The Problem With the Zuckerberg Analogy for Youth of Color

The Zuckerberg analogy avoids the looming issue of systemic discrimination.

by Kortney Ziegler on January 13th, 2014

The next Mark Zuckerberg. Where is he?

Mark Zuckerberg was Time's 2010 Person of the Year.

Zuckerberg was Time’s 2010 Person of the Year

Many in Silicon Valley are looking for him at coding bootcamps, Hackathons, and similar STEM programs aimed at young people, hoping to discover the wunderkind of color that will follow Zuckerberg’s path of tech royalty and represent the racial progress of an industry dominated by young white men.

As someone who believes in the possibilities of technology in uplifting our most marginalized populations, I too want to see the industry grow in ways that celebrate the brilliance of underrepresented youth. But there is something deeply pernicious about the Zuckerberg analogy that hurts more than helps when encouraging youth of color to be their greatest selves – and its not just its sexist undertones that minimize the contributions of women and girls to the coding landscape. The real problem involved in “looking” for the next Zuckerberg is the underlying assumption that once we find him, all will be right in the “diversity in tech” world… ultimately placing a large burden on youth of color to be exceptional in the face of adversity as proof of racial progress.

Promoting exceptionalism to encourage success is not new to people of color. We have historically struggled in a dominant culture that upholds a bootstrap narrative which says you can rise above structural inequalities, only if you work hard enough to do so. Those who do overcome to achieve some semblance of success are considered exceptional and as Imani Perry notes, become false symbols of “evidence that racial inequality doesn’t exist.”

While “exceptional” individuals enjoy unprecedented levels of access and privilege, their visibility does little to dismantle systemic barriers that prohibit other people of color from achieving the same. Furthermore, their presence as one of few reduces the reality of discrimination to the fault of its victims and not the result of actual racial disparities that limit the socioeconomic mobility of African Americans and Latinos. In other words, a brown Mark Zuckerberg is not going to change the fact that kids of color continue to be underrepresented in STEM — not because they aren’t brilliant enough, but because they have not been given the same amount of opportunity, access, wealth and individual room to fail, unlike the privileged Facebook founder they are told to aspire towards. Without an honest conversation of how privilege and power function in regards to race, the image of a singular white male as emblematic of tech success can foster a competitive environment amongst youth of color who already have to compete for basic educational resources that remain unequally distributed.

Essentially, it is the absence of a critique of white privilege embedded in the Zuckerberg analogy that reveals its contentious relationship with meritocracy — a concept that a tech culture concerned with rewards and perks for those that are considered more deserving than others, is no stranger to.

In writing about meritocracy in tech, Ashe Dryden argues that the consequence of an industry based on “merit” is the reproduction of oppressive hierarchies where “some of those at the top or striving to at least be above other people have been guilty of using their power for bullying, harassment, and sexist/racist/*ist language that they use against others directly and indirectly.” In such situations where power results in abuse, women of all races are the most vulnerable and can endure career threatening “punishment” when addressed, thus maintaining a heterosexist social order that benefits white masculinity and subordinates other identities.

Considering then how “meritocratic” spaces can marginalize individuals at risk, its reinforcement has multiple implications for youth of color, primarily in relation to gender and sexuality. Take for example the population of LGBT youth who make up a significant portion of the ”next Zuckerberg cohort” but whose presence in tech comes along with the fact of cyberbullying – affecting the community at almost twice the rate of their peers. Since these students already deal with the external discourses of meritocracy that dismisses their harassment as a queer rite of passage because, supposedly, “it gets better,” the celebration of white masculinity can further justify feelings of inferiority and perceptions of abnormality from their peers… unwittingly creating a new barrier of adversity that implicates all youth of color to transcend a set of social prejudices that they might not be equipped to.

Jaylen Bledsoe, CEO of Bledsoe Technologies.

Jaylen Bledsoe is CEO of Bledsoe Technologies.

Beyond promoting the idea of exceptionalism based on merit, the widely used Zuckerberg analogy marginalizes the contributions of young people of color that have already made history in STEM but receive little recognition for their efforts. For instance, Luis Roberto Ramirez is an 11 year old who studies quantum physics at Harvard; Anala Beevers was invited to join MENSA at just four years old; and Jaylen Bledsoe, who in his early teens, runs his own multimillion dollar global IT company, Bledsoe Technologies. These children are not exceptions, rather they are perfect examples of the abundance of brilliance that thrives in communities of color in spite of existing systems that attempt to destroy it or claim that it doesn’t exist. What would the tech industry look like if these types of stories were championed over that of young white men?

Even if unintended, the Zuckerberg analogy avoids the looming issue of systemic discrimination and limits paradigm-shifting conversations that can change how we discuss race and access in tech. If we continue to use it in the context of educating youth of color, we must do so in a way that also helps them to develop a critical lens with which to view social disparity. The industry needs it and the youth deserve it.