual and financial resources available to widen the scope of instruction and teach them more than just how to successfully trespass the few boundaries they encounter. By teaching primarily young white men to unreflectively “break things” and reward them when they do, Stanford and other Silicon Valley institutions like YCombinator are incubators not for social change or “disruption” but for the assignment of privilege to the people who are most likely to already have it.


4 comments on “The Unbearable Whiteness of Breaking Things (TRIPLE PARTICIPATION)

  • The priveleges that are given to such “entrepreneurs” (young white males) is a result of institutions. When Stanford and other University’s tell people they should break rules they are reinforcing this built in privelege system. Those in the East Side of Palo Alto who are primarily of color, will always be looked at as a threat walking down University Avenue because that’s what police are looking for. The police may just go out looking for black people hoping they are the criminals but they may also be imposing their own implicit bias on the criminal justice system at the University.
    On the first day of being at WSU, I remember clearly hearing “it’s better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.” My very white and wealthy roommate (who is female) was being told that statement by her mother. This privelege that my roommate has been given her whole life, taught to her by her very own parents has now become a part of her everyday life. She uses her white (and female) priveleges to get what she wants. I remember not understanding why a mother would tell her daughter that and how wrong it seemed. I personally came from a lower-class home and never even thought to do anything but ask for permission before doing something risky.
    Instead of teaching students how to bypass boundaries using their privelege, schools and other institutions should teach students how to earn their rights and make obvious the priveleges that they are currently given based on race, sexuality, etc. By giving students the capability to see their institutionalized priveleges, they can then work to make things more fair.


  • The Silicon Valley schools, have brainwashed the adolescent youth by drilling this privilege of “breaking rules, taking risks and not asking for permission”. Before Pullman, I believed that I was indeed privileged to grow up as a white male with a wealthy family, however, I have never once heard the motto: “don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness”. Maybe it is a newer motto that my generation didn’t hear, but growing up, I was taught to always ask permission before doing something that I believed to be risky. This article was the first time that I have ever heard the motto, and I can honestly say that I don’t agree with it at all. I realize the bias between whites and blacks when it comes to privilege and sadly, it makes sense that white kids could get away with “asking for forgiveness”, while black kids would be punished for their actions of “breaking things”. Because of this realization, I do not agree with what is said in the motto, because it is targeted for a specific stereotype to use to their advantage. It is not useful or beneficial for everybody. In Pullman, I have yet to see an act from a student of “breaking the rules”, besides getting up and leaving a class early, which in turn does not benefit the student one bit (Quite the opposite in fact). The Silicon Valley should stay away from focusing on benefitting one specific race and/or gender of people, and focus on a way to teach students about their own individual privileges. This way, when people are more aware of their privileges, they can help the less privileged to thrive in a world where they are at a disadvantage


  • This post honestly makes absolutely no sense to me. I come from a wealthy white family but have never heard of the phrase “don’t ask for privilege, ask for forgiveness”. The people of Silicon Valley Schools sound like their being taught that only certain people, whites particularly, receive privileges while others do not. In a way is almost seems as if the Silicon Valley Schools are encouraging students to break rules, possibly laws, and rank each other by ethnicity or race. The way the Silicon Valley Schools is teaching its students is the complete opposite of how I was taught at home. I was taught to ALWAYS ask for permission no matter how small the matter was, never judge someone by their color, and to be respectful to rules. The Avenue from East Palo Alto sounds a lot like my home town. The cops in my hometown are overall more suspicious of people who are not white. One time, while I was at my barista job, I saw a man who was Mexican driving in a bright colored Cadillac with chrome wheels get pulled over by a cop. He parked close to my coffee stand so I could hear the whole conversation between him and the cop. The Mexican man asked why he was pulled over and said that he didn’t do anything and everything was fine on his car, the cop relied “well I just wanted to make sure” and took his license and registration. the cop gave the papers back and said ” your good to go” the Mexican man said “what the hell!? that was the biggest waste of time ever, I didn’t do anything!” This story really reminded me of how the cops treated the people who weren’t white on University Avenue from East Palo Alto. East Palo Alto seems like a segregated area similar to my home town. Pullman, on the other hand, is not segregated at all. Pullman seems to be one big mix of all races. All the races seem to get along and hangout with each other in general. The cops also don’t seem to hunt down one particular type of person either.


  • This article is a bit confusing to me. The young white men do have this privilege to break rules then ask for forgiveness compared to a young black man. There is hardly any mention in the teachings of why that happens. This lesson is sublimely on privilege but disguises it as meritocracy. That to get the big pay off you must make the big risk. That is a privilege that is not awarded to others not fitting the white male privileged modeled. Wielding your privilege is powerful , and that is what these boys will experience however they may not understand that, As far as Pullman not exactly sure what that there is any difference. Everyone here has a privilege and can be wielded. However being part of the American society which we are the dominating group’s privileged still trickle down into this small town. I cannot speak on every interaction on campus but from my own have witnessed a lot of color blind activity such as “racism doesn’t exist here” “were all the same” ,fraternities and sororities disproportionally white , etc.


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