Is Open Source an Accepting Space for Black People?

ID 657908
Updated 2/25/2017
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I just got finished watching the documentary “13th” on Netflix. We’re in a season of really good movies this year about the experience of being black in the US, including “Hidden Figures” and “Fences”, both of which have been nominated along with “13th” for Oscars. I’m inspired to look at the communities of which I am a part – in this case the open source community – to see how we’re doing at being accepting of people of color. More than accepting: leaning in, reaching out.

Last year I wrote a blog post called “An accepting space for women in open source” to talk about open source projects which are, in my opinion, doing a good job reaching out to women and involving them more. Open Source projects often get a very bad reputation for being in actuality very exclusive clubs, and I thought it might be good to show some positive spaces.

So, with the US celebrating Black History Month in February, I thought it would be good to start a dialog about another under-represented group.

I was actually hoping to find that, as with my earlier post, there are open source communities which are doing a conscious effort to involve black people more. After all, the open source movement is all about the democratization of the intellect of smart people, to give access to the very core of our technological world to those who can best contribute to making it better.

After several discussions with people I really respect who are contributing to open source, I now believe that the situation is quite different. We’re not doing as well here.

Kelsey Hightower is a highly visible evangelist for Kubernetes. Kubernetes is the container orchestration project driven primarily by Google. Kelsey works on the project, and is someone I have heard a number of times speaking at meet-ups here in Portland as well as at conferences on Kubernetes. I asked him the question about open source communities doing a good job reaching out to people of color and unfortunately he didn’t identify any which are particularly trying here.

That said, Kelsey is committed to working hard to be engaged, work hard and be visible wherever he gets the chance. Kelsey posted a really moving sequence of twitter posts which talk about his experience as a black person visible in the technology world. The first question is, simply put, how does he deal with being the only black person visible in work or conference situations.

In Kelsey’s words: “I focus on being present. Even if I’m only being invited because I’m black. I accept and go hard. Rinse and repeat.” His presence in conferences, based on his solid technical work, inspires others. Kelsey also talked about how another black developer brought his young son to a conference to see Kelsey, so his son could see others who look like him working in technology.

I’m also inspired by a Linux kernel developer named Dan Williams at Intel who is black. The Linux community has garnered a lot of criticism for seeming pretty unwelcoming to those who are new. This is a community which does not tolerate fools, to put it bluntly. And this causes many to be reluctant to engage.

But Dan benefitted from those who tried to make him feel welcome: “I myself am the product of outreach efforts both in high school and early in my Linux kernel development career. I know the positive difference those efforts can make. I also had the good fortune to make my first kernel contributions to a maintainer that was responsive and encouraging.”

Dan has, however, noticed that since his name doesn’t hint at his skin tone, he often gets a surprised reaction when he meets colleagues in person for the first time.  “Oh, your’re Dan Williams?” That is at once remarkable and a bit sad.

What can we learn from this?

One thing white men in particular can do is learn to be both color-blind and color-conscious at the same time. I was raised to treat everyone the same, no matter what their ethnicity or gender. But in fact, such an assumption can undermine people of color in subtle and unfortunate ways, through unconscious bias. And such an attitude can fool us into thinking that we really understand what it's like to be a person of color in a majority white situation.

One way we can counteract unconsciously hurtful statements is to give colleagues permission to keep us accountable. Ask a colleague: “Can I count on you to give me honest, constructive feedback if I say anything that is hurtful or offensive to you, in the moment or later?” (Kudos to Jared Cline for this, writing in  )

Another conscious act is simply to listen. When tempted to explain our understanding of a situation, how about asking a person of color about their experience and then truly listen to them. 

I have never felt so embarrassed as when a colleague has honestly told me that something I said could be taken as offensive. But I try whenever I hear such criticism to gulp, and honestly try to ask forgiveness and change.

In the area of race, as for so many others, Americans have a long road to travel to “become a more perfect union” as it says in our founding documents. I hope that open source communities can be leaders in moving ourselves down that road.