Being a Black Women in Tech

By: Lindsey Redd (’17)

On July 5th, 2016 a police officer murdered Alton Sterling. This was the Tuesday of the fourth week of my software engineering internship in San Francisco. This was the first company I had ever worked for, and I did not know how these things went. How do companies handle tragedy? Do they reach out to their employees? Do they reach out to their customer base?

I walked into the office the following Wednesday with sadness in my bones. I was tired. I was slow. All I wanted to do was sit down and do my work. There was the normal pleasant buzz around the office, but it seemed that no one knew the name Alton Sterling. No one knew that there was a murder hanging over Black America.

That night I learned about the murder of Philando Castile, another Black man murdered by the police. Two days, two murders, two more Black lives lost. My reaction was not shock or disbelief. Unfortunately, all of this was so familiar. Still, my heart sunk even further as I watched our collective grieving on social media. My timelines were flooded with posts from people in Stanford’s Black community, allies, activists, and scholars questioning how many more lives lost would it take for the American people to understand that our “safety” and “justice” systems were built to kill and incarcerate Black people. How do we grieve together, but continue to experience joy? How do we make systemic change? How do we take care of ourselves? How do we continue to dream of a beautiful future for Black people globally? How do we move forward?

The next day at my internship, I was met with radio silence. A few of my White colleagues asked me how I was doing like they would any other day. It was clear that either they had no idea that two Black men were murdered by police in the last two days, they had no idea of the inner turmoil that I was experiencing because of it, or they had an idea about both of those things, but had no idea how to address it with me. I told them I was fine, also having no idea how to casually tell a well-meaning White person with the brightest smile on their face that White supremacy was killing me and people like me.

That day I sat at my desk, fighting back tears as I texted my friend group of Black engineers also interning in the Bay about feeling invisible at work and wanting to go numb. I texted some of my friends who were spread out all over the country and the world about how they were doing, and how their work places were responding to the tragedies. Most said not well to both. The silence continued throughout the day until my manager emailed her team acknowledging that America is in pain and that this might effect our productivity at work. She offered her time to talk if anyone needed it. The email was short and simple, but it almost made me cry. Finally, someone at work could see me, even if only a little. No work got done that day.

The next week was filled with conversations with my aforementioned group of friends about Black lives, tech, and how we positioned our own Blackness in tech. We would all sit in the living room of my tiny San Francisco apartment discussing how some tech companies were responding both publicly and internally. Some responses were okay, some were terrible (I could write extensively on what I thought of each response), but in the end each was underwhelming. However, disappointment was not my initial response. This was the first time that I had been aware of any tech companies making public statements condemning the attack on Black lives. At first this was really exciting. “They can see us,” I’d think to myself. We yelled loud enough. We fought hard enough. They finally realized how important we are to their success, so they are speaking up for us. This is a very low bar. After walking into my office, one that prided itself on its commitment to community and diversity, and seeing only myself and one other intern as the only Black women software engineers in the entire place (yes, you read that right), I began to understand what a low bar this was.

I saw that many of these companies’ public statements about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were as hollow as their commitments to internal diversity and inclusion. What does it mean when a CEO’s public statement has to be written by its grieving Black employee resource group? What does it mean when Facebook displays a massive Black Lives Matter banner on its campus, but simultaneously releases a statement saying they can’t hire Black engineers because we simply aren’t there (a lie btw)? What does it mean when a tech company “commits” to “diversity,” but only has a small handful of Black and Latinx engineers? What does it mean when I walk into work after two tragic murders of Black men and feel completely invisible? To me this means that the highest priority for the tech company is public image, not tangible improvements for the lives of the people of color who use and make their product.

With all of that said, one of the biggest challenges of my summer as Black woman software engineer was reconciling that I am dedicated to and passionate about an industry that ultimately sees me as a prop for good publicity. That is a very painful realization.

However, my understanding of the tech industry’s wholesome disregard of Black life and death did not drive me out of tech industry. In fact, I am more motivated and inspired to stay than I ever was before. In the face of tragedy, fear, widespread silence, microagressions, macroagressions, and objectification, I watched as me, my friends, and truly incredible Black and Latinx engineers not only got our work done, but also shook up the tech industry with our resilience and power. I saw engineers of color demand recognition, empathy, and the right to be human at work. They inspired me to speak up at my own company, and I am seeing the positive impact that my voice, my Black woman engineering intern voice, is having on an entire company.

I have some parting words.

Tech industry, do better. Black people are not your props. We are not numbers. We are people. We are intelligent, hardworking, and capable. We not only deserve to be here, but we need to be here. You will fail miserably without us.

Fellow Black people in or entering tech, you are brave, beautiful, and inspiring. I absolutely would not have made it this far without you. Thank you for doing the unpaid work of educating your peers and your companies about what it means to be Black in America.

Black people, thank you for sustaining us Black folks in tech. So many of us are doing this work for you. We know that this industry as a whole does not see you, but we do.