Being Black in Silicon Valley — and Alaska, Atlanta, & NYC

Elizabeth Eckford, Little RockIf you’ve ever felt like an outsider in your workplace, you’ll relate to Erica Joy’s sobering look back on her career (so far) in tech, which has spanned several states and environments and contained both overt racism and more subtle trials that eroded her day by day.

On the team in New York, I was once again the only black woman. I did what I thought I had to do to survive in the environment. I once again donned the uniform to fit in. Jeans, “unisex” t-shirt, Timbuk2 messenger bag. I stayed late playing multiplayer Battlefield, I quickly learned a bunch of classic rock songs so I could play Rock Band and Guitar Hero with the team, I don’t like beer so I went out to beer taverns and drank water. I remember asking if we could do other outings that didn’t include beer and getting voted down. I continued to lose myself for the sake of being included amongst my coworkers. We worked a lot then, so my team became my social life and I never hung out with many others. When I left New York to move to Mountain View, I didn’t abandon my life in the way that I did when I left Atlanta. I just put down the life I’d picked up from others.

The piece works as a very clear explanation of her very specific experience; it also triggered, for me, various bitter — though, of course, not nearly as insidious — memories. Like my year of being a “girl,” fresh out of college, in a fast-paced, self-important talent agency where the vast majority of the people in power, including all of my bosses, were “men,” and men who liked to curse and scream and make sexist jokes, at that.

Mostly, though, it made my heart hurt, and in a world in which people are not generally empathetic across racial lines, that feels important. It reminded me of a conversation I once had with a dude, who told me he’d been the only black guy at his prep school. “Was that hard?” I asked him. He gave me a half-smile and said, “Only when things went missing.”

History lesson! Elizabeth Eckford, of the Little Rock Nine, went on to college and to work in a bank and still lives in Little Rock. 

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