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The Isolation of Being Black in Tech

Silicon Valley’s diversity problem was more obvious than ever last week

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Kaitlyn Carter didn’t know if she could go to work last Thursday. The college intern at Medium had spent Wednesday trying to process the death of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man whose fatal shooting by police outside a Baton Rouge convenience store was caught on camera. The next morning, she learned of the death of Philando Castile, another black man, who was killed during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, while his girlfriend livestreamed the encounter on Facebook. Carter was thousands of miles from both of these places, but the killings made her think of her home, Baltimore, which was the site of its own raft of racial turmoil after Freddie Gray died due to injuries suffered in police custody in April 2015.

“It wasn’t until I started reading comments on Facebook that I realized I’m pretty emotional about this,” she says. “I go into work, and the first thing my manager asks me is if I’m OK. I thought I was OK because I took two hours to compose [myself], but I just start crying. I didn’t expect to have this reaction.”

This story played out at workplaces across America last week. For years now, we’ve witnessed escalating, graphic depictions of fatal encounters between black people and police, beamed from cell phone cameras to social networks in a matter of days, hours, or, in the case of Castile, in real time. There’s a compounding psychological trauma that’s ringing in the heads of many Americans, and it’s ringing much louder for black folks, who watched two men who look like them dying on camera, and then saw another unleash a barrage of attacks on police in Dallas, killing five officers.

Figuring out how to process these tragedies is challenging, especially when you’re spending most of your waking hours around people you’re not quite sure have the same visceral response to these killings that you do. That difficulty exists nationwide, but perhaps nowhere is it as stark as in Silicon Valley, where most workplaces are majority white and blacks populate less than 5 percent of the typical workforce at most major tech companies (even fewer blacks occupy leadership roles). There are myriad reasons for this lack of diversity, but the end result is that the few black workers who have landed spots in our nation’s most vaunted economic sector can end up feeling isolated and lonely, especially during racially turbulent times.

“Freddie Gray died in my city, and I didn’t cry,” Carter says. “I had an outlet to kind of go to rallies and protests in Baltimore. But I feel like because I’m over here in San Francisco, it’s just harder to get your frustrations out when you don’t have your friend group or you don’t really know what other people think about the situation. It’s hard to express yourself the way that you would want to.”

Will Ralls hasn’t yet figured out an appropriate way to talk about the deaths in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, and Dallas with his coworkers at Microsoft. The 23-year-old program manager, who oversees mobile ecosystem updates, is the only black person on his team of 29.

“I think people would be very understanding and I think it would be an environment that would be open for that conversation, but I just personally haven’t felt ready yet,” he says. “I do feel like, in any space, there’s a responsibility for black people, when these conversations come up and I’m the only black person in the space, to be kind of like a de facto spokesperson. I feel like I haven’t been ready to take on even a semblance of that role in my professional space.”

For some black workers, there’s an anxiety that breaching the topic of race, especially during such sensitive times, will yield a negative response from colleagues. “I don’t quite know how to talk about it and be inclusive completely without making people feel uncomfortable,” says Shadouches Reed, a 24-year-old intern at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a federally funded nuclear research facility near San Francisco.

“Am I comfortable enough to go and talk to a coworker about this and them coming back and saying ‘All Lives Matter’ and then me getting pissed off all over again?” wonders William Hill, a software engineer at Lawrence Livermore. “Can anyone relate to what I’m feeling? That can feel isolating.”

This unshakable sense of isolation was a theme that the dozen black tech employees I interviewed kept circling back to. No one seemed to think that their nonblack coworkers were necessarily insensitive or callous — it’s just that for others, the stakes seemed lower. The news, if they knew about it, wasn’t consuming them. The experience gap that often exists between people of different backgrounds grew to a seemingly impassable chasm in a time of racial duress. “My peer software engineers have either been oblivious, or silent,” Kaanon MacFarlane, a software engineer at Pinterest, said in an email. “I haven’t heard anyone mention anything at all about what’s been happening. They spent the entire lunch [this Monday] talking about Pokémon Go instead. It was surreal. I was very much thinking, ‘I’ve been concerned about other things than augmented-reality video games, you guys.’”

Allowing loneliness to fester among employees is bad for productivity, research has shown. In a 2011 study, professors at California State University–Sacramento and the Wharton School of Business found that workers who were lonely exhibited increased “surface acting,” or masking of one’s true feelings, and reduced their commitment to their organizations. “Employees who feel lonely among their co-workers will judge that their organization is not adequately [meeting] their affiliation and social needs and will be less willing to emotionally invest themselves in their organization,” the researchers wrote. “Management should not treat work loneliness as a private problem that needs to be individually resolved by employees who experience this emotion; but rather should consider it as an organizational problem that needs to be addressed both for the employees’ sake and that of the organization.”

Or put more simply by Bianca St.Louis, a former employee at Pinterest and LinkedIn: “It almost feels like you’re holding your breath. … You feel like you can’t bring your whole self to work.”

Tech companies and their leaders are no longer oblivious to their diversity problems — each generally now has an annual demographics report, an executive whose job it is to increase minority representation, and a blog post vowing to do better — but they are grasping clumsily to engage with the racial turmoil of the current moment. A former product manager for Facebook Live, upon seeing the Castile video, tweeted that he was “humbled” to have built a tool that could help people “shed more light,” then deleted the message. Over the weekend Uber urged its riders to take “1 minute to reflect on gun violence” in a piece of digital faux-compassion that was oddly reminiscent of a Call of Duty game. When Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson was arrested over the weekend during a protest in Baton Rouge, the first thing Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff noted was the Twitter logo on his shirt.

There have been other attempts to address the current racial strife in more direct ways. Google issued a statement last Thursday about the deaths of Castile and Sterling using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Facebook displayed the activist phrase on a huge sign at its headquarters last Friday. And back in 2014, Twitter painted the phrase on the hashtag wall in the main lobby of its San Francisco office.

Black workers at tech companies notice these gestures — in fact, they’re often instrumental in making them happen, via employee groups like the Black Googler Network or Blackbirds, Twitter’s internal black affinity group. “I think it’s fair to challenge companies on their diversity and inclusion efforts and to hold them accountable,” says Ashley Mosley, one of the co-leads for Blackbirds. “But at the same time, people still have to remember that there still are black employees at these companies, right? And we still do matter. It was important for me to see that, ‘Hey, we see you and we think that this is important. So important that we’re going to take a public stance on it and every person who walks through our headquarters in San Francisco … is going to see this.’ I think that is powerful.”

In addition to making public proclamations, though, workers believe tech companies should make an effort to check in on the psychological well-being of employees during times of emotional crisis. MacFarlane says his supervisors at Pinterest told him he could take time off if he needed it. Twitter brought in counselors to meet with employees on Friday and Monday and offered phone counseling to off-site workers. Medium discussed the week’s events in an all-hands meeting on Friday, according to Carter. Hill, the Lawrence Livermore engineer, organized a meeting himself on Friday for the organization’s black interns, so that they could have a safe space to talk. “I just wanted to let the students express themselves, whether it was sadness, frustration, anger,” he says.

And there are third-party groups making efforts to help people cope. Code2040, a nonprofit aiming to increase representation of underrepresented minorities in the tech sector, repurposed half of a Thursday meeting so that its college-aged fellows could talk about the Castile and Sterling killings. Leaders in the organization have also reached out to students like Carter one-on-one to check in on their well-being. “Being in a community that feels or at the very least empathizes with their pain is one of the most important parts of self-care in these situations,” says Juanita Leveroni, Code2040’s diversity partnerships manager. “We take that on as our role as an organization.”

But black workers at tech companies don’t just want to be consoled. They want change, and they know their bosses are powerful enough to affect it.

St.Louis would like to see tech CEOs speak out against police violence as full-throatedly as they condemned North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law earlier this year, drafting a letter urging for the law’s repeal. “It’s important to not just post or put up banners,” she says. “How are you leveraging your influence on a corporate level to dive deeper into the issue?”

There are also ways for individual workers to become more deeply engaged with social justice. St.Louis praised Letters for Black Lives, a project spearheaded by Asian American tech workers to explain the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement to their immigrant family members by translating an open letter into multiple languages. “Everything doesn’t require app solution,” St.Louis says. “Sometimes the best thing you can do in tech is just influence your sphere. A lot of times people want to be prescriptive about how can I do something for the black community. But it’s like, how can you also influence the spaces that you exist in?”

To declare Black Lives Matter, as a few companies have now done, isn’t just to score PR points or earn a digital pat on the back. It’s a commitment to a long journey toward equality that will inevitably involve more tragedy, more violence, and more flashpoint moments in which true leadership is necessary. Are some of our country’s most powerful companies ready for it?

“I think it’s important that companies support diversity,” says Danielle Butts, a 22-year-old intern at Lawrence Livermore. “A key part of appreciating diversity is acknowledging social injustice among any ethnic group. Because they’re people. All these companies are about making money, but at some point you have to find your humanity.”

Disclosure: The Ringer publishes on Medium.