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OPINION: Racism to Blame, Not Affinity Groups, for Lack of Minorities in Tech

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By: Kalimah Priforce

This month, I was a presenter at a college readiness conference for young Black males, convened at Berkeley City College in Berkeley, California.

During the program, I watched and observed, just like the young men in the audience, six Black male startup founders share their story of how they came into their fields of endeavor.

It reminded me of why I have a problem with a recent Business Insider story: "Self-Segregation is What's Keeping African-Americans Out of Silicon Valley. " When an article like this rears its head, it provides a superficial rationale for closet racists and "meritocracy" ideologues that love to point fingers at minorities and shout, "They are the problem! The status quo is completely fine!"

2012-03-23-brotherhood.jpg

Photo Credit: Tamara Orozco/Turnstyle News
Taken at a recent College Bound Brotherhood event

This notion is not borne out by my experiences. Let's return to that College Bound Brotherhood event. Where I'm from, to be in the company of several educated well-dressed Black men isn't uncommon.  However, for these same group of men to also be technology entrepreneurs is an anomaly anywhere.  I will even go as far as to say that it was unprecedented, not just because of our high risk career paths, but because we also happen to be buddies.  From the audiences' perspective, they heard laughter, witnessed camaraderie between "brothas," and as Kurt Collins, Founder of Enole, mentioned during his talk, "I know all these guys here, and we're all weird, and I wanted to be in something I can be weird and be myself."

The "weirdness" Kurt describes is sometimes depicted as Urkelization, after the 1990′s character Steve Urkel in popularly syndicated show, "Family Matters" who epitomized the black male nerd.  The men on stage, myself included, became hackers at a young age at the risk of becoming social pariahs.  The kids in the audience were spellbound by our inventions and our junior entrepreneurial activities in elementary school.  We gave "nerdy" its much due swag, and the effect was enormous based on the reactions from the young Black men in attendance.

It's one of the reasons why Blacks in tech would rather participate in a forum like the one gathered by the College Bound Brotherhood than pay attention to another article about why so very few of us exist in the land of innovation, Silicon Valley.  Here are five top reasons why I avoid "lack of minorities in tech" articles:

(1) they're mostly written by non-people of color who are focused on Silicon Valley but don't live and work in Silicon Valley*

(2) they are written by non-techies, non-builders of technology products and services

(3) they focus on what is wrong with Black people, as if the problem lies with our culture

(4) they typecast Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis as model minorities who don't have a problem with the status quo

(5) they lack investigative journalism, research, and actually interviewing those of us in the field

However, Giang's BI article struck a chord because it targeted affinity groups by suggesting that Blacks in tech self-selected segregation, based on Maya Beasley's Opting Out: Losing The Potential Of American's Young Black Elite.

Beasley interviews sixty Black and White students and uses her small sample findings to draw a conclusion.  It's a good thing she isn't in the startup world, because very few of us would get away with validating a business model based on sixty people, but apparently that's sufficient for a book.

Here's what Beasley's work is missing - stepping off the campus and interacting with actual black entrepreneurs in tech. If she did, she'd have learned that most of us didn't attend the University of California at Berkeley or Stanford.  So part of her research is based on assumptions that have no real basis in the industry.  She sticks to Cal and Stanford campuses, assuming that they would provide the primary pipeline for Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, and blames African-American students for not doing so.  In her words, "Black students need to learn to interact with white people and have some amount of comfort with them and I don't think that's asking a lot."

What I find most disturbing about her conclusions is that she singles out African-Americans when just about every ethnicity has their share of assimilation that is balanced with affinity grouping.  When the state of California eliminated affirmative action programs, the number of Black students attending Cal and Stanford dropped. So there aren't a lot of Black students to begin with.  That must be uncomfortable for the many Black students who are just discovering themselves outside the comfort of their homes and backgrounds.  There is a great amount of identity formation happening for minority students, but for the straight, privileged White guy, that process isn't as crucial.  He doesn't have to worry about the words "monkey" written on his dorm door, or date rape, or someone posting a video on YouTube ridiculing his accent when talking to his parents back home.

So Blacks learning from other Blacks, and socializing with other Blacks is important, and perhaps necessary for a healthy sense of self. But according to Beasley, this places Black students at a disadvantage for getting into tech. Has she questioned why the status quo dictates that the gatekeeper for successful entry into tech is how well minorities and women get along with white males?  For organizations like Women 2.0 and Girls in Tech, the approach is simple: women must support each other, and united, can shatter the glass ceiling in the tech world.  Beasley doesn't take this approach with Blacks, but rather, makes the claim that an assimilationist approach will create diversity in tech.

I'm from Brooklyn, New York. When I first moved to California, I immediately wanted to connect with other Black startup founders.  I did a great job connecting with startup founders from all different backgrounds, but I wanted to see someone who looked like me, who cared about the same issues I do, and if anything, would show me where I could get a haircut.  I wasn't "self-segregating" as Beasley describes it. When you're Black and highly under-represented in a field, whites recognize it and assume that you know every Black person that they mention, and if you don't, they will try and connect you with that person.  That is the experience of being a minority, and so I pro-actively sought to connect with those with similar backgrounds.

Vivek Wadhwa talks about how critical organizations like TiE were in empowering Indians in Silicon Valley to not only fill the role of engineering talent but as the founder of the startup.  Pakistanis have their own social cliques as well as Chinese.  Pi Alpha Phi, for example, founded in 1929 at the University of California, Berkeley is the oldest Asian-American interest fraternity and provides programs and opportunities that serve as a pipeline for members to gain entry into companies like Google and Facebook.  I started Building While Brown which has a 500+ member network that connects diverse members of the tech and innovation marketplace.  Information is gathered outside our network and disseminated within our networks.  Because of affinity groups like Building While Brown, Black Founders, Latino Startup Alliance, Startup Triad (Asian), Women 2.0, Girls in Tech, StartOut (LGBT), Silicon Valley is becoming more diverse than it has ever been.  With accelerators like NewME and Mexican.vc and pitching events like the Pitch Mixer Entrepreneur Forum, minority-led startup founders no longer have to be the only brown face in the room.

Beasley wants to know why Blacks aren't playing the game.  Playing the game is not an option, it's a must, but we've decided to go above and beyond simply playing it.  We want to change the game by leveling the playing field.  If Beasley spent more time with us in startup land, she'd learn that we don't have to assimilate.  We can be ourselves, and still be weird.  Moreover, we can serve as role models for the next generation of innovators.  Those young men in the room at the Black & Proud to be College Bound 2.0 conference received a glimpse of what a future in tech could be like for them.

Beasley is wrong.  Affinity groups aren't the problem.  Indifference is the problem.  We fight indifference by coming together, helping one another and preparing each other for excellence.  Side by side, standing upon each other shoulders, as Lauryn Hill's chorus in a Nas song echoed, "we'll walk right up to the sun - hand in hand."

*Minor changes were made to this piece after publication at the request of the author.

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