Navigating the Nuances of Being a Black IT Professional

Don Tennant

To the extent that it's presumptuous for a middle-aged white guy to write a blog post about what it's like to be an African American working in the IT profession, let me begin with a disclaimer that I don't pretend to know. But I have befriended and been acquainted with enough black IT pros to have gained some insights that are worth sharing.


I've learned a lot over the past few years from a lot of people, notably my son-in-law who is black, and Earl Pace, the co-founder of Black Data Processing Associates. That organization is now more commonly known just by the acronym BDPA, because its mission is to promote opportunities in IT for all minorities, not just blacks. One of the most important things I've learned is that ignoring race-taking the "I don't care what color you are" position-is in no one's best interest because it sweeps a problem that really exists -- whether we're willing to accept that or not -- under the rug.


Yesterday on a BDPA message board, Wayne Hicks, executive director of the BDPA Education and Technology Foundation, introduced a group called Blacks in Technology (BIT) and encouraged BDPA members to check out a new BIT newsletter. I was struck by a particular comment that was posted in response:

I joined [BIT] today because I believe strongly in their mission. I have seen far too many times where I go to a company and there are a couple of Blacks there and they are afraid to talk to you for some reason. You would think since there are so few of us in technology that we would have a strong bond, but that is not the case. Every Black in IT that I have come across I have discussed BDPA to them and I get the same lame response: "I will think about joining."

True Story: I was hired at my current employer with an Asian man. Within a month of being there he could tell you the name of every Asian person in IT. Also I noticed that within that month, he joined an Asian community group. He had the application on his desk filled out. Why can't Black folks do that?

Now, the gut reaction of a lot of white people is to condemn the racial exclusivity of that comment and to argue that we shouldn't be singling out people and bonding with them because of race; rather we should bond with everybody, regardless of race. What we have to recognize, however, is that the two aren't mutually exclusive.


I, too, strongly believe that people are people, and that our bonds should absolutely transcend race, religion, nationality and every other distinction. But we can't allow that conviction to blind us to the reality that black people still encounter racism, however subtle it might be.


I used to believe that the answer was to forget about making distinctions in terms of race-that addressing the distinctions only exacerbates and prolongs a problem that will naturally disappear if we just stop thinking in terms of our racial differences. What I've come to learn from the vast majority of my black friends and acquaintances is that that's not the solution. We need to be willing to openly, candidly address matters of race in order to have a shared understanding of the issues that exist and how they can be resolved.


As part of that process, black IT professionals need to overcome their apprehensions about putting themselves under a racial-identity spotlight that many are concerned will portray them in a self-defeating "angry black person" light. And IT professionals who aren't black need to recognize that we haven't yet arrived at the place we like to think we've arrived at in terms of racial equality.


There is a genuine, legitimate need for a mechanism that enables black people in any organization to be able to jointly navigate the nuances of being black in that organization. Rather than ignoring the issue, we should be lending our support to fulfilling that need.

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Apr 2, 2010 3:50 AM Elshifto Elshifto  says:

I am not a member of BDPA nor am I black so I don't have access to the full list of benefits of being a member or the life experiences of being black.

But perhaps the issue isn't that "black IT professionals need to overcome their apprehensions about putting themselves under a racial-identity spotlight that many are concerned will portray them in a self-defeating angry black person light" and is more that they don't see the benefit to joining this particular organization at $100 a year when they could join SAGE ($45/yr) or LOPSA for less with the same or better benefits and networking opportunities that aren't limited by race.

I know that my personal limit for joining professional organizations is $50 a year unless there is a significant additional value (technet) perhaps this organization isn't providing enough value for the price of membership. People who are members of the organization naturally feel the membership is worth it, after all they joined.

Apr 4, 2010 5:27 AM Joel Witherspoon Joel Witherspoon  says:


I read your article and had to leave for a few days to digest it before I replied. I, as a black male IT professional, have worked very hard to not bring race as a focus or even a line item in my chosen career. Needless to say, it has been difficult. During this time, I've minimized my race in an effort to fit in.

The main reason for doing this is due to the stigma that is attached to black men; especially intelligent black men. You witnessed it during the Presidential campaign. Obama was criticized as being "uppity", "timid", aloof, and dependent on affirmative action to get by.  For myself, every promotion I've received has been marred by talk that I received it based on 'affirmative action' and not merit or worth. 

This type of talk by professional peers tends to grind down the desire and need to embrace my race in a professional setting. The results are isolationism of my race and, instead, seek inclusion into the whole group of IT.

Lately, I've begun to pull back that veneer and work to become more inclusive of my racial brother's and sisters, but it has been a hard challenge to do so.

Apr 4, 2010 5:38 AM Don Tennant Don Tennant  says: in response to Joel Witherspoon

Thanks for the great input, Joel. Hopefully it will spark further discussion.

Apr 10, 2010 7:41 AM Monique Monique  says: in response to Don Tennant

Great article.  Your readers should be aware that our organization has members of every race, we do not discriminate. As a member of BDPA anyone regardless of race has an opportunity to advance their career through volunteerism. We provide opportunities to learn managment and leadership skills in a non threatening environment. Check out this article about a partnership between BDPA, Rutgers University & the Newark School District:

BDPA volunteer programs introduce K-12 students in underserved communities to the field of Information Technology through training, encourage them to seek higher levels of education by providing incentives through scholarships, and groom many of them to become our next generation of IT professionals.

BDPA exposes youth to Information Technology at a young age and give them the skills to compete and succeed in a college environment or technical workforce. In addition, we encourage them to pursue a college education and provide support for the endeavor. We also help them in the transition from college to the work force via our College Student/Young Professional programs.

The SITES initiative started over 20 years ago when BDPA encouraged students from two chapter cities to gather to demonstrate their skills and compete in a National High School Computer Competition (HSCC). This program has grown extensively over those years with a record number of twenty-six teams from as many cities across the United States competing each year. In 2009, the SITES initiative trained over 600 students in Web Application Development utilizing such advanced level technologies as ASP, .NET, PHP and Java.

The students learn basic computer concepts, development methodologies, HTML, and project management, in chapters across the United States as diverse as Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Los Angeles, New York, and Cleveland. Each chapter of volunteers trains an average of 25 students over the course of six months using computer text books as the basis for the introductory instruction and Web Application Development.

Apr 10, 2010 8:38 AM BDPAFoundation BDPAFoundation  says:

My observation is that the racism in our society and within the information technology industry isn't subtle.   Any nation that still celebrates Confederate History Month simply isn't a nation that has ultimate respect for its citizens of African descent.

I had breakfast meeting with the two young African American men that founded the Blacks in Technology website.  They were both driven to create the site based on the lack of diversity at recent statewide Linux conferences and lack of diversity within the IT departments where they worked.   They hope to use their 'social network' platform to bring Blacks in Technology together.

I hope that they do well in their endeavor.   I encouraged them to find a way to form a strategic alliance with an existing organization such as BDPA.

peace,  Wayne

Apr 12, 2010 12:19 PM Ron Ron  says: in response to BDPAFoundation

Don - your article has a lot of "meat" to it that cause people to reflect on many things. I am not black, but am part Irish - which brings me to why I'm responding to Wayne's post. He criticizes the fact there is a Confederate History Month, but fails to mention that ther is also a Black History Month. Without going into a history lesson, Wayne (and most Americans) has obiviously taken the stereo-typical view of the Confederate States of America and the war between the North and South. It ultimately was NOT about slavery Wayne - it was about States rights. But, I digress - my main point in responding is to ask thiese questions: Where is the Irish History Month? the American History Month? the Chinese History Month? All of these nationalities were suppressed, mistreated, pretty much enslaved to work the dirtiest, hardest jobs around for virtually no pay what-so-ever. Since this is a forum where it's supposed to be where people can freely express themselves - I feel very slighted that my Irish ancestors have been ignored. If there is a Black History Month, then I think there should also be a Irish History Month. The Irish played a huge part in the formation and expansion of this country. The American Inidans should be honored as well - and the Chinese, on the West coast were pretty much enslaved and forced to do the dirty work as well - like lay the rails for the railroads that were so critical to this nation's expansion and success.

So, Wayne, are you willing to ask your representatives to sponsor a bill for these great Americans to get their own "month of recognition"?

Racism is not always white against black - it can be any race that looks down on or treats in a different way any other race. When I was serving on active duty, I was forced to attend a "race relations" training session (as was everyone else in the Navy). During my session, one of the students - a black sailor - stated that every white person in America "owes me a living. They should just give me whatever I want." (yes that's a quote - I'll never forget what he said. I asked him if I owned a furniture store, does he think he should be allowed to come into my store and take whatever he wanted? His response was "Absolutely. All you rednect, honkey white people owe me for what you did." What did I do to him? Absolutely nothing - and yet his attitude and comments were racism directed at me.

So, how does all of this relate to Don's article? I'm a senior IT Manager (CIO and IT Director in my last 2 jobs) and have yet to witness the treatment, intentional or not, of any person in IT as being any different than anyone else in IT - whether it was race, nationality, or sex. At my last job, I had 4 females and 1 male working for me. The only one that had a problem was the one that had the attitude problem. I've been in IT for a long, long time (well over 25 years) and what I've see and experienced is that those that want to be a member of the team just need to work towards that goal. Joining exclusive organization and "touting" your differences only makes others not want to associate with you.

Another question to those of you that favor the BDPA - what would you say and how would you feel if I were to start a "White IT Professional Organization" that was designed to help white IT technicians become more successful?  Reply

Apr 12, 2010 12:19 PM Ron Ron  says: in response to BDPAFoundation
I believe I would hear a terrible uproar of racism - wouldn't I?

In summary - regardless of your ethnicity, nationality, or sex, it's been my experience that everyone can be successful in IT (and other skillsets as well) if you apply yourself and try to be a valuable member of the team - not someone that trys to set themselves apart from everyone else based on anything but their capabilities. The formula for success?Work hard - be respectful to those around you - work hard - be a team player - work hard - increase your skills and learn new things - and work hard.

My dime's worth (got more long winded that I intended),


Jan 5, 2012 12:10 PM Anthony Anthony  says: in response to Elshifto

Hello, just to give my perspective as a black IT professional. It has been rewarding becoming involved in this industry. I am a celebrater of the advancement of technology. I have been working in the education arena for 5 years as my 9-5.

I have also started my own business. I have seen a lot of apprehension and resistance from my white counterparts in terms of willingness to share info and network. This has been one of the things I noticed the fastest. Females either seem to respect the fact that you know what you know or they can't seem to believe that know what you know and want to continue to test you. This may be more a personality thing but regardless its annoying at times. I just think in this country with the way white americans have typically ammased their wealth, its like the history of working with a black counterpart is not part of the culture but is gaining acceptance.


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