‘A call to action for the ACM’ liberates all of us

Authors: Lilly Irani
Posted: Mon, June 29, 2020 - 10:53:23

Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master's concerns. 
— Audre Lorde [1]

A Call to Action for the ACM” is a gift. The piece was authored collaboratively by computing scholars Christina N. Harrington, Yolanda Rankin, Jasmine Jones, Robin Brewer, Sheena Erete, Tawanna Dillahunt, and Quincy Brown. It is tremendous and exhausting work to stretch across the gap of ignorance to argue for the validity of black scholars’ needs. It is already unfair that those in power set the terms of legible arguments and legitimate discourse, whether implicitly or explicitly. That the ACM and cultures of computing more widely reproduce racism is plainly in evidence: “Black faculty in CS and Information Sciences make up only 1.8% [of the professoriate], while only 1.7% of new PhD earners are black,” Harrington and her collaborators remind us. This, in a country where, according to the census, 13% of people are black. The authors’ gift to us is that they and so many others have outlined specific processes that reproduce this racism. For those of us who do not fully understand their recommendations, the burden is on us to do our homework to do so. The burden is on us to do the difficult work of reorganizing our organizations, routines, and sensibilities to take the recommended actions. The problems ACM practices create for black scholars are specific, but black scholars’ struggle to name their “real conditions” amidst racism, as Lorde argues, have much in common with the struggles of those who battle homophobia, gender norms, and other forms of racism. By doing the work the authors call on us—and specifically ACM leadership—to do, we will be better scholars of computing and society. We will be better people, liberated as Frantz Fanon argues [2], from the ways that racist practices hold all of us back from fuller humanity.

It is not enough to add more black computing scholars to the pipeline without looking at the harms and exclusion perpetuated inside the pipeline’s practices of evaluation, support, and leadership. ACM—though not only ACM—has a problem of whose perspectives, values, and practices are valued in leadership, in ethical judgement, in evaluation processes, and even in the politics of friendship that glues so much of this intellectual community together. Each one of helps reproduce a racist system when we fail to challenge and transform how we do research, resources, and friendship. 

I know it can feel deeply uncomfortable for some to hear the word racist attached to a set of practices undertaken with good intentions. If you feel this discomfort, name it, observe it, and learn to move past it. Use it as an entry point for gaining deeper self-knowledge that expands your capacity to do anti-racist work [3]. It feels far worse to be a marginalized scholar treated as if their life and intellect matters less than a community’s fear of confronting change. “A Call to Action” reaches out in good faith. The ACM must return the favor.


1. Lorde, A. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, Berkeley, 1984.

2. Fanon, F. Black Skin, White Masks. Grove Press, New York, 1967. 

3. Malnarich, G. Learning community classrooms and educating for critical hope. In Teaching the Whole Student: Engaged Learning with Heart, Mind, and Spirit. Stylus, Sterling, VA, 2017, 57–78.

Posted in: on Mon, June 29, 2020 - 10:53:23

Lilly Irani

Lilly Irani is an associate professor of communication & science studies at University of California, San Diego. She also serves as faculty in the Design Lab, Institute for Practical Ethics, the program in critical gender studies, and sits on the academic advisory board of AI Now (NYU). She is author of Chasing Innovation: Making Entrepreneurial Citizens in Modern India (Princeton Univ. Press, 2019). She has a Ph.D. in Informatics from University of California, Irvine. [email protected]
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