Dreaming: Holding Onto the Hope of Justice in Technology and America

American technology culture is reflective and a result of American systemic racism and sexism.

by Terri Burns on April 28th, 2015

13% of the American population is black, yet of all police killings, the vast majority kill black people.

In January, the social justice and people of color corners of the Internet erupted upon realizing that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) committee, which selects Oscar nominees and winners, was 94 percent white, and 77 percent male.

Racists chants are still taking place across the country, led by millennials and baby boomers alike.

Today, on average women still earn 78 cents to the white male dollar. For Black women, that figure drops to 64 cents; for Native American women, 59 cents; Hispanic women, 54 cents. These figures remain similarly dismal for other women of color.

Hillary Clinton just announced her run for presidency, which resulted in an uproar of political commentary… and sexism. Women currently make up 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, while women in tech and gaming are regularly doxxed for speaking out against sexism and abuse in the workplace.

These examples are just from 2015 the last four months alone.

A reflection of racism

Broken mirror leaning against a fence.

Photo CC-BY Thomas Leth-Olsen, filtered.

Last November, Toni Morrison eloquently stated on the Colbert Report that “Racism is a construct; a social construct… [it] has a social function.” In 2015, the function of racism is to hold onto systemic power that has benefited whites and males for hundreds of years, particularly today in the face of social disruption and impending change. The forefront of the worldwide technology hub is in America, where Silicon Valley produces the most pervasive technologies in the world (Google, Apple, Facebook, etc). While the industry creates admittedly impressive technology and adoption, it is also pouring billions of dollars into the pockets of more white males, increasingly at the expense of people from other demographics — for example, as the technology industry grows, it rapidly gentrifies northern Californian communities, displacing a large number of marginalized groups.

Discriminatory technology culture is a direct reflection of discriminatory American culture. For minority technologists who have been victims of discrimination in the workplace, it’s important to note that the sexism and racism overwhelmingly prevalent in technology culture stems from the same American Dream.

Increasing diversity in the technology industry, particularly for people of color, is a low-priority initiative for most companies, evidenced by the minimal progress in this area in recent years. In America, most Fortune 500 companies, government positions, and high-paying or high status jobs are mind-bogglingly occupied by white males. Studies have shown that competent and experienced candidates who also happen to be people of color continue to struggle for employment in comparison to their white counterparts- a result of social and systemic prejudice.

Until 1865, when slavery was prominent in America, an important component to keeping the system alive and thriving was the belittling of black humanity. Today, the remnants of this belittlement lives on in prominent racist ideologies, in particular in the assertion that black people (and other minorities) are, by nature, less-than. This sentiment has survived for hundreds of years, and has even trickled down to millennials (many of whom hide under the facade of equal rights and liberalism). A study conducted by the Washington Post this month concluded that “When it comes to explicit prejudice against blacks, non-Hispanic white millennials are not much different than whites belonging to Generation X (born 1965-1980) or Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964).” These ideologies have existed for hundreds of years, throughout and post-slavery, and they are very much alive today. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is a direct assertion that contrasts these racist ideologies– a sadly necessary declaration that, in fact, black people are not less-than, and that black people do matter.

The need for marginalized groups to make such assertions will continue so long as the framework of false racial hierarchy exists. This framework — of an inherent less-than and more-than — is, in many ways, strongly replicated in the technology industry. See the notion of the 10x engineer, which suggests that some engineers are 10x more productive than the average engineer. Software engineer Betsy Haibel notes that this ideology is supported

“…because it plays to the hacker ego. Real True Hackers — the kind of Real True Hackers who think of themselves as some day inventing radically new tech — naturally identify themselves as 10x engineers amidst a sea of unimaginative clock-punching proles.”

Of course, the 10x engineer is almost always envisioned as a white man, playing into a culture which supports white males as the ideal demographic of superhuman technical executors. The idea of the 10x engineer further supports your classic archetype of a successful engineer/entrepreneur: young, white, Ivy-League dropouts who go on to make millions. For marginalized groups in technology, where are the role models of ‘10x engineers’ who don’t fit this description? (They don’t exist.)

10x engineers also play into racist ideals of meritocracy, suggesting that white males become incredible engineers due to inherent skill or superior work ethic, even if this is hardly ever overtly stated. As Haibel also notes, the notion of the 10x engineer, “is usually silent, nonetheless clear: culture, after all, lies in the things no one needs to say.”

The 10x engineer and the myth of a true meritocracy directly correspond to negative views of affirmative action in the American job sector and in technology specifically. These negative views stem from the belief that affirmative action will result in increased numbers of minorities who are less qualified, ‘taking’ jobs from white Americans who are more ‘deserving.’ The pompous and presumptuous insinuation of this viewpoint is that the majority of, and/or all minority applicants are underqualified, and thus undeserving of the same positions and opportunities as their white counterparts. The assumption of inherent inferiority comes from from the racist American ideology made alive through history and the active preservation of white power.

Just as slavery used the blood, sweat, and tears of blacks for the prosperity of this nation, successful startups today regularly capitalize on blackness for popular and financial gain. For example, black people constitute the largest racial demographic of users on Twitter, making black people critical to Twitter’s continued success. Despite this, Twitter’s employees still maintain dismal diversity statistics as they are overwhelmingly white, and as such white people continue to capitalize off people of color. Throughout technology and America, less ‘glamorous’ positions such as retail, manufacturing, housekeeping, etc are held by minorities who do not share nearly as much of the weath. An example of this are hardware companies that manufacture their products abroad and benefit from the low wages.

A reflection of sexism

Rippling water reflecting the surroundings.

Photo CC-BY Francisco Antunes, filtered. 

A few weeks ago, the technology and venture capital feminists of the world held our breaths while awaiting the Ellen Pao (interim CEO of Reddit) decision from her gender discrimination suit against former employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. The venture capital industry is overwhelmingly white male in composition and in investment statistics, with a continued strategy of “pattern matching” for young, white male founders that hasn’t changed even as women advance in other business sectors. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers was ultimately found not guilty, but Pao’s fight was nonetheless symbolic for the continued, open push against gender discrimination. Pao argued that the work environment was hostile towards women, a commonality in the American workplace where women are underpaid, devalued, and generally overlooked as valuable members of the workforce.

The devaluing of women in America and technology is also evident in the insistence that women consistently need to “prove” their worth and competence. In job hiring, interviewing, and instances of promotion, women are much more ardently pressed to showcase their abilities. This difference is exemplary of the sexist ideology that women are less likely to be qualified, and hold less value than a man. To compound these problematic ideals is the expectation of submission, wherein women who are are outspoken, opinionated, and forthright are deemed bossy, overbearing, or problematic. For people of color, outspokenness is oftentimes misinterpreted in the same negative ways. Mistrust of women also runs rampant in America and technology, where women who speak up about mistreatment are not immediately, or ever believed. In technology culture, outspoken women are deemed a threat to technical patriarchy and are doxxed, publicly threatened, and bullied into silence.

Similarly, the male insistence that women be technically skilled before speaking out against injustice and discrimination perpetuates these problematic ideologies. The mentality that your opinion is not valuable unless you are a prominent and skilled software engineer implies that skill is a prerequisite for basic human rights. But technical ability has nothing to do with deserving decency and respect in the workplace and in life. This ideology also produces a culture where women are openly devalued throughout their journey to gain technical expertise. Unsurprisingly, this sexism and racism in the workplace directly correlates to less women and minorities being open to the idea of becoming software engineers (and for many who give it a try, eventually giving up); thus the cycle only continues, as technology culture further devalues marginalized groups for not “sticking it out.” And just as related, there are a number of non-technical positions within technology (occupied by both men and women) that are critical to a company’s success and growth. These people are important and have opinions that should be heard and respected.

I have a dream

American flag mounted high over an urban setting.

Photo CC-BY Jessie Jacobson, filtered.

America ardently holds on to its racist and sexist ideals. Today, technology has become fashionable– it’s the cool new thing– and with that comes a greater demand for transparency, tolerance, and fairness. Racism and sexism is masked behind money, meritocracy, startups who convince themselves that they are changing the world, and sentiments that allow people to behave discriminatorily under the false pretence of fairness. Before I am a computer science student, and impending developer, or an entrepreneur, I am a black woman. No amount of expertise can negate that nor should it, nor do I want it to.

America has broke my heart countless times, but I believe that technology can be a tool to mend some of the woes of the world and produce tools to better humanity. It’s hard to continue to believe this when the industry holding this power takes so little interest in the basic rights of women and people of color. I actively choose to remain hopeful under the belief that myself and many of the incredible people also working toward equality and justice in technology and in America will make a difference.

Until then, I continue hoping, trying and dreaming.