Issue 3: An Invitation to Agonize

29 May 2020

In this issue, Kim Tran shares her story of being born and raised in the Bay Area, doing diversity consulting for over a decade, and trying to make sense of what it all means, now that she works in tech.

Kim Tran Ph.D.

My mom calls me a protest baby. She’s a refugee who realized early that the only way to get what your community needs is to fight for it. As her only child, I banked a lifetime attending marches, publishing queer feminist writing, and organizing community schools that teach activists how to canvass and campaign. I planned to spend my professional life writing, teaching, and building movements that resist the alchemy of racism and capitalism. But two years ago, after UC Berkeley fastened the magical letters Ph.D. to the end of my name, I floundered. Facing high housing costs, endless student loan payments, and a saturated academic job market, I made a choice: I came back to anti-oppression consulting and expanded my client base to include tech.

I’ve had my practice for twelve years. When I started, we called it “cultural literacy training.” Then it became “anti-oppression work.” Now, a lot of what I do falls under the umbrella of “diversity, equity and inclusion.” On a daily basis, I am in rooms asking marginalized employees what makes it hard for them to do their work. Amidst the smell of stale coffee and bad carpet, a trans employee of color might tell me that they’re tokenized by their manager. A common refrain is, “My white managers have no idea how to receive feedback from people that look like me.” I fill these gaps with allyship trainings and by writing progressive employee policies. I troubleshoot other problems with pipelines and workplace culture. Over more than a decade, my good days have been defined by a combination of curiosity and humility. The best ones include someone asking me, “What should I do when I’m inadvertently racist?” There are also bad days.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a crowded field. It mainly consists of lawyers, human resource managers, and other corporate professionals. In my experience, only a small handful of these folks have either a deep well of knowledge or a commitment to uprooting systemic causes of oppression. This is why many focus on expanding recruiting pools or bettering their respective brands instead of dismantling capitalism. And because tech traffics in transplants, even fewer have felt the pain associated with the churn of their industry in the Bay Area. But I have.

I grew up in a part of San Jose called Alum Rock, 17 minutes away from the Apple Campus in Cupertino. Asian supermarkets sit next to taquerias, Vietnamese sandwich shops, and storefronts selling tofu. Everyone kind of looks like me, Southeast Asian or brown. Most folks are trying to make it. Despite being only thirteen miles away from Apple, no one in my family of over forty people has ever worked there. Here, hating tech is a religion and I am a devout follower. Tech is a dirty word, a euphemism for gentrification and poverty; the rationale for a lot of people’s pain. This is something I write about, tweet about, and talk about. Google’s aggressive expansion in a town where home values average $1.13 million and rent for a studio hovers above $2,000 per month. On bad days, I remember my hometown and struggle to imagine how helping tech diversify its employee base, or decrease microaggressions, is anything other than putting lipstick on a pig.

I often feel trapped by my job.

The organizer in me knows I’m not doing enough to address the root causes of oppression; that my sheer existence assuages the liberal guilt associated with tech. On the other hand, I offer a slightly more level playing field: a voice for the people who are always spoken over in a meeting, passed over for a promotion, invited for an interview. I am making the workplace a little better for queer people of color like me.

So. How do I reconcile years studying the pernicious effects of racial capitalism, only to become a part of the machine that disenfranchises my community? How do I reconcile fighting how tech harms people with taking its paychecks? How do I reconcile a lifetime spent hating tech with seeing an actual billionaire face to face? The short answer: I don’t.

For two years I have agonized over my involvement with tech. I have sat with and opened myself up to the harm that I’ve caused. I do not write myself off as privileged, or denigrate myself as powerless within late capitalism. Both are reductive ways to dismiss how power actually operates. Instead, I’ve asked myself: How do we appreciate that we can both have agency and be disempowered? How can we be gripped by our complicity? Moved by it?

We need to agonize collectively.

My professional life is full of very personal and very political heartbreaks. But I’m certain this is the way it needs to be. Protracted contemplation of our values and our role is the only effective way to engage with something so incredibly immoral. Judith Butler says that our capacity to commit violence, endure it, and be vulnerable to it opens us up to each other. She says that this is what constitutes a political community.

Two years ago, around the start of my work in tech, I facilitated an anti-Blackness in Asian American communities workshop. Afterward, someone came up to ask me some questions. We had a series of conversations. She wanted to bring me in to train her tech company, but leadership turned her down. For about a year, she contemplated her role at her organization and whether it made sense for her. Then, she quit. Later, I received an email asking if I could plug her in to social justice work. She still doesn’t work in tech.

To you reading this: don’t think of this as a call to action, but a call for reflection.

I am asking you and all of us to collectively, perhaps laboriously, agonize over our personal stake in an industry that allows bodies to be broken, that shreds the fabric of truth for profit, that decides over and over again that certain people simply don’t matter. I want us to agonize because there may not be a responsible way to live in a world like this and that’s something we all need to acknowledge if we’re going to create meaningful change.

I am not telling folks to quit their jobs. I’m not quitting, not yet. Instead, I am saying that we need to radically reconsider what working in tech means, whether it’s for a month or a year or more. We need to be present for the messy truth, to work through it with our coworkers, and to attend to the agony that comes with it. If for no other reason than this one stated so succinctly by Judith Butler, “We are undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”

In The News

On Monday evening in Minneapolis, Minnesota, George Floyd — a father, athlete, and 46 year-old black man — was murdered by a police officer who was kneeling on his neck, suffocating him. As thousands of people take to the streets and to social media in a show of sympathy and anger, Darnella Frazier, the 17 year-old who recorded the horror on her phone, is traumatized. A handful of similar stories worldwide broke the news recently, with more people policing the police by capturing video of police brutality on their phones. In solidarity, we urge you to find actions and teach-ins near you, especially if you’re white.

As people in Minneapolis take goods from a Target store, a group of Target workers campaigning for a union highlighted the company’s role in the ‘Safe City’ police surveillance program since 2006. Meanwhile, the real looting continues on a grand scale: $39b in wage theft each year, private equity business as usual, and tax cuts for the wealthy. Since the pandemic began, American billionaires got $434b richer, with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos pocketing $34.6b alone.

COVID-19 is making the use of tech tools even more dangerous. If you test positive for the virus in the US, you are now at risk of police violating your privacy and obtaining your address. While countries like Germany have recently ruled mass surveillance unconstitutional, the situation seems to be worsening elsewhere; police are even using drones to target homeless people and enforce shelter-in-place rules.

“He was part of Amazon’s coronavirus hiring spree. Two weeks later he was dead.” Amazon is rapidly hiring warehouse workers to match consumer demand. As more workers die from COVID-19, remaining workers say Amazon puts profits over employee welfare, especially given the company’s announcement that it will end hazard pay this month.

Uber’s quarterly losses are now so astronomical that the company is laying off 3,000 employees and closing 45 offices. Meanwhile, executives are selling tens of millions in shares. To the dismay of former employees, the company is also scrapping their electric bike program, one of many micromobility services used proportionally more by people of color. As always, decisions like these are made from the top, not by workers or communities impacted.

Just weeks after Tesla re-opened its Fremont plant — in defiance of local health orders — CEO Elon Musk earned a performance-based stock payout now worth $775 million. At the risk of stating the obvious, the frontline workers risking their health for the sake of Musk’s performance targets are not seeing that kind of money. As we wrote in our previous issue, “The Musks of the world may get all the credit, but the wealth they’ve managed to hoard is created through the hard work of countless working people who will never become billionaires.” We stand in solidarity with workers at Tesla and beyond, who deserve a greater share of the wealth they produce.

Facebook reportedly ignored its own research showing algorithms divided users. An internal report revealed that “64 percent of people who joined an extremist group on Facebook only did so because the company’s algorithm recommended it to them,” and a presentation slide stated, “our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.” Despite Facebook’s mission to “bring the world closer together,” the company is driving people apart – and enabling white supremacists. Meanwhile, CEO Mark Zuckerberg denies that his company should hold responsibility: “It shouldn’t fall on Facebook to protect democracy and it shouldn’t fall on Twitter to protect vote-by-mail laws. That’s a deeply political failing that they’re caught in the middle of.” We as workers and users can’t rely on unaccountable executives to make good on vague promises. A company like Facebook will not serve the public good until it’s forced to.

In History

We’re so used to corporations being governed hierarchically and driven by the profit motive that it’s easy to forget the possibility of alternatives. The Lucas Plan, proposed by British aerospace industry workers in the 1970s, is one such alternative. As Dave King writes in The Lucas Plan — An Idea Whose Time has Come? for Science for the People:

Normally referred to as The Lucas Plan, the Alternative Corporate Plan emerged from the industrial and political struggles of the 1970s and almost uniquely, was a practical enactment of the ideas of radical science, not by university-based radical academics, but by working-class industrial workers. Faced with expected job cuts, a Shop Stewards’ Combine Committee took a different approach to conventional trade union tactics for resisting them: they asked shop floor workers for their ideas for socially useful products that they could make, which would allow the company to diversify away from its core business of fighter aircraft components. The resulting Alternative Corporate Plan created a worldwide sensation, leading many other groups of industrial workers to follow suit, and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

In Song

Rise Up by Andra Day

And I’ll rise up
High like the waves
I’ll rise up
In spite of the ache
I’ll rise up
And I’ll do it a thousand times again