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It’s Time to Address the Racism in Tech Education

People of color are underrepresented in tech. A confluence of socioeconomic factors is to blame for this. (Exploring the myriad of causes falls outside the scope of this article.) However, one factor we can definitely address here is the hostility fostered toward people of color in both tech classrooms and the workplace. If you don’t think such hostility exists or is a problem, read on.

Racism—subtle and overt—pervades STEM education and the tech industry. As a result, many people of color working in tech feel unwelcome, unappreciated, and stressed out.

While the strategic advantage of more diversity and representation in tech is, and should be, a self-evident matter of ethics and equality, it’s also good for business. Diversity of identity, diversity of experience, and diversity of thought are all necessary components to innovation and relevance. Research continually proves this. Consider the following excerpt from the Open MIC report “Breaking the Mold: Investing in Racial Diversity in Tech” (Open MIC is a nonprofit working with investors to foster greater corporate accountability at technology and media companies):

We already know that a racially diverse tech sector could translate into stronger financial performance for tech companies…Intel and Dalberg found the tech sector ‘could generate an additional $300-$370Bn each year if the racial/ethnic diversity of tech companies’ workforces reflected that of the talent pool.’ McKinsey & Company has reported that companies in the top quartile in terms of racial diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns higher than the national median in their industry.

Clearly, companies benefit from racial diversity. But fostering that diversity requires a hard, honest look at the racism that educators and employers may perpetuate (even if such racism is unintentional, which it often is), and then taking meaningful steps to promote cultural understanding and justice at all points along the tech pipeline.

Recently, Silicon Prairie News sat down with two programmers of color for a frank discussion on their experiences in tech education and in the workplace here in Nebraska.

Mary* works in data science for an area nonprofit. Gerald* interns in management operations for a local company with a national presence. (*Names have been changed, and jobs obscured, at the subjects’ requests. Mary and Gerald worried they would face backlash for speaking honestly about their experiences—such reticence is itself a troubling indicator of the current climate.)

Both Gerald and Mary are pursuing master’s degrees in STEM. Both dropped out of a well-respected undergraduate engineering program at a major Midwestern university due to the racism they experienced in the classroom, and finished their undergrad degrees in other fields.

Below is a transcript of Part One of a conversation focusing on the racism that two extremely talented programmers of color have each experienced at the highest levels of STEM education and the workplace.

Gerald: Dealing with some of the classes and professors in the engineering department—they aren’t really friendly toward people of color. I was trying to prove myself and getting sick exerting myself way too much. So I just decided: I like math, I like money, so I switched to accounting.

Mary: Oh yeah. In the classrooms, it’s unspoken, and at times spoken, that your voice does not carry as much weight in the classroom. It’s like, if you’re speaking, why are you speaking? And if you have the nerve to be wrong, even a little bit, then don’t speak for the rest of the class. For the entire semester.

Gerald: A lot of going into the program is trying to build up your credibility so people actually call on you when you raise your hand and respect you as an intellectual.

Mary: And to see you as a peer. I’m gonna give you an example of a graduate level course. Advanced Topics in Information Theory. There were three of us in the classroom, and our professor, a professor that I’d had before in undergrad. We were delving into the entropy that’s created when you compress and decompress data. We’d do a lot of proofs, but also build programs. I put together code that turned the text of War and Peace into binary, calculated the amount of entropy that was created, and decompressed it. In this classroom, whenever I’d go up to the board to start on a proof, as soon as my piece of chalk hit the board, the professor would be like, ‘No, no, no, that’s not right.’ So I’d start over, and start over, and start over, until I’m basically writing his argument on the board. But this is a class where I get 100s on my assignments, I get 100s on my tests, I get 100s on my reports that I write. And it’s not even really a conscious thing, it’s just systematically invalidating your voice in his classroom. If you’re not aware that it’s happening, you might feel like, ‘Oh I don’t understand why I feel so bad about this class, or why I feel like I can’t talk up in this class.’ It wasn’t a consciously malicious thing. But that’s just the culture of the Department of Doing Anything in STEM in This Town.

Gerald: I have heard similar stories from other people, people of color, and white people who also feel the same way about certain professors, that they tend to belittle you when you’re wrong.

Mary: Or just if you don’t think the same way that they do.

Gerald: That really doesn’t promote diversity at all.

Mary: Not diversity of thought either, which is necessary when you’re solving complex problems.

Gerald: Being a person of color brings a whole other array of issues.

Mary: You spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to claim your humanity, or just your right to be in the room, instead of just focusing on work.

Gerald: So that exists there, in the classroom. And it’s not too hard to see how that perpetuates further in the actual community.


Next week, we will focus on racism in the workplace in Part Two of our conversation with Mary and Gerald. We will also look at some solid steps companies can take to create a more diverse, innovative environment and stay relevant in 2019 and beyond.


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