I just read a piece over on Hacker News titled, “No, I am not lost.” written by a black girl in Stanford’s computer science program. She wrote about how frustrating it is to constantly be asked if she’s in the right place, which makes a lot of sense.
Let’s try to take another perspective on this, though. One person’s math from the comments put black female computer science majors at Stanford at about 10/10,000, or 0.1%. I don’t know if that’s accurate or not, but it sounds close.
I have met hundreds of programmers and hundreds of black women, and I’ve never met a black female programmer, so it wouldn’t strike me as odd if these numbers are correct. And even if they were an order of magnitude too low, that’d only put it at 1%.
Now, to be very clear, this is a problem. It’s something to be fixed. Addressed. Remedied. And I mean all of it. The female numbers. The black female numbers. The whole thing is an embarrassment. But this does not change the number, nor does it change how humans respond to situations that are uncommon.
In short, there are two things happening here that need to be separated:
- Black women in CS at Stanford are exceedingly rare—as in 0.1% exceedingly rare—so it’s extraordinarily uncommon for any CS student to see a black female in that building
- It should not be uncommon for black females to be seen in the CS department at Stanford, or any other CS program. The fact that it is so uncommon is something that needs to be fixed
Does anyone disagree with either of these?
Right. So what’s my point?
Stop confusing the natural human reaction to uncommon scenarios with a desire to keep the situation as it is.
If an Indian girl asks if you’re lost, don’t jump to being offended. She’s not saying you don’t belong; her human brain is reacting to numbers, because that’s what human brains do.
If the person continues on with an insistence that you probably aren’t able to like computers, or to be good at them, or some other neanderthal mentality, then yeah—they’re being an ass, and it’s time to call it out.
But until then, remember that the Indian girl used to be a rare sight there as well, and she isn’t anymore. And the thing that kept her from being asked if she was lost wasn’t being offended, it was getting so many Indian girls into CS that it was no longer eyebrow-raising.
So let’s fix the representation. The brains of the students will follow along nicely.
- The plural of anecdotes is not data.
- Image from The New York Times.