I work for a startup. This is a statement I thought I would never say. However, being a senior in college once the pandemic hit left me with very few employment options, and I saw the value I could add to the growing company. So I accepted the position and quickly got immersed in startup culture. A lot of things are typical. It is based in San Francisco, it is inherently laid back, and you probably will do a lot of things outside of your job description. We hustle and get our hands dirty and hope we can convince those with a lot of money to fund our endeavors.
In the midst of immense racial injustice and black genocide that has taken place in this country and all over the world, I have fallen out of touch with the cutthroat nature of Silicon Valley, and have been eager to use my skills and voice to address the massacre of my people. Having a job in a pandemic is a blessing, and this NY apartment and loans will not pay themselves. So I continue on completing tasks that feel insignificant and use my platforms to raise awareness when I can.
This has been sort of isolating if I’m being honest. Being the sole black person on the team, I find it difficult to have conversations with others about the deep-rooted pain and trauma that comes with being black in America. Hell, being black in the world. Throw in queer and gender non-conforming and you have a recipe of consistent disappointment and trials. I am often met with puzzled faces and immense white guilt if I simply say “today is hard. A lot of black death is happening.” It’s almost as if I slipped into speaking a foreign tongue and they cannot truly comprehend. I learned my lesson, and keep these feelings to myself and use them to drive me in the search for other employment opportunities — places where I am understood and don’t need to explain myself.
Working remotely has proven challenging as we are making our way towards the app launch, so my boss offered to fly the team to SF to get together for a month. I had never been to the West Coast before, so needless to say I was pretty excited. I had ideas of what it would look like and the people I would see. What actually occurred wasn’t anything I could have prepared for.
I arrived and immediately dove into the work week. The air quality wasn’t great, so I spent much of that first week indoors. Upon the weekend, I set out on a Lyft bike to nowhere in particular. I biked up and down the hilly neighborhoods and took in the views. With the few people out and about, I began to notice quickly that not many of them looked like me. Actually, almost none of them did. I biked into the Mission District, and upon entering Balmy Alley, I was greeted with a pop-up that was a breath of fresh air. Seeing Afro-Latinx individuals selling their art, clothing, and food gave me a lot of comfort. With my handmade shirt and horchata in hand, I sat for a while to observe the area. It felt right; it felt safe. I didn’t feel like I stood out like a sore thumb. I could just be among those who looked like me and probably shared similar life experiences.
Leaving the Mission and heading back to the central part of the city, I biked around various neighborhoods just taking in the colorful houses. I began to notice the shocking amount of “Black Lives Matter” signs in the windows. When I say shocking, I truly mean it. It was nearly every single house, restaurant, salon, you name it. It almost felt like a competition of who could show more support. While I initially thought it was pretty cool that so many residents actually cared about BLM, I began to wonder how much of this was performative. And this unveiled my biggest question of all:
Where were all the black people?
It was a rarity to run into another black person in San Francisco. Upon writing this essay, I am abiding in Albuquerque, NM, and I have seen more black people here than in my entire stay in SF. How is that so?
I called a dear friend of mine and told her about my observations, and she asked why that was such a bad thing. I mean, we want white people on board with BLM right? They are the ones who should be doing the heavy lifting of the movement instead of black folk, who are dealing with so much, right? I see what she was saying, but I still kept coming back to performative allyship.
Putting a sign in your window is great. Raising awareness about the movement to end black massacre at the hands of police is absolutely necessary. But is that where the value of black life ends? Is it enough to talk about black lives like a topic of the weather, but not to think critically about their presence in your community? Many of the people in SF are transplants, living the glamorous struggle life in a ridiculously expensive city or making bank in Silicon Valley. The mass gentrification and movement of tech bros has driven prices through the roof, making it madly inaccessible to a lot of people. And if we know anything about generational wealth and perpetuated cycles of poverty in this country, it disproportionately impacts communities of color, specifically black and brown people. So yes, the BLM signs and little to no black people bothered me because it delivered the message of “we are not willing to change our practices nor address the structural issues that have put us in this city, but BLM is trendy right now and we should probably put a sign in the window so people know we are down.”
Does your allyship end with a poster?
I carried disappointment and confusion into my next work week and decided that I wanted to find the black people. They must exist somewhere in this city. In all of my research and discussion with friends, I was drawn to Oakland. It had been a significant area for the Black Panther party, and much black history could be found in its streets. So the next weekend, I hopped into an Uber and made my way across the bridge into Oakland. And I was amazed.
Almost instantly, the demographics of the people changed. It went from majority white to nearly all black. I couldn’t contain my smile as I walked from Old Oakland to Uptown to Lakeside. It was almost like someone had waved a wand and made all of my dreams come true. Black people- thriving in the sunlight and exhibiting a joy that I have not seen in a while. Admittedly, I could not have seen the entirety of Oakland in one day, but based on my day’s adventure, there was a stark difference between here and SF proper.
Looking back, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I have seen this stark difference before. Growing up in Boston (Roxbury specifically), this same phenomenon existed. My neighborhood was predominantly black and I thought the entirety of Boston was like that. But once you wander along Mass Ave or go into Brookline or even West Roxbury, all of that changes. Boston claims to be such a liberal place with BLM signs up the wazoo, but in recent years, gentrification has driven my people out of neighborhoods that their families have occupied for generations. The divide is more evident and I wonder if the people that live in these high-rise apartments that once used to be black kids stomping grounds, ever stop to consider how they contribute to the problem. How their performance of allyship is damaging and doesn’t translate to their actions.
I stumbled across an article about the Color of Law that explains this phenomenon using the case study of San Francisco and Oakland. My observations rang true and have been dissected and backed up by historical context. Redlining and the criteria in which racist authorities would use to give monetary funds to those who were most privileged have had long-lasting effects on where people live. White flight to the suburbs left black and brown people in city centers with little resources. Now, we see gentrification happening at alarming speeds with young white professionals flocking back to urban centers, driving up prices, and displacing communities that they fled from in the first place. Without critically analyzing the continuous privilege that has led many white people to occupy spaces that are not meant for them, extracting resources from poorer communities, and exploiting black and brown persons, their “allyship” means little to me.