Support for Black Humanity in Tech
I condemn the culture that has no problem acknowledging and using my labor, but would not support my fight for my humanity.
There’s a revolution happening in this country and across the globe. Hashtags of #BlackLivesMatter, cries of “Hands up, don’t shoot!”, and chants of “I can’t breathe!” have been echoing through the streets and bouncing around my mind over the past few weeks. But you wouldn’t know it if you work in tech or maybe Corporate America in general.
On November 24th and December 3rd, America’s injustice system decided that Michael Brown’s and Eric Garner’s murderers would be free from any accountability for their crimes. Led by residents of Ferguson, MO who have been consistently protesting and uprising since Michael Brown’s death in August, people across the world have responded in solidarity since the news of these non-indictments. These cases, although not unfamiliar in the black community, seem to be the tipping point for a marginalized people that is past the point of asking for our humanity to be recognized and has now arrived at the point of demanding and taking what is owed to us. I firmly believe that this is only the beginning, and what will come of this revolution is still to be written.
When Bob McCulloch announced the news of the Michael Brown grand jury decision I was still coding in my office. Just about everyone else had cleared out for the day or for the week because Thanksgiving was approaching. But I remember staying late after being unproductive the entire day in nervous anticipation of what would follow the grand jury announcement, since the decision was well-known before its official release. I sat in my office for a while after listening to the decision, periodically checking Twitter and Facebook updates from friends, family, bloggers and others. Coming to work the following days was difficult and equally as unproductive as the preceding days. Fortunately it was the last couple days of the month before the fall holiday break, where I would have the much needed time and company of a friend to mourn and begin healing. But as vacation came to a close and work begin again, white supremacy doubled down on its devaluation of black life when it announced only a few days later that Eric Garner’s murderer would also not be put on trial. However, this time the announcement was made midday while I was in the lunch cafeteria with my team.
After checking Twitter and seeing the various posts of outrage from people I follow, I remember looking around the cafeteria filled with hundreds of people looking for a single black person to make eye contact with, hoping and needing to find someone who shared my pain, a pain that became more painful because of the room full of people who were so clearly unaffected by what had just transpired. To be fair from the moment I walk into my office to the moment I leave, I don’t see a single other black person during my workday, aside from the occasional stranger in the cafeteria. But in this moment I desperately needed to find a community of my people for my own well-being.
After lunch I tried going back to work and writing code, but that attempt was in vain. At a certain point that afternoon I simply had to go into my manager’s office and explain to her that it was impossible for me to write any code when I knew that my people were in the streets fighting for our right to live. Luckily my manager has known since hiring me that I have no problem expressing myself when it comes to issues of justice. She responded by telling me to go for it and be in the streets with my people if that’s where I needed to be. So I left work that day to join my community in protesting, not knowing how to heal but knowing that if I was going to begin the process it would not be while sitting in front of my monitors writing code on a campus full of people who were indifferent and unaffected by the fact that black bodies were being killed with impunity. At the same time I knew that even though I was in the streets that day, I would somehow need to bounce back into the office the following days because I still have a family to support and rent is still due at the end of the month. While the lives of my co-workers seemed to remain normal, I had personally reached a point in my life where going back to what was “normal” was the last thing I wanted.
Employee Quality of Life
In my experience with interviewing, recruiting, internships and now working full time at a major tech company, the industry as a whole prides itself on caring about the livelihood and well-being of its employees. Top companies constantly compete not only to offer enticing salaries and benefits, but also non-traditional benefits like free food and/or drinks, gym memberships, company shuttles and other morale-boosting perks. As cool as these things may be the question must be asked: Whose lives are being considered when someone decides what will benefit its employees? Why are ping pong and foosball tables valued over creating space and resources for folks in underrepresented and marginalized communities to feel welcome?
While it’s great that these luxuries are offered to all of us, there is the glaring oversight of the necessary resources that are lacking when it comes to underrepresented communities. I can acknowledge the certain level of privilege I have as a heterosexual cisgender male, but as a black person I often feel isolated and unsupported when it comes to life in the tech industry. I can only imagine the feeling of someone who faces other levels of oppressions as a result of their own intersectional identities.
I am a black person who happens to be a software engineer, not a software engineer who happens to be black. So on the one hand I am grateful that my company values my work as a developer, but it would mean much more to know that my company valued my lived experiences as a black person and fought to make that clear.
Black Community in Tech
An issue I have unsurprisingly encountered as a recent hire at my company is finding the black community. While there is an email list for black people at my company, membership has dwindled in recent years. From the few interactions that I have had with black people concerning the events of Ferguson and Staten Island, I consistently get the vibe that most do not feel that the workplace is an appropriate venue for discussion regarding such potentially controversial topics. Like most of corporate america, there is the pressure to practice respectability politics and distance oneself from the “thugs” or “looters” in recent protests, who are ironically fighting for our right to live and exist in this country without presumed criminality. There seems to be a belief that identifying and expressing solidarity with protesters may be detrimental to one’s career, especially considering that traditionally people in power in these companies are older rich white men. Too many blacks in tech believe that silence or neutrality will grant full membership and immunity in a system that has been nothing but violent to our community since this country’s inception. Silence and neutrality may make your non-black co-workers feel comfortable but it will by no means grant you the liberation that you seek.
I understand that we all have personal obligations, so I do not fault someone for following whatever rules they need to in order to continue feeding their family or not protesting because they cannot afford to be arrested. But at the same time I condemn the tech culture that creates this environment where black people feel that speaking out about these injustices could derail their career. I condemn the culture that creates an environment that has no problem acknowledging and using my labor, but would not support my fight for my humanity.
In the corporate world I think the problem and conflict that arises with trying to express solidarity with the current uprising is that in order to truly be anti-racist, truly anti-classist, or truly anti-oppression, and not just throw money at charities and non-profits, we would have to acknowledge how we are major beneficiaries of a violent capitalistic system.
For any one of us, to do that would mean being willing to give up these benefits when the time comes to uproot this system.
That is difficult enough at an individual level, but to get one of the most successful tech companies to acknowledge the need for radical transformative justice would be counter to the core of its function and its very being. So although I think tech companies drop the ball when it comes to showing that black lives matter, I guess this lack of support is expected and for the most part understood and unchallenged by employees.
Many people view job access for minorities as the route for racial equality in tech. But in my experience it is impossible for me to separate my humanity in the workplace from my humanity in the real world. And since there cannot truly be radical justice in the rest of the world as long as these tech corporations exist, I do not know that it is possible for the industry to truly support black life. So no, I do not believe that space for black life in tech will be achieved by simply hiring more black employees. I do however think that a critical mass of black tech workers across multiple companies that will not remain silent or neutral when it comes to issues of black humanity can lead to true solidarity with current protests and major disruption of the status quo in corporate america.