Privilege Blindness, #MeToo, and the MIT Media Lab

In November 2018 I received the Disobedience Award from the MIT Media Lab.

It was an award I’d never heard of. It was only the second time the award had been made. I got it for work that I never imagined would get an award, because what I do challenges, irks, irritates, and otherwise discomforts too many people in power in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). 

I shared the award with the incomparable Tarana Burke, who founded the MeToo movement, and with Beth Ann McLaughlin, founder of MeTooSTEM. We won because of our efforts to amplify the voices of targets (victims, survivors, pick your favorite – I prefer “targets”) of unwelcome and unwanted attention simply because they present as women. All three of us carry the same message, albeit in different circumstances: believe women, center women’s experiences, ensure women are and can keep themselves safe. Believe women when they say they’ve been harassed, abused, assaulted at home, in public, at work, at a field site, at a conference. Stop the men (they are mostly men) who do this, whenever and wherever it happens. Do what is necessary to repair the harm to women.

I was impressed that, of all places, the MIT Media Lab chose to celebrate MeToo with an award. Engineering and technology are not known for being welcoming to women. I was naïve enough  to think that maybe someone at the Media Lab – the “antidisciplinary” research center that says they are “inventing the future” – truly recognized the need to change academic culture. Maybe they felt so strongly about the need for real equity and inclusion in technology and engineering to spend a day, and a not insignificant amount of money, honoring folks who work to make that change happen.

I was only half wrong.

The half that was right was Ethan Zuckerman – head of the Center for Civic Media. More about him later.

The other half was Joi Ito, Director of the Media Lab.

In August 2019, I got an email from Joi Ito that referred to “recent news stories about Jeffrey Epstein” and revealed that he had met Epstein “through a trusted friend” (still unnamed). The email goes on to say that the Media Lab received money from Epstein’s foundations, and that Epstein invested in funds that Ito then invested in tech start-ups. Ito claimed “ in all of my interactions with Epstein, I was never involved in, never heard him talk about, and never saw any evidence of the horrific acts that he was accused of.”

Behold the power of privilege bias.  

As a man, Ito could ignore the fact that Epstein was a convicted sex offender. He could dismiss whatever evidence he heard or saw that Epstein was still doing what he had been convicted of doing. He could ignore, or notice and dismiss, the fact that none of the scientists at Epstein’s gatherings were women. Ito could ignore Epstein’s crude sexual commentary that broke through when he got bored. Because he is a man, Ito didn’t have to notice or pay attention. He never had to fear for his safety. He never had to learn the subtle signs and signals, pointers and indicators that a woman would pay attention to because her physical safety, possibly her life, is at stake. 

Even if he had done, or seen, or heard disturbing things about his benefactor, he could convince himself that his involvement was just about Epstein’s interest in science and technology, nothing to do with that unpleasant stuff. He could convince himself that because of his status as a leader at an elite university, his judgement was impeccable and that if he liked and wanted to do business with a registered sex offender, well, hell, we all have issues, right? 

He could enthusiastically participate in an award ceremony celebrating MeToo, wax eloquent about the Media Lab’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in STEM, and apparently not suffer a moment of doubt, distress, or cognitive dissonance.

Ito runs a research center where more than 500 people work every day, including administrative and support staff, undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, faculty, and visiting scientists. Statistically, one in five of the women and one in 33 of the men working at the Media Lab is a survivor of sexual assault. Ito invited a registered sex offender to spend time at the Media Lab without considering the risk of harm or trauma to everyone working there. He has not apologized for the harm his involvement with Epstein may have done to them. He owes them that apology.

Ito has yet to acknowledge the ways that his involvement with Epstein allowed Epstein to depict himself as a science and technology philanthropist, one with lots of science and tech friends in high places. Places like MIT. However indirectly, in allowing himself to be used as part of that image-building, Ito compounded the harm Epstein did to his victims. He owes those victims an apology.

He stood on a stage, looked Burke, McLaughlin, and me in the eye and congratulated us for our work to end sexual violence, harassment, and bullying, and did not even blink. He has not apologized to us for his behavior and for the potential harm of bringing our work into question by associating us with an organization that accepted funding from a sexual predator. He owes us that apology.

Beyond apologies, Ito owes to all of us – Epstein’s victims, the Media Lab, and the Disobedience Award honorees – a commitment to, with a timeline and deadlines for, real and concrete actions to repair the harm his decisions have caused. A vague promise to raise some funds to support some organizations somewhere at some point does nothing to address that harm.

The leadership at MIT owes a similar debt, because someone, somewhere in the administrative offices signed off on accepting Epstein’s money and (as far as we know) never questioned the source. The statement from MIT President Rafael Reif appropriately apologizes to the MIT community and to Epstein’s victims. While admitting that MIT erred in accepting the grants, he proposes no remedies beyond more vague promises to form a committee and, yes, to donate some funds to support some organizations somewhere at some point. 

None of the promises made by Ito or Reif get at the real problem in academia: that money talks no matter who it comes from, and anyone who brings in money need not fear harm to their career, no matter how egregious their behavior.

And then there is Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media. Zuckerman was also at the Disobedience Award ceremony, and also said all the right things about diversity and inclusion, equity, advancing the careers of White women and people of color in STEM, and so on.

The difference between Ito and Zuckerman is that Zuckerman’s behavior matches his rhetoric. 

When he learned about Ito’s involvement with Epstein, Zuckerman quickly decided that he could no longer do the work he does – on ethics and technology, among other things – in a place that was run by someone who had associated himself with a known sexual predator. Within hours of receiving the message from the Media Lab containing Ito’s apology, Zuckerman sent an email to me and the other awardees announcing and explaining his decision to resign from the Media Lab. In that message, he apologized “for involving you in a process that has caused you to be associated with this dark chapter in the life of the Media Lab.” Zuckerman’s resignation is a loss for the Media Lab.

This week Zuckerman tweeted that he was working to make counselors available for Media Lab students and staff who have been triggered and traumatized by Ito’s actions. Centering those who have been harmed and ensuring that they are safe and that their needs are met should always be the first step in response to revelations like this. Providing this support is a real, concrete stop toward mitigating the harm Ito has done.

Zuckerman urged me not to return the money that came with the Disobedience Award (which, to be clear, did not come from any of the funds Epstein contributed), “because the sort of work you are doing is exactly the work that I think Joi needs to support as he begins the process of atoning for his errors.”Truth is, the money has already gone toward expanding the work of removing and banning sexual predators, serial harassers, and bullies from some of their favorite playgrounds – scientific conferences and meetings. Does this count as “atonement?” If so, it’s not nearly enough.