Where Are You Really From: Microaggressions and Making Tech Meetups Safe

There are times when I don't want to be the only women of colour in the room that happens to also wear the hijab proudly. When I would rather not spend my evening being asked ignorant questions or being gawked at.

by Nasma Ahmed on October 29th, 2014

When you are getting started as a developer, one of the first suggestions you get is to check out the meetups in your area. They’re a place for you to meet individuals doing great work in your city while also learning something new, a networking opportunity with potential employers and introductions to projects you might want to help out with. For most people, going to a meetup is the first step in getting connected to the tech community in their city.

As a new developer I did exactly that, but I have recently decided that I am no longer going to any tech meetups. Yes I want to learn, and yes, I want to meet new people. But there are many times I don’t feel safe being in those spaces. There are times when I don’t want to be the only woman of colour in the room that happens to also wear the hijab proudly. When I would rather not spend my evening being asked ignorant questions or being gawked at. Like many others I know, I am tired, and I have made the decision not be a part of tech meetups in my city.

Where are you from?

A road leading to a mountainside tunnel.

Public domain photo by Taylor Leopold, filtered.

This is the question that haunts me at every event. After I answer it the first time around and say Toronto, the next question is “But where are you really from?”

People that don’t look white often get the second question because it doesn’t register that someone like them can identify as being part of a North American city. Questioning of my identity and how I choose to belong in a certain space is problematic and has always been. Due to the colour of my skin it isn’t possible or even believable for me to be from Toronto. I have to be from somewhere else. I have to identify with something else. So usually I answer the question with a smile on my face and the individual in front of me feels a sense of comfort in my answer. And recently, I’ve stopped answering it at all.

What brought you into development?

I remember one situation when a man asked how I got into development. I explained my background and how it slowly brought me into tech, even though I was still pursuing a social science degree. I wanted to learn technical skills so that it would connect with my work in the community and my degree in Public Policy. He went on to inform me that a lot of the women he knew didn’t have computer science backgrounds, and he always found them to be behind in the field. It was his way of advising me to study computer science, even though I had specifically explained why I wasn’t.

I remember it coming out of his mouth and thinking to myself what in the world is going on. I wonder how many men he knew that didn’t study computer science, but did perfectly fine in their careers. Why is it that women have to study computer science to seem competent in their industry? There are many men working as programmers that have no formal training and we never question it.

Stairs leading up to a library full of stocked bookshelves.

Public domain photo by Patrik Goethe, filtered.

I talk a lot about my concerns regarding the digital divide in low-income areas when I go to meet-ups — to learn more about what people think, and how we can make technology more accessible. When I say the community I come from, I am often asked if it is a “dangerous” place and how can I choose to live in such an area? It is then viewed as “understandable” that I want to work in the community given my “history.”

You might be asking “what history?” Because I am from a low-income area of Toronto, I am assumed to have come from a low-income household and it is “understandable” for me to connect with my roots and “help the poor people”. In these moments, all the work I have done in my life, the volunteer work in my community, is diminished and deemed understandable, less than because of where I was raised.

I am happy to be where I am from. I was raised in a diverse neighbourhood and introduced to different cultures and religions since I was very young. My community shaped who I am today, to hold a different perspective on life and the privileges we have. That is why I continue to work in my community. Not because it is “understandable”, but because it is my responsibility. Do the people who call my work “understandable” know anything about my community besides the media’s interpretation of it? This lack of knowledge means many people continue to make assumptions and harmful statements.

My Hijab

I have been wearing a hijab since I was kid. Shockingly to most, it was by choice. It plays a role in who I am today and how I identify. I am normally the only one in the room at tech meet-ups wearing the hijab. I have gotten used to it, but what I don’t understand is the questions I receive.

There was this one time someone came up to me. We had a conversation about technology and he asked me why I was wearing the scarf on my head. I told him it was a part of my religion. He later had the audacity to ask me if I was forced to wear it, given that we were living in Canada. I kindly informed him I wear it by choice, and slowly got myself away from the conversation.

There has never been an event where I haven’t been asked a question like this.

What is An Inclusive Environment?

A vast body of water.

Public domain photo by Taylor Leopold, filtered.

I am a web developer here to stay, even if people question my place in it all. But meetups continue to play a significant role in what it means to be a part of the tech community. So how can we change these environments?

First, we have to be educated and understanding of what it means to have a safe and inclusive environment that caters to everyone. We think we know what that means because we have read a few articles here and there, but no. We must practice ways to make tech spaces safe and inclusive to the most marginalized of communities.

It starts with never assuming anything about how a person identifies with gender, culture and race. Assumption is a large reason why people believe they can say certain things about a culture or a race without even knowing the consequences. Often, microaggressions don’t have the intent to hurt someone, and it is often done unconsciously. When noticed by the person targeted, they are often seen as hypersensitive. But as you continue your life, those little moments accumulate. Those moments persist due to ignorance, lack of sensitivity and choice of words.

When you don’t understand something or are curious about something, ask kindly. I am okay with explaining what the hijab is to people but it is the tone in which I get asked, the context of the conversation. Recognize the faults in your ignorant questions and comments about another person’s gender or race. Educate yourself about different cultures and religions. It is the small things that count. I often find people don’t educate themselves enough about the different cultures surrounding them. Know their importance and how they play a role in how individuals connect with their identity.

Event organizers must recognize the diverse groups of individuals that attend tech events. At the start of the event, you should have a statement recognizing that the space is an open and safe environment for all, and that you as an organizer or your group will not tolerate discrimination and prejudice. This acknowledgement can shape the room and the feeling within that room. As an organizer, you are recognizing that issues do occur and participants should avoid such behaviour.

I Want to Be Involved

I have been thinking about the technology industry and the culture and gender issues it has faced and, in multiple instances, ignored. Every moment I read a story about the injustices within the industry I think about the work done in community organizing. I always think that the industry needs anti-oppression and anti-racism training so that individuals understand the problems currently being faced and how to be a part of the positive change.

It is important to make sure tech meetups are safe and inclusive spaces for all, because for most individuals, it is their first step getting involved in the community. It takes hard work to make an event, especially a meetup, a safe and inclusive space for everyone. “Safe” and “inclusive” aren’t just buzzwords, but are important in recognizing marginalized communities and making a space accessible to them.

I want to be involved in the tech community, especially as a new developer finding my way through this industry. Every step of the way there is a hurdle to face which I will gladly push through… but I get tired.

Of the constant microaggressions, the feeling of tokenization, and the glares.

We get tired.