12 Jun 2020
We are in a powerful Black revolution with sudden widespread support. Weeks of protests against racist policing, sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minnesota Police, are leading to calls to defund the police, tear down statues of oppressors, and end the use of technology for racist surveillance. This issue features reflections from several Black tech workers.
Black Workers’ Perspectives
Joanna, learning & development lead at a project management software company:
In the wake of the outrage and unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd, my company hosted a town hall to discuss race in America. I was angry and sad but also confused; why were so many non-BIPOCs willing to protest this killing but not the dozens of others that have been in the media the last few years? I’ve seen this cycle play out so many times: initial outrage, calls for action, statements from companies and public officials that are little more than lip service. Then the news cycle moves on without meaningful change.
As one of only two black employees on the call with 50 others, I was hesitant to share this feeling, but decided to because this moment felt like an inflection point to have an honest conversation. I asked the group of managers and leaders: “What made this death different for you? Why are you choosing to raise your voice now as opposed to in the past?”
Their answers were raw and candid. One white man said, “Watching the video, there was nothing to justify the behavior of the police officer. Past clips had more grey areas but not in this situation.” A Latinx woman said her daughter told her, “Mom, the man (the cop) was looking right at the camera when he did it.” That town hall and subsequent discussions emboldened me to have conversations with friends and on my Instagram about performative allyship, moments of bias I’ve experienced, what it’s like to be ‘the only one’ in work or social spaces.
My feelings are not new, but I’ve agonized about sharing them in the past at the risk of seeming “difficult” or “sensitive.” But now I feel a moral imperative to share my personal experiences with my white community so that they understand how close this issue is to home.
I appreciate the efforts my company made to host frank conversations about equity, inclusion, and allyship while acknowledging that our teams are on a learning journey. As a Black woman in tech, my trust comes with an expectation of honesty, acknowledgement of past missteps, and a plan of action. I hope that all of these little black squares on social media lead to something more. That action in itself was an opportunity for learning what can come from hasty, follow-on actions that are empty of impact for employees of color. It’s ok to pause before reacting.
Reflection is part of action. Individuals and organizations committed to long-haul work for equity could start with a small exercise. Think about a time you witnessed racism or bias and didn’t do anything, and use that memory as a personal case study. What occurred? How did you feel? What did you do/not do? What would you do differently if the situation arose again? We often feel paralyzed because don’t know what to say or what to do. Still, many of us have been emboldened by recent events and are finding our voice. We need that momentum now more than ever.
Kaylen, data analyst at an education software company:
My company’s CEO recently sent out an email affirming that Black Lives Matter. An anti-racist book club sprung up among my coworkers. On Slack, we shared strategies for learning to listen with empathy. These are all good things. But they’re not necessarily hard things.
I wonder about the ocean of performativity that lies somewhere between apathy and genuine commitment to a cause. I don’t want my skepticism to be eclipsed by cynicism, but I do want this movement to be more than a moment, more than a well-written email. Beyond book clubs and Slack chats, I also don’t want to be afraid to call out the symbiosis between racism and capitalism. It’s so easy for me to share info about empathetic listening, but what about sharing a passionate defense of looting? How can we have discussions at work about racism without talking about the fact that no one on the executive team is a person of color? How can we witness internal layoffs without considering the precarity of our own economic positions or the inhumanity of the market?
As workers, we are trapped in a system that is ultimately not meant to benefit us and that we ultimately have limited control over. I feel lucky that I work at a tech company that prioritizes conversations about race. I am happy that the conversation around race, around what it means to be black in these spaces, is growing. But the conversation certainly can’t end there.
Pamela, marketing strategist at a creative firm:
Colleagues at my firm seem to truly care and want to do something impactful, but I work with a lot of foreign nationals who are just becoming aware of historic problems for the first time. #BlackLivesMatter is everywhere and I definitely feel like the token Black person in my office, answering questions, helping people navigate through tough emotions, and becoming the de facto authority on any collective political decisions we make.
My boss (who is white, American) wanted to put out a company-wide statement on donating money to a cause. It was horrific. Tone-deaf, convoluted, self-aggrandizing, and potentially a little offensive. It was then passed to me to look it over because “I’m a good writer” (read: black). I didn’t really want to be associated with this, but to save the company face (and not be embarrassed to work there) I took time after work to draft something half the length and respectful. I gave it back to my boss and framed my edits as improving on “unfocused language,” rather than “shitty content” lest my call-out on a problematic statement affect how I would be treated in my job.
But, after I painstakingly navigated white fragility and kept my professional relationships intact on my own time while having my Blackness used as a resource, the larger management team ultimately objected to any public message whatsoever, so it was an exercise in a complete waste of my time. I’m encouraged by the sheer amount of new conversation by people who previously ‘didn’t follow politics’, but whether it will lead to action, let alone meaningful, lasting change, is yet to be seen. And because the message never went live, I’m not sure we donated anything at all.
Matthew, engineer at a small company:
Early in my career, I was reprimanded by multiple superiors for requesting technical advice. Since then I’ve felt very uncomfortable doing so at later jobs, harming my performance in some instances. Aside from a two-month internship, I’ve been the only Black developer on every team I’ve worked on.
What I want from white people right now isn’t groveling or conspicuous renunciations of privilege. Instead I’d like to see a commitment to building anti-racist socialism within our lifetimes. I honestly believe it’s possible.
On that note, I’ll leave you with a passage from Black Skin, White Masks, written in 1967 by Frantz Fanon, one of many Black socialists whose contributions modern liberals have tried their best to bury:
Negroes are savages, morons, and illiterates. But I knew personally that in my case these assertions were wrong. There was this myth of the Negro that had to be destroyed at all costs. We were no longer living in an age when people marveled at a black priest. We had doctors, teachers, and statesmen. OK, but there was always something unusual about them. ‘We have a Senegalese history teacher. He’s very intelligent. . . . Our physician’s black. He’s very gentle.’
Here was the Negro teacher, the Negro physician; as for me, I was becoming a nervous wreck, shaking at the slightest alert. I knew for instance that if the physician made one false move, it was over for him and for all those who came after him. What, in fact, could one expect from a Negro physician? As long as everything was going smoothly, he was praised to the heavens; but watch out—there was no room whatsoever for any mistake. The black physician will never know how close he is to being discredited. I repeat, I was walled in: neither my refined manners nor my literary knowledge nor my understanding of the quantum theory could find favor.
Software development didn’t exist as a career yet when Fanon wrote this, but his words apply just the same.
In The News
The news is happening out in the streets, and flooding into the tweets. Tech companies continue to release empty statements in support of Black Lives Matter, as if that absolved them of their role in enabling racist policing. Meanwhile, some of their workers are finding the courage to take action.
Some tech companies have responded to the increased scrutiny on policing by backtracking on their ties to law enforcement. Amazon announced a 1-year “moratorium” on police use of Amazon’s facial recognition technology, in order to give Congress time to enact “stronger regulations” on ethical use of the technology. Amazon’s announcement came on the heels of a stronger one from IBM, which declared that it would cease offering, developing, and researching facial recognition technology entirely, citing racial profiling and human rights violations. This stands in sharp contrast to IBM’s work enabling the Holocaust, when it provided key technical services to aid in the administration of a genocide. Similarly, Microsoft pledged that it would not sell facial recognition technology to police until better regulation was enacted, following an open letter signed by hundreds of its employees.
Still, in this moment, most tech companies have stumbled and failed. Over 200 company statements and commitments – or utter lack thereof – are listed in this spreadsheet compiled by The Plug, alongside the donations they’ve pledged and the diversity of their workforce. (The Plug is seeking two summer fellows to collect, synthesize, and help report on their findings; if you or your company is interested in becoming a founding partner of The Plug’s inaugural data fellowship program, you can sponsor a student.) To actually combat racism, CEOs and venture capitalists will have to do more than share platitudes; they’ll have to take real action, writes Tiffani Ashley Bell. Bell is founder of The Human Utility, a platform that pools funds to pay water bills in Detroit and Baltimore. She provides a clear list of actions to take, which she summarizes as, “Make the hire. Send the Wire.”
It can’t be said enough that tech companies have a responsibility in this moment. In a rare example of doing the hard thing, Snapchat took a stand by taking down Trump’s content glorifying violence against protestors. This is tech policy that others can learn from. As Juliet Shen, a Product Manager, wrote in a post “You can preserve someone’s right to speak while also denying them the benefits of algorithmic promotion. I’m very proud to work at Snap.”
In contrast, at Facebook, employees held a virtual walkout over CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to take down Trump’s violent content. 140 scientists funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative spoke up, too. Nationwide, the journal Science reported on #ShutDownSTEM as thousands of scientists went on strike across the US. Ironically, when Facebook employees started speaking up in company meetings, Zuckerberg suddenly saw the value of content moderation. More ironic still, and very on-brand, Facebook is developing an enterprise software product that would allow employers to control the content of workplace communication. An internal presentation featured the use case of suppressing words like ’unionize’. Meanwhile, the company reportedly “bought” its own police department, funding a unit in Menlo Park to the tune of $2 million a year.
Google, seemingly unable to handle criticism, rolled back Sojourn, its diversity training program. Eric Lewis, a white engineer, wrote about his moving experience in the program, adding that “We should be engaged with our coworkers in processing the experience of race, identifying our own privilege, and considering behavior thoughtfully in and out of the workplace.” At the same time, the program failed employees with dead links to resources and a habit of ignoring feedback from Black employees. Following these reports, 10 members of Congress demanded answers from Google.
In the meantime, rank-and-file tech workers are taking action outside their workplaces. In support of ongoing protests, a wave of websites has emerged. 8toabolition.com spells out the urgent need to move beyond liberal reforms, and defund12.org provides an easy way to email city council members across the US with demands to defund the police. policebrutality.media maps instances of police brutality across the US. oaklandprotest.today provides one centralized location to stay up to date with protests in Oakland, California, and safeprotest.tips offers tips for safe protesting.
From company statements with real commitments to new websites with vital information, we see a few positive examples of action in the tech industry. However, we yearn to see action that leverages tech worker power in support of Black Lives, like #TechWontBuildIt. In New York, the TWU Local 100 union representing bus drivers, announced in no uncertain terms that busses won’t transport arrested protestors. Bus driver Yasmin Rowe reiterated on video, “We don’t work for the NYPD.” The San Francisco MUNI committed to not transporting police, “to support our staff and black and brown community.” Meanwhile, many tech companies are still actively selling to police departments. One of countless examples is the Phantom phone hacking for the LAPD. How might we as tech workers, with our place in production, take similar action?
History is happening now.
Find a protest to join, donate to bail funds, topple local monuments to oppression, fight white supremacy, and abolish private property.
The revolution has been televised
If I sit here and do don’t do nothing, homie, that’s genocide
Fuck that, we have arrived!
And who cares who ain’t on our side ‘cause we on our own
How do you preach peace to a family that just lost they own?
My brodie Game just banged my line like “We gotta do something”
All that marching and that peace ain’t gonna fucking do nothing
Fuck it, my moms, sorry, I’m ready to rage
The police done let the animals out of the cage, oh Lord it’s
Time to take a stand and save our future
Like we all got shot, we all got shot
Throwing up our hands don’t let them shoot us
‘Cause we all we got, we all we got