XXVIII.5 September - October 2021
Page: 34
Digital Citation

Reflecting on being black in computing

Quincy Brown, Tyrone Grandison, Odest Jenkins, Jamika Burge, Tawanna Dillahunt, Jakita Thomas, Sheena Erete, Yolanda Rankin

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In June 2020, a community of Black computing professionals from around the world published an open letter (https://blackincomputing.org/), initiated by some of the authors, and two calls for action to the global computing community, one from Black in Computing (https://blackincomputing.org/action-item-list/) and the other an ACM Interactions blog [1]). The open letter began with our reflections of the moment:

The recent killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police has sparked a movement that began at the birth of our nation. Though George Floyd may have been the most recent instance, we should not forget the lives of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop, Tony McDade, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Philando Castille, Tanisha Anderson, Atatiana Jefferson, Eric Garner, Charleena Lyles, Eula Love, Michael Brown, Khalief Browder, Botham Jean, Tamir Rice, Latasha Harlins, Amadou Diallo, Mary Turner, Emmett Till, and too many other Black people who have been murdered…

back to top  Insights

We are often taught that computing is �colorblind� but we must recognize that structural and institutional racism has infiltrated, infected, and affected our discipline.
Sitting on the sidelines because one is not directly affected by discrimination is not sufficient, nor is diversity a transaction to be undertaken only when it is convenient or serves one�s interest.
There is a role for each of us to build stronger, more creative, inclusive communities.

We noted the harms that racist systems and institutions have on Black people, from the killing of Black people in the U.S. to the constant emotional and psychological strain that Black people endure. The accumulated experiences of the Black computer science community highlight the magnitude of the injustices that abound. Throughout our careers, we endure general mistreatment, face a lack of advocacy and support, are demonized for our intersectional experiences, and encounter systematic erasure of our (Black) academic and professional expertise. We know it's important that we persist in raising concerns about discrimination and prejudices that Black professionals experience, which are often common practice in the field. We do this in the face of the retaliation and retribution levied on us for continuing to do so. Further, we are acutely aware that organizational policies are currently optimized to exclude nonwhite males.


After our calls to action, we received more than 700 signatures from individuals representing the breadth and depth of the computing and technology communities. People from academia, industry, government, and nonprofit sectors signed, in solidarity, with the sentiment that we must do more. Accompanying the letter and call to action was a concrete list of actionable items that individuals and organizations can take to redress systemic racism that exists in our profession and beyond.

back to top  More Than One Year Later

As we all grappled with the compounding and collective grief of the pandemic and institutional harm done to Black people in the U.S. and in other majority-white countries, there were a plethora of statements made in support of Black employees, students, business owners, and founders, as well as the broader Black Lives Matter movement. More than one year later, it is encouraging to see that a jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of Floyd's murder. However, according to a New York Times article [2], more than three people were killed each day in the hands of law enforcement throughout Chauvin's trial, including Andrew Brown, who was killed the day after the verdict was rendered [3], and many of us remain uncertain that we will truly see justice. Over the past year, we have seen a rise in hate against other groups, such as the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. One instance of the system doing the right thing does not mean the system consistently treats all people fairly and equitably. Further, a police reform bill, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, was introduced as a way to combat racial bias and excessive force in policing, but has not advanced in the U.S. Senate.

Almost a year later, as we reflect on the statements and promises made in support of our cause, we are curious about the action, the follow-up, and the changes in policy and practice that will institutionalize the commitments, catalyze the change needed, support Black lives, and create an environment in our field that is equitable and fair for all. In addition to the statements, some companies declared Juneteenth as a paid holiday; institutions established diversity, equity, and inclusion-focused committees; and organizations began to examine their policies and practices. To date, there has been little real action on the part of the tech industry [4] beyond initial efforts, in the same way that we have not seen real action on police reform.

As students, teachers, mathematicians, scientists, technologists, and engineers, we were taught that there is no need for "culture" in our field. Ones and zeros, the scientific method, and meritocracy form the basis of our discipline. And yet, within the ACM community, racial discrimination has been overlooked by the winners of our highest awards, including the Turing Award. Computing is touted as being neutral. We know this is not true, which means that computing as an institution, and human-computer interaction (HCI) as a discipline, are still a long way from realizing their promise to make the world a better place. We also know that our field does not exist in a vacuum. We've shared and reflected upon the violence, harm, and oppression that we experience in society, in computing, and in HCI [5,6,7]. The structural and institutional racism that has brought the nation to this point, has also infiltrated, infected, and affected our discipline. We see AI and big data used to target the historically disadvantaged. The technologies we help create to benefit society are also disrupting Black communities through the embodiment of systemic bias, prejudice, and the proliferation of racial profiling. We see machine learning algorithms—rather, those who are developing the algorithms—routinely identify Black people as animals and criminals. Technology that we develop is used to further intergenerational inequality by systematizing segregation in housing, lending, admissions, policymaking, health care, and hiring practices.

We know that in the same way that computing can be used to stack the deck against Black people, it can also be used to stack the deck against any group whose identities have been systematically ignored, marginalized, and/or oppressed.

We know better. We are not fooled by the doublespeak, the pleas of ignorance, and the excuses for the technological systems that are deployed into the world. We press on and continue to combat efforts to use AI, robotics, and facial recognition to build automation-enabled police states around the world because we know that the advances in computing are transforming the way we all live, work, and learn. We also know that we cannot ask for equal opportunity for anyone without demanding equal opportunity for everyone. Sitting on the sidelines because one is not directly affected by discrimination is simply not sufficient, nor is diversity a transaction to be undertaken only when it is convenient or serves one's interest. We work diligently to disable the forces of disinformation and ignorance that produced the siege of the U.S. Capitol in January 2021. Last year showed us that society can live up to its potential by taking a stand on equal rights for everyone. The question is whether we will revert back to business as usual or live up to the ideals of the movement for civil rights. We know that in the same way that computing can be used to stack the deck against Black people, it can also be used to stack the deck against any group whose identities have been systematically ignored, marginalized, and/or oppressed.

back to top  A Call to Reflect and a Call to Act

Today, we are issuing a call to reflect and another call to act to the individuals, organizations, educational institutions, and companies in the computing ecosystem to address the systemic and structural inequities that Black people experience. In issuing this reflection, we call on each of you to also reflect on the ways that you have worked to:

  • Create unbiased and welcoming learning and work environments that allow Black people to be their authentic and whole selves, learning and working without experiencing racism and bias.
  • Commit to call out and address the systemic and institutional racism that has led Black people in computing to be pushed out of the field or exit the field, as a form of resistance, to pursue alternative careers.
  • Address issues related to corporate, organizational, and educational culture and climate to create welcoming and comfortable spaces for Black people and prioritize the health and well-being of all computing students, employees, faculty, volunteers, and entrepreneurs.
  • Acknowledge the presence of Black colleagues, be open to new ideas and perspectives, and be their advocate or ally in times of discrimination and otherwise.

All of us can reflect on the privileges we have so that we can eventually eliminate double standards, and we invite you to do so by responding to this article. Respond with your reflections and share ways that you have taken action. If you have not taken action and wish to do so, state your commitment, and follow up that commitment with action in community and in coalition with us.

There is a role for each of us to build stronger, more creative, and more inclusive communities. We issue a broader call to act to educational institutions, organizations, corporations, and communities:

Educational institutions can ensure that perpetrators of a toxic environment face consequences for their actions and that the injured parties are supported—not blamed, ostracized, and forced out. They can also assess, reset, and redesign their procedures and systems to be equitable and just, ensuring that institutional power does not enable the subjective mistreatment of Black students, employees, postdocs, and faculty. They can integrate an equitable, fair, and just racial lens to every major milestone along the academic path to ensure that bias, prejudice, and discrimination do not play a part in anyone's journey.

Organizations that receive public funding can ensure they are providing equal opportunity in compliance with existing civil rights statutes, including but not limited to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the Education Amendments of 1972, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. They must also go beyond compliance and lip service to implementing systems and policies that realize actual outcomes that demonstrate progress on attracting, supporting, keeping, and promoting Black people.

Corporations can start taking meaningful actions toward solving the racist problem that permeates their culture, leadership, staff, and tools. Publicly publishing diversity metrics and issuing statements of performative progressiveness have not yielded progress or improved the lives of Black employees and entrepreneurs. Corporations need to be reflective and reflexive in assessing the role that they play in upholding and perpetuating unjust systems, and they need to change, positively, and/or eliminate policies and procedures that are weaponized against Black people. They also need to consistently and fairly hold those that cause harm accountable.

Communities can establish equal opportunity review structures that are responsible for collecting and analyzing data to certify equitable outcomes by institutions, companies, and organizations in computing. These communities must also offer support and be strong voices for change and agents of actions for those who are harmed.

As we did in June 2020, we ask that you translate the public statements (https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1DDRUVfC_IxfxfIh72Z9dCWUDdNGnNxfrTv_yhO25mE8/) into public action to support the Black professional communities toward achieving systemic fairness in computing.

back to top  References

1. Harrington, C., Rankin, Y., Jones, J., Brewer, R., Erete, S., Dillahunt, T., and Brown, Q. A call to action for the ACM. ACM Interactions blog. Jun. 22, 2020; https://interactions.acm.org/blog/view/a-call-to-action-for-the-acm

2. Eligon, J. and Hubler, S. Throughout trial over George Floyd's death, killings by police mount. The New York Times. Apr. 17, 2021; https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/17/us/police-shootings-killings.html

3. Kilander, G. Black North Carolina man shot dead by police a day after Chauvin verdict. The Independent. Apr. 22, 2021; https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/north-carolina-man-shot-police-b1835394.html

4. Fussell, S. Black tech employees rebel against 'diversity theater.' Wired. Mar. 8, 2021; https://www.wired.com/story/black-tech-employees-rebel-against-diversity-theater/

5. Erete, S., Rankin, Y.A., and Thomas, J.O. I can't breathe: Reflections from Black women in CSCW and HCI. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 4, CSCW3 (Dec. 2020), Article 234; https://doi.org/10.1145/3432933

6. Rankin, Y.A., Thomas, J.O., and Erete, S. Real talk: Saturated sites of violence in CS education. Proc. of the 52nd ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education ACM, New York, 2021, 802–808; https://doi.org/10.1145/3408877.3432432

7. Ogbonnaya-Ogburu, I.F., Smith, A.D.R., To, A., and Toyama, K. Critical race theory for HCI. Proc. of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2020, 1–16; https://doi.org/10.1145/3313831.3376392

back to top  Authors

Quincy Brown is the cofounder of blackcomputeHER.org and head of programs at AnitaB.org. She was previously a program director at AAAS and senior policy advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She has supported women and girls in computing for more than a decade. quincykbrown@gmail.com

Tyrone Grandison is the chief technology officer for MStreetX and Hodos Health, and the founder and board chairman of the Data-Driven institute, where policymakers create and implement effective programs and policies to solve their most critical problems, using knowledge of the community, data, and technology. tgrandison@data-driven.institute

Odest Chadwicke Jenkins is a professor of computer science and engineering and associate director of the Robotics Institute at the University of Michigan. Jenkins's research addresses problems in autonomous robotics and human-robot interaction, primarily focused on mobile manipulation, robot perception, and robot learning from demonstration. He has served as editor-in-chief for the ACM Transactions on Human-Robot Interaction since 2017. Jenkins has a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Southern California (2003). ocj@umich.edu

Jamika D. Burge is an authority in research and programming that explores the intersectionality of Black women and girls in computing and design, which led her to cofound blackcomputeHER.org, an organization dedicated to supporting computational thinking, design thinking, and workforce development for Black women and girls in computing and tech. She is also founder and principal of Design & Technology Concepts LLC, a tech consultancy that focuses on computer science education and research and inclusive design. jamika.burge@gmail.com

Tawanna Dillahunt is an associate professor at the University of Michigan's School of Information. Working at the intersection of human-computer interaction; environmental, economic, and social sustainability; and equity, her research investigates and implements technologies to support the needs of people experiencing marginalization. tdillahu@umich.edu

Jakita O. Thomas is an associate professor of computer science and software engineering in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering at Auburn University. She is also director of the CUltuRally and SOcially Relevant (CURSOR) Computing Lab and cofounder of blackcomputeHER.org. Thomas is a recipient of the National Science Foundation's Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award (2012–2019) as well as the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE, 2016). jnt0020@auburn.edu

Sheena Erete is an associate professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University in Chicago, IL. Her work focuses on co-designing sustainable technologies, practices, and policies with community organizations to counter structural oppression using equity-centered, justice-oriented, assets-based approaches to research and design. serete@cdm.depaul.edu

Yolanda A. Rankin is an assistant professor in the School of Information at Florida State University and the Director of the DEsigning TechnOlogies for the UndeRserved (DETOUR) Research Lab, which explores designing technologies with and for underserved populations. She is the recipient of the 2020 McKnight Fellowship and the 2016 Woodrow Wilson Early Career Enhancement Fellowship. yrankin@fsu.edu

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