With the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests in the last few months, we've seen a tech community movement that mirrors the same frustration with structural racism in our organizations.
In response, tech companies across the world have made attempts to show their support for Black Lives Matter: from well-meaning, symbolic gestures like social media posts, to stated commitments to improve recruiting and hiring of Black employees.
Seemingly, doors are opening wide across the industry for Black people. This is a great thing at face value, but it highlights a disturbing truth surrounding diversity and inclusion in the industry. After all, if doors are suddenly opening for Black technologists at this moment, they could have always been open. Black engineers and leaders didn't suddenly become more qualified and more numerous overnight. We have always been here. If tech companies don't resolve the gatekeeping that ensured doors that were previously closed for Black technologists remain open, the progress we are attempting won't bring lasting change.
Additionally, were these companies and leaders working on inclusion or equity before the recent protests? If not, these leaders need to be mindful that they are inviting already-marginalized people into toxic environments. (Yes, if you haven't given any thought to inclusion, assume you've fostered a toxic environment.) Inclusive, equitable spaces don't just happen; they have to be built intentionally. Invitations to toxic environments put an undue burden on newly-hired Black employees to make these spaces more inclusive for their own survival in their new role and possibly for Black employees hired after them.
Systemic racism at work
Our systems and institutions tend towards racism, whether we see it or not. Racism is embedded as standard practice within every level of our society and organizations. It leads to discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power, and education, among other issues. Left to work as designed, with no antiracist intervention, our systems output racist results. Structural racism is even evident in AI and ML systems quickly veering towards racist results. This is because, as Kim Crayton puts it, ‘tech is not neutral’. These intelligent, automated systems mirror our social systems. We run the risk of automating our racism, our sexism, and essentially scaling our worst impulses throughout our communities and the world.
Given structural racism is a foundational part of our systems, organizational leaders must take action to challenge their personal internalized white supremacy. Only after you’ve taken this antiracist introspection journey should you begin an antiracist practice. Your antiracist practice has to be intentional and consistently implemented. How many Black professionals have had a toxic experience at work that couldn't be explained, even by the leadership? We might see this in the form of vague negative feedback in our performance reviews, promotions or compensation increases that are promised but never happen, and being repeatedly overlooked for stretch assignments or growth opportunities; all with no actionable feedback on why it happened or why it didn't.
As a Black technologist, you may have wondered if the inexplicable blocks to your career goals were based on race, or just due to a lack of organization around career growth at your company. It was probably both. Lack of intentionality in how your team experiences your company and culture makes room for bias (conscious and unconscious) to drive decision-making. Any company that has given serious thought to antiracism and inclusion will have intentional, consistent, and transparent processes around recruiting, hiring, compensation, evaluation, and promotion.
Patterns of harm
Let's look at some of the ways our organizations and teams cause harm so we can recognize when it happens and create strategies to resolve existing issues and avoid further damage.
Aversive racism: social exclusion
Aversive racism is a persistent avoidance of interaction with other racial and ethnic groups. This can be acute, for example not being invited to a particular social activity where most of their peers are present, or a more chronic avoidance. Still, in either case, this social exclusion can negatively impact Black technologists' careers. Because it blocks Black team members' ability to build critical relationships, it can stunt their career growth and contribute to feelings of isolation and imposter syndrome. At the team level, this excludes valuable expertise of a team member while reducing trust, psychological safety, and engagement throughout the team.
Tokenism: diversity without inclusion
Tokenism is a trap many organizations fall into when they focus on diversity without a strategy for inclusion. They may have a select few Black employees that they can point to when challenged on diversity, but those employees may have little to no influence on their teams and may not be as engaged and supported as other team members.
Microaggressions: a thousand cuts
Bias can lead to microaggressions against Black people on our teams. Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults (whether intentional or unintentional) that communicate hostile, derogatory, or harmful messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.
Ambiguity: a breeding ground for bias and lack of accountability
We also cause harm via ambiguous criteria or feedback. This ambiguity can be caused by people using “blur words” to give vague feedback. This may look like telling someone that something they did was great but not telling them how it was great. It could also look like rejecting a qualified candidate because they are not a "culture fit", but if you haven't clearly defined what a culture fit means in your organization, then this is an ambiguous criterion that can get stuck in the reviewer's head. You can reduce ambiguity by giving feedback that is specific, consistently-applied, and measurable. Ambiguity causes additional harm as it shields people who are gatekeeping from accountability or scrutiny. This makes bad behavior more difficult to address and hinders cultural change.
How to build the foundation for antiracism
Many diversity initiatives fail or lead to mixed results. One reason for this is that while we may have worked to bring people to the table, we haven't worked to make sure the table is prepared and welcoming for those people. If we bypass that preparation, we are just inviting people into environments that are not conducive to their growth and wellbeing, and they will eventually leave. I would argue inclusion is a vital requirement for diversity to succeed. In truly inclusive spaces, diversity follows and reveals more than a series of metrics. We have to set the stage for diversity to thrive. Inclusion is that foundation.
An impactful diversity, equity, and inclusion program must start with data. Data should drive the metrics around any planned initiatives. An initial step to gathering data is an inclusion audit. An inclusion audit is a proactive way to solicit feedback and highlight any inclusion issues at the workplace. An inclusion audit should measure any pay, promotion, hiring, and retention gaps across race. Keep in mind, an inclusion audit at an organization with no history of psychological safety will not yield meaningful data from marginalized individuals. Be transparent and accountable. It's not enough just to perform this audit; employees should be able to examine the process, the results, and any resulting revisions to your policies.
Bias and racial equity training can help start the self-introspection process for individual team members. Still, until we bring these biases to the forefront and address them with education and guidelines directed at behavior change, we are merely ensuring these unconscious biases are now conscious biases. Our teams may still be acting on these biases in the absence of clear guidance on removing them from our processes.
As we prepare and enact these new antiracist policies and guidelines, we must be sure we listen to and engage our Black team members. How will we know our changes will help solve the problems they're experiencing unless we include them in the discussion and solutions. Too often, we exclude Black employees from the conversations meant to address issues of race in tech. Many diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leaders talk about us but not with us. This means many times these leaders serve up non-solutions that just scratch the surface of an issue instead of making impactful change. Remember, impact matters more than intent.
Prioritize the most marginalized
When questions or challenges arise in building your antiracist foundation, use this phrase to guide you: prioritize the most marginalized. If you optimize the experience of the most marginalized, everyone can benefit. When the most marginalized folks on your team feel physically safe, psychologically safe, valued, and engaged, there is a much higher chance that everyone on your team will feel safe and able to engage.
Bias towards action
Be proactive when you notice issues around inclusion, and discrepancies with how your most marginalized employees experience your organization. Waiting until these issues become more noticeable problems means you condone the harm your org may be causing as the problems grow. Respond as if this was a high-severity incident rather than a low-priority feature request. Follow up with a root-cause analysis for an inclusion incident, like you might for a technical incident.
Remember, it likely only seems insignificant because 1) it doesn't affect you directly, and 2) you may have so few underrepresented people on your team (with even fewer willing to bring up issues) that it seems like an infrequent problem, to you. It could be happening to them constantly, sapping their motivation and productivity, and contributing to the nagging feeling that they don't belong at the company, or in tech in general. And those marginalized folks will remember that you didn't stand up for them or protect them. They will share it with their communities, which will hinder any diversity initiatives you start or have in place.
Create space for risks and growth
Managers and mentors often tell people from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds to be more confident, take up more space, and take risks: "lean in". However, when marginalized people do these things, their mistakes are scrutinized more, and they are punished more severely. Additionally, their mistakes are more likely to be seen as a lack of skill, rather than bad luck. If our goal is to provide the same growth opportunities to our Black team members as we do to our White team members, we need to make it as safe for them to take risks and stretch assignments as anyone else on the team. And if they fail, we should not use that as an excuse to refuse them further growth opportunities, but instead provide actionable feedback. Allow Black employees to grow beyond their failures in the same way our White counterparts do. Monitor progress after a previous attempt and find new growth opportunities when that team member is ready.
Scale with consistency
Consistency is possibly the most important of all of these guidelines. If your team does everything listed here but isn't consistent in how you work towards results and accountability, your antiracist efforts will eventually fail and cause further harm. Consistency is necessary to scale your efforts across your team and throughout your company. Without it, you leave gaps where ambiguity, bias, and apathy can work against you.
How teams can build on antiracist culture
These are just some of the ways your teams, and eventually, your company can start to build a foundation for antiracism. But how can you inject antiracism into the everyday interactions with your team?
- Leadership should lead with an antiracism strategy.
- Favor sponsorship over mentoring alone when working with Black team members.
- Encourage high-visibility opportunities for Black employees to share expertise.
- Think through antiracism as part of your product development planning. In the same way accessibility must not be an after-thought in product development, we must bring the same urgency to antiracism in the products we build.
- Review hiring requirements and process for systemic inequalities.10 Does your company favor degrees from universities with historically low diversity? Is a college degree actually necessary to be successful in this role?
- Ensure there are BIPoC involved in every part of the decision-making process - from the job description to the interviewing panel to the hiring decision.
- Hire BIPoC in clusters, when possible. This reduces the possibility of tokenization and increases retention.>
Resources for Black technologists
If you are one of few Black technologists at your company, it can be hard to move the needle on antiracism. Additionally, the high visibility that comes with being one of the few willing to speak out on issues of race can be stressful in most environments and damaging in more toxic environments. But your company may have a Black Employee Resource Group (ERG) or affinity group that can help. ERGs and affinity groups can provide community, career networking, discourse with leadership, a path to request funding and support from leadership for ERG initiatives, and a way to get involved in recruiting efforts.
It can also help to find resources outside of the company, especially if there are very few Black employees at your company. Local organizations like Technologists of Color (Atlanta) and US-based organizations like /dev/color can provide a lot of the community and career networking you may be missing if your company does not have an ERG.
Check this list of organizations serving Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPoC) technologists.
Footnotes and Additional Reading
Wikipedia: Institutional Racism
Intentional Culture: a Must-have for Inclusive Technical Teams
Employee Engagement and Marginalized Populations
Dr. Dori Tunstall on Respectful Design: Models for Diversity, Inclusion, & Decolonization