Few places show the lack of diversity in the design and tech industries like conferences. It’s not uncommon to be one of a handful of brown faces in a crowd of hundreds. Obviously it’s not hard to miss each other, but are we actually connecting? And if we’re not, what’s going on?
“‘Hi, we’re both black!’ is not a good ice-breaker,” UX designer Zalyia Grillet jokes. She has attended her share of conferences, and at the recent Layers conference in San Francisco, she recalls only meeting two of the five black women she saw there. It was nothing intentional on her part, and she has no reason to suspect anything intentional on theirs, but it is what happened.
“One of the things that makes me feel uncomfortable at tech conferences is that there’s not enough of us,” Grillet says, recognizing the contradiction. “I feel empowered when I know other black women in tech.”
There are any number of reasons why two people, black or otherwise, would not connect. Conferences in general are overwhelming. Networking can be intimidating. Some people are introverted. Some people only attend to hear a talk, meet their favorite speaker, and bounce. It is hard to deny though that careers are made and broken by relationships, so conference attendees are very possibly calculating the potential value of each conversation they have. And when so few decision makers in design and tech are black, one can see why some black professionals would choose to spend their time making what they perceive to be the most valuable connections.
“Anyone who attends conferences has an agenda for what they want out of that investment of time and money,” says Robert Sweeting, a digital content producer. “There are so few minorities in [the design and tech] space that unfortunately some get overlooked.”
There is also no doubt a self-policing of racial identity taking place in these majority white spaces. We sometimes downplay our blackness — whatever that looks like in its freest form — focusing on what will appeal to the widest audience and bring us closer to our goals. It’s code switching. And perhaps for some, disconnection from other black people happens as an unintended consequence of that.
“Any person that gets to certain positions wants to be validated by their role rather than their race since some of us feel like tokens already,” Sweeting adds.
Code switching is a response to what Dr. W.E.B. DuBois called double consciousness — the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” He was speaking about black people seeing ourselves through the prism of white supremacy. Our lives today are different from the time when he wrote those words, but the reverberations of the conditions that caused him to write them still persist.
Being black is only one part of the identities of the creative professionals making their mark in design and tech. But it’s a part that comes with a set of shared experiences few others can fully understand. This is why it is so important to connect, whether at conferences, in offices, over Slack, on Twitter, or wherever else. It’s the best remedy to the feelings of exclusion that can be so palpable in these industries.