Innovation, STEM

Apple is Open: Why CEO Tim Cook’s stance on racial prejudice is significant

Tim Cook’s statement on Apple’s open policy was significant this past week for many reasons. News outlets reported an incident last week in which black students were denied entrance into an Apple Store in Australia because the Apple employee thought they might steal something (see Techcrunch article). The TechCrunch story links to a video that one of the students took showing the Apple employee talking to students and letting the students know they were not allowed in the store because he thought they might steal something. Ironically, it’s possible that the video was shot on an Apple iPhone.

Although it was very unusual for the employee to prevent the black students in the store and tell them his reason why, it’s not unusual for African Americans, like myself, to be treated with subtle and sometimes not so subtle bias and prejudice in stores, companies, or universities. I cannot count the number of times I’ve walked into an Apple store only to feel ignored or counted off by the lack of attention or even what Apple employees have said to me. Not too long ago I was looking at a MacBook at an Apple Store and the employee said, “Oh, your dreaming about getting one one day”. I told him I already had one and just about every other Apple product. I thought to myself, did he just assume because I was black that I couldn’t afford one? Sadly, I must admit, even at WWDC 2015, I had two incidents where I was made to feel unwelcome and disrespected. I didn’t make a big deal about it. What could I do and was it worth the energy to report it?

That’s why Apple’s statement to all of his employees was so significant. According to Techcrunch, Tim Cook said:

“Apple is open. Our stores and our hearts are open to people from all walks of life, regardless of race or religion, gender or sexual orientation, age, disability, income, language or point of view. All across our company, being inclusive and embracing our differences makes our products better and our stores stronger.”

The article goes on to state that he is making sure Apple employees in their retail stores are being retrained to follow this policy. Hopefully this type of training will be extended to insure all facets of customer service, training, recruitment, and mentoring of not only retail employees but engineers and designers as well. Tim said that being inclusive and embracing their employees’ differences make their products better and stores stronger. That’s a powerful statement by the CEO of the world’s most valuable company and arguably the company with the top product brand world wide.

To me, the message from Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, is black consumers matter, black customers matter, black engineers matter, and ultimately black lives matter. If in any instance, black people, young or old, are valued less than others, then prejudice, discrimination, and ultimately violence can occur. I remember my sister telling me of how my Dad traveled with her to her small private college in Kentucky when he went to go help her fix her car and bring it home. When the bus traveled to a small bus stop in Kentucky, my Dad sat there waiting to be served food. The cafe worker wouldn’t serve him until the bus driver told him that he should. Many years later, black people are still being treated with bias, conscious and unconscious, and sometimes outright violence. I am saddened and shocked when I think of all that we are seeing happening to black people in 2015. Wasn’t this supposed to have had a turning point in the 1960’s?

And this racial prejudice and discrimination problem isn’t just a U.S. problem, it’s a global problem as well. In 2006, when I took my Spelman College students to Bremen, Germany to compete in RoboCup, the robot soccer “world cup”, they told me of a racial incident they faced after our competition was over. Bremen was not a World Cup city, but the World Cup was taking place in Germany that year. My students, all African American young women, went to a bowling alley. While going up the elevator to the bowling alley they noticed a swastika painted on the ceiling of the elevator. They asked to go in but the bowling alley employee refused to let them in. The students said they knew the alley was open and saw other bowlers having fun. On that same trip, in Dusseldorf, my friend and I waited to be served at a restaurant. We wanted to eat out side but were taken inside. When we were finally served my dish smelled like someone had dumped toilet water on it. My friend could speak fluent German so he complained about it and we left.

In my TEDx talk, I speak about the importance of being made to feel like we all can belong in the technology and engineering fields. Having a strong sense of belonging can breed creativity and innovation. Not belonging does the opposite and in its worst form brings violence and hate. Not many people knew of Steve Job’s strong feelings of disappointment about the lack of black engineers at Apple that he personally talked to me about. But the whole world knows about Apple’s current CEO’s public stance for human rights and the value he places on people of all races and backgrounds. What would our world be like if all CEOs had the same response and action that Tim Cook demonstrated to his employees last week?

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