Across the country, white people are being called on to use their power and privilege to lift up black people—by hiring them, promoting them, and in some cases actively relinquishing power. In a particularly bold reflection of this stance, Alexis Ohanian announced that he will step down from his seat on the board of Reddit, the company he founded with two other young white men in 2005.
In a blog post titled, “What Did You Do,” Ohanian stated his intention to relinquish his position on the board of Reddit in the hopes that the company will fill his vacant seat with a black person. The choice is one made “as a father who needs to be able to answer his black daughter,” he wrote. Ohanian said that he intends to funnel future stock gains from the company into a number of organizations that “serve the black community,” including a $1 million pledge to Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp.
This gesture is laudable; it’s a significant move that models what a willing, gracious transfer of power might look like. It’s undeniable that a seat on the board of Reddit comes with influence, both over the company and within the broader tech sector. In fact, no one knows about this influence better than Ohanian, who has leveraged his relationship with Reddit into a position as a public intellectual and businessman-about-town in Silicon Valley. Because of Reddit, Ohanian has the kind of fame that landed him in the room with his now-wife Serena Williams, the kind of relationships that gained him a role as a managing partner of the behemoth incubator Y Combinator (portfolio value: $80 billion), and a personal portfolio launched at the ripe age of 23 when he sold Reddit to Conde Nast for a figure that was reportedly in the low eight digits.
Ohanian has manifested himself a large, rich, and, I imagine, very fulfilling life, one wrought almost entirely through his work creating a company that has, since its founding in 2005, had just a single non-white, non-male CEO: Ellen Pao. She lasted eight months.
Pao, a rare woman of color who has risen to prominence in tech, was brought in to run the company after a contentious and very public discrimination lawsuit with her former employer Kleiner Perkins. Looking back at her hire, Pao was clearly given an impossible job. She was tasked with both cleaning up the rampant hate speech and abuse across the site and growing its user base, all presumably, with few additional resources beyond the absolution of providing a rare non-white CEO at the helm. After Pao banned such delightful Reddit boards as “r_neofags” and “r_shitniggerssay,” the site’s volunteer moderators staged a revolt, demanding her firing in a series of stunts that, at one point, included a Change.org petition illustrated by a caricature of Pao crying “Stop Oppressing Me,” from inside a tank.
After a particularly dramatic protest, in which several of the site’s moderators blacked out their sections after the employee who ran Reddit’s popular “Ask Me Anything” interview series was fired, Pao finally agreed to resign. Though apparently Ohanian had been responsible for cutting the beloved staffer, Reddit’s board was quick to assign Pao the blame. Her decisions prompted “plenty of fair critique,” Reddit board member and then-president of Y Combinator (see how these things work!) Sam Altman told Wired’s Davey Alba at the time.
These questionable decisions included Pao’s attempt to enforce the site’s harassment policy. Per Wired:
Among the more contentious controversies during Pao’s tenure was the site’s effort to update its anti-harassment policies, which recently led to the banning of multiple subreddits, including white supremacist and fat-shaming forums. “You can’t legislate the hate away. That doesn’t work. But you can try to build software in a way to emphasize the good parts,” Altman said.
Anyone who is not white and not a man knows Altman’s argument to be, in a very generous interpretation, willfully ignorant. What’s particularly crazy-making here is that Pao was right all along. Eventually, Reddit did move along with a system closer to the model she championed, explicitly banning boards that strayed unconscionably far into hate speech and racist rhetoric. Oddly enough, at Reddit, this is still a controversial stance. One 2019 study found that Reddit often ignored those forums that ran far afield of its own harassment and hate speech guidelines. As recently as 2018, Steve Huffman, Ohanian’s (white, male) co-founder who was brought in to replace Pao, glibly told Reddit’s users that racism is permitted on the site, writing that they should expect to encounter “beliefs different from your own.”
Despite all this debate, Reddit continues to provide a ready home for racists and the alt-right to gather, spew their racist shit, and, more sinisterly, to organize and plan on subreddits such as r/the_donald, a board that Pao has long argued should be shut down. But none of this is in any way surprising, as Reddit is a reflection of the internet in its truest form. Like Reddit, the earliest versions of the web were built and championed by networks made up almost exclusively of middle-class white men, who engineered those forums with rules and conceits that would elevate themselves. The best ideas rise to the top. Innovation is engineered by free and limitless sharing. That these same principals echo points routinely made to quash diversity programs, thus ensuring that these spaces would remain a product of whiteness, likely didn’t occur to Ohanian when he helped popularized this worldview by codifying it in a user-generated website with limited moderation, one of a series of such companies founded in the aughts.
Ohanian spent years building Reddit, making his name and a large amount of money from the site and engineering an internet that exists at least partially based on his vision. Now he’s willing to give up his seat, a decision which is unquestionably notable. Yet when his daughter asks him, “What Did You Do,” the full answer is probably more complicated than Ohanian would like it to be.