Being Black in tech

Our colleagues talk about their experience, the bias and stereotypes in tech and how, as the world becomes ever more interconnected, diversity and inclusion are key to progress.


Written by Oludayo Fafiolu
19 October 2020

Have you ever walked into a meeting room, tech office or STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) university lecture hall, looked around and felt underrepresented? If you're a white male the answer is most likely to be 'No'. But for Black people and People of Colour (POC) the answer is most certainly 'Yes'. The sad reality of life in tech is that, from university onwards, most of us realized that, at some point in our career, we would sometimes be the only Black person in the room. For me, this became clear when I was one of fewer than 10 Black people out of more than 150 students in my Computer Science course.

Working here at Worldpay was my first role after university and, based in London, I have not felt adversely affected because of the color of my skin. However, talking to my fellow Black colleagues who have worked in tech and other industries for some time, it becomes clear that this hasn't always been the case. They were sometimes made to feel as if they didn't belong in places that they had worked hard to access. "You start off with the notion that everyone will treat you fairly and the color of your skin shouldn't matter," says Mary, a Quality Assurance Analyst. However, she continues: "In the very early days it did matter and experiences like that can knock your confidence and make you feel like you're not good enough, or that you have to work extra hard to be valued the same as your white counterparts." Put simply, we should not have to be excellent to be valued.

Black faces matter

Everyone uses technology and software, and yet it's often made by and tested only on the people who create it. Although computers themselves are inherently unbiased, somewhere along the way an element of bias becomes built-in, whether consciously or unconsciously. Facial recognition is one particularly important example. Currently, most facial recognition software offers up to 99% accuracy when identifying white faces, but errors increase by up to 35% when trying to recognize people with darker skin tones, Facial Recognition Is Accurate, if You're a White Guy. This simply should not happen, especially with technology that has such large repercussions on people and their way of life, not to mention the ripple effects of such mistakes on people and organizations using this technology.

Having a diverse group of people in the room helps to eliminate these problems because different opinions and experiences improve the technology and the product. Greater diversity helps to avoid perpetuating in-built prejudice in technology by ensuring that time is taken to consider how some technology could impact groups of people whose voices are not normally heard. As so often in tech, collaboration breeds innovation.

Mentors, not saviors

A good manager or mentor can make all the difference. But there is a difference between a mentor/manager who happens to be white and one who has 'white savior industrial complex'. In brief, this is the notion that a problem cannot be solved without the presence or benevolent actions of a white person, The White Savior Trope, Explained. It is very difficult to differentiate between wanting to help and appearing to be a 'white savior', but the key difference is empathy - having the ability to identify and acknowledge the issue and then working with others to fix it. Working together in this way leaves a positive impression on everybody involved.

Making quotas help

If companies have quotas for diversity in the workplace, they shouldn't simply fill that role with the first Black person or POC who applies for the job. Appointing somebody not qualified for the role can perpetuate or solidify stereotypes of that individual's race amongst those they work with. Special treatment makes a person stand out and reinforces the idea that they are different; this can then make those people not covered by quotas feel superior - even if only subconsciously - because they didn't require special treatment to reach the same position. As Nigel, another Quality Assurance Analyst, puts it: "You don't ever want to feel as though you only got your role to meet a quota." Inclusion shouldn't be a tick box exercise; we want to stand together, not stand out.

Rethinking stereotypes

We all know that stereotypes exist in our world. Even stereotypes widely viewed as positive help to create or reinforce preconceived ideas or expectations. All races are not monolithic; everyone is different - even people raised in the same household. Of course, before meeting someone it is natural to have expectations of what they are like and, naturally, you base these expectations on ideas you've heard, things you've seen or people you think might be similar.

As someone who has lived his whole life in London - one of the most multicultural cities in the world - I am not the first Black person that most people have seen or interacted with. However, this is not the case in all cities and with most people. For example, take Oladeji, a Cloud Engineering colleague working in our office in Cambridge, UK. Oladeji highlights an experience following a road traffic accident with an older white lady. The accident was not his fault and yet, on arriving at the scene, the first reaction of the police officer was to pile all the blame onto him - a situation reminiscent of so many others we have seen over the years except that, unlike those, Oladeji did not lose his life as a result.

Promoting open minds

Fear of the unknown means that it can be scary to approach any situation with an open mind, but if we can acknowledge that we would never paint one particular race with a single brush, then there's no reason why we cannot be equally considerate to other races as well. If you are unsure of something about a person or their race, it is okay to ask a question as long as it's from a place of trying to gain a better understanding. At the same time, however, please remember that it's not nice to have to always explain yourself.

As the world becomes ever more interconnected, it is important to avoid disdaining somebody just because of the color of their skin - it simply does not define a person. In situations where there are no Black faces or POC present, failing to challenge a prejudiced remark makes you just as bad as the person saying it. Prejudice, casual stereotyping and nasty comments are just as racist as its more obvious manifestations. To conclude, and to emphasize, racism doesn't have to be explicit - implicit racism is equally insidious.