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Race, Tech + Politics: A Discussion at Olin College

On the main floor of the Olin Library on a chilly evening in November, more than 50 students, staff and friends of Olin gathered for an informal Q and A about race, technology and politics. The event is the first in a series of talks though a collaboration by Olin’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Creative In-Reference.

The panel discussion was co-led by Director of Diversity and Inclusion and Title IX Coordinator Rame Hanna and Director of Academic Services Dr. Ellise LaMotte. Panelists included Michael Martin a software engineer, racial justice trainer and graduate of Wentworth Institute of Technology and Dr. John Asher Johnson, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University, who is the founder and director of the Benneker Institute at Harvard.

LaMotte began the discussion by asking the panelists to define some words, such as race, that often get tossed about in conversation, but may hold different meanings to different audiences.

Martin described race as a social construct and racism as a system of oppression that advantages “folks we call white over people of color.” Johnson added that for him the evidence for the existence of racism is “the non existence of people of color in certain spaces.”

Martin and Johnson described their journeys to a career in tech. Martin studied computer science at Wentworth Institute of Technology. As the only black student who made it through his program to graduation, Martin often found his college experience isolating. Further, as a first generation college student he felt enormous pressure to succeed.

Johnson started out in aerospace engineering, transferred to mechanical engineering and ended up in an astronomy program where he began to thrive. He largely ignored the minority engineering program office at his college, that is, until he showed up at an event that focused on social justice issues. He described coming to the understanding that “white supremacy isn’t just cross burning …it’s a system in place that includes a set of customs and norms and habits of mind that help define where one sits in our society.” Johnson expressed regret for not more fully involving himself in the minority engineering program which, in retrospect, he feels he would have derived some benefit.

For her part, LaMotte attended Northeastern University’s electrical engineering technology program. Initially she struggled with feelings of inadequacy, until she started to understand there was a system in place designed to isolate students of color and women. LaMotte began to figure out the system, succeeded and graduated.

Throughout the evening, the phrase “do I belong” came up again and again.

Martin said even before going to college he was “always thinking about race. They called me the race kid because I was always talking about race even though I grew up around a bunch of black and brown people.” Johnson, on the other hand described his challenges differently: “Even though I didn’t know who I was as a black person, I was still moving through the world in a way, very different from my white peers.”

Rame Hanna agreed that looking and sounding different is not easy, no matter where you’re from. “Internalized oppression can manifest in the form of self-negation or the negation of others...and these attitudes and behaviors not only perpetuate these harmful stereotypes and beliefs, but also normalize them.”  

Now that he is more established in his profession, Johnson has turned more of his attention to encouraging minority students who are interested in studying astronomy. He is the director of the Banneker Institute—which prepares undergraduate students of color for graduate programs in astronomy.

At the end of the evening, Martin and Johnson stayed to answer questions from Olin students. One student asked: “How do you engage people that just don’t seem to care about social justice issues?” Another student wondered: “How do you reconcile being an activist with having a high paying job in tech.”

Martin encouraged the students to share their own experiences as a way of launching an honest dialog. “I generally start with my own story. I say, hey, this stuff is real and here are examples from my actual life. I’m not going into these conversations to win.”

Johnson encouraged the students to speak out and ignore the feeling that they had to wait until they were more established in a career before doing so. “Time passes and you might get subsumed into the system,” said Johnson.

The Race, Tech and Politics conversation is just one of many intentional diversity programs at Olin this semester.