“At the same time as they hurt people in marginalized communities, they are whitewashing their reputations within the same companies,” said Ozoma.
Surviving in that kind of environment is tough, says Oscar Veneszee Jr., Navy veteran and Facebook recruiter. He says that, in his experience, people of color in tech companies feel pressured to endure their own mistreatment in the service of the company.
“When you talk about impostor syndrome, well yes. I am an impostor, ”he says. Because I show up everyday [as] someone else. And the better I can become someone else, the better I will thrive in this business. “
Last June, Veneszee and two other black employees filed a complaint with the EEOC, alleging that the social network is not giving black workers an equal opportunity to move forward. He says he has consistently won praise from managers, but has never been officially rated higher than “meets expectations” and has never been promoted.
“There may be Black Lives Matter posters on Facebook walls, but black workers don’t see this phrase reflecting the way they are treated in the Facebook workplace,” the complaint read. The case is pending.
“We are focused on creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace, promoting racial justice and accountability,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. Since last summer, the company has added diversity and inclusion goals to executive performance reviews and changed the way employees report discrimination, micro-attacks and policy violations, among other changes.
“I think American companies are afraid,” said Peter Romer-Friedman, Veneszee’s lawyer. “We really see black professionals who have done everything right to advance their careers and their studies, but they see that they are hitting a cinder block ceiling.”
Romer-Friedman said he was seeing more black workers, including tech professionals, taking legal action to challenge the discrimination. “They are tired of being second-class citizens in the workplace,” he says.
The momentum returned in December, when Timnit Gebru, a famous researcher in artificial intelligence, left Google; she says she was fired. Gebru has researched the ethical consequences of AI and has also contributed to diversity efforts at Google. Shortly before leaving the company, she wrote an open letter to an internal mailing list for women on Google’s AI team, expressing her frustrations and echoing the concerns of Banks, Ozoma and Veneszee.
“Your life gets worse when you advocate for the under-represented,” the letter read.
A feeling of emptiness
The theater of diversity creates a feeling of dissonance: workers must represent the company publicly while feeling victimized by it in private; they have to identify the shortcomings but are punished for acting on them. Gebru’s letter circulated a number of private reviews. Since his departure, calls for Google have multiplied for structural changes and a push for a new approach to diversity and inclusion that is worker-led and more sustainable.
Raksha Muthukumar worked at Google as a software engineer for two years. She quickly joined the queer pride ERG and mentored high school students on the Google campus. But she says the experience left her “feeling a little empty.”
Many people of color in tech want to do progressive work around marginalized groups. But companies decide what are the acceptable and unacceptable ways to do it. For Muthukumar, Gebru’s letter reflected his own frustration “of trying to do good but being trapped by corporate boundaries.”
In the aftermath of the Floyd protests, Muthukumar says, Google executives encouraged workers to share their experiences and resources on ways to help. But when Muthukumar released GoFundMe links, she was berated by HR. One of the GoFundMe links included derogatory messages about the police, and a coworker complained. The incident troubled her: How can anyone engage with the realities of racism and Floyd’s murder without ignoring social frustration with law enforcement?
Muthukumar says she felt there was an invisible line between acceptable and unacceptable means of pairing her work with activist efforts, and the company decided when it had been crossed. She then joined hundreds of other Googlers to create the Alphabet Workers Union.