Reflections of a Black Woman Computer Scientist
By Yolanda A. Rankin, PhD
A year has passed since George Floyd was murdered and I found myself writing a paper with two other Black feminist scholars in response to the state of affairs for Black people, in particular Black women, in the field of computing. I remember when I finally made the decision to apply to graduate school to attain an advanced degree in computer science during my senior year at Tougaloo College, a Historically Black College in Jackson, MS. This was a critical juncture in my life as I was a mathematics major with a minor in computer science since, at that time, Tougaloo College didn’t have a degree program in computer science. I had spent the previous summer interning at AT&T Bell Labs in Naperville, IL and it opened my eyes to endless opportunities in telecommunications, software engineering and the possibility of graduate school.
My mentor planted a seed which blossomed into an opportunity to go to graduate school to pursue a Master’s degree at Kent State College in the early 1990s. I look back at my alma mater and think about how much has changed in more than twenty years, especially now that Tougaloo College offers a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and a number of Black women and men graduate with a B.S. in Computer Science. During my time, there was a consistently higher number of Black women majoring in STEM disciplines and mathematics was no exception. In my world, where I was surrounded by intelligent, hard-working, dedicated and passionate Black women who were my peers, my study partners, my role models, and my friends, I knew nothing about the underrepresentation of Black women in STEM disciplines or the field of computing.
I became aware of the white male-dominated field of computing which held little regard for women, especially Black women, as being legitimate members of this elite community. This elite community celebrated all-nighters spent trying to write, compile and run code, inept social skills that contributed to the “geeky” image of a person who wore glasses and pocket protectors and was too smart for his own good, and the good ole boys club that I was never going to be privy to because I was a woman, albeit a Black woman which was altogether different from being a white woman. For example, Kirsten, a white female undergraduate student and classmate that I came to know during my first year in graduate school, was both friendly and helpful. Though we often studied together to complete the homework assignments for our classes, she received higher letter grades than I did. One day when I asked to see her graded assignment, I discovered that our answers were very similar. (No we did not copy each other’s answers.) Why were my answers deemed as inadequate (grade of C) while hers were acceptable (grade of B)? Despite spending several hours reading the textbook, summarizing the chapters, writing study notes and consistently meeting with my study partner, I realized that something was terribly wrong. Everything that I had worked for at Tougaloo College and even before that was at stake as I was now on academic probation.
I was a long way from home, and I had unknowingly chosen a hostile environment in which to pursue my graduate degree. Very few students would speak to me or acknowledge my existence, let alone invite me to study with them. I had to “crash” study sessions and then endure ridiculous questions about growing up in Black in Mississippi. For example, upon learning that I used to sing in the church choir, one student asked me why did Black people scream instead of sing? It was difficult for me to accept that my instructors and peers saw me as deficient and not belonging in CS, especially when I spent my first year of graduate school taking upper-level undergraduate CS courses to make up for having a B.S. in mathematics rather than CS. I constantly received tacit messages that graduate school was not for me and I should just pack up my things and return home to Mississippi. After my first semester of graduate school, or should I say the equivalent of senior-level courses in CS, I had a chance to take classes in which instructors were more willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. My grades drastically improved and I survived my first year of graduate school. Thank God!
Much of my current research centers on the experiences of Black women in different stages of the computing ecosystem (undergraduate and graduate students, early-career professionals, seasoned professionals, and college faculty). I interview Black women, elicit their stories, and engage them in intimate conversations about their experiences navigating the field of computing. Some I know very well, some are former students while others are polite strangers. We have two things in common: We are Black women and we are pursuing careers in the field of computing.
It’s sad to say, but here we are, almost years later, and not much has changed for Black women in computing. I listen to stories that are so similar to my experiences as a graduate student, an industry professional, and now an assistant professor. What is it going to take for things to actually change in the field of computing so that Black women and other historically excluded groups are no longer underrepresented, are perceived as an anomaly, or treated as being exceptional? Another senseless murder amidst a global pandemic where more than half a million people have died or some other major catastrophe which forces us to see each individual’s humanity? For my colleagues, fellow scholars, Blacks in computing, Black women and other marginalized populations, these rhetorical questions are meant to make you pause, think, reflect and then make a commitment to doing something different to transform the field of computing into a culture in which differences are appreciated, everyone is welcome, and alternative paths are embraced as legitimate.
Florida State University