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A challenging response


Authors: Jennifer Mankoff
Posted: Wed, June 17, 2020 - 2:32:05

Being an ally means being uncomfortable.
—R.A.C.E. team, addressing institutional racism within initiatives for SIGCHI’s diversity and inclusion

I write this to support the courageous R.A.C.E. Diversity and Inclusion team members who documented their experiences in their recent blog post addressing material impacts of institutional racism. Their crucial yet risky labor to hold leaders accountable cast my recent accessibility experiences within SIGCHI differently and helped me realize how my silence made me complicit in perpetuating behavior that is wrong and must change. Although I am a senior member of the SIGCHI community and long-term tenured faculty, as a disabled female scholar I still feel vulnerable in sharing my story in this post. Nonetheless, I choose to speak out to amplify the voices of those who are experiencing institutional prejudice. 

As feminist writer Sara Ahmed points out in her book On Being Included, data is “an important resource for diversity workers” because it can be used to expose “the gap between official descriptions of diversity and what the organization is doing.” Knowing this, I have led AccessSIGCHI efforts to produce a biennial report that documents accessibility issues within SIGCHI and sets goals for organizational change. We released three such reports. However, problems surfaced with the SIGCHI Executive Committee (EC) when, upon reading the third report, published in fall 2019, the EC inquired about the origins of the data used for the 2019 report’s summary, which were taken from CHI conference post-survey accessibility questions [1]. At the time, I had direct access to this data as a CHI Steering Committee member. I explained to the EC that I had requested and received permission to use this data for AccessSIGCHI. To my shock and surprise, the EC then sent me a “formal warning” and informed me that I had violated an EC policy, potentially broken data privacy laws, and that ACM would be “advised this had occurred.” 

I lost countless hours in discussions, investigating what had happened, marshalling support, crafting a response, and managing my feelings of anxiety and alarm. I had never been notified about the policy I was accused of violating despite having requested and received similar data for the two prior reports. Ultimately, the EC issued a retraction. What did I learn from this experience, and how does it apply to EC’s reaction to the R.A.C.E. team’s vital efforts to collect the very data that can close gaps between official and unofficial realities of inclusion and diversity?

  • It is vital that we understand the cost, both in time and wellbeing, of such aggressive actions against those who are doing transformational advocacy work. Being extremely senior helped me to mobilize support, professional and emotional, and I remain grateful these accusations did not involve my more vulnerable and junior collaborators in AccessSIGCHI. Until one is on the receiving end of such demands, one cannot understand their toll and inhibitory effects. These effects are magnified exponentially when applied to those less powerful. 

  • We must recognize that systems of oppression go beyond individuals. Institutional and structural factors are usually at issue when there is a sustained pattern of misbehavior, even if each individual member of an institution (such as the EC) were acting in good faith and are actively working to increase inclusion. Institutions must guard against becoming defensive or non-compliant when members wish to collect and share data, even if doing so may lead to changes in their very structures and policies. “You must get used to being uncomfortable and get used to this not being about your feelings if you plan to help and not hinder people of color in their efforts for racial justice.” says Ijeoma Oluo in So You Want to Talk about Race. This is done by responding with openness, transparency, and engagement. Citing policy when volunteers collect and seek to publish such data comes across as threatening, silencing, racist and ableist to those on the receiving end. While the EC issued an apology to the R.A.C.E. team for their volunteering experience, they do not admit to wrongdoing, commit to self-education, or actively address structural or institutional problems and plans for eliminating them. It is time for the EC to make use of the expertise of SIGCHI members to engage in an unbiased study of institutional racism’s presence and impact.  Without a commitment to public self-examination, it is difficult to believe much will change. 

  • A commitment to inclusion that does not comprise direct action will succeed only in helping the majority to feel better. Those being excluded still have to deal with the problems that remain. When diversity work is just “about generating the ‘right image’ and correcting the wrong one” [Ahmed, On Being Included], it should not be surprising if that work appears ineffective to those most directly affected. For example, incremental improvements in accessibility, combined with occasional backward sliding, gave rise to a protest at CHI 2019. Listening in these situations is not enough, particularly when the EC actively resists change, despite clear instructions about needed reforms [2]. For example, although the EC voted on and approved an accessibility chair after the 2019 protest [3], after over a year, the EC has not filled this role. In their blog post, the R.A.C.E. team asks them to “Make us leaders.” Will the EC comply?

I want to thank the R.A.C.E. team for helping me to find power to tell my story and affirm they are not alone and that our work must involve structural transformation.  When work is done by marginalized groups, such as the R.A.C.E. team and AccessSIGCHI, it is especially important to nurture and cultivate their perspectives. The cost of the commitment of individual time to these efforts should not be underestimated, especially given the likelihood that many such individuals are continually being asked to put extra time into representing their community as well as advocating for themselves. Even small blows to these efforts have the potential to eliminate a gift that could otherwise help our community to better itself.

I benefit tremendously from the work that SIGCHI does to coalesce and advance our profession, including its positive actions to advance inclusion and accessibility, and I want this worthwhile organization to succeed. However, I am opposed to seeing our professional organization move forward at the expense of its most vulnerable members. It is our collective duty to use the information shared by the R.A.C.E. team and in this blog post to ensure the EC does not ignore, subvert, and marginalize the requests for action of community members who are racial minorities, disabled, or less enfranchised.

—Jen Mankoff

Endorsed by the members of AccessSIGCHI [4]:

  • Cynthia Bennett, Carnegie Mellon University
  • Megan Hofmann, Carnegie Mellon University
  • Anne Spencer Ross, University of Washington
  • Tiago Guerreiro, Universidade de Lisboa
  • Rua Williams, University of Florida
  • Richard Ladner, University of Washington
  • Erin Brady, Indiana University, Purdue University Indianapolis
  • Raja S. Kushalnagar, Gallaudet University
  • Elaine Schaertl Short, Tufts University
  • Karyn Moffatt, McGill University
  • Jennifer Rode, University College London
  • Anne Marie Piper, University of California Irvine 
  • Stacy Branham, University of California Irvine
  • Kristen Shinohara, Rochester Institute of Technology
  • Kyle Rector, University of Iowa
  • Dhruv Jain, University of Washington

Endnotes

1. An anonymous copy of all of emails and the retraction are in the linked document.

2. See the July 2015 EC Meeting Minutes and the talk given to the EC the day after the protest in 2019.

3. See the May 2019 EC Meeting Minutes

4. I (Jen Mankoff) take full responsibility for this post and the ways in which I have handled these challenges. AccessSIGCHI group members very much share any credit for the positive actions that I have been part of and wanted to show their support of this blog message.



Posted in: on Wed, June 17, 2020 - 2:32:05

Jennifer Mankoff

Jennifer Mankoff is a CHI Academy member and the Richard E. Ladner Professor at the University of Washington. Her research is focused on giving people the voice, tools, and agency to advocate for themselves. She strives to bring both structural and personal perspectives to her work. Mankoff has been recognized with an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, IBM Faculty Fellowship, and Best Paper awards from ASSETS, CHI, and Mobile HCI. She has chronic Lyme disease and identifies as disabled. jmankoff@uw.edu
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