The Tech Privilege of Whiteness

Tech Media is just as white as the tech industry and I’m part of the problem

Let’s start with the obvious. As a white male, I started with an enormous advantage. I never worry about being randomly stopped and frisked on the street or being unfairly pulled over. I have been pulled over a few times and the police watch with at most bemusement as I stutter and fumble around in my glove compartment for my registration. I’ve never been afraid for my life when doing so, either.

People protesting
 Getty Images/ Elsie Dippenaar / EyeEm

In my professional life, I’ve been welcomed into offices, meeting rooms, conventions, television networks, exclusive conferences, and one-on-one interviews with tech leaders and celebrities with nothing but kindness, generosity, and acceptance. I’ve worked hard and have been told I have some skills. My career hasn’t been handed to me in any way, but I have no doubt my race made it easier.

The Color of Your Community

My early years were spent in the mixed neighborhoods of The Bronx and Queens. In grade school, roughly half of the students were Black. I entered school a little more than a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Even a few years later, news clippings of the tragedy were pinned to the wall of my third-grade classroom. Teachers openly talked about race and reminded us that we need to ignore the racial epithets we were still surely hearing and judge people by the content of their character. I heard similar guidance from my parents.

Moving from Queens to a suburb outside Denver, Colorado was a culture shock. There were virtually no African Americans in my grade school. By high school there were still just a handful of Black teens, but 35% of the student body was Hispanic. Outside the classroom, the racial divide was stark, with Hispanics on one side of the quad and white students on the other. Still, I remembered the lessons of my childhood.

When I returned to New York, we moved to Long Island, where the racial divisions were even more pronounced. There are white communities and black communities and they rarely mix.

A Harsh Lesson

My first job out of college was as a beat reporter at a hyperlocal weekly newspaper. I worked in Massapequa and Amityville on Long Island. We covered the sleepy school board meetings, the latest Easter Parade down Main Street, but also some violent crime.

After a Hispanic teen was murdered on a quiet suburban street, I remember going door-to-door asking if anyone had seen or heard anything. No one had, even though the young man died yards from a few small, well-manicured lawns.

Eventually I was promoted to Editor of Amityville’s weekly newspaper. Most people know Amityville for the “Amityville Horror House,” but the community is more notable for its racial divide. The color line is literally drawn along the railroad track which runs along the northern edge of the town center. Because of how district lines were drawn, financial support for the schools came from Amityville and adjoining East Massapequa. When I wrote an editorial in support of a bond issue to move students out of trailers and into new classrooms that would be built with the bond money, I received a handful of angry and distressing phone calls from East Massapequa residents who called me an “n-word lover.”

I tell you this not to paint myself as some sort of anti-racism crusader. Far from it. I believed in the bond issue because I’d visited the school and seen the appalling conditions. I naively assumed I was restating a popularly held opinion.

The bond issue eventually failed.

Whitewashed

It would be years before I would realize what a gift that job was and how it opened my eyes to racial divisions that, while less overt than those of the '60s, were just as deeply rooted.

Shifting from on-the-ground reporting to trade and industry publishing also recast my technicolor world. I worked at McGraw-Hill in the ‘80s and Ziff Davis in the ‘90s (and again in the 2000s). The staff of my first magazine was entirely white. The industry I covered, electrical wholesale equipment distribution, was run, primarily, by middle-aged white men.

When I entered the tech publishing space (PC Magazine in 1991), the staff was larger and somewhat more multicultural, but not significantly so. Most of the media executives were white and the tech industry was heavily white and male.

Over the course of a decade, I had hundreds of meetings with male tech company executives, the typically female PR people who supported them, and very few people of color.

The early heroes of the tech revolution are all white men:

  • Steve Jobs
  • Bill Gates
  • Philippe Kahan
  • David Packard
  • Bill Hewlett
  • Jim Clark
  • Andy Grove
  • Marc Andreesen
  • Louis V. Gerstner Jr.

Conferences, especially in the ‘90s, were seas of white faces. Women were breaking through, at least in editorial, but not so much on the tech leadership side. People of color, however, weren’t making much progress at all.

In the meantime, I was slowly working my way up the editorial ladder, a beneficiary of a system seemingly unaware that it was only reflecting the pond it stared into and not the wider world. For much of my career, I worked in mostly white newsrooms and with mostly white editorial and executive leadership.

The Risks of Doing Nothing

In my own hiring practices, I prided myself on never taking race into account. I looked at each resume and judged it purely on work experience and, if they were coming directly out of school, academic merit. If a Black job candidate arrived in my office, I gave them the exact same consideration as their white counterparts.

I did nothing significant to help change the complexion of the tech media workforce, however, which I now understand is just as corrosive as actively choosing white candidates over black ones.

I’m embarrassed to say that in more than 30 years in the tech media industry, it didn’t occur to me until the last third of my career (starting with Mashable) that diversity didn’t mean just accepting and hiring minority applicants, it meant actively recruiting them.

I wasn’t taught to hate, but I wasn’t taught to take a stand.

While it’s no defense, it is clear to me that the tech industry at large is struggling with a similar realization.

Late last year, Wired ran a report that looked at the five years after major tech companies adopted diversity initiatives and yearly diversity reports. The results are embarrassing. Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook are still predominantly white and Asian (women have made much more measurable progress).

I think tech companies are finally waking up to the fact that it’s not enough to ensure that your workforce is diverse, they need diverse leadership.

Facebook has been grappling publicly with how to balance its open world discussion format with the need for fair, safe, and diverse discourse. As CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his staff debated the need to reign in some egregious presidential posts, an unidentified Facebook employee asked Zuckerberg about the makeup of the committee evaluating the posts.

 “I don’t know. Correct me if I’m wrong. Besides Maxine (Maxine Williams, a black woman, is Facebook’s Global Chief Diversity Officer), everyone you’ve listed is white, correct?”

 “That’s correct,” answered Mark Zuckerberg.

Representation matters, especially at the top of these companies. One tech exec, Reddit Founder Alexis Ohanian, is taking this seriously, announcing last week that he’s stepping down from the board of Reddit to make room for a minority replacement.

The lesson is that our system of providing opportunity is not the same as building it and reaching into underserved communities to ensure that minorities have the tools and economic support to join the tech and tech media workforce.

I wasn’t taught to hate, but I wasn’t taught to take a stand. Passive support of racial diversity and empowerment is not the same as actively fighting for racial inclusion and justice.

Our New Job

Going forward, the job of white tech media leaders is to reach out to minority grade schools, high schools, and colleges, and to help them build paths to careers in technology or tech media.

It’s to highlight where minority tech leaders are competing and thriving and to cover tech products and services by people of color that are struggling to be seen and heard.

The world is not a level playing field. I’ve never stood on the same ground as a non-white person. I played a game where the rules were designed to support me and ignore or suppress those who don’t look like me.

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 and people cheered a “post-racial world,” I knew they were deluding themselves. Racism hasn’t been rooted out, even by that strong leader. It’s groundwork that, until now, I thought was best left to someone else. Now, I think the world understands that the only way to move beyond racial prejudice is to confront it and act.

I’m ready. Are you?