Black Women
(Unintentionally) In Tech

Jasmine A. Golphin

Search for “Black Women in Tech” on Twitter and you’ll get two kinds of tweets. The first is what most people would expect: celebratory posts about Black women working in technology. Someone who wants to share the new code they developed, or talk computer specs, or just find others in their field. All actual technicians with advanced training.

And then there’s a second category. A woman thanking her friends for helping her get her account back from a hacker. Another opening a bottle of wine with a hair straightener. A third woman riding around in modified, high powered motorized cart in the middle of the street. (And to be clear, she is inside the cart itself, just cruising along on a bright sunny day living her best life in her bright pink wig.) All tweets with the caption “Black Women in Tech”.

The second set of tweets—the more colloquial uses of the term—show that “Black Women in Tech” can be a humorous yet earnest nod at instances of Black women and girls solving everyday issues with technology. A child who uses a family photo to unlock her aunt’s phone; a mother fixing her son’s PS4; a woman using screencast on her TV to do her hair. Whether used intentionally or not, the phrase’s popularity points to how many common problems could be solved if tech was more accessible to us and—perhaps even more importantly—we were allowed to approach said problems in our own way.

* * * * *

From 2012 - 2017 I ran a non-profit afterschool program called MyMedia, which introduced middle and high school students to documentary filmmaking and journalism. It was the kind of program that really was a product of the time. Cameras had just become portable and affordable enough that we could give each student one at the end of the eight-week introductory program. Each student made a short documentary about their community in those eight weeks—only four of which were spent learning how to edit using Adobe Premiere CS6.

I started each session by reminding the students that a program like this couldn’t exist prior to the 2010s; I would spend the first class tracking the evolution of media to prove it. News reels that were shot on 16mm, research that could only be done in libraries, self disruption through social media. I wanted to impress on my students just how fast technology has evolved in the last few decades. It’s become ubiquitous, but that doesn’t have to be an ominous thing. I wanted to make it clear to the students that they have agency in how their story is told, a luxury not afforded to most of their ancestors.

I wanted to make it clear to the students that they have agency in how their story is told, a luxury not afforded to most of their ancestors.

I ended up having to leave the program, as grant money became harder to find. Looking back, I could have fought more to pivot our scope towards the arts rather than just the limited quantitative measures the administration wanted to focus on. The grant writers wanted to be able to say that these students were ready for an internship at our local news station after just two months of participating in the class. It wasn’t very realistic. Most of the kids just needed something to do after school. More than a few brought their younger siblings. Once, I had a parent drop off two very young children with their older brother—a student who had applied but hadn’t been accepted. The mom gave a quick wave and went out the door before I could protest. My students weren’t trying to plan their next career moves at MyMedia; most had already decided what they wanted to do with their lives, and they rarely picked documentary filmmaking.

That said, there were a handful that did sign up specifically to learn more about journalism or filmmaking, and they work in those fields now! One of them, Robbie, didn’t know he wanted to be an editor until MyMedia—and he works at that aforementioned local news station today.

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But all my students were thinking about their community. They all loved the idea of being a journalist, of taking 8 weeks to decide what was important enough to them that they would want to tell their classmates about it. In the five years I taught in the program, over 100 short documentaries were made. The students told stories about their blended families; about music; about the medical issues their loved ones were facing; about teen pregnancy; and how they felt about Black Lives Matter, animal cruelty, domestic violence, bullying, and standardized testing. For the majority of the students, this was their very first video project outside of Vine and Instagram, and while that inexperience showed in the quality of their final projects, it didn’t always. Sometimes, just giving a kid some pizza and access to Adobe CS6 is enough for them to learn that they really like editing. One of the best docs made was by a girl who had never picked up a camera and doesn’t work in film today—she just knew how to listen to others and ask the right questions. At the screening party we held at the end of the session, the classmates she featured told her it felt like they were in a real documentary. They asked for copies, even though we had uploaded the documentary on YouTube.

Black Women in Tech.

* * * * *

My resourceful, incredibly nerdy mother was dedicated to building a home library when I was growing up. Multiple dictionaries, thesauruses and encyclopedias, history texts, non-fiction narratives, and sci-fi for fun. “If you don’t know something, look it up” was her mantra. It was a house rule that went right along with the “Work twice as hard to be half as good” truism that Black people are raised with. When you had a library at home, you never had to risk seeming ignorant in front of the people who might be in charge of your paycheck or education. Don’t know a reference? Just write it down and look it up later. I saw her do it in social settings and on Take your Daughter to Work Day. “Oh that sounds interesting, let me write that down to look up later!” she’d say while jotting down a quick note. Such an easy habit for her daughter to pick up.

I was a foreign woman in a foreign land—but in the 2000s, that meant I had a lightning fast translator in my pocket for once.

I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker when I was 14, and thanks to my mother’s mantra, I knew I could go to my neighborhood library and print 26 pages of filmmaking terms from I kept those sheets in a blue folder for the rest of my time in grade school, finally letting them go as I entered college because by that point I had them memorized. Professors, in turn, assumed I had a higher level of filmmaking experience than I did because I knew what a martini shot was. I never corrected them.

By the time I was in college, I could look up things even faster with the computer inside my pocket. I didn’t have to just smile politely when someone made some deep cut reference to Dungeons and Dragons or Star Wars. In the film school world, being able to recognize obscure work became something of a currency. I have no idea how many sets I was invited to because I knew some quote from The Goonies (a movie I’ve never seen, btw). Of course, my classmates didn’t have to know my fun facts, like how Spike Lee directed The Original Kings of Comedy. There’s no currency in that. I was a foreign woman in a foreign land—but in the 2000s, that meant I had a lightning fast translator in my pocket for once.

I made it a point to explain media literacy to the MyMedia students because I knew how powerful it was. I learned that for myself in those final college years. It wasn’t uncommon for the few other Black film students to confide in one another. We regularly joked about (i.e., lamented over) the Black films we wished would get the same level of analysis as Mulholland Drive or Birth of a Nation. More often than not, someone would tell me I was lucky to know as many white films as I did. They’d vent about professors who would talk down to them because they didn't catch some lingo or an obscure reference. And while I did know more white culture points than most (shout out to Shaker Heights High School, a story for another day), I let them know I really was just relying on that translator in my pocket. Once I told them that secret—something I hadn’t realized was even a secret at all—it was like I had unlocked a hidden treasure.

Black Women in Tech.

* * * * *

You get it.

I have no dedicated relationship to the world of tech. I know MySpace levels of coding, and I adapt basic fact checking skills when I need to Google something. That’s about it. But throughout my career, amongst my friends and family, I have become the Techie™, the first line of IT help in their lives. It was a title I never really understood because, again, I have no formal training (or really any particular interest) in tech. What I do like is problem solving, so I always just chalked it up to that.

I only knew the answers because I knew how to use the tech in my pocket to work twice as good.

It’s been through reflecting on this that I have realized a second angle, an informal tech education I overlooked: film school. Specifically, Cleveland State University’s Film and Digital Media program, which was only three years old when I enrolled in 2006. It was underfunded, stuck in a corner of the already-stuffed Music and Communication building, and it was being held together by two professors of film and a bunch of adjunct professors with a background in live local television production… which is to say that we had to make do with what we had. Everyone had to run cable, everyone had to know how much power the outlets could handle, everyone had to know how to make the footage coming from the DVX-100 look cinematic. We learned about tech specs, how to convert footage, what to do when a project crashes, how to build websites, how to troubleshoot—despite the fact there wasn’t enough formal education on any of this. A lot of students ended up teaching each other, sharing tips we learned in other classes and on other projects.

I remember the number of times one of the Black students came to me with a film tech question, before they went to a professor or white student. I don’t mean to position myself as a guru here—the exact opposite, in fact. I was something of a stopgap. Communication in the communication building was trash, and it was up to the marginalized kids to help themselves. I only knew the answers because I had been invited to other sets, because the professors assumed I knew the language, because I confidently knew which actors were in Star Wars. Because I knew how to use the tech in my pocket to work twice as good.

And that is the heart of it. The term “Black Women in Tech” popped up in the 2000s as a serious, desperately needed identifier to bring a specific community together. When we think of tech, we associate it with complexity, with a specific kind of proficiency needed to use it properly. We both want and need to highlight the Black women who put in the effort to work in that field.

“Black Women in Tech” shows that technology has the ability to expedite the mundane for the rest of us.

But there’s an implied hierarchy in that thought, or at least an implied othering. Technology intimidates a lot of people. So there’s something approachable in that secondary, colloquial use of “Black Women in Tech”. It highlights the democratization of technology. It celebrates the mundane, the everyday aid that technology can be in our lives. Instead of being intimidating, “Black Women in Tech” reminds us that these tools are for us too. “Black Women in Tech” shows that technology has the ability to expedite the mundane for the rest of us.

Jasmine A. Golphin is a visual artist, creative producer and director from Cleveland, Ohio. She has spent 12 years managing film education and community outreach programs for nonprofit organizations such as MyCom, Neighborhood Leadership Institute, Cleveland International Film Festival, SPACES and Maelstrom Collaborative Arts. In 2020 she founded the community organization Black Spring CLE to create and support existing alternatives to the policing and justicial system. Today, she is the Associate Artistic Director at Maelstrom Collaborative Arts, an interdisciplinary arts organization dedicated to improving the creative lifespan of Cleveland area artists. Her first solo exhibition FACEBOOKLAND, a surrealist VR gallery experience opened January 2022 and was funded by SPACES' The Satellite Fund through The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Regional Regranting Program. She followed FACEBOOKLAND with her second VR show Above|Below in September 2022. Jasmine has also directed and produced several film + video projects including To New Beginnings (2016), The Adventures of Fab Jenkins (2016), The Whitebox Listening Project (2017 for Waterloo Arts), 34 (2019), Playing with a Purpose (2020 for Lake Erie Ink) and Sum Total (est Spring 2023 for PBS Ideastream). More at and @jasmineagolphin.