Destructive Labels

After I interviewed Earl Pace for a Q&A that was posted on our Web site last week, I knew some pieces of it would end up on the cutting-room floor. I'd had an hourlong conversation with the African-American IT pioneer and co-founder of Black Data Processing Associates, and clearly not all of it would see the light of day.

An anecdote that didn't make the cut had to do with a book Pace said he was reading: The Black White Divide in America -- Still. The book was written by Ralph Gordon, a former president of the Philadelphia chapter of the BDPA, and Marlin Foxworth, a white superintendent of schools who is an advocate for a program to improve the educational performance of African-Americans and other disadvantaged youth in his California school district.

"In the book, [Foxworth] talks about how, after one of the school board meetings, another white educator walked up to him and in essence said, 'What are you doing? Are you trying to become one of them?' " Pace recounted. "That kind of pressure can keep in check even a person who wants to advocate for movement. Their peer pressure would in essence be saying, 'What are you trying to do? There are some white folks who should get that increase or position. Why are you doing what you're doing?' "

The reason I'm mentioning that anecdote here is to set the context for what Pace said next.

"I don't want to come across as a whiner," he said. "It is a recognition of these obstacles that has driven BDPA, and in particular Earl Pace, these past 33 or 34 years, not just an 'Oh, woe is me' kind of position. You've got to realize what you have to overcome in order to attack it."

Indeed, no one wants to be perceived as a whiner. What's troubling is that too many African-Americans are concerned about that perception, and it's thwarting the discussion we so desperately need to have.

At this writing, 17 reader comments have been posted in response to the Q&A, but only two appear to have been made by African-Americans. In fact, I have written quite a bit about this topic and have received quite a few e-mails and online comments in response, yet those responses only rarely come from those who identify themselves as African-American. My sense is that there's a reluctance to discuss the race issue because of that nagging concern about being labeled as a self-pitying complainer.

I'm not sitting in judgment of that reluctance, because I can't say with certainty what I would do in that position. I'm not certain how I would respond if I were black and I read the comments from readers telling Pace to "get over it" or scoffing that people like him "look under every rock to find even the hint of racism to justify their existence."

But I am certain that the lack of a meaningful dialogue about racism in the IT workplace is unhealthy. As it stands, the white IT-worker voice we hear tends to dismiss the issue altogether. The black IT-worker voice is almost inaudible.

I'm reminded of the article that appeared in the Dec. 1 issue of Newsweek titled "What Michelle Means to Us." The African-American author, Allison Samuels, wrote about how Michelle Obama "will have the chance to knock down ugly stereotypes about black women," including that of the "angry black woman."

"Like many African-American women I know," Samuels wrote, "Michelle has had a lot of practice at the delicate tap dance of getting along in the mainstream white world." While professional women "walk the line between being confident and seeming like a bitch," Samuels added, "African-American women are especially wary that being called 'strong' is just another word for 'angry.' "

The labeling crosses genders, and it lies at the heart of a problem that too many of us deny. It needs to end so the discussion can begin.

Don Tennant is Computerworld's senior editor-at-large. You can contact him at don_tennantcomputerworld.com, and visit his blog at http://blogs.computerworld.com/tennant.

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