What did he just say?!
The one weekend that I decide to abjure from all things electronic and hang out with my wife, famous tech blogger Michael Arrington (@arrington) starts a scrap with some incredibly ill-conceived comments while being interviewed for @Soledad_OBrien’s documentery Black In America 4 which explores the black experience in technology. At first, as any intelligent person would, I thought, “I’m just going to stay out of this.” But as an African-American who’s been in the Valley as a programmer, entrepreneur, blogger, published author, and board member for over 23 years and who has lived on the 3rd rail of our collective discomfort with race as a happily married member of an interracial couple for the past 25 years, I thought it was worth giving my perspective.
The first thing that I have to say is that the Valley, by and large, has treated me and my family very well. By the time I was 28, I was making more $$ than my father ever had – even though he was a renowned plant pathologist whose opinion was sought the world over (including Apartheid South Africa who offered to make him an “honorary white person” to gain his expertise – and no, I’m not kidding).
The Valley and the software industry that it nurtured allowed me to do something that I loved – programming – in a T-shirt and jeans, surrounded by people who loved what they did as much as I did. And with an amazingly low level of racial BS.
But none of that precludes the fact that racism, sexism, and ageism are baked into the warp and weft of the way the Valley works—just like the rest of America. Sometimes unknowingly: at one company I worked at, HR had to explain to a senior VP that the layoff list that he had created that only included racial minorities, women, and people over 40, was a problem. And sometimes openly: Mike Mortiz’s depressingly candid and repeated comments about how he only wants to fund young entrepreneurs because “Mozart was dead by 35.” Or the discussion I had with a large investor at my previous start-up who asked me to resign as CEO. He said no investor who looked at me and then looked at our newly hired VP of Sales (white male) is going to believe you should be CEO.
I don’t think Michael Arrington is a racist. I’m sure that he doesn’t close the door and spew racial epithets. But I think the most revealing comment he made wasn’t the most controversial one. It was the simple comment that “I don’t think about race.” His lack of understanding that whether he thinks about race consciously or not; that who his neighbors are, who inhabits his social and professional circles are at least in part defined by their race, gender and age; that when he does “pattern matching” he and every other person (white or black) who was raised in a society as racially charged as the U.S. will include racial and gender assumptions (conscious or otherwise) in their decision processes.
What people are upset about most is not his ham-handed statements on the topic but his repeated assertion that it is easier for women and minorities to raise money, something that Vivek Wadhwa’s research (which was presented on TechCrunch when Arrington was editor) and the experience of every other AA entrepreneur that I know, disputes. I have raised several million dollars of external capital over the years and it’s hard for everyone—only a few companies will get funded, which is as it should be. There are people in the investment community that have been incredibly gracious to me and there have also been people where my race was a clearly a factor – that hasn’t stopped me and never will. But having someone who is not a woman or a minority make grand pronouncements about how beneficial being a woman or a minority is while raising money is patronizing, disturbing, and insulting. Doubly so if you consider how a minority founder that has been funded by Arrington must feel since many of his public statements seem to be designed to make them feel that they were bought on to feed some quota.
Just because he’s not starving, Arrington is claiming that everyone else on the planet is well fed. This is the height of hubris and he should stop it.
Update: I neglected to link to Soledad O’Brien’s reply to Arrington on CNN.com. Bad oversight on my part since her exhortation at the end to focus on doing something positive is something we should all take to heart.