Racist Tech and The End of Culture Complacency

Even though consequences are necessary to address the racism in technology, we have built a culture that refuses accountability.

by Cameron G. on December 15th, 2015

So much has happened this year when it comes to tech and diversity, but there’s one thing that stands out to me. 2015 marked the height of racist technology at the forefront of culture, and the overwhelming neutrality on the topic by many within the tech community left me with feelings of discouragement and anger.

For me, the height of this quiet problem came with this past summer’s incident at popular sci-fi convention Dragon*Con, when an automated soap dispenser failed to recognize a Black man’s skin. While Mic tried to uncover a “scientific reason” why the soap dispenser wouldn’t recognize Black users, the response left me with more questions than answers. Richard Whitney, VP of the product and parent company Particle, stated:

The soap dispenser uses near-infrared technology, which sends out invisible light from an infrared LED bulb for hands to reflect the light back to a sensor. The reason the soap doesn’t just foam out all day is because the hand acts to, more or less, bounce back the light and close the circuit. “If the reflective object actually absorbs that light instead, then the sensor will never trigger because not enough light gets to it,” Whitney told Mic. “In order to compensate for variations in skin color,” Whitney said, “The gain, [or] sensor equivalent to ISO and exposure in cameras, would have to be increased.”

In this statement, the avoidance of responsibility gave me the most cause for concern. However, Particle’s soap dispenser is not alone in this issue: many other tech products have racism embedded in their programming. This year, Google Photos tagged photos of Black users as “gorillas” or “apes”, while gaming apps continued to rely heavily on racialized tropes to boost user engagement and achievement. These incidents illuminate a recurring pattern of both casual and blatant oppression, as well as tech companies refusing to claim responsibility or correct the core issues at hand. In the tech field, where innovation and scrutiny is more routine than in any other industry, this is unacceptable.

Person taking close-up picture of themselves in a mirror.

Photo CC-BY bandita.

As a Black woman in tech, and as someone that sees potential for progress in this industry, it’s more than just angering and disappointing to see. It also makes me question how our refusal to confront these issues has built the overwhelming complacency we see today. Even though consequences are necessary to address the racism in technology, we have built a culture that refuses accountability and thus creates tacit approval for these harmful practices: take, for instance, when Facebook came under fire for failing to take action against racist posts on their website. Even seemingly innocent solutions to larger-world problems – crime-fighting apps that rely on racial profiling, a people-grading app that lacks safeguards against abuse or surveillance – are created with obvious bias left largely unaddressed by their creators, unless hit with massive public outcry. And it’s not just the products that carry these racist messages: we see them also in the hiring demographics of major technology companies, whose numbers reflect a lack of confidence in the power of marginalized influencers, or the quality of their work.

There have been some reports that document how the current technology culture negatively impacts marginalized workers – but as this post by Erica Joy shows, the stress and isolation created by the culture are just a few factors can lead to further marginalization and possibly opting out of tech altogether:

The stress and isolation I mentioned have really taken their toll on me. Long term stress is known to cause health issues. Not long after I started working in New York, I developed heart problems (PVC’s). About 3 years ago I started to get acne, something I’ve never had in my life. I always thought it was hormonal but now recognize that it happens when I’m stressed. The isolation and resultant loneliness have exacerbated the stress, leaving me in constant fight or flight mode… I know this: I am not my job. I am not my industry or its stereotypes. I am a black woman who happens to work in the tech industry. I don’t need to change to fit within my industry. My industry needs to change to make everyone feel included and accepted.” –The Other Side of Diversity by Erica Joy

Without consequences and more nuanced understanding of different perspectives and cultures, we’re left with a tech culture something akin to a leech: the best parts of marginalized workers are taken, and we are left feeling like victims and stripped of our power.

Still, 2015 was a year of such innovation and growth, because despite the many obstacles, we are seeing many more marginalized developers, creators, and innovators take their place in the spotlight and voice the importance of seeing people like them in leadership roles. While sometimes these cries were met with diversity 101 workshops, it’s clear that diversity awareness programs simply aren’t enough. The solution to an ever-evolving problem cannot be lectures and slideshows, but rather real consequences and collaboration.

Two women of color in technology talking over a computer.

Photo CC-BY #WoCinTech Chat

The calls of marginalized technologists also highlighted how dominant tech culture lacks a fundamental emphasis on humanities and social justice-geared learning. Many who carry blasé attitudes towards identity and marginalization have minimal exposure to inclusional and multicultural practices. Though this isn’t an excuse, it allows harmful tropes and stereotypes to carry over and become the unofficial norm: they become the defacto ideologies reflected in our technology and products, growing in the silence of complacency.

After all, what makes technology both irreplaceable and vulnerable to use by harmful predators is it is a tool and a messenger of the status quo. When the status quo is one that excludes any kind of intersectionality — that excludes the most marginalized — harmful things follow. This is the danger when oppression is inserted within the framework of any culture or product: not only do we allow for these harmful viewpoints to become normalized, but we send the message that relying on less-than-subpar standards is what merits success in tech. The truth is that by embedding racism and oppression within the very framework of a product’s programming, we give license to that violence becoming normalized. That makes us — within one of the most creative and exciting fields of work — not only lazy, but accomplices.

Are we afraid to find out what would be left if we resisted the allure of oppression, and properly applied consequences when racist controversy and trolling is used to lead sales and interest in products? Or are we simply uncertain if we have the talent and the ability to create products that will entice the public on their own merits? Do we fear letting the users be in full control of their appreciation of the product at hand – finding the product’s appeal in its usefulness and added value to their lives?

It may be optimistic, but that’s the appeal that drove me to tech in the first place. And I’m sure that if we look hard enough, we will be able to find it again. We all deserve the freedom to enjoy products within tech that don’t rely on racial objectification, marginalization and erasure.

It’s long time that tech becomes reliant on things besides tropes and oppression to succeed.