The Struggle to Connect With Other Minorities in Tech

Why is it that so many of us in underrepresented groups fail to create connections with one another, when we are just a few feet away from each other?

by Tonya Edmonds on July 26th, 2016

Recently, I attended a full-day, immersive web development conference. As usual, I was one of a handful of people of color in attendance. It’s expected. I’ve been in this field for 13 years. I’m used to it, right?

No, I guess not. On this particular occasion, I felt conflicted as an African American female in a white, male-dominated field.

I’m the type of person who enjoys meeting new people and building my social and professional network. I get fueled when I meet someone who is in technology and we can speak the same language. We can talk about frameworks and APIs, about how we had to stay at work late because we broke the build, about Java 8 features, or about how we can use a Raspberry Pi to automate something in our home. If we are in a group or classroom setting, I am more than likely going to ask a question, provide my opinion and introduce myself to those sitting around me. But today, at this workshop, something was different.

I was bothered by my interaction (or lack-thereof) with another participant: the only other African-American developer in the room. We were only 3 or 4 seats away from each other. I saw him. He saw me. Several thoughts were going through my mind: Do I continue to mingle with the other developers sitting around me? Or do I become intentional about connecting with him? How will this be perceived by everyone else? Does it create a wall of separation? Maybe I’m overthinking it. Does two black people talking amongst a crowd of white people make me “too black,” maybe even unapproachable? Does it isolate us from everyone else? As much as I wish these questions weren’t going through my mind, that they didn’t matter, I know that they do: a person’s first impression of you isn’t what you say, but what they see.

A woman of color alone in a dark room, laptop screen illuminating her face.

Photo CC-BY WOCinTech Chat.

It was clear to me that he was a newer or at least less experienced developer: he didn’t even come to the workshop with a laptop, only prepared with his iPad. This was even more of a reason for me to reach out to him, right? I know 10 times as many white developers as I do black developers – so introducing myself to him could increase my network. Maybe a simple introduction can lead to a new business endeavor – or even a new career opportunity? Or maybe my knowledge and experience can be valuable to him? I’m thinking: I should go say something to him, let him know that he can look over my shoulder to follow along with the activity; let him know that he is not alone in this sea of unfamiliar faces. But this day, I simply didn’t feel like getting out of my seat and having that conversation.

I know what you’re thinking – is this the same person who said she enjoys meeting new people?  This time I just didn’t have the energy or motivation. Maybe I didn’t get enough rest? Maybe it was the pressure of deadlines at work? Maybe I have become more of an introvert that I’d like to admit. I came to to this workshop to learn and be productive – so can I be selfish? Or maybe just call it lazy? Regardless, I still felt conflicted, unsettled in my decision to just ignore his presence.

These feelings prompted me to reflect: why am I so often the first one to initiate conversations in these type of settings, be it with the only other woman, or African American in the room? Why is it that so many of us in underrepresented groups fail to create connections with one another, when we are just a few feet away from each other? I could possibly possess some thing that the other person needs – some knowledge, some connection, some job opportunity – but we far too often hesitate to make the connection.  

I struggled with these thoughts throughout the day, hoping that he would take the initiative and speak to me, or we would just bump into one another and be forced to introduce ourselves. But it didn’t happen.

All day.

Almost six hours.

Once the workshop was dismissed, I decided “enough is enough.” I went up to him. I introduced myself, asked him about his background and shared my own. His responses were short, but came with a friendly smile. The conversation only lasted a minute or two, but I did it. I stepped outside of my comfort zone and opened up the line of communication between the two of us – the only two African Americans in this workshop. At least I wouldn’t end the day having regrets and wondering, who was that brother in the room that I never spoke to?

I felt good, until the next day when we attended the conference sessions and again – that all too familiar experience. He saw me. I saw him. He looked the other way, didn’t speak.

I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs. We are not in competition! What is your problem? Does it hurt you that much to wave or share a friendly smile?

I just don’t understand. Why do I experience this so much? We need each other. Why is there such a lack of interest in connecting with others who look like us, in a field where we are the minority? Why have we become content with giving the “cold shoulder” to others, when we don’t like it ourselves? I haven’t only experienced this with my African American brothers and sisters, but also with other women. We can be in a room full of men, and instead of coming up to each other and saying “It is so nice to see another woman!” – we stay in the shadows or just continue to dialogue with our male counterparts, ignoring the lonely sister in the corner.

Are we so brainwashed that we value the relationships with the majority group more with members of our fellow minority groups? Based on my experiences, I think so. If we valued and appreciated being a part of the minority group and what we have to offer to the industry, there would be more interactions amongst us. Far too often, we become part of the “in” crowd – attending a conference or workshop with a few of our co-workers, sticking to them like glue. We are comfortable where we are, who we are with, and ignore the other Black/Hispanic/female minority who is alone. Yet it is these connections that are so important, especially since for so many of us, few of our friends or family outside of work understand our jobs. My official title is Software Engineer, but most people I talk to don’t even know what that is. I usually just say I write computer code, and somehow they end up thinking I am best qualified to remove viruses from their computer. I work in a field where what I do is almost like black magic, a complete mystery to outsiders.

Three women of color in tech collaborating in a conference room with sticky notes on the glass door.

Photo CC-BY WOCinTech Chat.

And that is exactly how I feel at times- like an outsider. It is that feeling — accepting that we never quite belong — that can inhibit us from advancing in this field and discourage others from joining us on this mission. I want to be a part of a community, not just a solo developer working in a cubicle or in my living room alone, typing away. We need to stop overthinking how our interactions with other folks who look like us are perceived. The benefit is far greater than whatever stereotypes and fallacies may be applied to us. At the end of the day – do you really want to work with the person who values diversity and inclusion so little? So … why do you care about what they think about you?

My experience may not be every black (or minority) person’s experience in technology. But I’ve been to over 2 dozen conferences and workshops and had very similar experiences – so I know that I am not alone. I’m sharing this story with you to say – step outside of your comfort zone. Reach out and reach back. As the makers and creators of technology, we ourselves must build professional (and social) networks within the field. Sometimes all it takes is a 5-minute conversation, a follow on Twitter or exchange of business cards. I believe that individuals from underrepresented groups will feel more welcomed and encouraged to enter and remain in the field if they see a friendly face, or have a bond with someone that looks like them or has similar experiences. We are humans and we need (according to Maslow) to feel accepted and have a sense of belonging. So even if you feel like you don’t belong – you do, and we need you to make others feel like they belong as well.