Not many of my colleagues look like me. In STEM careers, it’s been reported that only 9% of the workforce is made up of African American workers. It can be tough to not see more people who look like me and who are in similar roles as mine, but it doesn’t discourage me.
I wasn’t discouraged when during my first computer programmer interview, the interviewer told me that “my people” were not really cut out for R&D work in the computer science field. It fueled me to work harder and prove the people who doubted me wrong. Despite any skeptics I have faced, I’ve gone on to work on many innovative projects for different companies and even have one of my software patent applications supported by the Intel Corporation.
As I honor my ancestors, I reflect on the challenges Black people in the US and around the world face on a daily basis. Black History Month is a time to celebrate the accomplishments of my brothers and sisters, as well as the hardships they have faced. Looking back on times when I felt judged in the workplace, I hope that we can create a world where those situations are an anomaly and no longer considered a normal part of the black experience.
While working on a project for my previous company, I traveled to a university for a summit meeting. The event was for a US DOT sponsored consortium of automobile manufacturers (VII-C) working on a proof of concept project to test vehicle communications infrastructure. We were essentially testing a car’s ability to communicate with other cars and roadside networking equipment mounted on street posts.
My company was responsible for the base Linux OS running on the devices in the cars. It was my job to integrate device drivers and application packages into the base Linux operating system supporting a touch screen interface.
When I arrived at the university, I found the conference room where we were to be meeting. When I entered, some people assumed I was in the wrong room, so they redirected me to the security office – the only other place I had seen Black people in the building.
Having grown up in Canada, I don’t have a regional accent and I have an English man’s name, so it’s possible that some in the room were surprised to see that the person they had been sending their driver updates and packages to was me – the Black man they saw in front of them.
We had been meeting by conference call for many months before this face-to-face meeting. For me, it was an interesting exercise to match faces to the voices I had listened to for so long without meeting them in person or seeing them on a video call. It seems I made assumptions about them and they had made assumptions about me. There wasn’t any overtly hostile reaction, but just a clear assumption that someone with my face shouldn’t be doing what I was doing.
I don’t remember exactly how I felt at the time because it was so long ago, but the experience has stuck with me. When I face obstacles like that, it just makes me even more determined to get the job done at the time and I lick my wounds later.
What I Learned
What I’ve learned from this experience is to push past the initial resistance whether it’s a miscommunication, erroneous assumption, or outright prejudice and get on with the task at hand.
As a matter of fact, I didn’t really want to share this story with the world, but this experience has happened often enough in the past and the present that I felt the need to share an example of how awareness or perceptions can shape actions in a negative way.
I think it is really important for all of us to periodically review our perceptions or judgments and the actions we take as a result. They can affect each person differently and have long-term consequences personally and professionally. We all want a chance to live our best lives, so why not help remove the obstacles we might be placed in someone else’s way?
I’m honored to be apart of the diversity and inclusion discussions here at Extreme through my post on Black and African American employee resource group Black@Extreme (BEX). Our ERGs and employees are committed to listening to each other, encouraging one another to speak up, and fostering a more inclusive workplace. If you’re interested in joining Extreme Networks, I encourage you to visit our careers page and learn more about our diversity and inclusion initiatives at Extreme Networks.