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Appropriating LGBT Tactics to Advance Minorities in Tech

posted Jan 14, 2014, 4:16 PM by Anjuan Simmons
As prepared for delivery

For too long, African Americans have allowed the dominate culture to see us merely as entertainment. Or, worse, to see us as a well from which to draw waters of profit. We see this in the early history of America when Whites would appropriate Black culture by putting on blackface and buck dance in minstrel shows. We see this in the middle of the 1900s when White musicians like Elvis Presley took Black music and resold it as Rock ‘N Roll. We saw this a few weeks ago when Miley Cyrus twerked at the MTV Music Awards show surrounded by Black female dancers who served as mere props. I even saw this a couple of weeks ago in preparation for this conference. The other authors and speakers and I took part in a photoshoot for the cover of I10 Magazine. We posted some of the behind the scenes shots to our Facebook pages, and one of my friends left a comment on one of the pictures. It was a picture with me, Kai Dupe, Mateen Diop, and Andrew West. Now, I have to say, we were all suited and booted and looking sharp! This friend, a White person, left a comment that said, “I didn’t know Anjuan was in the Four Tops!”. I’m certain that my friend meant no harm by that comment, but he, probably unknowingly, was communicating that seeing four Black men in suits means they must be entertainers! I can’t speak for Kai, Andrew, and Mateen, but I personally can’t carry a note. However, I have over 20 years in the technology industry, and I know that they have a similar resume to mine. We need to change the view of so many in America that African Americans, even when dressed in professional attire, are merely entertainment for them! We need to change perceptions by presenting images of Black professionals and making them so common that the automatic response is, “Oh, that must be a business manager, Director, Vice President, CIO, or CEO.” Because THAT is who we are!

The tech world doesn't believe there's a problem diversity or discrimination problem in tech. Zuckerberg says he's too busy. Arrington says we don't exist. Calacanis says the tech world is a meritocracy. All of these men received loans and promotions and business opportunities from white people. And they probably have hired mostly white people. How can you claim that there is not a white supremacy problem in tech when you success has been through the Halls of Whiteness?

We saw the Supreme Court gut the VRA a few months ago. We saw affirmative action kicked back down to the state level. But, we also saw the Defense of Marriage Act struck down and same-sex marriage restored to California. Why were their two different outcomes? I believe that the difference is tactics. Some of you may wonder why we should look to the LGBT movement for help? I don't know about you, but, when I get beat, I'm going to examine what the people who won did to be successful.

We’ve forgotten our tactics. We’ve forgotten how to advance our interests. But, these tactics still work. We see it in the LGBT movement. Their case went to the Supreme Court at almost the exact same time that our case went up. Their interests were upheld. Our interests were struck down. We can learn a lot from the LGBT movement because, actually, they used the tactics we applied during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and 1960's. They can help us re-learn what we have forgotten. We need to: 1. Come Out, 2. Come Together, 3. Come up.

Come Out

The LGBT movement embraced the idea of "coming out". That was simply letting their family and friends know their truth. We need to do the same with our truth. The truth of racism and sexism. We should share our experiences being subjected to sexism or racism. Personal experiences. Keep an online list of incidents (like this list of sexism in geekdom). Call out racists and make them famous. Retweet their comments. I used to wonder why people like Baratunde would retweet negative comments. People don't know your struggle until you tell them. Be strategic. Avoid the Angry Black Person label, and, like my brother Kai Dupe just said, don't dwell on every injustice, but we need to kick the reality of discrimination out of the tech world's closet.

Come Together

LGBT people used the tatic of getting married even before it was legal in their state. They asserted their right to marry before it was legally given to them. We need to do the same. The tech industry refuses to recognize the funding and promotion problems in tech? We should assert that there is a diversity problem in tech and fund and promote each other anyway. If you know of a tech startup, fund it! Look on Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, andKiva and other crowd-funding sites and contriibute to people of color who are engaged in worthy projects.

Come Up

A key counterpart to the LGBT movement was, after coming out, was the development of gay and lesbian celebrities. Ellen DeGeneres, Cynthia Nixon (from Sex and the City), Elton John, Neil Patrick Harris, Perez Hilton, Jane Lynch. After a lesbian or gay celebrity came up, they came out of the closet! We need to position successful black technologists to where they have the platform to be tech celebrities. We need the black Zuckerberg. The black Bill Gates. The black Steve Jobs. The black Sheryl Sandberg. The black Marissa Mayer. We need black crowd funders. Black angel investors. Black founders. Black technicalogy experts. We need to position them so they can use their respect and influence to put a spotlight on the discrimination in technology.

Come Out. Come Together. Come Up. We need to follow these tactics because they work. They worked for the LGBT movement because they learned it from us. We need to reclaim and apply them to our own interests so that the next time they come up to the Supreme Court or the court of public opinon, they aren't struck down.