It is Bigger Than Microaggressions

Moving through tech as a black trans man.

by Kortney Ziegler on May 19th, 2014

I am new to tech.

I’ve spent the majority of my adult career as an independent artist writing, directing and filming my way into avenues of visibility while moonlighting as a public scholar. In both artistic and academic spaces, I’ve centered my material reality as a black trans* person with the primary intention of expressing my humanity.

This past year my career took a turn in a new direction as I took the leap of blending my love of creativity with my passion for gender justice, resulting in the birth of Trans*H4CK — a tech initiative that celebrates the work and contributions of trans* and gender non-conforming people within the industry.

Portrait of the author presenting at a TransH4CK event.

The author at a Trans*H4CK event. Photo credit Kaleb Welch.

As Trans*H4CK has grown, I’ve found myself occupying a unique position in being able to move through a number of different tech spaces: from rooms filled with the verve of tech entrepreneurs of color to being the singular black (trans) male voice in extremely passionate queer feminist spaces.

What I’ve discovered is that even though there is a growing trend to expand the concept of diversity, overall the tech industry doesn’t yet allow for a critical and nuanced approach to trans* identities, especially when it comes to individuals who occupy the margins of race to which many seek to be inclusive of. Because of this, gender-based marginalization in the form of microaggressions — unconscious verbal comments or physical gestures that communicate shameful, demeaning and sometimes violent messages — from well-meaning colleagues, bosses or business partners occur daily.

The nature of gender-based microaggressions can make them hard to identify. Veiled compliments about the youthful appearance of colleagues that are women (e.g. you look too young to have this position!), or unsolicited advice, such as mansplaining for example, are but a couple of ways in which dominant perceptions of gender are used to subordinate. Within the culture of tech, there are multiple ways in which microaggressions affect a broad spectrum of identities, but as Shanley Kane points out they “are disproportionately and sometimes exclusively used against employees who are not white, male, straight and masculine.”

Stereotyping Anger

In industries dominated by white leadership, the notion of black success is wrought with respectability politics that convey a sense of passivity. For black queer people in particular, career advancement can sometimes mean eschewing radical politics that challenge race, gender and sexual identity hierarchies in order to avoid being marked as “angry.” Tech is no different.

There have been many instances in my journey where comments or suggestions from white counterparts have alluded to or explicitly labeled me as hostile for refusing to comply with discriminatory practices masquerading as diversity initiatives. To give an example, I once worked with an all-white and predominantly cisgender tech-based organization that wanted to broaden its reach into the LGBT community. When I respectfully expressed to the organizers that their curriculum, location and financial costs to attend made it unappealing to participants of color, I was told not to “focus on race so much” since it wasn’t a “central issue.” When I pushed back against the subtle racism of the statement, I was labeled as being divisive to the overall goal of the project and simply just angry.

Similarly, during a party for a tech company launch, I fell into a deep conversation about gentrification with a group of queer white people. One person gushed over how he feels safe in his historically gay San Francisco neighborhood in spite of his trans* identity. I shared that I never feel safe where he lives because of the feeling of being under constant surveillance as a black man. Afterwards on the BART ride home, I received a public tweet where the person expressed their gratitude in me “calling them out” — a term rife with confrontational undertones — to assess their privilege.

False accusations of anger as a default response to black queer critiques of marginalization invalidate the realities of racial discrimination that exist in tech by positioning black people as domineering race police and whites as unsuspecting victims. This hinders coalition-building across underrepresented groups as the threat of black anger incites fear amongst non-black colleagues. This is unfortunate especially when we consider the overlap with regard to how feminists of all races in tech are categorized as aggressive and reactionary when challenging misogyny.

Misgendering and Outing

I try to make my gender identity known as often as I can to prohibit any moments in which someone is misinformed about who I am. This doesn’t always work and I’ve been on the receiving end of both public and private instances of misgendering from colleagues who are either unaware of trans* people or are simply not interested. As a sometimes optimist, I tend to hope for the former.

A few weeks ago, I attended a non-LGBT meetup for black tech entrepreneurs. I was excited to attend as I had planned on meeting a longtime Twitter pal whose work I’ve followed across the years as they had reciprocated the favor. Upon spotting one another across the room and rushing to make introductions, my Twitter pal reached out and remarked that I “looked more like a real man in person than in my avi.” She then followed her “compliment” by introducing me to her friends using the incorrect gender pronoun while gloating about my work, at which the friends seemed visibly confused.

In another situation, a colleague new to trans* issues, took it upon themselves to share with their entire office about my gender. I shared with them how uncomfortable it made me feel to be outed in situations not related to my work without my approval. Their response was that they assumed it to be okay and that I should be happy to be seen as an “example of a successful black transgender person to a group of straight people.”

Despite the different context, both scenarios are examples of how gender-based microaggressions reinforce sexist thinking against trans* people. Though my Twitter friend followed my work, her comments implied that my expression of masculinity was not up to par — a slight that refuses to acknowledge me as real and instead as a gender imposter. On the other hand, using my public work and race as an excuse to disclose my gender, strips me of the agency of self-definition and reinforces the harmful idea that one singular person can represent the entire black community.

Class Matters

Working in tech for many of us also means networking alongside a lot of well-paid people. It is often during meetups, brunches, or beer outings, in which I am asked about my income on such invasive terms such as “how do I pay my rent?” rather than what is my occupation. If I’m not being questioned about my paycheck, I regularly sit through stories of financial excess under the guise of economic transparency (e.g. I once had a white male colleague boast that since he was “rich and white” he felt it important to share his wealth to contribute to the trans* experience).

While there is a current push from many to be more open with sharing salary information to address economic disparity in tech, for people of color whose work is unapologetically informed by a social justice lens, there are hidden implications behind on-the-spot demands of our financial credentials. For one, it reflects a particular type of (white) privilege that believes that people of color are expected to respond to interrogation no matter the subject matter. It also minimizes the importance of socially urgent work by commodifying its reach and assumes that our labor is literally worth(less). Beyond that, comments that praise one’s contributions to a marginalized community in order to relate to them, are self-aggrandizing at best.

It is Bigger than Microaggressions

There are many people working in tech who identify as anti-racist, gender inclusive, or socially conscious, however the microaggressions aimed at black queer people are largely overlooked and ignored. These assumedly insignificant acts normalize our mistreatment, making a strong impact on our physical and emotional health and overall productivity. In order to change this, we all have to be vigilant in allowing marginalized individuals in tech more spaces in which to speak truthfully and without judgment –our lived experiences are key factors in fully understanding how microaggressions operate. At the same time, energy must be directed towards incorporating race and gender educational frameworks alongside “learn to code” initiatives as the cultural costs of microaggressions that devalue queer people of color, greatly outweighs the financial cost of investing in work that challenges racist, sexist and transphobic thinking.