Codes of Conduct

If you’ve attended a conference or other similar professional or educational gathering in the past several years, it’s possible you’ve come across a Code of Conduct, aka “statement of community standards,” “terms of collaboration,” etc. Codes of conduct have been part of the business world for some time, but have gained popularity in recent years for organizations that hope to create a more equitable, inclusive space. At their best, codes of conduct are a step towards proactively establishing an organizational culture of inclusion. However, they can (unfortunately) also be toothless gestures, or worse, reinforce ideas that prize white cultural norms over others. In either case, they set efforts for inclusion back instead of pushing it forward.

While a “code of conduct” generally covers the bounds of acceptable behavior, such codes can be written from a wide variety of viewpoints, and so unsurprisingly bring with them the cultural norms of whoever writes them (no matter whether that writing is individual or collective). Some codes of conduct are more about defining the scope of complaint, in other words, what people can and cannot hold an organization accountable for. In this post, we’re addressing codes that are written with the expressed intent of making a space more equitable (whether that intent is successfully executed through the code, or not).

As American culture is deeply steeped in white supremacy, a common danger in codes of conduct is to privilege the comfort of white people over the actual implemented inclusion in the space in question. For example, many codes of conduct make allusion to “implicit bias”, “subtle” slights, or center the intentions of someone who violates part of the code, rather than the impact of that violation.

Another interesting scenario is the vague promotion of the need for a “safe environment.” The problem is not seeking to create a safe space; it’s in the vagueness of the prescription for it. It is a well-known modus operandi of white supremacy to permit white people to declare fear of harm when Black people merely assert their human rights. For example, white women have played a critical role in white supremacy when they claim discomfort or harm from Black men. In the case of Emmett Till, a woman named Carolyn Bryant accused 14-year-old Till of whistling, flirting, and grabbing her. This incited Till’s disappearance and then brutal murder at the hands of two men who were then found innocent by an all-white jury. Bryant later stated that she lied about important parts of her testimony.

This case represents an extreme, although all-too-common, power dynamic.

Ideally, codes of conduct can be used to elucidate the power dynamics at work within a given space. However, for a code of conduct to be effective, it must be embedded in a larger transparent system of accountability and strategic planning for continued progress. It must also prioritize truly equitable language and standards of behavior.

If there’s a code of conduct in your place of work or other activity, consider asking some of the following questions to identify how just, equitable, and effective it may be.

  1. Who wrote the code of conduct, and what experience do they have in this area?
  2. What does the code state as the reason for its existence?
  3. Does the code discuss consequences for actions or tie to a larger structure of accountability?
  4. Who benefits from this code — those who are privileged or those who are marginalized?

Codes of conduct can be helpful tracers or symptoms that indicate the health of an organization’s efforts toward inclusion. If your organization is developing one, or has developed one, you can look at others made or used by similar organizations to get a sense of what your colleagues are doing. Be informed on this, ask questions, make sure people answer them.

You can potentially affect a policy before it is adopted.

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