Addressing institutional racism within initiatives for SIGCHI’s diversity and inclusion

Authors: Siobahn Day Grady, Pamela Wisniewski, Ron Metoyer, Pamela Gibbs, Karla Badillo-Urquiola, Salma Elsayed-Ali , Eiad Yafi
Posted: Thu, June 11, 2020 - 11:00:32

Realizing that All Can be Equal (or R.A.C.E) was the name that we gave ourselves when we volunteered in November 2018 to be ACM SIGCHI Innovators for Diversity and Inclusion (D&I). Our D&I team was composed of seven individuals, primarily junior scholars, who all identify as racial minorities and who had all personally experienced the ways in which academia could be exclusionary. We were eager to contribute to the efforts to make SIGCHI more inclusive of diverse perspectives, including our own. This blog post recounts the shared pain and experience of our team, which ultimately culminated in our resignation (see resignation letter). 

Race and ethnicity are difficult topics to discuss. They evoke feelings of guilt and defensive reactions from those in the majority, as well as anger and frustration from those in the minority. We acknowledge that this blog post may evoke similar emotions, which made us hesitant to post it. Yet, the protests to bring justice for George Floyd and the #BlackLivesMatter movement made us realize that now is not the time for silence. It is more important than ever to shed light on the institutional racism that exists in our world. 

The term institutional racism was first coined in 1967 by Black political activists Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton. They described institutional racism as: 

... less overt, far more subtle, less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts. But it is no less destructive of human life. …[it] originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than [individual racism] [1].

 Sir William Macpherson later defined institutional racism in 1999 as:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people [2].

Institutional racism does not have to be intentional or malicious to disadvantage minority groups. It merely has to occur in a way that harms those who are in the minority who have less power. This was what happened when we were told by ACM SIGCHI leadership to immediately take down our IRB-approved survey on diversity, inclusion, and marginalization within SIGCHI. We spent nearly a year working on this survey as part of our D&I service, but once it began to get traction (over 100 responses), it was blocked. To add insult to injury, we were accused of conflicting with ACM's interests because we wanted to disseminate our findings back to the SIGCHI community via a peer-reviewed publication. Our survey was then superseded with an “official” SIGCHI diversity and inclusion survey, which erased and appropriated our efforts.

As a group of racial minorities (three of whom are Black), we were not surprised by these actions but were deeply disappointed that this happened under the guise of promoting diversity and inclusion within SIGCHI. There were many alternative solutions that could have bolstered the efforts of our D&I team instead of stymieing them. For example, the SIGCHI D&I leaders could have asked us to lead the efforts for the official SIGCHI D&I survey, giving us credit for our work and the opportunity to take a larger, more visible service leadership role within SIGCHI. Yet these types of opportunities are rarely given to racial minorities, even though they are pivotal in helping us succeed in the academy. 

Instead, ACM policies were (mis)interpreted and applied inconsistently and in a way that hurt a racial minority group. Other ACM volunteer groups have launched surveys with the intent to publish and did so with the support of ACM SIGCHI leadership. This makes us question whether the examination of marginalization and exclusionary practices within the SIGCHI community— led by a minority group—was just too uncomfortable for SIGCHI D&I leaders, who are predominantly part of the majority. 

We requested reparations to address what had transpired (see response letter), but those requests were ignored. As a group of racial minorities, we constantly ask ourselves if the situation would have been different had we not been people of color? As minorities in academia, these forms of oppression are some of the most dangerous due to their subtlety and heedlessness of those in the majority, who often refuse to acknowledge that such forms of institutional racism still occur. Yet we in the minority know the truth. Therefore, we must ask ourselves not whether institutionalized racism exists, but rather how we might work to fix it? 

Our intention in publishing this blog post is to initiate uncomfortable conversations about race and minority status that must occur within the SIGCHI community if we want to eradicate institutional racism and promote equity and inclusion. We recognize that this will be a continuous, iterative process for all of us. Therefore, we end this blog post by providing some actionable ways to change the status quo based on our own experiences and insights from the 112 SIGCHI members who responded to our survey: 

  • Admit that institutional racism exists: SIGCHI might be relatively better than other communities, but institutional racism is still present in our community. The only way to truly address it is to first acknowledge it exists.

  • Promote the work of minorities: Even if you do not completely agree with it. Sometimes the ways in which minority groups address a topic will be different than those in the majority, and that is good. We know that our survey had an edgy undertone of addressing marginalization within SIGCHI, rather than merely improving existing diversity and inclusion initiatives. This was by design as we wanted to amplify the voices of those who felt angry and unheard.

  • Refrain from performative allyship: Performative allyship is the act of supporting those in oppression either privately or publicly so that it makes the person feel or look good but does not facilitate real change. True allies should be willing to take risks on behalf of those who are being marginalized and share in some of the burden required for change. In other words, being an ally means being uncomfortable.

  • Volunteerism is not an excuse: Often within SIGCHI, we are reminded that our organization is a volunteer-run community; thus, while there are mistakes made, everyone is doing their best. This is not an excuse to allow implicit biases, institutional racism, and other exclusionary practices to persist within our community. Many of our survey respondents described SIGCHI as a clique, where outsiders are unfairly treated and the “rich get richer.” In short, being a SIGCHI volunteer/leader is a position of power and should be treated as such.

  • Make us leaders: The only way to truly change institutional racism within an organization is to have equal leadership, where there is no majority or minority. It is not enough to have majority leaders who are supportive of minorities within the lower ranks. The goal of diversity and inclusion is not simply to make sure that minorities are within the community, it is to ensure their success. 

Thank you for taking the time to read our blog post. We hope that our blog post moves you to positive action. On a final note, we want to protect the vulnerable junior members of our group who have the most to lose from speaking publicly about this experience. We hope that you respect this goal and help us achieve it. 


1. Carmichael, S., Hamilton, C.V., and Ture, K. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. Vintage, 1992.

2. Macpherson, W.,  Cook, T., Sentamu, J., and Stone, R. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. 1999.

Posted in: on Thu, June 11, 2020 - 11:00:32

Siobahn Day Grady

Siobahn Day Grady is an assistant professor of information systems at North Carolina Central University. She is a black woman, second-generation college graduate, and AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassador. She seeks to broaden participation in computing, especially for women and girls of color in STEM. Her research includes human-computer interaction and machine learning. [email protected]
View All Siobahn Day Grady's Posts

Pamela Wisniewski

Pamela Wisniewski is a newly tenured associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Central Florida. She is a mixed-race, first-generation college student, a mom, and a scholar activist who conducts human-computer interaction research to promote adolescent online safety and benefit other vulnerable populations. [email protected]
View All Pamela Wisniewski's Posts

Ron Metoyer

Ron Metoyer is an associate professor of computer science ande and associate dean in the College of Engineering at the University of Notre Dame. He is an African American first-generation college graduate who works at the intersection of human-computer interaction, information visualization, and broadening participation in computing. [email protected]
View All Ron Metoyer's Posts

Pamela Gibbs

Pamela Gibbs is an information and interaction design Ph.D. candidate at the University of Baltimore. She is a black woman and second-generation college graduate. Her research focuses on the impact of utilizing gaming to encourage learning in math. She is passionate about creating equity for underestimated groups. [email protected]
View All Pamela Gibbs's Posts

Karla Badillo-Urquiola

Karla Badillo-Urquiola is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Central Florida. She is a Latina woman in STEM, member of the ACM SIGCHI Latin American HCI Community, and a mother of two. Her research in the field of HCI lies at the intersection of online safety and foster youth. [email protected]
View All Karla Badillo-Urquiola's Posts

Salma Elsayed-Ali

Salma Elsayed-Ali is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research sits at the intersection of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), design, and computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW). [email protected]
View All Salma Elsayed-Ali 's Posts

Eiad Yafi

Eiad Yafi is an assistant professor at the Malaysian Institute of Information Technology, Universiti Kuala Lumpur. He is a Syrian researcher and activist promoting diversity, inclusion, and justice in the Arab world, which has been facing unrest and a long history of injustice. [email protected]
View All Eiad Yafi's Posts

Post Comment

@Odest Chadwicke Jenkins (2020 06 12)

Agreed.  We should work to move beyond diversity theater in HCI and all areas of computing

@Jakita O. Thomas (2020 06 12)

Thank you for your transparency and courage.  To be clear, what you experienced was absolutely epistemic violence, particularly testimonial smothering (see Dotson, 2011 and Collins, 2019), not to mention appropriation and other aggressions.  We MUST continue to point out these sites of epistemic violence and DEMAND that they be addressed and redressed.  I stand with you and other Scholars of color who experience these types of professional and academic trauma on a day-to-day basis.  If we know better, we should do better.

@Richard E. Ladner (2020 06 15)

Thank you for this important story and your courage to stand up to power.