Reflections on working remotely while Black

By now, you’ve probably seen a lot of posts and tweets about how to effectively work from home. Especially if you’re among the thousands of folk whose workplace or school has moved to work from home in response to the coronavirus crisis.

I can’t add much to what’s already been said about how to set up your home office, or which headphones or app to use, or how to sanely put together your day. I have worked at a distributed company (everyone works away from the office) for the last four years. My colleague Lori McLeese offers a lot of helpful advice on remote working, Automattic’s CEO Matt Mullenweg has insights, and a good friend and fellow data scientist Boris Gorelik offers lots of sage advice.

I’ll speak from my perspective. I am Black and living in the U.S. I have worked in some capacity in machine learning, data science, big data, artificial intelligence — whatever the buzzword you choose — for twenty plus years. I have worked remotely in some capacity for at least ten.

In those years I’ve encountered micro- macro- and off-the-chain aggressions courtesy of the standard work-in-the-office culture. Here’s a sampling…

Hey, I think you’re in the wrong place…

2000’s

If I’m sitting in a cubicle in the R&D group wing, why wouldn’t you think I’m in the R&D group? I’m sitting in a chair, writing a paper, with a stack of machine learning papers on my desk?

We should get all the <N_WORDS> out of here

Late 1980’s

I was silent for a few days…

We should send all the Africans back…Ebola is too dangerous to tolerate those…

2014-ish

Whew…deep breaths and a long walk.

These comments and ensuing actions are from years of work, but I keep hearing the same things from students and other folk much younger than I who’ve had to put their minds back together from this shtuff. The point is that there’s a deep psychological, psychic impact that broken and persistent workplace cultures have on employees that come from the margins. Black folk, like LatinX people, women, transgender folk, people who are autistic. The exceptional and everyday people that make companies and institutions work. The office can be so hostile, violent, and spirt murdering (to quote Dr Bettina Love) that any benefits to in-person interaction are lost, nullified.

For me, and many others, working remotely has allowed the ability, the autonomy to carve out a truly safe and sane working environment. The autonomy to work on our own terms and in places where we are cherished, supported, nurtured.

One critique of remote work is that “it stifles creativity”. But the ability to go on walks without fear, to connect with colleagues from around the world, to think deeply while looking out the window, to talk out loud a problem to my daughter (quizzically looks are ok), to have a Black young man in a coffee shop just stroll up an ask about linear algebra — all these spur creativity and a self worth that is incalculable.

Does Automattic (or any other remote workplace) have room for growth — of course! There are issues around the assumptions of resource privilege that go along with even applying — does everyone have access to the computing, network, and other resources to successfully make an application? To the social networks needed to know about such positions? There are racial disparities in the ability to work remotely. These issues and questions have to be thought through deeply — inclusion and equity have new implications.

But the benefit of the kind of listening and reflection that comes in various modes of communication that foster thought and respect is undeniable. And that may provide enough space for us to work through some things.

The research on remote work and impact is still getting started. You might read The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown About Telecommuting: Meta-Analysis of Psychological Mediators and Individual Consequences or https://open.buffer.com/remote-work-loneliness/. These links were suggested by Kristen Thomas, a graduate student at University of Texas Austin who is studying remote work.

And, if you’re a data engineer or data scientist interested in making the move to remote work, please consider applying to Automattic!

9 thoughts on “Reflections on working remotely while Black

  1. > Hey, I think you’re in the wrong place

    I’ve never been a black person in the United States, but it might be the case of an honest mistake. It is possible that this type of response is not due to racism or any bad intent but a classical System 1 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thinking,_Fast_and_Slow#Two_systems) response, where a person shortcuts decisions using fast heuristics. If in a certain area, the majority of “high tech” people are white and the majority of “blue-collar” people are very non-white, the natural response is that there is a higher chance that a non-white person in an office is a janitor and not a researcher.

    The “Thinking Fast and Slow book” gives an interesting example of a hit-and-run story where the responders neglect the base probabilities.

    > In the context of the cab problem, the neglect of base-rate information is a cognitive flaw […] Stereotyping the Green drivers improves the accuracy of judgment

    Then, Kahneman continues “In sensitive social context we do not want to draw possibly erroneous conclusions about the individual from the statistics of the group. We consider it morally desirable for base rates to be treated as facts about the group […] The social norm against stereotyping, including the opposition to profiling has been highly beneficial in creating a more civilized society”

    However, to do so, people need to engage their “System 2” which takes effort and time. The alternative is to decrease the visibility of the skin color or to increase the visibility of “white-collar” people with non-white skin color. Then, even the lazy “System 1” will not trick anyone. The distributed organization goes mostly with the first option, but deep social changes will happen only if the second option will dominate. The same is the truth about the gender imbalance in many professions.

    1. >The distributed organization goes mostly with the first option, but deep social changes will happen only if the second option will dominate. The same is the truth about the gender imbalance in many professions.

      Good point. A book I looked at recently, “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” (https://charlesearl.blog/2020/03/20/antiracism-the-remix-has-dropped/) makes the case that racism in particular festers when that extra step is taken. For most of us, myself included, identifying and modifying in-grained ways of reacting that to one degree or another reinforce oppression is difficult. The author talks about a speech he gave as a high schooler on how Black people needed to be more morally responsible. It took the author (Ibram Kendi, a Black historian) more than a decade of analysis think through the many racist tropes he’d internalized in his high school speech. All that to say that unlearning is a process.

      In my particular case, there’s a lot of context left out of that quote. This particular exchange occurred at Palm, Inc. the ill-fated PDA company. I had just left academia to work at Palm’s R&D group. Instead of the Palm developer jeans and shirt “uniform” I usually showed up to work in casual “slacks” and a button shirt or your typical “polo” shirt. That choice in itself was a reaction to the many incidents I’d had with campus police as a grad student — let’s just say that they were very straight forward in pointing out why I did not look like someone who belonged there. I imagine my “uniform” at Palm was a reaction to those events. So he could have thought I belonged in accounting or some department in which people tended to where “slack”. The other pieces of the picture? Yes, I was the only Black person in that part of the building, yes the person who made the comment was white. On the other hand, even months thereafter, there always was a tension in our interactions — what I perceived as hostility could well have been something else? I didn’t really do much work with him, I’m also an introvert, admittedly not well tuned to the social cues; and the same could probably be said of him 🙂 The combination of all these System 1 issues doomed us!

      1. Unlike your blackness, my Jewishness isn’t that evident. When I was a teenager (back in the USSR), I tried to set a campfire. I wasn’t too good at that, and one of the kids who didn’t know me said: “you’re doing this Jewish-style” (i.e. you’re lame). I thought for a second, and said: “of course, I’m a Jew”. He was embarrassed but only a little bit.

  2. well, liberating from insults. However one can miss out on water cooler chat…where over the years, it’s given me 20% useful info.

  3. > What are you trying to steal here..

    Something I was “Jokingly” asked in the company office by one of the senior members.

    I prefer remote, working with people who don’t really have context for my particular stereotype. I love being accepted as just another co-worker. Not a POC coworker.

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