It’s time we take a temperature check of diversity efforts in tech and recognize that only certain voices are being heard above the rest.
“Until you conquer that enemy in yourself, you can’t deal with anyone. In order to be ‘used’ by God you have to really be used. We always wannabe used for the glorious jobs: 'God, put me on a stage, in front of the people at a Grammy show with a nice dress on, let me just praise Your name.” But that’s not being used. Sometimes you have to be humiliated. Sometimes, you have to be kicked and beaten…“ - Lauryn Hill
This quote from Lauryn Hill? This is what diversity work feels like to me. This is what it should feel like if you’re trying to dismantle inequalities in tech while dismantling classism, racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia etc in yourself.
It does not always feel good, but that does not mean it isn’t worth it.
This past Friday I wrote a series of tweets about diversity in tech. It’s a topic I’ve had in my mind for a while and haven’t been able to voice for fear of being that angry POC. But let me explain to you what life currently looks like:
When I go to work and assert what I believe in, I get called "sassy”. When I check The Guardian’s website, Jessica Valenti’s face is featured prominently along some feature she’s written about women because heaven forbid another woman - a trans woman, a lesbian, a bisexual woman, a genderqueer woman, a woman of color, etc - be given the opportunity to write about women’s issues for the Guardian. Then there are the blissfully unaware like Patricia Arquette and Madonna, who believe that minorities should fight for women’s rights as if half of the members of these marginalized groups weren’t women. When I check Twitter, I see white women dominate the conversation around diversity and also the term women.
For all of the talk of gender diversity in tech, it’s interesting to note that some of us believe the gender gap in tech will be closed before the race gap. Yes, click that link, please.
I’m now at the point where “diversity in tech” has become synonymous with white women. And I’m here to raise the red flag.
Fully anticipating some knee-jerk reaction from some of my readers, I’d like to point out the following:
This post is not lambasting white women or rendering their diversity work irrelevant or fucked up.
I’m not speaking on behalf of all marginalized people. NOT EVEN CLOSE.
I am not against diversity initiatives in their current form. As a tech enthusiast and a passionate member of the community, I am simply pointing out something which is a reflection of how many marginalized people are treated by society at large.
I believe a woman when she says she was abused, harassed, or experienced sexism in the workplace. I do not think white women are lying about their experiences in the tech industry.
Now that I’ve established where I stand, and if you’re still here with me, you need to know that I still think white women are dominating the diversity in tech conversation. Dominating and sometimes unwittingly screaming over everyone else.
This is a HUGE problem.
A few weeks ago I wanted to know if other women of color in tech felt welcome in spaces that were created for women. I’ve become more and more weary of women spaces because of the dearth of women of color, namely Black women and Latinas, fills me with a lot of anger. I’ve seen women of color automatically get relegated to the “people of color” category to make space for white women in the “women” category. The message that I’m receiving is that women of color cannot possibly speak about experiences of being a woman because we are also of color. This past March, prominent Black women I follow on Twitter tweeted their audiences to let them know that they could be booked to participate in Women’s History Month events. Some of these women even shared stories about how they frequently get asked to participate in panels for Black History Month, but hardly get asked for Women’s History Month events.
Every day I am bombarded with new numbers that show how few women are in tech. But when we factor race into that, the participation of women of color goes down to the single digits. As I noted in my piece, “How Blacks & Latin@s Are Left Out Of Tech Hiring,”, I point out how Blacks and Latin@s of any gender represent a total of 5% in tech. Men and women, Blacks and Latin@s TOGETHER represent 5%. Why aren’t the people who rally around diversity mentioning that number? Why didn’t people supporting diversity in tech mention the low participation of Native people in tech - who we don’t even have numbers for - when a Native in tech shared her experiences and said that she has yet to encounter a Native in the industry? I am a woman, and I am no less a woman because I see myself represented in all of those numbers.
Yet many white women who champion diversity causes in the industry would take offense to being reminded that they benefit in a way other maginalized people do not - White privilege, generational wealth, for example. Consider, for example, how white women are the standard of beauty across the globe, and how women of color in the US have had few examples of women that look like them to relate to. Such is the insidiousness of white privilege, when you are unwittingly considered the default standard.
“But I grew up low-income”, some of you may say. That may be true, but it does not erase privilege. I was born low-income, but I am able-bodied; I exert privileges over people with disabilities despite being a woman of color from a low-income background. What does privilege look like? If you are a white woman who ever called a white man a “white man” on Twitter without fear of getting called reverse racist, (NOTE: this doesn’t exist, and if you think it does kindly close out this post) or weren’t accused of being a bigot - that’s what privilege looks like.
And refusing to listen to other marginalized people because you feel uncomfortable is missing the point entirely of what it means to increase the participation of marginalized people in tech. We have to own the fact that we have privileges in countless ways. For example, I live in the same community I grew up in. The median household income is $28,000 a year, with many struggling to make ends meet and receiving public assistance. This has always been my home, but I earn much more than that and am a college educated woman. I, too, am a cishet woman who doesn’t face the same levels of discrimination trans women, genderqueer women, lesbians and bisexual women face. Recognizing privilege is not easy, but it’s not about you. This is about making the spaces we occupy inclusive, this is about not contributing to the problem, this is about identifying our own patterns and trying to practice what we preach.
If you are a cishet white woman in tech, please own the simple fact that, by design, you have been designated the palatable representation of diversity in the industry. You benefit from diversity in tech initiatives - heck, you benefit more than anyone else when it comes to affirmative action. You have access to networks, etc, that others do not have. There are other marginalized people that have been less vocal for fear of losing their jobs. Many marginalized people do not have large networks, nest eggs, or other safety nets to fall back on if they find themselves out of work because they decided to speak up. Think about this: some white women are at the point where they no longer want to speak about diversity because they’ve done it so much, when equally capable marginalized speakers from other groups have not had the opportunity to speak even once.
Understand that this work is hard. Understand that you will have to use your privilege to bring others to the center. Understand that you will not always be in the spotlight. Understand that diversity encompasses way too many realities and identities that you are not a part of. Understand that this has nothing to do with your feelings. Give marginalized people who may have a lot to lose the safe space and platform to tell their stories, to share their expertise in the industry, to be allowed to identify however they wish and be offered the opportunity to speak to that experience. Stop sending the message that you are special in your marginalization.
Some of us can’t afford to continue to be silenced and erased any longer.