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4 examples of anti-racist initiatives in tech

This article looks at some recent attempts to tackle racism in technology products and initiatives, and how genuine and effective they are.
© Creative Computing Institute

There are many approaches to embedding anti-racism in technology development, from improving company policies and deploying better quality data, to supporting tech worker activism.

Let’s take a look at some of them.

1. Algorithmic Justice League

The Algorithmic Justice League, founded by Joy Buolamwini, has a mission to ‘raise awareness about the impacts of AI, equip advocates with empirical research, build the voice and choice of the most impacted communities, and galvanize researchers, policymakers, and industry practitioners to mitigate AI harms and biases’. (1)

It was launched after Joy encountered problems with facial analysis software when working on an engineering project at MIT.

The software struggled to detect her darker-skinned face, but could recognise a face drawn on the palm of her hand. She invited her MIT peers who were lighter in skin colour to test the software and discovered it was easily able to detect their faces. To finish her project, she resorted to covering her face with a white mask in order for it to be detected.

2. Replacing racist coding language

As Abadesi mentioned in week one, in 2020, technology companies including Google and Github announced they were removing racially insensitive terms within their coding language, websites and documentation. Proposed changes included replacing “blacklist” and “whitelist” with “blocklist” and “allowlist,” replacing “master” for “main/default/primary” and “slave” for “secondary.”

As one journalist put it: “Seemingly minor language changes such as those proposed by GitHub have power that resounds much further than its website’s borders. The more we use racist language in our discussions of technology (and everyday life in general), the further we press institutionalized racism into disparate aspects of society.” (2)

Google Chrome

The team who build Google Chrome have been making headway since 2018 to update the terms blacklist to blocklist and whitelist to allowlist to reduce end-users unconsciously associating ‘black’ with negative concepts.

However, references to blacklist and whitelist still existed within the code. A Chromium developer (Google’s open-source version of Google Chrome) updated the back end code so that references to the blacklist were renamed to the blocklist (3, 4).

3. Big Tech Racial Equality Initiatives

Following the death of George Floyd, many technology companies made public statements about and commitments to supporting Black communities. In 2020, Google committed to spending more than $175 million on racial equity initiatives with a focus on financing black-owned businesses and supporting black entrepreneurs (5).

Amazon

Amazon committed to donating “a total of $10 million to organizations that are working to bring about social justice and improve the lives of Black and African Americans.”; Apple announced a $100 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg committed to giving an “additional $10 million to groups working on racial justice”; Microsoft pledged to donate $250,000 to racial justice organisations (6).

However, critics say that these pledges do not go far enough, and that we need to see what these companies will actually do over the long term to address systemic racism (7, 8, 9).

4. Netflix

Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, people all around the world started doing research into how they could be anti-racist and identify examples of racism both past and present.

Netflix already presents movies based on categories to its users, and to ensure that people were able to expand their understanding of racism, Netflix added a Black Lives Matter category. This update was made to provide a curated list of over 40 movies, series and documentaries which tell stories of injustice and the Black experience (10).

References:

  1. Algorithmic Justice League
  2. Matt Wille, 2020. GitHub and others are replacing racist coding terms like ‘master’ and ‘slave’, Input.
  3. Inclusive Chromium code.
  4. Kyle Bradshaw, 2020. Google Chrome and Android move away from ‘blacklist’, 9 to 5 Google.
  5. Jacob Kastrenakes, 2020. Google commits $175 million to racial equity with focus on black-owned businesses, The Verge.
  6. Jay Peters, 2020. Big Tech Companies Are Responding To George Floyd In A Way They Never Did For Michael Brown, The Verge.
  7. Jay Peters, 2020 Big Tech Pledged a Billion to Racial Justice but it was Pocket Change, The Verge.
  8. The Plug and Fast Company, 2021 Black in tech: Can Silicon Valley Change?.
  9. Harper’s Bazaar, 2020. 50+ Black Lives Matter movies on Netflix.
  10. Netflix, 2021. Netflix partners with renowned author Dr. Ibram X. Kendi to bring three of his bestselling books to life onscreen.

Further Resources

  1. Charlton McIlwain, 2021. Stanford Seminar – What is Anti-Racist Technology?.
  2. Ploipailin Flynn & Sindhuja Shyam, 2020. Building anti-racist products: Adopting a new design approach by Ploipailin Flynn & Sindhuja Shyam, Project IF.
  3. Exygy, 2020. 8 ways the tech community is building anti-racist products and what we can learn from them.
© Creative Computing Institute
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Anti-Racist Approaches in Technology

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