July 18, 2013

Part of the Crowd

The Loop > Magazine > Issue 6

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By Patrick Rhone

It doesn’t even faze me anymore. After numerous tech conferences, staff meetings at the various software and hardware companies where I’ve worked over many years past, or at the occasional social gathering. I don’t even notice it now unless someone specifically points it out to me. That’s how blind I’ve become to the fact that I’m often the only black guy in the room. Not just that but, most often, the only person of color at all.

In my last job, there were two of us in my department. In the three previous to that, it was just me. In at least one of those cases, people thought, due to the lightness of my skin, that perhaps I was Lebanese. Maybe Latino. Never African-American. Never black. Even those incorrect guesses put me in the general “not one of us” box that I’m often subconsciously-or-not placed in the minds of some in my field. No matter how light my skin or proper my tongue, I still stick out like a dark spot on an otherwise clean floor.

I recently attended a popular event where I live. A friend, attending separately from me, was there with his wife. His wife had never met me before but wanted to have the opportunity. My friend told me she was eagerly scanning the crowd for me after the event was over. When he asked her how she planned to spot me, in a crowd of a couple of thousand people, despite not having any idea what I looked like, she responded, “Just look around, he’ll be the only black guy here.”

She was, of course, correct.

The thing is, that it does not bother me. I don’t think of myself as different, at least not actively so. I never feel different or out of place or unworthy or that I otherwise don’t belong. When I’m in that conference or around that meeting table or at that hipster event, I never feel conspicuous in any way. Because, inside, I know I deserve to be there as much as anyone else. I don’t think of myself as different. It rarely pops into my mind that, in a superficial but conspicuous way, I am.

Even in my role as a writer who writes a lot about a field where I’m certainly an outlier—technology—I never stop to think that, among my peers, I’m the only person of color. It is only when it is brought to the forefront, most of the time for unrelated reasons, that the thought even occurs to me. If I look around at the other tech sites, I don’t start ticking off all the white guys I see and think to myself that I’m not a part of that crowd. I see other writers. Some better than me, some worse, but race is not something that comes to mind.

That does not mean that, on closer reflection, I wish I were not so alone. If it is pointed out, that there isn’t an opportunity to do better there. I do wish there was a better representation of color and feel there is clearly a need for greater diversity in the world of technology. Especially technology writing. I think there are things unique to my background, experiences and cultural realities that lend a different voice and perspective to any issue.

For instance, the things such a voice could have lent in perspective to the days when Apple was a minority in the world of computing. When you would walk into a company with a Mac and be told, “Sorry, we don’t accept your kind of computer here.” Back in those days I felt I stuck out in geek gatherings more for the fact I had a Mac than the color of my skin. I felt just as marginalized for this reason too. I wonder if it is the same for Windows Phone users today? I feel like I should reach out to them, let them know it will get better, to keep their heads held high, even though there are no app developers for them. Let them know they are equal and that justice awaits them too… As you can see, such is the angle that a person of color might bring to these issues that otherwise may go unnoticed.

We can discuss the reasons why such disparities exist and try to come up with ways to fix it but I don’t think either of these will be easy or fast. That said, as a person of color I would love to someday not be so alone in that regard. I long to look around the room at any given technology gathering and have a sea of colors and genders and nationalities and orientations seem just as natural as that sea of white does to me now. The best way I know how to do that is to be in as many of these rooms as possible so there is, at least, one. Even if I’m the only one in the room, I can be the one that displays for all to see that, not only do we belong, but we are a voice and perspective that needs to be heard.