Toppling the Tech Narrative: Examining Silicon Valley Privilege

Google bike in front of Google campus in Palo Alto, California. Via Flickr by Roman Boed.

People move to Silicon Valley for successful careers in tech. Since the 1950s, the small region encircling a bay in Northern California has emerged as the international stronghold of technological innovation. It attracts immigrants to a few major tech companies and thousands of start-ups. I was only five when my family moved to Silicon Valley. I both knowingly and subconsciously acclimated to its wealth, a product of living ensconced in the privilege that comes from a seemingly endless flow of money into the region. As I’ve gotten older and moved to a new city, I’ve become increasingly aware of the ways that the tech prosperity surrounding me has tainted my perception of real life.

Start-up culture and the looming presence of companies like Google and Apple perpetuate a myth that getting rich is an overnight process. Students of all ages in Silicon Valley internalize a god-like reverence for CEOs and COOs like Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, who grew up white and privileged and were educated at elite schools. This intersection of their identities poised them for jobs in which they could become incredibly wealthy. Students conflate the rare instance of a start-up going public with reality, though these success stories and the lucky investors who become rich overnight are anomalies; these people experience a certain level of luck and have undoubtable raw talent, but their identities are also comprised of a set of privileges that open certain doors over the course of their careers.

The commoditization of success leads to intense stigma around low GPAs. During tearful bathroom breaks, I’ve consoled friends, and myself, over getting a B on an assignment for school. This year, when I chose to move down from a challenging honors math class to the regular level, I agonized over the decision; the wealthiest parts of Silicon Valley have recalibrated its standards so that advanced STEM coursework is the expectation. I often feel inadequate when held against these contrived standards, and I still feel some misplaced guilt for leaving the class.

Yet, I recognize that I’m able to participate in this systemic anxiety because I can take two facts for granted: 1) Four-year college is not only an expectation for me, but also feels like a right and 2) I don’t have other major familial or economic responsibilities that will distract from my focus on academics. Neither do my peers. The academic pressure is indicative of a larger privilege. In reality, the opportunity to invest so much energy (which at times manifests as stress) into high academic performance, albeit unhealthy, defines privilege. My understanding of these anxieties as a product of privilege came about when I moved to San Jose from Sunnyvale, a more quintessentially “Silicon Valley town,” four years ago.

San Jose is an expansive city at the southmost point of Silicon Valley. It encapsulates much of the “diversity” within Silicon Valley. While manufactured suburban neighborhoods backdrop sleek tech campuses there, downtown you will encounter people experiencing homelessness and see resource centers for working class individuals for whom English is a second language. The signs of a disparate reality are evident in the deteriorated apartment complexes serving as low-income housing and tent cities erected in parks. My public high school is located in a historic and affluent neighborhood. Driving through, some might be surprised to find that students at Lincoln High School are primarily English Language Learners (ESL) from low-income backgrounds.

I shadowed at Lincoln in eighth grade, and what I saw in six hours challenged my entire perception of Silicon Valley. Many of the students were Hispanic and from low-income households, identities that intersect to make their experience uniquely challenging. The classes were scaled to serve a population that was systematically deprived of academic resources. Most students had been educated in the most under-resourced part of the San Jose Unified School District since kindergarten, so their academic skills tested below grade-level. When I asked about college, some students told me they planned to go to community college or to a California State University. Many, I learned, weren’t considering college as a realistic option.

I returned home at the end of the day acutely aware of facets of my privilege to which I had previously paid no attention: I have access to quality education, healthy food, healthcare, I appear white, I speak English (so I have no language barrier when completing my coursework or advocating for myself in an academic setting), and both my parents have gone to university. College feels inevitable.

Still, my most explicit privilege in the situation was that I did not have to go to Lincoln. The intention behind my shadow day was to see if I wanted to go to Lincoln for high school, knowing that I had the opportunity to attend an independent or charter school assuming it was not. I bore witness to my school district’s inability to invest in improving Lincoln’s academics, denying students experiencing intersectional oppression the opportunity to overcome the obstacles in their path with the armor of an education. While I was disheartened, I knew that would not need to be my reality. I think about the school and my shadow day there often, but I have not had to return to Lincoln or to advocate for school system reform in my district because I attend a private school with many resources.

My shadow visit has given me a new lens with which to understand my experience in Silicon Valley. While only a subset of the “Silicon Valley” region knows acute wealth and privilege, we employ the Google or Apple executive experience as the penultimate definition of living a Silicon Valley life. There is an erasure of the experiences of people in blue-collar jobs or without work visas. It led me to ignore how high wealth concentration creates economic disparity.

Living in San Jose has popped my bubble. I’m cognizant that my transcripts and test scores measure privilege more than they do effort or intellect, so the anxiety surrounding academic performance is artificial. I'm becoming ever more aware of the offensive stereotypes about people who lack these privileges (“dumb,” “unmotivated,” “thuggish”) and I seek to challenge these views in my own life. The Silicon Valley I've come to see while in San Jose is increasingly unadulterated by the whitewashed narrative of wealthier regions.

Ultimately, if we look at Silicon Valley as a region that exists solely in prosperity, we create an empty society that ignores flaws when they present themselves. To change the script, we must convey Silicon Valley as the dynamic, holistic, and imperfect place that it is and recognize that, though we may one day successfully automate every facet of our lives, we can’t “outcode” inequality if we perpetuate a narrow worldview that categorically ignores it.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Schools, Technology
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How to cite this page

Soussan, Dahlia. "Toppling the Tech Narrative: Examining Silicon Valley Privilege." 22 January 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 3, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/toppling-tech-narrative-examining-silicon-valley-privilege>.

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