Toppling the Tech Narrative: Examining Silicon Valley Privilege

Toppling the Tech Narrative by Dahlia Soussan - Photo by Alex Garrow

People move to Silicon Valley for successful careers in technology. 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 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. Subsequently, this intersection of their identities positioned them for jobs in which they could become incredibly wealthy. We 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 undoubted raw talent, but their identities are also comprised of a rare set of privileges that open certain doors over the course of their careers.

The commoditization of success leads to intense stigma around community college and low GPAs. During tearful bathroom breaks, I’ve consoled friends, and myself, over getting Bs on assignments 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 have some kind of 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 a right, but an expectation for me; 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 symbolic 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, downtown one will find people experiencing homelessness and encounter resource centers for working-class individuals for whom English is a second language. The signs of a disparate reality are evident in the deteriorating apartment complexes serving as low-income housing and tent cities erected in parks. My public high school is located in an affluent historic neighborhood. Driving through, one would be surprised to know that students at Lincoln High School are primarily English Language Learners (ESL) from low-income backgrounds.

In an area where access and wealth are sold as the primary narratives, I didn’t grasp the full extent of the poverty in Silicon Valley until I encountered the contradiction that is my public school. I shadowed at Lincoln in eighth grade, and what I saw in six hours challenged my entire perception of Silicon Valley. Demographically, most students were Hispanic, and they, in particular, came from predominantly low-income households—identities that intersected 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 also 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 appear white, and I have accepted that external identifier. I have access to quality education, healthy food, health care, and 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 understand if Lincoln would be a place I wanted to go to high school, knowing that I had the opportunity to attend an independent or charter school. 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, there was a strong possibility that would not be my reality. I think about the school and my shadow day there often, but I have not had to return to Lincoln, nor advocated 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 ultimate definition of living a Silicon Valley life. There is an erasure of the experiences lived by 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 am becoming evermore aware of the stereotypes around people who lack privilege (“dumb,” “unmotivated,” “thuggish”), and I seek to challenge these views in my own life. The Silicon Valley experience I’ve witnessed through my own eyes while in San Jose is increasingly unadulterated by the whitewashed narrative of wealthier regions. I respect how much less privileged families have sacrificed to survive in Silicon Valley.

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

This article was originally published on Jewish Women, Amplified, the blog of the Jewish Women’s Archive, and was written as part of the Rising Voices Fellowship
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Dahlia Soussan is a junior at Kehillah Jewish High School in the Bay Area, California. She is active in her school community as the president of the Israel Club, a leader of her school’s minyan, a member of Jewish Life Committee, and the leader of Kehillah’s Moot Beit Din team. She enjoys engaging and grappling with the complexities of the US/Israel relationship through Israel Club events and by facilitating conversations about Israel. Outside of school, you can find Dahlia writing fiction and prose, cooking, on long phone calls with friends, or passionately discussing political, religious, and cultural issues.
Accompanying photo: “The Painted Ladies” by Alex Garrow