Is It Harder to Find Black Women in Suburban Japan, or in the San Francisco Tech Industry?
On being the “right person” for the job.
It all started this past January, when my boyfriend and I hopped on a plane from foggy San Francisco to Japan. Our first night in Tokyo, my boyfriend, black like me, professed to do the only* thing I openly express my hatred for, which involves putting on tight, undance-able pants and shoes, and flailing our arms among drunk Americans in Tokyo’s most popular “gaijin club” while shouting over obnoxious music. Yay, clubbing!
After that night, I wouldn’t see another black person for days. Once we realized “black people spotting” could become a game, we took to it right away.
Let’s play “Count the Black People!”
At first I found this absence of blackness exciting. This is Japan, after all; I wanted to speak Japanese, with Japanese people, and talk about Japanese things, like where to get the best haibooru in town, or how to find clothes that fit.
Between my mediocre command of the language and my boyfriend’s extensive traveling experience, we managed to have a pretty good time in between getting lost on various metros. We had beers with salarymen in Osaka, hung out with wild deer in Nara, and had the BEST RAMEN EVER in Kyoto. (My favorite part was when some high school girls riffed on my hair in Japanese, then looked embarrassed when I called them rude…in Japanese.)
But when I saw the first black person outside of Tokyo, I was stunned. A rush of elation washed over me. I managed to contain a scream usually reserved for Welsh Corgi sightings. Black people! In Japan!
We did the Nod, of course.
(For all the white people joining us today: when a black person nods at any other black person, the other one almost always nods back, whether they’re acquainted with each other or not. It’s like saying, “Hello. I see that you are black. I, too, happen to be black. Your unexpected blackness in this location is like a refreshing breeze on a summer’s day. Rock on.”)
Over three weeks, we visited Nara, Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Sapporo, and counted 38 black people, 12 of them women. Then we returned to San Francisco.
At first I thought I was continuing to count black people out of nostalgia for Japan. I was wrong.
I saw more black people 3,000 miles away in Japan than I do on an average workday here in Startupland.
Seriously. At least Nara, Japan is something of a tourist trap, so I knew where to find them. Here, I’m digging. Actively searching for black people. I leave my house in the morning and I count dozens of non-techies — housemates, neighbors, that guy who hangs out at the corner store…
In SoMa, San Francisco’s startup district, the count slows to a standstill. Today, I counted two black people over the course of nine hours. Four hours in Otaru, Hokkaido yielded far more blackness than this.
Just so we’re clear, Otaru looked like this in January:
I met one black couple, a mom, and two kids in Otaru, on their way from the Hokkaido Snow Festival. My people aren’t known for loving cold weather, and Japan isn’t actively incentivizing tourism for black people, yet there we were.
San Francisco and its neighbor, Silicon Valley, claim to have a deep, vested interest in hiring and retaining a diverse staff. Yet here we aren’t.
I hope your startup is different, but I’ve been visiting an average of five startups a week for work, and during these visits in offices of 50–100 people, I count one, maybe two black dudes.
Here we aren’t.
You know where we are, though? We’re at mixers, and networking events, and conferences. We’re interning for the third year in a row while searching for mentors and jobs. We’re contracting part-time for less than we’re worth, despite shipping exemplary work on the daily. And we’re definitely in recruiters’ inboxes.
Sure. Maybe they’re just picking the “best person for the job.” And maybe, 9 times out of 10, the best person for the job is a 20-something white dude who buys $6 coffees and calls himself a “ninja” on his LinkedIn profile.
Just putting it out there, guys: black people like ninjas too.
Now Hiring: Diversities!
Some of you may be thinking, “Hey Aubrie, aren’t you reaching kinda hard here? Finding work is the exact opposite of taking a vacation!” I’d agree with that, if I wasn’t meeting engineers, software developers, writers, and researchers of color looking for work every day in the places I frequent. I meet black women in tech mixers and lobbies, but most often on trains and planes—two black women hitting it off while on their way to another job interview, another meeting, another marketing opportunity.
Some of us who get a great job, keep it! The rest end up quitting, or being “let go” for a host of preventable situations relating to company culture. Amélie Lamont’s “Not a Black Chair” springs to mind.
Without women of color chronicling our negative experiences on Medium, I’d probably write this off as an overreaction. But if I didn’t know better, I’d think that some hiring managers were going about this whole diversity thing the wrong way, perhaps by unconsciously switching gears from “Let’s find the best person for the job” to “Let’s find us some Diversities,” ticking a box when the deed is done, and moving on, thinking less and less of our professional development until the topic becomes unavoidable.
It’s almost as if our role in the average company culture is to be, I dunno, a token, instead of an autonomous, competent employee deserving of responsibilities and challenges!
I’m less likely to find black techies in one of America’s most multicultural locales than a Japanese tundra because there are significantly fewer barriers of entry into Japan. To survive Narita Airport, you need money, a passport, and to not have marijuana on you.
What do WOC need to find a tech job?
Money, of course.
You can easily spend at least a vacation’s worth of money during your first month of job hunting. The average one-bedroom in San Francisco costs upwards of $2,500. If you can’t afford the rent (yet), you could wrangle up five or six roommates, rent across the bridge in Oakland, or you can live somewhere else entirely and fly in to interviews until you find a job, which is going to cost you lots and lots of—wait for it—money! And don’t forget that larger companies these days can take anywhere from one to four months to make a hiring decision.
Be a wizard, ninja, or guru.
Even if you don’t code, any member of the tech industry must profess to have achieved some mythical level of awesomeness. Are you a Drupal ninja yet? Do your eat shards for breakfast? Do your blog posts “CRUSH IT?” Good. You’ll fit in nicely here.
You also need to be a good “culture fit.”
The average brogrammer is a 20-something cis white dude, steeped in pop culture and always looking out for the next B2B on-demand organic free-range food delivery service app. You should probably also like drinking, and be willing to surrender your work-life balance for the good of the ship.
If you meet most “culture fit” prerequisites AND tick a Diversity Box, you’re in.
Employees get hired for being awesome, not for being black, female, or gay. That said, startups promoting themselves online with just photos of white dudes high-fiving in front of Macbooks will get noticed for all the wrong reasons. (Most) hiring managers are aware of this as they compare top candidates to their current staff.
(Pretending managers who “don’t see race” are invisible once a week is a part of my self-care practice, by the way.)
If your particular Diversity Box has been ticked recently, you’re probably out.
If, say, the average small company hires me, a black woman, and then interviews you, another black woman, the Black Woman role has already been filled, so you’re probably not going to make the cut. Gotta protect that “company culture,” you know.
And that is why suburban Japan, one of the most racially homogeneous countries in the entire world, is more diverse than San Francisco’s tech industry.
Some startups give the term “company culture” a bad rap.
If a startup or young business is having trouble retaining women or people of color, that’s a company culture issue. Exclusively pursuing employees who think and act like the CEO strengthens a culture that ostracizes uniqueness while glorifying similarity as the ideal. Even though what worked for you in high school rarely translates into real life.
An office full of white male extroverts from the same fraternity, for example, may not comprehend why the introverted black girl who worked retail through college never wants to stick around for movie night. The more alike the group is, the harder it is for anyone different to acclimate into your team, forcing “different” employees to perform fake personas just to fit in, rather than feel comfortable as they are. Or worse: good employees who value their dignity will quit while they’re ahead.
Feeling ostracized isn’t very fetch at all, is it?
It doesn’t have to be this way, bros.
Other young-ish companies are doing an excellent job of not making their employees feel like foreigners on the Tokyo Metro. Couldn’t you be more like your older brother, Slack? Women of color make up nine percent of their staff, and if multibillion-dollar valuations are how we measure success, they seem to be doing all right.
How about your cousin in L.A., Riot Games? Their workplace is 23% female, and no one even makes a big deal about it. They seem to be doing quite well, too. Or VMWare, which employs 47% people of color. They’re not losing any success over that decision.
Can you imagine walking through your job’s campus without feeling culturally disconnected from 98% of your peers? Feeling professionally challenged each day, instead of personally confronted? Looking forward to what lies ahead in your day, your career, and your life?
Rethinking what “culture fit” means to a company would give current and future employees what we all deserve: the opportunity to love what we do. For diversity and success, imagine factoring merit and potential over friendability, striving for transparency in hiring practices, and giving new recruits the opportunity to bring their best selves to the table.
I can imagine the outcome, and frankly, I can’t wait to get started.