Seen and Valued: Nicki Washington on the position and power of identity in computer science
Nicki Washington is a veritable powerhouse. Before transitioning to teaching and eventually becoming a professor of computer sciences at Duke University, Washington worked with big-name tech companies like IBM, created K-12 computer science and digital literacy curricula and frameworks and even penned her own aptly-titled book, Unapologetically Dope: Lessons for Black Women and Girls on Surviving and Thriving in the Tech Field. Her impressive résumé and accomplishments in the field — including becoming the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. in computer science from North Carolina State — precede her, but it is her new computer science course being offered this fall semester that Washington is receiving attention for presently.
Race, Gender, Class & Computing debuted this semester despite being originally scheduled for the spring. However, Washington and the faculty of Duke’s Computer Science Department were struck by the renewed momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murders of George Flyod and Breonna Taylor, and decided to move forward with the class. The course’s relevance isn’t a coincidence: it was born from Washington’s own experiences as a Black woman in a predominantly male and white/Asian field.
“The course idea was the result of my experience being denied promotion to full professor at my former institution twice, due to course evaluations that were not only clearly biased, but also less than 20% of the evaluations across all courses. There were comments that noted things like I was ‘rude, disrespectful, mean,’ and ‘no gratitude.’ There is plenty of literature that notes the problematic nature of course evaluations towards minoritized groups, especially Black women,” Washington said in an email interview with Duke Vertices, referring to studies on how students tend to more harshly criticize female and Black faculty in course evaluations. “Even after working twice as hard as others in my department, I was frustrated with how I'd been treated as a Black woman in this field throughout my career (especially when moving in predominantly white/Asian, male spaces).”
Her motivations, however, were not strictly personal. “This course literally became my protest and form of resistance to the toxic culture that is present in not only higher education, but also Silicon Valley. I assumed that, if students start to learn more about identity, white supremacy, racism, bias, discrimination and how it looks in computing classrooms and technologies that are developed, they would start to become better advocates for inclusive environments, and that would make the experiences of minoritized students, faculty, staff, and industry professionals much better in the long term. I had no clue that the events of 2020… would happen when I created this course (I first pitched this course in the spring 2018 and even that was a fight to get it on the books). However, I think they unfortunately confirmed that my work and my thoughts about the field weren't wrong.”
This course’s goals regarding inclusivity and identity at the level of both classroom and corporation are nothing new to Washington, who has established and led countless keynote addresses and workshops on the subject for a wide variety of institutions and organizations, including NASA. Her perspective of computer science as a discipline sorely lacking in the humanities as a fault of its preoccupation with quantitative data to the point of disdain for the “soft” sciences is not only another point of inspiration for this new course, but a contributing factor in the mistreatment of minoritized groups in the field.
“The issue has never been social sciences/humanities,” Washington states in response to how computer science and social sciences should interact. “The issue has always been in computing. Our discipline has marginalized their work, to the detriment of ourselves and society as a whole. Even the language of ‘soft’ sciences implies a level of superiority that computing and other faculty in quantitative fields hold. Research that's more qualitative has been shunned and the focus was always on ‘the numbers.’ If you don't have quantitative results, no one cared. Well, here we are. People (especially computing faculty) have treated the issues of diversity in computing in the same way: a numbers issue. Instead, we should've been listening all along to not only social scientists, but the minoritized students, faculty, and grads who've long stated it's not an issue of access or numbers.”
It is a problem, but Washington believes that a solution exists — as long as people are willing to work towards it. “Getting people in the door is easy. Keeping them there is the problem, and that problem is a direct result of the toxic cultures and environments that have been allowed to exist in the name of ‘innovation.’ So what can people do? Read more of the work of social scientists who have discussed the problems with the technologies we develop. Read more from social scientists who are experts in topics such as identity and bias. But don't just stop and pat yourself on the back cause you read a book or three. Use what you've learned to now identify how you can impact change. The only way things change is if those in the majority (especially based on race-white/Asian and/or gender-men) start to use their privilege to demand it… even when it doesn't impact them directly.”
Even the language used to discuss people like Washington reflects the discipline’s exclusionary nature and preoccupation with superficiality rather than changes at an institutional level. As a Black woman, Washington has been sought after for her identity, but not always for the right reasons and in the right terms.
“Language matters. Not seeing color is, in fact, upholding a level of white supremacy. If you don't see color, then you think we're all the same. I'm nothing like a white woman. Our upbringing and experiences aren't even the same, even though we share the same gender identity. The more you say ‘I don't see color,’ you're choosing to not see the differences between people of different races and how their lives are impacted in ways that are unlike yours,” Washington says about the tired platitude often used to cloak discriminatory behavior.
The importance of words doesn’t end there. “Also, think about words like ‘underrepresented minority’ or ‘we're targeting women and underrepresented minorities.’ First, the word ‘underrepresented’ is rooted in racism (see this article by Dr. Tiffani Williams that she recently published). ‘Minoritized’ is an appropriate and better word to describe communities. Even using ‘systematically marginalized’ or ‘minoritized’ helps. Furthermore, I'm a Black woman. How does reading something that says ‘we're targeting women and underrepresented minorities’ impact my thoughts on who ‘sees’ me? This is what Kimberle' Crenshaw discussed in terms of intersectionality. It's important to understand that my race and gender significantly impact my experiences… not just one. Even in how things are worded though, women like me get marginalized further.”
The dialogue surrounding racism, sexism and the intersectionality of these identities in arenas or fields that have historically oppressed or erased them has seen a recent resurgence in light of the societal issues shoved to the forefront by this year’s pandemic and racial violence. While Washington has harnessed this energy to power more current, charged discussions in her class, she worries that this impetus will fade once these issues are no longer en vogue.
“I think that, right now, we're in a moment where everyone is paying attention to issues of racism and social justice. However, we've been here before: maybe not in my or any students’ lifetimes, but the Civil Rights Movement was not that long ago. My concern is that these are the new ‘in’ topics to discuss and, like always, attention will shift as others who don't experience the impact of racism daily will get tired of talking about it. If anything is going to change (in both society as well as computing), then people can't be allowed to ‘forget.’ This has to be a movement that recognizes the way things were in this country as well as computing only worked for a small few. For the rest of us, it was a daily nightmare.”
In spite of her trepidation about the permanence of this attention, Washington remains hopeful. She has been encouraged by her students’ response to her course, mentioning that they were “extremely (and surprisingly) engaged,” and have been willing to ask questions and provide feedback to one another during their discussions. Even her response to the question of what the computer science looks like to her was imbued with hope, almost expectant in nature. She is making the very future she wants to see with every effort undertaken.
“I'd like to see every computing department across this country hold faculty, students and staff accountable for fostering and encouraging inclusive environments. I'd like to see companies and accrediting bodies like ABET hold universities, students, faculty, and administrators accountable for what they do (or don't do) to create better environments. I'd like to see the computing (and really, the greater STEM community, because this isn't just a computing issue) make significant changes to how computing is taught and whose work and contributions gets ‘seen’ and ‘valued.’”