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Confronting Racism

In the wake of unrest in the United States and elsewhere following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, it is important for us to consider the impact of racism in every sector of our lives. This includes taking a long, hard look at race and racism in our community

In this blog post, I want to discuss the problem briefly and then begin to look at ways that individuals and organizations can learn about racism and to make changes to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The Problem

The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) produced a report showing some sobering statistics about the employment of African Americans in the technology sector. In the private industry overall, African Americans represented 14.4 percent of the workforce, but in the technology sector that number was just 7.4 percent. For comparison, according to recent census data, black or African Americans make up approximately 13.4 percent of the U.S. population. The problem becomes even worse at the executive level: African Americans fill between 2 and 5.3 percent of executive roles in technology firms.

A 2016 commissioned paper produced by the U.S. National Academies of Science found that African American and Hispanic people were not underrepresented in terms of computer science degrees (about 9.2%), but that they were underrepresented in the labor force (only 5.9%). That study did not address the cause of the disparity - we are left to speculate if they encountered bias in hiring and interviewing, hostile work environments, or something else.

Also in 2016, the Harvard Business Review reported on a study on bias in hiring. Their findings showed that when choosing between three candidates for a position, people tended to choose a black candidate only if the candidate pool had at least 2 black candidates. It is worth noting that the effect was the same for gender - a candidate pool of two men and one women virtually always resulted in committees recommending a man.

If we are honest with ourselves, these statistics, while sobering, should not really surprise us. Looking around at our fellow employees, open source collaborators, and conference attendees, we know that most are white men. With that, the question becomes, how do we begin to confront the racism that appears endemic in our industry?

What Can We Do?

Workplace culture

In May, 2020, the Harvard Business Review issued a report titled “What Works? Evidence-Based Ideas to Increase Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace”. One of the authors, David Pedulla, also contributed a summary which included five strategies for employers to help increase diversity. These recommendations can help companies attract, and retain diverse talent.

Codes of Conduct

Typelevel has a code of conduct that emphasizes the goal of making the community “friendly, safe and welcoming” for everyone. It prohibits harassment based on (among other things) race or ethnicity. If you are a member of an underrepresented minority and feel that anyone in the community is making you feel unwelcome, report it.

Familiarize yourself with the codes of conduct in whatever organizations, meetings, or events you participate in. Taking time to digest these in advance will help guide your behavior but also to recognize when others may be out of line, and help you understand what steps you can take. If your professional or avocational circles don’t have a code of conduct, you can begin discussions to find one that will suit the community.

Intervention

However, it must not fall to people of color to recognize and report harassment or unwelcome behavior. As members of a positive and welcoming community, we must not be passive bystanders. Learning to intervene constructively may take some practice.

Robin DiAngelo has a list of Silence Breakers for Whites in Cross-racial Discussions containing 18 different phrases you can use to intervene directly in an ongoing situation. These phrases can help diffuse a difficult situation calmly and allow people to save face and, ideally, replace a harmful discussion with a constructive one.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has also produced some useful suggestions for bystander intervention. Although their document was intended for use on college campuses, the suggestions may be more broadly applicable. For instance, the SPLC points out that even if you do not intervene in the moment, you can document harassing behavior and provide it to moderators or authorities. In addition, they suggest that you can provide support to victims even after harassment has taken place.

When you think about intervening, consider the feelings of the people you are hoping to protect. You may wish to discretely ask if they would like help in a situation, if there is time or a private channel available, especially if you intend to notify a moderator or supervisor.

Education

Those of us who are in the (white) majority owe it to ourselves to learn about race, racism, and the dark history behind them. We should also take time to reflect on our role in perpetuating racist power structures, and how we benefit from the repression of others. Today there is no shortage of books and resources to help us. Here are a few commonly-cited resources:

In addition, we need to look around our own communities for opportunities to volunteer or contribute. If you cannot march, consider donating to organizations supporting the Black Lives Matter movement or to bail funds.

Black Lives Matter.

Acknowledgments

This blog post incorporates suggestions and resources provided by Lina Dahlberg and Maria Dahlberg.

Licensing

Unless otherwise noted, all content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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