In the first episode of the HBO show Silicon Valley, there’s a scene about the archetypes of programmers which I found pretty hilarious.
“These programmers… There’s always a tall skinny white guy, short skinny asian guy, fat guy with a ponytail, some guy with crazy facial hair, and an East Indian guy. It’s like they trade guys until they all have the right group.”
This was amusing to me is because I’ve lived it. Having worked in tech for almost a decade, including at a company that the show lampoons, I’ve seen this TV trope play out in real life. I can confirm that it’s a very real portrayal of the people that work as software developers, down to the racial composition (I’m the skinny Asian guy).
Silicon Valley’s creator, funnyman Mike Judge, is well known for the deep research he undertook while writing the show, in order to get an accurate glimpse into the bubble he’s parodying — and in this case, the research shows that he’s nailed it. Asian Americans (mostly, of course, men) are extremely well represented in the ranks of tech companies. In fact, they may be overly represented in this industry — with Asians making up 5.6% of the US population, but over a quarter of the tech industry. But in no way are we equal with our white counterparts beyond representation.
This systemic inequality is the concept known as the “bamboo ceiling” — it’s been around for ages — and it plays itself out to the nth degree in the tech industry. Despite having large numbers in the ranks of technology companies, Asians make a pittance of the leadership roles. For example, at Facebook, Asians make up a shocking 40% of the workforce, but only a fraction of the leadership. Time and time again we’ve been allowed in as grunts — lower-level labour writing the actual code that goes into world changing products — but we’re rarely every permitted as the top brass. Steve Bannon might tell you otherwise, but as the data plainly demonstrates, he’s a fucking liar.
But if we’re so well educated and make of such large numbers in tech, why don’t we percolate up to the top? Well, the standard research shows that stereotypes about Asians are prescriptive, in the sense that if we act out of how we are thought to be (quiet, docile), we’re denied promotions and progress in our careers. Further, the contrast of how we’re perceived versus white men leads us to having to work harder to be considered equally competent. The consequences for Asian women are even more egregious. If you’ve ever wondered why the model minority myth is a bad thing (but.. but.. the stereotypes are positive!), this is exactly how it screws us.
Secret Agent (White) Man
But those are the standard and measurable reasons why the bamboo ceiling exists — there has been evidence that it endures for more sinister reasons. David Lewis, a reporter from The Stranger magazine in Seattle, infiltrated a white supremacist convention and learned that white men in leadership positions at various large firms have formed a very real conspiracy to — quite literally — promote white leaders and keep down people of colour. It’s something that happens with such frequency that they’ve actually codified it and named it — the “secret agent” method.
Seattle is a massive hub for large tech companies, home to giants Amazon and Microsoft, and secondary bases for Google, Facebook, and many others. You’re damn right there are white supremacists embedded in their ranks, circulating through their hiring and promotion committees to bend the colour of their ranks.
And what’s more terrifying is that Seattle, as a community, is as liberal as they come. I know because I’ve lived there and worked at one of these Big-5 tech companies. I remember asking friends back home in Toronto about what it’s like in Seattle, because I had never lived in the States before, and the response I got time and time again was “Oh, Seattle’s great. It’s super diverse and left-leaning, just like Toronto.”
…you won’t notice until you wake up 5 years later and you’re still stuck as a Junior Developer.
This shows that our most left-leaning communities are not immune to this infiltration of racist secret agents. I’d bet good money that this is repeating itself in technology companies in other tech hubs like New York and Silicon Valley. Trump aide and ultra-right Silicon Valley maven Peter Thiel is already planning to move to LA, to be welcomed by the right. The cabal is only spreading. Regions that are supposed to be the safest and most welcoming for people of colour (and women, and the LGBT+ community) are in reality infected and rotten on the inside — and you won’t notice until you wake up 5 years later and you’re still stuck as a Junior Developer.
The Damore Debacle
The most recent upswell of the conservative-versus-liberal culture war in tech is undoubtedly the James Damore debacle. For the uninitiated, James Damore was a former employee at Google in Mountain View, California, and was fired for circulating a memo that declared women biologically unfit for roles in engineering. He also called himself an “amateur phrenologist” so I’m gonna wager this asshat has some interesting thoughts on PoC, too.
Damore sued Google for discrimination against white male conservatives. Look, it’s easy to look at that and laugh, but I believe that this is a signal of a new battle to come, where once again Whites will weaponize Asians against other PoC, women, and the LGBT+ community. This situation is completely analogous to admissions at Ivy league universities, where lawyers with white interests used Asian clients to sue the schools for discriminatory practices such as affirmative action, citing how well Asians are represented at these schools.
The most recent development in the Damore vs. Google saga is that he lost a Labour board dispute against Google. If I was him (and other white conservative men looking to finally strike back), my next move would be to take an indirect approach — weaponize Asian tech workers, as they too would be affected by diversity hiring agendas in tech companies. We’re well represented, and that can be used against us, as well as other PoC and women.
We are nothing but swords and shields for white supremacists in these allegations.
And we’re already seeing this happen! Just days ago, a white ex-employee at Google filed a lawsuit alleging that YouTube refused to hire White and Asian men in an effort to improve their diversity numbers. Compare this to the Damore lawsuit which only centers around white men, and it’s evident that the plaintiff is using Asian men. It’s just much more palatable for the public — and therefore the jury — to see this as a reasonable diversity case if men of colour and not just white men are affected. We are nothing but swords and shields for white supremacists in these allegations.
Asians aren’t sitting still as this happens to them, though. There’s been a trend of Chinese tech workers in America choosing to move back home to China where the tech industry is thriving, and in some ways, much larger in scale then the US. I mean, look at the adoption of mobile payments and facial recognition in China — what’s cutting edge to us in America is everyday for the Chinese. And it’s not just Chinese natives heading back, but I’ve personally met a slew of Asian Americans heading to Shenzhen and Shanghai for greener pastures and bigger projects, or transitioning to Asian-founded/lead companies like Samsung within American soil. Ironically, this response hurts the American economy and America’s perceived “lead” in technological innovation*.
I personally don’t find the idea of “going home” a satisfying solution to this conflict. Most obviously, if Asians leave tech and America in large numbers, it means that the white nationalists have won. But the continual transgressions against Asian techies from the shadows or from the top presents a difficult challenge for Asians to overcome.
But don’t forget — we have numbers.
We need more Asian entrepreneurs. We need to be leaders-by-default and the easiest way to do that is to start your own company (I’ve done so myself). Or join an Asian-founded startup. We need to question diversity in promotion processes. We need to help elevate other PoC, women and LGBT+ folk in tech, because we’re actually in the same boat as them. We need to get better at identifying when we’re being manipulated for a white agenda, from being used as props for their diversity numbers, to pawns for their lawsuits. We need to engage more in this culture war and not fall into the trap of being honorary whites within tech — because white techies are not our friends.