Debugging Code(switching)

My Experiences as a Black C.S. Student at Stanford University.

Originally posted on LinkedIn (March 2016.) 130,000+ reads, 350+ comments.

Codeswitching in computer science is like playing a game of Minesweeper. Ask the wrong question and look a little stupid? Boom. Missing or showing up late to a class where you’re one of seven Black people in it? Bang. Checking your professor after being the only person that catches a culturally insensitive analogy? Game over.

Codeswitching : the modifying of one's behavior, appearance, etc., to adapt to different sociocultural norms

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as Minesweeper, because this is real life, and your choices can actually blow up in your face. Double and triple checking every decision or conversation becomes commonplace, and you’re simultaneously calculating your actions and presence because you already stand out all the time.

I’m an unapologetically Black and hungry computer science student that faces a harsh truth every day: Although I love to code, the world of computer science isn’t right for me...yet.

I didn’t realize this until I needed an advisor to declare my major. At the time, I didn’t know any professors in the CS department, but I knew I wanted someone who could personally relate to my struggles within the space. To my surprise, there were no Black CS advisors for me. Zero. Zip. For the first time in my life, I realized the importance of representation amid my feelings of strandedness.

I didn’t know this at the time, but I was searching for a Black professor out of need.

To understand the importance of representation as a minority in majority spaces, one must acknowledge that there’s an unspoken language and common understanding of struggle that is shared between people. Daily microaggressions, blatant discrimination, and systemic hiring disadvantages exemplify the basis of this language.

I was searching for someone that spoke my language, and I didn’t want to settle for someone that would need a translation (because we all know that things can get lost in translation.) Having to turn to someone who didn’t speak my language exposed me to potential embarrassment, possible judgement, and ridicule.

Simply put, I didn't want to the let “The Man” know that I was struggling in their game. I felt that a Black advisor would be able to appreciate my vulnerability and assist me rather than judge me. Also, since Stanford professors are some of the best in their field, I knew they would know the ropes about being Black in these spaces and could potentially teach me how to best climb them.

Reminder: 0 Black advisors.

If only Ray J were around for that one wish...

So, I missed out on my ideal advisor, but I wasn’t going to give up on making the best out of my situation. I chose someone who I thought could closely identify with the struggles of being a minority within the CS department: a White woman. Now don’t get me wrong—my advisor is phenomenal. An amazing ally and woke on so many topics, yet even she knows that while we can talk about C, JavaScript and Python, there’s one language we will never speak together, and that’s just how it is.

My story and this conversation don’t end here, though, because tech progress depends on getting diversity and inclusion right. If we’re intentional about the future, everyone can speak in their truth. It’s disappointing to know that we’ll probably simulate our real world through a VR headset before we address fundamental issues of race—people existing, people being different—that stand in front of our eyes everyday.

The Valley moves fast, but I think it’s about time we step back and ask ourselves the following: when we say we want to ”change the world,” what are we actually changing, and what things have not changed at all?