The Price of Whiteness in Tech: Introduction

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I wrote a post called A Rubric for Evaluating Team Members’ Contributions to an Inclusive CultureI expected the post to speak to the needs of a few thoughtful hiring managers that I knew personally. That was all.

I did not expect that post—a code-free post, of all things—to eclipse Test-Driven Android RecyclerViews as the most-viewed thing on my blog. Nor did I expect it to get quoted in books or used to design the professional advancement framework at Mozilla.

But it did, so apparently folks are hungry for a skills-based approach to shaping company culture. So let’s talk about tech culture and where it comes from—starting with its cultural defaults.

Two fish. One asks "what is water?"

Culture describes the way that we expect people to behave. Our culture comes from our heritage, our upbringing, our families and friends, our educations and experiences.

If we want to change a culture, it helps to understand where the current culture comes from. When we know where a culture comes from, we know which perspectives were missing in creating it. Those perspectives are the ones most likely to propose alternatives to the culture we have now.

So we’re going to spend a series talking about where tech culture (and more broadly, professional culture) comes from.

Strap in, because a lot of it comes from white supremacy culture, which is fundamentally broken and plays a prominent role in your frustration and sadness at, and about, work.

Chelsea, what does ‘white supremacy culture’ mean?

I’ll defer to Dismantling Racism’s introduction to the idea of white supremacy culture.

In addition, Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun have assembled a list of characteristics of white supremacy culture, including things like perfectionism, defensiveness, and paternalism.

For each characteristic, I’ll do one blog post. That blog post will:

  • Share the description from Jones and Okun’s work
  • Describe instances where I have seen this characteristic in the workplace
  • Talk about how this characteristic impacts the people at work
  • Interrogate how that impact is valuable, or detrimental, or both.

Then, I’ll talk about alternatives to the characteristic described and what skills we might need to build to make those alternatives work.

GIANT CAVEAT on this series: these are my notes. I am, as Nylah Burton clearly explains, functionally white. I am not an expert on race or racism. I have a responsibility, as a person with white privilege, to do my own homework. You’ll get to watch me investigate the role of white supremacy culture in the workplace as I have experienced it. I’ll probably get stuff wrong.

But here’s why I’m doing this series.

First, I wanted to demonstrate with examples exactly how white supremacy culture has cheated all of us—white people included—out of options in the workplace. I hope to convince you that, when one perspective reigns supreme to the exclusion of other perspectives, we all lose—not just the people whose perspectives were excluded.

Second, I wanted to create an artifact where you can see someone with privilege studying the role that privilege plays in their lives. I hope that this series can provide a useful, if imperfect, example, to help other folks with privilege (maybe even you) muster up the courage to try studying the role of privilege in your life.

Third, I hope to open up our imaginations to what workplace culture could be. We have a default professional culture that we regard as tantamount to a set of universal truths. What if, instead, we see them as products of a particular perspective dominating decision-making? That means that, if a different perspective did the decision-making, we might have different products. There are whole options out there for how a workplace might function that we may have never considered.

And I think that those options are worth considering.

You can proceed to the posts in this series right here!

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Leveling Up Skill #1: Setting Goals

Leading a Software Rewrite at your Company

Tech Leadership: Fault vs. Responsibility

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