I was the only black person in most of the classes related to computer science. I grew up in Toronto, and if you know anything about this city you know that it is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. It is not unusual for someone from Toronto to have friends with backgrounds from at least 4 or 5 different countries. I went to college in this great city and I can’t remember seeing another black person in any of my computer programming classes. From college I decided to go to university. The one that I chose was 2 hours away from Toronto in the beautiful city of Peterborough. I can remember having one other black person in one or two of my classes. Why were there so few of us?
The Digital Divide
While in university I took an interesting course called Computer Ethics. My professor’s name was Dr. Byron Styoles and he lead a discussion about the digital divide that has stuck with me ever since. The lack of representation of people of colour in the industry was result of a lack of access to technology during childhood. This is due to socio-economic class and historic discrimination. Students with lower incomes have lesser access to technology. Now remember I did graduate from university a decade ago. It was before cell phones and tablets were prevalent. Tech, up to this time, was very expensive, and anyone that grew up with access to cell phones, computers, or the internet was very fortunate. The discussion also had associated readings and they showed that for someone to strive toward a goal they must know that the goal actually exists and is achievable. We need to see people like us in those fields to picture ourselves in them. This sentiment is also echoed in one of my favorite books called The Other Wes Moore. There were some trailblazers in the technology field that we are beginning to hear about now, like the women in Hidden Figures, but none of them had the celebrity of a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.
In 2016 Google conducted research among school aged children and their parents to get to the bottom of why Blacks, Hispanics, and women are so grossly under represented in Computer science. You can read about their findings here https://services.google.com/fh/files/misc/diversity-gaps-in-computer-science-report.pdf. I thought that the situation had to be getting better now that technology is integrated into society, but the researchers found that things are pretty much the same as they were when I took that class all those years ago. Something that stood out to me is that access to computers and to computer science education is still lacking in black communities.
“Black and Hispanic students are less likely than White students to use a computer at home every day, and Hispanic students are less likely than White students to say they use a computer at school every school day. More than six in 10 students know an adult who works with computers and technology, although fewer Hispanic students know such an adult. Home Computer Access Is Higher Among White Students, With Large Majorities of All Students Reporting Daily Cellphone Usage” Diversity Gaps in Computer Science: Exploring the Underrepresentation of Girls, Blacks and Hispanics p. 12
Due to the lack of black representation, while I was in school I found that my peers and professors treated me differently. I wasn’t abused or anything like that, but prejudice was real. I remember someone calling me “dawg”. I had to explain to him that I don’t refer to myself that way (or speak using black colloquial terms around non-black people). When I would do well on tests, quizzes, or assignments the looks that I would receive from my professors were telling… it was almost as if they were saying “huh, I didn’t think you had it in you”.
Prejudice is as normal as the most normal thing that you can think of. We all pre-judge. It becomes a serious problem when opportunities are taken away or granted due to that prejudice, that’s when it transforms into racism.
Is this field worth pursuing for Black people? Absolutely! Sometimes we have to put up with negativity in order to promote progress. Black developer and prospective developer, you are a trailblazer. There are still many firsts that we will eventually achieve. Which one of us will be the next Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs. Which one of us will be the next Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg. It could be you. You and I are the bridge to the Digital Divide, and with more representation in the industry, my hope is the prejudice will end. We are part of a close-knit family full of shared experiences. I implore you to write code without fear, knowing that you have a place in the development space.
Photo by NESA by Makers