What It’s Like to Be a Black Man in Tech

tech sales Feb 01, 2024

The disparity of Black representation in the tech industry has persisted since the 1970s, coinciding with the transformation of the Bay Area into Silicon Valley. Despite decades of criticism directed at the lack of diversity, little progress has been made.

Substantial efforts are required at the organizational and leadership levels to instigate meaningful change. However, waiting passively for these changes is not an option. Black individuals rightfully deserve the opportunity to occupy, advance, and flourish in the Big Tech landscape. Simultaneously, the ongoing battle for more diverse, equitable, and inclusive work environments must persist.

For Black individuals venturing into or currently navigating the tech industry, it's essential to acknowledge that the journey won't be without challenges. Despite the obstacles, finding solace and wisdom in the experiences of those who share similar backgrounds is crucial.

Drawing from his two-decade-long tech career, author LeRon L. Barton imparts three valuable pieces of advice in this article: Embrace authenticity, assert your voice, and recognize when to seek assistance. These insights have been instrumental in Barton's own journey, offering guidance on how to navigate and flourish in an industry that demands resilience and determination.

As an individual with over two decades of experience in the technology sector, my journey has been shaped by the lens of my experiences, particularly as someone of African American descent. In various workplaces throughout my career, I often found myself as the lone representative or one of the very few African Americans within my department.

When you're the solitary individual of your racial background in an office, it's impossible not to notice. A quick glance reveals that no one shares your appearance, communication style, or life narrative. While no one explicitly points out your uniqueness among a group of 40, the subtle awareness permeates the atmosphere.

The distinct looks you receive upon entering a room, the expressions of surprise when colleagues discover your competence, the isolation experienced when excluded from lunch invitations, and the discomfort in casual conversations all contribute to the mental resilience required. Being a Black professional in the tech industry mirrors the broader challenges faced by the Black community in America, demanding constant mental fortitude and the perpetual question, "How long can I endure this?"

The issue of underrepresentation of African Americans in the tech field traces back to the 1970s, coinciding with Silicon Valley's emergence. Despite decades of scrutiny, major companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter still grapple with significant diversity gaps. In 2018, only 1% of venture capital funds reached Black startup founders, highlighting a systemic problem that persists.

Over the years, I've connected with numerous Black professionals in tech, sharing stories that underscore the challenges we face—stories of questioned work badges, assumptions about our educational backgrounds, and the pervasive microaggressions that wear on our mental well-being.

Realizing significant change requires collective efforts at organizational and leadership levels, Black professionals cannot afford to passively wait for change. While advocating for more inclusive work environments, we must also navigate the industry and safeguard our mental health and career development. Drawing from my extensive experience, I offer three key lessons for fellow Black individuals entering the tech sector.

  1. Embrace Authenticity: The most empowering decision you can make is to be true to yourself. Rather than conforming to fit in, I've learned that downplaying my identity comes with consequences. For years, I tolerated racist jokes and comments because I feared exclusion. However, embracing my authentic self, even in a space that may feel threatened by it, became a transformative step toward personal growth.

  2. Speak Up Against Microaggressions: As the sole Black individual in a team, the burden of being the designated "Black expert" often arises. Address offensive comments or questions immediately, educating colleagues about the diversity within the Black community. Establishing the precedent that certain questions are unacceptable fosters a more inclusive environment.

  3. Seek Help and Escalate: Discrimination complaints deserve serious attention. If management fails to address concerns, don't hesitate to escalate the issue, documenting incidents with dates, times, and individuals involved. This collective approach, supported by allies, strengthens the case for a more inclusive workplace.

In a racially charged climate, where issues like the storming of Capitol Hill have heightened awareness, it's crucial for Black professionals in tech to share their truths. By speaking out about their experiences, they contribute to a broader dialogue and pave the way for a more equitable industry for future professionals. As Zora Neale Hurston aptly put it, "If you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it." So, speak your truth and be part of the collective journey toward a more inclusive tech landscape.

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