BIPoCiT Space: What Happens When You Disrupt White Tech
If we hadn’t written this article, these events would have all been forgotten by now. The three of us, however, would have been (and will be) carrying this with us forever.
On May 31, 2019, the first-ever BIPoCiT Space was launched at CSSconf & JSConf EU. The BIPoCiT Space (pronounced “bee-pocket”) is a safer space for Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color in Tech (BIPoCiT). We — Lauren, Dera, and Vanessa — created the space in order to provide a place for BIPoC to retreat, connect, and exchange knowledge.
How It All Came Together
Lauren and Vanessa first got involved with CSSconf and JSConf by way of joining the Talk Selection committee. Dera later joined as a member of the CSSconf team. Soon after, we were all approached by the organizing team to see if we would be interested in helping further by creating the BIPoCiT Space alongside Thuy, who was leading the initiative.
We held our kick-off meeting at the beginning of the year at a café in Kreuzberg to discuss our intentions behind the space and what we wished for it to become.
This was the first time we all met. We exchanged ideas and discussed the possibilities of the space. A few weeks into organizing the space, Thuy split from the group to focus on her work with the Awareness Team and scholarship program. We came to an agreement that Thuy would support us with any questions and help guide the three of us as we settled into understanding the logistics around organizing such a space.
Organizing the Space
We were up for the challenge of creating the space ourselves, despite not having much experience with putting on events at this large of a scale.
We were responsible not only for creating a program and finding speakers and volunteers but also for designing the interior of the space. We had to think about every single detail, from cables and adapters for various computers, to the number of push pins needed for our community pinboard, to creating custom schedule views for Raspberry Pi’s to display on monitors at the venue.
Due to a lifetime of being conditioned to place white fragility above all else, at times we found ourselves second-guessing our actions. How would the tech scene perceive us? Would our “allies” be offended? How many white people would throw a fit at the event upon discovering they could not enter the space?
Early on into the planning, the organizers sat with us and shared that as people of color, we needed to know that there was a very real chance our lives would be endangered by creating the BIPoCiT Space. They said to us that if it helped, they would anonymize our identities throughout the entirety of the conference.
After some discussion, the three of us agreed: We are who we are, we stand firmly behind our views, and we will never hide. If people wanted to come after us, then it wouldn’t be anything new. So be it.
More importantly, our biggest priority was ensuring we could provide the safest possible environment for the participants of the BIPoCiT Space.
Days Leading up to the Conference
In the days leading up to the conference, we were all experiencing an array of emotions. Our brains were working overtime wondering how the space would turn out, if our intentions were clear, if we had missed any crucial details, etc.
On Wednesday, two days before CSSconf would start, we received a phone call from one of the organizers urging us to come to the venue to evaluate an error in the construction of the BIPoCiT Space. The initial entrance was tucked off in a back corner of the venue, near the restrooms. Hopefully, it goes without saying why that was a huge freaking problem. We were able to fix the error by instructing the construction team on where to build the new entrance.
Incidents in Person & Online
The BIPoCiT Space was an exclusive area for who people who identified as BIPoC. We made a conscious decision not to rely on appearance when determining who could enter the space. Instead, we asked people to reflect on whether or not they had the privilege to enter white-dominated spaces without feeling excluded, denied or ignored. If they didn’t self-identify as BIPoC, they could not enter the space. As expected, this resulted in many incidents.
A number of the conferences’ own sponsors violated the terms of the BIPoCiT Space and, by extension, the terms of the conferences. One of the sponsors’ employees walked right into the space without acknowledging us at all, sat down on the couch, and proceeded to take a phone call. Lauren approached the person and asked if he had registered for the space. He said no, sorry, and that he had no idea what the space was for. He left without acknowledging the impact of what he had just done. The fact that this sponsor booth was located almost directly across from the BIPoCiT Space only made the “apology” worse.
For several days, BIPoC lined up within view of this sponsor’s booth to register for and enter the space. The BIPoCiT Space was announced every morning on the main stage. There’s no reason not to have known about its purpose…but maybe he really didn’t know. Maybe all the BIPoC were invisible to him, as we are to many white people.
White people were vocal about their displeasure with the space — both on and offline. Most of the complaints we “received” were actually tweets that never directly engaged with us. It’s unsettling to think how many people in the tech community secretly disapprove of marginalized groups’ right to a safer space. You start to wonder — How many people think that a tech conference is not the place for you to claim space?
Unfortunately, the three of us weren’t the only ones directly affected by all of this. Both the BIPoCiT Space volunteers and the Awareness Team also dealt with lots of questions, anger, and microaggressions.
A white person approached one of our volunteers, asking: “I’m LGBTQ, what about us?” This person didn’t even consider the fact being LGBTQIA+ and BIPoC are not mutually exclusive. In fact, many of the BIPoCiT Space team members and participants identify as LGBTQIA+.
The commonality among these incidents was people who were not interested in understanding our space or the need for it. These people were forced to grapple with the fact that privilege was not enough to afford them access.
Defense from Fellow BIPoC & Allies
People took to Twitter and shared their outrage. We knew it was only a matter of time until our allies would back us up. So we waited. And waited. And waited.
It wasn’t until after our friend Kim Crayton took it upon herself to defend us and hold these ignorant people accountable that everyone else followed suit. For those of you who don’t know, that’s how this works. People of color— usually black women— carry the burden of speaking up when no one else will. In a world full of injustice, white folks have consistently shown that they would rather remain silent than experience discomfort.
It was disappointing yet unsurprising that many white people who call themselves “allies” said nothing. Don’t get us wrong, we were happy when allies decided to back us up… eventually. Just know that in a world where white supremacy continues to prevail, it is the responsibility of those directly benefiting from it to dismantle it.
The aforementioned events were just a tiny fraction of the difficulties we experienced. No need to continue dwelling there.
The positivity in the space was undeniable. People didn’t even have to say anything — we could see in their faces and behavior that they felt at home. Each time we heard a BIPoC refer to the BIPoCiT Space as “our space”, it was a pleasant reminder that our mission had been accomplished. We also received an outpour of love and support online. People were saying they hoped other conferences followed suit by providing a BIPoCiT Space. By this point, we were thinking the same thing. The BIPoCiT Space must go on. It started with CSSconf and JSConf EU, but it won’t end there.
Impact, Discoveries, and What’s Next
Over the course of three days, 125 people participated in the BIPoCiT Space.
The energy within that space was unlike any we’d ever felt before. For many of us, it was the first time in our careers that we felt seen, heard, and understood by everyone in the room. Our space was full of joy, trust, and compassion. The talks and stories that were shared impacted the lives of many.
We believe that it’s important for us to continue this work — to continue uplifting marginalized folks in an industry that has failed to do so.
We’re still tired. But we’re ready to do it all over again.
How You Can Support
The first BIPoCiT Space was created with the support of two very successful tech conferences in Europe. You have witnessed the need for this space. If you believe in our cause, please help us continue our work:
- Become a Patreon
- Buy us a Ko-Fi
- Contribute via PayPal
- Follow and share our work on Twitter, Instagram, and here on Medium.
Note: This is the first part in a series of articles following the initial launch of the BIPoCiT Space. Follow us on Medium for more in the coming weeks.