It’s Time We Dealt With White Supremacy in Tech
A man was lynched last month.
Whether we wanted to be or not, the video recorded by a courageous 17-year-old bystander plopped us all right on the sidewalk, too, as witnesses to George Floyd’s murder. And thanks to being right there with him, yet powerless in that moment to save him, we were all confronted with this country’s sordid history of police brutality, gross abuses of power, racial profiling, and white supremacy as they all pinned George down by his neck under that police officer’s knee. Knee. Noose. Knee as noose.
A man was lynched last month.
And now, here we are this week after the country erupted in protests, the president teargassed protestors for an extraordinarily awkward photo opp, and the man who took a knee on George’s neck was finally charged with murder. Will this be the moment this country changes? And if so, why? How?
As with a lot of the problems George’s murder (and Breonna Taylor’s and Ahmaud Arbery’s) resurfaced, the how comes down to a matter of will. What are we willing to do?
What are we willing to do differently to dismantle white supremacy in the technology sector and because of technology’s pervasive influence, dismantle white supremacy in society?
Are we willing to reckon with the role the technology sector played in the moment we find ourselves? Are we willing to reckon with the founder of a company that draws an extraordinary amount of revenue from cities (aka tax dollars) holding fundraisers for a president who sends asylum seekers to their deaths? Are we willing to reckon with investors who think investing in Black entrepreneurs is an act of charity―and thus, offer embarrassing, token amounts? Are we willing to stop sponsoring and attending technology conferences with mostly white male speaker lineups? What are we willing to do differently to dismantle white supremacy in the technology sector and because of technology’s pervasive influence, dismantle white supremacy in society?
Here’s part of the problem: A lot of non-Black people in tech are under the impression that if they don’t explicitly call someone the “n-word” or commit some other obviously racist offense, they’re okay. But, most people know overt racism is unacceptable.
So, everything is now covert. For example: Do you work at a company with mostly white people? Are the handful of Black people at your company mostly serving everybody in some way (receptionists, security guards, cafeteria staff, and so on)? Considering this country’s history of forcing Black people into servitude and subjugation, how much longer will you allow yourself to be pampered like this at work by this particular group of people? Do you even know the name of the Black person who checked your badge everyday?
If you run a startup, what are you willing to do differently now? Will you talk to your people―or will it be business as usual at your next all-hands? Company leaders need to do more than the bare minimum of performative allyship with hashtags and changing social media profile photos. Your people are watching and taking cues from you.
Are you willing to hold space for Black employees? As in, are any Black people even on your team―especially in leadership positions? If not, are you willing to treat hiring Black people as another growth challenge and hack it? Are you willing to recruit at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as enthusiastically as historically white colleges and universities? Has your company ever set up a table at the National Society of Black Engineers career fair? HBCU Spelman College (an all-women’s college in Atlanta) tweeted in 2017 that “100% of its 2017 computer science graduates were employed before Commencement.”Did you attempt to hire any of them? Will you now?
And if you have Black employees, have you checked on them? Not to ask what they can do for you, but for what you can do for them?
Maintaining Professionalism In The Age of Black Death Is….A Lot
I just witnessed the lynching of a black man, but don’t worry Ted, I’ll have those deliverables to you end of day.
Here’s another idea: Have you looked at the tone and the content of your Black employees’ performance reviews? Are you sure they were evaluated on their work performance and not their performance of culture fit? Code switching is a mental tax on Black people in the workplace that sometimes isn’t refunded when reviews come around. And this constant stress negatively compounds over the long term. So, are Black employees’ reviews peppered with comments on their demeanor and how they make other people feel? Are you aware of how that affects their compensation and promotions? Are they getting promotions? Are you in touch with people who can help determine these things and monitor them going forward?
If you’ve had Black employees, but they don’t tend to stay, did you treat it like any other churn problem and learn why?
For builders, are you willing to interrogate how your work may facilitate racism? I am reminded of Google’s photo categorization algorithms that classified Black people as gorillas. A more diverse team would have caught that before it went live. Same with Airbnb and its problem with discriminatory hosts. To avoid racism while traveling, Black people created The Green Book. So, of course, they would have anticipated some white hosts not wanting Black guests and built a way to handle that early. This underscores the importance of having people on your team who can point out issues before they become PR problems. Do you?
If you want further advice on what to do in your company going forward, you can pay people with this expertise. Budgets express priorities. Budget for this. If you’re not willing to commit resources to an issue, are you actually serious about it?
If you think the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion tech today is a pipeline issue, help fill it. Are you willing to learn more about and donate to organizations such as BlackGirlsCode, Code2040, HBCUvc, or /dev/color?
Also, Black entrepreneurs need your stages. Free conference tickets don’t make up for not having a single Black speaker. When that happens, the implication is that nobody Black has expertise to share. Are your companies willing to stop sponsoring events implying this? Also, event organizers, everybody sees through the, “We asked, but they weren’t available” schtick. Plan ahead and find somebody else.
Now, let’s talk about investors. Venture capitalists are in the business of intelligently managing risk while guiding capital to life-changing, fund-returning returns. So, why do so many VC firms behave as if investing in Black entrepreneurs is a risk they can neither manage nor take? When an entire asset class overlooks a possible source of returns, what does that say about its real desire for performance? Commit to investing in more Black entrepreneurs―both men and women. Along those lines, will you commit to not relying solely on warm introductions? If you’re an angel investor, are you willing to work harder to be the first check in for Black entrepreneurs?
If you have the means, have you considered becoming a limited partner in a Black-led VC fund? This is a powerful way to fund Black entrepreneurs even if you don’t know many yourself. If you run an accelerator or incubator, what are you willing to do to further the success of more Black founders? If you hold demo days, that doesn’t mean an event just for Black founders. This separate event is going to be anything but equal. And stop with the basic classes for underrepresented founders. The bar for white entrepreneurs isn’t that high.
If you run a VC firm without Black partners, will you commit to adding at least one Black partner before 2022? If not, why not? They will see opportunities in places and spaces you won’t. And let me stop you right there: Not every white or Asian partner at a VC firm now was a spectacular operator or had an exit, so that’s no excuse. If you are a non-Black investor committed to doing better, are you willing to hold your colleagues accountable? Will you call them out for talking more than doing?
This is a moment where everybody must make a choice. What are you willing to do differently to root out the white supremacy the technology sector perpetuates? Are you going to continue to uphold the status quo or are you going to move fast and break up the old way of doing things?
When it comes to Black people in tech, as I said this past weekend: Make the hire. Send the wire.