Algorithms are human made, they hence mirror the implicit biases we, as historically situated beings, are saturated with. In other words, a racist human creates a racist robot. This is why my friend brings her own soap to uni, because her skin is ‘too black’ for the soap dispensers to recognise her hand.
It is a question of how the skin reflects the light back to the optic sensor of the device. And while soap-dispensers may be considered a more light hearted example, the same problem has been reported for wearable fitness trackers and heart-rate monitors that rely on the light that’s reflected back from the blood. Because the skin tone influences the way the light is scattered, it can impact the accuracy of the readings. When these devices are designed by and for predominately white folks, people of colour – who ironically are also more at risk for a condition like heart disease – will have more difficulties conveniently accessing or monitoring it.
Who we are, what we know and what we do not know, determines the technologies we create. In the workshop on anti-racist robots, it is hard to get a sense for who the other participants are. They appear weirdly bodyless in this virtual space. We’ve decided to work without cameras, so all I get to sense from them is a name, a little symbol and their voices. Each of us are reduced to thought, language, words. Disembodied minds.
I have to think of The Matrix: “Tank, I need an anti-racist programme for the 2020 Western tech-industry”.
But here’s the thing: we are not just our minds that need recoding with better programmes. Racism goes beyond the cognitive realm: It sits deep within our institutions, our collective structures, our bodies, bellies, and hearts.
For becoming more anti-racist human beings, and ultimately create anti-racist robots, I think we have to reconsider our own embodiment. How is racism and white supremacy rooted in our bodies? When we consider – as Sebastian and Beate invite us to do in the editorial to this blog – how our body-mind systems are drenched by the social water they swim in – the norms, conventions, logics and languages of the culture in which their existence gains meaning – the lines between body and mind, nature and culture, start to blur. How ‘natural’ is this body really?
This logic that separates the body from the mind and relegates it into the sphere of ‘nature’ is part of the very patriarchal, white supremacist culture we seek to subvert with anti-racist artificial bodies.
In line with this dualism, racism is often reduced to bad thoughts, hostile intentions, hateful speech. But it shapes our flesh and bones. For example Fibroid Tumours are tumours that grow in the uterus. Most often, they are benign, but in wombs of Black bodies in the US, they occur much more frequently, and tend to cause more severe symptoms and fertility problems than in white bodies. How is this related to these people’s historical legacy of slavery that violently regulated the reproduction of Black people, and a present that is saturated by structural racism in which it is not safe for Black children to grow up?
‘Embodiment’ came to signify a certain lifestyle that involves privileged, often white and able-bodied people and colourful and expensive yoga-wear. But a whole body of research and activism is based on a more profound understanding of the matter: Madelanne Rust D’Eye writes: “‘Embodiment’ is not actually a practice; it’s a fact. We all have bodies, which are continuously taking in sensory data — and responding to it — in a complex and ongoing way, most often beneath our conscious awareness. This body-based, sensate substrate is where we actually interpret and respond to the world around us; our conscious minds, which take much longer to process information, frequently just provide the rationale for choices our bodies have already made.”
This is in many ways a good thing as it is part of a very intelligent system that keeps us alive, but it gets problematic when systems like racism, homo- and transphobia, get encoded into our system in ways that often contradict our values and believes. A white person might not consciously be afraid of people they perceive as racialised, but in a context where for example the media persistently associates negative traits with them, the implicit memory system will be conditioned to evoke fearful or derogatory responses towards those groups.
Also trauma is being passed on from one generation to the next through genetic information. This inherited stress on top of navigating a racist everyday life can explain the higher number and more hostile nature of Fibroid tumours in Black bodies. Camille Barton, a somatic educator and activist for transformative justice, stresses how important it is also for white folks to look into their ancestral histories: What marks has a past of witch-hunts, colonisation, torture and environmental destruction carved in the bodies born today?
My grandmother had to sit at the dinner table (this very bourgeois and white institution) with books under her upper arms to condition her body not to take in too much space with her elbows. (How) does this influence the way I am able to move my spine, to dance, to relate to my body and others? And this example is taken from a privileged setting. Importantly, to say that the violence of colonisation also sits in white bodies is not meant to relativise the oppressive effects racism has on non-white people. It is to say that white folks have work to do, and I believe it provides a more sustainable motivation for justice work than pity or guilt.
So while combatting white supremacy and other manifestations of power in the technology industry is extremely important, the battle ground is bigger than that. Of course, it is not an either/or. Our resistance is not a single story, it’s power lies in the multitude and the magic that happens when we come together. We might be robots, but we can all become hackers.
At the moment, Pauline is a student of Gender and Queer Studies who really wonders why people actually shave their legs.
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