Last summer an(other) unarmed black man was killed by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The subsequent 8 minute and 46 second video clip swept across social media and raised widespread condemnation. Hours of discourse and weeks of protests followed. Every company and their grandma released performative statements of solidarity with the BLM protesters and reaffirmed their commitment to ‘diversity and inclusion’ (whatever that means) while condemning ‘all forms of racism’.
So, what was tech’s big song and dance? Let’s remove offensive terminology from our collective lexicon. There were several casualties, white/blacklist are examples of words deemed to be too offensive to use. The change that caused by far and away the most discussion however, was GitHub’s announcement that they were changing the *master branch to main. This change was (is) to happen at some undisclosed time in the future.
Now to be fair to the tech industry, there has been discussion around changing certain terminology for a while. Most notably the master/slave terminology i.e. when they are used together to describe a system such that one computer controls the actions and/or manages another set of computers.
The drama around the GitHub change was that git only uses the word master, not master and slave together. Many believe that the master branch should be understood akin to a master record rather than in the master/slave context.
So while the tech community was rushing around, trying to do their best impression of a black square post on Insta I remember thinking, “oh for fucks sake, they’ve completely missed the point”. Why? They forgot to talk to people who are actually members of the black community. The very people they are trying to not offend. If they had, they would have noticed the problem staring them square in the face: Where are all the black people?? There is no one here to even offend!!
Black representation in tech is truly abysmal. Take the company I work for as an example, there are about 7 black people in the whole company, a company of 250+ people. How many black software engineers I hear you ask? Three, three out of over 200 software engineers. Regardless, did anyone try to reach out to black software engineers or developers to find out how offensive we actually found the term or what would be the best approach to make black people feel more welcome in the industry? Fuck no, they already got the answers Sway, why talk to us?
Time and time again you hear tech companies talking about pipeline issues when faced with inclusivity questions (for any minority group). Yet at these same companies the majority of each grad scheme cohort tend to be from basically the same five colleges/universities. Are HBCUs one of these colleges??
“Meritocracy!”, I hear you cry. “They pick from the most talented students. The ones that worked the hardest to get into the most elite schools. The black students should have just worked harder”. I guess mummy and daddy paying $20 mil for a new library to get me a seat at an ‘elite’ school is still meritocracy eh?
I digress. So what would our tech bro saviors have found out if they had actually bothered to talk to anyone black? Well, at least this black person would have told them that calling the branch master is not offensive. Furthermore, black people as a collective are not triggered by words like master wherever they appear in the wild. Context people, context. Banning a word because you think it’s offensive is basically telling us what we should and should not be offended by. There are bigger problems around inclusivity that deserve our time, let us put this drive for change into those.
We’re going to change the branch name because it could be seen as offensive but we’re still going to sell police facial recognition software that is biased against black people and women. Facial recognition software that misidentifies black people as gorillas. Facial recognition software that was used to identify unmasked BLM protesters. We’re going to change the branch name to be more inclusive of minorities but we’re going to carry on selling software to ICE. Get the fuck outta here.
We really don’t need to arm police with any shitty, biased facial recognition software. Their eyes already do a perfectly good job of that. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor can both attest to that. I can attest to it.
Being a highly paid software engineer, like most of you reading this, did not stop a bully van flying up the curb I was walking on and 7 City of London police officers pinning me against a wall with guns in my face. They wouldn’t believe it was possible for someone like me to work in central London till one of them searched me and found my work ID. All this because I fit a description. What was this description? I don’t know, black male between 4’11 and 7’4 probably. What did I do after that? I carried on with the rest of my day like nothing had happened because I’ve fucking been there and done it all before. Out of curiosity I asked my manager, who is like 20 yrs older than me, if he had ever been stopped and searched, he said not once in his life.
So if this change did not really even attempt to involve the black developer community, hasn’t made tech companies reconsider the fuckry they are up to and isn’t a meaningful change whatsoever, what the fuck is the point of it? Well it’s for a bunch of (very) rich white boys to out posture each other and pat themselves on the back. It signals to other privileged white boys, “hey, come work for us, we pretend to care more than all our competitors xoxo”. This shit aint for us, it never was.
Personally, I have no attachment to any of these words. I just don’t appreciate the idea that we as software engineers can now sit back and believe we’ve made some kind of positive change, coz we haven’t. I’m not pissed off because I expected tech companies to do more, no, I didn’t expect them to do anything. I’m pissed off because they pretended to be doing good and wanted me to congratulate them for it.
Either do some real shit or stay silent. Stay the fuck out of our way and don’t pretend you care. Then we can all get on with our lives.
Inevitably there will be some of you in the audience asking, “Well what do you want them to do? They’re trying their hardest, help them with some solutions!!”.
I don’t want this post to be about The Solutions™ but here’s one for your noggin; there is this a significant intersection between career changers/developers coming from non traditional backgrounds (i.e. people with no CS degree) and minorities. Put your money where your fucking mouths are and hire these people. Every summer countless tech companies of all sizes run internship programs, would it be a stretch to run an apprenticeship program of the same length for non traditional applicants? As someone with a psychology background I can’t overstate what difference it makes to get a legit company to give you a chance, both in terms of your CV and your confidence.
Anyways at least one good thing as come from all this, I now know how to rename my master branch `fuck-github`.
* For the non technical among us, this is essentially a name change.