The prevailing narrative surrounding minorities in tech relates to how beneficial employing minorities can be for a company and/or how detrimental the lack of diverse perspectives can be. I’ve searched for, and have been disappointed to find that few studies have been done on the psychological effects of being a minority in a mostly homogeneous workplace for an extended period of time. (Update: There have been some very recently published studies surrounding this topic. I’m very appreciative of Jake Van Epps for pointing them out to me.) Here I’ll try to highlight how it has affected me, as I grew from a young black lady to a black woman in the predominantly white male tech industry.
In consequence to the practice of tokenism, people from minority groups are assimilated or excluded; some token employees assert themselves as the exceptions to the rule, concerning their minority-group stereotype. Hence, in occupations and professions predominantly practiced by men, women join in misogynist male behaviours; and a minority-group token man or woman might intentionally mask his or her true character, in conformity to the majority group’s perception of him or her as “the token employee”. — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokenism
I began my career in tech at the age of 21, as a Windows System Administrator for the University of Alaska. I was the only woman on my team and one of a few women in my organization. I was the only black woman, the only black person, on the entire floor. I immediately did not fit in, because I didn’t look the part. My coworkers walked on eggshells in my presence, so I did my best to make them feel comfortable around me so that I would be included. I laughed at their terribly racist and sexist jokes, I co-opted their negative attitudes, I began to dress as they did, I brushed it off when they made passes at me. I did everything I could to make them feel like I was one of them, even though I clearly was not.
It worked. I was included. I began getting invited to team lunches. They let me in on the jokes they made about our only other teammate who refused to assimilate and was ultimately ostracized for it. They shared their life experiences with me. I was “one of the guys.”
When I left that job and hightailed it across the country to Atlanta, I landed in one of the most diverse workplaces I’ve experienced to this day: The Home Depot Corporate Headquarters (Store Support Center). THD had diversity nailed. I suspect THD’s diverse environment had something to do with being in Atlanta, a city that is 54% African-American. It’s hard not to be diverse when the local demographics force you to be.
Whatever the cause, in my first role at THD, in Network Operations, I was one of two black women and one of six black people, on a team of about 20. When I transferred to my second team there, Desktop Support, diversity lightning struck: I was a black woman reporting to another black woman in a technical role. Moreover, our team was predominantly black. I could relate to my teammates without having to conform. I didn’t have to be anything different than who I was and I flourished there. I was mostly happy at work, happy with life, happy in general. Ultimately though, the other stresses of working at THD (pay inequity, lack of mobility options) led me to seek work at other companies.
After The Home Depot, I took a position at a lottery/parimutuel company. I returned to being the only black woman, but the team there wasn’t very close knit so everybody did their own thing, did their job, and went home.
In 2006, I took an IT Field Technician job at Google in the Atlanta office. While there were black women in the office there (in sales) I was the only one on my direct team of two. Things between my teammate and I were strained, to say the least. It felt like he had some ideas about me that were based on really terrible stereotypes and wasn’t shy about sharing them. This was the only time I’ve ever experienced overt harassment from a coworker. He’d say things like “Did you get that bruise from your boyfriend beating you?” or “I bet your parents abused you as a child.” The comments weren’t always that blatant or overt, but they were constant and consistent.
Over time, we ended up hiring three more white guys for our team. I was the odd gender and race out, once again. I participated in the various team building activities with the local and larger team to fit in; I began playing first person shooters (not unlike the episode of The Office where Jim learns how to play Call of Duty), I went to paintball off sites (despite the fact that I have nightmares about being shot), and the like. I ignored the false assumptions that I was a single mother. I came to work when I was extremely sick to prove that I was a team player, that I belonged.
The negative micro-aggressions from my first coworker continued and I said nothing until I reached my breaking point. He not so subtly hinted that my connecting with the few other black techs in other offices (who happened to be male) was anything other than professional. That was my last straw. I tried to talk to a female teammate in a different office about the situation. She’d been there longer and was something of a leader. She didn’t want to get involved. I went to my manager about the problems, told him that I planned to speak with HR. It was decided that the best way to deal with the “tension” between that coworker and I was for me to transfer to New York, despite my not wanting to move there. I don’t believe my manager ever engaged HR about the problems and neither did I. I didn’t want to make waves and isolate myself further from the team. I didn’t want to be that stereotype, the black woman with a chip on her shoulder. I didn’t want to make the rest of my team uncomfortable.
In 2007, I left the city where I felt less like an outsider than anywhere I’d lived previously, left my friends, left my love interest, left my life, and started over in a new city.
On the team in New York, I was once again the only black woman. I did what I thought I had to do to survive in the environment. I once again donned the uniform to fit in. Jeans, “unisex” t-shirt, Timbuk2 messenger bag. I stayed late playing multiplayer Battlefield, I quickly learned a bunch of classic rock songs so I could play Rock Band and Guitar Hero with the team, I don’t like beer so I went out to beer taverns and drank water. I remember asking if we could do other outings that didn’t include beer and getting voted down. I continued to lose myself for the sake of being included amongst my coworkers. We worked a lot then, so my team became my social life and I never hung out with many others. When I left New York to move to Mountain View, I didn’t abandon my life in the way that I did when I left Atlanta. I just put down the life I’d picked up from others.
I arrived in the Bay Area in August of 2008. Being in Silicon Valley has been simultaneously great for my career but bad for me as a person. I’ve been able to work on multiple different teams and really interesting projects. Unfortunately, my workplace is homogenous and so are my surroundings. I feel different everywhere. I go to work and I stick out like a sore thumb. I have been mistaken for an administrative assistant more than once. I have been asked if I was physical security (despite security wearing very distinctive uniforms). I’ve gotten passed over for roles I know I could not only perform in, but that I could excel in. Most recently, one such role was hired out to a contractor who needed to learn the language the project was in (which happened to be my strongest language). I spent some time and energy trying to figure out why that happened, if it was to do with unconscious bias or if it was an honest mistake.
Outside of work, I’ve lived several places in the Bay Area: San Jose, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, San Bruno. All places I felt like I didn’t belong. I walked around and saw scant few other black women. There was nowhere I felt like I could fit in. I spent many nights at home alone, just to avoid feeling different. The worst thing is that it didn’t have to be this way.