Making it Past the Lobby of the Meritocracy
What does it mean to have success socializing at hot-ticket events if you can't get past the front door of them?
Geeks and coders are stereotyped routinely inside and outside of the tech world for their lack of social skills. It is profoundly ironic, given how much ‘success’ in the tech industry depends on in-person, real time socialization at industry gatherings. There is also the additional irony that while its commonly believed that this is part of what makes the industry “open” to everyone, the same oppressive limitations on public space and “public” organizations that affect marginalized people outside of the industry function inside of it as well.
What does it mean to have success thru socializing at hot-ticket events if you cannot get past the front door of them?
It’s common wisdom that the way to ‘succeed’ in tech is to just “network.” Schmooze. Show up at the right events, get to know people, have conversations, let people get to know you. And there’s a nonstop cycle of conferences, hackathons, meetups, hackerspaces, and talks all over to make this happen. And the tech community is so welcoming, after all. Its a meritocracy. What you need most of all is good ideas.
And there’s a lot of people who evangelize this concept– after all, its worked for them so far. Go to the right event, mingle, and you can walk away with the connections to get that next job, or even funding for your startup.
These narratives rely on certain central ideas; that the physical spaces that hold events where people in tech meet each other are public, neutral, and available to everyone. It also relies on the idea that the organizations and groups that sponsor these events are public, neutral, and available to everyone. In an intensely economically and racially stratified environment like the Bay Area, that narrative may not actually be truthful. For individuals like the African American business executive who was recently assumed to be part of the catering staff at an event where they were actually a featured speaker, it is not true at all.
For many decades, Jim Crow discrimination meant that places that served white travelers on national and local highways would not serve Blacks. From the 1930s to the 1960s, Black communities came to rely on a publication called “The Negro Motorist Green Book” to find out what hotels were safe for them to stay in, what restaurants they would be served at, and where they could buy gas.
While theoretically those days are behind us, the reality is that many places, even famously liberal cities like San Francisco, are not interested in having Blacks and other marginalized people as patrons. Note the Badlands discrimination suit, just a few years ago, for example.
And tech events, spaces, and organizations do not come with Green Book listings.
Despite the fact that an African American led the development team for the first 1 gigahertz chip, some seem to have decided that Black people simply cannot or do not participate in the tech industry. An African American woman who is asked “who installed Linux on your laptop for you” while attending a hackathon, and is met with surprise when explaining that she did it herself, is not having a problem of “access” to technology.
Despite the upswing in interest in “diversity” in the tech industry, the reality is that the tech industry is full of people who have never had to deal with a Black person as a peer in academic, business, or social settings. This has led to an environment where questioning a Black person’s physical presence on a shuttle bus, in an event space, or at the buffet table can be seen as a valid effort to “keep it safe” rather than acting out a myopic homogeneity which at the very least limits participation to a special and “obvious” few.
If the tech industry really wants to improve its diversity issues it’s going to take more than writing electronic code. It’s going to take possibly painful self-inquiry and self-awareness. The rewards are vast but it remains to be seen whether or not the comfort of the status quo will prove too enticing.