What can be done about persistent racism in technology?

Written by admin   // December 2, 2012   // 0 Comments

According to these experts, racism in technology is not a thing of the past. © Timur Anikin – Fotolia.com

by Lauren deLisa Colema, theGrio

Some things that go unspoken within the tech industry are advantageous: things that need to be kept secret, such as an upcoming product re-design or a soon-to-be-announced change of CEO.  But many inside the tech industry have said that a certain level of negation based on race has existed in an unspoken manner for far too long causing missed opportunities and delayed dreams. In fact, an incident earlier this year has caused greater concern about this very issue.

Several weeks ago a video gaming company called Kixeye (working to position itself as a competitor to companies like Zynga and Entertainment Arts) fired four employees for what it considered to be racism. The incident began when a company manager made negative remarks about black and Latino employees. The CEO of this company said this type of behavior was unacceptable.

Although it’s unclear what inspired Kixeye’s CEO in this case, often such sensitivity comes as a result of being a part of diverse teams — something that rarely happens in today’s world of technology.

Look around at the high-five photos from companies just recently awarded funding. Or stroll through the offices of most young to mid-aged tech-related companies from Silicon Valley to Silicon Alley. It is clear that there is not much in the way of color. Often, conversations initiated about such concerns are pushed aside with many techies even becoming aggressive when questioned about the current lack of diversity within the industry.

“This [issue] is a sad reality — something which people in Silicon Valley don’t like talking about because they like to pretend the Valley is a meritocracy,” Vivek Wadhwa, a respected scholar and columnist on technology, told theGrio. “But if you even look just at the founders of startups, you will find that they are predominantly male and white, Indian or Chinese. You won’t find many blacks or Hispanics anywhere in the Valley. And I’ve taken considerable fire from some of the Valley’s heavyweights for speaking up about this as I’ve written [about it in noted business publications].”

Andre Brock, assistant professor of Library and Information Science at the University of Iowa, concurs with Wadhwa, yet elaborates on the psychological and sociological parameters that encourage racial discrimination in tech. “Engineering and coding culture is highly masculinized and heterosexualized; corporate homogeneity and educational segregation lead to the dominance of white males at all levels of computational technology enterprises,” he said. “This is despite the fact that women dominate university admissions. Engineering and computer science are still male bastions.”

Brock also underscores that current attempts at making computer-related fields more diverse have been a little lazy. “Regardless of the growing presence of Asian and South Asian engineers and coders (who are often used as examples of ‘diversity’), the Valley and other tech environs are still mostly white guys — hence the ‘brogrammers’ and the recent problems at Kixeye.

“The strong reaction by techies to accusations of racism also draw from ideologies of information technology,” he continued. “IT is heavily promoted as ‘liberatory’ and ‘democratic’ — even as it powers regimes of surveillance at levels Orwell couldn’t have imagined.  When you’re programming code while operating under these ideals, it’s a kick in the stomach to be accused of ‘deviant’ behaviors such as sexism and racism.”

One has to question why people remain blind to the possibility of racism existing in their field given the fact that they exist within a culture that still has many issues regarding race. Simply stepping behind a keyboard will not delete all conscious and sub-conscious feelings about other races. Brock agrees that racism in technology is merely an extension of the prejudices most absorb through society.

“This attitude is industry-wide: investors, financiers, corporate shops, development houses, tech manufacturers, tech media, and even audiences,” suffer from biases, Brock told theGrio. “Information tech is perceived as a masculine (and primarily white) endeavor.  This is particularly evident when you look at videogame blogs. When authors such as Evan Narcisse and Patricia Hernandez bring up issues of race and gender in gaming, the comments are filled with pejoratives, dismissals, and even profanity.”

Naturally, not all technology companies nor all members of the technology powerati fall into this category. Microsoft, for example, has a string of diversity awards and accolades (even though they declined our request for an interview regarding this article).

No, the issue is not multi-nationals who benefit by following certain rules, regulations and incentives surrounding diverse hiring practices and making philanthropic overtures to organizations such as the National Urban League. Discrimination is more of a problem among the new entrants; those who have said they wish to defy all policies and creeds for the sake of innovation.

However, Wadhwa “can’t blame the startups because they are too busy surviving. They really will take anyone they can get who has the skills,” he said.

Of course, the black and Latino communities have some culpability. Our demographics don’t produce the highest number of STEM graduates — those specializing in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But, even examining the positions within marketing, sales, HR or public relations at young tech companies, these positions are still rarely filled by people of color.

Is there a bright side to all this? Might these challenges encourage more African-Americans to strike out on their own?  Perhaps.

“It’s the big, pink elephant in the room that no one wants to address because there is this illusion that racism doesn’t exist in this country,” Erin Horne Montgomery, president and executive director for National Association of Multicultural Digital Entrepreneurs, told theGrio. “The lack of diversity found in the tech start-up community, and the tech industry in general, definitely leads black entrepreneurs to strike out on their own or leave the industry. It’s not by choice, but rather necessity. When you are continuously excluded by your peers and passed over for opportunities that you are qualified [for in favor of someone] less qualified, you are forced to create new ways of survival.”

However, this route may also bring with it certain challenges. “[I had the opportunity to] interview Omar Wasow, co-founder of BlackPlanet.com,” Brock noted. “He mentions that when his team was pitching BP to investors, they highlighted their innovative concept of allowing users to create and modify HTML webpages as part of their social network profile. They were consistently asked ‘but who’s going to use it?’ with the implication being that  blacks don’t code or [in 2001] even use the Internet.”

Attitudes such as this can make the projects of black entrepreneurs a difficult selling proposition, even if you have the coding chops.

One hopes that venture capitalists have come a long way since 2001. David Teten, partner with ff Venture Capital and founder and chairman of the Harvard Business School Alumni Angels of Greater New York, thinks so. And he has invested his social capital in increasing tech sector diversity.

“I actually strongly suspect the biggest drivers [for black tech entrepreneurs] are the same that motivate all entrepreneurs as a class: the chance to build something meaningful, have autonomy, and make significant wealth,” Teten told theGrio. “[To that end] Harvard Business School Alumni Angels of New York, which I chair, started the HBS Alumni Angels initiative focused on women and minority entrepreneurs within our first year of activity. ff Venture Capital has funded numerous entrepreneurs of color and women entrepreneurs, prior to the inception of our Venture Capital Access Program.”

Perhaps Teten and his team will encourage greater a broadening in the venture capital community of the types of projects funded. One would hope that similar sentiments would spread, leading to the diversification of boards of companies such as Twitter, which is more frequented by people of color than Caucasians. This is key, because boards are where influence and power in the tech world reside.

When Teten was asked why we don’t see more diversity on the boards he cited the “same reasons that they’re lacking diversity at all levels of the pyramid.” Presumably, racist assumptions are one of those reasons.

How do we move from this state in which prevailing attitudes towards race are replaced with new ones? Attitudes that would benefit the industry through increasing the pool of talent through diversity?

“The way to change this is for people who have been successful from the disadvantaged communities to help others behind them,” Wadhwa believes. “Indians did that and achieved extraordinary success. This is building on itself.”

But Brock does is not as optimistic. “What do I see the future being? This is an easy question and a tough one,” he said. “The patriotic answer is that as America continues to increase in diversity, then the tech industry will have to change. Unfortunately, as a critical scholar, I believe that tech elites will continue to retrench and consolidate their power over the production, design, and development of information technology artifacts; they will maintain dominance over the affluent sectors of tech (which are financing and design), while growing wealthy over the outsourcing of labor to China for manufacturing and India for coding.”

However, Montgomery tends to echo Wadhwa. “Our community could at least better the situation of black entrepreneurs by supporting their business concepts,” she tasked of minority consumers. “As either an investor or consumer, we have the power to create the necessary cash flow to spark economic growth in innovation.”

Thus, the almighty dollar, technology success and the effects of cultural norms are still inextricably tied.  However, to Montgomery’s point, the power to impact overall social change has and will always rest with the consumer and user, whose activity drives company earnings. Well, make that the consumer or user who is awake and aware rather than acting like the little lemming.

Many are starting to scratch their heads wondering what is truly at stake as we mover deeper into the era of haves and have nots; an era that will be based very much on today’s moves being made within the tech game.

The question remains: what will it take for blacks and Latinos to be players in the game with prominent pieces on the board?

Lauren DeLisa Coleman is part of the new technorati-to-watch.  She is a mobile strategy specialist and analyst specializing in the convergence of Gen X, Y with hip tech platforms, and the author of the new e-book, Rise of the Smart Power Class.


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