Naomi was out with her manager and some of her clients when the topic of blackface came up.
Her boss said that he didn’t understand why black people make such a big deal about white people putting on dark makeup for a joke. A black employee from the US at a German tech startup, Naomi sought to explain the history of white actors wearing dark makeup to reinforce racist stereotypes, but the conversation grew heated before moving on.
In the following days, Naomi’s relationship with her boss deteriorated further as he struggled to make sense of the incident, shifting between apologising and open irritation. Shortly thereafter, Naomi was called into a meeting and her employment was terminated. The reason given, she said, was that her boss didn’t feel like he could trust her.
Naomi’s experience is an extreme example of the challenges faced by people of colour working in Berlin startups: racism, discrimination, microaggressions, and a serious lack of diversity. Naomi, who did not wish to use her real name because she is still looking for jobs, sued her former company last year and reached a settlement.
Now Naomi is unsure if Berlin is the right place for her. “If I want something to come out of my career, I feel like I need to go back to the US,” she said. German tech firms, in Naomi’s opinion, are behind on diversity and inclusion, and she is up against other job candidates who better know the culture and language.
A progressive city?
Long regarded as a progressive capital where you can be who you want to be, Berlin in recent years has lured tens of thousands of employees from across the world to work in its burgeoning tech sector.
As of February, more than 78,000 people were employed in Berlin startups, with nearly a quarter of jobs created in the last two years, according to a Dealroom report. Newcomers are attracted not only to the fleet of big-name companies, from online retailer Zalando to fintech giant N26, but by the city itself, where English is widely spoken (and is the lingua franca for tech companies). Berliners enjoy a high quality of life, plentiful green space, cheap rents and famously hedonistic clubs.
Inside tech companies, however, black employees say they often find an old-school business environment where they face a constant burden to prove themselves more than their white colleagues. They are often the only person of colour on their teams. And that’s once they can even get in the door.
Kave Bulambo, who has worked in recruiting for multiple Berlin tech companies, described one incident when she was seeking to hire a capable engineer who was originally from Nigeria until some in the company seemed worried about his accent putting people off.
“One of the people during the process said, ‘He’s good, but we’re kind of having second thoughts about his communication skills,’” she told Sifted, adding that his English, the language used inside many Berlin tech startups, was perfect.
“Nigeria is an English-speaking country. What I know is that he’s an introvert, but lots of engineers are quiet.” Bulambo said the candidate was ultimately hired for the job, but, “I had to fight for this person to be seen.”
Few black founders
Statistics for Berlin aren’t available, but there has been little global improvement in Europe’s tech diversity in recent years. The latest survey from Atomico showed that only 0.9% of tech founders in Europe self-identified as Black/African/Caribbean, and those respondents made up only 0.5% of all founders who have raised external capital.
The figures are not great in the US either. Analysis from CNBC found that Facebook, for example, has in the past six years gone from a workforce that is 3% black to 3.8% black. In the US, just 2.7% of executives in senior roles at 10 major tech companies are black, according to a report from The Information citing government filings.
To create a venue for black developers and tech professionals in the city, Bulambo founded BlackInTech Berlin about a year ago. It now has about 600 members who speak about career opportunities and swap tips on navigating Berlin’s technology landscape. “In our first meet-up, people shared their experiences — the struggle of moving from Nigeria or Ghana and being faced with the reality that they are no longer Nigerian or Ghanian, they are black,” Bulambo said.
Berlin has long been home to different minority groups, like Turkish and Vietnamese communities, and in 2015, Germany opened its doors to about 1m asylum seekers, primarily from Syria. But the black population is estimated to be relatively small in the country. A UN report in 2017 figured that about 1% of people in Germany were of African heritage. The black population makes up about 13% of people in the US and about 3% in the UK.
An American problem
In recent weeks, the lack of diversity inside tech companies across the globe has been laid bare. After the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis sparked a global wave of protests, including in Berlin, employees have called on companies to make public statements that Black Lives Matter.
However, people of colour working in Berlin tech say that they have encountered the belief from white Europeans that racism is an American problem. Black employees have been compelled to explain how that is not the case, its own form of emotional labour distracting from their daily workload.
“I’m not there to educate anyone. The information is there,” said one black woman working in a Berlin tech company who did not want to be named. She added that many people feel, as often the only back person they have met, that she has to answer their questions. "For me it’s like, ‘Hey, we live in Berlin. If I have this information, you also have this information.’”
The lack of knowledge often manifests in careless workplace microaggressions. “Basically at least once a month, someone will come to me and ask me about my hair,” said the same woman. “Sometimes, I feel like I would like to be invisible. I would just like to go to the office, do what I need to do, and not deal with people asking if I washed my hair.” Hiring people of colour, she said, is only the first step. “The process of hiring minorities is easier than taking care of those people when they’re already inside.”
Bulambo said that amid protests and working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, BlackInTech Berlin prioritised checking in on members’ mental health. “We’ve been trying to explain this for a year in Germany, where people think they are not that racist,’” Bulambo said. “Now people have been exposed to what happens in Berlin.”
Manny Acquah, a Ghanaian engineer and cofounder of BlackInTech Berlin, said that throughout his career when he was introduced as a chief technology officer there has been a “surprise factor” as people often looked shocked he would have such a role.
He adds though that it is even worse for black women. “As a black male, I still have an advantage in a way,” he said. “People in the tech industry still listen. Women have it a lot harder.”
A better future?
Gavin Bell works for a US tech company in Berlin. A black veteran of Silicon Valley, he said he has encountered similar problems in both countries. “The benefit of the doubt is never leaning toward you [if you are black],” he said.
Germans, he said, have a good working understanding of race issues in America, but often feel it does not apply to them. “There’s an awareness, but it is removed from them when you speak to a German. Here, it is about nationality and religion. They are just drawing different lines.”
Bell said there have been early signs of improvement in tech globally, pointing to Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, who stepped down from the company’s board and requested his seat be filled by a black board member. “It was a little contrived, but at least he’s making room,” Bell said. “There is a certain amount of room that has to be made and affordances that have to be extended.”
For Bulambo, the events of the past few weeks have sparked tech leadership at companies in Berlin and elsewhere to think more seriously about diversity and inclusion, a change she welcomes. Berlin-based Zalando, for instance, released a statement earlier this month rejecting racism and pledging greater diversity. Across Twitter, Berlin companies such as N26 declared that Black Lives Matter. What the future holds in Berlin is still largely unclear.
“We’re tired of talking and we want action,” she said.