My grandmother had a saying for when I used to complain about something–“Well, black folks, especially black women, are the mules of the world. We work full-time jobs, are full-time mothers, and are full-time caretakers of the community. We are the original beasts of burden.”
I don’t think I fully understood what those words meant until I took stock of my place in the tech world and watched the recent House Judiciary hearing on hate crimes and the spread of white identity ideology. When I juxtaposed my experience in tech as an attorney and advocate with that of the cavalcade of black folks sent to testify in U.S. Congress on the state of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and censorship on social media platforms–and realized it was also that time of year when companies release their annual reports on the diversity of their workforces–my grandmother’s words echoed in my ear.
It’s always interesting to see who each organization and company sends to these hearings to articulate its efforts and intentions. I noticed that Facebook and Google sent mid-level black attorneys to address their efforts to limit toxic content on their platforms instead of a VP or C-suite-level executive. And one curious inclusion was Candace Owens, a Republican activist who has turned into a media darling for being . . . a black woman who uses social media to espouse the far-right gospel and who briefly converted Kanye West to her version of “free thinking” (before he reverted back).
At the hearing, a pattern emerged. Owens was invited to testify by Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX). He began his introductory remarks at a session intended to discuss the prevalence of white supremacy on platforms by quoting a portion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s often-cited, out-of-context, “I Have A Dream” speech. And then Gohmert claimed that his “good friends,” Fox News favorites Diamond and Silk, were being censored on Facebook, as he pivoted to decry the perceived conservative bias on the platforms.
The episode echoed a moment in February, during a House Oversight Committee hearing featuring testimony by Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen regarding a panoply of the president’s alleged indiscretions, when Lynne Patton–a Housing and Urban Development appointee who previously served as a wedding planner for the Trump children–was presented by Representative Mark Meadows (R-NC) as a living, breathing rebuttal of Cohen’s claim that Trump is “racist.” However, during the exchange, Patton stood there, quiet and expressionless, simply symbolic, and was deemed a “prop” by a freshman representative from Detroit, Rashida Tlaib (D-MI).
The analogy to the tech sector is clear. In politics, the presence of black women, vocal and silent, is used to refute the image of the GOP as inhospitable to black Americans (despite their anemic support from that demographic at the polls). And in Silicon Valley every spring, a small group of employees from diverse backgrounds is trotted out to defend the low percentage of black people working at tech companies. This was seen again last week when Facebook appointed a young black woman, Peggy Alford, to its board of directors. While incredibly inspirational, as long as founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg controls the majority of shares at the company, anyone he appoints to the Facebook board is symbolic, since he makes the final decisions. It was also a matter of timing, considering that California now requires publicly traded companies to have a minimum of one woman on their boards of directors by the end of 2019–and it’s a plus to have a woman of color, especially in tech.
Statistically, no singular group seemingly despises the GOP and its policies–from gutting the social safety net, the regulation of reproduction, and the war on drugs to the decimation of families through mass incarceration and weakened civil rights and voting enforcement–more than black women. No one votes against the GOP more than black women, to the tune of 90%-91% voting for Democrats, yet we have become convenient symbols of the oppressors’ benevolence and generosity, when made pliable, even though the current crop of Republicans destroyed the “party of Lincoln.”
Yet the GOP is relying on black women to cover its racism, just as they used a woman as cover to interrogate Christine Blasey Ford during the Kavanaugh hearings. And just as during “diversity report season,” tech companies trot out black women and men, like me, and their diversity staff to support the status quo in tech and provide cover to an agenda that harms people like us.
In an industry still woefully lacking in diversity (only 3% of the Silicon Valley workforce is black, and that spans the diaspora from the Caribbean to American descendants of slaves to Nigerians and all points in between), there is no clear way to be “black in tech.” But there are ways to advocate for greater representation, decision making, and influence in the products that are made, and the quality of those products that are shipped.
What’s stunning is the sheer number of tech transgressions we’ve seen in the last year–misuse of private user data, subversion of democracy via voter suppression, the spread of disinformation, taking investments backed by Saudi funds, and the continued reluctance to amplify the voices of diverse influencers to address these blind spots. The problem, as always, is having a homogenous group of people in the room making decisions that affect the lives of heterogeneous populations around the globe. One size does not fit all, and those congressional hearings demonstrated it.
Being an outspoken black woman standing up for equity and parity has its perils. Some 80% of black women in corporate America long to be promoted and put in leadership positions, but they lack internal sponsorship and advocacy, according to the Harvard Business Review. The desire and the ambition are there, but the visibility, the project challenges, and the access to senior leadership to demonstrate their skills aren’t there yet.
Looking at all of this in the aggregate makes me think of another of my grandmother’s sayings–“It’s okay to be the first, but make sure you’re not the last.” In tech, how does that look in terms of pushing back, being outspoken, fighting for the marginalized communities, and making people uncomfortable? Powerful white tech executives are not the same as Trump administration officials and their Republican allies in Congress, but there are parallels when it comes to their willingness to use black women to protect themselves. And I wasn’t raised to be a token. I want others to learn the same–know the power of your discretion and your agency. There is power in your voice and there is strength in numbers. I’m always happy to be your No. 1 ally.
Bärí A. Williams is vice president of legal, policy, and business affairs at All Turtles. She previously served as head of business operations, North America for StubHub, and lead counsel for Facebook, and created its Supplier Diversity program. Follow her on Twitter at @BariAWilliams.