Data & Society

Why Now is the Time for Racial Literacy in Tech

Episode Summary

2018-19 Data & Society Fellow Jessie Daniels offers strategies for racial literacy in tech grounded in intellectual understanding, emotional intelligence, and a commitment to take action. In this podcast, Daniels describes how the biggest barrier to racial literacy in tech is "thinking that race doesn't matter in tech." She argues that "without racial literacy in tech, without a specific and conscious effort to address race, we will certainly be recreating a high-tech Jim Crow: a segregated, divided, unequal future, sped-up, spread out, and automated through algorithms, AI, and machine learning." Jessie Daniels, PhD is a Professor at Hunter College (Sociology) and at The Graduate Center, CUNY (Africana Studies, Critical Social Psychology, and Sociology). She earned her PhD from the University of Texas-Austin and held a Charles Phelps Taft postdoctoral fellowship at University of Cincinnati. Her main area of interest is in race and digital media technologies; she is an internationally recognized expert on Internet manifestations of racism. Daniels is the author or editor of five books and has bylines at The New York Times, DAME, The Establishment, Entropy, and a regular column at Huffington Post. Her recent paper, "Advancing Racial Literacy in Tech," co-authored with 2018-19 Fellow Mutale Nkonde and 2017-18 Fellow Darakhshan Mir, can be found at http://www.racialliteracy.tech.

Episode Notes

2018-19 Data & Society Fellow Jessie Daniels offers strategies for racial literacy in tech grounded in intellectual understanding, emotional intelligence, and a commitment to take action. In this podcast, Daniels describes how the biggest barrier to racial literacy in tech is "thinking that race doesn't matter in tech." She argues that "without racial literacy in tech, without a specific and conscious effort to address race, we will certainly be recreating a high-tech Jim Crow: a segregated, divided, unequal future, sped-up, spread out, and automated through algorithms, AI, and machine learning."

Jessie Daniels, PhD is a Professor at Hunter College (Sociology) and at The Graduate Center, CUNY (Africana Studies, Critical Social Psychology, and Sociology). She earned her PhD from the University of Texas-Austin and held a Charles Phelps Taft postdoctoral fellowship at University of Cincinnati. Her main area of interest is in race and digital media technologies; she is an internationally recognized expert on Internet manifestations of racism. Daniels is the author or editor of five books and has bylines at The New York Times, DAME, The Establishment, Entropy, and a regular column at Huffington Post.

Her recent paper, "Advancing Racial Literacy in Tech," co-authored with 2018-19 Fellow Mutale Nkonde and 2017-18 Fellow Darakhshan Mir, can be found at http://www.racialliteracy.tech.

Episode Transcription

Jessie Daniels:     
We who create and use technology are functionally illiterate when it comes to racial matters and we are living at a time when we need to get much smarter much faster about race and tech. Now is the time for racial literacy in tech and I'm going to explain why.

Jessie Daniels:
Right now we are living in dangerous times. Times when a simple online search can suggest you have a criminal record if you are black or...your name sounds black, as Professor Latanya Sweeney has discovered. We are living in a time when search algorithms use the data of racist search terms to serve up autocomplete suggestions that further racist ideology, as Safiya Noble has written about. We are living in a time when AI is used to speed up the existing fault lines of racial inequality in housing, education, hiring, and in systems of criminal justice. When the new Jim Crow risks becoming the new Jim Code, as Ruha Benjamin has written. We are living at a time when every social platform becomes immediately vulnerable to white nationalist innovation opportunists, as I've written about. The dangerous times we are living in are created by design and have unintended consequences that harm us all.

Jessie Daniels:
Just as tech designed only for and by sighted people works less well for everyone, as Chancey Fleet noted in her Databite last week, tech designed with only white people in mind works less well for all of us.

Jessie Daniels:
The way we think about race in tech right now is trapped in cul de sacs. Cul de sacs, these inventions of American suburbia, engender seclusion, a lack of diversity, and a disassociation from the reality of contact with other people. By design, they limit possibility and connection. So what are these current cul de sacs in our thinking about race in tech? Well, there are three that I want to mention. There are probably many more.

Jessie Daniels:
The first, the most common idea, one we hear a lot in discussions of race in tech is that we have a pipeline issue. If only there were a greater supply of black and Latinx people ready to be hired, then this problem would be solved. But the reality is that there are people here, now, ready and qualified to be hired, but they are not hired in equitable numbers. And when they are hired, they very often face a miserable experience within tech companies that value the dominant culture and ignore the perspectives and rich lived experiences of those diversity hires once their numbers are counted and reported.

Jessie Daniels:
The second approach that's been tried in tech is to talk about implicit bias. There's some excellent work in this field. I want to shout-out Jennifer Eberhardt, who's done a recent book in this area. But there are some serious flaws with other work, as many have pointed out. Some twenty years on since this field was started, the lofty promises of the idea of implicit bias have failed to yield any real change. In fact, this is perhaps the most constraining of these cul de sacs, because it leaves the impression that our brains are hardwired for bias and there's little that we can do about it.

Jessie Daniels:
Most recently there have been promising discussions in the tech world about ethics and fairness, but so far, these have obfuscated the issue of race through abstraction. So how do we get out of these cul de sacs? How do we reconfigure our thinking? What we, my coauthors, Mutale Nkonde and Darakhshan Mir and I propose in launching Advancing Racial Literacy in Tech is a new way forward out of these cul de sacs.

Jessie Daniels:
Racial literacy includes three components. One, a cognitive and intellectual component. We can all learn some new things about the way race operates. An emotional or psychological component. Dealing with race brings up emotions and we need the capacity to manage those. And third, it involves a commitment to action which is necessarily rooted in ethics and values.

Jessie Daniels:
Research has demonstrated that positive framing and appealing to people's innate desire to look good to others can be harnessed to make workplaces more equitable. Racial literacy builds on this work by reframing the problem of race in tech as one that people in the dominant culture can and must take some responsibility for and make a positive change in.

Jessie Daniels:
Racial literacy combines internet literacy with critical media literacy and with an understanding of system racism. Media literacy alone, as danah boyd has argued, backfires. And indeed it has. The young people I interviewed for my book Cyber Racism who had internet literacy skills could look at cloaked sites, those disguised propaganda websites, and conclude, "Well, maybe slavery wasn't so bad. I mean, there are two sides to everything."

Jessie Daniels: 
In the conclusion of Cyber Racism, I call for this combination of internet literacy, critical media literacy, and racial literacy based on the fact that the young people I interviewed for that book were able to detect the propaganda in cloaked sites when they had a combination of internet literacy, the ability to look at one of these sites and say, "Well, this site just looks like an individual made it. I don't know if I would trust it," with racial literacy. As one young person put it, "This site says slavery wasn't that bad, but I know, based on other evidence, that it was bad. It was a thoroughly evil institution."

Jessie Daniels:
Racial literacy emphasizes skill-building and expanding our capacity to deal with racially stressful situations and centering the concerns of black, Latinx, and other people of color. As Dr. Howard Stevenson has described in his two decades of work on racial literacy and his session with us earlier here at Data & Society, when we encounter racially stressful situations, our body has a physiological response that we are often not aware of in the moment. What is a racially stressful encounter for one person, might not be for another person, but often we don't know when those are happening for someone else. Racial literacy means recognizing when racially stressful encounters are happening and increasing our capacity for understanding our own emotional and physiological responses to these encounters.

Jessie Daniels:
I want to talk about moments of racial literacy. Ijeoma Oluo in a recent piece for The Guardian writes, quote, "At a workshop I led last week a white woman wondered if perhaps people of color in America are too sensitive about race." I am here to tell you that some 25 years ago, I was this white woman. But I had a moment of racial literacy through a work assignment in which I was tasked with transcribing over 250 interviews with middle-class black Americans about their experiences of everyday racism.

Jessie Daniels:
When I began that task, I was like that woman Ijeoma Oluo describes, assuming that complaints about racism were simply because people were being too sensitive. The experience, though, of close listening, of typing every word and looking at the broad patterns in those interviews of repeated, constant, unrelenting racism faced by these very well-educated and accomplished people, many with multiple degrees, much more accomplished than any of the people in my family, most of whom had never attended college or even finished high school, made the evidence of racism undeniable. At the end of that experience, I was a different person. And I'm here to tell you as well that it is still painful and a racially stressful experience for me to tell you about my own illiteracy.

Jessie Daniels:
Since then, I've been wondering about how I might replicate these moments of racial literacy for others. My response has been writing books, giving talks like this one, and teaching, but I wonder about how to scale those moments. And I wonder about what your moments of racial literacy are.

Jessie Daniels:
I recently met a woman in D.C. who works in tech. Her name is Emily. When I explained the concept of racial literacy to her, she intuitively understood it and volunteered her own moment of racial literacy happened when she read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. She said, "I didn't know that stuff. I mean, I knew that there were racial disparities in incarceration, but I just thought, well, it embarrasses me to say this now. But I just thought black people committed more crime. I didn't realize there was this whole system that made sure black people got locked up."

Jessie Daniels:
There are many barriers to racial literacy in tech and I think one of them, as she was talking, it occurred to me, is the embarrassment and the shame of not knowing. Especially for white people, but maybe just for all people who think of themselves as smart. "How did I not know this?" can be a question that's tinged with embarrassment or even shame. Racial literacy provides us with a capacity to build an emotional capacity to acknowledge and then get past the shame and the embarrassment of not knowing.

Jessie Daniels:
But I think the biggest barrier to racial literacy in tech is thinking that race doesn't matter in tech. There are lots of ways that there is colorblindness in technology and I've written some about this. And colorblindness in tech is pervasive. There's a particular form of it in technology, and I can talk more about that in the Q&A, but this too is a form of illiteracy. We must face our racial illiteracy when it comes to tech, which brings me back to the place I started with this, which is why now is the time for racial literacy in tech.

Jessie Daniels:
The inequality of the next 20 years is being built now. Without racial literacy in tech, without a specific and conscious effort to address race, we will certainly be recreating a high-tech Jim Crow. A segregated, divided, unequal future, sped-up, spread out, and automated through algorithms, AI, and machine learning. I know that some will say that this is too big a problem, too complicated to ever address. To those, I would simply respond it is too important not to try. Although it would be naïve to think that racial literacy could dismantle structures of inequality, I do believe that racial [literacy]  can enable us to do less harm with the technology we are creating and using. "Not everything that is faced can be changed," James Baldwin reminds us, "But nothing can be changed until it is faced." Won't you join us in building this new future? Thank you.