In writing yesterday’s article about DevFest Florida 2017, I noticed something unusual while going over the speaker list: 13 out of 31 of the conference’s speakers are women. You’d expect this to be a notable thing in 1917 (remember, the 19th Amendment wasn’t ratified until 1920), but it’s sad that in 2017, a tech conference with 42% women speakers is still an unusual thing.
Also noteworthy: out of those 13, 8 are women of color. That’s also unusual.
Some people will brush off this observation as unimportant. Those people are not just part of the problem; they are the problem.
I could write a long essay about how representation matters, but I’ve got work to do and a DevFest presentation to polish (mine’s at 3:00 p.m., and it’s on Android development for people who’ve been avoiding it). So I’ll leave you with these words of wisdom from Nigerian author and MacArthur Genius Grant awardee Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche and her TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story:
You should go watch her whole TED talk, but this should give you her thesis:
I’m a storyteller. And I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call “the danger of the single story.” I grew up on a university campus in eastern Nigeria. My mother says that I started reading at the age of two, although I think four is probably close to the truth. So I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children’s books.
I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, bout the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.
Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.
My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer, because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was.
And for many years afterwards, I would have a desperate desire to taste ginger beer. But that is another story.
What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify. Now, things changed when I discovered African books. There weren’t many of them available, and they weren’t quite as easy to find as the foreign books.
But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye, I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognized.
Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are.
Kudos to DevFest Florida for this accomplishment! I look forward to being there — and speaking as well! — this Saturday.