Back in 2016 I launched a project to collect stories on the topic of inclusion on design.blog — it was to mark my joining Automattic as the “Global Head of Computational Design and Inclusion.” That site appears to have closed down after I left. But I am so 🙏 grateful to the waybackmachine for the archive that is still up there! The stories that have stayed with me over the years are included below — they continue to make me think. Enjoy these powerful writings by:
Jules Walter, Cassidy Blackwell, Kevin Bethune, Kat Holmes, Mitch Resnick, Jewel Burks, Caroline Sinders, Saron Yitbarek, John Palfrey, Ash Huang, Samantha Hankins, Alisha Ramos
New to thinking and acting inclusively?
Jules Walter on Diversity in Tech: The Unspoken Empathy Gap
Ken Norton recently published a great piece about the importance of authenticity and psychological safety in order to help teams succeed. In his article, he cites research from Google that suggests psychological safety is the most predictive characteristic of successful teams. As a minority working in tech, this article brought to mind a pressing question: given the lack of diversity in tech, how can tech workers foster a psychologically safe environment for minorities, many of whom struggle just to be their true selves at work? For me, it starts with empathy.
Have you ever spent time in a place where you’re in the minority, even briefly? At an event, for example, or in another country? Think about how you felt being the only man at an event attended primarily by women, or the only white person in an entire train station in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. If you have never experienced this, try it. The feeling of being an outsider, of not belonging, is what many minorities experience in the workplace on a regular basis.
Until recently in my career, I was always the only black person on my team. Coworkers have generally been nice to me, but it’s hard to ignore that I’m noticeably different when no one else at work looks like I do. I’ve learned to ignore this feeling of being an outsider, but it always comes back eventually, whether it’s during meetings with executive leadership, while walking into a company’s office for an onsite interview, or in other work-related situations.
Perhaps you know some minorities who don’t seem to experience that feeling, and perhaps they don’t, especially when they feel successful in their career. I know minorities who’ve reached a point where they no longer give a damn about what others think or they’ve learned to cope with the status quo.
But many minorities spend a significant amount of cognitive energy trying to belong instead of performing our best work and it’s exhausting.
One thing I’ve come to realize is how hard it is for people to share these experiences. Often, these stories are too personal, emotional, subjective, or hard to share without deeply trusting the listener. It is also difficult to share these stories, as without the larger context, the listener is unlikely to grasp the nuances of the experience without knowing the backstory.
In general, many minorities choose not to speak up because they don’t want to jeopardize their careers, be disliked, feel like victims, or because their opinions have been ignored in the past. Even if your minority coworkers do not verbalize the isolation and ‘otherness’ that they experience, it does not mean they feel as if they can act authentically, true to themselves, or thrive.
Although there has been more and more discussion about the lack of diversity in tech, I believe there is still a startling empathy gap as most people do not realize the sheer amount of energy minorities expend trying to belong. The ideal solution is simply to have companies that are diverse, so that no one feels out of place and everyone can thrive.
As a first step, our white, male-dominated industry needs to recognize the real struggle that underrepresented groups face and start driving conversations and actions to create a more empathetic and inclusive workplace. Without such empathy, most companies will continue to fail to achieve true organizational buy-in and won’t be able to take the necessary actions to attract, retain, or get the best work from people who come from underrepresented backgrounds. We can all contribute to finding solutions, but many people in tech don’t bother looking for those solutions because they fail to see the problem in the first place.
Jules Walter, Cassidy Blackwell, Kevin Bethune, Kat Holmes, Mitch Resnick, Jewel Burks, Caroline Sinders, Saron Yitbarek, John Palfrey, Ash Huang, Samantha Hankins, Alisha Ramos
Above All Else, Authenticity: Cassidy Blackwell on Designing for the Individual
“Our individuality is all, all, that we have. There are those who barter it for security, those who repress it for what they believe is the betterment of the whole society, but blessed in the twinkle of the morning star is the one who nurtures it and rides it in, in grace and love and wit, from peculiar station to peculiar station along life’s bittersweet route.”— Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
When I think of designing for people of color, my thoughts immediately go back to my college years studying architecture in St. Louis and to a project that is known as one of the greatest failures known in modern architecture.
Designed in the post-war era, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing development was utopian in its intention of bringing people together. These buildings combined both tried-and-true, community-focused design alongside some more innovative approaches including grand corridors, public spaces, craft rooms, wooded areas, playgrounds and cleverly-conceived “skip-stop elevators”, which only stopped at select floors, forcing residents to take the stairs and therefore run into their neighbors. On the one hand, I think of an eager and optimistic architect sketching these idealized paths of movement and spaces for communal living while on the other, I think of how far removed from the future inhabitants said architect was in his design process. Suffice it to say, the buildings fell almost immediately into disrepair. Instead of being conduits of community, the open, public spaces became hotbeds for gang-related crime and violence—especially those skip-stop spaces between floors that residents were required to use. The buildings lasted 15 years before being demolished due to what was referred to at the time as “urban blight”.
Pruitt-Igoe has since become iconic in its failure; the development is famous for its approach to designing for community and inclusion while infamous for how those ideals played out in reality. As well-intentioned the design thinking was, these architects failed to take into consideration one essential factor: that intangible concept of OWNERSHIP; the individual’s active participation in the final experience. Sure the government owned the buildings, but the government was also most certainly not living in them. What was really missing was the empowerment and activation of those who were actually living (and dying) in Pruitt-Igoe. Community doesn’t actually work unless those who are in it are actively invested in it.
Fast forward half a century, technology and design today is still largely focused on community, but has perceptibly shifted to being rooted in the individual. Individuality is now baked into the core of almost everything we use and experience. Our fingerprints unlock our communication devices, our retinas allow us to open doors, our gene sequences link us to our respective motherlands. The one-size-fits-all approach is no longer sufficient; the “I” we know today defines the “we” that we have long attempted to build.
My own career trajectory into brand marketing is driven by a similar shift. I grew up in a very one-size-fits-all world of the suburbs of Minnesota. There was not enough minority representation for any other option than the majority preference. All that was white and eurocentric was so unquestionably the norm that I didn’t even see how I had aligned my own preferences and attitudes towards that majority center. I went from being one of four African Americans in my graduating class from a private high school into a majority white greek scene in college to living in San Francisco, which is only 4% black (and still steadily declining). But because I had grown up surrounded by whiteness, I became snow-blind, letting my individuality fall to the wayside while being contented with the majority-defined tastes and ideals.
It was not until a transformative experience in the Afro-Brazilian capital of Brasil that unlocked within me that desire to explore my expression of individuality within the greater whole. I stopped my 15-year practice of chemically straightening my hair and took the leap into wearing my naturally curly hair, just as it grows out of my head without any sort of manipulation. The transformation has proven to be one of the most impactful decisions of my life.
Through this experience, I learned that the power of the individual when building community or building a brand is tantamount to the success of the final product. The more that you are able to speak to people on their own individual level, to deliver them products that align with content that speaks to their own individual experience, the more that individual will take pride in and ownership of being a part of that community. Successful marketing is no longer defined as effectively positioning a brand in front of a select group of people; it is to make individuals within this select group of people owners of that brand’s experience.
At Walker & Company, we exist to make health and beauty simple for people of color by delivering to them solutions to unique issues that arise within this specific community. Our first brand Bevel is a men’s grooming brand that helps those with coarse, curly hair prevent razor bumps. Is there anything more intimate and individual than how a person grooms themselves? The anchor of our brand is to offer an individual experience; what allows our brand to grow is the community we have built around it. Technology allows us to have conversations on the 1-to-1 level, which means that we’re offering up more than just a razor, we’re offering a tangible and meaningful experience of belonging, of connection. One that can be actively participated in and made ownable. Pride is at the core of what we offer, and we do that by creating something that is deeply personal and meaningful at all levels of the brand. We take it one step further to not only design for individuals, but to delight them, to give them confidence in themselves at the same time.
Our individuality is indeed all, all, that we have; I project that our greatest advancements in business will be defined by the creative intersections between most diverse viewpoints and experiences. To repress what makes us unique is to artificially constrain all the potential we have to offer. I know because I have experienced this, I’ve lived this. My greatest steps forward in life have come from hard work, dedication and discipline of course; more foundationally this growth has come from above all else, simply being authentically myself.
Jules Walter, Cassidy Blackwell, Kevin Bethune, Kat Holmes, Mitch Resnick, Jewel Burks, Caroline Sinders, Saron Yitbarek, John Palfrey, Ash Huang, Samantha Hankins, Alisha Ramos
Kat Holmes: Who Gets To Play?
“Inclusive Design doesn’t mean you’re designing one thing for all people. You’re designing a diversity of ways to participate so everyone has a sense of belonging.”Susan Goltsman, Founding Principal of MIG, Inc., co-author of Play for All Guidelines and The Inclusive City.
Where did you love to play as a child? Maybe it was a hill near your home. Or the fort you built out of boxes and blankets. Or, like me, a tower of climbing bars rising up from the asphalt behind your school.
I’ve been talking about playgrounds a lot lately. I’ve been sliding on a lot of slides and trying out a lot of swings. I’ve listened to people talk about why they came to play and wondered who wasn’t able to join in. I’ve spent time with pioneers in playground design, like Susan Goltsman, who was an extraordinary advocate for inclusive play and healthy human habitats. All this may seem odd for an adult who designs technology for a living, but here’s why it matters: Designing for inclusion starts with recognizing exclusion.
A playground is a perfect microcosm for learning how to start.
I fell in love with the promise of human-centered design many years ago. I believe in the potential of technology to create equitable opportunities and empower people in meaningful ways. Yet, how do we know which human, exactly, belongs in the “center”?
When we design using our own abilities and resources as a baseline we can end up creating things that work for people with similar circumstances, but excluding everyone else. Imagine a playground full of only one kind of swing. A swing that requires you to be a certain height with two arms and two legs. The only people who will come to play are people who match this design. Because the design welcomes them and no one else.
And yet, there are many different ways you can design an experience of swinging. You can adjust the shape and size of the seat. You can keep a person stationary and swing the environment around them. Participation doesn’t require a particular design. But a particular design will prohibit participation.
The same phenomenon applies to technology. If writing stories requires a keyboard, screen, and fluency in English, the only stories we’d hear would be from people who match these requirements. If purchasing food in a café requires a touchscreen and credit card, anyone who is unable to see the screen or doesn’t have the right form of payment is excluded. Each feature created by designers, developers, or employers determines who can interact with an environment and who is left out.
So, who’s at the center of human-centered design? “Designing for the 80%” is a term I heard early in my career. Yet the defining traits of people within that 80% are often based on demographics and marketing segments, two categorizations of humans that have more to do with social and business power structures than with how people actually experience the world. Even methods that focus on designing for the edge case or “extremes” are based on an assumption that there’s such a thing as “normal” humans with normal use cases.
All human beings are constantly changing, growing, and interacting with the world in diverse ways. Each day we have dozens of interactions with technology. The more we move, change, and grow, the more our technology should move, change, and grow with us. This diversity is a reflection of how people really are. There’s no such thing as normal.
When developing inclusive playgrounds designers spend time with children who have a wide range of abilities and disabilities. For user experience design, very little time in our education or career development is spent on learning about disability. When taught, it’s often under the topic of accessibility requirements. Yet one of the most powerful statements regarding the future of interaction with technology comes from the World Report on Disability, published by the World Health Organization in 2011:
“Disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which they live.”
A mismatched interaction between a person and their environment is a function of design. Change the environment, not the body. For people who design and develop technology, every choice we make either raises or lowers these barriers.
A few things have become clear as I’ve looked to playgrounds as a guiding analogy. It’s not about creating perfect solutions every time. It’s not about creating lowest common denominators or one-size-fits-all solutions. Rather, it’s a new way of finding new design constraints to challenge old paradigms and outdated norms. It’s about being mindful of the gaps we create between people and the world around them.
By recognizing exclusion we can start to build empathy for people who interact with unwelcoming designs every day of their lives. When we include people in our design process who have a range of abilities and disabilities, we can discover solutions that benefit everyone.
A design that works well for someone with one arm can also benefit someone with a broken elbow, or a new parent cradling an infant. Ultimately, we all experience exclusion in our lives. Places where we don’t fit. Mismatches between us and a product or environment. Even if it’s temporary, situational, or simply the progression of aging, we each face barriers to participating as we move through the world.
The physical, digital, and social spaces where we interact with each other are inclusive or exclusive by design. When we design diverse ways for people to participate, we just might be surprised by who shows up to play.
Mitchel Resnick: Designing for Wide Walls
When discussing technologies to support learning and education, my mentor Seymour Papert (who, sadly, passed away last month) often emphasized the importance of “low floors” and “high ceilings.” For a technology to be effective, he said, it should provide easy ways for novices to get started (low floor) but also ways for them to work on increasingly sophisticated projects over time (high ceiling). With his Logo programming language, for example, kids could start by drawing simple squares and triangles, but gradually create more complex geometric patterns over time.
But the most important lesson that I learned from Seymour isn’t captured in the low-floor/high-ceiling metaphor. For a more complete picture, we need to add an extra dimension: wide walls. It’s not enough to provide a single path from low floor to high ceiling; we need to provide wide walls so that kids can explore multiple pathways from floor to ceiling.
Why are wide walls important? We know that kids will become most engaged, and learn the most, when they are working on projects that are personally meaningful to them. But no single project will be meaningful to all kids. So if we want to engage all kids—from many different backgrounds, with many different interests—we need to support a wide diversity of pathways and projects.
Wide walls has become a guiding design principle for my Lifelong Kindergarten research group at the MIT Media Lab. As we develop our Scratch programming language, for example, we explicitly design it so that kids can create a wide range of projects—not just games, but also interactive stories, art, music, animations, and simulations. And as we develop and introduce new robotics technologies, our goal is to enable everyone to create projects based on their own interests—not just traditional robots, but also interactive sculptures and musical instruments.
We had similar goals when we co-founded the Computer Clubhouse project, a network of after-school centers for youth from low-income communities. We set up the Clubhouses to support a wide range of activities. Kids at Clubhouses create music videos, interactive jewelry, animated stories, and just about anything else they can imagine. At one point, we hosted a visit from a Silicon Valley company that was interested in diversifying the pipeline of people moving into its workforce. When they saw the activities in the Clubhouse, they were skeptical at first. Why so much emphasis on art and music? The company wanted people with expertise in math, science, and technology. We explained that it is important to build on kids’ interests and passions. When kids work on projects they care about, they’re willing to work longer and harder, persist in the face of challenges, and make deeper connections to the ideas that they encounter. The company ended up supporting the Clubhouse program for many years.
It was our experiences at Computer Clubhouses that motivated our work on Scratch. We saw that Clubhouse members wanted to create their own interactive stories, games, and animations, but existing tools and languages weren’t designed with Clubhouse members in mind. As we started to develop Scratch a decade ago, we tested each round of prototypes at Clubhouses, getting constant feedback and suggestions from Clubhouse members. We found that tools developed for the diverse collection of youth at Clubhouses also appealed to many others. The Scratch website now attracts more than 10 million unique visitors each month—and 20,000 new Scratch projects are shared on the site every day.
In evaluating the success of our technologies, activities, and learning environments, one of our main criteria is the diversity of projects that people create. If the projects are all similar to one another, we feel that something has gone wrong. The walls were not wide enough. If we see a wide variety of projects, we take it as an indication that everyone had an opportunity to follow their own interests and become deeply engaged.
Our ultimate goal is to help all kids develop their thinking, develop their voices, and develop their identities. None of that will happen unless we continually ask: Who are we including? Who are we excluding? And how can we provide everyone—everyone—with opportunities for exploring, experimenting, and expressing themselves.
Jewel Burks: How My Identity Impacted My Business
“Is your leadership team still black?”
I will never forget when a venture capitalist asked me this in a meeting. Much had changed since the last time my black co-founder, black CTO and I had connected with this insensitive investor, but certainly not that. I answered in the affirmative and quickly, awkwardly ended the meeting. The firm did not invest. Perhaps it was our business model they didn’t like.
This was one of the most overt, but certainly not the only time, my identity was at the center of an outsider’s analysis of the worth of my company. I started Partpic because I observed a significant pain point that I wanted to solve. While working at an industrial distribution company, I found our customers struggling to describe the parts they wanted to purchase from us. Agents on my team would try their best but often err in trying to help customers locate products. Based on customer feedback, it seemed taking a picture would be a better way to search for items that were not labeled with a part name or number. Partpic was created to solve this problem for everyone. We built a computer vision API that can recognize part images and match them to a specific SKU.
I had no idea how much my identity would play into starting and growing the business. I selected my co-founder without thinking of the optics of two black people at the helm of an early stage tech company. He was one of the smartest people I’d worked with at Google. From Google, he went to work on product marketing at Shazam. I wanted to create “Shazam for Parts”, so I thought he was the perfect fit to help me build something great. Race didn’t come up in my decision, but I often wonder how things would have gone if it had. Perhaps we would have had an easier time fundraising if investors could have seen themselves in us. Maybe more customers would have signed up had we been members of their country clubs. I’ll always wonder.
I watched both my parents run businesses when I was a child. I learned from the hardships they faced in managing staffs, making payrolls, and keeping their customers happy. I also saw how their racial identities impacted their businesses. My father had to clean and rebuild one of our stores after vandals attacked our buildings because they couldn’t stand the idea of a black-owned business prospering in the neighborhood. I watched my mother build an insurance agency despite constant waves of prejudice for over twenty years. She was transferred a book of business from a white male who retired from his agency. Many of his clients refused to be serviced by my mother and were explicitly vocal as to why. The color of her skin was enough to make them take their business elsewhere.
I mention these stories to express my awareness of race and how it can impact business and life. I was not a person who grew up in a “colorblind” world. I was the kid who was constantly made aware of my differentness. Even with the context of my parents’ experiences as entrepreneurs, I was still blindsided by the challenges my identity brought me in my own journey. The awareness process went something like this:
Phase 1 – Surprise: I was surprised people focused more on the makeup of my team than the efficacy of our technology. Questions about our credentials always monopolized meetings, where we expected to deep dive into how we built our training models or acquired images and data. Early on, I was aware that things would be different for us as we built Partpic, but I was hopeful our product and business could overcome the pervasive doubt.
Phase 2 – Bitterness: I became bitter when I compared our experiences to other founders and teams with whom I compared notes. Starting a company is hard for anyone, but I couldn’t help but notice how the hoops we were asked to jump were always higher. I contemplated finding a white male to help fundraise and “front” the business because I felt my identity was holding us back.
Phase 3 – Understanding: At a certain point, I realized that there are macro systems that impact thoughts and behavior. Ava Duvernay’s documentary, 13th, and the election of Donald Trump put my experiences in perspective. Racism is alive and well in the United State of America. The tech industry is par for the course in that way. I understand that now. I have a strong desire to change the system, and I’m working to use myself as an example of what can be when black people create.
Today, I manage a team of 12 engineers, product managers, and quality analysts — 50% of whom are black. We are responsible for making unmarked products searchable with a smartphone camera. Our technology will change commerce forever. The people who use it will likely never know how we look. How ironic.
Caroline Sinders on Ethical Product Design for Machine Learning
For the past two years, I’ve worked as a machine learning design researcher. Machine learning is programming that learns from user inputs and adapts and improves over time. It’s my humble belief that machine learning and artificial intelligence is going to radically change product design. From the implementation of chat bots to natural language processing implemented to study users’ behaviors and conversational patterns, to analytics APIs designed to study and predict behavior, to computer vision software created to predict crimes and recognize human emotions. In fact, everything I just mentioned already exists. But implementing these algorithms is one thing — how do we design, ethically, using machine learning, and how do we create products that use all of the positive attributes of machine learning without surveilling and harming our users? Can ethical product design exist for machine learning?
I believe firmly that it can. However, machine learning needs to be treated not as a new, out-of-the-box software implementation that has been QAed, tested, and is ready for deployment with few new changes or rollouts. It needs to be treated as highly experimental software.
What do I mean exactly? To design for iOS, a designer does not need to know swift or Xcode, though that is helpful, but a designer needs to understand all of the constraints of mobile and then know that iOS is stack based. Stack based meaning each screen is stacked on top of one another, so you can move forward or back in the stack. The code for the app is using (hopefully) tested and finished APIs, the code can be storing and sifting data and responding to user input, but the way the code is responding to the data is not changing. But when working with machine learning, it’s hard to predict the outcomes of how the algorithm will respond to the data. In essence, the code itself is “unreliable” or, rather, it’s shifting and moving. It’s always in motion. It’s not static, but dynamic. The more a product is interacted with that’s using machine learning, the more it will change. It’s incredibly organic like that. However, there’s more to machine learning than just the algorithm you’re using, it’s also the data that’s being fed to the algorithm.
What’s needed and necessary right now is for designers to have a technical understanding of machine learning. What’s even more necessary is a specific design language built around machine learning and a context for understanding what kind of code is being built, and what kind of data is being fed to the system. This is a new kind of language fluency that’s being demanded, not just of designers, but of technologists and programmers as well. Unlike IOT or blockchain, there are massive ethical considerations at play for machine learning because of the uncertainties of how algorithms will respond to user input as well as data input. In essence, what are the effects of your code?
Who made the data set you’re feeding to your product that is using machine learning, how long did you train that data set, is the data set diverse enough? A few years ago, Google’s auto-tagging image algorithm tagged black people as gorillas, that’s not because it was designed to be racist, but it inherently was. Did anyone making it QA the algorithm with photos of people of different races, did the image data set have enough black people in it? Google “professional hair” and “unprofessional hair.” What’s shown is that mostly caucasian hair is professional, and black hair is almost entirely depicted under ‘“unprofessional hair.” Again, who made the data sets of these images? Who trained and retrained this data, and then who tested it before it went to market?
The design pattern language I’m proposing and am working on building puts these into practice. It’s creating a pipeline of questioning data sets, of letting users know the product they are interacting with is ‘deployed’ but ‘beta’, it’s still being trained. Google recently released an experimental and beta machine learning API that tests toxicity in language. But when interacting with the demo, it has the look and feel of a finished product. There should be more language, right above the bar to enter text that says how experimental it is. Perhaps there should be a visualization of how the API is rating language.
What does machine learning product design look like? Perhaps, it won’t be minimal but transparent. Perhaps, there’s more information but it’s not the most mobile friendly site. Machine learning is at the frontier of design but it’s still in it’s infancy. When it comes to creating ethical machine learning product design, it’s not about minimalism or standard usability but algorithmic transparency, through language, visualizations, and warnings, about what the API is doing, and how.
Saron Yitbarek: ‘I Don’t Belong in Tech’
When I was at NPR years ago, I did a story on public education in California. I don’t remember the angle, but I remember looking up a stat to use in the script. I used that stat in a few places, and after fact-checking, I realized there was an updated number available. I went back and changed the references to the new number, relieved that I’d caught this mistake before handing over my script to the host. But I missed one. I heard it over the speakers when Michelle Martin, the host, read it out loud during the interview, and my heart stopped. I knew it was my duty to report it, so I went up to my editor and told her. She didn’t say anything, but I could feel her disappointment in me. I melted into a pool of shame.
But here’s the thing. No one will ever remember that number. No one remembers it now, and I’m sure no one noticed it when it happened. But I knew it happened, that it was an easily preventable mistake, and in journalism, being wrong in that way is absolutely unacceptable. So imagine my surprise when I first heard of “fail fast and break things,” one of the famous tech mantras for product creation. Imagine my shock to find out that being wrong is not reprimanded, but, at times, encouraged. Imagine my confusion stepping into a world where people are told to “just try it and see.” I tell myself over and over that this is different, that this is good, that public experimentation is not a holy sin. I’ve managed to convince myself, when I’m not busy quieting a nauseous tummy tormented by public broken attempts and shameful failures. But here, I will admit defeat. Being wrong in software is fundamentally different from being wrong in reporting. Except when it’s not.
When I use your product, I’m trusting you. I believe you when you tell me that clicking that button will create my profile, that I am indeed submitting an email by hitting enter, that I will see my mom’s message when I click on her little, round face. My belief in you is delicate and deep. Do not take my trust for granted. Do not take advantage of me.
We are in a relationship, you and I. Distant and faceless, yes, but a relationship nonetheless. I give and you take and you give and I take, and I believe your words, your lines, your interfaces. It should be precious. It should be handled with care, but the carelessness I see in tech is unsettling. The willful ignorance, the rejection of our relationship, hurts.
It might come big, like playing with my emotions by purposefully filling my feed with sad or happy content, just to see how I respond.
It might come small, like your claim of being the number one this-and-that in your this-and-that field, according to … no one. You are so proud of your accomplishments and so comfortable in your grandeur that you forget to be honest with me.
Sometimes it comes deep, like spending months together trying to solve a problem you promised me you could solve to later find out that you got it all wrong, you made it all up, you have no idea what you’re doing. You brag about this in your interviews and inevitable autobiography. For some strange reason, you wear this ignorance as a badge of honor. You failed fast and broke my heart.
But you will never see it that way. You’re too excited. I feel you whisper make the world a better place as you drift to sleep, so obsessed with changing it that you forget that the world is made up of little people like me.
You are experimenting, trying new things, and for this, you are great and lean. But sometimes, you forget that I’m at the center of your experiments. Sometimes, you forget me.
I take these relationships seriously. So seriously that often I’m immobilized and overwhelmed. And in those moments, you push products I’m too uncomfortable to push and you win. You get there first, making waves while I sit in last place and watch. So I choke down my values and discomfort and attempt a push of my own, amid the internal screams that this is wrong and irresponsible and how dare I. I don’t get very far. My feeble, half-hearted steps cannot compete with your bold, proud strides. So I cower back to my corner with my broken brain and peep at your success through the leaves.
I do not belong. My values are not valued. My thinking is strange and foreign. My world view has no place here. It is not that I am better, it is that I am different, and my difference feels incompatible with yours, dear tech. So I will mark my corner, a small plot of land and stand firmly here, trying to understand you and reconcile these conflicting differences.
Maybe I will change. Maybe you’ll surprise me. Maybe, one day, I’ll belong.
John Palfrey on The Paradox of Tolerance
Co-Editor’s Note: Two weeks ago, I was lucky to be introduced to John Palfrey’s open note to his campus. It has stayed with me as the clearest piece of creative writing on the vital topic of inclusion. —JM
We teach more than just mathematics, science, writing and reading, languages, the arts, and other academic topics in our schools. We also teach character and moral development. Many schools do so explicitly, through the lessons that we choose; all schools do so implicitly, through the personal examples that teachers, coaches, and principals set for our students. Whether parents like it or not, there is no way for teachers to avoid teaching character to some extent; after all, our students are watching us as they learn.
At the core of this character development, we ought to teach tolerance. But tolerance can be an extremely tricky value to convey when it comes down to it. Never in recent memory has it been trickier than in the wake of the 2016 Presidential elections.
It is extremely easy to be a tolerant person when everyone around you is tolerant. It is easy to tolerate the tolerant. It is easy to teach the tolerant. If everyone in a learning community commits to this principle, things go well. Schools should aim for a community in which everyone commits to a deep, abiding sense of tolerance. That would make things straightforward – in this respect, anyway.
The problem with tolerance is when it comes to the intolerant. To the extent that some people in society are intolerant of other people – and we know that to be true – there becomes, all of a sudden, a problem with tolerance. The tolerant are called upon to tolerate the intolerant. Meanwhile, the intolerant, in turn, are not asked to tolerate anyone.
To some degree, in a democracy, we must tolerate intolerance – that is part of the deal. We do not just give votes to the tolerant. It is also true that we grow and learn when we tolerate the views of others with whom we disagree. As Lee Bollinger, First Amendment scholar and president of Columbia University, argued in The Tolerant Society, a community, and individuals, grow stronger through the extraordinary self-control of tolerating harmful speech.
But the idea of tolerance must also have its limits. The philosopher Karl Popper, writing in 1945, defined this “paradox of tolerance”:
“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
Even as we all must tolerate views that we hate up to a point in a democracy, there must also be a point at which the tolerant are allowed to be intolerant of those who are intolerant. Our study of history points to examples when it was a terrible mistake to tolerate intolerance for too long. The context in which Popper wrote, at the close of the second World War, focused his mind on this paradox. This paradox of tolerance is much on our minds today, once again, as we seek a way forward after a wrenching election season. As schools and as a democracy at large, we need to determine this point.
Our recent election has given rise to hard conversations on this point. What made the 2016 election so painful for many people, including me, was that too much of the rhetoric has been about exclusion, not inclusion; it has been about hate and not about love; it has been about putting some people above others. The conversation has not been about an America that I recognize – a land in which literally every person, by definition, came from another place or from the Native American nations that were on this very land before the European settlers arrived.
There is no way to hide from some simple facts. The winning presidential candidate espoused hatred during this campaign toward Mexicans and Muslims in particular. He failed to denounce hate groups that target underrepresented people of color. He mocked the disabled. He demonstrated a misogynist streak that made members of his own party denounce his candidacy in large numbers. The rhetoric during the campaign, from all sides, emphasized division and supremacy of some over others, not equity and inclusion. It is also a fact that this patently divisive approach to running for President resulted in his victory in the Electoral College, if not in the popular vote. We are a divided nation, separated from one another in some fundamental way. This election cycle was structured around this divide.
I raise these facts in a manner not meant to be partisan. The problem is not about Democrats and Republicans. It is about the values that we hold as educational institutions and how to honor them as we teach our young people. Many of the views expressed during the campaign are inconsistent with the kinds of values that many, if not virtually all, of our schools stand for—the kinds of values, including tolerance, that we seek to teach.
In our schools, we value and support all our students and their well-being equally. That must include those who are Muslim and Mexican, and those who come from all faiths and all racial and ethnic backgrounds. That must include conservatives as well as liberals. In our classrooms, those on the right must tolerate those on the left; those on the left must tolerate those on the right. No one should be bullied or mistreated because of who they are or who they or their parents voted for. Serious political discussion must have a place in our academic communities and in our societies at large. Students need to have equal support when it comes to their learning and growth, no matter their perspective or background. (The expectation of equality and inclusion is not limited to our school environments. Recall that we are expected to value and support all people equally in society at large, too, in the plain language of our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.)
Hateful speech, targeting people and groups on our campuses, is not serious political discussion; it should have no place in our schools. In this hyped up, post-election context, we must be vigilant for the way our students interpret this election and its lessons. We must focus our minds on where the line should fall between the political speech that we must tolerate and the hateful speech that we should not.
As an educator, I believe we must do everything we can to focus on building tolerance and love for one another so we do not find ourselves, as school communities, faced with this paradox repeatedly. As a citizen, I believe the same is true for the United States at large. We ought to give a very wide berth to make room for the conversations we need to have about politics and difference. But intolerance of one another on our campuses, and in our communities, is something that we ought to find ways to prevent and to resist.
Ash Huang: How Much Poison Is Acceptable in Our Technology?
For an industry that complains about the inconvenience of waiting for a cab, doing laundry, or picking up takeout, we sure build a lot of suffering into our apps.
Virtual reality initially caused motion sickness in women because the equipment was developed and tested primarily by men. Interracial couples try to take photos together and fail because their phone’s white balance can’t capture both dark and light skin tones. People struggling with mental health issues, violence, or other trauma try to get help from Siri and Alexa but we’re only recently seeing that considered. All these stories and more, underscored by a rampant and constant harassment of women, people of color, people disabilities, those of Muslim and Jewish faiths, and LGBTQA—and tech’s bewilderment on how to help.
The Googles, Facebooks, and Twitters were conceived as services for all. And yet, they were unsurprisingly born prioritizing the needs of their creators: primarily able, young, white American men. While many of these companies are trying to march to a more inclusive tune, much of Silicon Valley still designs exclusively for that particular American man. The rest of us are an edge case, someone to deal with after the “majority,” and only if it’s convenient for this said “majority.”
It matters first because this “majority” falls apart if you look at data. Non-Hispanic white men are about 32% of the US population, and that ratio is shrinking. If you’re globally minded, that “majority” becomes just under 2.5% of the world population.
Sixty percent of the world lives in Asia. If we were serious about prioritizing the majority, we’d make apps for India and China first. Each of them has over a billion mobile phones in use, versus our paltry 328 million.
Of course, you can argue economics if you’re feeling feisty today. It’s far from impossible to build a business around these able white American men, even if they’re a minority. Affluent dudes who want to track their heart rate probably have enough capital and obsessive interest to keep a hundred more companies afloat. But building for a tight audience is very different approach from assuming your definition of “majority” is real. It manifests in real harm for that majority it lazily claims to serve.
A common pattern: how we report bad actors in our products. Instead of displaying reporting tools in context, we often hide a “report user” option in little gears or dot-dot-dot icons on the edge of a person’s profile. We hope it’s a tool that doesn’t see much use, and often hide it intentionally so support has fewer tickets to deal with. It’s easier for the company, and cuts down on visual clutter.
If you design with a white male majority in mind, the math is easy. Inconvenience the fewest number of people, allow an escape hatch for emergencies. But what happens when someone we consider an edge case actually receives a rape threat?
She has to navigate to the profile of her harasser and splash his details on her screen before getting anywhere near a report button. We force her to describe the incident in detail. Some stranger in support reviews her case. Days or weeks later, she might be told whether any action’s been taken, and she’s reminded of the event all over again.
All the while, that harasser likely continues his trolling spree on other victims, unfettered.
How does the math change if we consider her experience not as secondary, but as a primary concern? Chipotle makes the news when two people in Manhattan get food poisoning, and yet tech is still hesitant to crack down on harassment that potentially affects millions of users. Do we decide to poison a few so we can squeeze 40 square pixels out of the interface, have one less icon to deal with on our detail pages?
We are all humans and have universal needs, but carelessly designing for an assumed majority ends in palpable frustration and pain for real people. If we’re going to use majority as an excuse not to deal with our users’ pain, let’s at least define the majority correctly, not as what’s comfortable for us. Better yet, let’s have more nuance when we build for human beings and understand the true magnitude of what we create.
Samantha Hankins: ‘But Wait, Is Your Last Name Filipino?’
I’ve never met my dad and to this day I’ve never seen a photo of him or even discussed him with my mom. From what I’ve gathered, my mom and dad were married, and they were divorced before I was born. I know this because we both still have his last name, Hankins.
My mom was a single parent, and we lived with my aunt and my uncle in an affluent, predominantly white suburb of Chicago. She struggled with the cultural differences between the Philippines and America and therefore prioritized making sure I had a connection to our Filipino heritage. I grew up learning how to speak Visayan, spending summers in Cebu, and making friends and learning traditional Filipino dances with kids whose parents were also in the Chicago Filipino doctors’ association. Through and through I was raised 100% Filipino.
My mom did everything she could while working full-time to ensure I had a happy childhood. For that I was never left wondering what life would be like with two parents. However, as early as I can remember I recall struggling to explain my last name when I told people I was Filipino (and it was painfully obvious that my last name was not). Because kids will be kids, the questions I regularly faced were extremely direct and would come rapid fire as it would become clear just how different my upbringing had been from theirs. I regularly felt unsafe sharing my story growing up, but this experience taught me the importance of sensitivity and asking the right questions.
Still today when asked about any portion of my identity, I always experience a brief moment of pause that reconnects me with just how complicated identity really is and how difficult it can be to talk about or articulate. Answering these types of questions is rarely simple, especially when there is an natural inclination to put a label on things for the purposes of “simplicity.”
I’ve encountered similar complications in other areas of identity in my life:
- I identify as female, yet accept getting called “sir” almost daily as part of my gender presentation.
- I identify as queer because it feels like the simplest way for me to honor who I am today, while also honoring the authenticity of my previous relationships with men and sincere questioning surrounding being asexual for a period of time.
In realizing the complexities of my own identity at such a young age, early on I developed a curiosity and respect for the nuances of others, and have made a life of creating safe spaces for those struggling with to get comfortable with their own. This is what motivated me to get my law degree and work with local human rights issues. It is why I went on to work in diversity and inclusion with students of color at a New York City area law school. These experiences inform my voice, process, and values as a designer and is what ultimately drew me to working with The Coral Project.
The shocking conclusion of 2016 highlighted the existence of filter bubbles and just how disconnected people were from anyone outside of those bubbles. It called into question the trustworthiness and diversity in journalism as people realized the news they had been digesting didn’t completely square with the realities in our nation. At the center of The Coral Project is a belief that restoring that trust begins with being much better at actively building meaningful relationships between newsrooms and readers and working together to improve the stories that are told. Simply stated, journalism needs everyone.
We are creating open-source products and guides that make it easier for newsrooms around the world connect with their audiences, and for audiences to connect with their newsrooms. To build these tools we are learning from the experiences of commenters, non-commenters, non-comment readers, trolls, and people who have been harassed out of the comments across a spectrum of identities, to better understand what motivates participation (or nonparticipation), and how to create safer spaces. One key finding from our research has shown that women’s voices often go underrepresented as they participate in news comments in much lower numbers than their male counterparts. Additionally, in an area that has gone completely unstudied, we are partnering with the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas to create Having Our Say: Online News Consumption and Commenting Behaviors Among Women and Non-Binary/Non-Gender Conforming People of Color.
In what ways can we rethink the open-ended text box at the bottom of the article and the features surrounding it to create a more safe and inviting environment for these diverse voices to participate? We have designed our products Ask and Talk with a commitment and eye toward this very question, and built mechanisms for newsrooms to easily structure the conversations they are having with their readers.
We are also studying the workflows and needs of comment moderators, engagement editors, and journalists to identify opportunities where better design can improve efficiency and seamlessly integrate modern engagement techniques into the work they are already doing. Also we recognize how communities may differ in culture, values, and needs from organization to organization, therefore we have made our products open source so that newsrooms can easily build on additional features and plugins that are tailored to their own communities.
The need for newsrooms to listen to and equally highlight the diverse perspectives of their readers has become more important than ever. Journalism must be the platform that elevates the voices of those that have long gone unheard and must create safe spaces for dialog and constructive disagreement to thrive. Through our tools and guides we hope to help newsrooms get to that place, exposing people to perspectives outside their filter bubbles and ushering in a renewed spirit of empathy and respect for the nuances surrounding identity. I look forward to sharing my experiences in those spaces, and am eager to learn from the stories of others.
Alisha Ramos: Embracing My Mixed Race, Hybrid Identity
This piece was originally published in my weekly newsletter on mixed race, Mixed Feelings.
In high school I was president of the Asia Club for two years. The club had members from various Asian backgrounds such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian. We were the crown jewel of every international/cultural event or competition at our public high school in suburban North Carolina. We would really bring it—from colorful dance performances to amazingly delicious, aromatic foods. Everyone knew the Asia Club was a force to be reckoned with, and I was damn proud of that little club for those two years.
Throughout childhood I’ve definitively identified myself as “Asian.” I prided myself in it. “Alisha, you’re so Asian right now,” my non-Asian friends would tease if I ate my lunch using chopsticks. I now understand that these comments were maybe borderline offensive, but at the time I loved it. I was Asian and it was cool and it was different (at least, in my school of mostly white or black students). So it made sense that I was president of the Asia Club. I was really proud of being Asian! Whatever that meant!
My Asian identity and pride radically shifted in college. I’m half Korean. My other half is Dominican and Spanish. When you’re only half of something, things become problematic. While I was identified as just “Asian” in high school, things became much more nuanced in college. In college, I learned the hard way that I had to choose a side. Should I join the Korean club? Should I finally explore my Hispanic/Latino side and join one of the Hispanic or Latino clubs? I eventually decided on joining both clubs, which seemed like a great idea at the time.
I remember trying desperately to fit in with the Korean Students Association. I saw girls and guys speaking to each other in Korean, listening to k-pop, and going out for bubble tea. So cool! My tribe. I’d speak to some of them in Korean to signal my belonging but found that it mostly freaked people out. “Wow I had no idea you could speak Korean!” they’d say to me, fascinated. “I thought you were Filipino or Hawaiian or something.” But this was my first language, I would think, embarrassed and ready to walk away. The same thing happened with the Hispanic or Latino clubs except worse: I didn’t speak the language nor was I exposed to any of the cultural artifacts of being “hispanic” such as appreciating the food or music, or (more embarrassingly) not knowing the basic political and/or cultural history of any those countries. Defeated, I sulked away from that club as well after one or two meetings.
There was one other club though, that I found that helped me find an Asian identity I was finally comfortable with: HAPA, the Half-Asian People’s Association. Joining this particular group of people helped me finally understand where I belonged on the spectrum of Asian/not-Asian. After failing to fit into either side, I found something much better. When I found out about this club, it was like I stumbled upon a magical unicorn I didn’t know existed.
Later I would learn that the word “hapa” is short for hapalua, the Hawaiian word that means “half.” Originally, it was a derogatory term (hapa haole) used toward mixed-race children of plantation guest workers from the Philippines, Korea, China and Japan, and the women they married in Hawaii in the early part of the 20th century. Our club, HAPA, took this negative phrase and reclaimed it, embracing it as our name and identity, as do many other hapas today.
And so my Asian identity began to shift and calibrate itself further. Within HAPA, I felt like I was home for the first time. These people looked like me, kinda. And somehow, I felt like I had found my long lost brothers and sisters. I felt as if I finally belonged. The club didn’t care what type of half-Asian you were: half-Korean, half-Indian, half-Chinese, half-Singaporean, whatever. We all bonded with one another through sharing the same challenges of coming to terms with a mixed racial identity. We didn’t fit into any one racial category so we came up with our own, and that was beautiful. We understood what it meant when a stranger asks, “So…what are you anyway?” (We even planned a conference around this very question.) We understood that it was okay to feel fluidity in your racial identity — you could feel more Asian during your childhood, but feel more distanced from it in adulthood.
Today I’m still in the process of reevaluating my relationship to one of my races over another. More recently, for example, I’ve become more distanced from my Korean identity for various reasons. My racial identity will probably be in constant flux, and I accept that. For now though, I’m proud to be a hapa.