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.