The Invisible Minority of the Tech World

When we talk about diversity in the tech industry, Native Americans receive no attention.

by Kat Li on October 28th, 2014

The unicorn stood still at the edge of the forest and said aloud, “I am the only unicorn there is.” They were the first words she had spoken, even to herself, in more than a hundred years.

That can’t be, she thought. She had never minded being alone, never seeing another unicorn, because she had always known that there were others like her in the world…

The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

When we talk about diversity in the tech industry, Native Americans receive no attention. Neither Apple nor Google, nor any others who released diversity numbers said anything about Native representation. We are “Other”, a continent worth of people swept into miscellaneous.

We know there’s a pay gap for African Americans and Latinos, but no one’s looking at natives in tech and our experiences. When I attended the recent Grace Hopper Convention, there were signs for Latinas in tech, Asian women in tech, Turkish women in tech, and Black women in tech. Glaring, to me, (and possibly to me alone) was the omission of a sign for Native women in tech. I was reminded again that Native Americans have no part in the tech world. We lurk at the edges of society and when people see me, they’re not really seeing me, but rather some idea of what I am.

Signs at the Grace Hopper Convention.

Photo from the Grace Hopper Convention.

When you do tell someone you’re Native, the reactions are really bizarre:

  1. People will aggressively ask what percentage you are (is it acceptable to do this for any other ethnicity??). Then they evaluate if that is enough for you to be able to call yourself Native American.
  2. People will start speaking in a higher pitched voice — one that shows they suddenly feel awkward and don’t know how to interact, but choose to pretend like they regularly hang out with Native Americans.
  3. They tell you that they’re also Native, claiming long lost lineage (usually through their maternal line, and usually involving some great-great-great grandmother who was an “Indian princess”).
  4. Everyone learns that there are a variety of different tribes in grade school but I think it’s hard to remember just how distinct different tribes and cultures are. I dance jingle dress; I have no idea what a rain dance really is. It’d be like sticking a few Europeans from various countries like Estonia and Belgium and Portugal in a room. If you’re together in another country, like the US, you share some things, but your life experiences are still fairly different.
  5. People will ask incredibly inappropriate questions, like if being Native explains how I got into college / the college that I got into. Seriously. This just happened recently, and at a meetup for feminists in tech. For a group of people who are so aware of impostor syndrome, I expected better. It seems obvious to me that suggesting my heritage was my ticket to success in life would make me start to self-doubt. Every Native I’ve met faces similar issues and it’s overwhelming to deal with both the sense that you don’t belong and that you don’t deserve what you have.
  6. Worst of all are the people who’ll suddenly assume a conspiratorial air, who’ll say things like, “But you’re not really Indian, right? You just did it for the affirmative action stuff, right?” This is beyond offensive. Unless someone says that they are doing that, never assume that. Even if I didn’t grow up on a reservation, don’t assume I’m a “not a real Indian”. You don’t know anything about me or my family and our situation.

A World That Forgets You Exist

An origami unicorn.

Photo by Gareth Chan, used with permission. 

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot more about what it means to be Native American in this age, and more importantly, what it feels like to deal with these daily encounters. Here are a few thoughts about being a Person of Color in tech, but more specifically, a Native person in tech.

  1. People I meet make assumptions about my heritage that somehow never include Native in the mix. I usually get Latina, although sometimes people guess Middle Eastern, or Pacific Islander. This leads to fun conversations and adventures and is definitely not all bad. That said, I sometimes think it would be nice if it were more readily apparent and I didn’t have to explain it.
  2. Relatedly, I generally don’t divulge my heritage unless I have a good reason to or feel like it. When people ask, I’ll tell them I’m half Chinese and let them make their assumptions about the rest of my background (which inevitably include assuming my mom is the Chinese one, in spite of my last name…). This is absolutely a case of modern-day passing. We move amongst you and yet you refuse to see us, content with the belief that we’re either all off on isolated reservations or worse, no longer exist (the parallels with our current broken prison system should be obvious). And the truth is, I get it. We’re not obvious and we’re not immigrants — we don’t have accents and for the most part, share the same mother tongue. It’s comfortable and easy to forget that the group who came before are critically endangered but not extinct.
  3. Sometimes I feel guilty about not being more upfront about my heritage. It’s not that I’m not proud of it (that stage passed long ago) but it leads to uncomfortable situations and can trigger impostor syndrome. I’m rarely in the mood to deal with that, so I generally don’t talk about it.
  4. In my experience, there are no tech products being built specifically for Native Americans. Nothing I’ve ever worked on has directly affected anyone back in my tribe.
  5. In many ways, one of the strangest effects is that I assimilate even more into my other cultural backgrounds, particularly my Chinese side. I studied Chinese, I room with Chinese American friends, I lived in China twice. Chinese culture is so much more ubiquitous; it’s so much easier to identify with and engage with your fellow country people, especially in the tech industry where by many measures we no longer count as a minority or a marginalized group. I want to belong; I don’t want to always feel like an outsider. Nobody in tech questions “how Chinese I am” or assumes that it endows me with certain privileges.
  6. There are so few others to commiserate with. When I was at college, I felt close to the Native community, both to other Native Americans as well as to Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians. There was a big support community and in many ways it did feel like a safety net for me should I ever falter. I miss that.

Picture from the Stanford powwow native graduating class, attendees gathered in a half-circle and flanked by trees.

Photo from the Stanford powwow native graduating class. The author is pictured in the center, wearing a blue dress. Photo credit: Kenneth Chan.

I guess all of this is to say is that it’s lonely. And it’s particularly lonely in the tech community. This is what it’s like to be in a world that forgets you exist, where “Person of Color” doesn’t include you.

I’m writing this as a desperate call for fellow Natives at tech companies or startups, technical or nontechnical, to get in touch with me and to assure me that my experiences aren’t unusual and that I’m not alone. Suddenly, I’ve become aware that I am here by myself, and while I know I’m not the only one, the experience is such that it feels increasingly like I am. I wonder about others like me, who identify as Native, too, perhaps not in entirety or even in majority, but definitely in part. I’d love to find like-minded folks and talk about ways we can help bring technology to our peoples and build a community for ourselves.

What I’d like to see is, more than anything else, recognition that we’re part of the tech community. Even though the numbers will be depressingly small, I want us to be represented in your diversity data. Look for us when you’re highlighting people whose work deserves to be recognized. Research our struggles, shine a light on the unique challenges we face and how we overcome them. When you talk about what you’re doing to support marginalized groups in the industry, I want to hear about what you’re doing for Natives.

Don’t forget about us, and don’t tell us we’re less worthy of your attention and support by ignoring our existence.