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MIT Technology Review
Essay

Engineering while Black

Reckoning with Blackness as a first-generation immigrant at MIT.

Vincent AniokeVincent Anioke
Andrea Daquino

My first week at the Massachusetts Institute of Tech­nology was rife with revelations. I learned that five days sufficed to build a photosensitive robot from wires, circuit boards, and Legos; that burritos were tasty, if a bit messy, their insides prone to spilling on formerly white shoes; that I had an accent. This last bit revealed itself directly, from the passing remarks of an airport taxi driver, and indirectly, from a classmate’s occasional furrowed brow when we were deep in conversation.

Like breathing, recurring sensory details recede into the background. In Nigeria, where I was born and raised, nearly every skin I saw was black, so color had no weight. In America, skin had spectra, variation. With each new tone that the eyes processed, a flood of implicit associations followed. White was the norm. Black was fraught, frequently associated with headlines about imprisonment, police killings, everyday discrimination, and angry protests. For many, those associations would subconsciously shape their very first impression of me. Paradoxically, I was now both “newly Black” and “always Black.”

New fears echoed uneasily within me. They started to subside in my first few weeks at the Institute, whose actions seemed to indicate: “We see you; we welcome you; you belong.” We had the ABCs of student groups: African Students Association, Black Students’ Union, Chinese Students Club, etc. Campus event calendars were filled with offerings like graduates of color speaking candidly about their post-Institute careers, or professor-­led panels on the importance of a diverse research team in developing machine-learning algorithms. Black Lives Matter was vividly affirmed, on posters in long hallways, in emails from President Reif, in the empathetic words of a resident dorm advisor. A titanium bubble seemed to separate MIT from the rest of the world, a dome deflecting the javelin jabs of racism. In spaces where few looked like me, I thrived emotionally. With my floormate Kevin, I built Olaf, my first snowman, six feet of densely packed snowballs adorned with twigs and tar-black stones. I joined a fraternity, and we screamed ourselves hoarse atop the highest roller coasters of Six Flags, golden arcs of sunlight on our faces.

Still, loosely scattered moments reminded me of the ever-present implications of skin. A Black Lives Matter poster in the Infinite Corridor was defaced. A fellow student, prone to all manner of silly jokes, said off-handedly that he was glad MIT had lowered its bar for people of color through affirmative action, because we “always make parties lit.” Shame followed me to bed that nightshame for my own silence, my anxious avoidance of confrontation, my inability to explain why his joke, uttered with a smile, stung so sharply. In a computer science recitation, the teaching assistant asked us to form pairs, and I panicked. I was the only Black student. Would it matter? And if not now, in some other class?

Many of us felt that we needed to be as perfect as humanly possible, lest our individual failings become the stereotypes of Blackness.

These off-kilter moments were the exception, I reminded myself. But within this dynamic of “mostly good,” I realized that my moments of joy were often at the mercy of a physical attribute beyond my control, as if my skin could turn on me at a moment’s notice, poisoning the air with a peer’s subconscious bias. Consider how you might feel about opening doors if doorknobs had a 1 in 200 chance of zapping you with electricity.

Harder still was realizing that my “1 in 200” was “1 in 50” or “1 in 5” for other students of color. We were drawn to each other through movie nights featuring stars like Lupita Nyong’o, through feasts of West African jollof rice and spicy stewed chicken. Beneath the buzz of flickering projector screens, we passed intimate details of our lives back and forth with uncommon ease. I came to understand how the experiences of Blackness within the Institute formed a diverse tapestry rather than a monolith, even if some commonalities emerged. Black friends struggling severely with mental-health issues met a range of responses from their instructors, from extensive support to indifference to weariness at a perceived lack of effort. Black peers who felt they were simply getting by received outsize affirmation: “You’re so impressive, so articulate.” For them, it became a taxing mental exercise in discerning good-faith praise from condescension, in resisting the impression that academic strength was being implicitly positioned as un-Black. Many of us felt that we needed to be as perfect as humanly possible, lest our individual failings become the stereotypes of Blackness. This state of mind meant that even setbacks as simple as an internship rejection were doubly scrutinized: were my skills insufficient, or did my Blackness seep through the résumé? Were these pervasive feelings legitimate, or were we haunted by illusory mirages?

While we pondered the nuances of collegiate micro- and macro-­aggressions, we were treated to a more dismal spectacle looping on the major news networks. People who looked like us were shot, beaten, and choked to death, sometimes in front of their families. We saw their killers wander from the blood trails of their jagged knives to the untouched aftermath of their tidy lives. Social-media gurus became detectives overnight, studiously digging up scraps of irrelevant background infothis criminal record from eight years ago, or that threatening posture in the ninth frame of the video, glimpsed better with a squint. We saw some of our classmates use this moment of our collective pain to play devil’s advocate.

A country that once equated Black bodies to goods prime for sale and harvest will not magically purge itself of inequality overnight. No, that imbalance soaks the fabric of its very institutions. The titanium bubble I’d earlier imagined did not exist, and the world’s outside troubles found their way in. Because racial imbalance is ever present, Black students at MIT feel the weight of their Blacknessthe uneasiness, the double discerning, the otheringand have to manage the dissonance of experiencing these feelings in one of the world’s most renowned universities.

As a proud alumnus, I can say that my four years at the Institute remain some of the best years of my life. I danced in the hallowed space where technology becomes magic. I formed everlasting bonds. I thrived. Yet, like my Black peers, I often had to grapple with understanding the consequence of my skin within, and beyond, MIT’s doors. I had to reconcile the good, the great, with a world still fractured by racial inequality. To many, the reflexive response is “Deal with it!” Such a state, they argue, is as inevitable as life itself. Unchangeable. 

Not to MIT, which has always prized in its students a hunger for taking on the impossible. And certainly not to me.

Vincent Anioke ’17 is a software engineer at Google Canada.