The “Hello World” Project: Lessons Learned Between Dubai and Montana
When I learned how to write my first computer program many years ago, our first task was to write an algorithm that wrote “Hello World.” After traveling to various places around the US, South America, and the Middle East, that term “Hello World” is taking on a new meaning with regard to my experiences with racial and gender bias. I was traveling between Montana and Oregon during the Ferguson trial outcome and the Tamir Rice shooting, and I was in Dubai, United Arab Emirates during the Eric Garner decision. The experience of being a woman of color in places where I was very much the minority during those times was interesting. I often say hello to people, yes … to random strangers, as a matter of course. While I was in Montana, I didn’t see any women with melanin, and although that has not been unusual during my travels, it can still be a daunting experience. One day, after leaving meetings at Montana State University, I saw some bearded gentlemen in a store who were dressed in camouflage, who were talking about hunting, and I remember hesitating before saying hello. I quickly recovered, remembering that I don’t want to reverse stereotype, and I said hello. The gentlemen and I ended up having a short, but friendly banter about huckleberry tea. In some cases, I’ve said hello to people, and they’ve just stared at me. This happened several times in Utah. It’s interesting when you say smile and say hello to someone, and they just stare at you. This is different from the practice of saying hello in my community where a hello is returned with something … a verbal response, an “up-nod,” a regular nod, and/or a smile. After the Montana and Utah experiences, I decided that I would “step up my game,” and as much as possible, just say hello to any and everyone in my path … regardless of the locale, and regardless of the news or political tensions of the day.
My little “Hello World” project was working well, until I was in Dubai, and found myself internally challenged when during a session, we were asked to turn to our neighbors to think about solutions for gender bias in engineering. I came face to face with an older man with a full length white robe (or “thobe”), wearing the traditional “keffiyeh” head dress. Having heard so many stories about male and female professional interactions in the Middle East, or lack thereof, I didn’t know if I would be welcomed as a group member for this exercise, especially since I was the only woman in my vicinity of the room at the time. So I said hello. He smiled back with enthusiasm and said, “Shall we form a group?” My answer was a happy “yes,” and we went ahead and had a great conversation with our newly formed group that included a male from the U.S. and another male from the U.K.
The key here is that acknowledging someone’s presence can make a difference. If the acknowledgement is ignored, so be it. However, if it is returned, that simple acknowledgement may open doors to a whole new world.