As a Black man who has been working in the technology sector for more than 20 years, I can tell you that my race has almost always been a factor in how I am viewed and treated. In many of the companies that I have worked for, if not in all of them, I have been one of, and sometimes the sole, African American in my department.

When you’re the only Black person in an office, you notice it.

Glancing around, you notice that no one looks like you, talks like you, or has a story like you. Nobody has the gall to approach you and say, “Hey, out of the 40 people on this floor, you’re the only Black guy.” But you sense that everyone else notices it too.

You sense it from the stares you receive when you walk through the door, from the looks on people’s faces when they find out you’re competent at your job, from the alienation you feel after not being invited to lunch with your peers, and from the awkwardness they project when they try to engage you in everyday conversation.

Being Black in tech, like being Black in America, is an exercise of mental toughness. Your mind is constantly wondering, “How long can I last?”

The underrepresentation of African Americans in tech has been an issue since the 1970s, when the Bay Area became Silicon Valley. Around this time, Fredrick Terman, former Stanford University dean of engineering, began encouraging his students to start their own companies. Soon after, the Bay Area became home to Hewlett Packard, Xerox, and then later Facebook, Apple, and Google. Though the lack of diversity at these companies has been questioned and criticized for decades, the problem hasn’t gotten much better.

In 2018, according to Silicon Valley Bank, only 1% of venture capital dollars went to Black start-up founders and Black employees made up only 2.8% of Google’s technical roles and 4.8% of their entire workforce. More recently, Twitter reported that Black employees made up only 6% of their staff and Facebook reported 3.8% of their employees were Black. All of this contributes to an environment that continues to be hostile toward African Americans, one that tell us, “You are not welcome.”

Over these same years, I have talked to many Black folks who also work in tech, from technical support representatives and system engineers to network architects and programmers. We have swapped stories that would make your mouth drop: stories about having the validity of our work badges questioned by the companies that employ us, stories of white team members who perceive us as the “diversity hire” and are surprised that our educations were not paid for by sports scholarships, and stories of peers who are shocked that we didn’t come from broken homes or that we can speak correct English. The amount of times we have heard, “You are so articulate,” when answering a question or speaking up at a meeting is mind-blowing.

All of these stories, along with the unending microaggressions — the mispronouncing of names, the questions about where we are really from, and the awe at the fact that we can fulfill and succeed at the jobs we were hired to do — it wears on us — on me — mentally.

To create real change, much work still needs to be done at the organizational and leadership levels. At the same time, Black people cannot afford to wait around for this change to take place. We deserve to take up space, move up, and thrive in Big Tech, and while we fight for more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workspaces, we should.

If you are Black and you are interested in or currently entering the tech industry, know that it is not going to be easy. You are a minority in a sector that is incredibly slow in addressing race and diversity. But also know that you can find comfort and learn from people who look like you and who share your experience. I’ve spent more than two decades of my life navigating this space, and I can be one of those people. I can offer you some advice.

Below are three lessons I have learned during my time as an IT professional. These points are not meant to solve racism at work or convince tech companies to hire more African Americans. Rather, they are meant to provide you with skills that you can use to navigate this industry, set healthy boundaries, and protect your mental health and your career development as you grow.

The most powerful thing you can do is be yourself. 

The first piece of advice I can offer any Black person coming into a predominately white tech company is: Don’t change yourself to fit in. Many times, as one of the few African Americans in a firm, I downplayed who I was and how I felt. I would code-switch, ignore microaggressions, and bypass things that were not professional. Why? Because I wanted to fit in. I didn’t want to be excluded or make waves, and I feared that if I did, I might be fired.

But there were consequences to this. My coworkers felt comfortable making racist jokes around me. “I hear police sirens — they must be coming to arrest LeRon,” got a lot of laughs. These kind of comments about Black people were said often and just as often went unchallenged. I felt the constant stress of “wearing two masks,” one for work and the other for my life. I understood what W.E.B. Du Bois wrote when he talked about “double consciousness,” living as a Black man through the eyes of society and himself.

It took 10 years for me to grow tired of “shrinking myself” at work. I started to speak up for myself, and for others. I brought attention to discussions that could be considered inflammatory by confronting the people who initiated them. I escalated these issues to management. But, unfortunately, there were consequences to this too.

When I became more outspoken about race, how few Black folk are employed in tech, and how we are treated, I became known as “that Black guy.” There were certain discussions and panels that I was not privy or invited to, opportunities not presented, and possibly even promotions that I did not receive. But I was more okay with those consequences than the ones that were born out of my silence.

There is a saying, “I would rather be rejected for who I am than accepted for who I am not.” When you are true to yourself and honest with who you are and where you are, that is a powerful thing. In my experience, when you stop trying to be the non-confrontational Black person and call out the inequalities you see, a weight will be lifted from your shoulders. You will now carry a new weight — the weight of being your authentic self in a space that may feel threatened by that. But this is the first step toward your personal growth, toward figuring out what you value, who you want to be at work, and maybe one day, a larger systemic change.

The second most powerful thing you can do is speak up.

Being the only Black person on your team often means that other people begin to view you as the designated “Black expert.” Whenever the questions come up, “Do Black people like this?” or “Why do Black people do that?” you will be the one who is approached first.

In my own experience, these questions often come off as annoying, albeit innocuous. But the mood changes whenever there is a police shooting of an unarmed Black man or when another video of a white woman accusing a Black man of stealing or trespassing goes viral. Interactions, even casual ones, become more tense. It has been in moments like these that I’ve come to realize, in my team member’s eyes, I represent all Black people — regardless of age, sociological background, nationality, etc.

Confrontation is never easy, but my advice here is to be upfront the first time something like this happens to you, because it probably will. By letting people know immediately when their comments or questions are offensive, they will grow more aware of how inappropriate their behavior is.

The first time someone approaches you with a question that you aren’t comfortable answering, let them know that you are not the authority of all things Black. Explain that we are not a monolithic group, but people who have all lived different experiences. If someone jokes and asks, “Hey, do all Black people….” I would respond in a firm but assertive way, “I don’t know all Black people, so I wouldn’t know how to answer that. Your question is offensive.”

If you are not comfortable confronting the person in the moment, schedule time to talk to them privately, and let them know why their comment was hurtful. Either way, speak up and let your teammates know how you feel. Set the precedent that those questions are unacceptable.

Finally, know when to ask for help.

Whenever I give a talk at a corporation, I stress, “If someone files a complaint about racism, it is everyone’s responsibility to address it.” Once this happens, everyone needs to stop, direct their attention towards the incident, and listen.

One of the biggest failings I’ve seen in tech management is their lack of ownership. If you tell your manager that you have experienced discrimination, that you feel the work environment is hostile, or that you have seen an act of racism, know that your concerns are always valid and they deserve to be taken seriously.

Sadly, in my experience, these complaints are almost never taken seriously and there is very little, if any, discipline issued to the offending party. The first instinct of most of the supervisors and managers I have dealt with is to put the blame on the person being discriminated against, tell them they need to learn how to take a “joke,” or explain away the racist incident as an example of “cultural insensitivity.”

When this happens, you, the Black employee, will not feel heard. You may feel gaslighted or think, “Maybe the problem is me? Maybe I don’t fit in here? Maybe I need to change?”

Let me answer those questions for you: No, you are not the problem. You may not always fit in, but that doesn’t mean you need to change. This is not an employee issue, or a departmental issue, it is an organizational issue — and your organization needs to be held accountable.

If management is not addressing your report of discrimination and racism, escalate it. Schedule time with your manager’s manager and explain why you are raising the issue to them. If that person does not address it properly, go to their manager. Do not be afraid to continue to escalate the issue. The highest level of this would be reporting it to Human Resources.

To present the strongest case possible, you need to provide documentation. That means you need to write every incident you or your colleagues experience down, including the time and date of the occurrence, what was said or done, and who was involved. If you have allies who can back your statements and support you, even better. It’s easier to ignore one person than it is to ignore a group of people.

Sometimes you may have to make a decision and decide if you truly can be who you are at your company. If you have to compromise yourself and your morals to stay, then it is not the right place for you. And it is okay to choose to leave.

In times of fear or doubt, do as I do, and think about this quote from Zora Neale Hurston, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

In 2021, we are headed into a year that is even more racially polarizing. With the events of January 6, the storming of Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. by Trump supporters, far right groups, and white supremacist organizations, race is at the forefront for many of us. Businesses and corporations are once again forced to address racism and how to make their environments comfortable and inviting for everyone.

As a Black employee in tech, tell your truth. Talk about your experience. Do not water down what you have faced being one of the few in the field. When I started to be more outspoken, and follow the advice that I’m giving you, I realized that I am not an individual, but part of a collective. My efforts to make tech more equitable are not just about me, but the networking engineer, the programmer, the project manager, and all of the other professionals that will come after — and that includes you.