I once had a student in a digital arts class, a bright young woman of color, polite, attentive and seemingly diligent, who was turning in very bad projects. This was baffling because she didn’t seem like the type of student who would turn in such bad work. I normally get this type of work from students that only show up half the time, show up late when they do show up and slap their assignments together in 45 minutes (when they should have taken 10 hours).
I spoke with her in private one time to make sure everything was OK at home, and it was. I talked to her about the assignment, and she seemed to understand perfectly. Sadly, most of the semester passed by before I got the idea that revealed the problem.
While my students worked on their daily assignments, I discretely watched her work. I noticed that she gravitated to the same tools and used the same techniques again and again. So, I sat with her and asked her to perform a few tasks that we’d gone over in class, thinking, “She clearly didn’t understand a few of the lessons I’ve taught.” But the reality was actually worse.
As I asked her to minimize the current window, I watched as she slowly moved the mouse in arbitrary directions while watching my face out of the corner of her eye. I realized, she was playing hot-and-cold with my facial expressions. She didn’t know how to minimize a window.
This was my first semester as an adjunct professor of Digital Arts at Fullerton College, and though I grew up fairly close to the college, I wasn’t intimately acquainted with the socioeconomic demographics of our student body. Another professor filled me in: A lot of students grew up disadvantaged and didn’t have access to technology. A disproportionate number of these were students of color.
Like a lot of white kids who grew up middle class, I had a computer in my house growing up. I started programming in the BASIC programming language when I was only 12 years old. You needed to use the Command Line to start a program. (To this day, I still accidentally say things like, “Let’s boot up Photoshop.” I get a lot of blank stares.)
So by the time I went to college, using a computer was second nature. This is a huge advantage when you’re taking a digital arts class where you’re expected to already know what a “right mouse click” is, or what it means when I write on a white board “file > save as > pdf.”
That’s why, when technology companies started responding to the Black Lives Matter with pledges of support, I thought of this student. Does this wave of support mean they might find a way to make their technology more available to disadvantaged homes, which are disproportionately populated by people of color? Could that mean that, conversely, could the technology field, which is infamously heavy in white guys (like me) and Asian guys, start to resemble a more balanced representation of the U.S. population?
The answer is, I believe so. But there are some important improvements regarding racial equity in the field that will still need improvement, and I don’t believe the BLM movement will have any effect on those. Which brings me to the three things I believe the BLM movement will do for the tech field, and the three things that it probably won’t, but should.
Note: I wrote a version of this article for the Valley News, a regional newspaper covering parts of Riverside County, California.
The 3 things the BLM movement will change
#1 Increasing access to technology
Anybody can put a press release on a website saying they support equity, but some tech companies are investing money to prove it. Dozens of tech companies have donated or pledged to donate millions of dollars to charities that support Americans of color. And some of those charities, such as Black Girls Code, Thurgood Marshall College Fund and UNCF, will likely expand access to technology for Black students. And, in my view, expanded access to technology for people of color will likely translate into greater representation in the field.
#2 Increased regulation for social media platforms
Do you remember Myspace? Not many do. It once was the world’s most widely used social media platform, but today, it is a little-used site for bands to post their bios.
Myspace fell victim to its own users. The platform allowed them to customize their pages with HTML and CSS, flooding the site with garish, unreadable pages with black text on dark gray backgrounds with intrusive music set to autoplay. Male users were bothered daily with messages from scantily clad, ostensibly female users who all seemed to have a website with lots of private photos.
Myspace became a chaotic, unregulated free-for-all, the Kowloon Walled City of the internet. Users abandoned it for the safer, cleaner neighborhood of Facebook, where they could trust a page to not attack their senses. Where they could trust that if a user sends them a message to visit a site, it’ll be safe for work.
Myspace failed because it failed to regulate its users.
Other social media took a lesson, but they have long struggled to find a place to draw the line between giving their users freedom and regulating their content to ensure that other users can enjoy the platform. But since the BLM protests, some social media companies have taken steps toward choosing quality for the many over freedom for the few.
Around that same time, reddit CEO Steve Huffman made an announcement under the headline, “Black lives matter,” and was immediately flooded with criticism for his many years of tolerating hate speech on his platform—and in fact harboring some of the most virulently racist groups on the internet. Many groups on the platform changed to “private” to protest the platform’s long-standing tolerance for hate speech.
Facebook made a few big changes. First, they removed nearly 200 accounts connected to white supremacist groups that were trying to recruit members to arm themselves and attend BLM protests. Most of the pages were associated with two hate groups Facebook had already banned: The Proud Boys and the American Guard. Next, they announced that it would start labeling any media outlets—such as many Russian pages—that were under the control of their government. Then, Facebook did one better and blocked those pages entirely—though this was also in response to Russia’s meddling in the last U.S. election.
Facebook also released new guidelines on how to moderate conversations about race in their “groups.” These guidelines encouraged group moderators to educate themselves about the topic being discussed on the platform and to “make room on your admin and moderator teams for more diverse voices – post in your group and see which members are interested in joining the team.”
By more carefully regulating what users post, these social media companies will create a more welcoming space for everyone, white people and people of color alike. This has the added benefit of helping these companies avoid the same fate Myspace suffered.
#3 Amplifying Black voices
Some internet giants are using their muscle to amplify Black voices, bringing attention to content that is rarely in the spotlight.
Netflix created a collection of movies called “Black Lives Matter” and promoted it on their homepage for several days. The collection included films that deal directly with racism, such as Malcom X and LA92, and ones that tell the fictional stories of Black people, such as See You Yesterday and Luke Cage.
YouTube joined the protests by starting a $100 million fund for Black content creators. Susan Wojcicki, its chief executive, wrote in a blog post that “we believe Black lives matter and we all need to do more to dismantle systemic racism.”
Yelp released a new search tool that allows a business to identify itself as Black owned, and it allows users to search for businesses based on this criterion. During the protests, Yelp saw a huge jump in searches for Black-owned businesses across all industries, CEO Jeremy Stoppelman said in a blog post.
Steppelman also announced Yelp will also be donating $500,000 to the Equal Justice Initiative and to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and will match employee donations to a number of organizations that work for civil rights, such as Black Futures Lab and Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp through June.
Even a board member of reddit made a real move to include people of color in the top levels of the platform. He resigned from his position, and his parting wish was for the board to appoint a Black person to replace him. The CEO said he would honor that wish.
Things the BLM movement should change, but won’t
So we’ve seen some seeds for real change planted. But this brief flare up of protests is certainly not going to solve American all of society’s ills. A number of things that work against equity in the tech industry that are yet to be solved. Here are the top three that probably won’t change a bit after the protests stop.
#1 It won’t level the playing field
Jermaine Richards is a 47-year-old graphic designer, possibly best known locally for creating the official seal for the City of Eastvale, where he lives. He’s a Black business owner; He runs an independent graphic design, brand development, UX and web design service called DesignLingo.com.
Most of his clients are from out of the area, which he thinks is great because they judge him by the quality of his work, rather than inconsequential factors such as how he looks, who he knows or, worst-case scenario, his race.
Richards said the playing field is pretty even for him. His potential clients don’t know his race before they hire him since he works with them via email and phone calls. But this is not the case for everyone.
Black Lives Matter will not help take race out of the equation when companies are choosing an outside agency to contract with, but another big event might do just that: COVID-19.
Since the pandemic outbreak, everyone started working remotely. Many experts say this will shift the industry’s culture and make working from home much more acceptable. This means that people’s races are often not immediately apparent, Richards said.
“I want to see a level playing field. Let minority businesses prove their worth instead of the outside looking in at their skin color and making a decision based on that,” he said. “I don’t think this will go away for a long time to come.”
#2 It won’t normalize anti-racism
A flood of anti-racist messaging emerged in the public-facing side of the tech world during the protests. A prominent Black Lives Matter banner appeared at the top of Amazon’s homepage, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, posted a video vowing to donate money to social justice causes on his Twitter page and Infinity Ward, makers of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, added a splash screen to that game in support of Black Lives Matter.
The examples go on. But as of this publication, very little of it’s left. It seems we’re back to business as usual, in most ways.
#3 It won’t bring attention to inequity faced by other groups
Though the Black Lives Matter movement highlights the struggles of Black Americans, it does little for the inequities other groups face. For example, big tech companies that collect employee demographic data have reported only 6–7% of their workforce is Latino, while more than 18% of the U.S. population is Latino. This means Latinos are even more underrepresented than Black Americans, especially if you consider that most big tech companies are headquartered in California, where Latinos make up more than 39% of the population.
Also, though these protests were sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis who died while officers were pinning him to the ground, unarmed people of other races are killed in altercations with police with little if any public outrage.
In fact, one such instance occurred during the Black Lives Matter protests right here in Southwest Riverside County. Rico Robles, of Aguanga, was shot by deputies as he slowly backed up a vehicle towing an R.V., which had been reported stolen. Police officials said two deputies opened fire because they were afraid Robles was going to ram their patrol vehicle, though bodycam footage shows Robles backing toward the patrol car rather slowly, raising doubt about whether the officers were really in danger. After being shot, Robles, who was unarmed, jumped out of the vehicle and ran from the officers. His body was discovered in a nearby field two days later.
So, though Floyd’s death brought a lot of scrutiny to fatal incidents involving Black people – such as the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain – sparking strong reactions from the tech industry, similar incidents involving Latinos, whites or people of other groups continue to attract little attention from the public and no reaction from tech companies.
An endless river to be diligently navigated
So, in a way, the tech industry is a microcosm of the outside world – it is imperfect, and there’s a lot of work to be done. But if we’re lucky, this tumultuous period of time will bring some beneficial changes.
In my experience as an adjunct digital arts professor at Fullerton College and Outreach Director at WP Code Camp, the biggest obstacle to achieving equitable representation in the tech field is attracting students of color. I believe it is a viscous cycle: Black and Latino people are underrepresented in the field, so younger Black and Latino people don’t know any role models or mentors to encourage them to enter the field. Protests are not going to solve this problem. This is something that can take decades of marketing and recruitment to change.
But I’m hopeful. If we do get positive changes, it will unlikely be the end of the journey. As my latter three examples showed, if the protests affect lasting change, there will still be more work. Then, once we achieve the next goal, we will find more. Achieving the just and free society that our nation’s founders envisioned is not a mountain to be climbed, it’s an endless river to be diligently navigated.