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Listen, learn, respond, act


Authors: Lucy Suchman
Posted: Thu, June 25, 2020 - 11:32:41

For those of us who occupy the closed worlds of privilege, it is time to listen. I write as a cisgender woman who has lived my life as White, academically educated, and economically secure, thanks to the initiative of my atheist Jewish grandparents who escaped the pogroms of the late 19th century and settled in New York City’s Lower East Side. I myself am now a settler on unceded Indigenous land belonging to Coast Salish peoples, in that nexus of empire and colonialism, British Columbia. Living in North America today as unmarked/unracialized offers extraordinary advantage, at the same time that it encourages the profound and abiding ignorance on which privilege depends. 

The appearance in Interactions of the “Call to Action for the ACM” from Christina Harrington and co-authors [1], accompanied by the call to action to the computing community by Black colleagues and supporters [2], can be read as an appeal—better a demand—that we begin to address the ignorance of privilege and redress the injustices that it enables. Within the context of the ACM, that must include a critical understanding of the role that professional associations play, not only in facilitating interactions/connections, but also in policing the credentials of membership and the boundaries of what counts as authoritative knowledge, not least through the politics of citation. The fact that there are members with the requisite knowledge and sensibilities to see and articulate how legacies of systemic racism and injustice manifest in the contemporary ACM and the fields that it represents should be embraced, as an invaluable resource for reparation and collective transformation.

As the authors of an earlier Interactions post titled “Addressing Institutional Racism Within Initiatives for SIGCHI’s Diversity and Inclusion” observe: “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” [3]. The definition of harm, crucially, must come from those who are affected and be responded to in ways that those who experience the harm identify. In this case, the call is to strengthen the role of the authors in SIGCHI initiatives aimed at researching questions of diversity and inclusion, to support their ongoing learning, and to expand their responsibilities. As with all good design initiatives, they emphasize, this would necessarily be an iterative process of mutual learning.

The history of computing, as we know, is inextricably entangled with histories of (particularly U.S.) militarism. U.S. militarism, in turn, is sustained by and perpetuates geopolitical legacies based on territorial and strategic control through violence and intimidation. The foundation of colonial power is and always has been imaginaries of racialized (primarily White) supremacy, the justification for the subordinations necessary for exploitative labor. As Black Lives Matter is teaching us today, that history runs through the veins of the U.S. from its founding in slavery, through to its contemporary investments in the business of Black and Brown incarceration, whether in (increasingly privatized) prisons or in immigrant detention centers. Until that history, including the multiple forms of dehumanization and exploitation on which it rests, is acknowledged, the computing professions comprising the ACM will remain closed to the pluriverse of knowledges that might otherwise inform the design and development of computer-based systems, and our possibilities for collective informing and communicating. An opening up to other knowledges requires, first and foremost, overcoming deep-seated institutional prejudices that mistake meritocracy for “those who look like me,” difference for deficiency, and provincialism (for example, of Silicon Valley tech) for worldliness. 

As I approach emerita status and the enormous privilege of a research-activist retirement, I have never been more conscious of the limits of my knowledge. My growing awareness of the vast range of Black (particularly feminist) scholarship that has been largely erased from the canons of mainstream pedagogy is a humbling, at times overwhelming, experience [4]. The ACM has the tremendous benefit of members who are at once committed to the potential of computing and to the rebuilding of the Association beyond symbolic gestures toward “diversity and inclusion”; these are the authors of this Call. The next steps are for us to listen, to learn, to respond, and to act. 

Lucy Suchman
Recipient, 2010 ACM SIGCHI Lifetime Research Award
June 24, 2020

Endnotes

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

2. Black in Computing and Our Allies for Equity and Fairness. An open letter & call to action to the computing community from Black in Computing and Our Allies. Jun. 8, 2020; https://blackincomputing.org/

3. Grady, S.D., Wisniewski, P., Metoyer, R., Gibbs, P., Badillo-Urquiola, K., Elsayed-Ali, S., and Yafi, E. Addressing institutional racism within initiatives for SIGCHI’s diversity and inclusion. Interactions blog; https://interactions.acm.org/blog/view/addressing-institutional-racism-within-initiatives-for-sigchis-diversity-an 

4. As an example of powerful pedagogy in Black feminist theorizing see: Rankin, Y. and Thomas, J. Straighten up and fly right: Rethinking intersectionality in HCI research. Interactions 26, 6 (Nov.–Dec. 2019), 64; https://interactions.acm.org/archive/view/november-december-2019/straighten-up-and-fly-right#R13



Posted in: on Thu, June 25, 2020 - 11:32:41

Lucy Suchman

Lucy Suchman is professor of the anthropology of science and technology at Lancaster University in the U.K. Before taking up her present post she was a principal scientist at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where she spent twenty years as a researcher. She is the author of Human-Machine Reconfigurations (2007); in 2010 she received the ACM SIGCHI Lifetime Research Award. l.suchman@lancaster.ac.uk
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