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Identifying racism in technology

In this video you'll hear Abadesi Osunsade and Jean Jimbo talk about racism in technologies
<v ->Racist technology is technology that exacerbates racism</v> or promotes and encourages racist behaviours, racist attitudes, and racist outcomes. The technology might not be inherently or intentionally racist, but it may be composed of technologies that may produce racist outcomes. Those are negative outcomes for those who are racially discriminated against.
<v ->I don’t actually think technology itself is racist</v> but I think what we can see research being done by folks like the book “Invisible Women” is that when we, as individuals creating technology, whether that’s as an engineer or a product designer fail to recognise our own biases, which are often implicit, then we can create technology that also hasn’t been able to recognise its own biases and maybe feed datasets into that, that also isn’t truly reflective of society. So in that case, we have technology that unfortunately is more likely to harm people of colour.
So I’m Nigerian and Filipino and there was a really painful time in the history of the internet when, if you went onto Google and typed, ‘why are Nigerians’ you would not be receiving a bunch of really flattering responses from the suggested phrases. They were actually like super offensive things like why Nigerians scammers? why are Nigerians criminals? And that was just the algorithm training to respond to what it thinks is the most useful thing you want to read about based on the most common connections it has made in the past.
So obviously we know about anti-black sentiments in the Western world but there’s also a lot of antisemitic sentiments, a lot of Islamophobic sentiments around that same time before Google just actually broke the way it worked in order to fix it. You could also type in ‘why are Muslims’, ‘why are Jews’ and again, receive really negative, prejudice, discriminatory suggestions to complete the search phrase.
<v ->So Snapchat is a social media mobile app</v> that allows you to share ephemeral content. In its early days of viral popularity, it introduced filters which were new and exciting at the time. Filters are fun, artistic overlays that transform how you look in a photo or a video. Like everyone else who was excited about this new app, I downloaded it and proceeded to try out the face swap filter with a friend, fun, right? Unfortunately, it could only detect my friend’s who had much lighter skin colour than mine. It would not detect my face at all, even in bright light. While this example is not particularly harmful, there are others that can be harmful and Snapchat has since improved its algorithm.
<v ->When the Apple Watch came out, I remember everyone</v> being super excited about the Apple Watch. I love Apple products, I remember getting my first iPod and very quickly I started to see prominent women of colour within tech who I admire on Twitter talk about the failure for the heart rate reader feature on the Apple Watch to actually detect their pulse and recognise that. That kicked off a huge conversation about how the Apple watch performed on dark skin versus white skin. And of course being really expensive piece of hardware, people were really disappointed to find out that they couldn’t make full use of the features by virtue of their identity.
You know, Apple never really addressed that in the advertising campaigns but of course in later versions of the Apple watch did their best to make it respond better.
Well, I mean, selfishly, I’d like to live in a world where I’m considered equal to others. So, you know, that excites me personally. But I also just think, you know, just in terms of the legacy that our civilization wants to leave behind it’s really important for us to consider where we failed to promote greater equity and equality in the past and what we can do to improve on that in the future, and technology plays a really huge role in this.
Just because we’re increasingly dependent on it, but also because technology will soon replace individuals in making really critical decisions within society, whether that’s decisions in the education system, about what grades people should get or who should get a place at university, whether it’s decisions in the judicial system, right? Like who should be allowed parole or what should the length of a sentence for this crime be? If what we know about technology so far is that it will just replicate the biases that we have as individuals, then that makes me feel quite scared about the future.
When I look at the history of our society, our civilization, humanity, there’s a lot of conflict, there’s a lot of unrest, there’s a lot of unfortunate hatred that leads to, in my opinion, really preventable deaths and turmoil and trauma. So I think if we want to break this cycle and break this pattern, and then we really need to look at the technology that we’re building to do that.

In this video Jean and Abadesi talk about what racism in technology means to them and some of the ways they have experienced it.

Abadesi refers to the book ‘Invisible Women’, by Caroline Criado-Perez, which explores biases in data (1). She also mentions racist auto-complete phrases in search engines. To explore that topic further, you could read Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble (2).

What did you think about the examples given in the video? Was anything surprising? Discuss this in the comments below and remember to respond to your fellow learners.


  1. Caroline Criado-Perez, 2019. Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (It should be noted that this book has been criticised for failing to acknowledge the experiences of trans and non-binary people)

  2. Safiya Umoja Noble. 2018. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. NYU Press.

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Anti-Racist Approaches in Technology

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