I put personal stories up here also for those of you who are just discovering the site. I made a comment in my last post that a recent conference wasn’t diverse enough. By diverse I mean Ethnically. By Ethnically I should say African American. By that I mean Black.
The geo world is mostly white. Male. Possibly bearded. If you go to any conference there is a huge push to bring in more women. Rightly so. Women in geo aren’t rare – but they aren’t super common. I think that one will sort itself out quicker than the color of GIS.
So why do I care? Well…..I wrote this once and deleted it months ago. Like I said – mention color and the room gets nervous.
My childhood is littered with public schools. I was one of those kids. We lived in a boring neighbourhood in a part of Chattanooga and that was my choice – Public Schools or nothing. How did I turn out? Well – it depends on who you ask these days. I think mostly OK. Some would argue otherwise.
It was an interesting look back. Elementary school was split as I remember it half white, half black, and whoever the local church was able to bring out of Asia. As I moved forward that white black ratio changed. By high school it was probably 95% black and 5% white. Maybe. The school I attended was at one time almost all white. The school was mascot was a “rebel” (as in confederate) and when it was integrated in the late 60s/70s it changed to the “panthers” (as in large jungle cat – or militant group – I could never quite decide). All my friends were there and as a result I really didn’t notice or care about skin color much. I would at times if something was happening and it required me to notice. Sometimes I would notice if there was a social event at school…sometimes if I went to a football game. That was school. Sometimes I would even openly make fun of the fact I was the “token white guy” on an outing. The teachers got annoyed at those jokes.
My first goofy episode, as I will call it, was in 8th grade. My English teacher forced the entire class to enter a black history month essay contest. I like writing (as evidenced) so I did my best and turned in about a two page paper on why integration/black history/something was important. Out of the whole city – two of us in that class won. I took first. The teacher walked in and looked at me and said “Out of the whole city – two of you placed in the top 3….you took first.” I chuckled. She nervously chuckled. I faked an emergency and skipped the awards ceremony at the local church. I regret that 30 something years later. The pastor of the church came to the school to deliver my $100 dollar savings bond and we stood next to each other for about 5 minutes before he realized I wasn’t black. I didn’t want to point it out. He nervously handed me the award and kept looking at me – “you’re….whiiiiiRandy?” – Yes, Yes I am.
The next episode was in 12th Grade. There were many more stories I could tell you – but none as interesting as this and the savings bond. Morehouse college was visiting the school to hand out scholarships. Morehouse is probably one of the more prestigious schools in the south and is known as the college of choice for Black Men. My Chemistry teacher walked in and said “Morehouse college is visiting the school and you have to go.” ME?!? WHY? “Because you have a scholarship”…I don’t…I’m not going to Morehouse….“GO GET YOUR SCHOLARSHIP”. So I went. I walked in right in the middle of “….We need more black businessmen, black scholars, and….”. I came in through a back door and no one could see me except for the two guys from the college who were speaking. They stuttered and I waved. They finished the talk with “See you at the House” and I just had to say “Yay the House” and the whole room turned around and broke out in laughter. There were 14 of us there – I was #14 and the only white guy in the room. I walked up and received my scholarship and said “Can I have this in cash value?” the answer was no. I asked for half. They said no. At the time my school didn’t do two things – have computers with a database with a “B” or “W” column and check scholarship lists. So – I walked out and one of my classmates said “You?! You were in there?! You stole my scholarship Randy”. You can have it – I won’t be going. Haha. He laughed. We all chuckled going down the hallway. He went I found out years later. I think a masters candidate. Maybe. Regardless he went and should have gotten that scholarship first- but it did make for a great story.
Flash forward to graduation and then flash forward to college. I walked into a school that was 80% white. I felt horribly out of place. I found a few of my old classmates and told them how out of whack I felt. It was interesting looking back. So if you flip the entire last 12 years and made me black and everyone else white….like I said – Interesting. I understand more than I let on some days. It’s quite easy to go “Well I never get treated differently because I’m white”. I did. All the time. So when people say “I get treated differently because I’m black”. Yes. I completely understand. I was singled out for events, felt uncomfortable at some functions, and was just different. For a large part of my childhood this happened. I was the majority minority. So I get it. Better than most I hope. If I don’t I’ve let down 12 years worth of wonderful teachers.
When I started down the GIS path I started noticing how uneven the participation was with regards to skin color. Part of the reason I fell in love with Georgia URISA was I could go to a meeting and see two things: Women in a leadership role and people who weren’t white. My fondest memory was a GA URISA conference where a guy from Kenya stood up and played guitar and sang The First cut is the Deepest by Cat Stevens..in a bar in Athens. I walked into it the other day surrounded by drunk Frat boys..sighed…and walked out.
When I was down in the islands I was home again so to speak. I worked in some very poor rough areas and everyone was black but me. I went to two schools and I saw people that reminded me of my public school past. I found myself thinking back to high school a lot. The last few conferences I’ve been to have reminded me of my minority-majority past.
…and this may all sound horrible if you’re somewhere and you look out at a conference into a sea of multicultural faces. That is excellent. In places where you don’t though…I find it to be a sad indication of my chosen field. The women in tech/gis push is only a small component. We need everyone. Black, Male, Female, Trans, Purple, and Blue Green. We spend too much focusing on one segment IMO – if we win that one part and we have more women who feel accepted – that’s only one battle won. A good battle won. Only one battle though. I worry some might think it’s “all good” and the war was won. We need more African American Participation. Badly. It’s a never ending affair.
Anyway – I said I would say why I stuck that one blurb in the last post. That’s why. So why ramble about it? Why not. This blog gets a good number of hits some days and if I can “do some good” then why not. If some of you go “I’m not stopping black people from showing up”. I would probably say you are right. How many people of color do we have in the field? I’ve spoken at several college events and I can count on one hand not using my thumb or pinky finger, how many african american people were in the audience while I talked about GIS. In a college. Over the last year. It’s not getting any better. In my opinion colleges are struggling with GIS in general – much less looking at diversifying the field.
So don’t think I’m being negative on any aspect of GIS – be it a conference, inclusion of more women, or getting three tortillas with an order of Fajitas. I hate on nothing. I love everyone.
Except for that guy over there.