What can be done about persistent racism in technology?
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.