DialoguesCover story

XXVIII.5 September - October 2021
Page: 22
Digital Citation

Designing for the Black experience

Christina Harrington, Brittany Johnson, Denae Ford, Angela Smith

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A little over a year ago, the U.S. and much of the rest of the world erupted into protests and rebellions following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Black scholars in the computing field took up the task to challenge the larger computing community to evaluate its commitment to diversity and inclusion, and to consider the ways in which our field contributes to standing in the face of adversity and social injustices. Since then, many Black scholars have seen a shift in the ways in which we are engaged in the academy or other research spaces. But we must consider whether the steps taken are those that amplify us as research scholars or ones that perpetuate diversity for diversity's sake. We must advocate for a more just definition of what we consider the Black experience in the fields of HCI and design, and what tenets are perpetuated in how this experience is defined. I invited three Black women scholars, Brittany Johnson, Denae Ford, and Angela Smith, whose research interests span the fields of HCI and design, to discuss what it means to consider the Black experience in our research culture and which tenets we should be focused on. We argue that work that positions itself to be about the Black community must also engage with our joy, our moments of love and happiness, and not just see us as problems to be solved. In You Are Your Best Thing, Tarana Burke states that any such work should see and embrace us, "giving our humanity breathing room" [1]. We challenge the notion of trauma-laden work that only stands to validate tropes and position Black scholars as numbers for diversity efforts, and instead suggest that HCI's engagement with the Black experience better embrace our humanity.

Christina Harrington


Christina Harrington: I'd like to start out with the question, if we're talking about a year after that ACM letter [2], how do you feel like the last year has impacted your work, whether in the attention that it's gotten, the direction that it's taken, or the ways that you want to bring yourself and your self-identity into the HCI and computing and design space? How do you think this last year has impacted that?

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There is a new renaissance period that's happening out of an excitement about the Black experience.
Work that positions itself to be about the Black community must also engage with our joy, our moments of love and happiness, and not just see us as problems to be solved.
Inviting Black scholars as plenary speakers and experts in their research space gives visibility and does more than having diversity panels and lunches for diversity's sake.

Brittany Johnson: That's a really good question. I feel like I get asked to be on more diversity panels; I get asked to participate in more diversity initiatives and sit on program committees as diversity chair or inclusion co-chair. I can't say that I feel like I've had a huge impact in a positive or negative way. With my research, though, I feel like I think about problems differently. Some of the stuff that Denae and I have been talking about for a while has grown—for example, the Black experience work that is evolving into the project we're doing now.


Angela Smith: I feel like it's done a lot for me, because when our "Critical Race Theory for HCI" paper came out last year [3], what really launched it into popularity was folks acknowledging the police brutality and all of the racial unrest that happened last year, coupled with trying to get organizations to want to do more and trying to get organizations to acknowledge the racist ideals they uphold. It really kind of took our paper, I would say, and took it to different levels. The fact that we did presentations for different organizations like Microsoft, Snapchat, Facebook, and universities too—I used to think, Oh, I'm not sure about a lot of stuff because my research never felt trendy or sexy, so it was hard to continue to be passionate about it. Now there is a greater interest in my work, so that was a feel-good for sure. It definitely made me feel like my work is more accepted.

Denae Ford: For it to be featured in the university magazine—that's huge. That means they're intentionally trying to highlight and amplify. But I think, for me, it's kinda like, Are they doing it because they actually care about my work, or are they doing it because it's trendy?

AS: In the back of your head, it's like, Oh, had the racial unrest never made it to this level, would it have ever gotten this type of praise or this type of awareness? That's something I wonder about, but I think I already know the answer.

CH: What do you all think it will take to shift the reactions to moments like this, a national uprising and a wave of racial accountability? Right now we're seeing Black and brown scholars being invited to speak on diversity and equity panels, but what will it take for moments like this to urge the field to really engage with the work that we do? Oftentimes, those two things get conflated as being the same thing. But not all of us focus on diversity and equity work in computing and design and… I happen to be someone who kind of does. Angela, your work kind of borders that, but is not exactly that. Up until Denae's project that focuses on designing for the Black experience, very few scholars were focused specifically on designing computing systems as a Black person, for Black people, and the injustices that we experience; yet, a lot of these panels would invite us to speak to race and racism and systemic injustice. What do you all think it will take to shift from these reactions after a heightened moment, whether it be a reaction to state-sanctioned violence and police brutality, or Black History Month, or an article coming out about intersectionality [4]? What do you all think it will take to move from, "Okay, we're gonna invite Black folks to speak on panels about their experience being Black in X" to "Hey, Angela Smith is doing really amazing work, focusing on civic tech for homeless youth, and we see value in that as its own entity"?

DF: I think it's gonna take some critical wake-up calls, like someone's going to have to go to the panel and say, in front of everybody, "I'm not here to talk about that. I'm glad you all invited me here for that, but I'm gonna pivot." Scholars have done this in the past, directly stating, "I don't work in this area. You all invited me to this panel, and I can only speak from my personal experience. I don't have any published work on race." I think it will take more of that.

BJ: The three times I've been approached about diversity things, three times I've had to repeat, "Invite more plenary speakers that are Black, doing research in this space." Giving visibility—that does way more than your diversity panels. But on the other side, the allyship also becomes important here, 'cause if we're gonna pivot, the communities are bigger than us. The review boards are bigger than us, the panels are bigger than us. And so at the end of the day, I think the pivot is important, but we're exhausted, and the allyship is where that's really gonna make a difference. And maybe that's also hard, but I don't think it's gonna happen until those who claim to be allies actually step up and be allies, as opposed to letting us speak and then them just not objecting.

Right now we're seeing Black and brown scholars being invited to speak on diversity and equity panels, but what will it take to urge the field to really engage with the work that we do?— CHRISTINA HARRINGTON

CH: I think we're talking about moving away from so much focus on our experiences as a "marginalized group" and instead just existing as a Black person in this space where people can look at our work. Because ultimately what that does is it puts two different meals on our tray that we have to kinda balance and focus on: Am I coming to this conference to talk to y'all about community-based participatory design, or am I coming to this conference to talk to y'all about being one of the few Black people in this area of HCI? I would really rather talk about the former, because that's where my passion is. I can talk about the latter, but y'all know what the latter is, and then it almost becomes like this regurgitation for entertainment's sake. Don't put me on a panel for that, because I am a scholar and should be seen as such. We then have to do this additional work, and so we're exhausted. I've gotten to the point where I will flat-out tell people, "I will not speak about that on your panel. I don't care if you're paying me, I don't care who else is on it, I don't care if I'm an alum of whatever, don't invite me about that. If you wanna invite me, invite me to speak about my work."

Invite me to talk about the future of design and how there's Black people in the future on some speculative Afrofuturism stuff. Invite me to talk about so many more things, but just inviting me to talk about this damage-centered, deficit-based lens of our existence is really constraining. It kind of ties into this idea of defining what the Black experience means and how we contextualize that in HCI research. So, the next question I wanted to pose to y'all is: What is designing for the Black experience? If it's not just focusing on the systematic oppressions that we face, being in this space as a handful of Black women, and it's not just focusing on the "How do we increase the numbers in STEM?" conversations, what does it mean to design for the Black experience, or how even are we defining the Black experience in this context?

AS: I think a lot of it is culture and experiences. I play The Sims, and it is a very whitewashed game. So, I'm in this Black Simmers group on Facebook, and it's wild the types of modifications they come up with in terms of apparel, in terms of hair styles—people get locs on there, people get hair accessories, they get lashes, they get the big hoops, they get everything you can imagine that we wear stylistically. In some instances, they create these trifling lifelike stories, but they mirror the experience that we have or that you see of Black people, so I really think a lot about the experience and the culture, the things that we're missing and the things that make it much more enjoyable to play. Granted, I don't play with baby mamas or baby daddies, but it makes it a lot more enjoyable to play when the character looks like me; I can make a character that actually resembles me or resembles somebody I would know. So, I think it has to do with… can I see my culture reflected in this? Can I see experiences that I might have or my peers might have? Can I see that reflected in this design? It makes it more enjoyable.

CH: In the HCI and design space, we're not seeing that happening. We're not seeing folks say, "You know, I specifically want to look at designing for and with Black communities, and I want to highlight these other aspects of life—joy, rest…" Outside of Andrea Grimes Parker's work, who did that with celebratory technology, where she highlighted the ways in which Black folks commune and fellowship over food and what that means to us culturally, and how we could think about that as a design direction [5]. But I think so often just the culture of research requires us to lead with a problem. If you're gonna do a project, what is the problem that you're solving? And if you're looking within these communities, that then draws on defining us by the most deficit-based, most damage-centered narrative that we can possibly think of. And how much harm does that do ultimately when folks already don't see themselves in our field, in our praxis? How many people are we turning away because it's like, "Well, if I want to be a Black designer or a Black design researcher, I'm really only going to be talking about my own communities and my own folks by what they lack and where they don't meet white standards, and how their literacy is this, or their proficiency is that, or in what ways can we solve gun violence with tech." And yeah, those are things that may need to be addressed on some level, but also, like…

BJ: It shouldn't be the focus.

CH: Right, it shouldn't be the focus.

BJ: I think it's become expected that we struggle. I think people rely on that expectation to be able to have these conversations, and then that just becomes the normal conversation around diversity and around the Black experience: that we struggle. I feel like we've been stating there is a need to shift to the joy-focused parts of our culture, or its assets or values—all these different pieces that come together with our deficits. I think it's gonna be an important conversation to have, an important direction to explore. I wanna speak to the software engineering community as well, where we do a lot of exploring "a day in the life of" or "what makes you most productive?" or "what makes you most satisfied with your job?" I'm also guilty of this in my own work sometimes, where we don't focus enough on the populations that are going to lead to the conversations that are gonna actually make some kind of a difference.

DF: To add to that, I think to design for the Black experience means you want it to be adjacent to what's reflective of your real life. What speaks to you? What do you experience on the day-to-day? Yes, Black people experience challenges. They also experience joy throughout the challenges. That's all Black Twitter is.

CH: I love Black Twitter. It's my favorite place to go whenever something goes down in the news or a virtual watch party.

DF: Right. It's like, "Oh, something bad happened." But people are gonna make a kiki out of it. People are gonna make a joke out of it. They're gonna find the joy, even through the challenges. I think what makes the Black American experience very unique, too, is that we have a common language. Maybe this is across the diaspora, but the literature that I've read about Black Twitter, which is very centered around the U.S. context, also captures the resilience, the joy, the jokes, the challenges, and the drama. It's a mix. It's all of those things.

AS: We're definitely not designing for the Black experience. I don't think we're really designing for any experience unless you're white, cis, male, and middle class. I say that because the only times we start to think about what it is like designing for other people, or designing for not them, are when we call them out. It's like, "Oh hey, you see it as diversity with the one Black guy you put in the game? Why don't you do better." That's when it's like, "Let me go back in. Oh yeah, I did make her hair look like whatever. Yeah, I did make her skin look like this." I think that's when we actually start to think about what it looks like to design for certain populations, especially Black populations.

There is a need to shift to the joy-focused parts of our culture, or its assets or values—all these different pieces that come together with our deficits. I think it's gonna be an important conversation to have.— BRITTANY JOHNSON

BJ: It feels like we got a lot of double-edged swords. On the one end, we want them to care enough to help us make a difference. That's one side of it. But the other side of it is we want our space. We want the spaces that we know we can be ourselves 100 percent and not have to worry about misunderstanding from someone who doesn't know what something means or how something works in our community or with our groups. But we also don't want these things being propagated as an assumption that everyone does or says things in the same way, or that that's how all Black people carry ourselves in any situation. Because, as Black people, we code-switch; we've always had to code-switch. I think we have a certain type of versatility that makes it more intricate to understand than just scraping data from Twitter or something like that. It's more complex than that. So, on the one end, I want you to understand where I'm coming from, but on the other end, I want you to really understand, not just take an excerpt from this one place and assume that's how things work.

CH: So how do we consider what it means for allies to do this type of work in ways that don't feel like voyeurism but are actually genuine?

DF: I think it's a point of checking your privilege. When I'm transitioning into a new research space, I'm putting on my regular researcher hat. I know I'm not an expert; I'm gonna bring in the experts. Sometimes, scholars forget they have that researcher hat to put on and neglect to bring in collaborators. It seems that you would do this in any other research context. Why would you think this would be any different?

AS: There's this guy at Cornell. On his website, he says that if you invite him to speak, if the population is mostly men, or mostly white, he'll provide the name of another speaker, which I thought was interesting. I think this is what more allies need to do in those situations. Also, Denae, so are we saying that we want more people to be designing in this space? Or should it just be inherently thought of while they're doing design?

DF: I'm not saying that everybody should be doing work in this, although sometimes it can sound like that. I'm saying that everybody should be mindful of these aspects of their work. The research we are starting can really understand how Black people overcome challenges and get to the essence of how Black people have an experience. What are they doing, to not necessarily pick themselves up by the bootstraps but to overcome things that suck already? And from there, how do we learn from what sucks, but also how do we learn from the joy?

BJ: I was just about to say that. I think part of it is acknowledging and amplifying the work that's already happening in those academic spaces—not necessarily to encourage more, but to say, like Denae was saying, "If you design for the margins, you design for everyone."

CH: It's all relevant. I hate to do that corny "So where do we go from here?" But, where do we go from here? I really love this notion, and I'm really pushing my research to support designing for Black joy. What does that mean? What does it mean to think about that methodologically? Can it be the basis of a framework? I'm trying to do it through Afrofuturism and speculative design, like can we think about a future that doesn't look like us being defined by oppressive systems and inequities and these tropes? Can we think about a future that purely sees us existing for just existence's sake? Have y'all seen that meme floating around on social media that says, "Issa Rae is one of the few people that is creating for Black people just in their everyday existence." It's not trauma porn. Insecure [the HBO show] is literally just us going to work, dating, on the level of like what Friends did and what Seinfeld did. I think, Denae, your project is a great example and step in the right direction.

DF: So yeah, the title of the project is "Black Technologists Supporting the Black Lived Experience." In short, you can really consider this FUBU, for us by us, as in Black developers supporting Black people. Oftentimes, when prior research discusses the experiences of marginalized people, it is framed in a deficit perspective. Although identifying the challenges a community faces is valuable, researchers also learn from the approaches members of these communities are already using to overcome these challenges. In this work, we take approaches to do that by understanding how Black people are using technology to support the Black lived experience.

The purpose of this project is to understand how Black and ally software developers, technologists, community organizers, and others have used, created, or curated resources to support the experiences of Black people. In this research project, we will understand the motivations behind these resources and tools, their impact on the community, and where there may be opportunities for how the specific group can be supported. So, in this project, we have a curation; we've been creating our own database of projects that are about or supporting the Black lived experience, where the creators of these projects have been able to talk about them publicly in social media settings. We're looking at the external-facing websites that they're using, different people who we identify as the creators, and whether or not they are visibly identifiable as Black or have identified themselves as Black. And also, whether or not they identify as an ally. Because we wanna open up the question: As an ally, if you are doing work in this space, how are you navigating that effectively? What does that process look like for allies? I think part of this project is understanding and archiving that these stories exist and identifying whether these developers, community organizers, curators, or tech builders want their work to be amplified. What's the best way to support the people who are doing this work first?

I think there is a new renaissance period that's happening out of an excitement about the Black experience. It excites people and they're like, "Okay, I'm gonna build a thing. I'm just gonna do something to put it out there and support X." We want to be able to understand what that looks like at scale. Or, better yet, should these projects be scaled up for a wider audience? Does sustainability of a project matter in this context? These are questions we don't ask enough, and I think this project could help us start asking, "Do these things always matter?"

CH: I really appreciate this conversation. This felt like a kickback or something [laughs]. I hope we're able to continue to push these conversations forward.

back to top  References

1. Burke, T. You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience. Random House, 2021.

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

3. 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

4. Rankin, Y.A. and Thomas, J.O. Straighten up and fly right: Rethinking intersectionality in HCI research. Interactions 26, 6 (Nov.–Dec. 2019), 64–68; https://doi.org/10.1145/3363033

5. Grimes, A. and Harper, R. Celebratory technology: New directions for food research in HCI. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2008, 467–476; https://doi.org/10.1145/1357054.1357130

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Christina N. Harrington is an assistant professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. She received her Ph.D. in design from Georgia Tech and completed a postdoc in the Inclusive Technology Lab at Northwestern University. Her research explores community-led collaborative design within Black and Latinx communities as an approach to speculate technology futures to support health, wellness, and community building. charring@andrew.cmu.edu

Brittany Johnson is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at George Mason University. She received her Ph.D. in computer science from North Carolina State University after getting her B.A. in computer science from the College of Charleston. She explores sociotechnical problems pertaining to developer productivity and software development/use, such as tool support, work environments, ethics, and software for social good. johnsonb@gmu.edu

Denae Ford is a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, where she works on the Software Analysis and Intelligence (SAINTes) team, and an affiliate assistant professor at the University of Washington in the Human Centered Design & Engineering Department. She received her Ph.D. in computer science from North Carolina State University. Her current research investigates and devises interventions to support inclusive sociotechnical interactions in online programming communities. denae@microsoft.com

Angela D. R. Smith is a doctoral candidate in technology and social behavior at Northwestern University. In her work, she uses qualitative and community-based participatory research methods to explore and study experiences of marginalization. Her current research explores how researchers can more equitably design sociotechnical interventions to support the information work of emerging adults experiencing homelessness. angdanro@gmail.com

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