My White Boss Talked About Race in America and This is What Happened
Mandela SH Dixon
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Mandela,

Thanks for the thought-provoking article. A friend of mine posted it to Facebook, and I had a strong negative reaction to it. I’ve been trying to examine why. Here’s what I came with…

I obviously don’t have any experience as a woman in tech, but I do have experience as a half-african-canadian man (can I just say brown)?. Before I continue, I should specify that my experience is as a programmer / engineer and product manager, mostly in games.

I can hardly say that I went into programming as a job. It was more of a calling, like sculpture, or painting, or piano, say. There are these systems and I can understand them, and I can bend them to my will. That is an incredibly powerful and empowering feeling. I am a wizard and I know the secret ways of the world. Mere mortals live in ignorance and degradation. Well that’s how my teenage self looked at things. I’ve moderated my views since, but not entirely.

I certainly prefer the order of systems to the insane chaos of people, but I’m not a social reject. I can read between the lines, I can lead people, and I have no problem with social cues or body language. In fact, I’m perhaps more of an artist and dreamer than an engineer. I understand that software is made by teams of people. I understand the concept of privilege.

Now my gut reaction to the article was “boo fucking hoo, get good! If you don’t like tech why are you in tech?”. Is that fair? Probably not.

But … I have never felt ostracized because I was the only PoC on a team (I hate that term — I’m old). I’ve received nothing but admiration for my technical and also social skills. Any criticisms have usually been well founded when they’re not just randoms from a difficult boss.

I have at times felt that other developers were tone-deaf on diversity issues, but I just don’t care as much as getting interesting work done. You think “fuck you, asshole” to yourself, grit your teeth, and move on.

When I go to work, I want to work — on something that interests me. I sure as hell don’t want to be reminded that the world is fucking insane. Here is an area that I can master. I can profit from that mastery, and people respect me for it. Injustice bothers me, but if I wanted to be a social worker, I would have, you know, studied social work. This isn’t to say I have zero interest in working on systems that benefit society.

So what I’m struggling with is this question … for programmers who identify with the author, how much do you actually like programming? Why isn’t that enough? Of course, I’m assuming you work at a place where people don’t leer at you, proposition you, or otherwise sexually harass you. I’m also assuming that you’re probably subject to microagressions.

Actually, I just remembered that I was sexually harassed on an internship. A female co-worker would make lewd remarks about me as her Jamaican lover. It started off funny, became unpleasant, and then ended when I went back to school. My takeaway was “this is a crazy person”, and luckily I didn’t have to work directly with her. So obviously, others’ experiences are potentially much much worse.

The closest analogy I can come up with is that I feel like special forces, or an elite athlete. If the mission isn’t important enough or reward enough to suck it up, then go home. I recognize that this kind of machismo is often used by companies to exploit workers, but there are actually some projects that are awesome enough to sacrifice my other desires. I’ve worked on a few, and they have been glorious.

The obvious flaw with this is that, hype aside, most tech jobs don’t require elite workers. Most workers in tech jobs are not elite.

But don’t you want to be elite? Where is the rage to master? Do you want to be the best female engineer? The best black-female engineer? Fuck that! Be the best, or die trying!

I want to be the best, which is why the author’s viewpoint doesn’t resonate with me.

I come from a privileged background … but I wonder whether this mindset couldn’t also be useful to people from less privileged backgrounds? Maybe it’s because I’m a man? Maybe it’s because, as a dear friend said, I’m the whitest black guy he knows? Perhaps tech is colour-blind but not culture or gender-blind. Actually, that seems pretty likely.