'We existed in parallel universes’ – what it’s like to be black in Silicon Valley

Demonstrations against the death of George Floyd in Oakland, California.

Mark Karake: 'As a black person you internalize not making white people uncomfortable.' Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam

Mark Karake
Founder, CEO, Impact Africa Network
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I don’t remember the specific moment when I fully accepted that my life in America was structurally compromised, that there was a glass ceiling along with four constricting walls to opportunity.

That not being a highly gifted athlete, artist or celebrity of some sort whose job is to entertain the American public meant that in the American collective conscious I was surplus to requirements, a problem to be tolerated.

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However, I do remember the specific moment when I realized that America was killing me. It was late 2016. I lived in Oakland at the time, where I had moved after two years in San Francisco at the end of which I could no longer stand being in that city. I had been lonely, angry, and frustrated for a while, and this trifecta of negative emotions had been gradually growing in intensity.

The idea had been to get San Francisco under my belt so I could always say that I had lived in that famous town. I would do this for a couple years after which I would make the move across the Bay Bridge to Oakland, buy a condo, and ride out the next 10 years leading up to my repatriation back home to Africa.

What I hadn’t accounted for was how fast and total rejection by San Francisco would be. I moved there in April of 2014 and within a year I found myself driving across the Bay bridge into Oakland on weekends just to get away from the obnoxiousness.

It is hard to describe the experience. But essentially, San Francisco had been infiltrated by a new generation of what can best be described as white privileged suburban offspring who had no interest in, or need for diversity.

Having been raised in the American suburbs, the cradle of American white privilege, completely insulated from the rest of the country’s ethnic composition, these people naturally sought the familiarity of those like themselves. Diversity was an academic concept, something they had encountered only on screen or as part of a soon forgotten college elective, an abstraction they would never have to deal with in their lives.

They flocked to San Francisco in droves post-college. Friends bringing friends. Enticing them with exhortations of how fantastic and unbridled life was in that town. It was their time, tech was the thing to do, and San Francisco the place to be.

So many arrived from the Boston that at some point you could pick them out right away. They referred to each other as “Massholes”, a tongue-in-cheek derogatory term that they were actually secretly proud of. San Francisco felt like an annex of Boston, overrun by Massholes, and anyone who knows anything about how bigotry is distributed in America will know that Boston is quite prolific in that regard.

My hopes of an exciting, all-embracing, cultural experience in the city by the bay were dashed by the juggernaut that is America’s dominant reality. White supremacy.

The monoculture was suffocating, the social rejection painful, and the isolation crushing. In these conditions, my anger stewed. The backdrop of all this was a period when the smartphone was exposing to the world America’s erstwhile hidden fetish for destroying black bodies.

Over a number of many months in the mid 2010s, the relentless drumbeat of black killings at the hands of police, all caught on cell phones for the world to see was unstoppable.

Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Philando Castile … it was relentless.

But Philando Castile’s slaying was the one that broke me.

I woke up one morning in the midst of all these senseless carnage and as is the morning ritual for most of us, grabbed my phone to sync with the world, and there it was. The video of a mortally wounded man on the passenger side of a car, his soul slowly leaving his body, his distraught girlfriend filming the entire scene while keeping the killer calm to preserve both her and her child’s life, who was sitting in a car-seat in the back of the vehicle.

It looked like a scene from an amazingly well acted movie scene. It assaulted your psyche and your mind didn’t know what to do with it. I could not find a comfortable narrative for what I was seeing. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears.

I went through the rest of my morning routine in a shocked stupor, numb. In the short bus ride to work through San Francisco, I noted the nonchalant faces of my fellow passengers, white millennials, on their unperturbed urban adventure. I searched their faces for any sign of that readily recognizable sense of anguish that follows a shared traumatic experience. We all know it. In fact, it is a human coping mechanism. We seek each other in times of shared distress. We lock eyes with strangers and know they share our distress.

But there was none. In that moment, it was clearer than it had ever been to me, that despite occupying the same physical space, we existed in parallel universes. There was no way you could have missed what was raging across the internet that morning and continued on with your life without its effects registering on your face.

Did they not get the same internet I did?

I made it to work in this morose mood. The sales team had a meeting that morning. As we congregated in one of the conference rooms, I half-hoped someone would bring it up in the pre-meeting banter, but it didn’t happen. I was not going to bring it up; as a black person you internalize not making white people uncomfortable. It's part of survival in America. Voluntarily crossing the street when approaching a white female, just to make her feel comfortable. I have done that multiple times. Life behind enemy lines, you make adjustments for the oppressor.

The meeting commenced in typical procedural fashion. Everyone was normal, energetically advocating for personal interests and generally contributing to whatever topic was on the table. It was just another morning to them. I took in this scene as though one separate from it.

My soul was overwhelmed, yearning for that singular type of relief that comes with acknowledgement. The contrast of being trapped in such a blasé environment, where everybody was business as usual when injustice rolled like a river all around us was unbearable.

Throughout the meeting I kept hoping someone would bring it up. I desperately needed to connect. My heart was crying, but there was nobody to cry with. I was the only black person in the room.

The meeting ended, and I made my way back to my desk acknowledging defeat. Flabbergasted that I would still be expected to perform at my best while severely mentally and emotionally incapacitated. This was a new form of isolation that I had not yet experienced.

Prior to that point, I had accepted that I existed in an uneven playing field and had developed a means of coping with that reality. Do great work, focus on what you can control, maintain the highest levels of integrity and everything should be OK.

But in this instance, my walls had been breached. No matter how stoically I had constructed my approach to life, setting my face like flint, I was still only human.

Systemic racism had once again stormed into my life, compromising my ability to do great work, making it impossible to focus. No matter how pragmatic you are as a black person in America, sooner or later, you shall be exposed.

I escaped from San Francisco to Oakland in March of 2016. In the beginning, Oakland was a breath of fresh air. Seeing black people walking around was uplifting to the soul. I rented an apartment right in the heart of downtown Oakland. My daughters were nine and ten at the time and would visit on weekends. I got us each push scooters that we took out on weekends in our new urban environment. We felt at home.

But like most new things, the novelty soon wore off to reveal a town losing her soul to a swift gentrification. There were still pockets of cultural holdouts to the old ways. The spontaneous drum circles at Lake Merritt, the heart and soul of Oakland. The First Friday street fair, with all the energy and gritty elements of pure Oakland out in force. On sunny weekends, the lakeside would be teaming with people. But the hipster vibe, with its coffee shops and indie restaurants was beginning to redefine the Oakland cultural landscape.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the coffee shops and restaurants, but I also knew they came at a cost: black people were being pushed out.

Investors and speculators flocked in searching for their next opportunity. People who would never dare step into that town a handful of years ago, as it was gripped in stagnation, were suddenly all over. Anti-gentrification sentiment was in the air. The tension between natives and newcomers flared. Protests happened. But like every other lashing out of an unprepared proletariat against the remorseless march of organized capital in a free market, these directionless efforts petered out with no impact.

The steady outflow of black and brown natives as they were priced out or enticed to sell longstanding family property they could no longer afford to maintain, was taking place. Structural changes are often hidden from sight. There was no visible procession of former residents streaming out of town to point to. But you could feel it in the air. The faces and places of Oakland were changing.

By moving to Oakland, I thought I had escaped the eye of the gentrification storm only to find it had shifted its locus. Once San Francisco was conquered, the insatiable beast of capitalism set its sights on Oakland, moving with impressive speed to infiltrate that town, brazenly inserting itself into neighbourhoods considered dangerous even by Oaklandians themselves.

Before you could blink twice, a white female was calling the police on a posse of brothers doing something so Oakland at Lake Merritt: BBQ and beats. That particular interloper ended up going viral for exercising her misplaced privilege. The blindness of privilege is astounding.

What I had hoped to find by moving to Oakland was not there. I knew what I needed; community, acceptance, permissionless existence. I had assumed Oakland would be the place where I could finally set my bags down and relax in America, in the bosom of a people to whom I did not have to justify my existence. A place where being black was good enough, no explanations required.

But one particular evening it was different. For the first time I recognized an uncomfortable warm sensation in my gut. Like something was slowly cooking down there. It felt like what I imagined inflammation or cellular level destruction might feel like, the onset of gradual poisoning. I knew something was wrong.

Loneliness, layered with the oppressive assault of microaggressions that marked my American life. Add to that the very real daily possibility of direct bodily harm from police, or random racist vigilante, or your garden variety mass American shooting was taking its toll. My body was adjusting to existence in a low-grade terror environment. I was dying. The unrelenting assault that is being black in America was killing me. A crushing feeling of utter helplessness mixed with shame and anger. Systemic oppression had me boxed in.

Just two days prior to this writing I came across a tweet by an American physician.


She is a white female, which crucially lends her tweet that legitimacy afforded to an external, unbiased observer.

In 2016, I escaped to Mexico no less than five times just to get away from the crucible. At one point even pitched our CEO to let me work remotely from Mexico, a request that was declined. As you would expect, he was white Silicon Valley male, his life experience was the apex of privilege. There was no chance in hell he could understand that I was literally fighting for my life, that the very same environment that was so nurturing for him, was killing me. It would have been pointless to try and explain.


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At that point there was nothing I could do to escape. I was dying and I knew it. My only hope was exit.

That November, they elected Trump.

Mark Karake is founder and CEO of Impact Africa Network. This is a chapter from his forthcoming book, to be published later this year. More on his efforts to create change can be found here.

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