Thursday, November 6, 2014

Another Side of Diversity

I'm on Hacker News a good deal and yesterday I came across this article, The Other Side of Diversity, by a black female software engineer. I don't usually read these sorts of pieces but I figured I'd give it a shot to see if there might be some shared experience or understanding I could glean considering that I am also a black software engineer.

Turns out there really isn't any.

She writes about how out of place she felt in majority white and majority male environments. When she found herself in environments where there were more blacks and more women, she was more comfortable. I suppose this is a common experience. It's just one I cannot relate to at all.

I have never had a need to be around people with the same skin color or genitalia. In fact it has frequently been the opposite. Growing up on Long Island, most of my friends as a kid were Caucasian girls. I played clarinet in the school orchestra and did a numerous extra-curricular activities. I was surrounded by white girls, and they became my friends. I never really felt out of place. When I moved to Manhattan to attend NYU, I found I had little in common with "black America," and even less with stereotypical inner city urban culture.

The places where I have felt the most ostracized have been majority black environments. When I lived in Jersey City, I was taunted by other black people for the way I spoke. When I taught at a charter school in Harlem I was called an "Oreo." The staff at that particular school was predominantly black and Hispanic, and I recall the white teachers struggling to discipline students and work with the administration. There was a strong racial divide among students and staff, and it was the whites that were at the bottom of the food chain. I got fired from that job because I disagreed with the school's pedagogical philosophy. A minority woman gave me the first and only pink slip of my life.

The two places I have felt the most at home in my adult life have been environments where there were almost zero black people

I lived in Japan for three years and felt more at home there than I ever did living in New York City among my "brethren." I learned the language quickly and made a lot of friends. I didn't mind wearing a suit to work every day, taking my shoes off at entrances, and bowing when handing out business cards. I loved the food, the wacky TV shows, Akihabara, the fact that adults aren't seen as weird for loving videogames and anime - all of it. The people were awesome too. Once they saw that I spoke the language (or at least tried) they were great.

To be sure, that is not to imply that Japanese people are never racist. Quite the contrary, they are very openly racist in many situations. When I tried to rent an apartment in Tokyo, I was casually told about a set of landlords who do not rent to foreigners or blacks. Housing discrimination is apparently legal and openly practiced. It didn't really bother me; I prefer my racism open and honest.

The other place where I felt really at home was working at a majority white male startup in NYC for four years. I watched the company grow from 30 to two hundred people, and most of that time I was the only black guy there. Yet it was the best professional environment of my life.

I never felt like a token. From day one I was just part of the team. When people made salty jokes I didn't pretend to laugh to fit in; I laughed because they were funny. If anything I was the worst when it came to off-color / politically incorrect humor. As the company brought in more minorities and women, I got in trouble with HR more than a few times.

I remember the coworkers who stayed late and played video games with me in the lounge of our old office. I remember the guys who committed to a several months long D&D campaign every Wednesday night and battled monsters with me late into the evening. I remember all of the mentoring I received - the dozens of times a developer sat with me and patiently explained how some piece of code worked. Almost every one of these people were white men.

The irony is that I felt most excluded at that office whenever people went out of their way to "be inclusive." As a non-drinker, I was on the outside of the culture of bar-hopping and late nights spent getting hammered at Karaoke bars. When we had diversity training seminars or people passed around articles about the benefits of multiculturalism, I had to bite my tongue. I remember all the knowing smiles and comments I got when Obama won re-election and I would tell people that I didn't vote for him and quickly change the subject.

As in my last post I recall Graham's What You Can't Say. I wouldn't have lasted a week at that job if I had been forthright about my opinions. Playing along with the accepted progressive orthodoxy of today's tech scene is a small price to pay for all I learned while there. I never felt stressed or isolated. Three years in Japan had taught me how to turn on a work-focused frame of mind and not worry about office culture. As I alluded to in my post about being a gamer, I don't need people to agree with my political views in order to be friends with them. What's more I don't consider my or any of my coworkers social views relevant at work. My colleague could be a hardcore white supremacist and it wouldn't matter so long as he did his job and treated people fairly at work.

Discrimination is not inherently evil. We all discriminate in our daily lives. We all have the right to choose who we associate with and who we do not. I know the sort of people I like to hang around and what sort I prefer to avoid.

The issue is complicated in a work environment. Companies (especially startups) want work to feel like fun - like an extension of your social life. They want a fun office environment where people can joke around, shoot nerf guns, and don't mind staying (and working!) late because the people are so cool. The problem is that work environments must also be tolerant and professional - two things people generally don't want to have to be in their private social lives.

In my social life, I can choose not to be friends with women, or blacks, or gays, or hipsters, or trombone players - whoever. At work, I have to turn off whatever biases I might bring and be able to work with whoever the company has hired. For me personally, this has never been a problem. I've never experienced a work environment where any significant number of people have even remotely similar ideas about the world as me. Thus I've become very practiced at getting along with people of diverse backgrounds. This is clearly not so for everyone. Some people need to be around those who look and think like them in order to feel comfortable.

To that end, we should remember that ostracism is not always the fault of whites or men. Women and minorities can be just as discriminating when they are the majority. When I was at NYU as one of the few men in the majority female education department, I experienced some of the worst ostracism of my life. I figured it was my nerdy personality or lack of agreement with the hyper-feminist politics of the department that kept me out of the sisterhood. When I saw that other guys of varied racial and political persuasions were similarly excluded, I realized something else was at play.

It did not matter that most of the guys there agreed strongly with the left-of-center politics and social agenda of the faculty. There were a number of informal gatherings and social events to which none of the males were invited. There were also several explicitly 'women only' seminars and meetings in the name of "diversity." This shouldn't come as a surprise as public school teaching is a predominantly female field. Particularly at the primary school level, there are precious few men, yet we rarely criticize the culture for being 'sexist' or 'unwelcoming'.

I don't know what the solution to all of this stuff is nor do I have any easy answers. All I can say is that I am grateful to everyone who has exposed me to new ways of thinking about things.