A blueprint of our own: finding balance and mental health in the Black tech community
Feb 28, 2020
Most Black people are familiar with the idea that in order to succeed they have to be “twice as good” as White people in order to get just as far: twice as smart, twice as dependable, twice as talented. I was never told this explicitly growing up, but I was definitely groomed for “excellence” from a young age. Despite growing up on a Caribbean island without snow, after colleagues at my father’s (largely White) company introduced him to skiing, he put me on skis. My mother ferried me to after-school and weekend study programs, piano lessons, and language and dance classes that she never had access to as a child in the Philippines. College was always the end goal, with few schools being discussed that did not have “name recognition”. My father always reminded me that the name of the college I attended would be what differentiated my resume from the thousands that top employers received daily.
I do not think that my parents ever envisioned me going into tech, nor did I. The amazing job I thought was promised after going to a big-name school wasn’t waiting for me when I graduated. I had already had a few stress-related breakdowns in high school and college that required therapy and pharmaceutical intervention. By the time I arrived in the tech industry, I thought that a high-growth startup would be the Goldilocks of work environments: where sweatpants were acceptable, free snacks were aplenty, and the unconventional would be embraced. I imagined wheeling over to my neighbor’s desk in an open office floor plan to share a stroke of genius, wearing a company-branded hoodie.
Never did I guess that the startup tech industry would challenge my understanding of race and self. As I continued to adjust, I started to notice that most of the other people of color I was meeting had similar socioeconomic and educational backgrounds as me. I found that not everyone looked kindly at engaging in company extracurriculars when there was work to be done and competition to beat. Performance goals were at times unclear, but some personalities seemed to be succeeding while others weren’t. The open office began to feel like a fishbowl. To avoid scrutiny, I started working around the office’s many common areas, but then people began commenting on how much time I did or didn’t spend at my desk. Eventually, I resigned myself to sitting at my desk almost exclusively, with headphones on all day so that no one could doubt that I was busy — or talk to me — period. I found relating to my coworkers more taxing and confusing each day, and coped by isolating myself. I often went home and cried about how overworked and uninspired I felt.
A friend who also worked at a tech startup introduced me to the word “optics”, which I now see is embedded in tech culture: the “optics” of staying at work late even if you’ve finished your work because you are chasing a promotion, the “optics” sitting at your desk, the “optics” of a company’s commitment to diversity. With the understanding of this new term, I started questioning everything. Yes, I was smart and worked hard, but did I deserve to be here any more than a person of color who worked just as hard but attended a lesser-known school? How much of my success is attributable to the fact that the White people who are often the gatekeepers of certain opportunities found my gender, appearance, mannerisms, or background palatable or non-threatening? In what ways was I complicit in upholding the status quo?
For a while I continued on, keeping my distress to myself because I did not see others around me struggling with the same issues as my physical and emotional health declined. I thought I was experiencing a personal crisis that I needed to work out for myself, in the privacy of my own head. I had already had similar periods in high school and college where my anxieties about my worth and my future bubbled over, and I figured that this was just another one of those periods. I also saw my parents struggle at work in different ways and assumed that struggling was just part of the process; a rite of passage.
I was nearing the end of my rope when I had an opportunity to get involved in planning a Black History Month celebration with other Black colleagues. Suddenly, I had many other women and people of color corroborating my experiences. Together we laughed and commiserated, and I found joy in trying to share our culture and challenges with the larger community. Through these connections, I learned that I was far from alone. With the creation of a dedicated, emotionally safe space at work, I was able to break down the defenses I had built around myself and make those real connections.
Researchers at Catalyst have labeled the feeling of being “on guard” against racial and gender bias the “emotional tax” of being different in the workplace, and link it to health and performance issues. And unfortunately, the need to be on guard is not unfounded, as studies have shown that yes, Black people do have to work twice as hard in the workplace because they are subject to more scrutiny than White employees. However, one of the key things that Catalyst cites as effective towards combating this emotional tax is normalizing conversations about issues of bias and working closely with employees to drive inclusive efforts.
It took the support of my Black colleagues for me to find the courage to make the lifestyle changes I needed for the sake of my mental health. Through them, I recognized the true value of community, and that guided my transition into a new career in diversity, equity, and inclusion where I hope to prevent others from experiencing the same distress. It is also why we at Looker hosted a panel in honor of Black History Month called Avoiding Black Burnout: Talking Mental Health in the Black Tech Community, in which we were able to bring together Black tech executives and mental health professionals to share strategies to empower all to find balance and wellness. In addition, we also asked Lookers to reflect on the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. and ask themselves, What is your life’s blueprint? What are your principles? What will you do to make this world a little better for everyone along your life’s path? Despite the difficulties I have encountered and paths I've taken so far, I consider the experience of realizing my privilege and finding that I am passionate about diversity my “tax rebate” for working in tech, for which I am forever grateful.
I know that my parents would be happy with whatever choices I made so long as I gave my best, but I see now that they pushed me in certain directions because the reality is that my current path is within the path of the American Dream. While I owe any success I have to the lessons and opportunities they gave me, I will always wonder if I would have had the same anxieties if I did not follow the blueprint successful people of color have had to develop in response to discrimination. Still, the ambitious part of me that my parents worked so hard to empower looks forward to changing the existing path for minorities in tech and create a blueprint that is all our own.